Finality

The marketing campaign for Final Fantasy XV has been weird, right? Let’s start with the obvious: Kingsglaive.

Kingsglaive is a 111-minute CG film which must have cost an enormous amount of money to make. Its technology is impressive; never quite photo-real, but dazzlingly close. Everything else about it is… less impressive. Nothing could ruin the film more thoroughly than watching it, so I’ll spoiler it all and save you the pain.

The plot of Kingsglaive is essentially what happens at the beginning of every classic JRPG while the hero’s off on his first adventure, i.e. his hometown burns down and his (remaining) family are killed. This takes almost two hours rather than the traditional thirty seconds because Insomnia, Noctis’ home, is bigger than the average village and protected by a magical wall which can only be removed by improbable and spectacular subterfuge.

Pretty much everything else you need to know about the film can be summarised in the fact that the commander of the titular military unit, the elite personal guard of the King of Insomnia, turns out to also be the Darth Vader of the evil empire that are trying to conquer the city. Well, that, and at one point the hero finds himself fighting Ultros in a crashing airship, and even that isn’t really enough to make the film entertaining.

Kingsglaive is good when no-one’s talking or moving around very much. To its credit, there’s some pretty evocative foreshadowing, but the payoffs are all lost amidst bad choreography and camerawork. Even with Ultros, it’s hard to see it as fanservice; it’s too bland, too reliant on investment in a game no-one’s played yet.

The Kingsglaive showing I went to was part of a Europe-wide release event, centred on an IGN release party in London (which was broadcast not just online but also to two cinema chains). The release party was embarrassingly low-budget, a hastily-decorated warehouse full of cold-looking fans hosted by some random IGN dude who didn’t know how to pronounce ‘Chocobo’.

At the cinema, an even-less-impressive host presented us with goodie bags (a sticker sheet, a card wallet, and some terrible moogle-branded popcorn) and clumsily administered a prize draw for a copy of the game. Apart from an interview with Hajime Tabata and a couple of new gameplay videos that didn’t actually reveal very much, nothing we saw was even interesting, never mind effective marketing.

In isolation, neither the movie nor the launch event is that weird. Cross-media reinforcement is big in Japan; the official reason for Kingsglaive is that it (and the YouTube anime, Brotherhood) would reinforce the game so that Squenix don’t end up making sequels. And awkward, overenthusiastic launch events aren’t unusual for big games.

But a special tie-in menu at a Jamie-Oliver-branded London restaurant? There was a promotional video for this as part of the launch event, which showed the preparation of one of the menu items (it used a ‘cabbage puree’ that looked exactly like a dog turd in the pan). It seems a far cry from a McDonald’s happy meal toy run or something. Who’s it supposed to reach?

The crown jewel of weirdness is The Car, though. Squenix have teamed up with Audi to make a one-of-a-kind, half-million-dollar version of Audi’s supercar, the R8, in FFXV trim. Even if you have the money, you can’t just buy it; you apply to be entered into a lottery to win the right to buy it.

It’s not even the car in the game. FFXV‘s Regalia is a 4-seat luxury tourer; the R8 is a 2-seat, midengine supercar. A comfortable one, sure, but still a very different beast. The car Audi have built appears, briefly, in Kingsglaive, where its role is to be the main hint that the commander of the Kingsglaive is not what he seems (after the camera has lavished product-placement attention on his car when it’s introduced, an obsessive observer might spot that the bad guys’ delegation show up driving the same model).

The thing about supercars is that they don’t really exist to be bought or driven – famously, the majority are basically useless on ordinary roads. They’re signifiers of a fantasy lifestyle, playboys and the jet-set, and they work as marketing because of branding; when you buy a more practical Audi, the badge tells you you’re connected to that lifestyle, even though you’ll never directly experience it.

Are Final Fantasy fans going to buy that kind of lifestyle? Are they going to buy the ‘fancy celebrity chef London restaurant’ lifestyle? (It’s worth noting that Fifteen, the restaurant in question, is actually pretty cheap for London, especially with its association, though I had to poke around a bit to find prices).

