Final Fantasy XV: A Masterclass in Marketing?

Noctis Lucis Caelum, Final Fantasy XV

As Square Enix Business Division 2 notched up the gears for the long-awaited release of Final Fantasy XV over the course 2016, some online fan circles inevitably found themselves divided by the content revealed. Quiet optimism was met with vigorous disdain; but both sides’ opinions were significantly influenced by the huge hype campaign backing the game. Official figures for Square’s promotion of FFXV are unavailable as of yet, but Kotaku were estimating spending in the millions as far back as March 2016 – since when they had only increased their promotion push.

As the hype train steamed forward into the closing months of 2016, Square Enix attempted to take over and dominate the gaming world’s field of vision, belching content out in a way that many people thought a little too overbearing. This came as a notable contrast to a disappointingly quiet 2015 and early 2016, and that imbalance drew criticism from various factions. It became relatively commonplace in forums and on Reddit to see attacks upon Square’s marketing division for diluting the FFXV brand with meaningless progress updates and dull content in the name of “hype”, whilst others trashed everything from the core concepts to trailer music choices.

Positivity could be found if you looked for it; but it was clear that a swathe of long-time fans, having been burned by previous series entries, were wearing their hearts on their sleeves and maintaining a healthy cynicism. Square Enix, however, chose to hedge its bets, pitching the game as “a Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers” — and heavily skewing their content release towards the “first-timers”. One might describe this strategy as more of a carpet bomb than a surgical strike; an attempt to get newcomers interested and talking about the game. If they could placate older fans as well, great — but with each numbered entry reinventing itself, perhaps they themselves realised that they couldn’t please everyone, and from a business standpoint, appealing to the masses would be the best chance of recouping the losses of development and establishing a future for the series.

This isn’t the first time that Square have hit hard with their marketing — they invested in a multi-million dollar campaign with Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 Tomb Raider reboot — a game which went on to be a critically acclaimed hit that outsold any other Tomb Raider game at launch — but still disappointing Square’s high sales goals. This in itself says something about a tendency for Square Enix to plough attention into a game they want (or need) to sell especially well; whether it works or not.

Tomb Raider

Marketing is a vital component of any video game’s success; after all if players don’t know a game exists, it doesn’t matter how mind-blowing it may be, it won’t sell well. Of course with a recognisable and established brand such as Final Fantasy there’s a base line of attention and interest from which to build. Nonetheless, creative and innovative ad campaigns are a sure-fire way to get people talking about an upcoming product, and the games industry has seen some huge successes, proving there’s more to a persuasive promotion than just releasing a trailer.

There have also been all manner of debacles and backfires. From terrible attempts at using sex to sell products and racist PSP ads to more creative ideas simply falling flat in execution, it can be easy to misjudge and mess up an advertising campaign. Examples such as Mass Effect 3’s weather balloon game copies or Bulletstorm’s slabs of meat abound, yet as the age old adage says, any publicity is good publicity and these ill-thought-out schemes nevertheless get people talking about the game.

Conversely, apparently even a pretty solid set of entertaining trailers can’t save a game if it’s fallen out of the majority’s good books, a la Infinite Warfare. Whatever the outcome, marketing, hype and pre-release bonuses have become as integral to the industry as games themselves. Journalists and consumers scrutinise every move made by developers and publishers, and extrapolating theories and opinions pre-release can be just as involving, exciting and inciting to gaming communities – in some cases even more-so – than once the game is actually in our hands.

This means that marketing is a creative art in itself, and a multi-million dollar expense for the big players. Rockstar spent hundreds of millions on marketing GTA V, helping it break six world records as the best-selling video game in 24 hours and the fastest entertainment property to ever gross $1 billion dollars (incidentally, Rockstar also held the record for the most viewed video game trailer for GTA V). That initial advertising heave is geared towards achieving the greatest Day One performance possible, setting a game off to a running start from which it can either gain momentum with good reviews and word of mouth or at least protect itself from slower future sales.

Longer-term legacy aside (a whole discussion in its own right), FFXV has had one of the most memorable pre-release marketing campaigns in recent times. From a solid anime mini-series to a technically stunning movie; from competitions to drip-fed trailers and gameplay videos; a fashion line to a custom-made Audi R8, the run-up to release was a masterclass in hype engineering. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was a masterclass in turning around a flailing and haemorrhaging product from development hell to commercial viability.

