In my previous post about Final Fantasy XV’s demo, I made a parting remark that Square Enix’s marketing machine doesn’t hold a candle to that of Atlus Games. The truth is more complicated than a blanket statement like that.
Square Enix has made a number of brilliant PR and consumer engagement moves over just the past couple months. The formation of Shinra Technologies as a platform for cloud gaming was out of the blue, and it garnered a lot of media attention for the Final Fantasy VII-derived name. The Final Fantasy XV trailer re-energized the Japanese RPG consumer base and shifted many fans’ attention back to Square after months of irrelevancy (i.e. since the release of Lightning Returns). When fans began photoshopping the Final Fantasy XV roadtrip from the trailer into various scenarios, Square released clean, high-resolution versions of the images to feed the excitement. It’s rethinking localization of Dragon Quest VII after a fan petition, in light of Bravely Default‘s success. And Collective, the indie-developer collaboration system, seems to be paying dividends lately with high-profile, successful crowdfunding initiatives for Black the Fall and Moon Hunters.
So why does Square Enix carry a reputation of poor PR among consumers? In short, the company is highly erratic in its efforts. In-between every blitz of noteworthy fan engagement initiatives exists months of relative silence. As a company, Square has struggled to remain relevant since the dawn of the previous console generation. The merger with Eidos in 2009 stabilized the company’s revenue stream but chipped away at the JRPG brand that Square has nurtured since the 1980s. In examining Square’s social media pages, JRPG news is spread out and interspersed among posts for various games aimed at the hardcore gamer audience that, on a fan level, has reviled JRPGs since the early 2000s. Catering to two different audiences that see themselves as distinct – Hitman and Tomb Raider are very different games from Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest – was always going to be difficult. There is very little synergy among these groups of IPs, beyond what Square’s own reputation can accomplish.
Square Enix is adept at commanding all observers’ attention during conventions. At TGS last month and at E3 2013, it was Square Enix who roused its apathetic consumers into a frenzy over Final Fantasy XV and Type-0 HD announcements. Other companies made impressive performances – particularly at E3 ’13, where Sony trounced Microsoft’s PR efforts and where Titanfall and Destiny both debuted – but the tidal wave of excitement around Square Enix was unanticipated and overwhelming.
Maintaining this excitement in a lasting, sustainable manner is Square’s true challenge. The company’s Facebook page has over 550,000 likes, yet its user engagement as measured by raw likes/comments/shares is on par with Atlus USA, whose Facebook base is one-fifth the size. While Square Enix’s titles have wide appeal among the JRPG base, the lack of a dedicated, independent space for them in Square’s consumer engagement limits the number of people who will check on them.
Square’s flagship Final Fantasy brand may also be contributing to the relatively low engagement: the XIII titles and sequels have a highly controversial existence within the fanbase, and the prevailing narrative is that they were a disappointment thrice over: first for the original game and twice for the sequels. Once XV is released – the game possesses an almost messianic status among Square JRPG fans – this sentiment should hopefully fade, and XV producers have indicated their awareness of XV’s symbolic importance. When one considers all of Square’s PR and marketing experience, it must be capable of fixing the consumer interest drop-offs.
It has to be capable, right? Because Square is currently teetering between two end scenarios: XSEED and Atlus. Each describes a company that publishes high-quality games, but their marketing approaches and reputations are as opposite as night and day.
XSEED was, for one year, a rockstar in the JRPG fanbase. Their localization of The Last Story in North America followed by Pandora’s Tower the next year forged a sense of gratitude among tens of thousands of consumers. Such was this relationship that their localization announcement of the Trails in the Sky in the fall of 2013 received close coverage from most mainstream gaming news sites. However, a year later, XSEED has almost disappeared from most fans’ radar, and in large part this is due to XSEED’s nigh nonexistent social media presence. The publisher has less than a dozen employees and can’t spare anyone to manage social media full-time, but the cost is that it failed to seize on several high-profile moments to expand its fanbase.
By contrast, Atlus exudes a constant aura of PR engagement. The publisher has commanded attention since its November 2013 announcement of three new Persona games. Since then, Atlus has consistently maintained an active, engaging social media presence with news, streaming of gameplay footage, online sales, fanart, cosplay photos, and contests, all in addition to the typical PR surrounding game releases. Its high fan engagement – the raw numbers (several hundreds of likes per post) are on par with or greater than Square Enix and EA – is commendable, and it’s a model for how any developer or publisher should manage its social media presence. If XSEED is like Gangnam Style – influential but ephemeral – then Atlus is Beyonce, the constant celebrity.
Smack in-between these two is Square Enix, which has spikes of engagement, similar to XSEED with particular titles, but which has a baseline of regular engagement, in line with Atlus. The question is not whether Square can execute good PR – it’s more than capable of masterstrokes. The true challenge is to transform these periodic moments into sustainable engagement.