When it comes to role-playing games, few companies can claim a success story to rival Square Enix' dominance of the genre. Through internationally recognised franchises like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Star Ocean, Chrono Trigger and now Fullmetal Alchemist, the company has built up a formidable reputation as a crafter of epic tales. Its games are largely linear affairs, with insanely high production values, focused on characters and storytelling, almost every one with a polished feel that has attracted legions of devoted fans to the company.
When it comes to ambition, Square Enix is no slouch either. As well as setting its sights on the mobile gaming market, the company famously tried to move into the movie production business, setting up a studio in Hawaii which produced the technically astonishing but commercially disappointing Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a fully computer animated movie whose near photo-realistic imagery has yet to be matched - except, perhaps, by occasional clips in Square's own games, and by what we've seen so far of its next feature, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.
Given this track record, it was inevitable that Square Enix would eventually cast its eye on the online gaming market - specifically, the massively multiplayer market, a niche where Korean and American firms have been breaking new ground for some years, but which the Japanese RPG giants had yet to conquer. Ambitious as ever, Square Enix wasn't content to dip its toe in the water. Instead, the eleventh instalment of the immense Final Fantasy franchise became an MMORPG, simultaneously becoming the PS2's first massively multiplayer title, the first title to push sales of the PS2 hard drive in Japan, and the raison d'etre for a new online service, developed by Square Enix and its partners, called PlayOnline.
"It could have gone either way," admits Hiromichi Tanaka, the genial Square Enix senior vice president who was tasked with overseeing the production of Final Fantasy XI. "It could have been a massive failure, it could have been a massive success. However, the general idea - the general plan that we had, of how it would work, has lived up to expectations. It's almost miraculously kept to the expectations that we had."
Indeed, as the game launches in Europe today - hot on the heels of the announcement that Square Enix is working on another MMORPG set for launch in 2005, called Fantasy Earth: The Ring of Dominion - there's little doubt that the firm's online ambitions have been realised, commercially if not creatively.
"Currently, our registered PlayOnline users are about half a million - we've definitely gone over half a million now," Tanaka tells us. "If you want to know how many characters there are... Last time we did a check there were 1.2 million, but we're expecting it to be between 1.4 and 1.5 million characters right now. A lot of people have two or three characters. So that's just the general population of the world at the moment."
Naturally, given this success, Square Enix now has its eye on future online development. As well as adding new expansion packs to Final Fantasy XI - the latest of which, Chains of Promathia, launched this week and is provided for free with the European edition of the game - the company is also considering its options regarding next-generation consoles.
"Of course, we intend to keep the original Final Fantasy XI going," Tanaka assures us. "Although we're releasing only the PC version in Europe, in Japan and America we've already released the PS2 version, and of course the PS2 won't be around forever. Within a few years the PS2 will probably be phased out for PS3, and you'll also have the Xbox 2 arriving and things like that coming on to the scene."
"We've got to keep that in our sight," he continues. "We're still preparing, and looking into perhaps even changing platforms, because once the PlayStation 2 is phased out, that population will have to move somewhere. We've got that in mind - we're just keeping it at the study stage at the moment, just looking into it."
When it came to actually developing Final Fantasy XI, Square Enix was forced to break new ground in a host of ways. For one thing, the game needed to have a PC version - the first time that a Final Fantasy game has been ported between PC and console since Final Fantasy VIII. More pressingly, developing an online game came with a host of new challenges - both technical and financial challenges, and those related to appeasing the millions of Final Fantasy fans by successfully transposing their favourite game series into an online setting.
"The cost and actual time in production of a Final Fantasy game didn't really change that much," says Takana. "However, the difference is that we didn't use as much FMV in this title, and of course, that's very expensive to produce. What was expensive this time was the servers - having to set them up and maintain them constantly is of course a huge running cost. But when you look at the overall cost compared to, say, creating CG, it comes out to be fairly balanced."
"The hardest part about it," he muses, "was actually that up to now, the packaged versions of Final Fantasy have been showing the storyline and the general drama to just one person. But taking it online, where you've got multiplayer, and there are thousands of people playing at the same time... In order to present the storyline and the drama and the emotion to multiple people, who are playing perhaps at different levels of the story at the same time, is really hard. We had to come up with a unique system to deal with that. So, that was one of the hardest parts about bringing it online. Because we're story-based, we needed to keep the story in the core of it."
Of course, developing an online game doesn't stop when you push the game off to duplication. In many ways, the process only begins at that point - but continuing the development of the game in an ongoing way is a challenge Square Enix seems to have relished.
"The beauty of being an online game is that we can keep adding content to it, so rather than having other games try to tie into us, we can tie into other things," Tanaka says. "The main thing for us is to keep versioning up FFXI, and perhaps integrate other elements into it. Beyond that, we can't say at the moment. There are plans of course - we're always looking at different business possibilities, but we can't give any definite details of what we intend to do."