And for a game that had such a long and muddied development history, the Final Fantasy XV marketing campaign — and decisions behind it — provide an insight into the unique storm of circumstances FFXV found itself in, and how it tried to fit into the wider state of the industry and its marketing norms despite these limitations and earlier missteps.

As most well know at this point, Final Fantasy XV had a rocky journey to travel from inception to release. It began life in 2006 as part of the Final Fantasy XIII universe, Fabula Nova Crystallis. Titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, series veteran Tetsuya Nomura would be directing what was described as a grittier, darker take on a Final Fantasy saga. Cinematic trailers boasted a visually stunning world with an interesting style, and exciting, action-oriented combat gameplay. As the years passed and the game remained notably absent – whilst FFXIII itself received two sequels – Versus XIII became a sort of mythical, mysterious creature that gamers would love speculating about, taking on a life of its own. Rumours of development troubles proved to be true, and it became clear that Versus XIII was never going to see the light of day in its original form.

The game was finally re-branded as the franchise’s next main instalment in 2012 (and officially in 2013), at which point it was also announced that Tetsuya Nomura would be replaced by Hajime Tabata, who had recently worked on the other FFXIII spin-off-turned-standalone game, Final Fantasy Type-0. By this point, the Final Fantasy XIII series had been largely canned by series fans; citing linearity, convoluted narrative and shallow combat as severe disappointments. One can only wonder how much of the re-branding was a decision to cut the cord with the maligned FFXIII. With the complete change in direction (and director) came an overhaul of development. Indeed, whilst they recycled Versus XIII’s character concepts and core design elements, Tabata’s entry in 2013 effectively marked the start of development for Final Fantasy XV as we now know it.

Versus XIII Noctis

Yet whilst this was a beginning for Tabata and co., it wasn’t for fans and followers. As far as they were concerned, the characters and world of FFXV had been around since 2006, with people forming attachments to the characters and ideas displayed — and who had waited for years for them to become a reality. Versus XIII had captured imaginations in a way that XIII itself hadn’t been able to. Tabata explained: “when you release information about a game very early… it stops being our [the developer’s] thing and becomes something for the fans. It’s just natural that they are going to get attached to these characters.”

While FFXIII and its sequels failed to garner much positivity, this simply reinforced ideas that the different style of Versus XIII was what was needed to bring the franchise back on track. Furthermore, by releasing the FFXIII sequels (XIII-2 and Lightning Returns) and burying Versus XIII, fans felt that Square Enix was blindly ignoring its customers and instead trying to flog a dead horse for cash, losing even more goodwill in the process.

Meanwhile, the MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV had launched in 2010 and was largely failing as well. It appealed to a different audience than the previous single-player titles (XI notwithstanding, of course), causing a general sentiment that it should not have been a numbered title — that and it was generally an abysmal game. The Final Fantasy IP’s ship was sinking under the weight of these simultaneous mistakes, attempting to bail out the flood of mistrust and anger from multiple wounds to its storied reputation. How, then, would Square Enix go about fixing this damage?

 

Rebuilding Trust

Trust is one of the hardest things to regain once it’s lost. Whilst some core fans remained faithful to Final Fantasy even in its darkest hours, there is little doubt that even the most die-hard supporter’s faith would have been shaken at times. But one of the best ways to go about rebuilding trust is through honesty, transparency and delivering upon promises.

We live in a ‘Kickstarter Generation’ that is fundamentally changing the ways in which game companies and customers interact. Consumers are more informed than ever, and more and more people want to know exactly what’s going on at any stage in a project’s development. And with more and more games falling into the “promises not delivered” category (see No Man’s Sky), not to mention the pressure of the FF brand and the future of the franchise weighing upon them, Square Enix inevitably had a huge target painted on their backs by the community for inevitable failure.

We also live in a world where developers announce a game at E3, then disappear for 2 years before any tangible content is actually available. The hype explodes for an exciting new product before we remember: “oh yeah, this won’t actually be a thing for years”. It’s a terrible system for consumers, and makes the excitement harder to re-ignite when the game is a real thing; that initial vigour has already come and gone.

Bethesda recently shook up this formula with their announcement of Fallout 4 just 4 months before release in 2015. Even if people could safely assume the game was in production, the confirmation and official announcement avoided the years-long ebb and flow of interest and acted as the catalyst to a wave of excitement that Bethesda and its fans could then ride to release. It was a refreshing move welcomed by many of us tired of the teasing nature of today’s games (and wider media) industry; but the strangeness of it also highlighted how ingrained the ‘norm’ now is.

