Life, The Universe, And Gaming: The Square Enix Quandary
Or: High Expectations Square Enix, And How The West Was (Not) Won.
This being the first day of April, you might expect me to begin with some sort of announcement along the lines of this being my last article for the site, or that I am finally leaving Narnia and travelling into the real world (read: coming out of the closet) and while both those revelations might be met with overwhelming joy (seriously) they are in fact not happening. No, as much as I enjoy a good April Fools joke, I tend to distance myself from anything with any variation of the word “fool” in it, the exception of course being Lord of the Rings quotes. Likewise, this being Easter Monday, you might also expect me to make some sort of resurrection joke along the lines of Zombie Jesus… or something. You would be excused for this one, you fool of a Took. After all, I do love myself a proper controversial joke.
But why bother, when we have Square Enix playing the role of both fool and joke so delightfully for us?
I’ve had Square Enix and their many newly acquired licenses penned as a possible column topic for a very long time; initially I held off on talking about the publisher because I wanted to see how games the likes of Hitman Absolution and Tomb Raider would perform. (Pretty damn well by the look of things.) And now that I know this, as I planned to write out the column, almost like clockwork we heard news that Square Enix president Yoichi Wada resigned following the lower-than-expected sales performances of their recent titles, namely Sleeping Dogs, Hitman Absolution and Tomb Raider.
This is one of those moments when I want to delicately but purposefully tap my Caps Lock button and go wild for a few paragraphs, but I will restrain myself and try a more civil approach in 3… 2…
What the fucking fuck, you fucked up fuckery fuckers? FUCK.
Lower than expected sales? What the fuck were you selling, bro? Oxygen?
Now there’s two elements of discussion for today. Let’s address the most immediate issue of concern, that being the so-called lower-than-expected sales mentioned in the article I linked above. By the way that’s not really required reading since I’ve got all the facts listed here but you should read it anyway because page views.
First, let’s address the sales and relative ratings of each game. To aid in this exercise I am going to use Metacritic. If you’re a long-time reader of this site then you will know that we typically frown on the site and how it so badly represents a game’s worth and while it would usually be quite hypocritical to then turn around and use Metacritic scores just because it serves my point now, I actually don’t care because I have never personally stated a disliking of Metacritic and the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views of the site upon which it is found. Et al. Moving on…
Sleeping Dogs has a metascore of 80 and sold 1.75 million copies. Hitman Absolution has a metascore of 79 and sold 3.6 million copies. Tomb Raider has a metascore of 86 and sold 3.4 million copies. All metascores are based on overall critics ratings and all sales figures are as of last week.
Where is the fail, again?
How fucking high were sales expectations for these games that Square Enix deemed them, and I quote, “extremely low”? What is this Icarus syndrome that publishers seem to be experiencing recently? Are their actuaries and market analysts straight-up lying to them about market penetration and sales potential, or are they so drunk on the dizzying success of Call of Duty that they think they can get the kind of sales numbers that Activision boasts? Make no mistake, Activision is the devil and Call of Duty is their apple… what? It’s a good metaphor! Point is, that kind of sales target is a pipe dream for pretty much any other publisher. So just how much of each game was Square Enix hoping to sell?
I can’t even fault the ratings and performances of each game. Granted I’ve not played Tomb Raider yet but I have played Sleeping Dogs (excellent game) and Hitman Absolution (good Hitman title, horrendously unsatisfactory concluding act) and those metascores seem about right to me. Both are high but not overly inflated. They are on the lower end of A-grade, and that is quite good enough. But apparently not that great since Square Enix is reporting losses in the region of $100 million.
My guess is that each developer was given a certain amount of money for R&D to create new game engines and hire all-star casts and so on, because the production values on each of those games are really high, but my sweet soulless sock I just cannot see where so much money could go. Perhaps marketing? Perhaps the development time for each game is what cost each so much? After all, prior to last year it had been a while since the release of previous games in each franchise. Thanks in no minor part to Eidos going down, of course. At least Kane & Lynch remains dead. For now.
