|Posted on September 5, 2012 at 1:45 AM|
The Mightily Fallen
All I wanted to play when I was 13 was a game like The Legend of Zelda. I had just played and completed A Link to the Past, the first game I owned on my newly-bought Super Nintendo. The game was packed-in with the system, but I would have bought it separately simply because I loved the previous Zelda titles on the NES. My life felt incomplete without another Zelda game to play, so lo and behold, after some searching and research, which consisted of going to a rental store and looking at the back of boxes, I found a game: Secret of Mana. It was late 1994. I know that because the band Weezer was incredibly popular at the time and I just happen to have their CD playing on repeat in the boombox in my room and I always had it in the background when playing that particular game.
Talk about scratching an itch. Secret of Mana not only scratched it, it put a soothing cream over it as well and gently massaged it to ensure no pain and stiffness. The graphics. The sound. The control. I played it constantly at a time when I had the time to play a video game constantly. It was a game I didn't want to return to the rental store, but had to, and due to that I sought out to purchase my own copy, finally finding one weeks later at Sears and shelling out about 75 bucks for it. I took it home, started all over and beat it.
"Who on earth could make such a great game?"
I looked at the box and saw a logo that would become synonymous with my 16-bit lifestyle:
It's an overhead view and colorful like Zelda! That's all I need!...But who and what is this Squaresoft thing in the corner?
From that point on, anything and everything made by Squaresoft I played. I heard of the company before, I even played that old Final Fantasy game on the original NES that I know longer owned, but I wasn't fully on-board the RPG train just yet. Squaresoft single-handedly made sure I was with the games I would fall in love with: Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger on the Super Nintendo alone are considered just three of the greatest games ever created. This would carry out through the rest of the 1990s, a time when being a fan of Squaresoft was a time of true joy, happiness and gaming satisfaction.
The Decade of Lofty Heights
Squaresoft was the single-most reason I didn't purchase a Nintendo 64 when that console was released. I had read they were putting the next Final Fantasy game on the new Sony Playstation, and that move made the decision for me. Even though I would buy myself an N64 a few years later (for the next long-awaited Legend of Zelda title, of course), I wasn't disappointed jumping into the Sony Playstation. It was risky, only Nintendo and Sega really had success putting consoles out in the market, but it was the right decision in hindsight. In fact, as a growing fan of the Japanese RPG by 1996, it was about the only right decision to be made. Squaresoft, much like the Playstation itself, didn't disappoint, ant the next three Final Fantasy games, a sequel to Chrono Trigger, the incredibly under-appreciated Legend of Mana and new properties like Parasite Eve, Vagrant Story, Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics were damn-near overwhelming.
Through all these titles, one thing was consistent: quality and quantity. Squaresoft was prolific, and everything they put out there in the marketplace was guaranteed to satisfy. To "scratch that itch" so to speak. Sure, you had your favorites and even your favorites had faults, but overall, there were few companies that were on that level of game development. On that level of quality and depth and detail and artistry...and did it for over a decade.
The high watermark of Squaresoft's popularity came with Final Fantasy VII, they have struggled to reach that level of acclaim and acceptance ever since, and the fanbase of their titles have become increasingly more divisive as the company struggles to figure out a direction..
Then something happened. This little thing called the internet began to inform more and more people about game developers and the business of the industry. I started to read that people were "jumping ship" from Squaresoft, that Squaresoft was losing money thanks to bad investments and that they were considering completely restructuring the company and merging with publishing-giant Enix, the publisher of the popular Japanese RPG series Dragon Quest and considered the "rival" to Final Fantasy, Square's bread and butter.
"Oh, they'll be alright," I figured.
By this time the Playstation 2 and new generation of consoles (and handhelds for that matter) were on the market, and Square still delivered quantity and quality. They were still "alright" even though they were undergoing changes. Under the Square Enix banner, the new company also began to "gobble up" smaller developers too and have them under the Square Enix umbrella. Under Square Enix, the development side of Square still managed to put out some spectacular games, such as Final Fantasy X and XII, experimenting with online gaming with Final Fantasy XI and still managing to continue franchises, such as Front Mission and were able to thrust out new IPs here in there, such as the incredibly popular Kingdom Hearts titles.
Not quite pumping out the quantity, but the quality and desire to "push forward" with new ideas and big titles were still part of their philosophy.
Then another generation of consoles happened, and it all started to change. Not just the quality or the quantity…but Square and their entire approach to game development. It was a change for the worse, and as a fan of the company's works, their franchises, their standalone titles, the past generation of gaming has been utterly miserable. It all started in 2002.