The Japanese marketing is more confident, especially the billboards. There’s a Nier Automata tie-in, which makes a lot of sense given that Famitsu readers recently put Final Fantasy XIII and Nier as 4th and 6th respectively in their chart of the best PS3 games. This Amazon packaging stunt is cheeky, but far less ostentatious than the bloody car.

If Squenix’s western marketing strategy seems scattershot, it is, but then, what’s their audience? After 10 years of development, and with the costs of Kingsglaive too, FFXV needs to sell on a grand scale, globally. Who’s going to buy it?

There are now at least two, and probably three groups of ‘old Final Fantasy fans’, each convinced that only their preferred FF games are any good and any divergence from them is a disaster. No one of those groups is large enough by itself, and they’re all difficult to please.

FFXV is the closest Squenix have yet dared go to Western AAA design, but it’s hard to imagine the AAA audience loving this game. When the Western mainstream has loved Final Fantasy in the past, it’s usually been by way of grossly misunderstanding what the games in question were about.

Perhaps the best chance is to motivate the very diverse groups of people brought to the franchise by FFX and FFXIII; people still painted by the institutions of the gaming ‘mainstream’ as outsiders and ‘casuals'[1]. By that very definition, though, marketing conventions don’t exist for targeting this audience; whatever marketing works is likely to look weird (though it’s still possible to argue that it won’t look like this).

And I guess that’s the heart of the matter. There aren’t really conventions for the situation Squenix find themselves in right now. Daft as it is to have to say it, this really is the turning of an age; whatever happens Tomorrow, for Squenix and for JRPGs in the West, the memes that dominate conversation will change.

For seven years, the reputation of JRPGs has been the reputation of FFXIII. It’s neither a commercial nor a critical reputation; the game was a commercial success (in total across platforms, the FFXIII trilogy has outsold FFVII) and generally scored very highly in contemporary reviews. But it emerged in – perhaps even helped crystallise – a change in who dictated taste in games culture.

The most vicious attacks on FFXIII came from Youtube, and the emerging phenomenon of the Youtube Videogame Shouting Man. Generally, these are not so much reviewers as comedians whose act or gimmick is the game review. Because their criticisms are jokes first, they spread well as memes and no counterargument is possible. You can’t argue against a joke, at least with people who are still laughing at it.

More than the Japanese industry’s commercial crisis around that time, it was those jokes – about Tidus’ laugh and Vaan’s ‘I’m Basch von Ronsenburg of Dalmasca!’, and later about FFXIII‘s linearity and emotional characterisation – that gave us the ‘Death of the JRPG’. It became impossible to talk about the genre without being interrupted by the memes. It still is – many people who should know better are still trotting out roughly the same complaints.

If nothing else, Tomorrow will require new memes. An open-world game can hardly be branded ‘too linear’, and an all-male cast centred on a brooding superhero is unlikely to attract quite the same misogyny that Lightning and Hope received. On the other hand, taste-setting powers have shifted again.

Today, the loudest and most obnoxious voices in gaming aren’t comedians but self-styled consumer advocates; the frame-rate police, and the people stalking and abusing Hello Games because No Man’s Sky didn’t live up to promises they imagined had been made.

That’s not a crowd with whom FFXV is going to play well. However big it is, it will be too small (particularly with the legacy of classic Final Fantasy world maps – there won’t be any flying all the way round the world in FFXV). It’s also apparently buggy, which the framerate police types will see as both a professional and moral failing[2].

There’s probably nothing Squenix can do to prevent this – a whole new, completely different death of the JRPG – and their marketing team are probably savvy enough to know it. If there’s rhyme or reason to the scattershot marketing, it’ll be an attempt to build, or at least reach, an audience the ‘consumer advocates’ won’t care about and probably couldn’t affect if they tried.

As for us? We positioned this website pretty close to the epicentre of the last death of the JRPGs, quite deliberately. Tomorrow’s going to change quite a lot for us too.

 

 

[1] Sorry for all the scare quotes. To explain all these ridiculous gatekeeping constructs would take a long time and derail the thread of my argument.

[2] It’s neither, of course, though again, explaining why requires too much delving into the ideological structures of capitalism to fit here. For now, it’s enough to point out that the whole concept of a ‘bug’ – a fault in the ‘product’ – is incompatible with genuine critical engagement with a game.

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