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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  • Overpriced mobile games, console games have been very stale (with the exception of Deus EX), and for christ’s sake RELEASE FFVII IN HD. Seriously that would make them so much money.

    • Shadowsofcreation

       They didn’t MAKE Deus Ex, just produced it, so nope square has done NOTHING creative on consoles.

  • Square Enix has been hemorrhaging money for years. When will they get it together and figure out what their fans really want? Seriously, of all their dormant IPs and projects in development, is Final Fantasy XIII-3 on the top of ANYONE’S most wanted list?  

    How about finishing up Versus XIII, the game people have been waiting this entire generation for? Kingdom Hearts III? A Chrono sequel? Final Fantasy Tactics 2? I could go on and on…

    The company is such a damn mess. The last game a bought from them with my own money was Final Fantasy XII, a game that came out over 6 years ago. And let’s be honest, it wasn’t even that good. 

    It’s so sad to see how far the company has fallen. This used to be my favorite company during the PS1 days. They couldn’t do anything wrong! Now it’s like they can’t do a single thing right…

    • Edmondwazhere

      Square Enix is awesome they are just running into or have been running on bad times. They do more than just Final Fantasy nowadays working on anime shows and such. In my opinion they should concentrate a bit more on their main projects. They are a big company and can manage multitasking projects, it has them a bit distracted but everything they send out to consumers has had tons of time and thought placed into their product. I’m surprised you mentioned Kingdom Hearts III, They promised it’s the next release coming from that project, and although fans myself included have been painfully awaiting this game it’s very understandable why it has taken so long. Consoles, exposition games to create a larger universe for the series, and the most obstructive of all having to get the okay from from Disney with all the interactions Square Enix constructs with Disney Personas. Disney is a top Notch company that will make sure Square Enix in their eyes does not tarnish any of their characters and the Companies reputation. Sadly that means a lot less awesome action scenes with the Disney characters. I’m sure there are scenes they had to argue for and we will receive. Square Enix has always been good to us it’s our turn to be good to them. 

    • kamrom dechu

      They havent been running on hard times. Their existence has been a rapid decline. Thegood times ended in december 1999, at which point their stock collapsed utterly and they do not recover. They keep losing money.

      They havent been good to us. They’ve made crap and they continue to make crap.

  • Bob

    It made the mistake of going into the iPhone/Android game business. No one takes those games seriously. Make real games for real consoles and handhelds, then you’ll make real money.

  • I disagree with a lot of what you’ve said about the writing. What you call “bloated,” I see as “expressive.”

    In the Final Fantasy VI image you used, for example, I find that Slattery’s translation is more fitting to what I’d expect an ancient, all-powerful being to sound like.

  • How about spending countless dollars on Crystal Tools, only to work on Luminous after THREE games, while still licensing the Unreal Engine, because, why not?

    • Tylorw 09

      how was final fantasy 13 rushed? they announced that game in 2006 and it came out in 2010.

  • keriaku

    I disagree with a lot of what is said here. For the mobile prices, people need to accept this if they want it to be an actual game console. Can anyone really say TWEWY is worth less then $20? Really, it’s worth more. And for FFD, I just beat the main story clocking in at about 55 hours, not including extras. I don’t feel cheated out of my money. For the gameplay, you cite two MMORPGS and FFXIII. I personally loved the battle system of XIII, it wasn’t trying to be a ‘slow or methodical’, it was suppose to be fast paced. It’s fine to dislike what they tried to do, but don’t dislike it because it’s not what you wanted, or not like the older games. For the music, I don’t know the piece you specifically talked about, but it seems to be nostalgia talking. On the whole, Square Enix has been really raising the bar for music. All of their recent soundtracks have been super high quality and fairly complex. For example, FFXIII-2 and KH:3D.

    •  The problem with mobile games is the market they’re competing with. Sure, TWEWY is worth more than 20 bucks content-wise, but expecting it to sell well when most other mobile games cost less than $5 is foolish. I agree, just because it’s on a mobile does not mean it’s worth less – but people do not want those kinds of games on their phones at the moment, and so Squeenix’s economy suffers.

    • I also really liked the battle system in XIII, but the point is, the company as a whole is a mess and does not understand the market, nor what its fans want.  The fact that you and I really liked the battle system in that game puts us in the minority.  

    • Herding_sheep

      I would be a lot more willing to pay $10+ on Squares mobile efforts if they actually put EFFORT into porting them.  Their ports are fucking lousy, with the exception of TWEWY and maybe FF3.  Most everything else is a disaster.  FFTactics is a perfect example.  They charge extra money for the iPad version, when its seemingly the same resolution as the iPhone version, just stretched for the iPad.  Most of their games look horrendous on iOS Retina Displays.  They need to enhance their models and artwork.  They also usually have terrible Touch Menus and Touchscreen controls.

