Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII’s creators justify a third game in a series with falling sales
Disclaimer: Square Enix paid for air travel and a one-night hotel stay. Yoshinori Kitase, producer of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, revealed some curious data during a Square Enix preview event for the game. After touting that the entire Final Fantasy franchise had sold more than 100 million units across its lifetime, he displayed a graph which singled out the sales of the Final Fantasy XIII games. “The combined total units shipped for the two titles was recorded to be 9.7 million units,” Kitase said. It's rare to see such explicit numbers; when Sony reported sales of the Vita, for example, it lumped the struggling system's numbers with the PSP. Here, however, Kitase's graph broke down sales and showed that, to date, Final Fantasy XIII has sold approximately 6.6 million units. While that game's numbers were the only ones shown, it's pretty easy to subtract 6.6 million from 9.7 million to find out sales for Final Fantasy XIII-2: 3.1 million. The Fabula Nova Crystallis series has already seen more than 50% of players neglect a return visit to the world of Lightning and friends. That's not good. When asked how Lightning Returns would court the wayward fans, game director Motomu Toriyama admitted that there was “some risk” that players have drifted, but the larger focus seems to be on bringing in new players. “With Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, we wanted to focus on giving it a brand-new feel. It's a brand-new game that you can jump into regardless of knowing and being familiar with the prior two stories within those installments,” Kitase said. “This whole effort to give this game a brand new feel shows very well in our logo design. It's a completely different approach this time. We have not used the traditional font or the art by Yoshitaka Amano because we wanted to convey to our audience that this is a new game that we're bringing to the table.”
The evolution of a series
That being said, both Kitase and Toriyama emphasized that they have been listening to player feedback. “We did receive player feedback that the game play felt linear, so when we were thinking about developing the sequel and the third title as well, we thought about, 'How are we going to reflect that user feedback?' We tried to explore options to develop the freedom the player has within the game, or the growth element of the character, and the exploration, being able to explore the world of the game,” Toriyama said. Kitase said that user feedback is actually part of what inspired the team to do a second direct-sequel instead of an all-new Final Fantasy. “With each conventional numbered title, we would have to revamp the story, and the character, and all the systems from scratch, all over again,” he said. Because of the large amount of work involved in building a game from the ground up, it can be hard to pinpoint the problem areas players want addressed. “It's always difficult to apply users' feedback into a game,” Kitase said. “It might take a couple of years between one numbered title and another. So with XIII, it was a very rare opportunity for the developers to take this character and take all the elements of the game like the battle system, and develop them and evolve them through the trilogy, and be able to apply player feedback in such a short development time so the players can see that those changes have been applied.”Keeping the next game set within Lightning's saga helps reduce such complications, and every improvement seen thus far at least seems like the team at Square Enix is listening. Both the linear structure and Paradigm combat system were the subject of fan ire, and both of those attributes have been revamped for Lightning Returns.
Fashion designer fantasy
Even Lightning's ability to change styles was inspired by players, Toriyama said. “There was some DLC content that provided an aesthetic change, like the different costumes that Noel and Serah would wear, but a lot of the feedback was about [players would] like to have it not only be aesthetic change, but something that would apply to in-game. Like, maybe it would raise their stats or give them an advantage when casting magic and whatnot.” When I saw the various outfits Lightning would be able to wear – some more padded with armor, some more ancient and mystical-looking – I thought back to the job system of older Final Fantasy games. I asked if this was indeed a throwback that would catch the eye of like-minded fans, or if I was over-analyzing what I saw. “In terms of the customization system, I guess it does remind us of the job system or the Paradigm shift,” Kitase said, “But we've enhanced it so there's more freedom in terms of what kinds of abilities the players are going to be able to assign.” “In a job or role situation, the abilities are more specific to what the role of the character is and what the specific ability that you're equipping onto the player [does], but in Lightning Returns, we wanted to make it so that it's a lot more expansive,” he said. “Players can pick if they want to lean towards a more action-oriented style of battle, where all of the commands you assign are going to be like 'guard,' or 'strike,' or 'roll,' or it can also be customized in the direction of… for the fans of the more traditional style of RPG where you can assign abilities like 'cast magic' and things like that.” So unfortunately, at this point, it's not entirely clear what abilities – if any – are restricted to which outfits. Will certain gear only be compatible with certain outfits? At this point, I can't say. What I can tell you is at one point I saw Lightning wearing a flowing ball gown, and in another moment she was holding a shield made out of a bouquet of flowers, which is all kinds of silly-awesome.
The optimist in me wants to see the changes coming in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy as a possible breath of fresh air that will revitalize the series. The Dressphere system of Final Fantasy X-2 was enjoyable, so Lightning's ability to switch between various styles mid-battle isn't much of a stretch for the series. It's also easy to be skeptical and to see this game as a way to re-use art, assets, and code to keep costs down while trying to milk the Final Fantasy brand and Fabula Nova Crystallis series. Final Fantasy XIII-2 may have only moved 3.1 million units, but that's still big time compared to most games. If Square Enix sees the Final Fantasy series as a cash flow – and Bahamut knows they certainly gave that impression with Final Fantasy: All The Bravest – it will be a sad future for JRPG fans.