Fallout 4 meme

Final Fantasy XV is the stark opposite of that, having been around and announced for eons. Square had messed up, and because of this, for better or worse, Tabata and his team didn’t have much of a choice but to run with it and make the best they could out of an imperfect situation. Whilst it would likely be ideal to have a marketing strategy in place from early development, this clearly wasn’t an ideal case. With XV evolving from Versus XIII, advertised as a different product, there was a significant need to re-convey what this new iteration was whilst still creating and building upon existing strategies; if only to prove that the team actually had an idea about where they were going themselves.

Increasing media coverage and fan sentiment reflected what the developers themselves must have felt: Final Fantasy XV would decide the future of the franchise. Another major failure would dissolve any faith left in the IP and resign it to the annals of history. Off the back of this huge pressure to deliver they had an almost impossible job of trying to temper the expectations of a decade-long-anticipated game.

In 2014, whilst the FFXV team remained relatively quiet, FFXIV director Naoki Yoshida and his team released Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn: a completely overhauled version of FFXIV that rectified the severe issues of the game and morphed it into a surprisingly fantastic experience. Yoshida explained in an interview with FoxNews.com that “regaining trust was something paramount”. Showing humility and acceptance of the errors made, combined with the delivery of an excellent game, the team began to claw back some timid confidence in the franchise and established a large dedicated player base for the MMORPG. Yoshida also began a series of “Live Letters” — videos which candidly discussed the development process and provided a look behind the curtain to show players just what was going on with the game’s updates.

A Realm Reborn

But whilst the MMORPG may have regained its footing, Final Fantasy still lacked evidence of a quality single-player experience to truly restabilize its influence. By 2015 — symptomatic of the great criticism of Final Fantasy’s recent direction, changing consumer needs and the recent examples of FFXIV — would Tabata and co. not feel that they all but had to follow Yoshida’s suit and introduce significant transparency? That they had to work harder than ever to not just claim “look, we’ve righted the ship”, but to actively show the disillusioned fans that this was the case?

Meanwhile, Hajime Tabata noted in a Kotaku interview that the state of the Japanese console market was dire and that FFXV’s failure could mean the death of console gaming there. With the shift to mobile, AAA console games were struggling to gain traction in Japan, piling on yet another level of pressure onto the shoulders of what was effectively the video game version of Atlus (the mythological figure, not the developer, for clarification). Square’s blind mistakes over the past decade had piled up and it fell to the FFXV team to provide an outlet for the cauldron of tensions bubbling away under the surface.

As a developer in this situation, with a decade’s history of mistrust behind you, you’re screwed either way. Go quiet for a few months and people will complain, seeing it as a sign that there a serious issues being kept hidden; that they’re not being given enough information about the game to make their informed decisions. There is precedent for this assumption; look at how people worried about The Last Guardian in parallel to FFXV, questioning that it would be able to deliver because of a lack of footage and information.

Last Guardian

Conversely show off a lot and others will complain: that it’s clearly evidence the company are trying too hard to plug the game because there must be underlying issues — or that too much has now been shown off and there’s no excitement left for the game itself. Final Fantasy games are known for their rich worlds and interesting side quests, allowing players a sense of discovery and adventure and making for an especially potent target for such criticisms.

It doesn’t stop there, as the content is just as contentious as the quantity. Focus on minor details and side content and people cry foul: “it’s because there’s nothing of substance to show!” But show off more exciting core features and events and you’ll be criticised for giving too much away. Whatever route a developer takes for promoting a large game, they’re likely to be stymied by chunks of public opinion one way or another.

And of course this is only made worse by the fact that neither side of criticism is wrong. In fact both approaches are equally valid concerns for different people; gamers are not a homogenous group with identical values and goals, but a group of diverse individuals. This makes the marketing team’s job a nightmare. Speaking on the passion of the fanbase, Tabata exclaimed that “the many people here [at Square Enix] are doing their best to respond to the expectations, criticism included, in creating Final Fantasy, a series which is one of the pillars of the whole company.”

In this difficult and somewhat unique position, it seems that Square Enix Business Division 2, led by Tabata, placed a focus upon transparency and honesty in an attempt to regain some of the goodwill the company had lost, following that FFXIV ‘Kickstarter Generation’ model a little more than one might expect from a single-player AAA developer.

