Opinion: Square Enix backed the wrong horse

Square EnixWhen you’ve built your entire business around grandiose, movie-like fantasy titles with huge, in-depth cutscenes, what do you do when a graphically inferior console is currently eating up the entire video game industry?

Did you say lash out? Complain? How about whine and moan? If so, you’re correct, and Yoichi Wada, CEO of Square Enix, deserves a prize.

On Wednesday, Yoichi told CNET that the current trend today is most people aren’t buying the Wii as a game machine, but as a toy. “The Wii is the antithesis of the Xbox 360,” he said. “Xbox 360 is strictly for hardcore gamers. The attachment rate for the Xbox 360 is much higher than for the Wii. People who buy the 360 really like games.” On the Sony side of things, Wada said the company needs to position the PS3 as a game machine instead of a supercomputer. Hmm. That sounds oddly familiar (and a little side note and hat tip to Malstrom, this also resembles when the NES appeared on the PC-dominated gaming scene of the 1980s).

Now forgive me for providing yet another tidbit of tainted analysis, but this sounds like a bit of bellyaching from a company that’s starting to get worried (just a tad) about its future. Is Square in serious trouble? Obviously not yet, but like any intelligent, powerful company they can see the writing on the wall. Since Final Fantasy 7, Square made it clear that the cutscene and serious, involved gameplay were going to be their bread and butter. I have no problem with that, and behind FF2 and FF3 (U.S.), I consider FF7 one of the best RPGs ever to grace a console. That said, when it takes tens of millions of dollars just to create a title like a Final Fantasy today, you’re going to start speaking up when the systems capable of playing it aren’t growing their user bases as fast as is necessary to support such a venture. The Xbox 360 is successful, but development costs are such today that a bigger installed base is needed for titles to truly be considered a “success.” Oh, and when you’ve spent the better part of the last two to three years developing your flagship title as an exclusive for a system that’s floundering, I imagine that dynamic gets amplified and you start to say things publicly to stoke the fire.

“It seems that Sony isn’t sure what it wants to do. Is it making high-end electronics or a game console for gamers? I want them to clearly define their console,” Wada said. When I read that, I wanted to add “…so we can continue to make video games” on the end, but that’s just me.

To say the Wii is a toy though, and is incapable of producing a serious games for serious gamers is just irresposible and lazy, given what we have seen and will see on the console. I’ve played a lot of games in my day, but Super Mario Galaxy takes the cake as the best of the best in recent memory. At no time did I regret purchasing it (well, I traded PS2 games for it, so technically…), and at no time did I feel ashamed that I was playing “a toy.” Are there toy-like games for the Wii? Yup, but then again there were several Barbie Dream House games for the original NES. That a company like Square Enix is saying such things about the Wii, instead of recognizing its potential as a new development medium, tells me that one of the greatest software companies in the world did not prepare, and remains unprepared, for the true next generation of video gaming. What’s equally damining is that it’s so darn cheap to develop a Wii title right now. The potential for profit — if the effort is put into it — is enormous.

What’s truly surprising hough is that it appeared Square Enix was prepared–Dragon Quest is headed to the DS, after all, and was one of the bigger Nintendo coups from 2007. But the console biz and the portable biz are different, so maybe Square wasn’t as prepared as they first appeared.

I guess in the end this leaves Square Enix with a strategy where they’ll sustain their business by re-releasing every single one of their older titles with graphical updates on the Nintendo DS…

Anyway, here’s a challenge, Square Enix, and it’s one that could make you an incredible amount of money: Create an accessible RPG that the casual gamer (or the “new core gamer” I’ll call them) can play without realizing they’re playing an RPG. It doesn’t have to have 10-deep menu screens, or 20-minute cutscenes; it just has to be fun. Try it.