All posts by Adrian Lok

New Beginnings for Square Enix?

Once again, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (more commonly known as E3) has come and gone and this year more so than in recent years, the event has left us with much to talk about. Obviously, the biggest news was essentially Sony’s announcement that the PS4 would be DRM-less and priced at $100 less than the Xbox One, subsequently destroying Microsoft in the PR war and sending Microsoft backtracking on their own DRM policies. Then there’s The Division and Metal Gear Solid 5 which, from the amount of coverage they’ve gotten, look like the games of E3 (they certainly look it). But the news that’s been lost in the shuffle (well, sort of) and has me personally most excited, was Square Enix revealing Final Fantasy XV (formerly known as Final Fantasy Versus XIII) and Kingdom Hearts III.

Now, you might ask, of all of the games announced for E3, why single out these two games in particular? Well, first of all, look at the gameplay! Graphically Final Fantasy XV  just looks impressive and at the very least, there’s plenty of flair and flash in the trailer. I mean, I know it’s just a trailer and it’s supposed to look good, but don’t you just want to jump into Noctis’ shoes and go kick some ass? I know I do!

Then there’s Kingdom Hearts III. The two main Kingdom Hearts games are probably two of my top 10 if not top 5 games of all time. I’ve always thought that the controls were one of the more innovative ones. They give you enough that you can go about the game is somewhat different ways and yet don’t hinder you during the action. The other thing about the Kingdom Hearts games is that, crappy dubbing aside, the games have always felt like a grand journey. It always felt bittersweet, because by the time I beat the game I’d felt like I achieved something and that we had come to an end. At the same time, I felt like I’d gone on this journey with Sora and Donald and Goofy, and I wasn’t quite ready for it to end either.

But let’s put all that aside for a moment. What I’m really excited about is that with the new generation of consoles, this is hopefully Square Enix deciding to kick things off in a positive direction.  And let’s be honest, this current generation of consoles really hasn’t treated them well (or maybe it would be more appropriate to say that they haven’t treated this generation well).

In the eight years of this current generation of consoles, Square has gone from being one of the most revered gaming companies to being one of the most disappointing. I tend to be a Square apologist and typically give them benefit of the doubt every time a new game comes out. But even I have to say that the recent string of Final Fantasy games have been rather disappointing.

It’s not that the games are particularly bad, it’s just that they don’t stand out. Everyone has their own favorites among the Final Fantasy series. But I’d be hard pressed to to find anyone that would say Final Fantasy X, X-2, XIII or XIII-2 as their favorite games.  All of the characters just seem bland and formulaic. It’s like every game is trying to re-hash a new version of Cloud or Squall (Actually, Noctis looks like he falls into that category too. But at least he looks like he has a bit of a back story).

While we’re on the subject of these numbered sequel Final Fantasy games, was there ever a clamor for these sequels? Maybe I’m not in tune with the popular sentiment or the people I talk to are just too hardcore, but I’ve never gotten the feeling that fans wanted or cared about an epilogue for Final Fantasy X or Final Fantasy XIII.

But therein lies the problem. Square never really seemed to understand their fans. Rather than putting out the best story with the best characters, they opted for a commercial appeal, concentrating on making the best looking characters with the best graphics. With Kingdom Hearts III (a sequel that fans HAVE been asking for) and Final Fantasy XV (the Final Fantasy XIII sequel that the fans were waiting for) hopefully this means that Square will start taking fans opinions into consideration and get things right for this new generation.


Is Money Killing the Creativity of Video Games?

Last week a friend and I were lamenting the fact that a company like Square Enix had fallen so far from grace. This was a company that we once revered and thought could do no wrong (or at least Square Soft couldn’t). The company that brought us Chrono Trigger, Xenogears and Secret of Mana now only relied on one franchise, Final Fantasy, and many fans feel that even that franchise is on the decline.

But why was that? Obviously, one problem is that the talent which made Square so successful has been leaving the company. But I think it goes deeper than that. My own personal theory is that Final Fantasy VII and VIII had been too successful. Final Fantasy VIII shipped 8.15 million copies while Final Fantasy IX only shipped 5.3 million. While still commercially successful and critically successful, it was clear that in terms of sales, there was a clear drop off between Final Fantasy VIII and IX. So Square went back to using the formula laid out in Final Fantasy VII and VIII, with pretty graphics and similar characters.

But it’s not just that the graphics or stories are becoming formulaic. A couple of weeks ago, Lydia wrote a wonderful piece on Neoseeker about the state of horror. Why games like Dark Souls and Tomb Raider were scarier than games like Dead Space and Resident Evil which were supposed to be based around horror. But what she doesn’t mention is that, this is a conscious effort on the part of the developers to go make these more action-oriented. In an interview with Gamasutra, Resident Evil: Revelations producer, Masachika Kawata mentions that the market for survival-horror genre is too small for Capcom to revert back to that game style, stating:

“Looking at the marketing data [for survival horror games] … the market is small, compared to the number of units Call of Duty and all those action games sell,” he said. “A ‘survival horror’ Resident Evil doesn’t seem like it’d be able to sell those kind of numbers.”