Active Time Report

Tabata began to put out regular ‘Active Time Reports’, monthly one-hour videos providing a fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into development and keeping everyone updated at just what the team was up to and how things were progressing; and marking a conscious effort to actively engage with fans throughout the process. The tone of these videos was constantly one of of enthusiasm and accessibility, projecting an inclusive air and bridging the gap between corporate giant and human being.

Not only was this a savvy move to showcase what kind of game was being made, but it was a genuinely interesting look at how a game is developed and programmed – and how a large gaming business works. This included explanations upon some of the ‘division of labour’ of a 300-odd team, and technical and practical aspects to creating the worlds that we take for granted. Involving and engaging with fans also allayed fears about FFXV being nothing but vaporware, providing tangible results on a regular basis.

 

Uncovered

Uncovered Final Fantasy XV

No wonder, then, that series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi was called upon to make an appearance on stage at Square’s Final fantasy XV “Uncovered” press event in March 2016. Sakaguchi stated that, as the “father of Final Fantasy”, he “felt assured” by Tabata’s commitment to the vision of XV. As Sakaguchi said in a later interview, Square (and Tabata) wanted a powerful endorsement of the game, showing people that XV was returning to the roots of what made the series great.

What more powerful way to send such a message than to get the seal of approval from the man who started it all? Perhaps in only one way: by solidly backing up this sentiment via veteran series artist Yoshitaka Amano and a video message from long-time series composer Nobuo Uematsu, consolidating the links between the three fathers of the franchise and the current new generation of leaders.

Hosted by Greg Miller and Tim Gettys (the Kinda Funny guys), “Uncovered” dropped a fantastic new trailer filled with story, action and character, named “Reclaim Your Throne”. Ties to the past continued with emphasis placed upon the in-game radio, allowing you to play an assortment of “greatest hits” from previous games.

Even the title of this event, “Uncovered”, reflected the new drive for transparency and inclusion. As with any big press conference, the usual tropes were all there: enthusiastic testimonials from celebrities (Florence and the Machine), brand new footage, and a release date announcement that, whilst leaked ahead of the event, still managed to act as a significant landmark in its own right.

An onslaught of new reveals made for a perfect escalation of hype, with Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV, the Justice Monsters Five mobile game and the stylish Final Fantasy XV Audi R8.

The screaming audience acted accordingly. Perhaps as an overt hint that they had learned from their mistakes with Versus XIII, Square also revealed the new Kingsglaive movie with the help of stars Lena Headey and Aaron Paul, having kept it quiet through three years of development. Tabata and his team couldn’t control the earlier debacles of Square, perhaps, but they were determined to work hard to make up for as much as they could now.

On top of this, Square Enix actually did quite a good job in putting out a hugely varied portfolio of content over the subsequent months which began to paint a picture of the world of Eos and the dedication that had gone into realizing it. By keeping a steady stream of information coming out across the final months, Square kept the game at the forefront of the minds of not just those already interested (or even those who already hated it), but others who may otherwise have been more apathetic or disinterested.

 

Trailer Trash

Trailers are the bread and butter of game marketing. They serve wildly different purposes depending upon the game and the intent, but they’re the primary vehicle through which the majority of people get their information about a game prior to launch. Launch trailers are generally the most important of all, however with FFXV/Versus XIII’s launch trailers long come and gone, a new approach was needed. A clever combination of gameplay footage, cinematic story and world/character trailers would instead solidify the intrigue of a complex world unlike any other in Final Fantasy. 2016 alone saw at least 9 different trailers drop, from the gameplay-based “Niflheim Base” in February to the mind-blowing CG mini-movie of October’s “Omen”.

For a long time the number one focus seemed set on depicting Eos as a living, breathing, populated, open world — a focus no doubt as part of a plan to appeal to long-term fans who had taken issue with the perceived linearity of FFXIII, and to tap into the success of recent RPGs like The Witcher 3. This resulted in a drip-feeding of minor details: Chocobos confirmed, fishing mini-games, photo mode, weather systems. Some people really didn’t like this but it was clear that they were trying to walk the finely balanced line between not giving too much away and not being completely closed off. Two “World of Wonder” trailers in May and August showed off the stunning environments and ecosystems waiting to be explored by Noctis and his pals, from undulating hills to wet swamp-lands.