      They put less effort in their $20 PORTS, than a one man indie dev does with a .99 game.  That right there is pathetic, and is why they are a joke in the mobile space.  Thats part of being a big corporation, with a big corporation structure and environment.  They need to evolve and get with the times.  Operate more quickly and efficiently, and allow creativity to blossom inside like a fresh startup would.  Its just such a shame, they have insanely talented people there, being constrained by the big corporation bureaucracies and culture that have permeated their doors ever since that bozo became CEO with the Enix merger.

      Squaresoft was one of the greatest developers ever, that took big risks on highly ambitious and creative games like Xenogears and Vagrant Story.  They need to get that small studio energy back, and stop acting like a typical big corporate buffoon.

      At the end of the day, Product is the most important.  Its the one thing that will speak for itself.  They simply need to start making good products again.

  • Sniper D. Luffy

    trust me…Ghost trick costed “too much” for some and it was about $9.99 i think (maybe $14.99 tops), no way $17.99 game gonna do well…not to mention how much DLC they poured in for XIII-2, it was about $50-60 range…

  • Guest

    Personally, I think they’re starting to wake up, they just need a bit more of a push.

    Spending all this time fixing FFXIV (how many devs would admit to having released a terrible product and spend two years apologetically redoing it?) and attempting to recoup losses through XIII sequels (justifying the bloated development of Crystal Tools), hopefully they’ll get their act together and start releasing more, better games.

    I’m still a fan of Square Enix’s games and I want them to succeed. It’s sad to see them struggle so much.

  • I miss the good old days when I didn’t DREAD a new announcement from Square-Enix regarding Final Fantasy and when I actually wanted to play their games. I find myself going back to the good games they used to make because let’s face it, the latest Final Fantasies have no soul.

  • Square hit record profits 3 times this gen. 

    What does that mean then?

    I have to remind myself this is an opinions piece but this part is total bs

    “As a publisher, however, Square Enix has been fantastic lately.”

    Really? I think not

    1) Sleeping dogs bombed. And deus ex had majo issues.

    Chaos rings was co developed by square. Way to know what your talking about/

    Sorry. But Id take just as many square rpgs this gen as any other

    give me dq ix, the world ends with you, blood of bahamut, ff tactics advance 2. Over anything.

    In other words. I disagree with this opinion piece completely.

    Deep breath,

  • Shadowsofcreation

     I really don’t agree with much of this article, I used to be a huge square fan and they have a very good grasp on why they are losing money. Some of your listed items (such as music) is completely biased opinion, and really has no merit to the main point of the article. You have done a good job saying why you may not like Square anymore, but from what I’ve seen they aren’t losing money at all because they’ve moved into the same sort of field as EA with their publishing (which thankfully you did talk about in the article). I feel square has really gone down hill, but I don’t agree with much or your reasoning or the fact that they are losing money.

    • Shadowsofcreation

       Well I feel stupid.. the link started me on page two of the article.. my opinion still stands except for the fact that you do indeed have proof they are losing money.

  • “Music has always been another one of Squaresoft and Square Enix’s strong
    points. However, its arrangers exhibit, in my opinion, an extremely
    irritating tendency to needlessly embellish past compositions when
    arranging for remakes of 8-bit games. More often than not, they graft
    new introductory and transitional passages and extra instrumentation
    onto existing melodies. They may think they’re enhancing the old
    compositions, but they’re really wrecking their simple beauty by adding
    too much.”

    You cannot be serious with this.

    Trust me dude, they DO NOT embellish THAT MUCH.

    A large majority of my time is spent working on composing, arranging and recording music. These so called “Embellishments” are really so much more conservative than you think. And even then, non conservative arrangements are mostly uncommon.The limitations and simplicity of the original songs lacking more diversification was because of the limitations of the hardware and the amount of memory they were allowed to allocate to music in their respective eras. (And in Saga 2’s case, which the remake’s music is arranged by Kenji Ito, one of the two original composers. He was most likely trying to do what he originally wanted to do with the music but couldn’t because of the memory and polyphony limitations of the hardware. Honestly I would do the same. Having Chiptune music to a remake such as Saga 2 DS would just end up feeling awkward. But it may have been nice to include it as an option if you wanted it)

    The DS is mostly GM/MIDI and sample based (along with streaming. But often low quality). So that in itself is limited in how it can express music. And when you are adapting something from chiptunes, you can try to imitate the chiptune sound, but it may just end sounding even more awkward among other implications.

    What you are feeling is more due to nostalgia and nostalgia goggles glued to your face to be honest. I’ve always felt that the music in Saga I-III didn’t fit well with the sound of chiptunes. And I prefer the music from the Remakes of those that are available. Honestly those games would’ve sounded their best with instrumentation akin to Romancing saga. Which of course is of similar quality to what the DS can put out in some ways.

