Final Fantasy might be the Dallas Cowboys of the video game industry for all the importance that is still attached to it, which is to say that it's still a fairly important franchise with a legion of fans, but that it hasn't been a true contender in the RPG space for quite a long time.
It's for that reason that I find myself raising an eyebrow at Jason Schreier's recent piece titled "The Final Fantasy XV Problem" on Kotaku, wherein he argues that "Japanese game developers are all watching Final Fantasy XV" and that "the fate of console RPGs in Japan this generation will hinge upon this one titanic game." Schreier's argument hinges on the events following the release of Final Fantasy VII, when "the critical and commercial success of Final Fantasy VII led to a surplus of RPGs trying to cash in on the popularity of Cloud and Aeris." If Final Fantasy XV is a hit, he seems to reason, then Japanese console RPGs can start to get back to where they were back in the early-to-mid 2000s. If it's a dud, then things will get worse for Japanese-developed RPGs. Much worse.
With all due respect to Jason though, whom I respect a great deal for his knowledgeable and deep passion for Japanese RPGs, I think he might be overstating things a bit. His argument ignores the underlying trends in the Japanese game market and overrates the important of Final Fantasy XV. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's infamous takedown of Dan Quayle: "I played Final Fantasy VII. I knew Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy XV is no Final Fantasy VII." Or I should say, I will be deeply surprised if Final Fantasy XV has even a tenth of the impact of a game like Final Fantasy VII, which truly was "titanic."
Despite what you might think, that's not necessarily a knock on Final Fantasy XV. It's more a statement of just how big Final Fantasy VII really was for its time. It was a stunning multimedia achievement that set the standard for how people viewed games in the 32-bit generation, putting it in a special category alongside Super Mario Bros., Halo, and a handful of other generation-defining games. It sold 2.3 million copies within three days of its release in Japan. It owned that period because no one had ever seen anything like it. If it was a trendsetter, it was because it was not just the biggest RPG of its time, but arguably the biggest game of its time.
Beyond that, however, I would argue that Final Fantasy hasn't really been a trendsetter since maybe 2001, when Final Fantasy X set the standard on the PlayStation 2. Since then, Final Fantasy's influence has steadily waned. Final Fantasy XIII managed to sell a million copies on its first day in Japan, but it would be a stretch to argue that it was any kind of trendsetter in Japan, and I doubt Final Fantasy XV will be any different. Monster Hunter has long since taken Final Fantasy's place in that regard.
As for its potential to restart console RPG development, I would argue that ship has long since sailed. Whenever Final Fantasy XV is eventually released, it will enter a market where consoles have become something akin to boutique items for tech nuts and otaku, and where mobile and handheld gaming dominate all facets of the industry. These days, a "hit console game" in Japan sells between 500,000 and 800,000 units, and only a tiny handful ever break a million. In that light, Final Fantasy XV faces long odds indeed in matching Final Fantasy VII's impact.
My contacts in Japan share my pessimism. A friend of mine working for a Japanese developer said with a shrug, "It'll give the PS4 a decent short spike, but's all." He then added, "The PS3 still has a few years left in it. Within that period if there's enough Japanese content on the PS4 it might transition over. But consoles haven't been what they once were for years now. At some point, years from now, we will be seeing the newest Final Fantasy on phones."
Another referred to the Nintendo 3DS as Japan's "console" future, while still another observer who follows the industry closely told me, "The hype levels for [Final Fantasy XV] coming outta the western media far surpass any kind of excitement I am perceiving from Japanese devs, gamers, and press. Nobody over here is looking at that game as the end all be all savior of consoles."
Schreier, for his part, supports his argument with a quote from Final Fantasy XV co-director Hajime Tabata, who says sadly, "If Final Fantasy XV doesn't do well, perhaps there's not much of a future for console games. It kind of really depends on how that goes."
Tabata, who strikes me as a gamer's gamer, is giving voice to the frustration many feel about the decline of console gaming in Japan. But even if it does poorly, it might not impact the industry as much as he or Schreier seem to think. First, I'm not even sure that Final Fantasy is the most important franchise in Square Enix anymore. From what I've been able to tell based on conversations with people who have knowledge of such things, Square Enix has far higher hopes for Kingdom Hearts III, as they probably should. The Disney connection alone makes it much easier to market to mainstream consumers in Japan and in the west. It's true that Square Enix wants Final Fantasy to be "cool" again, but it doesn't seem to be in quite the same league as Kingdom Hearts at this point. Second, hardcore RPG fans on both sides of the Pacific have come to embrace other games, specifically Persona. Take it from someone who visited Japan last year and was inundated with Persona 4 merchandise. Persona is everywhere over there, and it remains firmly entrenched on consoles. Its influence is underrated in the same way that Final Fantasy's influence might be overrated
Final Fantasy XV is not one last chance for Japanese console gaming to be revived, as Schreier seems to argue, nor is it a titan. Even in Japan, interest in Final Fantasy arguably lags well behind Monster Hunter, Kingdom Hearts, Dragon Quest, and possibly even Persona 4. In my opinion, the best case scenario for Final Fantasy XV is that it turns out to be much better than expected, earns extremely positive word-of-mouth on both sides of the ocean, and ends up selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 million copies in Japan and two to three million copies in the U.S. That's the absolutely best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that it sells fewer than a million copies in Japan and is barely a blip on the western radar, prompting Square Enix to release Final Fantasy XVI on the Nintendo 3DS or (shudder) smartphones. In neither scenario does it have a chance to really impact RPG development in Japan on any grand scale.
Even if it does ultimately exceed expectations and become a bonafide smash hit, it's hard to say what developers ultimately take from it. Very few developers in Japan have the resources and manpower required for AAA game development. Fewer still will want to risk getting caught in the decade-long quagmire that has been Final Fantasy XV's development. In all likelihood, developers would applaud Square Enix's success and go right back to churning out handheld games for domestic audiences. The best that can be said is that it will earn Final Fantasy a stay of execution on consoles, and that it might persuade publishers to release a few more games in the west, which would admittedly be very nice.
Beyond that, I just don't see Final Fantasy XV changing much in the Japanese game industry for the reasons I listed above. I understand the desire to reverse the current trends in Japan and get back to where we were in the PlayStation 2 era, but it's hard to imagine any single game being able to accomplish that. At this point, it is what it is. Whether Final Fantasy XV is a flop or a hit, life will go on.