What can Dragon Quest 12 learn from a 2009 Nintendo DS game?

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In September 2020, Square Enix announced that Dragon Quest 11 had shipped over six million units worldwide, making it the best-selling game in the series to date.

At first glance, these are promising figures. But if you look a little closer, it took Square a lot more time, effort, and money to reach those numbers than it should have – and Dragon Quest 11 may have been a big hit. slightly misguided case overall. Taking a look at the history and development of the game offers a glimpse of the challenges Square Enix faces with Dragon Quest 12 and the future of the series.

Dragon Quest 11 was first mentioned by series creator Yuji Horii in 2014, where he indicated that it was developed for home consoles, as opposed to handheld platforms like the latest Dragon Quest games. before him. It seemed like an odd move, considering that Dragon Quest is largely a franchise focused on Japan and the home console game market has all but dried up there.

There was only one explanation: Square Enix was thinking beyond Japan.

It was obviously a risk. The popularity of Dragon Quest lies in the generations of Japanese families who grew up playing the games. Even people who don’t usually play video games play Dragon Quest – much like FIFA or Madden. Square Enix’s general approach to the series has therefore historically been to create games for the most popular platform in Japan.

Dragon Quest 9 for Nintendo DS

Case in point: the 2009 DS title, Dragon Quest 9, has been played by everyone, from 18-year-old men to 60-year-old women. This was partly because 20% of the Japanese population owned a DS, and partly because Dragon Quest 9 itself was a very conscious product designed around the intricacies of the Japanese market.

At the time, cooperative multiplayer games were starting to become all the rage in Japan, driven by the success of Monster Hunter and Animal Crossing. And so, Square Enix designed Dragon Quest 9 with cooperative multiplayer and the ability to customize the look and outfit for your entire party.

A key feature was Tag Mode, which allowed players to wirelessly trade in-game treasure maps by simply carrying their DS. These cards led to enemies and rare items, further encouraging players to meet and trade. Square Enix has even installed Patty’s Pub, a gaming hostel, as a real destination in Tokyo to facilitate these meetings. A revolutionary game design for the time, card swap communication would later inspire Nintendo to create the 3DS StreetPass feature.

Dragon Quest 9 touched the audiences it had nurtured for two decades and also attracted younger gamers. It has sold over 4.4 million units in Japan alone, where it remains the best-selling Dragon Quest game on a single platform.

Dragon Quest was never designed for Western tastes. In fact, the things Japan loved about it were precisely the things the Western public didn’t like.

By the time the development of Dragon Quest 11 began in 2013, the Japanese video game market had deteriorated significantly and Square Enix was a very different company. To begin with, the birth rate had fallen considerably; With just one million children born that year, concerns have arisen that one day in the future there will be far fewer new video game fans to be satisfied. Meanwhile, the troubled development cycles of Final Fantasy 13, Final Fantasy 15, and Final Fantasy Versus 13 have made Square Enix Japan a much more conservative publisher, with the vast majority of its development being split between gacha smartphone games and the occasional AAA title. .

To top it off, the 3DS hadn’t enjoyed the same success as the DS before it, and industry experts were predicting the imminent demise of handhelds in the wake of the smartphone boom. And so, Square Enix presumably took the only route it deemed possible for the next Dragon Quest: it looked west, where big-budget AAA games on PlayStation 4 were king.

Here’s the problem: Dragon Quest was never designed for Western tastes. In fact, the things Japan loved about Dragon Quest were precisely the things Western audiences disliked, seeing it as a conservative, linear, slow-to-evolve Japanese RPG that prided itself on being particularly archaic. Dragon Quest 9 had broken that mold and Square Enix developed its ideas in Dragon Quest 10, an MMORPG exclusive to Japan. However, Dragon Quest 11, the next “main event” in the series, was to be a conscious return to the old formula, which had limited Western appeal.

Square Enix was undoubtedly aware of these challenges, but still committed to sticking to its plan. Dragon Quest 11 was going to be a big budget PlayStation 4 game – more sophisticated visuals, an open world, and a story told through high-quality CG cutscenes. 2014’s Dragon Quest Heroes, an action RPG for PS3 and PS4, aimed to cultivate an audience for 11, which was announced a year later for the PS4, 3DS and Nintendo’s next platform, the “NX.” (now known as Nintendo Switch).

Dragon Quest 11 on PS4 was an expensive project because Square Enix was aiming for AAA quality in order to appeal to western gamers

Dragon Quest 11 on PS4 was an expensive project because Square Enix was aiming for AAA quality in order to appeal to western gamers

The 3DS version was given the green light after internal discussions determined that the PS4 game on its own would not reach a large enough audience in Japan. While Square hoped to appeal to the West, the vast majority of Dragon Quest’s audience was still in its home market – and smartphone boom or not, 3DS was still the dominant platform in Japan by a very large margin.