Expansion packs may form a major part of those plans. Tanaka-san estimates that Final Fantasy XI is now twice the size it was when it originally launched, thanks to the Rise of the Zilart and Chains of Promathia expansion packs - both of which introduced elements to the game which had been planned right from the outset of its design. Chains of Promathia, the latest pack, even introduces the city from the very first opening movie in the game as a playable zone at last.
While Square Enix has been increasingly positive in its overall outlook towards the European market in recent months and years, the fact remains that Final Fantasy XI is rolling out in this territory almost a year after the US launch, and over two years after the Japanese launch - even though it will only arrive here in English, without any localisation being done for the other European languages. Doesn't Square Enix consider Europe to be an important enough market to speed up this process?
"We look at Europe as being just as important a market as Japan and North America," argues Tanaka-san. "However, the big problem with being an online game is that we have to have the infrastructure there, and we have to adjust our product to match all the different countries and different formats. It takes a little time to get used to."
"We've finally got the European version of FFXI up to the point where it's playable in all the territories that we want to release it in. Now that we have that experience of releasing an online game in Europe, we can take the experience on to the next titles that we are planning."
As for the languages situation, Tanaka presents the decision not to translate into French and German, at least, as being down to a desire to put a toe in the water in the European market. "Of course, as creators we wanted it to be in every language that we could possibly release it in," he says, "but at the moment we had to release it in English only. This is because even though we could prepare different language versions of it, communications between the players worldwide - between Japanese and French and Germans, say - would probably end up being in English anyway."
"We thought, if they're going to be speaking English to each other, then we may as well just start off with the English version and see how it goes, and then maybe look into French and German in the future. Originally we were thinking of doing all the languages, but we just thought we'd see how the English goes first."
Lost in Translation
Influencing that decision, no doubt, is the mammoth task which would face the developers in terms of actually translating the content of the game - including all its updates and add-on packs - into different languages. A conventional, offline RPG is an enormous effort; for an online game, the amount of dialogue and other incidental text to be translated is gargantuan.
"I can tell you exactly how much dialogue there is in there," interjects Richard Honeywood, Square Enix' lead translator. "It's bigger than the Bible now, text-wise. The text at the beginning of this year was three-quarters the size of the Bible, and of course we've just added a lot. Er... I guess that's just a reference I use," he adds, smiling. "I don't want to compare the game to the Bible! That gives you an idea of how much text is in there. So yes, is is a huge undertaking."
"English and Japanese was planned from day one, and we're translating them all the time, constantly," explains Tanaka-san, picking up the explanation. "As soon as they write the Japanese text, we write the English on the same day basically. In order to accomplish that for French and German as well, we'd have to have Japanese to French and Japanese to German staff on standby."
"We couldn't go via English - otherwise it would become like Chinese whispers," he explains. "Not only would the information change each time it was translated, but also the speed would slow us down and therefore slow the development of the Japanese version down. We'd have to get that type of staff in-house, and it's very hard to find that type of translator. Even for English, it was very hard to find good translators for the title. We've got fantastic Japanese to English translators now, but trying to find French and German ones is quite difficult - particularly since we've got so many other titles too."
Given the success of Final Fantasy XI in Japan and the USA - where the game enjoys about a quarter of a million subscribers apiece - the future of Square Enix' online operations isn't in any doubt. However, Europe is generally considered to be a less developed market - albeit arguably a more promising one - for MMO titles. "In Japan, originally when we released Final Fantasy XI, it wasn't a big market at all, Japan itself," Tanaka says when we mention this fact. "The popularity of Final Fantasy, particularly for the PlayStation 2, really pushed online games in Japan. So for Europe, too, even though it might be regarded as a lesser market for others, there's always the chance that it could light fire, and suddenly become a big thing here."
Such an optimistic attitude to the European market is, of course, very welcome - and it reflects Square Enix' optimism on online as a whole. While Tanaka-san would not be drawn on the company's future plans (this interview was conducted before this week's unveiling of Fantasy Earth: The Ring of Dominion, a new MMORPG from the company), he did confirm that more titles are on the way. "PlayOnline is, as you know, the gateway into Final Fantasy XI. Already in Japan we have - well, even in this we have Tetra Master as well, which I guess you'd look at as sort of a minigame type of thing. But on top of that, in Japan as well we already have a maj-jongg type game on that as well, and we're currently doing beta testing of Front Mission Online. We do have other plans, at the moment particularly for Japan, to release more online games on PlayOnline. We'll see how it goes basically."
"We do have plans for new titles and new series specifically for online content," he said. "Of course, we can't divulge those now."
Final Fantasy XI, in other words, has been a hugely successful experiment for Square Enix, and online gaming is likely to form a part of the company's line-up for the foreseeable future. Traditional single-player games aren't about to go away, of course - but Tanaka-san believes that even in that department, there are lessons to be learned from FFXI.
"One thing I would say," he concludes, "is that some of the rest of the FF series and other games are actually starting to copy elements from FFXI - such as having the game driven by small missions or quests. FFXII has borrowed a lot of those elements from FFXI. So, the games do take elements from each other in that sense."
Final Fantasy XI is released in Europe on PC only this week, with publishing being handled jointly by Square Enix and Ubisoft.