There has been a lot of press covering the misfortunes of Square Enix in both revenue and in staff cuts. From the 150 jobs recently cut in the US to their President, Yoichi Wada stepping down. Needless to say, Square Enix is ready for a change. What do you do when you have well branded console/PC IPs and you are not growing in the lucrative western market? Their current strategy is not going to work. A clear mobile strategy is going to be key in turning this around.
Start simple and take a page out of EA’s Simpson’s Tapped Out. EA took a beloved TV show license, a common freemium game structure, and some marketing dollars and turned it into a huge success. Ethan Levy fromQuarterSpiral estimates that EA has made 20.7 million after Apple’s cut of the profits. That should get anyone with a branded IP to jump up and start paying attention.
One of my favorite franchises of all time is Final Fantasy. It has magic, monsters, action, and adventure. Best of all, they always have a great in depth story that keeps gamers coming back.
So far, Square’s mobile play has been to port old SNES titles like Final Fantasy 2 and Final Fantasy 3 onto iOS & Android and then create a few “F2P” titles like Final Fantasy Dimensions and Drakerider. The titles however are not built using the optimal F2P framework where most of the game can be played for free.
Let’s take a closer look at FF Dimensions. The majority of the game is gated after the player gets through the free prologue and requires users to pay on an episodic basis (like chapters in a book). The entire game costs $20 to purchase as a set or $24 if you buy individually, excluding the music pack. Since there’s a limit to content and little or no replay value, what would be the point of selling chapters to a book? Take Amazon’s approach with book sales on Kindle and just sell the entire game. It’ll be less confusing and feel more genuine to your players.
How do you make a free to play game that doesn’t cap your earnings while keeping your users from blowing through the content quickly? In the case mentioned above…you don’t. Making a traditional JRPG becomes much more difficult in the F2P space. They have a beginning, middle and end. Users will consume until they hit the end and then bail on the game or replay it again if you have made an engaging story with plenty to explore. All games need a compulsion loop that keeps the players entertained and coming back, but it’s extremely important in F2P games because players have little or no reason to stay if they just downloaded your game for free. If I were Square Enix this is where I would start:
Set the Stage
Start with an existing successful IP like Final Fantasy. If Square Enix can get Disney on board, then the Kingdom Hearts universe would be a fantastic mobile title which appeals to a broad audience. These titles both have an enduring fan bases which should make gaining traction that much easier. Focus the story and game around recognizable characters from either series. A FF7 F2P game would make even a long lost fan jump for joy.
Let your quests and achievements drive the story. This doesn’t mean Square Enix needs to skimp on the story. It is still important to set the backdrop and make the users feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. It wouldn’t be a Square Enix game without it after all. The quests will keep the story moving along and mixed in are cut scenes that help fill in the gaps as the user progresses.
Start with a city builder that encompasses one of the storylines above. I realize some Square fans who are reading this might really dislike F2P or “typical city builders” but hear me out. City builders are a very common F2P framework. Most of the gameplay consists of building and decorating the screen with items and objects found through collecting or they are bought from a storefront. Finished buildings create coins/XP for the player to collect and then buy more items for the city. They have typical level progression and usually have some form of energy component to prevent users from going through the content too quickly and can add some form of realism to the game. You can’t build a house instantaneously so why not make it so in a game. The Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts universes can be easily adapted to the F2P city building framework. There are a lot of memorable cities/worlds in both series’. Most fans would love to create their own Midgar from FF7 or Hollow Bastion from Kingdom Hearts.
These types of games run rampant in the mobile market because they fit well with the F2P framework. So how does Square Enix cut through the clutter? Time to mash up a couple game genres! On top of the city builder framework create a dungeon crawler. Players will venture out from their city to the nearest dungeon and fight all sorts of creatures from their respective game universes. Battles will be used to level up their character(s), weapons and armor. A dungeon crawler wouldn’t be complete without finding random items users to progress and all the wonderful gear slots! The main difference between traditional dungeon crawlers and this mash-up version is that items used for your city will also need to be found. In order to keep this from having a definite end, users should be able to find items that will also help enhance their current city and buildings. Enhancements can perform several functions from enhancing their appearance to helping the player collect more currency/XP.
If this already sounds familiar, you are right. If you played a console series called Dark Cloud for PS2 you will understand where I am coming from. In the Dark Cloud series, players build a city with parts that they collect from dungeons. Some items were found by chance, but those required for story progression were located at the end of the dungeon.
Make it Social
Social components are arguably the most important F2P mechanic. They can make games wildly successful or fizzle out. Aside from private messaging, Facebook sharing, and allowing the user to tweet after in-game events. I am going to concentrate on the one I feel is an opportunity specific to Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy.
Give players one of several different starting worlds/cities to begin with. The story can be tweaked slightly for each one to make it fit with the world that the user starts in. The world or city would have a few different storefront items and collectables that can only be found there. Players would be allowed to join in with another friend or a random player for mastering a dungeon to find the items from the world/city and also be able to trade or auction certain items with others. This could be something as simple as the roadside stand in Supercell’s Hay Day, and t will encourage users not only to visit other users but it also gives them a purpose to do so while adding depth to the gameplay. Items won through co-op mode or auction houses could be used to upgrade or make buildings more unique.
Lastly Add Some Polish
Make it graphically beautiful. Even in mobile city builders users cannot be bought by through poor quality sources anymore. To win over users, give them a wow factor. Fans expect a certain level of beauty in console/PC Square Enix games. Making sure that the mobile title has some of the same elements is essential in grabbing the hardcore users.
The gaming landscape is changing and so are the business models behind them. It is beyond the right time for Square Enix to step up and evolve. Square has made great games and built a few popular franchises that have captured the hearts of many JRPG lovers. It is not too late for them to step in and make a successful mobile game with those franchises, and I would love to see it happen.