One could argue that the onslaught of trailers was in fact damaging, over-saturating the space and forcing Square’s own videos to compete with each other for attention. According to the YouTube stats, such claims would however seem largely unfounded. The likes of the 2016 E3 and “Omen” trailers received over 2 million views each. Whilst this was decidedly less than the year’s most-viewed trailers (Battlefield 1s Official Reveal takes the top spot with just under 50 million views but such a comparison seems hardly fair), it stands in line with previous franchise instalment trailers suggesting that this strategy at the very least wasn’t harmful to exposure.

 

Demo-cracy

Episode Duscae

Not one but three demos were released for Final Fantasy XV. A demo should be used to allow players a taste of the final product, to gauge audience response and to receive feedback from the very people who will ultimately be playing the game — so that their criticisms can be taken into consideration for further enhancements to the experience. Whilst a finely polished demo can drum up enthusiasm for release, a more exploratory demo can be invaluable in making that released product even better.

Square managed a bit of both. Episode Duscae was a more traditional demo that took an early chunk out of the main game and gave a hands-on experience with where the game was at. Tabata would use the ATR reports to further explain how user feedback from Duscae had directly influenced changes to the user interface and gameplay, and some of these changes would even be patched into a 2.0 version of Episode Duscae.

This move drew criticism as it inevitably funnelled time and manpower away from the main game — but the resulting user feedback would act as a useful indicator of whether such changes had hit the mark and would be worthwhile pursuing in the final product. By working hard to create this ‘back-and-forth’ discussion with gamers through the demo, the team could attune itself much more closely to the over-arching concerns and sentiments of their players and work to fit these into the overall vision of the game.

Platinum Demo

The Platinum Demo was a standalone prequel experience that saw players taking on the role of a young Noctis as he traversed a dream world with the help of his pet Carbuncle. It cleverly told a self-contained story while introducing players to some of the core mechanics and acting as a tech demo.  Commenting on Platinum’s success, Tabata noted in a Famitsu interview that “the feedback we’ve received has given us an objective sense of what we’ll need to fix and improve for the game itself.”

The demo again received very mixed responses and anger that appeared somewhat ironic. Community desire to have the opportunities to provide feedback and input on work in progress is at an all-time high, yet when Square provided this opportunity with the demos they faced huge backlash for it not being as good as people wanted.

 

Final Fantasy XV Universe

They tried it with FFVII, then with FFXIII. But third time’s a charm, right?

Noctis Lucis Caelum was plucked from the Fabula Nova Crystalis Universe and dropped straight into the new Final Fantasy XV Universe. But where the FFVII Universe failed because it struggled to stay true to the original characters and the FFXIII Universe failed because it was based on a fundamentally disliked game, Square took a different approach to the Final Fantasy XV Universe by using it to release prequel content to set up the game ahead of release.

In this way, the Final Fantasy XV Universe content not only created a foundation of interesting characters, lore and action, but could be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their prior experience with Final Fantasy games — a major stumbling block for the Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children movie. As Tabata explained in a June 2016 interview, “it’s one way for us to get new people interested in the series who have never really been familiar with the Final Fantasy franchise”. This also sent out a clear message that there wouldn’t be a milking of the franchise after the main game; an accusation long levied against Final Fantasy XIII and its inability to die quietly.

Brotherhood Final Fantasy XV

By making the Platinum Demo simultaneously a part of the FFXV Universe, there was extra incentive for both story- and gameplay-driven consumers to dive in. Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV was a charming five-episode anime series that introduced the four heroes with heart and style. With short, easily digestible episodes and being released for free viewing on YouTube rather than hiding behind a paywall, Brotherhood acted as the perfect entry into the FFXV Universe, allowing viewers to wet their feet without any barriers or commitments. The official Final Fantasy XV YouTube channel versions of the episodes have a combined view total of over 4.5 million views as testament to this ease of access.

Brotherhood was followed by Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, which was a technical and visual marvel. The full CGI film cemented Square’s crown as masters of beautiful visuals, with stunning set piece action and unbelievably detailed environments and characters. Whilst realistic facial animation still has a way to go, there were some scenes so realistic that it was difficult to tell whether you were looking at CGI or real life. Kingsglaive was slated by critics on release in August 2016, but it carried some surprising heart and received generally favourable user reviews online, whetting appetites for the game experience to follow.

