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April 23, 2004

Today's update is a mixture of topics. We have an editorial on Dragon Quest V and Square Enix's American plans, an editorial by our industry-savvy Chris Winkler on Square Enix's future, and finally an editorial on the topic of females in video games. I expected to get a much more impressive outpouring of response on this last subject, but I suppose not a lot of readers know what to think about women in video games.

We have a new topic for this week, by the way, although you can still write on the previous one. We all know that video games are huge in Japan, with kids to adults of both genders taking them somewhat seriously. Still, in the United States, video games are still though of primarily as games with no real redeeming social value. So the question is: what could Japanese companies do in order to please and attract more American gamers?



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A Grave Mistake for an Important Company

Any fans of console-type Japanese role-playing games know the name Dragon Quest. The series is recognized as being the inventor of such a genre. As we all know, Dragon Quest games fly off the shelves pretty quickly in Japan, the most recent one, Dragon Quest VII, sold more than 4 million copies; the series is even more popular than Final Fantasy. Now enter the Dragon Warrior series, the first one released in North America needed a free giveaway in Nintendo Power to get fans interested. The rest is history: the three following installments were released, but those would be the last for a long time. Dragon Quest V and VI were never released in North America, and fans will tell you that they are among the best. Now, what is this about you ask?

Well the Dragon Quest V remake for PlayStation 2 has just been released in Japan and got pretty good marks (34/40 from Famitsu). What is really unfair is that Square Enix currently has no plans to release the game in North America. Wasnít one of the purposes of the merger to give more attention to Dragon Quest in North America? Not releasing the game here will certainly not help. Now, what creates a problem for me is that Front Mission 4, a good game indeed, which sold less than 300.000 copies in Japan, is set to be released June 1st here. Plus, Square Enix is giving away free demos of the game. Here, again, Dragon Quest gets shunned. Furthermore, may I inform you that Square Enix has acquired the trademark to ďDragon QuestĒ in North America; by searching a little bit on the American site of trademarks you can find it. Again, Square Enix does nothing but state the obvious: "We currently have no plans to release Dragon Quest V in North America."

Dragon Quest is one of the best selling series in history. With more than 30 million units sold, it certainly is an important series and fans of Squaresoft that never got around to playing the series would probably give this game a try, as in terms of graphics it looks very good. And now with the real name slapped on it, maybe RPGamers that were confused with Dragon Warrior will finally embrace the series. In other words, with Dragon Quest VIII looking spectacular so far, it is a real opportunity for Square Enix to get fans interested. Yet they are missing it for no good reasons.

Why hasnít Dragon Quest worked in North America? To that I would respond that it was never really advertised quite positively and that it was seen as pure dork stuff but that's all in the past now. Dragon Quest V looks fantastic and it could easily do well here. The same thing happened with Final Fantasy Origins last year and it sold reasonably well, with Wonderswan Color quality graphics, why should Dragon Quest V be passed up here? Square Enixís reaction is quite bizarre and difficult to understand. Now, consider this: Dragon Warrior VII sold, according to the Magicbox numbers, almost 200,000 copies, and it was pretty much dated and released on the PSX at the beginning of the PS2 era (FFX was released a couple weeks later). And yes, do yourself a favor: look at Dragon Quest V's remake for the PS2. Looks pretty good, huh?

Isnít Square Enix supposed to be a company that leads the pack in the RPG genre? Other companies have taken risks lately - such as Atlus with Disgaea and soon, too, La Pucelle will be released in America - but Square Enix does not deem important enough one of the best installments in one of its most important series to be released here. That tells me one of two things: either Square Enix does not respect its fans or they are simply making a mistake. Where is the company that put all its last efforts into Final Fantasy? Come on! SE! Dare a little and release here a game that should have been released in the first place.

Any fans send your emails about Dragon Quest V to: support@square-enix-usa.com

- Leo Lionheart

Damian:

Where to begin? First of all, I think that was one of the more coherent ďget-this-game-localizedĒ entreaties Iíve heard, although I am a big Dragon Quest fan. That being said, allow me to elucidate some of the reasons why Square Enix has no plans to release the title in the states.

