In its twenty-five year history, Final Fantasy has grown from its humble origins as Hironobu Sakaguchi's last ditch effort to save his career into a massive, multi-game spectacle known as Fabula Nova Crystallis and beyond. Despite being a long running series with many similarities between each game, every release always offered something new while building on prior titles for inspiration. In fact, it would be a stretch to say that any of the games in the series early on were truly sequels to one another, as none of them had any official ties. Even in the more recent years, where the length of time between releases has increased, each game still offers something new and unique to set it apart from the rest.
The series celebrates a diverse library of titles, from the mainstream games to wacky spin-offs. Final Fantasy has always had a strong focus on innovation, and it has served the series well. If ever fans disliked a game, they only had to wait a short time for the next installment to bring something new to the table. So now, with development costs skyrocketing and games requiring more and more resources, how can the series continue to be original with each new title and still remain profitable?
The answer is far from simple. One could say, "just release more games," "stop announcing games years before they are ready," or "give the helm to new blood." All would be great ideas, but the implementation is not that straightforward. It would still be a good idea to branch out and show more diversity in development teams, but there has to be a solid foundation in place for that to work. For the majority of the most recent console generation, the focus has been on Motomu Toriyama and Final Fantasy XIII. One of the main reasons for this is the extraordinary amount of resources poured into development, enough to extend that one game out into a series of its own. In the background, Tetsuya Nomura has struggled with the creation of Final Fantasy Versus XIII while Hajime Tabata has directed and released an entire project, Final Fantasy Type-0 for the PSP. Clearly, the higher-end development platforms are a part of the cause for such a delay, considering how Type-0 managed to make it out on a smaller system. This reinforces the idea that simply releasing more games is not an option, at least not on consoles.
Despite the lack of an English release for Type-0, which is another issue altogether, Tabata and his team have shown the ability to craft a quality Final Fantasy title on a portable system. Would it be worth giving him a shot at a numbered release? There would be all sorts of issues to arise at that point, though. Would the game need to be on a portable system to play to his strengths? It wouldn't be too much of a stretch considering what Square Enix did with Dragon Quest IX. If he did try his hand at a console release, would Tabata end up running into the same problems as the rest of the development leads? Even if console development is a major problem, it's hard to tell if that's the only trouble spot at this point.
Tabata is not the only option, as Hiroyuki Ito has played a major part in many successful Final Fantasy titles, including VI, IX, and XII. If he's not already at work on one, he should be given a shot as well. That said, Ito's strengths have tended to be more in the area of crafting new, unique combat systems and features, so would his talent be wasted at the helm of a project? There is also Naoki Yoshida, the director hard at work on rebooting Square Enix's initially failed MMO, Final Fantasy XIV. He seems to be a bright and talented individual with solid ideas of what a Final Fantasy game should offer, but he's likely going to be busy for a good long while with this reboot. Regardless of who gets put in change, creating a rotating cycle of teams could help bring about shorter windows of time between releases and in return go a long way toward bringing the series back to its diverse roots instead of an entire generation of games focused around Lightning and the Final Fantasy XIII world.
Looking into the area of development delays, Motomu Toriyama, director of Final Fantasy XIII/XIII-2, spoke at GDC Taipei 2012 and addressed the development processes and failings of Square Enix over the past few years. One issue he brought up was how large-scale development has become a problem for the company, and he admits that while working on Final Fantasy XIII that the development staff didn't make good use of their time. One solution to this is to create enough resources during a single game's development cycle to be spread out over multiple games. This has come into play with the release of Final Fantasy XIII-2 and the development of Lightning Returns. These titles have been much quicker to develop, with many of the assets already having been created and available for use. While this might be an issue for those who were not fans of Final Fantasy XIII, it shows that the company can release a new title every year or two without too many problems. But are these the games that fans want?
The creation of Agni's Philosophy via the new Luminous Engine shows an effort to continue to push the envelope as far as graphical technology goes, though there is still a big question mark overhead. Having a great looking engine does little good if it still takes an unreasonable amount of time and resources to develop a single game. Toriyama even stated that in the future, the company is looking to outsource more of its development resources to avoid issues with having a massive group of people whos time is being monopolized by a single project. This focus on having a core creative team and outside development assistance could seriously help Square Enix in fine-tuning development cycles. Combine that with crafting a game engine that can be reused and not ditched after a single release, and that could go a long way toward righting the wrongs of the past few years.
The rise of DLC is also something that Square Enix has shown no shyness toward. As long as DLC is not misused, such as cutting content from a full game, it could be another great resource for the company. Having a method to add new content into an existing product is always beneficial, but doing so requires finesse, not brute force. Cutting out sections of a game and selling it later as DLC is a surefire way to anger fans, but getting them regular content updates that simply enhance the experience can be a much more successful route.
In the end, I have to ask myself where I want Final Fantasy to go from here and my answer is the same: back to its diverse roots. It doesn't need to return to the "good old days," but instead needs to recapture the essences of what made fans fall in love with the series. I can ignore my longing for nostalgia in favor of seeing the series once again become the bastion of creativity it once was, and hopefully can be again. The series needs to break out of long development cycles and get back on track with regular releases from different development teams who can then iterate on what they've created. Do that and the series can enjoy a return to glory. Ignore that and expect even the most diehard fans to bailout. The next few years should show us if Square Enix is still destined for great things or if the company will fade into the shadows of development hell.