On 3DS, the game would share its story and scope with the PS4 version – a high-quality Final Fantasy game, powered by Unreal Engine – but differed greatly in terms of presentation and game design. It would even allow the player to switch between a standard 3D mode and a “classic” top-down SNES-style RPG mode, aimed primarily at older Dragon Quest fans. The Switch version would then combine the functionality of the PS4 and 3DS games.

It was clear that Horii and his team wanted to cover all of their bases: an indulgent, AAA version of Dragon Quest 11 for PS4 and a more “responsible” version for 3DS, if the PS4 SKU failed to find an audience. The classic mode on 3DS and the fact that the Switch version would eventually have to be done using an entirely different version of Unreal – since the old PS4 version wouldn’t play with the new hardware – meant Square Enix was working efficiently. on four entirely different versions of the same game. Anyone with an eye on the Japanese gaming industry could have predicted what happened next.

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Dragon Quest 11 on 3DS was actually two different games

After the release of Dragon Quest XI in 2017, Square Enix announced that it has shipped three million units on PS4 and 3DS. The more expensive PS4 version lived up to expectations in terms of earned revenue, but the 3DS version wasn’t performing as well as Square had hoped – and the publisher was counting on it to reach a larger user base. While the 3DS version sold more units, it was also cheaper, which meant that Square Enix was making less money on each copy sold, so it failed to make up for the price difference. .

What the publisher had not taken into account was that in 2017, the Switch had already been released and the 3DS was at the very end of its mandate. And with the Switch version of Dragon Quest 11 coming a few years away, that meant Square had missed the boat with Japan’s two dominant gaming platforms.

So, to recap: three bespoke versions of Dragon Quest 11 on 3DS and PS4. Time and money was invested in a big budget console version, effectively retaining the portable version intended to sell more and reach a wider audience in its home market. And all of them lacked the personalization and communication features that are imperative for a multi-million seller in Japan. These factors ultimately led Dragon Quest 11 to sell less than Dragon Quest 9 – a Nintendo DS game developed on a fraction of the budget – in its home market.

Square Enix needed its bet on the West to pay off; in 2021 it is difficult to determine if he did

It was as if Dragon Quest fell into the same trap as Final Fantasy, where sky-high budgets often did more harm than good. Due to the massive investment in the PS4 version, Square Enix needed its bet on the West to pay off; move to 2021, and it’s difficult to determine if he did. Dragon Quest 11 has shipped over six million units worldwide, yes, but it took the combined sales of the PS4, 3DS, Switch, and PC versions to get there.

In contrast, Dragon Quest 9 sold 5.3 million units worldwide on the Nintendo DS alone, high only by clever design and marketing. And, to drive the point home, the vast majority of Dragon Quest 11 sales still come from Japan, which makes Square’s gameplay and strategy easy to question.

Square Enix has since taken smart steps to get Dragon Quest 11 into the hands of more Western gamers. He made the game available through GamePass on PC and Xbox, allowing subscribers to try it “for free” while the publisher reaps the benefits of any arrangement it has with Microsoft. But the point still stands: Dragon Quest is just not as popular in the West as Final Fantasy or Persona, and without some drastic changes it never will be.

Square Enix has already confirmed that Dragon Quest 12 is in development, but who is the game designed for: Japan or the West?

In truth, he doesn’t have to be one or the other. Dragon Quest 9, with its multiplayer and communication elements, character creation, and customization-heavy design, is still the most cutting-edge entry Square Enix has ever made. And although it was created for the Japanese audience, these specific features are universally popular. Given that Square recently brought up the idea of ​​a Dragon Quest 9 remake, one would imagine that he understands the importance of this game as well.

Of course, it’s also important for Square Enix to be smarter in its platform choices – luckily the market is much easier to read than it was in 2014. The Nintendo Switch is currently the only one. viable platform in Japan and the West. , so there is no confusion as to where future Dragon Quest games will find the biggest audiences. The recent release of Monster Hunter Rise – which has shipped over six million units worldwide, half of which are in Japan alone – further demonstrates that targeting Switch is a must for any game that hopes to succeed on both sides of the world. ‘pond.

Of course, it’s not that simple, especially if Square Enix is ​​serious about making Dragon Quest a more acceptable brand in the West. This requires a substantive reexamination of the series, starting with the character design and setting and extending into other features such as the combat system.

It remains to be seen whether or not Square is considering this kind of drastic reinvention like it did with Dragon Quest 9, but we’re expected to get a glimpse of its plans later today, during the 35th special livestream. series anniversary.

This article originally stated that Dragon Quest 9’s release year was 2008, when it was actually 2009. Text and title have been updated accordingly.


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