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How Final Fantasy XII's Development Troubles Presaged a Tough Decade for the Series

With Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age now out, we look back on its troubled development and an interesting what-if.

Feature by Kat Bailey, .

Final Fantasy XII was stuck in neutral in 2004.

After more than four years in development, what was supposed to be the next major entry in the series was no closer to release. This put Square Enix in a bind. The series was supposed to get its last hurrah on the PS2 with Final Fantasy XIII, but that was no longer possible. This setback presaged a tough decade for the series.

Up until that point, Final Fantasy had been a well-oiled machine. On the heels of Final Fantasy VIII's successful debut the year before, Square announced Final Fantasy IX, X, and XI. Shortly thereafter, Final Fantasy XII was in development as well, laying the groundwork for Square Enix's run on the PS2.

Yasumi Matsuno was reportedly much more used to having total control over projects like Final Fantasy Tactics.

While franchise mainstay Yoshinori Kitase worked on Final Fantasy X, Yasumi Matsuno was handed the reins for Final Fantasy XII, which was expected to be ready by 2004. At that time, Matsuno was best-known for his work on the critically-acclaimed Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Vagrant Story games, which had featured a darker, more political bend than the high adventure Final Fantasy was known for.

It didn't take long for Matsuno to run into problems. Where he had purportedly exercised total control over his previous games, he reportedly told 4Gamer in an interview that he wasn't used to the more democratic production style of Final Fantasy XII.

He also found himself bumping up against the technical limitations of the PS2. In a 2007 interview, Hiroshi Minagawa told a German website that the move to a seamless battle system had presented problems for the team, "Although it might seem like a similar system to Final Fantasy XI on the surface, this isn't really the case. For example, we can't use the hard disc that Final Fantasy XI requires. Also, in this game, one person has to control multiple characters. So as we started to adress these various issues and at the same time wanted to add all these other features, the physical limitation of what the PlayStation 2 can actually do became quite a problem, the limitations became very, very tight. And to get all these things to work at once also took a very long time."

Final Fantasy XII's real-time combat posed technical challenges for the team.

What happened next is still subject to speculation. Matsuno reportedly became ill, forcing him to step away from the project. Hiroyuki Ito and Minagawa stepped up in his place, with SaGa director Akitoshi Kawazu stepping in as executive producer.

It was 2005 by this point, the Xbox 360 was mere months away, and Final Fantasy XII was still a year away from completion. It was evident that Final Fantasy XII would be the last major game in the series to come out on the PlayStation 2.

This put Square Enix at a crossroads. While Matsuno and company worked on Final Fantasy XII, Kitase and his team had already turned their attention to Final Fantasy XIII, which they had hoped to squeeze on to the PS2 at the end of its lifespan. But Final Fantasy XII's delay and the acclaim received by the famous Cloud tech demo changed their plans.

At E3 2006, Final Fantasy XIII was formally announced for the PlayStation 3 alongside two spinoffs—Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Final Fantasy Agito XIII. Years later, Kitase would attribute some of Final Fantasy XIII's difficulties to the switch, saying that it had cost the project "a year and a half" as they were forced to develop a new toolset and completely change the development team. Final Fantasy XIII would ultimately be delayed until 2010.

From that point on, Square Enix's path was set.

Square Enix was in for a tough transition regardless, but leaving Final Fantasy XIII on the PS2 might have given them the cushion they needed to adjust.

An Unavoidable Destiny?

It goes without saying that Final Fantasy XII wasn't the only problem facing Square Enix in the mid-2000s. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within's flop at the box office in 2001 was a brutal setback, resulting in the departure of series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and setting the stage for their merger with their biggest rival.

But Final Fantasy XII was the first time an actual game in the series suffered problems. It arguably changed Square Enix's calculus, possibly causing them to look toward the HD consoles earlier than they might have otherwise.

Like the rest of Japan, Square Enix was bound to struggle with the transition to HD consoles in any case. Rising costs, asset demands, and the finicky nature of the PS3's cell processor all put immense pressure on the company. Art demands accounted for some 70 percent of Final Fantasy XII's budget, and it only got worse on the PS3.

"On PS2, Square Enix focused on creating top-flight graphics," Kitase later told us. "But resource requirements exploded in the PlayStation 3 era. Suddenly, there were too many craftsman."

Despite these inevitable stumbling blocks, there's an interesting "what-if" to be found here. If Final Fantasy XII had made it out in 2004 as originally planned, and Square Enix had stuck to their original plan with Final Fantasy XIII, they might have had some breathing room to adjust to the HD generation. That in turn might have at least partly altered the trajectory of the ensuing decade.

