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Final Fantasy: Back from the brink of disaster

On the rocks just five years ago, Final Fantasy is back to being one of the industry's top franchises - courtesy of some bold risk-taking from Square Enix

Square Enix' Final Fantasy franchise is arguably in the rudest health it's ever been right now. The main series latest title, FFXV, launched to critical and commercial success and is being supported by a string of fine content updates; the MMO, FFXIV, is closing in on the peak players record set by World of Warcraft; and across mobile and other platforms, the franchise is enjoying success both with entirely new titles (such as Final Fantasy Brave Exvius on mobile) and with those tapping into nostalgia for the series' past (mobile and console re-releases of classic games, or remixes like the mobile title Final Fantasy Record Keeper). The public's appetite for the venerable franchise seems limitless, and Square Enix' capacity to meet that demand is firing on all cylinders.

It wasn't always like this. In fact, the state of Final Fantasy right now represents one of the most dramatic turnarounds by a major franchise in the history of the industry. Turn the clock back five years and the whole brand looked like it was bound for disaster. Final Fantasy XV was deep in development hell with no end in sight, and few held much hope for whatever game would eventually crawl out of the car crash. Final Fantasy XIV had endured almost two years of critical lashings and subscriber discontent, and was on the verge of shutting down. The franchise's mobile efforts, too, were underwhelming, largely made up of ports of old games and re-developed titles from Japan's long-in-the-tooth, pre-smartphone iMode service.

"The state of Final Fantasy right now represents one of the most dramatic turnarounds by a major franchise in the history of the industry"

Had anyone at that point stood up to predict that Final Fantasy XIV and XV would both be not only immensely successful in their own right, but tentpole titles for one of the most commercially successful console generations ever, the most likely reaction would have been laughter. The sheer depth and breadth of Final Fantasy's legacy meant that few would have been confident in writing off the series' capacity for reinvention or resurrection; but for the franchise's current iterations to be turned around so utterly would have been dismissed as impossible.

Such a feat bears closer scrutiny; not just because Final Fantasy is a beloved franchise whose resuscitation is interesting in its own right, but because it holds important lessons for other franchises that hit rocky patches. It's worth noting also that the decline hadn't started with the issues with instalments XIV and XV; rather, it dates back right to the outset of the PlayStation 3 era, when an ambitious plan to expand the franchise ended up delivering, instead, the poorly received FFXIII games and the eternally locked in development hell FFXV, originally planned as a companion piece to, rather than a distant successor for, the thirteenth game.

This is a franchise, then, whose development and critical reception really hadn't been on solid ground since the PlayStation 2 era, and arguably one in much more trouble (though with a far deeper wellspring of goodwill and nostalgia at its disposal) than recently indisposed franchises like Mass Effect.

"This is a franchise whose development and critical reception hadn't been on solid ground since the PlayStation 2 era"

How Square Enix approached turning the entire franchise around is a lesson in bold steps and confidence. It took the unprecedented step of shutting down FFXIV and launching an entirely revamped version with a new creative boss at the helm; A Realm Reborn, the relaunched game, carries on from the story of the original (there was actually a creatively fascinating in-game narrative event wherein the shutdown of the old servers was accompanied by the actual destruction of the world, with the new game's story commencing five years after those events) but is in almost every other respect a new game.

Consider the extraordinary effort Blizzard undertook to rework and modernise all of its original World of Warcraft content when it released the Cataclysm expansion at the peak of the game's popularity; now consider that Square Enix took the decision to do precisely that with a game which was loathed critically and drooping commercially. That such a wild gambit has succeeded is a testament to the talent and vision of Yoshida Naoki and his team; that it was taken at all speaks to a confidence and willingness to take risks that is to the credit of Square Enix' executive team.

What happened to FFXIV happened in public, of necessity; the original game had already launched when it became clear that it needed to be reworked from the ground up. Yet it is apparent that no less dramatic a transformation happened to FFXV as it finally hit the home stretch in its development (a home stretch, incidentally, longer than the entire development process of many other major titles).

"As development costs soar, the kind of highly skilled salvage work Square Enix has demonstrated is already becoming economically essential"

The FFXV that eventually launched is a game that's easy to like, but also a curious beast, one that clearly bears the marks and scars of dramatic surgery during its development. It's a game whose sprawling scope belies a remarkably tight and stripped down core. There are moments where strange scars across the game's design speaks to the excising of huge, ambitious ideas, or where the game's systems curiously seem to try to flex phantom limbs; ideas and mechanisms amputated years ago in favour of a mostly streamlined story of four boys on a road-trip at the end of the world.

That the process of killing FFXV's darlings happened behind closed doors does not make it any less dramatic than what happened to FFXIV in public; and while the creative teams responsible for the decisions were different, the solutions they hit upon are quite similar. Both teams found ways to use what had gone before, balancing a willingness to discard even very expensively developed content that just wasn't working with a deft hand at ensuring the baby stayed firmly in place while disposing of the bathwater.

Often in the games industry, there's a kind of masochistic satisfaction taken in talking firmly about how good a company is at throwing out ideas that aren't working, or how quick they are to can games that don't look like they're up to scratch. That's absolutely an important skill, but while vital in fast-moving and still (relatively) cheap fields like mobile, it's one that's increasingly irrelevant to AAA development. There, it's been superceded by the more economically sensible task of actually figuring out how expensively developed assets, code and systems can be recycled into things that actually work.

That's obviously a much tougher and more skilled job than simply canning something and tossing a casual reference to "sunk cost fallacy" over your shoulder as you walk away from the ensuing explosion. As development costs soar, however, the kind of highly skilled salvage work Square Enix has demonstrated on both FFXV and FFXIV is already becoming economically essential. There comes a point where so much money has gone bad that figuring out how to strategically, intelligently throw good money after it to claw back some value becomes a vital survival skill for a studio or publisher.

That Square Enix has become so proficient at this task is very much to its credit. It had little choice, in ways; allowing Final Fantasy games to fail in succession would have been an indelible stain on the company's most valuable IP, after all. Still, it has achieved what few other companies have managed - bringing games back from the brink of disaster to become enormous hit titles, and charting a future course for a major franchise in the process.

The stature of Final Fantasy may be unique, but the challenges Square Enix faced in bringing about its resurgence were not. What those studios did, and what they do next, should be watched closely by anyone in the industry with an interest in how to sustain a major franchise or turn around a troubled game.

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