OPINION: Why Square Enix Is Losing Money—An Indictment

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

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Square Enix

Square Enix is one of the oldest and most well-known names in video games. And yet, a report published by Japanese gaming news site 4Gamer.net states the RPG giant is losing money, that it was forced to drop its earnings forecast from ¥9,000,000,000 (approximately $112,697,100 USD as of this writing) to ¥3,500,000,000 (approximately $43,826,650 USD as of this writing). Square Enix attracts some of the best talent in game development, so what could it be doing wrong? In my opinion, for all the talent it has gathered, it fails to utilize it well.

Stale Character Designs

Since Final Fantasy VII, Square Enix (then Squaresoft) has been known for its graphical prowess. Bold, striking 3D-rendered cutscenes are a Square Enix trademark. Yet, in the last several years, I feel the artwork, despite its high technical quality, has become stagnant, generic, overdone—boring.

The worst offenders are the character models. They’re crafted very well, especially in pre-rendered cutscenes; yet, the facial designs look bland and lifeless to me. After over a decade of the same warmed-over facial designs ad nauseam, nearly every character looks the same to me now. I feel as if I’ve been staring for years into a blazing hot sun of mediocrity.

I can barely tell the one character in the introduction video of Final Fantasy for the PS1 and PSP apart from the characters in the introduction videos of Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XIV, or The Last Remnant. They all have the same drearily dull look and feel to them. Stylistically, I think nothing’s changed since Final Fantasy VIII. How can so much work, talent, and graphical processing power go into these cinematics, and yet they emerge so painfully banal? What does it say when beauty becomes blah? This style may have looked great in the late 1990s, but now, it’s just grossly overused and stale. Polygon count cannot be a substitute for fresh-looking designs.

Squaresoft and Square Enix’s facial designs have changed little over the years—too little.
From left to right: Warrior of Light (FFI PS1/PSP, 2002), male Hume (FFXI, 2002), Rush (The Last Remnant, 2008), male Hyur Midlander (FFXIV, 2010)

From left to right: Zell (FFVIII, 1999), male Elvaan (FFXI, 2002), male Wildwood Elezen (FFXIV, 2010)

Square Enix’s 3D artists are undoubtedly skilled. However, skill alone cannot produce visually engaging characters. Somehow, despite their skill, the majority of their character models come out looking the same. It’s as if they parsed every model through a blandness filter just to achieve that consistently bland Square Enix look. While graphics are hardly a sole reason to reject a game, an image nevertheless conveys a message about it immediately and powerfully. Unfortunately, that message is one dreaded word: “BORING.” As long as Square Enix is sending that message to gamers, gamers will feel subliminally disinclined from supporting its games.

Bloated Writing

Square Enix’s strength isn’t only in graphics, of course. It also commands some highly skilled writers and English-language translators. The company has come a very long way since the NES and SNES days of Japanese-speaking employees banging out clumsy-sounding English, giving Ted Woolsey thirty lousy days to translate a jumble of text, and both parties being forced to work within extremely tight storage and character-length limits. Unfortunately, while Square Enix has since hired more skilled translators and the technology has become far more convenient, this convenience has, over time, encouraged the translators to bloat their writing.

Square Enix’s games have become awash in meaningless words. Instead of working toward brevity and succinctness, its translators have become lazy and overindulgent, writing an abundance just to say a little. Final Fantasy XI, the text-only NPC dialogue in Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy XIV, and Final Fantasy VI for the Game Boy Advance are especially guilty of this. An abundance of empty words numbs the mind, exhausting it, discouraging further play, driving away the player. Worse, verbal excess obscures ideas, defeating the purpose of a translation: to convey ideas clearly in another language. If a game’s writing can’t get to the point, if the words mean nothing to the player, the player will lose interest.

LEFT: Extreme space limits forced Ted Woolsey to be succinct, resulting in a tighter, clearer script.
RIGHT: Tom Slattery had far fewer limitations, but his overindulgent writing produced a needlessly wordy script.

Wordiness could be bearable if the writing itself were engaging. The words in Square Enix’s games, however, have become dry and clinical, technically proficient but dull and lifeless. Its translators are not unskilled; in fact, I think they’re very good. The problem is that being a skilled translator is not enough—he or she must also be a talented creative writer. Square Enix’s translators have supreme technical skill but, with few exceptions, lack the creative spark necessary to enliven their sterile translations. What good is the most accurate translation of a creative work if it fails to translate the creativity?

Wordiness and dull writing are bad enough on their own. Square Enix has, however, combined both against all common sense, producing games that are a chore to read. As long as Square Enix allows its translators to write tediously and ponderously, its games will continue to turn off players.

We’ve barely skimmed the surface here.  There’s still more to talk about.

About Oscar Tong

Oscar joined oprainfall late September 2012 in response to a recruitment drive. He quickly discovered his job was much harder than he had anticipated. Despite the constant challenge, he has come to enjoy his responsibilities.

When he is not scrambling to meet a deadline, Oscar enjoys story-driven games with a strong narrative. He is especially fond of computer adventure games, role-playing games, and visual novels. He hopes the world will one day awaken to the power of video games as a storytelling medium.

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