This is a weird topic, brought to you mostly by Square Enix themselves.
Without opening the history books too far back, quite a few gamers cut their teeth on Square Enix games, especially the RPGs (Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, notably). There’s a nostalgia factor here, where we are on iterations that have gone on for 30 years. Here in the West, we haven’t been fully exposed to that library – which has a substantial set of franchises.
Now here’s where things get a bit odd. Square Enix appears to have 3 main arms. First is FF14, which is without question their cash cow. Second is their modern IP development stream – which includes Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, and new IP such as Outriders. Finally, there’s the nostalgia miners, the remakes of older games sold on other platforms. The FF pixel remasters are a great example of supremely low effort development, with high margins on sales. There really aren’t any other dev/publishing arms that are able to get all 3 streams working… perhaps Nintendo if they could figure out how emulation worked properly.
Compounding this is the Square Enix board’s bar for success. The Tomb Raider remake sold 3.4m copies in a month and was “below expectations“. FF15 had DLC cancelled. Outriders sold gangbusters and didn’t turn enough of a profit to pay the developers. Marvel Avengers was an attempt at games as a service without understanding how that model actually works. Babylon’s Fall, which met with amazingly low review scores, saved a few bucks in development by simply taking them from FF14.
I have no doubt that game development is expensive, especially when you add in the AAA flavors. It takes a crazy amount of sales to recoup the costs of a big dev team. Somehow we can get Horizon Forbidden West, without any microtransactions to turn a profit, or at least be worth the investment. There’s some sort of challenge here in managing expectations – and Square Enix appears to be extremely optimistic in their projections.
A known IP has a chance of breaching the million copies sold threshold, not a guarantee. It has to be both working and good. (Cue the death of the SimCity). There’s a balance to be had here, where timing and luck have some factor. Titanfall 2 is arguably the best FPS in years, but it launched in the wrong window. BF2042 had a ton of pre-orders, launched broken, suffered refunds, and is all but gone now.
A new IP has a tremendous mountain to climb to get any attention, let alone sales. Hades, a game of the year winner, barely broke a million sold. Dead Cells hit 5m. There are literally thousands of games released every month, how does one stand out from the rest? Babylon’s Fall had rather poor PR before launch, plays like crap, and is nowhere to be found now. It’s a heroic effort to launch a game, let alone a good one.
Cash cow is too disparaging for FF14, more like it’s the sustainable mine. There’s little argument that the game delivers the best MMO experience in it’s genre. There’s also little argument that the cash stop has some of the craziest price points possible. Enough conspiracies that new items go up when another game fails to meet its objectives.
The nostalgia mining is also quite evident. Chrono Trigger was/is available on nearly every device imaginable. FF games have been sold, remastered, remade, and resold for over a decade – often at $30 or more. This is easy money, for the most part. They can’t yet figure out how to get fonts to work properly in any of these games, but the function mechanically and scratch that itch. I’ve had various remakes of the games over time, mostly on my (still functioning!!!) Nintendo DS. Very high odds I’ll pick up Chrono Cross too.
All of this makes Square Enix a very strange company to predict. For every Outriders, we see a dozen Babylon Falls. Somehow 3m games sold is a disappointment. Or that Marvel Avengers is deemed worth saving (perhaps this is due to the IP contract with Disney). I do hope that they learn from the past games so that we don’t end up with the EA approach of completely unrealistic goals that close studios. Not everything can be Game of the Year quality, and experimentation is good. Perhaps this is the best way to fund that innovation.