    This whole “Opinion” (Aside from mobile prices) is silly to me and almost downright hilarious.

    Boring and frustrating gameplay? Sounds more like you are impatient and dont’ want to take the time to discover and understand the depth to stuff. (Ironic considering you whine about the sense of freedom in FFXIII when XI and XIV are really the games in the series that showcase any REAL sense of  freedom of exploring and coming to learn and love a living world. Even more so in XIV’s case if you really played it in the last year and a half)

    The first 6 FF games are far more boring gameplay wise than any recent Square game.
    As much as I love them, the last time I tried playing FF1 I was so bored it literally put me to sleep.

    FFXIII is by far the most interesting and innovative version of the FF Battle system made in years. (IMO)
    Your poor attempt to bash FFXIII’s linearity is made entirely more hilarious by the fact that FF HAS ALWAYS BEEN LINEAR. There has never BEEN ANY FREEDOM AT ALL. It’s always been a corridor guided manor. It was just presented to you from a different view point. And honestly I don’t see how a world map could work at all in a game like FFX or FFXIII.

    Any FREEDOM you ever felt playing a FF game has been an illusion. They have almost 100% always been linear up to a point where you can do sidequests. The same thing that XIII does.

    Which keeps making me laugh about the embellishments of music part. Really, you have no idea and if the music in remakes is too embellished for you, you’d get laughs out of everyone who arranges video game music. Because really you haven’t seen anything. 99.99% of remake OSTs are INCREDIBLY conservative.
    If you want to see Embellished and Liberal, listen to something like this

    I will half agree with you about Sample quality. On the one hand most of the time(Such as is the case with FFIV’s remakes) it’s not so much the sample quality as it can be how the music is programmed(Especially so with FFIV DS/PSP). A sample can only play as realistically the music is programmed to take advantage of how the sample libraries are created. But other times sample quality is not the best.
    On the other hand, with games like FFIV, the sample quality in the original game is hilariously awful. So awful to the point that it sounds good. Because it doesn’t sound like anything bordering on realism. Only sampled enough to the point to give you the impression of the instrument it’s trying to immitate.

    Overall though, I think really you are just being a bandwagon hater who is hogtied with their own nostalgia that creates such unrealistic expectations about something and is so resitant to change that the only thing that could satisfied you is if they made something either to your exact specificatiosn or back to the point where you “thought it was good”.  Not a personal attack or anything, but that’s just how I see it. Feel free to keep this opinion though. Don’t expect people like me who share similar love of something but have an open mind to agree though.

    • Jeff Neuenschwander

      Well, this is definitely one of the most thorough dismantlings I’ve read on this wesite, at least from the music side of things.  Now, I can’t speak for Oscar’s musical knowledge but I can speak for mine.  If I had to choose between the two songs, I’d choose the former simply because of the poor instrumentation of the DS version.

      What I don’t understand with Square Enix is that they can get something so right, like the intros for the DS versions of Final Fantasy III and IV, yet fall flat on that revision.  Perhaps they needed to work more on the cohesiveness of the instrumentation.

    • Ok.

    • “It’s always been a corridor guided manor. It was just presented to you from a different view point.”To me though, that’s a huge difference. I hated how linear FF13 felt, even though I play through other games in a pretty linear manner. To me, the thing that matters is that the game can’t FEEL linear. There has to be something that makes it feel like a living, breathing world, and some joy of exploration to make a great JRPG, and FF13 missed the mark on that completely. It did some other things very well, but dropping the illusion of nonlinearity was a mistake that completely ruined the game for me.

  • Arbel

    I dont think it has anything to with any of these points to be honest…Sales are good.  FF13 sold very very well.  FF14 had an impact Im sure, but the re-releases of old games are still eaten up in Japan.

    The problem lies in crap management (very typical in a Japanese company) and refusal to license game engines or use tools.  As a software programmer in Japan I see it time and time again, always wanting to “re-invent the wheel” so to speak.  Maybe back in the SNES days it was “feasible” to write your own engine from the ground up for each title, but these days its just ludicrous.  Versus was announced in 2006…what of it now?  Why a new engine for ever major FF game?  This isn’t just a SquareEnix thing, its something the plagues the software industry in Japan.

    • kamrom dechu

      Six months later: They’ve since announced a FF game for the PS4. Still no Versus 13.

  • Aiddon

    they really need better talent, but unfortunately Square’s producers just don’t have an eye for talent. Kitase is especially guilty of this since he keeps putting talentless hacks like Toriyama (FFXIII’s director) onto big projects while shunning legitimately talented guys. They have deep-rooted problems that will take YEARS to fix.