Kingsglaive’s celebrity voice talent was also a clever attention grabber and gave the film some extra clout for that vital audience of new gamers. With Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul voicing protagonist Nyx and Game of Thrones stars Sean Bean and Lena Headey featuring heavily, the film involved bankable household names. Starring actors associated with two of the biggest and best-rated TV series of the last decade — each cultural phenomena in and of themselves — could do nothing but involve people who otherwise may have side-stepped such a film all together. Respected and proven actors carry a weight of influence that can significantly affect a film’s performance, and attaching three big names was a victory for Square Enix — celebrity does, after all, sell!

Kingsglaive

Other content included the side-scrolling game A King’s Tale: Final Fantasy XV and the previously mentioned Platinum Demo, each serving the core purpose of introducing and drawing people into the new universe before the game was even released in a sort of “reverse franchise”.

If the fictional universe wasn’t enough and you had deep, deep pockets, Square had even teamed up with high-end Japanese designer Roen to create real-world versions of the in-game characters’ outfits (also designed by Roen). Noctis’ jacket alone would set you back nearly $1,500, but more publicity meant more attention — and likely aided the cosplay community in creating their own costumes and providing free advertising at conventions.

 

Music To Our Ears

Florence Machine

Variety has always been a core staple of Final Fantasy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the vibrant and emotive musical scores and licensed songs that define each instalment. That variety saw the FFXV trailers accompanied by a diverse assortment of music – such as the DJ remixes of Afrojack and the ethereal vocals and pop-rock emphasis of Florence and the Machine. A melting pot of musical flavours and genres served to reflect the values and tone of the game and the team behind it. Collaborating with a world-renowned band like Florence and the Machine undoubtedly helped once again to branch out influence into other media and wider pop culture. Square capitalised on this by releasing a three-song EP with the band. Including a cover of Ben E. King’s classic “Stand By Me” and two original songs influenced by the game, Songs from Final Fantasy XV gained traction with both fans of the game and fans of the band who didn’t know anything about Final Fantasy. Meanwhile Florence Welch herself tweeted to her sizeable social media following, endorsing the game.

Next, September saw a live orchestral concert at the historic Abbey Road studios, showcasing composer Yoko Shimomura’s stunning original score performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. With alumni composers such as Nobuo Uematsu making some of the finest music in video games, Final Fantasy is established as a source of musical excellence. The live-streamed concert established FFXV as no different in this regard, and associating a video game with the grand musical legacy of Abbey Road could only further aid the marketing push.

 

Slowing The Train

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses though. Final Fantasy XV’s E3 2016 presence was one of the most maligned events in the game’s promotional period; and under-performing at one of the world’s biggest video game events was a painful blow to the gathering speed of the hype train. However this was mainly focused upon a dull gameplay demo that didn’t translate well to passive viewership at the Microsoft Conference event.

This was clearly a poor choice. Whilst it showcased the scale of the Titan boss battle, the gameplay itself was repetitive, full of QTEs and evidently unrehearsed, making for a forgettable few minutes at a key coverage opportunity.

They may not have put their strongest foot forward at the Microsoft event, but Tabata still showed a surprising dedication to pleasing fans at Square’s own Live Stage Presentation. Showcasing “Wait Mode” – a gameplay option that would turn the real-time action combat into a more traditionally-inspired Final Fantasy experience – was one such example. It showed that they were making sensible decisions to make the game relevant to that target audience of both “fans and first-timers” alike.

Nevertheless, the overall reception of Final Fantasy at E3 had been damaged, and this was reflected when a GameFAQs poll from 30 June showed that 40% of respondents thought FFXV’s marketing campaign a “total trainwreck”, whilst only 24% felt it was “on the right track”. But with a few months until release, they still had plenty of time to batten down the hatches.

 

Delayed Satisfaction

FFXV Delay Uncovered

Things often get worse before they get better, though, and this proved true come August 2016. Tabata and Greg Miller joked about delays at the “Uncovered” release date announcement. Exciting cultural events like the Abbey Road concert would now have to attempt to lessen the blow of the joke becoming reality as yet another delay struck — having been announced in mid-August that launch would be pushed back by two months from September 30th to November 29th 2016. Dismay erupted. We’d been waiting for 10 years, and now the game had been delayed again?!

