Square-Enix's game lineup heavy on nostalgia, but future lies in casual mobile market

Japanese game developer Square-Enix shows off a variety of games that target longtime, nostalgia-fuelled fans and casual mobile gamers alike in a media preview event in Toronto.

Smartphone games offer simplified gameplay for new players, but also micro-transaction support

Many of Square-Enix's games lean heavily on nostalgia, including Final Fantasy Dissidia NT, which includes fan-favourite characters from previous instalments in the franchise. (Square-Enix)

Banking on nostalgia is nothing new for the entertainment industry — especially for video games.

So when CBC News was invited to a media preview of Square-Enix's upcoming and featured games for the holiday and early-2018 season, the slate of titles they showed off initially didn't surprise.

Many of the games were sequels or spinoffs of the gargantuan Final Fantasy series, a franchise that has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide since the first game hit the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987.

  • Final Fantasy Dissidia NT is a brawler featuring characters from the series' previous instalments.
  • Lost Sphear, a follow-up to 2016's I Am Setsuna, is a turn-based game designed to evoke the company's best-loved games from the 1990s.
  • Secret of Mana is a high-definition remake of just such a game — it originally launched on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1993 (and, coincidentally, is playable on the new Super NES Classic — if you can find one).

Such nostalgia-fuelled projects haven't been the company's biggest earners in the last few years, however.

Square-Enix is slated to release a remake of the 1993 classic Secret of Mana early next year. (Square-Enix)

In its March financial report, the only big-budget console game that received top billing for the 2016 fiscal year was Final Fantasy XV, selling more than 6 million copies in less than six months.

The other major wins were made by other studios owned by Square-Enix, not made in-house: 

  • Rise of the Tomb Raider (by California-based Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal).
  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (Eidos Montreal).
  • Nier Automata (Osaka-based Platinum Games).

Revenue from the seven-year-old Final Fantasy XIV, a massive online multiplayer game in the vein of World of Warcraft, had "decreased significantly" in the last year, according to the financial report. Stormblood, a major update for Final Fantasy XIV that launched this past summer, may make 2017 a banner one for the game.

Overall, however, the wide stable of modest and runaway successes meant digital entertainment division earned 199 billion yen ($2.2 billion Cdn), up 25 per cent over past year.

Stormblood is the latest update in the massive online multiplayer game Final Fantasy XIV. (Square-Enix)

Growing mobile revenue

The most important slice of that pie might be its growing stable of games for smartphones and other mobile devices. Revenue from that division reached 83.3 billion yen in 2017, up from 22.6 billion yen in 2013.

Mobile games like Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius feature a simplified take on classic role-playing games. (Square-Enix)
Indeed, at the media preview in Toronto, more than half of the games shown were on smartphones and tablets.

Like its console lineup, they largely consisted of Final Fantasy spin-offs, filled with cameos of old characters, or new characters that look a heck of a lot like the old ones.

However, they're also far simpler to play than their console siblings, ostensibly to build new fans out of casual gamers who don't have fond memories of playing Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo.

A representative for Square-Enix told CBC News that most of its mobile players were new to Final Fantasy or its other popular franchises.

Those new players will find games like Mobius Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius relatively accessible, boiling down the sometimes-complex Japanese role-playing-games into something you can enjoy for minutes at a time on the morning commute.

The most intriguing mobile title, however, might be Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition. The smartphone and tablet game strips down the PlayStation 4 version to its barest essentials, simplifying the controls to swipes and taps. It also translates the sumptuous, pseudo-realistic art style to something more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon.

Perhaps most importantly, its first chapter is free, with subsequent chapters available for purchase.

Most mobile games follow the popular free-to-play format: You can download and play for free, but you can buy additional items or party members with real money, to make challenging sections a little bit easier.

So while Square-Enix will likely love it if their mobile-first players eventually "graduate" to buying a full-priced game on the PC, PlayStation or other console, they will probably be just as fine if they remain on their smartphones — as long as they pay up for some in-game gems every once in awhile.