The Oughts of Struggle
As mentioned, in the early 2000s Square began to lose its manpower. The creative forces that were so prolific in the 1990s gaming scene, when Japanese RPGs were at their most popular, were leaving. At first it started small, a few here that worked on Chrono Trigger and Xenogears, but then something big hit: the creater and producer of Square's biggest series: Hironobu Sakaguchi departed the company in 2002, right at the beginning of the gaming cycle that included the Playstation 2, Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo Gamecube.
If you're unaware, Sakaguchi created Final Fantasy, Square's biggest franchise. As in: before Sakaguchi, there was none. He wasn't just a "name" either, like someone who attaches themselves as an executive producer to a movie just because they cut a check, but was someone who was hands-on and involved in every Final Fantasy game from the first to the ninth, directing the first five then moving to producer and writer for the remainder (which he was doing already). He also had a hand in just about every single Squaresoft game in the 1990s. He was to Squaresoft what Shigeru Miyamoto is to Nintendo: the driving force. Some might call it the "heart."
Considering what Square has become in terms of game development since his departure, it's more than obvious that he was far more important than I think anyone realized. After his departure in 2002, Squaresoft merged with Enix, formed up Square Enix as a super-company and things looked promising. Not great, but promising. They had some games in the pipe, developers working on new and interesting titles and ideas for the Final Fatnasy franchise and they even started to get into handheld and mobile gaming - something that fit their style well. Square tried to do a few new things here and there, but overall…they aren't what they once were. And they have only themselves to blame.
Think about it: can you imagine a Shigeru Miyamoto ever leaving Nintendo? He built that company pretty much himself into what it is today, creating some of their biggest franchises. The man created Mario, for crying out loud. So how on earth did Square screw up with Sakaguchi? And apparently on bad terms at that?
"I'm willing to break them into pieces, crush them at my feet. " - Sakaguchi on Square Enix...sounds like a partnership that didn't end well.
It's rumored, though never confirmed, that Sakaguchi was in the dog house with producing a computer animated film: Final Fantasy The Spirits Within. That's fine, put him in there for a bit. But do you know what you don't do? Lose him. Perhaps it was a bad investment, but don't you think that a man on the level of Sakaguchi has earned a little leeway by then? He pretty much built that company from nothing and was the "heart" of just about everything that Square was putting out there. He pushed the company.
But the company pushed back, and he left. They sustained themselves for most of that generation of gaming with the Playstation 2 their primary console of choice, but then came the new technology. The new generation. Square wasn't ready, and they had noone to lead.
It wasn't just losing Sakaguchi, that just seems to be the catalyst of it all. It was a cascading effect of the entire company falling in on itself all around the same time. They merged with Enix, then a good move as that's a solid partnership of two companies working together, but it seems to have stifled Square's game development division. Perhaps it was too much corporate oversight, perhaps there just wasn't someone like Sakaguchi to push things forward anymore. Perhaps that's why Sakaguchi departed the company in the first place: he saw that the company was going in a direction that he didn't agree with. Judging by Sakaguchi's new company, Mistwalker which he formed shortly after departing Square, he might just have been right. His philosophy of developing games is far different than Square Enix's. Mistwalker has produced three games for this generation of consoles. All different. All new IPs. All with limited budgets and all produced by Sakaguchi himself - much the same way he handled games with Square Enix. (I'm not including handhelds in this matter)
Square Enix has shown their shift in business philosophy: publish more than develop. They've published plenty of titles, but in terms of internally developing their games, they've only managed to create about the same amount when it comes right down to it. Final Fantasy XIII and it's sequel, XIII-2 co-developed with Tri-Ace, and upcoming third installment all built around "franchising the franchise." In other words, if they're going to spend all that money, they better get their money's worth by franchising that single installment of the franchise. It's like if George Lucas took Return of the Jedi and made three smaller movies based on Return of the Jedi's world and characters that really had little to do with each other but uses the same sets, rendered and created backgrounds and costumes and musical score from the actual Return of the Jedi.
Other games included The Last Remnant the only original IP they've developed this generation and one that wasn't reviewed well by fans and critics alike, Final Fantasy XIV (their MMORPG series which had to be relaunched due to failed strategic planning) and Crystal Chronicles on the Wii, which is about the only fully stable and actually well-liked game they seem to have created. I'll go ahead and give them Dragon Quest X on the Wii as well, though it was created and co-developed with another company.
First thing you'll notice is The Last Remnant is the only original title, everything else is based on a franchise.
The next thing you'll notice is that they managed just that handful of games for consoles this generation with ten times the budget and ten times the manpower of Mistwalker. Square Enix is a big company, they make big games. Where does all that money go?
