Guest author Sephrick asks whether SE still has the ability to produce a winner.
As far as public and media relations go, the New York Comic Con may be the "last chance gas station" on the deserted road of game sales for Square-Enix's recently released MMO, Final Fantasy XIV.
In today's gotta-have-it society, the holidays begin Nov. 1. Store shelves once overflowing with economy-sized bags of candy transform overnight into a winter wonderland. As the range of the gift buying season widens with each passing year, competition to be that game beneath the wrapping paper -- and likely the game that dominates a player's attention through the first quarter of the year -- tightens.
The recently-released Gamespot review of Final Fantasy XIV was but a rumble before the tsunami of potential negativity. With a wave of bad press on the horizon and one last media event before the holiday season, will this be Final Fantasy XIV's last hurrah or its moment of triumph?
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The Casual Field of Dreams
When Square was but a budding developer, the term "casual gamer" may have referred to someone who occasionally picked up that classic Nintendo Advantage controller and fumbled through a few levels of Dr. Mario. The market has changed since Square rolled the dice with the inaugural Final Fantasy installment, and the developer is starting to show a few gray hairs.
Today, casual gamers load up their customized professional football teams or kitted out soldiers of fortune and go toe-to-toe with those among the ranks of the hardcore. Defeat may be inevitable, but the fact remains that casual and hardcore gamers stand in the arena together. The key difference between them is while hardcore gamers are dedicated masters of their crafts, casual gamers have a more flighty jack-of-trades nature.
Even since Square's first bid in the MMO genre, the shape of the gaming world has changed and developed into a high-definition online experience. As the concept of what is casual has rapidly changed through the development of Final Fantasy XIV, one has to wonder at which point Square-Enix decided its game was geared for the casual crowd? Just because you build it, doesn't mean they will come. Even if it's called Final Fantasy.
Twenty Years, Fourteen Games and One Confused Fanbase
Throughout the 90s, Square in all its forms reigned supreme. Where Nintendo had Mario and Sega had Sonic, Square had developed a banner; Final Fantasy. Where other companies relied on the adoration of a character, Square built upon its own reputation, working to make its name synonymous with quality. From the first installment to nine versions later, Square was repeatedly viewed as an unstoppable force.
The first decade of the new millennium, however, has shown a different side of the company. One that begs the question, can they stop counting on name alone and begin competing? Since the release of Final Fantasy X in 2001, Square-Enix has seemed to forget there is a difference between innovation and opposition. One does not need to forsake something successful in order to make something new.
In the 90s, SE developed a winning formula -- cutting edge graphics and the best score technology would allow along with rich, immersive game play and storytelling. Final Fantasy X featured all of these things that were perfected through the first nine games, and managed to successfully usher in changes to familiar battle schemes and character development. The follow-up, however, was met with raised eyebrows. Final Fantasy X-2 was more action oriented than its predecessor and featured a convoluted path to attain a complete ending. Still, gamers embraced the opportunity to play battle action Barbie.
Final Fantasy XI was, and remains, a success due to a core of devoted fans. It's hard to say XI was a departure from that 90s winning formula, as the MMO world was new territory for the developer. Still, more than eight years after the launch of FFXI, it would seem Square-Enix did many things correct throughout the game's lifespan. Outside the game world, though, Square-Enix’s lack of public relations skills were often on display for all to see. Even the most devoted players would find themselves frustrated with the lack of outward communication. The term “ninja fix” was born through questionable changes made by Square-Enix that were never announced.
Final Fantasy XII was an installment that was a dividing point for many gamers. Regarded by many as an "offline MMO" experience, gamers found it tough to get into a game that essentially played itself.
After many years of development, the much anticipated Final Fantasy XIII fell flat as it seemed more of a CGI movie on rails than any sort of gaming experience. The few times XIII did let players off their leashes, restrictions in the ability to advance characters beyond a given point made the freedom seem more like a small room than an open field. This proved that beyond aesthetics, SE had all but given up on what made its games so popular throughout the 90s.