First of all, stating that Square Enix doesnít care about its fans is not fair. Square Enix is a corporation which has responsibilities to its stockholders, not the fans. Iíd elaborate, but Chris already has a number of times. The Dragon Quest fans in the states are by no means legion: the Front Mission series has had maybe 2 installments in the states, both of which sold decent amounts. The Dragon Quest series, on the other hand, was dead in this country for years, and its latest installment here, Dragon Warrior VII, looked incredibly dated, was full of spelling and grammar errors, and did nothing original. The only reason it sold 200,000 copies here is because of the lingering fanbase left over from the days of the NES, and many of them have since been alienated by the low-quality of VII. The game attracted very few new gamers, to be sure, and those it did were probably bored to tears by the derivative nature of the story, characters, and gameplay.

Iíd go more in-depth, but Iíll leave this to someone else. Yes, these new Dragon Quest games have decent graphics, but if nothing else has changed, there still wonít be much to attract a legion of new fans. Iíd like to see the remake, but I have to be a realist here.

 
Square Enix - One Year After the Merger

It has been just over a year since the largest merger in the Japanese video game industry went ahead and Square Enix commenced its operations as one new company on April 1st 2004. Industry analysts have generally been exultant about the economic side of the merger and rightfully so. Square and Enix have had a lot of synergy effects, and under the reign of Youichi Wada, Square Enix is set for further growth. Still, as we will see soon enough the question regarding the first year of the merger can be answered in many ways.

At first there was wide-spread contempt, as many fanboys mistook the merger for a hostile takeover initiated by Enix chairman Yasuhiro Fukushima. Only after a while did people realized that the new company's name was in fact Square Enix (and not Enix Square) and its president was Square's president and CEO Youichi Wada. And despite the fact that the per-share exchange ratio was in favor of Enix (one Enix share for 0.89 Square shares), 80% of Square Enix's staff is made up of former Square employees. On the other side of this argument, a lot of fans were welcoming the addition of a title like Star Ocean - Till The End of Time to Square Enixís USA release list in times when the company's Square part has produced titles that have been either highly controversial (Final Fantasy X-2), good but not mind-blowing (Final Fantasy Tactics Advance), less than stellar (UNLIMITED SaGa) or not available outside Japan (Hanjuku Hero vs 3D).

Looking at all Square titles available for the current hardware platforms, only Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy XI have received widespread praise. Sometimes one can get the impression that something is missing, namely titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Parasite Eve, Xenogears, Vagrant Story and Chrono Cross. Said games have not only been highly acclaimed, but also very popular sales-wise. Yet, so far only Final Fantasy Tactics has received a sequel in the GameBoy Advance-based Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Xenogears director Tetsuya Takahashi made sure that his grand story ark laid out in Xenogears Perfect Works is being put into virtual reality at Namco subsidiary Monolith Soft, which he co-founded in late 1999. Despite the Chrono Brake trademark saga, a sequel to the highly popular series has become more and more unlikely. The exit of series mastermind and Chrono Cross director Masato Katou two years ago already marked a heavy blow to rumors suggesting a new Chrono game was in the making in Tokyo.

As shocking as this news seemed back then, resignations of even key staffers are rarely an obstacle for companies to continuing a series. While high-level resignations from companies at both sides of the Pacific have increased significantly over the last 12 months, one would have a hard time arguing that this situation is new for Square, as the company had seen its fair share of high level resignations from Shinichi Kameoka to Tetsuya Takahashi. Whatís more, recent reports suggest that quarrels with staff coming from the Square-side of the company continue even one year after the merger. Last year, however, representatives from Square Enix's third production team (responsible for, among others, the development of Xenogears and Chrono Cross) have stated that their main focus continues to be Final Fantasy XI and, hence, they had no time to develop a second major title (like a new Chrono sequel) simultaneously.

