Yesterday, Pete made an impassioned argument that Final Fantasy XIII and its spin-offs weren't bad games and the fan backlash against those titles was blown way out of proportion. He pointed to the Final Fantasy series as a place where Square Enix innovates and experiments, with Final Fantasy XIII just being the latest change in the series. He argued that Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and Lightning Returns are all decent titles and the Metascores for each game currently align with that idea. (I cannot disagree because I've only played one of the games.) So why did fans turn against Square Enix with such fervor?
Because the publisher had fostered one set of expectations within its franchise and then it delivered on another.
The majority of people don't really like change in any large way. We tend to stick to the safe and familiar. People aren't looking for new ideas, they just want the old ones polished up a bit. You can see this idea borne out in the top 10 games on the NPD sales list every year: Call of Duty, Just Dance, Madden, Assassin's Creed, NBA 2K, and FIFA have been reasonable shoe-ins for years now. There's also some recent Kickstarter successes. Look at the pitches: Mega Man, but shinier. Baldur's Gate, but new. "Hey, remember those LucasArts adventure games like Day of the Tentacle?" The term "spiritual successor" was created to cover this idea of bringing back old things with just a few new ideas attached to keep things interesting.
Which brings us to the power of the franchise. The franchise is an understanding between content creator and consumer. The consumer gets to feel comfortable buying the next iteration in the franchise year-after-year because the content creator has set up an expectation that each successive work with continue to evolve within a specific set of boundaries. Fans like franchises because they know what to expect and content creators like them because they can expect the fans to turn up for the next thing. It's a contract with between two parties; what a franchise represents matters a great deal to fans.
Within any community, fans may disagree on the specifics that define a franchise, but the content creator is the one establishing the general baseline it works in. Evolve within the lines you've created for yourself and your loyal fans will remain largely happy; jump too far and they'll turn on you.
This tends to create problems for developers, because sometimes the baseline can be stifling. Perhaps you weren't the one who started it, but now you're stuck with it. Maybe you were a part of setting the baseline up, but you've changed as a creator. This is one of the problems with commercial art: the tug of war between creating a work of art and a sell-able product.
It happens everywhere. Fans may dislike their favorite artist's 'experimental' new album, like Kanye West found out when he dropped 808's & Heartbreak. Some readers felt Stephen King's recent Doctor Sleep novel didn't really feel like The Shining sequel it was supposed to be. A restaurant changes the recipe behind a patron's favorite dish while updating their menu. The Die Hard films are a far cry from the first film at this point. In the gaming industry that's arguably happened to a number of franchises: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Sonic the Hedgehog come to mind as series that may have lost original fans trying to chase new ideas or find a larger audience.
Content creators try to get around some of these issues with a reboot; you keep the brand-name that fans trust, but you give yourself more room to play around in. Some work, some don't. DC Comics rebooted its entire universe with the New 52, which saw some fans leave the publisher forever while others jumped onboard. Jeremy and I had a discussion recently about Tomb Raider, a reboot that jettisoned everything about the original franchise except for the main character. Spider-Man is in the midst of a new series of films following Sam Raimi's original trilogy.
People need some changes in their entertainment to remain interested over a long period of time, but drastic change is generally a no-go. We tend to focus on what we've lost over what we're gaining. To gain Final Fantasy XIII, we had to lose what came before, so FFXIII had to be amazingly good to justify that loss. The general consensus of critic and user reviews point to an above-average game, which was probably not good enough. Microsoft knows that heartache, as Windows 8 suffers the same problem; it's very different, but not substantially better than what came before, so users are sticking with what came before and throwing intense dislike at the new operating system.
Pete notes that Square Enix has always tried new things with each iteration of Final Fantasy, but I think he misses the fact that the core has remained largely the same. Sure, characters, worlds, and stories sprung from new places. Progression systems changed all over the place. Cid was a new guy every time. Graphics improved.
This was the core of Final Fantasy for more than a decade. For 14 years across 10 games, this was the conversation between Square Enix and Final Fantasy fans. All of these games had changes, but played largely the same. This was the comfort zone from which avid Final Fantasy players looked out into new worlds. Games like Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty understand this and deliver that expected core to players. Namco Bandai's Tales of series has been chugging along with the same core gameplay for years now; whenever they try to color outside the lines they get slapped back into place.
During the era of Final Fantasy I to Final Fantasy X, when Square Enix wanted to do grand experiments, it did so in spin-offs. These experiments brought us Final Fantasy Tactics, Dirge of Cerebus, Crisis Core, the Mana/Seiken Densetsu series, and even Kingdom Hearts. These are all good or great games, but they sat outside of the Final Fantasy baseline. They played around while the main series stayed the course.
That was true until Final Fantasy XI, the first Final Fantasy MMO. XI is the break point, when the main Final Fantasy series took on a shape and purpose previously left to the spin-offs. XI, XII, XIII, and XIV are different than the ten titles that preceded them. Together, they're almost like a reboot of the Final Fantasy series, but Square Enix never bothered to start renumbering everything like most reboots would. XI and XIV are the MMOs, while XII and XIII flirt with visible monsters on the overworld, new combat styles, autobattle modes, party programming, and single-character control.
Final Fantasy XIII took the brunt of the backlash not because it was the first to be different, but because it was the straw that broke the camel's back.
XI and XIV are generally not considered "real" Final Fantasy games because they're MMOs; they build largely on what came before in that market, albeit with an FF twist. Final Fantasy XII was the first real Final Fantasy that broke with tradition. It survived because it was the first and Yasumi Matsuno, who originally headed the project, had gained a lot of goodwill due to his work on Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Vagrant Story. Final Fantasy XII is akin to a friend beginning to display aberrant behavior. You shrug it off once or twice, and hope they return to normal. They've strayed, but all hope is not lost.
Final Fantasy XIII (plus XIII-2 and Lightning Returns) was when fans realized that their friend's aberrant behavior was the new normal. When XIII was released, that was the moment when fans turned. That was when they realized that XI and XII weren't isolated jaunts into new territory before Square Enix got back to making a "real" Final Fantasy game. This was Final Fantasy. This was the franchise's future (one completely solidified when the action-oriented spin-off Final Fantasy Versus XIII became Final Fantasy XV.)
So players pitched a fit because nothing incites righteous anger more than perceived betrayal. Some adapted, some left the series altogether. The market in 2010 when XIII launched internationally wasn't the same as it was during the height of Final Fantasy's power. Bioware had given us Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and Dragon Age Origins. Persona 4 on PlayStation 2 and Star Ocean: The Last Hope on 360 had dropped a year earlier, with Star Ocean coming to PS3 in 2010. Bethesda had released Fallout and Fallout: New Vegas was coming later that year. RPG gamers on consoles had more options.
Which leaves us where we are now: a complete 180 from Final Fantasy's earlier path. The main series is where the crazy experimentation takes place, while the spin-offs and offshoots like Bravely Default retain the safe, familiar core classic Final Fantasy fans want.
And that's why some Final Fantasy fans spit hate at Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and Lightning Returns; because they represent a series that has left them behind. Fans poured their time, money, and heart into the franchise and they feel that for all their love Square Enix has turned around and slapped them. Final Fantasy XIII is among a series of titles that played against the expectations that Square Enix had established in the first 14 years of the franchise's life. It was the one that made fans realize that the "good old days" were well and truly gone. It was the nail in the coffin of a beloved friend.
Or it could just be a bad game. Take your pick.