Finally, the latest edition and second online installment, Final Fantasy XIV, has been on store shelves for but a few weeks and has given the aging developer a potential public relations nightmare.
Final Fantasy XIV contains all that makes a game recognizable beneath the Final Fantasy banner. The music, graphics and story are all there. However these staples of the series are but a shell in which the heart of the game should rest. So far removed from that winning, fan-favorite formula, it has become clear that those on fan sites for Final Fantasy XIV are none too pleased with the current state of the game they longed for since it was announced at E3 2009.
The playerbase that should be circling the wagons to defend minor issues in a new MMO game are instead crying out, as they have been since the initial stages of beta testing. When players ask for a better user interface, they get an update correcting a minor avatar display flaw. When players ask for incentive to party instead of penalty, they are updated on how to better use abilities they cannot yet attain. When they ask for computer-friendly controls, they are met with the same silence with which long-time players of FFXI are far too familiar.
Fans were promised a new Square-Enix with XIV; instead they got the same old busted car with a new coat of paint.
An Old Man in the Age of Superstars
It's no secret -- gamers have the knack for teaming on the brink of the fanatical. Midnight releases can get ugly, new hardware can be driven into scarcity within moments of release. With so many so willing to throw down their hard-earned cash, it's no wonder the gaming industry has boomed into a multi-million dollar business.
While Square-Enix was off slowly crafting its self-assured "hits" like XIV and the Fabula Nova Crystallis compilation, other companies have risen to meet Square on the pedestal it once held on its own.
What separates these new faces from Square-Enix is their possibility to reach new heights due to an understanding of the importance of communication. Media saturation is a term applied to ensuring your product is in the face of the consumer. It's how brand recognition is developed. Between 2000 and 2010, there have been many who have done this well -- most notably, World of Warcraft. Between Gary Coleman and Mr. T and his Mohawk Hand Grenades, Blizzard-Activision has managed to make the World of Warcraft brand recognizable to those who don't even own a computer, ensuring there is a large enough base of players to enjoy the game.
In the console realm, online multiplayer is more and more becoming the focus of development, thus adding more contention to SE's PS3 hopes. Games like the soon-to-be-released Call of Duty: Black Ops and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood promise a deep, robust multiplayer experience. During each of these game's development, the cogs of the PR machines have been spinning to make sure the brand is out there and gamers can be sure to put a note in their budget for when release date rolls around.
These sure-to-sell titles alone will leave console gamers to wonder why they should invest in such a poorly reviewed game when other A+ titles offer so much more for so much less. What will SE have to offer but a clunky game filled with players who have a six-month advantage? Each passing week between now and March adds another release to the list of reasons why casual console gamers will pass up the required time investment of XIV in favor of better reviewed and better crafted games. The key demographic for which SE was aiming with XIV has a constantly decreasing amount of time to play a rapidly increasing number of titles.
If they choose to stay the course, what SE will be left with is a gathering of tiring hardcore PC gamers and a failing game designed for casual console players.
Choices on the Road Ahead
Consider the mountain of fixes that dedicated players have been asking for since the early stages of beta testing. Think about the loss of faith among players who should be singing SE's praises. Read the hard-hitting yet honest reviews. With FFXIV in its infancy, how should SE prepare to do business throughout the next decade?
The damage to FFXIV is already done, with the game holding the reputation of a bruised apple. Some will see only the bruise while others will gladly eat around it.
But the New York Comic Con gives Square-Enix a chance to change its direction. This is an opportunity for SE to finally grasp the importance of public relations and engage in open communication with the world media -- a communication which SE stated it wanted.
Actions speak louder than words though, and the developer of so many memorable titles is showing its true face. As of Oct. 8, the company has but a week-and-a-half to ensure it retains its starting playerbase beyond the trail period. Without those valuable players -- and in the face of all this negative publicity -- FFXIV may fail before reaching its March console release. While a company with the resources of SE can certainly absorb a failed product, it shouldn't do so while the rest of the gaming industry sprints past it into 2011.
The question remains: will Square-Enix stop and fill up at the New York Comic Con, or will it attempt to coast on fumes until the PS3 release?