  • Arek

    Your first point, music, could very well be true. But the example you posted is not a good example to prove your point. I’ve never heard that song before, and hearing both of them, yeah, I’ll agree that the second half of the song is a bit much. But if I had played the DS game first, It wouldn’t make a difference.

    Your bit about the XIII’s battle system is valid, but I’m not sure I agree. Perhaps because the rest of the game was so lackluster the battle system was the turd that stank the least, but I enjoyed a lot of the battles; especially the shorter ones, it seemed like it was going back to the “get in and get out” fell that games like VI had. And the bit about the camera is silly. The motion didn’t deter me from the gameplay at all.As for prices, I dunno if Square Enix as a company should be blamed for it. I’m sure if the developers would be in charge of the price vs the higher ups the price would be a bit more manageable. Oh and I would advise against you alienating any of your readers by calling some of them insane. It isn’t a big deal, but you are expressing YOUR views, don’t insult someone for something as simple as buying a game they were looking forward to. I’m guessing you did your fair share of this that’s why you’re writing this article.

    I agree with you quite a bit on the whole publishing bit. With every passing Square Enix game announced I keep thinking “well, maybe after this they’ll pull their heads outta their asses”. Its sad, it’s like watching your best friend become addicted to heroine (or something less relatable but equally frustrating if in fact your best friend HAS become addicted to heroine and you feel negatively about it). Bottom line, I want SE to wake up to, but I wouldn’t mind if someone killed them in their sleep and took over.

    Zomg could you imagine a REIMAGINING of Final Fantasy and they start the title numbering again? o.O

  • keriaku

    @facebook-100000161811504:disqus , @facebook-740051018:disqus , @Herding_sheep:disqus
    I’m totally willing to agree that there are quite a few things wrong with Square Enix as a company, and acknowledge that there is an practial issue of them losing money. What I don’t like is wrapping them up in a completely negative light and attacking what they have actually created doesn’t seem to actually address the issue. To extend that idea further, I actually think they are going in positive directions with many of the points talked about in the article. Things like ‘Boring, Frustrating Gameplay’, ‘
    Gratuitous Musical Embellishments’, or ‘
    Stale Character Designs’ are not the geneal problem, rather a subjective negative perspective on their recently releases. Even ‘
    Preposterous Mobile Prices’ is more or less just a smaller problem attached to bigger industry worries and ‘
    Bloated Writing’ is a questionable reason for Square’s finacial decline.

    I think the real issues or the ones addressed by Herding Sheep. If they are making shoddy ports, that’s a problem. If their creative talent is is being suffocated by corporate structures, that’s a problem. I don’t believe the gameplay or character designs or choices in musical enchancement are the problems.

    This is why I think this article is very misleading, and seemed to be more of an attack on Square Enix rather then any real thinking about what their issues are.

  • I’m pretty sure Squeenix also published Batman Arkham City in Japan, as well.  So, let’s throw that in there for overkill.  Having never played any of their games, I’ve never been a big fan of Squeenix.

  • Jim Self

    Starting at around FFVII, they tried to expand their target market out to a lot of non-RPG gamers. That game got a huge marketing push, if any of you are old enough to remember. It was the beginning of them moving in directions that weren’t the bread-and-butter of Square legend. VII was amazing, and I liked VIII, best in fact, but let’s face it- VIII is a love story, and it’s totally focused on Squall’s character development, not a worlds-spanning epic battle against evil.

    And then there was FFX. If you look at the minimap, it’s… a corridor. Yes, all previous games were a series of corridors linked by an “open” overworld, but FFX actually gives you a diagram that says “See? It’s just a long corridor. Nothing to see here.” You get a break now and then for a town, but those are very rare relative to previous games. And that arrow on the minimap… do I need to explain how much that arrow made me feel like my freedom had been erased? It totally destroyed all sense of exploration (such as was possible). Also, this was the first FF to take away control of your airship.

    Since FFX, they’ve removed a lot of the traditional elements of FF. You went from controlling your battle party to controlling only one character, for example. You might love the new FF games, but you have to admit, they’re very different from what made Square #1.

    I won’t say much about graphic design or music. I agree that the 8-bit tune in the article is far more emotional, and the graphics have been way overdone in every game since… well, FFX. Sure, that could be nostalgia, and I’m not a designer/composer, but I am a writer. All of the great writers from the last 100 years talk about how they had to cut, cut, cut until the heart of their work could shine out through the clutter. I’m sure that extends to music and graphical design, too.

    If you’re playing FF, you’re probably a hardcore RPG gamer. I don’t see why Squeenix wanted to change their games to fit a wider market when they were king of their niche. It’s a very bad business strategy. Launch a new product at the mass market instead.