Fabula Nova Crystallis was one miscalculation among many.

On the other hand, Square Enix may have sealed their fate the moment they conceived of Fabula Nova Crystallis—an extended mythos that grew out of the success of Final Fantasy X-2 in 2004. It spoke to company's wild ambition for the series, sewing the seeds for future struggles. Final Fantasy Versus XIII, which was to be one of the project's flagship games, ended up being trapped in development hell for more than a decade.

Regardless, Final Fantasy XII may not have been the root cause of Square Enix's later problems, but it was symptomatic of what would later ail the company. For now, the HD release of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age is a chance for Matsuno's troubled project to finally stand on its own, free of the troubled shadows of its development. If only Square Enix were so lucky.

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Comments 13

  • Avatar for DrCorndog #1 DrCorndog 4 months ago
    At least FFXII itself didn't suffer. It's one of the best games in the series--and I'm talking about the original release here. I have to imagine Zodiac Age is so much better still.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #2 VotesForCows 4 months ago
    I disliked RPGs as a kid, so FF13 is the first in the series that I ever played. And I will take any opportunity to jump to its defence! Sure it was linear...with weird characters...but it looked nice. And I enjoyed it...

    That said, a bit more timeliness in their projects would probably be a good thing.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #3 cldmstrsn 4 months ago
    @VotesForCows dude I'm a lifetime FF fan and I know we have talked about it before but I loved FF XIII. Fun battle system, great soundtrack and nothing even came close to those graphics in 2010. It really is to bad it will have that legacy but I'll always like it as well.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #4 VotesForCows 4 months ago
    @cldmstrsn Hard to believe it was 2010, it still looks fantastic. Amazing how long-lived the series is really, and how much change in the medium has been reflected within its games.
    I'm going to roll a character in FF14 for my daughter later actually - I wonder if the series will still be going in another 30 years when she's my age.
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  • Avatar for Gamer-Law #5 Gamer-Law 4 months ago
    Some interesting history, Kat. Thanks for the article.

    From my perspective, the problems with the Final Fantasy 'brand' started before XII entered its development purgatory. XII, XIII and most recently XV were evidence of the fact that Square had lost sight of what made FF games truly special. When they abandoned traditional elements like the ATB combat system, high fantasy lore settings, etc., I largely lost interest in the series. As someone who grew up loving every release on NES, SNES, PS1 (with the exception of VIII which served as the first indication that the series was headed down the wrong track) and GBA, it has been maddening to watch the direction (or directions) in which the series has been taken.

    I know that times change and Square felt a need to alter the FF brand with the intent of keeping it relevant. What they managed to accomplish, however, involved taking an inspired formula and turning it into something many of the more traditional fans no longer recognized. FF XV was the first FF game I could not even bring myself to finish because the combat was too frenetic.

    Ultimately, I realize mine is a distinctly minority opinion. Plenty of fans still buy FF games and are more open to the new directions the series is traveling. They cannot understand why I say things like: "Bravely Default and Bravely Second are the greatest FF games since IX." Nostalgia is a powerful force, I suppose, and following my experience with XV, I prefer to remember the series the way it was.
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  • Avatar for matt-b #6 matt-b 4 months ago
    @Gamer-Law I can understand disliking the mechanical aspects of the games moving away from the turn-based atb system, but if you took issue with a lack of high fantasy then you should have been getting upset about the time they rode a giant space whale to the moon in FFIV, or when you used meteors as teleportation devices into other worlds in FFV, or basically all of FFVI and FFVII. I know they aren't FF games, but Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger abandon a lot of the D&D high fantasy settings as well.

    Final Fantasy has always undergone pretty big changes from main numbered entry to entry. One is vastly different from II, which is vastly different from III, which is vastly different from IV which.......you see where I'm going with this.

    Dragon Quest has stayed pretty steady with it's style/tone/setting. Have you played any of the recent ones? They're pretty excellent! I do prefer Bravely Default/Second over any other modern turn based RPG though. Those games are pinnacles of design efficiency.Edited July 2017 by matt-b
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  • Avatar for secularsage #7 secularsage 4 months ago
    Since I worked on the retail end of things at the time, I'd also suggest Final Fantasy XI was a contributing factor on the consumer side. There were a lot of people who jumped on the Final Fantasy bandwagon in the PS1 era and who bought every game in the series, but who were entirely uninterested in what XI had to offer. That break in purchase, followed by a really long wait for XII, killed a lot of interest in the series. (It's evidenced by the numbers; XII sold less than half of what X sold a few years earlier.)