As I recall, I said they changed their business philosophy. So, instead, they now fund other companies to make games for them and also acquire titles to publish. Not Japanese RPGs, mind you, but games like Arkham Asylum, Call of Duty, Tomb Raider and Hitman.
Awww yeah...the latest Square En....hey wait a minute...
Square Enix is no longer a game development company. They are a publisher. It goes back to Enix itself, before the merger, which was one of the biggest gaming publishers in Japan. That philosophy has carried to today (one that's meant to focus on cross-platform and media franchises, not focusing development on one singular form - this is called being "polymorphic"), and with Square losing talent and the suits unwilling to take risks (having the internal development team concentrating on ports and mobile gaming more than home console or PC gaming), is it no surprise how they've fallen?
And this isn't some subjective take from a fan, you can read the public stocks for yourself and note the continuing decline. That business philosophy has taken its toll over the years. It all goes back to lack of leadership, which leads to lack of risk taking which leads to lack of creativity which leads to what Square Enix is today.
Enough Business Talk, What Are you Getting At?
This past generation of Square Enix game releases have been atrocious, as said. There's only been a handful of new games coming from the Square camp and from the few people they still have on board. A lot of the creators and producers of some of my favorite series (Final Fantasy, The Chrono Titles, Front MIssion, The Mana games) have all left. Nobody has come in. Game developer "Auteurs" have left the company as well, notably Yasumi Matsuno who took the Final Fantasy series into a bold direction when he was asked to direct and produce Final Fantasy XII on the Playstation 2. Whether you ended up liking the game or not, one thing was for certain and even more for certain now in hindsight: FFXII didn't play it safe. It was like the Square of old. It was risky. Ambitious. And, sadly, probably too over-reaching to the point where Matsuno's grasp was forced back. What was the result of this new and bold experiment in game design and taking charge of a long-running franchise?
Matsuno leaving the company under vague circumstances and the franchise rolling back to a more "cinematic/action" style with Final Fantasy XIII. Also Square Enix, again, reshuffling their development teams and Square Enix, again, losing more talent just this past year, notably the producer of the very game that got me to love Squaresoft in the first place which was like a final stab in my childhood heart because the creator of that entire series left back in 2007.
Square isn't just cutting back on numbers of titles and big games because they don't have the money, it's because they don't have the talent that wants to work with a company like them anymore for a genre that they no longer are on the top tier with anymore.
But you can't blame them entirely. The basic structure and dedication of creating a Japanese RPG is tedious, expensive and time consuming. It always has been. And with the advancement in technology comes the increase in cost to create, to learn new ways to create and the amount of people needed. A game like Final Fantasy VII had maybe 50 or 60 people working on it. Looking at the credits list of Square's latest, Final Fantasy XIII, I stopped counting around 100 and that was before getting into the list of names that developed the "game engine" for it to run on in the first place.
But that's sort of the point of this entire write-up. Square isn't what it used to be…because it can't be what it used to be because the gaming culture has moved on as they've struggled in stagnation. The driving forces have pretty much gone. The creative juices dried up in lieu of what is more cost-effective for a corporation. The desire to invest and create now has a whole slew of new factors involved. And the company really has no direction to go. Not to mention the entire Japanese RPG world kind of faltering the past few years, as I've written about before.
Fact: No Videogame Developer Has Fallen as Drastically as Squaresoft/Square Enix. More importanlty, is that no videogame developer has become as irrelevant as Squaresoft/Square Enix either. From their pushing to this new business platform, to the loss of their key people to just the decline of the Japanese RPG genre as a whole...they have little to nothing to really offer the gaming community anymore, much less get people truly excited for their games as they once did.
Fans still cry out for Square to continue franchises like Mana, Chrono and Tactics, but do they realize that the creators and leaders that spearheaded those titles aren't even there any more?...and that nobody is picking up the mantle?
As fans can see the issues clearly, it's something they themselves can't see. If you ask any fan of the company, the few that are still out there as Square Enix tends to treat them like red-headed step-children sometimes, the problem has an easy solution: reel back on expensive productions, try out new talent and outsource classic franchises to small development houses (something Nintendo has done well with). Not every single game needs to be a multi-million dollar affair, just look at Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story or the Tales series: JRPG fans don't ask for much. If it looks nice, plays nice, most are pretty happy with it. It doesn't need to be a polygon-pushing graphical beast of a game. In other words: Less is More for the JRPG genre.
It goes back to losing their people. They lost one of their founders and a lot of creative minds that helped build that company. That helped grow that company. When Square became more corporate, because that's really the only explanation on why creative people who feel their vision and creativity is being limited due to a focus on always "pushing the limit" would leave a company, there was nothing new being done. It was a recession of a company usually focused on progression. Progression is great, but spending millions just trying to create a game engine to create a fancy-looking game shows a leadership misguided, if there even is one. You can be creative, original, ambitious, and you don't have to spend millions of dollars in doing so. Mistalker alone is proof of that. Monolith Software is proof of that. Level 5 is proof of that. Even Square Enix's own subsidiaries like Tri Ace and Gamearts are proof of that.
