If you owned a game console at any point in the last thirty years, you've probably at least heard of Konami, Squaresoft, and Enix. If you consider yourself a gamer, you probably know their major franchises by heart. Castlevania. Final Fantasy. Dragon Warrior. Metal Gear. Konami and Square Enix are giants of gaming, at one point standing toe-to-toe with companies like EA and Nintendo, dominating the console landscape and releasing some of the most beloved video games of all time.
The times, they are a changing.
Earlier this week, Konami president Hideki Hayakawa told an interviewer from Nikkei Trendy Net that his company would "pursue mobile games aggressively... our main platform will be mobiles [translated]." Square Enix, the company formed when RPG specialists Squaresoft and Enix merged in 2003, made similar statements when announcing its quarterly earnings. With a nearly 50% boost in income year-over-year, mostly driven by sales of mobile games and MMO subscription fees, it's easy to see why the company would be less interested in conventional console titles.
The business environment surrounding the Group is in the midst of major changes, where smart devices such as smartphones and tablet PCs are spreading rapidly, while the console game markets in North America and Europe are increasingly competitive and oligopolistic. In light of such environmental changes, the Group is focusing all efforts on a substantial earnings improvement through driving reforms of business structure in order to establish new revenue base.
If the business doublespeak is crossing your eyes, Square is basically telling its investors that it's becoming harder and harder to make a buck in the traditionally lucrative console market, and that they're focusing their efforts on mobile.
Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, an all-star team-up of Squaresoft characters with a pay-to-win model.
The implications of this shift are huge. First and foremost, it means more high-profile games for phones and tablets - while a few publishers like EA, UbiSoft, and 2K have invested heavily in mobile games, a lot of traditional console publishers have avoided the space. That attitude is changing: even Nintendo, the king of insular and self-centered hardware and software development, is preparing to release at least some mobile games.
But that also comes as a possible loss for conventional gamers. These companies control some of the most memorable franchises in gaming, even if more modern titles have overshadowed them in the last few years. Console games already look depressingly uniform - every year we get a new Call of Duty, a new Assassin's Creed, and a dozen tired retreads of survival horror and sandbox beat-em-up. A shift towards mobile for publishers that aren't steadily dominating the charts means more of the same.
Konami's biggest hit on the Play Store is PES Collection, a soccer game with $100 in-app purchases.
And even if we get more mobile games, will they be quality titles worth playing? Square Enix has shown a disturbing tendency to saddle its cash cow Final Fantasy with the free-to-play model, locking most of the gameplay in what few new titles it releases behind arbitrary pay walls or grinding. Even the company's re-releases of classic Squaresoft and Enix RPGs, which cannot be easily converted into a modern freemium model, often lack support and features like controller compatibility. Konami's stable of apps on the Play Store is pathetic, with its most high-profile release being a licensed Star Wars card game. Over on iOS things are a little better, with Metal Gear, Silent Scope, Silent Hill, and Castlevania getting some mentions. But even there, the games are simple, short, and often hinge once again on the free-to-play model.
A lot of that comes down to the medium. Games like Metal Gear Solid would be incredibly difficult to adapt to touchscreens without radically changing the gameplay. Square's RPGs, with their reliance on menus and turn-based combat, fare a bit better. But anyone who's ever played through a classic Contra level knows it would be a frustrating mess on a touchscreen. That situation is slowly improving: external controllers and gaming-specific hardware like NVIDIA's SHIELD line are becoming more common, and Android TV has the potential to become a haven for cheap but effective games thanks to its deep controller integration. Will publishers, and not least gamers, be able to work around these issues? Will classic game developers create complex, deep experiences, and will mobile gamers be willing to pay for them?
Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night, an iOS exclusive. It's a puzzle game with Castlevania sprites painted on.
Let me put it this way: I'm a life-long gamer myself, and the most-played game on my phone is 2048. To paraphrase the great philosopher Hank Hill, this might not make mobile gaming better, just make console gaming worse.
The best possible outcome of a mobile re-focus for companies like Square Enix, Konami, and Nintendo is a flood of quality ports of classic games followed by new and exciting original titles that stem the tide of soulless endless runners and Clash of Clans ripoffs. But what seems more profitable, and therefore more likely, is more of the genres and structures that we're already familiar with painted over with nostalgia-filled licensed characters and settings. And that could very well come at the expense of diversity in the console market, as these publishers look for relatively easy money on phones and tablets.