In the case of Parasite Eve, there has been no trademark mystery: ever since the release of the more action-oriented Parasite Eve II, nobody in Tokyo has publicly ever talked about the series. Created under rather unique circumstances in Hawaii under the auspices of Takashi Tokita, the original Parasite Eve managed to capture a lot of hearts with its attempt to merge turn-based RPG battles with a Resident Evil-style storyline and environment. For the sequel, developing responsibilities went to Square (Enix)'s fifth production team in Osaka. The more action-oriented gameplay of Parasite Eve II still has its fans, but the game could not match its prequel's sales performance and popularity (in particular in Japan), despite selling more than one million copies worldwide.

Yasumi Matsuno's second project for Square (Enix), the innovative genre mix Vagrant Story, suffered a similar fate. What happened? The almost-infamous "Square has lost its touch" makes no sense to me at all. Why should the same directors, who were able to come up with some of the greatest milestones in the history of the RPG genre all of the sudden collectively forget how to make great games. The probability that the evil competition has infested the Arco Tower's air conditioning system with a virus capable of taking away all good ideas sounds a little absurd, even for the hordes of Square Enix haters. The actual reason is probably connected to plain economics rather than such creative explanation attempts.

First, Square Enix is not releasing that many more games per year than Square alone released during the PlayStation years - Square's totals for 1997: 15, 1999: 16; Square Enix's totals for 2003: 20 (note: not counting expansion packs). Second, president Youichi Wada has repeatedly mentioned his company's commitment to high profit ratios. In response to a shareholder's question about the profitability of the Final Fantasy series, Wada explained Final Fantasy installments were not the issue, as they were profitable enough. According to Wada, the problem was the profitability (or the lack thereof) of non-Final Fantasy titles. Considering the high development costs of a title such as Parasite Eve, it seems only reasonable to assume the series' second installment has not turned over enough profit to warrant a new installment, in particular when keeping in mind the general trend towards declining sales within most franchises on the Japanese market. While Chrono Cross faired well in Japan (sales of 800,000 copies), the game only managed to sell 590,000 copies in the US. Other publishers could only dream of those sales, but just looking at the US sales of recent titles such as Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy X-2 illustrates that at Square, more might have been expected from a high-profile title such as Chrono Cross.

Yet another issue is new trends, such as online gaming or cell-phone based content. Both markets have outperformed traditional offline console game sales in terms of growth and already have become key pillars in Square Enixís strategy. This year, the company will significantly expand its line-up of MMORPGs (currently: Final Fantasy XI, Cross Gate, Depth Fantasia) by introducing two new major titles with Front Mission Online and Ambrosia Odyssey for PlayStation 2 and PC. As online games and cell-phone based content are seen as the industry's future, companies recently have shown an increased willingness to invest financial and human resources to position themselves favorably in either market. This stands in pure contrast to the PlayStation years, when online games were basically a PC-exclusive genre.

Furthermore, very few development teams actually have the expertise and experience, not to mention the financial backing required to create epic RPG classics. When it comes to RPGs, Square Enix definitely still boasts the largest group of renowned directors and producers in the industry, among them Yoshinori Kitase (Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy VII - Advent Children), Tetsuya Nomura (Kingdom Hearts series director), Hiromichi Tanaka (Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy XI), Yasumi Matsuno (Final Fantasy Tactics series, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII) and Takashi Tokita (Hanjuku Hero series, Chrono Trigger, Parasite Eve). And this list does not even include the masterminds of its two flagship series, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuuji Horii.

Given the popularity of Square Enix products in the US and Europe, another major non-Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or Kingdom Hearts title rivaling Square's great PlayStation releases in terms of story depth, character development and creativity might generate enough profit to be compatible with the company's ambitious profit ratio targets.

- Chris Winkler

Damian:

Once again, great insight into the industry and a nice complement to the previous Dragon Quest V article. Square Enix is, as always, motivated primarily by profit and is such a mammoth entity in the industry that its own inertia alone could very well keep the money rolling in for years to come. Fortunately, I believe that Square Enix will have enough good sense not to rest on their laurels and, instead, continue their tradition of innovation in the field of video games.