Now they play it safe, do a lot of ports and remakes, focus more on handhelds and mobile devices, give big projects to the few people that can still handle the big projects they have left because, damnit, there's a lot money involved in there and even though 30 year old Hideo sitting in his cubicle might have the greatest idea in the world and a wonderful mind, he hasn't made a big game and isn't given the chance to explore it because the one or two people left that have actually headed up a big project in the past are the only ones given the leeway to do so.
I probably should mention that Square is a Japanese company. You probablyl knew that, so the way they do business is a lot different than the way the West does business. Japanese business is ran very, very conservatively and "giving a shot" to someone new and, especially, younger is rare - not when there's a group of old men on the board determine what should and shouldn't be done and what direction to go. Hideo is fine in his cubicle...he's the best at what he does and there's no reason to change that because he's the best at what he does. They also focus on quality first and what the best use of their time and resources should be to establish their quality product. Square Enix may not be as prolific as they once were, but nobody will say they don't produce a damn fine-polished game. There's a lot of detractors of Final Fantasy XIII, but a "poorly made" product it certainly is not. It's a polished title through-and-through...and that's clearly where all the money went: to make something that looked good even if it didn't have a whole lot else going for it.
But Square, during their growing years, was simply more open to the idea of doing something new. Then they changed, and are like a lot of Japanese developers that are "stuck" in molds and not doing enough to progress gaming. Square is worse off due to their decades-long exclusivity in role playing games and lacking the genre variety of a Capcom and Konami and even Nintendo's established brands to sustain them.
Now that videogames are big business, they have to think like a big business. These aren't groups of guys toiling over sprites anymore, they're businessmen trying to determine the best way to invest their money and time for massively over-budgeted and over-produced titles. When it comes to money, it's not about creativity (just ask Hollywood), it's about what is safe and secure, and when you have all that money to spend on one game with a budget that could be used to make five on smaller and more creative level, you're naturally going to play it safe. Go with the few old guys you're giving a shot to now before they leave as well due to all the pressure put on them.
The realization of Square's death comes to each fan differently...perhaps you're still holding on to it, perhaps you've accepted it. But I guarantee, it will come.
Dead To Me
Yikes, that's a bit of ugly hyperbole for a title...but this part is the saddest of all. I used to relish in wanting to know what Squaresoft would create next. I was excited with anticipation. What great world will they transport me to? What characters will I meet? How will it all play out with the story? During the 90s, it was tried and true. Like breathing. I might have held by breath a bit with a Tobal No 1, Square's fighting game, or Final Fantasy VIII and even X a little later, but that excitement was all there.
Then I started to see the desire for the company to change. Final Fantasy VII was being franchises with years-later spinoffs and a movie, as were a lot of other thing. My favorite series were slowing down if not dead entirely due to people leaving. Square was coming out with fewer games, and a lot of them weren't that great.
Somewhere around 2006, I stopped caring entirely about Square Enix, Square, Squaresoft...whatever you officially want to call them. I just didn't care anymore. I didn't look for their next big games. I didn't look for them on the internet or in magazines. I just didn't care anymore. Maybe I just grew out of a company that didn't grow, but either way they really had nothing to offer me anymore and my fondness for them as a bastion of creativity and their products faded to apathy. The falling of this once great game developing giant isn't just reflective in its history, or its stocks, or his proficiency on a timeline...it's in the fans. I see that enthusiasm I once had gone, and gone for a while...and I see it gone from the entire fanbase that once cherished Square as much as I did as well. Once you lose the faith of your fans, the people that supported you and were there for you and buying everything you put out, what do you have left?
No, that's not hyperbole. It's just a realization, now more than ever as this year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Final Fantasy franchise. Square Enix has been celebrating it immensely, but for fans it's just a reminder of what the company was able to do so well in the past, but can't seem to muster up to do today. Saying they're "dead to me" can be misconstrued as that hyperbole, but it isn't. It's just an honest acceptance. What's sad is that I, and I think a lot of fans too, of the once great company don't say such a thing out of spite, or hatred...but truly out of sadness. None are in denial, or angry about it. It's like a sad concession knowing nothing can be done and that that great company we knew for 20 years has become a punchline that nobody laughs at. Square has been dead to me for a long time, but not because I asked for it or was upset. I still held on to the fleeting hope they'd right that ship. But they just keep piling on the dirt of their own grave in my heart.