A new month is upon us, as is a new issue of RPGamer's Currents. Have I ever missed the stability of this column. Being on the road has been great fun, but I craved digging through industry news (and sharing the cooler bits with you, naturally).
As you may or may not know, I spent the weekend before last in Boston, MA for PAX East. It was my first experience with the event and I had a pretty amazing time interviewing developers and getting hands-on impressions. Sadly, no sky is ever without at least one cloud. My nanny passed away the day I left for the event and I had to rush back to Canada Sunday night to be with family and friends for her funeral. She was an incredible person and it's been rough, but the RPGamer staff have been amazingly supportive and my house has been chock-full of kiddos to draw my attention away. Things have thankfully settled down since and now I'm back in action. I'll make my return to form with some acapella awesomeness:
Once upon a time, there existed two very successful video game companies: Square Co. and Enix. Squaresoft had a near flawless critical track record and managed to create some of the most popular RPG franchises (Final Fantasy, SaGa, Mana, Chrono, Front Mission, etc.) in the history of video games. Likewise, Enix also reached great heights in the RPG landscape with several cherished properties (Dragon Quest, Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, Soul Blazer, etc.) and was known for its smart and frugal business dealings. Naturally, many assumed these two were a match made in heaven — almost as though their holy union would birth miracle titles capable of bringing joy to even the most cynical of RPGamers. Well, it's ten years later. Square Enix doesn't know what it is anymore and I'm not smiling.
Considering the recent string of events, it's tremendously tempting to draw allusions between John Riccitiello's "resignation" from EA and Yoichi Wada's "departure" from Square Enix. In both cases, their companies failed to make the leap forward during times of great change and suffered financial blows as a result. The truth, however, is that the two come from very different backgrounds. Riccitiello, for all of his mistakes, was a games industry marketing veteran who not only understood how to sell the medium, but also enjoyed it. Square Enix's former CEO on the other hand was never an actual gamer — he was a banker. Wada became Square Enix's CFO a mere two months after joining the company, COO three months later, and CEO three months after that. It was a staggeringly fast ascent, considering the man purportedly didn't even know that Square was the maker of the Final Fantasy series. Sadly, it shows.
During Wada's time at Square Enix, cherished franchises have been devalued, development budgets have ballooned to the point where games that only sell 4 million units are considered failures (Hitman: Blood Money, Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs), deadlines have been perpetually missed with little-to-no excuse (Final Fantasy Versus XIII, Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD, Kingdom Hearts III), and profitable new markets have been fumbled (Final Fantasy: ATB, Emperor's Saga, Circle of Mana). Make no mistake, the only stand-out positive Square Enix has under its belt since Wada took the helm is the acquisition of Eidos. Now, despite this bright spot, the Japanese mega-publisher is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Yoichi Wada has indeed stepped down after a bleak fiscal forecast. Unfortunately, he's left a business clusterf*** behind for which new president Yosuke Matsuda is now responsible for. Matsuda, I believe, brings the right amount of experience to the table, but after a decade's worth of financial missteps and sloppy releases there is no clean cut way out of this situation for Square Enix. Things are changing at the mega-publisher, and they're happening fast.
Square Enix is altering its organizational structure and expecting restructuring losses of $106 million. Groups of employees at Square Enix America have been laid off, free-to-play Square Enix properties have quietly been sold to Sleepy Giant, and Matsuda himself is going over the company with a fine-toothed comb. "After having succeeded the important role as the president, I plan on reviewing all Square Enix duties, business, and assets on a zero-based budgeting standpoint," Matsuda told investors just yesterday (as translated by Siliconera). "Due to the radical change of environment, I'd like to fundamentally review what works and what doesn't work for our company, then cast all of our resources towards extending what makes us successful and thoroughly squeezing out what doesn't."
It's hard to say what this all means for the future of the company. Will Square Enix go back to its high quality RPG roots? Will it alter its strategy to take better advantage of the growing mobile market? Will the West receive more attention from future releases? Can Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn actually grow its subscriber base post relaunch? Who knows. However, if I were a member of the Final Fantasy Versus XIII development team, I'd be hiding out until the restructuring dust had settled (and crossing my fingers that the past seven and a half years hadn't been in vain).
I feel a disturbance in the Force. In a move I predicted in a previous issue of Currents, Disney has executed Order 66 on LucasArts. At the time of that article, LucasArts representatives said that the rumours of a development shutdown were "one hundred percent not true" and that "everything is moving ahead." Yesterday, however, LucasArts confirmed that it has brought its development activities to a halt and enacted broad layoffs across the organization.
The running statement from representatives is that the company is shifting gears from an internal development model to one that is purely licensing — the idea being that they can maximize Star Wars releases while mitigating the risks of traditional development. Naturally, they've pointed out that there will be staffers staying on board to handle licensing duties and that some developers will be moving on to other departments at Disney Interactive. That said, a large amount of talented people (150, by Kotaku's count) are now unemployed and the in-house development at this "active studio" is now effectively over.
