Video game publisher and developer Square Enix is no stranger to production setbacks. Some of its most important titles in recent years such as Kingdom Hearts 3 and Final Fantasy VII Remake faced countless hurdles and delays before their releases. Even the massively successful Final Fantasy XIV passed through nearly every circle of developmental hell and a disastrous first release before its 2014 relaunch transformed the game into one of the most successful MMORPGs of all time. With all this in mind, the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI represents an unusual case for Square Enix.
Despite only being announced two years ago, the game’s initial reveal and recent State of Play 2022 trailer displayed extensive progress on the project, with the latter promising a release window of summer 2023. The decision to withhold information on Final Fantasy XVI until now seems uncharacteristic of Square Enix compared to its usual early announcements. However, it signifies the company’s long-overdue reevaluation of its approach to advertising and development. Looking back at the company’s recent history and its competitors illustrates exactly how and why these changes came about.
Troubled Times at Square Enix
Unlike the reserved marketing of Final Fantasy XVI, its predecessor suffered from Square Enix’s overeagerness to reveal its upcoming projects. In 2006, Square Enix announced Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a PlayStation 3 exclusive spinoff of the then-upcoming Final Fantasy XIII. While its early trailers attracted plenty of positive attention, development moved at a glacial pace due to technical issues from its unreliable Crystal Tools game engine and indecisiveness from an unfocused director, Tetsuya Nomura, who initially pushed for the game to adopt a gritty tone, yet later wanted it to become a musical inspired by “Les Misérables.” Worst of all, the team lacked the staff needed to address these issues in a timely manner, as Square Enix considered Versus XIII to be a lower priority project than the rest of its developing titles.
Its situation improved after Final Fantasy XIII’s release in 2009, which allowed Square Enix to add more developers to the struggling team. Unfortunately, this decision was made far too late, as production halted once more after Square Enix learned of Sony’s and Microsoft’s plans to announce a new generation of consoles. Releasing Versus XIII on old hardware would guarantee its commercial failure, so the team needed to rework the project for the far more advanced PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Switching development onto completely different hardware required both the game and its team to undergo massive changes in 2013. Working with new technology forced the team to switch to the Luminous game engine and scrap most of the work from its eight years of production. Square Enix promoted the game from a spinoff to a mainline entry with its new name, Final Fantasy XV. The company also removed Nomura from his directorial chair and replaced him with Hajime Tabata, who worked on another Final Fantasy XIII spinoff, Final Fantasy Type-0. Under new leadership, development continued with far fewer hiccups, and the game finally became commercially available in 2016, an entire decade after its initial reveal.
Critics regarded Final Fantasy XV as a memorable and enjoyable entry in the series, and the game surprisingly broke even on its production budget within the first 24 hours on sale. However, the countless developmental woes and setbacks reveal themselves through the game’s obvious missing and unfinished content. Underdeveloped segments and glaring plot holes remain in place of the team’s ambitious yet unrealized plans. More importantly, Square Enix’s premature announcement of Versus XIII severely harmed the game’s reputation before it was even released. The team worked tirelessly to overcome countless hurdles, but many fans perceived the lengthy periods of silence and lack of progress between trailers as red flags for the future of the project. Fans who continued to watch its development formed unrealistic expectations from their 10-year wait. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XV’s impressive sales numbers masked these issues, resulting in the company repeating the same mistakes with both Kingdom Hearts 3 and (to a lesser extent) Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Final Fantasy XVI seems to be positioning itself as a direct response to Square Enix’s past mistakes. The game’s producer, Naoki Yoshida, delayed the game’s reveal to ensure its first trailer could deliver a clear demonstration of the game’s combat and story. This would quell many of the usual doubts surrounding Square Enix titles while also showcasing the team’s significant developmental progress. Yoshida and his team have continued to demonstrate their wisdom gained from the company’s past experiences, for they recently announced that the game has already reached the final stretch of development, with a possible release for next year. By taking a more focused approach to its development and announcement schedule, Final Fantasy XVI has restored many fans’ confidence in Square Enix.
