Dragon Quest XI and the Death of the Single-Console Release

Dragon Quest XI and the Death of the Single-Console Release

When gaming's most conservative RPG series changes its console-exclusive ways, the end truly has arrived.

Yesterday I contemplated the looming announcement of Dragon Quest XI — specifically, what its choice of platform could mean for the game's localization prospects, since publisher Square Enix has all but abandoned the series outside Japan.

A 3DS release would limit the game's chances of reaching the West, I figured, while a PlayStation 4 version would increase its likelihood if for no other reason than Sony would potentially pitch in to help bring it overseas. I didn't consider the third option, though: That Square Enix would just go straight-up nuclear and publish the game for both PlayStation 4 and 3DS.

Dragon Quest XI on PlayStation 4

While the idea of a dual release for a Nintendo portable and a Sony console isn't exactly beyond the pale — Ni no Kuni (a sort of Dragon Quest successor in many ways) did it, as did Capcom's anime action game E.X. Troopers — it seemed almost unthinkable for Dragon Quest. The series, historically, has been about console-exclusive launches. It's an old-fashioned RPG whose creators eschew risk, and as I mentioned yesterday, they always bet on the winning horse. That is to say, the horse that's already a sure thing. Dragon Quest games, both in the main line and spin-offs, appear either on a Nintendo system or a Sony system at launch... but until now, never both. The closest the series has ever come to going multiplatform was with Dragon Quest X, which initially was announced for both Wii and Wii U. However, the latter version arrived nearly a year after the initial Wii release — and the creators' musings over the possibility of a Nintendo NX release would seem to describe the same trajectory for DQXI.

It's a new look for Dragon Quest, but certainly an understandable one. The problem is that there is no winner this generation. The 3DS may be Japan's clear victor, but it hasn't done nearly as well as the DS did; its triumph is more a relative thing, because every other system has been dead on arrival. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 4 is huge outside Japan, but it might as well not even exist in its home territory. So, Square Enix and partners Orca and Toy Logic are essentially developing two different versions of the same game

It's a smart move on many levels. While the content of each platform release is said to be the same, each has a very different visual style from the other. The PlayStation 4 release will run on Unreal Engine 4 with an immersive, over-the-shoulder, open 3D world without random encounters, while the 3DS version looks quite a bit like Dragon Quest IX on the upper screen. Its visuals seem far more squat and simplistic than the console version, and its play mechanics appear more traditional. Not only does it [edit: optionally] feature random encounters, the bottom screen allows the game to play out in parallel with traditional 16-bit graphics. You can even choose which visual style to use in combat — the free camera movement of DQIX, or the fixed first-person perspective of classic Dragon Quest.

Dragon Quest XI on 3DS

In other words, Dragon Quest XI is an exercise in hedging bets. It's also, I think, an opportunity for the series' stewards to have their cake and eat it, too. They've been trying to push the games' design forward for years, but any time they break from the traditional approach — as with the original plan to give DQIX an action-oriented combat system, or the choice to take DQX online — a rabid, vocal, and rather hidebound legion of fans shouts them down. The decision to approach the same game in two different ways on two different consoles doesn't just make good business sense (the PS4 version's high-spec design gives it something better than a snowball's chance of seeing release overseas), it must surely be creatively fulfilling as well. And it's a fascinating exercise in demonstrating the flexibility of the role-playing genre; it'll be interesting to see just how much the feel and mood of each version varies according to its tech and presentation, given that they'll cover the same story and content.

To me, though, the biggest takeaway from this news is that console exclusives truly have gone the way of the dinosaur, outside of first-party titles. While last year's E3 gave the impression that exclusives would be a big trend for this generation, that increasingly seems to be less the case as time goes by. "Exclusive" has become "timed exclusive," with games like the Final Fantasy VII remake being announced with weasel words ("coming first to PlayStation 4") and other announced exclusives acquiring plans for cross-platform release after all — Rise of the Tomb Raider, for example, will now be coming to PlayStation 4 a year after its Xbox One debut. In the past, Dragon Quest exclusivity has always been a point of pride for whichever platform holder was graced with the latest version; now, however, it's a prize Nintendo and Sony have to share. Not that the disappearance of exclusives should come as news to anyone... but when Dragon Quest makes a strategic shift, it basically serves to underline the industry's most obvious truths. The series' first big change was to leap from Nintendo platforms to PlayStation as Sony took the lead in the late '90s, followed a decade later by the move to portable systems as lightweight, low-cost game development became an essential alternative for expensive AAA console projects. Now, here's the series' most recent shift: To uncouple itself from relying on a single device or brand.

Of course, for those of us outside Japan, none of this amounts to much of anything. No mention was made during today's press conference of localization prospects. For the moment, the only upside for international fans is that PlayStation 4 is region-free. In some ways, the prospects of seeing DQXI in English have diminished with today's news: Now that the game is no longer exclusive to either platform, it seems unlikely that either Nintendo or Sony will step in and take up publishing duties. On the other hand, the fact that a single localization process can hit both Nintendo and Sony's biggest platforms in a single move might go a long way toward making an international release of DQXI appealing for Square Enix. For now, fans will have to settle for waiting in the dark, hoping for good news. In other words, business as usual.

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