Setbacks are bound to happen in the creation of a project of the size and ambition of Final Fantasy XV. Indeed Square Enix knew this better than anyone by now. It is the handling of these setbacks that’s as important as anything to how the audience responds. Thankfully, Hajime Tabata was at the helm. Another team may have retreated from the spotlight and gone dark, leaving behind a void of unanswered questions and accusations (Pokemon Go, anyone?!). Instead, Tabata stepped forward, communicating humbly but positively to express regret and dedication to delivering the best possible experience. Whatever the true reasons for this delay, Tabata’s handling of the situation highlighted a respect for fans that at least minimised collateral damage.

While Square attempted to turn FFXV into the juggernaut they needed, another little game titled World of Final Fantasy was released in late October, just a month prior to the bigger post-delay release date. In comparison – and as a spin-off – World of Final Fantasy was given peanuts in terms of marketing time and focus. Considering that it was originally expected to launch after FFXV, perhaps there simply wasn’t the same expectation for sales. World of Final Fantasy is a charming and wonderful game, but it evidently doesn’t attempt to capture the same overall audience as the cinematic epic of FFXV; yet better marketing here may have aided in Square’s hasty recovery from delay drama.

 

Pre-Order Bonus Unlocked

FFXV Collector's Edition

Despite the delay, pre-orders continued to roll in in the following months. For better or worse, pre-ordering is here to stay; and bonus content or exclusive store DLC keeps hooking in ever-more buyers. Square Enix didn’t disappoint in this realm, with five different pre-order editions offering various bonuses and incentives to part with your cash and commit to the game early. These included in-game car skins, outfits and weapons all the way through to a collectible Play Arts Kai figure and retailer-exclusive beat-em-up game, ranging from standard price to the limited run of 30,000 Ultimate Collector’s Editions at $270 a pop. These premium products sold out in rapid fashion, prompting a further run of 10,000 as early as May 2016. These were also snapped up in an instant, and some simple calculation suggests that, barring mass cancellations, that 40,000 run alone would make Square Enix its first $10 million gross.

 

TV Addiction

Whilst they were focused on internet-driven advertising, Square Enix didn’t forget about the humble television. Ads for FIFA and shooters like CoD and Titanfall are still frequent flyers on TV, but genres such as JRPGs don’t always make it onto the small screen. Yet prime-time TV spots such as the “Stand Together” and “A Captivating World” featured on American TV whilst trailers even aired before cinema screenings of J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

On November 14th, FFXV was featured on presenter Conan O’Brien’s nightly talk show; in the “Clueless Gamer” segment, where Conan and a celebrity guest effectively do a Let’s Play of a new game. With 4.5 million YouTube views at the time of writing, Conan and actor Elijah Wood joke their way through the gameplay; and yet again, reach an audience over and above anything that standalone game advertising could hope to achieve. Whilst they did have a laugh at the game’s expense, criticising some of the confusing aspects of JRPGs such as FFXV for non-gamers, his skit likely did more to promote the game than any other single video or event could, reminding us that TV content (albeit drawing most of its traffic on YouTube) still has some clout even in the era of Netflix and digital streaming.

 

T-Minus 1 Week

With just a week to go until the launch, things only ramped up into overdrive. A new 8-minute trailer was released, revealing an insane amount of new information. The “101” Trailer and its “Extended Cut” version worked well as both a narrative introduction for those who hadn’t watched the aforementioned Universe media, and a showcase of the gameplay and combat styles and options. This final pre-launch trailer carried a well-balanced blend of content to allay any last-minute fears from any one of the previous, more singularly-focused trailers; in fact this single trailer almost made me break my own rule of never pre-ordering a game (don’t worry, I managed to hold out).

Coinciding with this new information release was the Japanese sale of a stunning one-of-a-kind Audi R8 as featured in the Kingsglaive movie. This publicity stunt gave one lucky (and wealthy) person the chance to own their own royal transport, complete with insignia of the city of Insomnia, for the paltry sum of US$469,256. Tying in nicely with the road trip theme of the game – and the prominence of the Regalia car in Noctis’ own story – the partnership with Audi created another media buzz that further drove interest (and some incredulity) towards Final Fantasy XV.

Final Fantasy Audi R8

On Tuesday 22nd November Square Enix teamed with IGN to host the Final Fantasy XV IGN Premiere Event in London. This was only IGN’s second ever Premiere event, allowing fans to get hands on with the game early, eat meals featured in the world of Eos and snap photos with three life-size Chocobo statues whilst new gameplay and interviews were revealed.