That being said, most of what Square Enix is banking on in the future (cell phone content, MMORPG content) will be new territory for them. While FFXI seems to have been a rousing success, I have to wonder if the American response to the title is anything like they expected. As for their cell phone content, that is still a very untapped area in the states, despite advertisements by Sprint and Nokia in various gaming magazines. Ngage failed pretty thoroughly, and there still isnít a cell content industry like there is in Japan.

The bottom line is that only time will tell if Square Enixís Japanese market strategies will make the transition to US markets. It should be interesting, regardless.

 
The New Hotness

Your question as to whether the industry is pandering or improving as to the role of female leads; my own opinion is that it is a little of both. That may sound like a non-answer, but the growth of the industry means that more people are paying respect to the ďlaydayz,Ē as I call them... because I am a jerk. At the same time, some companies want to expand their base to non-gamers with skimpy outfits and hotness, i.e. Final Fantasy X-2. I havenít played the game, but am still wierded out by Yunaís clothing. The biggest lure of the Final Fantasy X co-lead was her sweetness, her kind heart, her loyalty, and her generosity. Now sheís wearing hotpants. Oh sure, Iím highly doubtful her personality has changed in an extreme sense, but she still lost her sweetness a little.

The fact is that companies are having trouble succeeding when they stick to the hardcore. And if they do succeed, itís more of a critical success. To reel in outsiders to actually buy something, executives stick with the same array of scantily clad hotties. Take a look at E3, every single year. Most people think that a game is for children or dorks. The reason for the former is because they are games, and a good reason for the latter is because of all of the barely dressed females at the displays of new games. While many of us gamers donít necessarily care about that sort of thing as long as the character is well written and/or acted, the outside world looks down on it as exploitation, even if they are just bunches of pixels.

And speaking of writing, while at the forefront of gaming and very important, it is still very difficult. In fact, many writers arenít writers; rather, they are programmers who were forced to write a story for a game they have designed. Writing is especially important in RPGs, but unfortunately sometimes developers just stick to a cool outfit with leather to distract from the nasty writing. Although, there have been exceptions to the rule. Lulu, again of Final Fantasy X, is beautiful and at the same time has a solid personality and depth. A character like that is a wonder to behold, but the fact is that big budget games or sequels can get away with that kind of thing. Xenosaga has the wonderful Shion Uzuki, who is fully clothed (except for the one swimsuit, but she was actually at a beach) and always a pleasure to see and hear in a cut scene. Pandering is the way to go if you canít get good writers, unfortunately.

We also cannot forget about female gamers, which is an ever increasing part of the gaming community. In fact, women who are stay-at-home moms are finding their way into video games more and more. Do they really want to see barely-dressed females in their games? Maybe, maybe not, but it is still something that could turn off most of a demographic just because guys buy more games. While it is true that the industry should try to sell more games, as that will obviously lead to success, they should also be careful not to completely turn off a demographic that is growing in number and influence. Games like Lineage II might not exactly be a womenís cup of tea since they are so exploitative.

To sum up, I really donít know what Iím saying, as you may have guessed. My favorite part of a game is the story, but the characters are what drive a good story. Having a character in no more that one square yard of fabric and crappy dialogue will turn off many, but will get more than enough people to buy the game, if it has a lot of advertisement, to justify the sell-out. Itís hard to say for sure what is to be done to address this issue, other than good writing, which will NEVER be found in the entire industry. The only thing I can think of is to have executives that will not pander to the lowest-common-denominator to sell games (stop laughing, it could happen). The role of women in games is improving and will continue to do so, but it is still a mostly-male industry, so all of us can expect more of the hotness from all over. Not that thatís a bad thing, but it can be if there is just too much of it with no substance.

- Michael V.

Damian:

Michael makes a good point in his editorial. Video games are still a male-dominated industry and a good portion of straight males like to see representations of women scantily dressed. I wonít comment on the moral virtues of such things, but I think we can agree that this is a truth. However, with that good writing that Mike mentioned, a game doesnít HAVE to use the female body to sell a game (though for every Shion there is a KOS-MOS.) I might go one step further to say that Japan, with its long history of chauvinism, needs to progress a bit more in order to understand American female gamersí needs. But thatís a whole other editorial.



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