June 25, 2012

This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

When Square Enix released Agni's Philosophy, a trailer claiming to be a "realtime tech demo" for... something... I had a rather unique reaction to it. While it was tempting for others to extol the quality of the visuals or descry what this change of setting could mean for the near future, I simply found it frustrating.

The video shows off scenes of generic urgency and very well-designed ambiguity, crafting a pseudo-story that never began and will never finish. We're not meant to believe that this hypothetical scenario is actually a vision of the next Final Fantasy game -- and thank goodness for that, as I'm not particularly enthused by the superficial faux-realism it aims for. I'm used to Final Fantasy having "guns" by now, but they've largely been fantastical firearms, like a sword that turns into a gun or an antiquated-looking blunderbuss -- not the full-on AK-47s you might see in so many modern shooters.

Still, it's not the content of the trailer that got to me. What I'm actually irked by is a lingering suspicion that this is what Square Enix has been diverting resources to, all this time. Don't they have better things to do -- like, oh, I don't know -- make the first proper Final Fantasy game of this generation? Last I checked, that was still their flagship brand, right?

I'm not one of those who claim the entire series has gone downhill, ever since < insert absolutely any FF title here, they've all been argued >. There are those games I love, those I like a little less, and those I find relatively unplayable. In the aggregate, I do still love the majority of them. Okay, so I may have once said that if it weren't for the job system and Gilgamesh's theme music, Final Fantasy V would be a miserable kusoge title on par with Quest 64. I still recognize that it's a matter of taste, and I do grant it its rightful place as an installment in the series, because it does more or less adhere to the fundamentals. No matter how one might criticize disparate elements of various installments in the series, no one can really argue that any of them aren't legit Final Fantasy.

Believe it or not, other game developers were once playing catch-up to Square, and wishing they had made Final Fantasy. I don't think they wish that anymore.

Final Fantasy XIII was first announced in early 2006, with the first trailer debuting in May -- almost half a year before the PS3 was released. The game didn't come out until March of 2010, though I'm convinced it was artificially delayed after it was more or less finished, so that the XBox 360 version could enjoy a simultaneous release. If it were another outstanding, deep RPG like any other main entry in the series up to that point, it would have been well worth the wait. What finally hit shelves, though, was barely a Final Fantasy game at all, save for some of the series' recurring proper nouns -- and barely an RPG, save for the fact that there are lots of fights and scenes where characters talk about things. Much of what gave the series its prestigious pedigree and loyal fan base went completely missing: towns, mini-games, side-quests, optional conversations and story scenes, secrets and hidden areas, absorbing level design, variety and contrast in gameplay, meaningful endgame content, maybe a few branching plot paths or an optional character, or even the ability to revisit most areas of the game. Nearly all you do in this game is hold the analog stick forward until your character gets into a fight or a dialogue scene triggers.

I don't bring this up just to take a dig at Square Enix, but rather to identify that there is a problem. I don't enjoy poking holes in FFXIII -- okay, maybe in a morbid kind of way I do, a little -- but mostly, I'm just an FF nut who wants to see the series return to its former glory. I could believe that some of FFXIII's omissions were conscious design decisions (there are some who are glad for the lack of towns, oddly enough). Still, I wonder how many of those decisions were made as a reaction to realizations of the skyrocketing costs of game development, rather than a natural preponderance for innovation. When they decided to reduce all shops to a single menu brought up at occasional computer terminals, part of that was a solution to how you justify the mechanics of purchasing supplies and gear in a depopulated wilderness -- but the fact that the game takes place in a depopulated wilderness is in itself a product of necessity, make no bones about it.

So, what does a responsible company do when faced with these complications? Does it spread itself as thinly as possible, continuously announcing new titles and spin-offs in rapid succession? It's become something of a running gag, that for every game Square Enix actually releases, they seem to announce development of three more. At the same time Final Fantasy XIII was announced, they also announced Final Fantasy Versus XIII. The first trailer appeared in December of 2006, and since then all we've seen are videos of establishing shots and story sequences, and recently a few quick cuts of some random battles. It's six years later, and I don't think there's a single person in the world who's actually seen this game in a playable state. I'm starting to wonder if it will ever see the light of day.

For reference, here are a few things that have happened entirely within the development period of Final Fantasy Versus XIII:
1) The entire Uncharted and Mass Effect trilogies have come and gone, as well as four Assassin's Creed titles.
2) 38 Studios acquired Big Huge Games, developed and released Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and two expansions, and recently collapsed into bankruptcy.
3) Square Enix themselves released both FFXIII and its direct sequel FFXIII-2, made the MMO FFXIV, and then made it again, and released six Kingdom Hearts games.

We're not talking about a young company who's just learning the ropes of the video game industry -- Square Enix is a behemoth that has been making all kinds of games, for decades. Final Fantasy has almost always been one of their most popular franchises, which is why we see so many remakes and spin-off games that borrow the name. Those spin-offs don't mean anything, though, if they can't maintain the integrity of their core titles.

It's really disheartening to see them trying to do everything but make a traditional Final Fantasy game -- not that I consider Versus one of those, but presumably it represents a similar scale, investment-wise. When the Agni's Philosophy video hit, it was the straw that broke the camel's back -- a slap in the face to that part of me that is still waiting for the next great RPG. The message I took away from that trailer was that not only are they revealing yet another pie-in-the-sky pipe-dream project of theirs before finishing what's already on the table, but that they spent undoubtedly a sizable amount of time and money on character design, motion capture, voicework, animation, model and environment rendering, writing, etc., for a new graphics demonstration that isn't even aimed at any game systems that currently exist.

A friend of mine suggested that perhaps this new next-gen graphics engine would help them streamline their development process. Okay, but if the engine is for next-gen systems, isn't that basically an admission that they've given up on improving their development process this generation?

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