    There were plenty of other factors, of course, including a general waning interest in JRPGs, but on the retail end, I remember a lot of folks complaining that they didn't like the direction of XI and XII because they preferred the earlier turn-based style to the MMORPG style. When I'd explain to people all the benefits of XII (the huge world, the great sidequests, the cool party members and the joy of programming a death squad with the Gambit system), they'd often say, "Yeah, but that doesn't sound like Final Fantasy." I had no counterargument for that, because they were right.

    In truth, X was the last great game in the series that was still true to what Final Fantasy got popular for being. XII was a fantastic game and it's great that it's back, but I can't help but wonder if it'd be remembered as a brilliant niche title if it'd been a spinoff instead of a numbered entry.

    As for XIII and its sequels... Square Enix learned the wrong lessons from the dwindling excitement for XII, and that was pretty well-evidenced by the first 40 hours of XIII and the disastrous initial launch of XIV.
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  • Avatar for Gamer-Law #8 Gamer-Law 4 months ago
    @mattb0527 - Fair points all around. You are right that not every pre-PS2 era FF release incorporated the high fantasy lore in its stories (IV did for most of the game, but your point is well-taken).

    That said, the first 9 or 10 main entry titles retained enough of what I would term 'traditional FF elements' to keep the game recognizable and enjoyable for me. Following IX or X, the aggregate value of all the changes made to the new FF releases left me underwhelmed and wondering what had happened to the franchise.

    There were certainly changes between FF I and II, III and IV, etc., but nothing as radical as if you tried to go from VI to XIII. For example, I can look at FF III and V and find similarities. Same with IV and VI. If one tried to find consistencies betwen VI and XIII, however...well, I wish you luck. There is no identifiable consistency between those two games.

    My point is simply that even as installments within a franchise change, in my opinion fans should be able to recognize elements within those new installments that make them somewhat (if not instantly) familiar. For me, that has not been the case since FF IX or X.

    Completely agree with your points on Bravely Default/Second. I really hope that we see future (non-mobile) installments in that series. Great stories, battle systems, characters and soundtracks.
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  • Avatar for matt-b #9 matt-b 4 months ago
    @Gamer-Law Yeah I get where you're coming from. Take away the names of items and spells, chocobos and moogles and FFXIII could be any new JRPG series.

    I've played every FF except 14 and 15, due to a) lack of willingness to pay for/dedicate time to an MMO and b) lack of PS4. What I've seen of FFXV has me interested enough to want to play it (and I'm hoping a PC release announcement is coming sometime this summer). I would also love to see something more akin to IX for XVI. They went pretty heavy into the modern era with 6/7/8 and pulled it back with 9. They've been diving headfirst into modernity since and pulling it back to a more high fantasy setting could do them well.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #10 cldmstrsn 4 months ago
    @secularsage They werent right though. There is no definitive definition of what FF is and thats the problem. People think it should be a certain way when it absolutely shouldnt. It should always be changing in certain ways. That is why XII is my favorite in the series. Does something so different with a great setting, fantastic characters and a battle system I can never get sick of.
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  • Avatar for Jairo-MC #11 Jairo-MC 4 months ago
    @VotesForCows@cldmstrsn I loved FF XIII too. I always got so lost playing older FFs, specially since I'm not a native speaker, and the linearity of XIII was actually really good for me (also, I had a better understanding of the language). The soundtrack of FFXIII is fantastic, the battle system is really inovative and interesting and I enjoyed its characters too, flawed as they were. I usually don't care much for graphics, but XIII's were outstanding.
    I'm kinda weird regarding FF because FF VIII and XIII are some of my favorite games in the series. The other FF that I enjoy as much as these is FF VI.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #12 VotesForCows 4 months ago
    @Jairo-MC @cldmstrsn @secularsage
    I wonder how often people have had these conversations over the years. Whatever our different perspectives and preferences, its great that the series as a whole can inspire such great enjoyment and great discussions!
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #13 Monkey-Tamer 4 months ago
    I have a confession: I played through FF XIII on the PS3, and I'll probably relapse and do it again now that I have it on Steam. I've played a lot of games but I don't sit around and play a game I hate for more than 30 hours (or was it 40 or 50?). FF XIII isn't my favorite by any means, but it isn't a bad game. And if FF XII comes to Steam I'll be playing through that again. Good thing Chrono Trigger hasn't had a Steam port. I'd never get around to the rest of my library.
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