The event was live-streamed online across the world, but also to further audiences via a partnership with Odeon cinemas all over the UK followed by screenings of Kingsglaive. This in itself was a significant and near-unprecedented event, with few such gaming-related screenings — and even less as directly related to games industry events — occurring in the UK or indeed outside of Japan in general. These events allowed fans in cities across the country to gather together to discuss, experience and share in the atmosphere of excitement preceding a significant video game release.

American fans weren’t left out as the CW, with its DC Arrow/The Flash/Supergirl/Legends of Tomorrow crossover event teamed up with Square to offer a one-off “Magitek Armor” Xbox One console.

Meanwhile British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver created and held a week-long FFXV-inspired ‘culinary experience’ at his aptly named London restaurant, Fifteen. Just imagining the faces of non-gaming regulars as their restaurant was taken over by Final Fantasy furore brings a tear to my eye. This wasn’t the only food-related factor, as a new Square Enix café opened in Akihabara, Tokyo back in October, tying in the opening with a Final Fantasy XV theme that included accurate recipes mirroring the in-game concoctions of team cook Ignis.

And this multi-pronged expansion is perhaps one of the most exciting facets of the FFXV marketing campaign. Square Enix made conscious attempts not just to engage with core gamers, but to transcend the normal spheres of gaming influence and integrate their strategies into a plethora of generally separate realms, bringing even greater exposure to not just the game, but the industry as a whole. In culinary dining, supercar cruising and chic fashion, Square set up a space for its game within the context of real-world culture, dragging gaming into spheres of society that it has probed at but not fully infiltrated yet.

 

The Results

The sheer quantity and breadth of ideas, content — and yes, expensive gimmicks — shows that Square Enix were putting everything into creating hype around Final Fantasy XV. But did this translate into a successful launch?

On the 1st December 2016 Square Enix announced that Day One shipments and digital sales of FFXV had exceeded five million units, making it the fastest-selling game in the series’ history. Whilst this was undoubtedly aided by the simultaneous worldwide release (also a first for the franchise), it also suggests that Square’s insane marketing push had at least partially paid off. It’s no GTA V (seriously, will anything except GTA VI have a chance at topping that?!), but it has undoubtedly done enough to ensure that the Final Fantasy brand will continue to carry value in the coming years.

Another month later, a Square Enix press release, dated January 9th 2017, announced that — despite Tabata’s fears about the state of Japan’s console market — the game in fact broke records as the highest Day One digital seller in Japan and boosted Japanese PS4 sales significantly. The total worldwide physical shipment and digital sales had exceeded six million units, marking another million copies in the bag despite an expected sales slow-down post-release.

This is only the start of Final Fantasy XV’s legacy. Future AAA releases will be hard-pressed to match the spending and spectacle of Square Enix’s campaign. Meanwhile Tabata looks set to build upon the positive relationship formed with the community, expressing interest in player concerns and a desire to keep adding to the game. With plans for further DLC content already outlined, it’s clear that 2017 will be a year of updates and continued additions to the FFXV; similar continued interaction that may help engender further support. Even with a masterful marketing campaign, this will likely be vital if they stand any chance of selling enough copies to make back the money spent on the 10-year development process.

Moogle

With a huge marketing campaign there is also, of course, the clear and present danger of a company biting off more than they can chew and failing to deliver, subsequently dooming the franchise for good. Whilst any Final Fantasy encounters mixed responses (there’s no pleasing everyone), XV has been a critical success, receiving solid review scores and awards not just from media outlets, but Peoples’ Choice awards such as Game of the Year, Best Soundtrack and Best Cast awards, suggesting that it has also been a general commercial and cultural success.

A campaign of this scope is very much the sum of its parts. And in FFXV’s case, it appears that the end result, despite inevitable missteps and mistakes, was an overwhelmingly positive figure. Despite languishing in development hell for years, watching its brothers and sisters crash and burn and facing doom and failure, Final Fantasy XV was turned around with fresh blood that recognised and owned the mistakes of the past. On staying grounded, Tabata said “It really reminds me of all the effort so far to establish the Final Fantasy brand, and how passive we’ve been in just building on the IP’s existing success.”

As long as dedicated and creative individuals like Hajime Tabata are able to move forward with exciting and creative ideas whilst maintaining reverence and respect for the roots of the series, Final Fantasy has a bright future yet.

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