Finding the Right Moment
Although Yoshida waited longer than usual to reveal Final Fantasy XVI, some might wonder why he didn’t delay the announcement even further. By unveiling the game a year or less before its launch, the team ensured that it wouldn’t face the problems of Square Enix’s past titles. However, only one year before the release of Final Fantasy XV, Bethesda’s Fallout 4 proved that the solution to this problem is far more complex than most might assume.
Bethesda announced Fallout 4 and its release date only five months before the game’s commercial launch. The game successfully evaded public attention throughout its seven-year development (aside from a few leaks), ensuring its announcement produced immeasurable excitement for the title. Fans’ anticipation was only spurred by countless advertisements, a lengthy gameplay showcase at E3 2015 and weekly giveaways leading up to the game’s release. Bethesda’s nonstop marketing for Fallout 4 ultimately paid off, as the game shipped over 12 million copies to retailers (generating about $750 million) and sold another 1.2 million digital copies on Steam on its first day alone.
Unfortunately, the brief window of time between Fallout 4’s reveal and release had an inevitable consequence. In an interview with GamesRadar, Bethesda marketing executive Pete Hines claimed that the delayed announcement was motivated by the massive popularity of the Fallout franchise, stating: “If we didn’t feel like that was enough time to generate the excitement that we expected and the interest that we wanted, then we would have announced [Fallout 4] earlier. So part of it is because we felt like it was a big enough title that we could get away with it.” However, he described the problem with this approach in an interview with GameSpot, in which he admitted that the team was too far into development to add or change anything based on fan feedback. As a result, widely maligned yet integral parts of the game — like its overly simplistic dialogue system and reduced focus on the story — couldn’t be fixed without scrapping multiple years of progress in the last few months of development.
Yoshida and the rest of the Final Fantasy XVI developers cleverly chose to reveal the game’s story and combat at an early enough phase that allowed them to make refinements based on public reception. Game journalist Jason Schreier claims Final Fantasy XVI underwent at least four years of development before its initial reveal in 2020. If this report is true, then the game’s announcement arrived halfway through its full production, leaving enough time to craft the game’s core elements before the reveal and refine them afterward. While this is by no means a guaranteed formula for success, the team’s schedule allowed it to make considerable improvements to Final Fantasy XVI’s visuals and mechanics since its initial reveal.
Hines’ statements regarding the popularity of Fallout raise another question about how game companies should consider franchise reputation in their announcements. Fallout 4 adheres closely to the formula set by its predecessors, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. Although the title introduces numerous gameplay improvements and new mechanics, fans already know what to expect from the series. Final Fantasy is a significantly larger series that spans a much wider variety of entries and mediums. Even those unfamiliar with the role-playing genre or video games in general likely know about the franchise from its prominence in pop culture.
Despite its success, it’s hard to apply the same logic to Final Fantasy due to the significant differences between each installment. Some focus on turn-based strategy, others adopt frenetic action gameplay and a few entries revolve around online multiplayer experiences. Furthermore, the lack of a shared narrative or world for most games in the series also means that it’s difficult to predict the story or setting of each new title. Final Fantasy XVI is especially notable in this regard, as it abandons the sci-fi elements that had defined the series since its sixth installment in favor of the traditional medieval fantasy aesthetic. It also took a sizable risk by adopting and innovating the divisive action combat of Final Fantasy XV rather than returning to the more strategic gameplay that the series is best known for. With all this in mind, the early release date gives Final Fantasy XVI ample time to prove itself to series newcomers, skeptics and longtime fans alike.
Leading the Future of Final Fantasy
Whether or not Final Fantasy XVI will live up to the legacy of the series remains a mystery, but its cautious marketing and concentrated development suggest it could become one of the franchise’s best entries in recent times. Beyond its quality, however, the game might have already set a new precedent for Square Enix. Square Enix — with its recent announcements that Final Fantasy VII Rebirth will be released next year and a remaster of Crisis Core, this winter — may have finally learned from the production nightmares of its past works. Time will tell whether Final Fantasy XVI can meet its lofty expectations but seeing the potential for change at Square Enix proves that the game has already left a positive impact on the franchise.