I just don’t get it…
This is one time where I can praise ingenuity on the part of Electronic Arts who have been trying so very hard to achieve Maximum Vilification (admit it, you said that in the Crysis suit’s voice, like I did) recently and yet pulled a master class by paying DICE millions to create a new engine, then giving that engine to all of their other major developers (salute) for use in their games. So we have Frostbite 2.0 powered games the likes of Battlefield 3, Command & Conquer, Dragon Age III: Inquisition,
Burnout Paradise 2 and Need For Speed: The Run, and the potential for more in the next iteration of Frostbite, with Mass Effect and other franchises joining the fray. Even though they too have ridiculously high sales expectations to the point that I wonder what kind of glue they smoke on their days off. At least EA has the resource sharing down which minimises their losses, if at all. And to their credit, Square Enix are working on the Luminous engine which could well be a broad-spanning engine the likes of EA’s Frostbite. And would explain a hell of a lot in terms of Square Enix’s alleged losses.
Enough about that, though. Let’s move on to the second order of business and the original reason for this column, which I am now going to have to summarise lest I risk a two-thousand-worder that nobody will read (look at me, thinking people will read this if it’s less than two thousand words) and that is how Square Enix have shifted their focus and completely lost the plot.
See, a few years ago Square Enix bought off Eidos and renamed them to Square Enix Europe. With this, came the licenses for such franchises as Tomb Raider, Hitman, Deus Ex, Thief and Legacy of Kain. The latter two have yet to see titles released under Square Enix’s name, but know that they are coming. (And it excites a whole lot of us to know that.) Also acquired in the past few years by Square Enix were the Dungeon Siege license and the publishing rights to Sleeping Dogs, formerly known as True Crime: Hong Kong (note that the publisher did not buy the license, hence the name change). Now of all these games, the one black sheep is Dungeon Siege where Dungeon Siege III was an absolute abortion of a game which, though it boasts a metascore of 72, is a steaming pile of turd that should never have seen the light of day and has killed off a franchise that I once held near and dear to my heart… *sniff* I’m not okay (I promise).
The rest of the games released by Square Enix were of relatively high production values and received equally high critical success. Rightfully so, in my opinion. Deus Ex: Human Revolution brought back the tactical science fiction FPS-RPG gaming that the original boasted, with some style. Tomb Raider, Hitman and Sleeping Dogs are already listed above. And soon we have the new Thief releasing.
Wait a minute… what were the other Square Enix titles which existed before the publisher bought off a whole lot of western developers and franchises?
Well, kids. Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts.
Two strong franchises, right? Now try naming the last good game from either franchise that isn’t a remake.
Difficult, isn’t it?
That’s because recently all Square Enix has done with its two largest original franchises is release remake after remake, porting older titles onto all sorts of platforms they weren’t originally programmed to be on. We saw Final Fantasy VII on PC late last year and soon we’re getting Kingdom Hearts 1.5, and while I’m not knocking the power of HD remakes and nostalgia, where are the newer titles with proper stories and production values the likes of all the western titles they are putting out? We do have a new Final Fantasy on the way, very strangely titled ‘Lightning Returns’, but what of a new Kingdom Hearts? Where is our Kingdom Hearts III and why is that not a thing when Kingdom Hearts 1.5 is?
The big decisions over at Square Enix continue to baffle me, and while it is achieving a lot of previously unheard of success in the west, it’s not as if this was never already kind of a thing based on Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts sales. Even then, the magnitude of success was expected to be greater and now, apparently, they have these gigantic losses to deal with. High Expectations Square Enix can blame sales all they want but the way I see it, their games have done well. Why can’t more studios be like From Software, who set out to achieve a modest sales target with Dark Souls and absolutely shattered sales expectations as a result? No, Square Enix prefers to play with its head in the clouds while ignoring the franchises that made it a success in the first place. And they say I’m delusional…
In parting, I would like to leave you all with this final thought:
I had to… (What, you didn’t think I would? Pfft… Please.)