Final Fantasy XV’s trailer and incoming demo was one of the show-stealers at the Tokyo Game Show. The dearth of XV-related news since its rebranding at E3 2013, coupled with the sheer unexpectedness of a demo* (paired with a Type-0 game, whose release date was announced), understandably caused a bit of a stir.
*(In retrospect, after Square Enix made demos for both Lightning Returns and Bravely Default, perhaps it shouldn’t seem so sudden.)
However, this may not be the masterstroke that Square (and well-wishing fans) hope for. Despite the many curveballs that Square has thrown over the past year and the notably improved position it’s reached in the past 18 months, Square is still at risk of putting its cart before the wagon.
First, let’s examine the positives. The Final Fantasy XV demo has a lot of potential positive externalities. Bundling it with Type-0 could seriously boost the game’s sales, since Type-0 is still a fairly niche title whose initial portable gaming audience might not completely make the jump to next-gen consoles by March. Yet XV and Type-0 cater to fairly similar audiences. Type-0 fans will get a taste of XV, and XV fanatics are now being introduced to Type-0 by virtue of the bundle.
Moreover, there are many possibilities for using the demo to optimize the XV experience. Like in the mobile market, Square could attempt to utilize user data to optimize (not revolutionize) the title as the crunch period approaches. On the other hand, Square has experience with using demos to improve the full game experience. Bravely Default’s demo interacted with the real game, granting demo-players assistance in the early game and building excitement.
Bravely Default’s demo played a key role in the full title’s commercial success. An analyst who dismisses this effect isn’t seeing the big picture. The demo used the title’s creative combat and network externality features (i.e. use of Street Pass) to build a huge word of mouth following which, combined with Nintendo’s own promotion of the game, led to a relative groundswell of support. If Final Fantasy XV’s demo is able to recapture even a significant fraction of that capability, it will have been resources well-utilized.
Having said that, there are a number of pitfalls that face the demo – and Square’s bottom line. Chief among these is the very fact that it is a demo.
Demos are an inherently risky proposition because they tend to have a polarizing effect. An amazing demo will excite players and build interest, but anything less than that tends to actively dissuade pre-orders and launch window purchases. This conflict has been explicated by Daniel Floyd and James Portnow over at Extra Credits, and there’s no need to go into intense detail.
However, the basics remain the same: The most likely result is a demo that is middling, which actively turns off players. Worse, those players are the ones likely to have been most excited about the game in the first place, so excitement about the game can be seriously hampered by a demo’s existence.
On top of this risk-reward analysis, there is already a tremendous level of expectation for Final Fantasy XV. Ever since the mixed consumer reception to XIII, jRPG fans have seen Versus XIII (now XV) as the franchise’s beacon of hope. The long development period and rebranding into a main title has only fomented greater expectations, and XV has almost taken a mythical, perfectionist shine in some fans’ minds. Anything less than perfect will come as a great disappointment.
Finally, a sad truth to demos is that building them takes resources away from the title itself. Especially when developers need to create new stories or subplots for a demo, as was true in Bravely Default and is possible in XV, this drain can complicate efforts to continue work on the main game. Demos and their main games have a zero-sum relationship when it comes to resources, and when there is already so much pressure on XV, losing resources, even for a few months, can complicate development.
Having laid everything out, the Final Fantasy XV demo still seems like a good proposition. The ability to boost interest in both Type-0 and XV is too good to pass up, and Square’s decision to bundle the two was a brilliant move. While the demo won’t convince fans to buy Type-0, it will prod many fence-sitters in a tangible way.
Moreover, any data gleaned from Type-0’s sales will be extremely valuable to Square, given its difficulties with properly gauging demand. As I detailed last year, Square has been buffeted by failures from both overestimating demand for AAA titles and underestimating demand for others. Having Type-0 serve as a proxy for XV will be valuable as the company continues fine-tuning its sales projections and marketing plans. March 2015 will be a crucial period.
(It still doesn’t hold a candle to Atlus’s marketing, though.)