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See Ya Later Square – A Weird Week for RPG Fans

Square Enix might be bought by Sony. That’s what the insiders are whispering about. And, what’s more, the Final Fantasy publisher is selling off all its Western studios too. Unsurprising, possibly, but still strange news.

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Its strangeness comes from the fact that these titans of gaming should be popular enough to stand alone. Tomb Raider should be a banner franchise, not some expense that doesn’t seem to ever click. Square’s Japanese studios are the only real AAA JRPG creators in the business.

Presuming that the rumours are true – and I still don’t necessarily buy them for reasons I’ll get into later – it presents another twist for our industry. Not only are the mega-blockbuster publishers with one franchise and 20 studios all working on it not profitable, but even the opposite situation is seems untenable. What doesn’t seem to be untenable? Being bought up by first parties.

What does that lead to? More publishers being bought up by first parties.

Square Enix Japan

I still don’t know why Sony would target Square Enix – although perhaps the price for the Western studios helps us guess.  Embracer bought Crystal Dynamics, Eidos-Montréal and Square Enix Montréal for a seemingly paltry $300m. That’s more than ten times less than Sony paid for Bungie, and Bungie may well continue making games for Xbox.

So, again presuming the rumours are true, maybe it was just an unreal bargain. That’s definitely a possibility. Sony have been paying for exclusivity on some pretty big Square Enix games, and a cheap price would probably mean a saving in the longterm.

But the fact remains that outside of that, there’s no real reason for Sony to buy Square. Final Fantasy is never going to skip PlayStation. Square Enix will never leave a Sony cheque uncashed. If someone else were about to rush in and buy them, maybe that would change. But we’re talking Microsoft or Nintendo. A defensive bargain would make sense.

And that’s why I’m not entirely buying the rumours. I wouldn’t fall out of my chair if it’s true. I just don’t think Sony need to buy Square. People view Final Fantasy as basically exclusive to Sony devices anyway, even though it’s not and hasn’t ever really been true.

If it turns out to be true, not much will change. Final Fantasy will continue on as it always has, although hopefully with the love and support of Sony’s other studios. Octopath might get a Sony release at long last. Nintendo could stop pilfering the most interesting mid-tier products, which would be a boon for PlayStation’s new Plus tiers if they could be made available from day one.

Kingdom Hearts would be an interesting discussion. Would Disney allow such a big franchise to go exclusive? Let’s cut a long story short. Spider-Man is exclusive. Indiana Jones will probably be exclusive. And Kingdom Hearts is almost certainly going to be exclusive if Sony open their bank account. Simple as that.

Tomb Raider, Deus Ex and Co

The Embracer sale really was a surprise. It came out of nowhere and it was ridiculously cheap.

Armchair analysts have gone through the numbers and realised that Square’s western studios were costing a bomb and barely ever releasing games. That’s probably fair, but whose fault is that? You don’t get to just look at IPs like Tomb Raider and Deus Ex and blame the developers for not fully utilizing them. This is a Square problem, and it probably comes from both playing it a touch too safely and also not just giving the fans what they want. I know that’s normally a scary thought, but in this case it’s true. Deus Ex 3 – if managed properly – would have been a success. Tomb Raider – if managed properly – should be a success. And not just a “we sold lots of copies but didn’t reach our insane targets” success.

Embracer taking them over may be a good thing, it may not. It depends entirely on if they continue to be run as Square run them. The IP are valuable but making games is hard – there has to be a line.

It’s hard to say anything about this sale that hasn’t already been said. Square Enix own these companies today. Soon they probably won’t. Business is likely to carry on pretty much as usual, with some efficiencies and hopefully another look at the back catalogue.

Conclusion

Something is happening at Square Enix, although it’s hard to know what. Maybe they’re just cleaning up some areas that they have failed to control. Or maybe they’re clearing house so that Sony don’t take on losses – although it would amaze me that they didn’t want Tomb Raider.

But things are definitely changing in the industry and these moves are the latest. We are heading further into the land of consolidation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Only time will tell how it continues to play out.

 

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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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