When Square Enix bought Eidos back in 2009, the news left a lot of people scratching their heads. Eidos? The Tomb Raider people? Being picked up by the Final Fantasy guys? What gives?
Six years later, though, it's hard not to see the acquisition as the smartest move the company has made in years — maybe ever. Square Enix has been dealing with logistical issues and overreach since its inception; in fact, the original merger between RPG giants Square and Enix was very nearly scuttled when Square's foray into big-budget film production (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) proved to be a box office disaster. Since then, Square Enix has weathered painful delays with its biggest global franchise: Final Fantasy XII ran years behind schedule, and its issues had a ripple effect that caused Final Fantasy XIII to be bumped from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3, which in turn caused it to show up years late as well. Final Fantasy XIV launched on time, but in an absolutely abhorrent form that required it being rebuilt from the ground up. And now Final Fantasy XV — which was announced at the same time as FFXIII under the name Final Fantasy Versus XIII — is only now coming together well enough that the publisher can promise a 2016 release date... 2016, for a game announced in 2006.
Meanwhile, the Eidos side of the business has been doing remarkably well for itself. Deus Ex: Human Revolution turned out to be far better a game than almost anyone expected, with Eidos Montreal recapturing the spirit of Ion Storm's classic stealth-shooter-RPG in fine fettle despite the absence of Deus Ex's original designers. And while Tomb Raider may have underperformed its financial targets, it nevertheless did pretty well for itself, both in terms of sales and as a reboot for the series. Sleeping Dogs proved a modest hit; the GO mobile apps for Hitman and Lara Croft have been absolute masterpieces; and the upcoming Just Cause III looks to be one of the most raucous and popular releases in the increasingly crowded open-world action format.
On the other hand, Square Enix's internal business continues to struggle on the international stage. The games that hit budget and release targets rarely seem to make their way outside of Japan — not just Dragon Quest, but SaGa titles, and even some Final Fantasy games — while those deemed suitable for export tend to run woefully behind their original release dates. Certainly the publisher is in better shape now than it was five or six years ago, but that's still a far cry from the self-confident RPG powerhouse fans knew and loved in the late '90s. The lion's share of its recent successes have come not from the Japanese side of the conglomerate but rather from the European and Canadian studios it absorbed in the Eidos merger.
Now, even Final Fantasy XV's firm release date owes its existence to the Eidos side of the company; along with a definitive 2016 target for the sprawling RPG, Square Enix has also announced that Avalanche — the developer behind Just Cause III — will be assisting in the development of the game. No doubt some will take this as a sign that Square Enix's internal teams have no idea what they're doing, or that they bit off more than they could chew. And the latter is probably true; Square has never produced a truly large-scale open-world role-playing game before, yet director Hajime Tabata's team decided to go that route after taking over creation of the already long-overdue game from original project lead Tetsuya Nomura. Evidently it falls on Avalanche, a studio that specializes in sandbox action, to make the game work within the grand scale that's been scoped out for it.
Rather than scoff at the FFXV team for needing help, though, all I can think is, "It's about damn time." After nearly a decade of Japanese studios like Square Enix eying the Western market and trying to decrypt the secret of creating international hits, bringing Avalanche in to work on FFXV is one of the few sensible collaborations I've ever seen on this scale. Generally what we've seen has been Japanese publishers trying to create their own Western-style games without really understanding what it is that makes them work, or what players respond to; or else simply hiring American or European studios to build their games without taking care to ensure their outside recruits understand the essence of those properties. Aside from a few positive examples — Kojima Productions and its extensive international recruitment being the most notable — the union of Japanese and Western talent has been a disappointingly oil-and-water situation.
That's certainly been the case for Square Enix and Eidos until now. The Japanese side of the company has helped tweak CG art and character design, most prominently on Tomb Raider, but that's been about the full extent of its crossover; and until now, there's been no mention whatsoever of Eidos' stable of developers and talent feeding back into the parent company. A collaboration between the core Final Fantasy staff and Avalanche on FFXV sounds like the best of all possible worlds: The aesthetics, systems, and narrative of the game will presumably still come from the studio that specializes in those things, while the task of making everything work within the scale of a massive sandbox will fall to a studio whose huge games are renowned for being best-in-class in terms of scale, fluidity, and fun.
By no means does this collaboration guarantee FFXV will turn out perfectly, or that the relationship between Square Enix and Avalanche's teams will gel. The Japanese approach to development is very different than the approach European and American studios take, and Western devs working under Japanese leadership often chafe at the rigid, top-down structure of companies like Square Enix. Still, the end result for fans can only be an improvement over the FFXV team soldiering on alone in an area outside its expertise, running ever later or being rushed out the door incomplete. We'll almost certainly never see a true unity between Square Enix's disparate halves, but it's nice to see them break down barriers, at least temporarily, where it really counts.