Will 'Final Fantasy XV' Make Western Gamers Love Japanese Games Again?

Square Enix's Final Fantasy XV, the latest chapter of the 27-year-old series, could be the Japanese publisher's biggest game ever.

The company started development on the game back in 2006, but recent reports from TGS 2014 indicate that it is only 55% complete, even though a demo is expected to arrive in early 2015. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy director Tetsuya Nomura, who had worked on the series ever since Final Fantasy IV (SNES, 1991), abruptly left the Final Fantasy XV team in September, fueling speculation that the game was in trouble. These factors indicate that Final Fantasy XV probably won't arrive until 2016, which would give it one of the longest continuous development periods in video game history.

Let's take a closer look at Final Fantasy XV, what it means financially for Square Enix, and whether this game will win over or alienate Western gamers, many of whom once considered the series to be the benchmark of console RPGs.

The evolution of Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy has evolved dramatically as a franchise ever since its early days on the 8-bit NES. The game was originally set in a traditional fantasy setting, defined by glimpses of advanced technology and a mix of Japanese and Western cultures.

But with Final Fantasy VII (PS, 1997), the series turned into a full-blown sci-fi RPG franchise. Final Fantasy VII was the most expensive Final Fantasy game ever produced, with a development and marketing budget of $145 million, and it helped Sony's original PlayStation overthrow Nintendo's N64 to become the undisputed king of the fifth-generation consoles. But ever since the series peaked with Final Fantasy VII, Square has struggled to rekindle waning gamer interest in the main single-player series.

Source: Compiled by author from Vgchartz data; FF11/14 are MMOs

The merger between Square and Enix in 2003 also altered the future of the franchise. The newly combined company immediately launched Final Fantasy XI, the first MMO in the series, to turn the single-player game into a subscription-based one. Square Enix also started launching direct sequels and spin-offs of its main single-player titles, breaking the unwritten rule that each Final Fantasy game was a self-contained story.

Popular games which previously reached a natural conclusion -- like Final Fantasy IV, VII, X, and XIII -- suddenly got sequels and remakes. While it was a smart financial move to keep popular characters around for more than a single game, it also diluted the franchise.

Square Enix reported $1.57 billion in revenues in 2013. Assuming that Square Enix retained the industry average of $27 per sale after distribution costs were deducted from every $60 copy of Final Fantasy XIII, we can estimate that a single Final Fantasy game generated sales equivalent to 12% of the company's annual revenue.

The rift between Eastern and Western RPGs
Ever since Final Fantasy VII, the series has leaned more toward Japanese gaming tastes than Western ones, with much more linear gameplay than Western RPGs.

Over the past decade, Western tastes in RPGs shifted away from Japanese RPGs and toward more open-ended adventures. Electronic Arts' Bioware and Zenimax's Bethesda brought us games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and Skyrim -- which all arguably made Japanese games like Final Fantasy feel like restrictive, hand-holding cutscenes with limited choices and interactions.

Final Fantasy XV. Source: Square Enix

This trend of Final Fantasy becoming more of a Japanese title instead of one balanced for both markets can be seen in the shifting percentage of unit sales of each title between Final Fantasy VII and IX. Sales of the series between the two markets stabilized between Final Fantasy X and XIII, but the series still depends on Japan -- a declining console market increasingly dominated by handhelds and mobile games -- for a third of its sales.


FF 7

FF 8

FF 9

FF 10

FF 12

FF 13

(PS3 only*)

North American














Source: Vgchartz. *Due to low Xbox 360 sales in Japan.

Unfortunately, the value of the Japanese console market (hardware and software) fell 17% year over year to $4 billion in 2013, according to the Computer Entertainment Supplier's Association. Media Create's most recent weekly sales numbers also indicate that the PS4 remains in fourth place in Japan, trailing behind Nintendo's 3DS, the PS Vita, and even the Wii U. The PS4 has only sold 0.72 million units in Japan, compared to 4.8 million units in North America.

This means that the console market has dramatically changed since Final Fantasy XIII was released five years ago, and sales of Final Fantasy XV could suffer if it is dependent on the same percentage of the Japanese market for its total sales.

The Foolish takeaway
From what we have seen so far of Final Fantasy XV, the game certainly looks different from anything that preceded it with jarring juxtapositions of modern settings with fantasy monsters.

It's clear that Square Enix wants this game to recapture the magic of Final Fantasy VII, but the dilution of the franchise, a dependence on the shrinking Japanese market, and changing tastes in Western gaming could all hurt sales of this long-awaited game.

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The article Will 'Final Fantasy XV' Make Western Gamers Love Japanese Games Again? originally appeared on Fool.com.

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