In fact, according the NPD data from 2011, survival-horror doesn’t even register as a genre in their sales breakdown. Combine that with the fact that action and shooting games made up 37.4% of the total game sales in the US and it’s easy to see why developers are making a conscious effort to take their franchises in that direction.

However, considering how much money goes into the development of video games now, it’s hard to blame developers for “playing it safe.” On average, the development costs of a typical current gen title is around $20 million. For AAA game the costs rise to somewhere between 3 to 5 times that amount. That means that if we assume that a game costs $60 to purchase from the retailers, the developers need to sell at least 1 million units just to break even on a AAA title. And that’s before we even consider the fact that retailers need to make money as well and probably only buys them from the publisher at about half the retail price.

But therein lies the problem. In an industry that thrives on creativity, developers and publishers are now too risk averse to try anything truly different. Wolfenstein, Resident Evil/Bio Shock and even Grand Theft Auto came to be a part of our everyday lives because companies dared to take those risks. Now, those games get repeated over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there aren’t some great games out there. Like I said in in my previous post, my favorite games are Mass Effect and Uncharted. But the fact of the matter is that most games have become somewhat formulaic, using the same gimmicks over and over again. That’s why we have new Call of Duty and Battlefield games every year now.

So does this mean doom and gloom for the gaming industry? Well, not exactly. With the rise of indie games, crowd-funding and increasingly more sophisticated software, we’re still able to get new and innovative games. Yes, these games won’t be AAA quality and will obviously have significantly less funding that your average mainstream game. But in a sense, isn’t that a part of what we love about video games? The fact that these are a labor of love and not because it’s “safe?” Besides, who knows? Maybe we’ll get that one breakout hit that causes everyone else to reconsider how their development process works.

Why Hello There!

Since this is my first time writing here (or, I guess the first time anyone’s written here) I figure I’d take this chance to introduce myself a bit. First of all, I’ll say that I’m not a super avid gamer. What I mean, is that I’m not one of those gamers that will go out with the objective of getting 100% achievements and I definitely don’t play games nearly as much as I’d like to. But that being said, video games hold a near and dear place in my heart.

It all started when I was a wee lad, I can remember going over to my friend Cliff’s flat across the way and playing on his Famicon (yes, you heard me right, a Famicon!) after school. I would head over and we would play games for hours (or at least I think it was hours) on one of those 30-in-1 type of games with like Ice Climbers, Macross and Bubble Bobble.

Admittedly, the games were simple at the time, but those were simpler times. We were playing games with 8-bit graphics and cartridges that couldn’t even hold 1mb of information. But hey, it kept the six-year old me engaged. I didn’t always know what I was doing, but I knew I wanted more. In retrospect, it really might have been the perfect storm. A combination of the animated characters, the challenge of getting to that next level and the fact that I was playing with a good friend left a huge imprint on an impressionable young mind.

As my tastes evolved, so too did the hardware. A year or so after becoming friends with Cliff, my family moved from Hong Kong (which explains the Famicon) to the US and a few years after that, I got a Sega Genesis. To be honest, there weren’t a lot of games that I really remember playing from the Genesis days. The one I played the most was Joe Montana’s Sports Talk Football and Streets or Rage. A few years thereafter, my family moved again back to Hong Kong and that’s when I really started getting into video games. Right at the time that I’d moved to Hong Kong, around 1996 was when the PlayStation had just started making its mark. And that’s when I first came across Lunar: Silver Star Story. Before that, I had stayed away from most RPGs, because I always thought they would be too complicated. But once I started, I realized I couldn’t stop. I was too engrossed in the story. I mean, I was basically playing my way through an anime. After that, I came to realize that I loved to play RPGs. Not necessarily for the gameplay (though that’s important too), but for the story. Call me a romantic, but I love the idea of good versus evil, using magic and fighting monsters in epic battles. I just love a good story and that’s why some of my favorite games are very much story-driven games like Chrono Trigger and Mass Effect.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy games with little to no story at all. I mean, some of my fondest memories were playing Counter-Strike at the PC café until 2AM or throwing a LAN party playing Unreal Tournament 2k. There’s definitely a social aspect to gaming that I think everyone enjoys. Not the “taunting 13 year olds over the internet” kind, but having a shared experience with friends. But getting friends together in a shared goal, or in competition. Some people might say that it’s just another excuse to get together, and in a sense it is. But when you’re together doing it, there’s definitely a sense of purpose that’s not there when you’re just hanging out.

So that’s a little about me. But what about you? What is it about gaming that keeps you interested?