Who really knows what this means for Star Wars 1313 or Star Wars: First Assault. These games, which look like some of the most promising in LucasArts' portfolio, obviously won't be developed in-house, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should give up all hope. Disney Interactive is cognizant of the positive reception Star Wars 1313 has made and there's still a chance, especially where LucasArts will be focused on licensing, that it can now be externally developed (in the same way Metal Gear Solid: Rising moved from Konami to Platinum Games and became Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance). The same could be said about First Assault, not to downplay the sadness of this situation.
What is there to say, really? I understand there will still be Indiana Jones and Star Wars games, but externally developed licensed titles are rarely handled with the same care as those developed in-house. Sadly, this is what we have to put up with now — drek like Star Wars Kinect or Angry Birds Star Wars. LucasArts hasn't been a high-profile developer for quite some time now, but I think we should remember it for the some of its gems: Armed and Dangerous, the Monkey Island titles, Grim Fandango, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, a handful of the good Star Wars games (KOTOR, Battlefront, Rogue Squadron, the Super series), and Zombies Ate My Neighbors.
I was skeptical when Nintendo announced 2013 as the "Year of Luigi." Don't get me wrong — I love Mario's high-jumping, taller brother, but it doesn't take a financial wizard to acknowledge that this green Italian generally lacks the selling power and marketability of his older sibling. Gamecube launch title Luigi's Mansion may have been able to pull in sales of roughly 2.5 million worldwide, which is nothing to scoff at, but Super Mario Sunshine on the same system raked in 5.5 million. Admittedly, there are mitigating factors involved (launch title sales are limited to those who own the system at the time, the gameplay mechanics of the two games are completely different, the Luigi's setting was unorthodox, etc.), but the fact remains that Mario is a more popular character.
So, in a time when the Nintendo 3DS is being outsold by the mobile market and the Wii U is struggling to make an impact, why exactly would Nintendo throw all of its eggs into Luigi's basket? Again, he's a decent character as far as video game plumbers go, but Nintendo isn't exactly sitting on a pile of cash anymore. To that end, I was concerned that there wasn't enough focus on IPs that had higher consumer value.
Apparently, I was full of crap. So far, the Year of Luigi is going swimmingly. Nintendo is again dominating the software and hardware charts in Japan, with the 3DS XL (38,442 units sold) moving ahead of the PlayStation Vita (31,795 units sold), and Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon (110,840 units sold [390,991 lifetime sales]) hanging on to the top spot for the second consecutive week. In terms of Japanese sales alone, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon has already eclipsed the original and is actually bolstering hardware sales by a decent margin. The Luigi party doesn't stop with this title though; Nintendo is preparing several highly anticipated releases, including Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, Mario Golf: World Tour, and New Super Luigi U (a DLC which I actually plan on buying day one). I may have originally been a skeptic, but now I'm ready to paint the town green.
There were many upset gamers when THQ fell apart. Not necessarily because they had any emotional attachment to the former publisher, but rather that some cherished IPs would be left behind to collect dust in someone's closet. One of those IPs was Darksiders.
When THQ was selling everything that wasn't bolted to the ground this past February, what was left of Vigil Games (the company behind the hit action-adventure series Darksiders) was promptly snatched up by the same company that adopted my beloved Free Radical Design in 2009 — Crytek. Crytek USA was founded by a 35-strong core team from Vigil Games earlier this year, and its CEO David Adams (who was also the co-founder and general manager of Vigil Games) has revealed that the company is planning on wrestling Darksiders back. "Going to bid on Darksiders IP," said Adams over twitter. "Put 7 years of heart and soul into that franchise, and I think it belongs at home with its creators." The court-supervised auction of THQ's remaining IP and assets is already under way. All lots will be settled on April 15.
Personally, I'm hoping they are able to get their hands on the IP they created. Crytek USA is currently working with the latest CryEngine and one can only assume that they'd be interested in applying its technical wonder to the Darksiders franchise in the future — providing it's their franchise to work with.
Nintendo of America has taken to Twitter to release a slick, but short infographic on how the Nintendo 3DS has evolved (at least in terms of software) since its launch in 2011. Two years have now passed and the system that many thought couldn't succeed in today's market is actually prospering.
I love my Nintendo 3DS, but any 3DS owner will tell you that the first year after launch was a rough one. Due to odd business and hardware design decisions the original Nintendo 3DS featured a small-yet-thick form factor, an incredibly high price, poor battery life, only one control nub, and virtually no games. We've since seen a hardware rerelease with the highly successful Nintendo 3DS XL (larger form factor, longer battery, bigger screen), a substantial price drop, more than a handful of excellent games, a nub attachment (if you're into that kind of thing), and a rapidly expanding Nintendo eShop. Sales are up, consumer complaints are down, and Nintendo finally has grounds to celebrate.