This year is shaping up to have a packed release schedule for gamers. Our collective wallets are going to be hurting thanks to great-looking new IPs like Watch Dogs, The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls, and Remember Me. You’ve got sequels like Dead Space 3 and Lost Planet 3, which both seem to be capitalizing on the apparently sizable “third-person shooter in snowy conditions” niche, God of War: Ascension, Gears of War: Judgment, Metro: Last Light, and even handheld fare like the newest iterations of Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei.
The Castlevania: Lords of Shadow franchise reboot is even giving us two sequels, a follow-up for consoles and an interquel for the Nintendo 3DS. You’re going to be buying a lot of games this year.
One of them that you probably won’t be buying is Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII:
The original game is still a lightning-rod for controversy and discussion even nearly three years after its US release. It has got to be the most controversial Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VIII, and it didn’t even have the thankless task of following-up Final Fantasy VII. For every gamer who can forgive its issues with linearity and narrative style and enjoy the fast-paced battle system, beautiful graphics and great music is another gamer irrevocably burned by the reductive, watered-down RPG experience it offered.
That sentiment is clear when you analyze the sequel that maybe-possibly wasn’t originally planned by Square-Enix. It seemed the developers set out to prove all the criticism leveled at the first game wrong. Final Fantasy XIII-2 used a Chrono Trigger-esque time travel mechanic to facilitate multiple endings, or at least ending scenarios, and to foster in the player a more palpable sense of exploration. It was better-received by gamers than its predecessor overall, so don’t be fooled by its comparatively-lower Metacritic rating. It was funner and had a greater sense of adventure than the conveyor-belt of Final Fantasy XIII, which seemed to hurtle you along to the next cutscene at a relentless pace. However, the game was much shorter, much easier, and didn't look nearly as polished as the original. It locked half of its ending behind a DLC pay wall.
That number is both striking and of utmost importance to the purpose of this write-up. Those kinds of numbers for a sequel would usually doom another release in the same series, as the industry has become increasingly iterative with the whole idea that the next game sells more than the last. Yet here Square-Enix is: in a position where they are about to release a follow-up to a game that only half of its total user base wanted in the first place.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an outlier in the annals of the long-running series. It’s only the second direct sequel in Final Fantasy history, and was an overall better effort than Final Fantasy X-2, but, by the standards of the series, sold terribly.
However, it still made Square-Enix a lot of money. Profits were up following its release, and development costs for the game must have been far lower than its predecessor. This is due to the developers being able to re-use the Crystal Tools engine that powered XIII, as well as the leveraging of a relationship with Tri-Ace to help develop parts of the game. It should be no surprise that it was in development for a fourth of the time of its predecessor. XIII might have sold more than twice as much, but XIII-2‘s profit margin probably blew it out of the water.
So now we have the oddly, yet aptly, named Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. The title conveys Square-Enix’s intentions perfectly. If XIII-2 was a game with Lightning on the cover but not necessarily in the player’s control because you spent the whole game as younger sibling Serah and mysterious newcomer Noel, then Lightning Returns is the game that comprehensively leverages the pink-haired heroine’s appeal. You only play as Lightning for the entire game, with the gameplay systems built around customization and the shifting of different roles in battle to fulfill all the requirements of a traditional RPG party.
The battle system is internally known, rather unfortunately, as “amazing ATB.” I find it interesting that the concept of the ATB system, developed by Hiroyuki Ito for Final Fantasy IV, is still being utilized at all. Active Time Battle, aka “this meter that denotes the passage of time will fill up before you can take an action,” was developed to give those turn-based, 2-D Squaresoft games of the SNES era a feeling of dynamism and excitement. You couldn’t just wait all day when it was your turn; you had to act. This doesn’t really have the same effect in 3-D games on a 3-D plane, which is why X didn’t use it at all and XII used a free-roaming version of it that worked well enough, though some battles seemed to drag on forever and it wasn’t really perfected until last year’s Xenoblade Chronicles, which was developed by Monolith Soft and not Square-Enix.
The battle system in Lightning Returns seems to put a new spin on the venerable ATB in two ways. First, you will still change roles, or “styles,” with the relevant skills being made available to you, but you will also be able to mix and match skills belonging to different styles.
Said skills will be accessible using individual buttons instead of through a menu. Think of it like hot keys. I’m sure that equipping the skills you want available during battle through a pre-battle pause menu of some sort will be part of the strategy of the game.
This also seems to be mercifully replacing the “auto-battle” option of the first two games, which was one of the single most-criticized aspects of the Paradigm Shift battle system. In Lightning Returns, you can finally choose both the role and the action.
XIII-2 already played around with time travel and its successor is following suit. There are 13 in-game days the player has to complete the game. These days translate into roughly two hours each in real-time.
The two wrinkles to this system are that the player can perform certain actions to extend their time in the game by completing tasks given to them by NPCs. These will probably in the form of side quests where you hunt down a powerful monster or track down some sort of time-reversing item. Though there will be one canonical ending, there will also be multiple endings that require additional playthroughs to attain. It sounds like a hybrid of various aspects of past Square games: the multiple endings of Chrono Trigger, the completion aspect of XIII-2 and the need to playthrough the game at least twice to achieve that completion like X-2.
Not much has been shown about the customization aspect, but XIII featured passive boosts on many of its weapons and accessories. Some hidden combinations even provided more powerful boosts. XIII-2 had something similar but also added a modest synthesis mechanic where you combined drops with existing weapons to create more powerful gear.
And obviously you will get to play dress-up with Lightning, like the dresspheres mechanic in X-2 but hopefully with a little more taste and modesty. Little is known about what this will look like in-game and whether or not different looks will actually have enhancements tied to them. It’s possible that this will just be for visual preference only, like the various DLC outfits in XIII-2.
Hopefully, Lightning’s default outfits from the first two games won’t be ones you’ll have to pay for, but that’s wishful thinking.
It’s possible that Lightning Returns will sell to the same three million people that stayed for XIII-2. It might even sell less than that, especially on the Xbox 360 platform, which suffered a precipitous decline in sales between iterations, to the tune of 67%.
Given the various gameplay tweaks that made XII-2 a funner, albeit shorter, experience overall, one has to wonder something about the third game in a series a lot of gamers have long since checked-out on:
What if Lightning Returns is a really good game?
This is always a difficult quality to judge in Final Fantasy games since the design philosophy behind them is to do something different every time, at least historically. Yet, just as XIII-2 seemed to have been developed largely to address all the criticisms leveled at the first game, Lightning Returns seems to be taking that same ethos of refining and improving existing systems to its next logical conclusion. Now, you have a hot-keyed and streamlined version of a battle system a lot of us never fully grasped anyway, which will give it a pseudo-real time action feel. There will at least be the suggestion or notion of freedom as related to the countdown mechanic, as well as the purported customization options. At roughly 26 hours, assuming that each of the 13 days takes 2 hours and you choose not to extend the time or do a second playthrough, that’s still about twice as long as an Assassin’s Creed game, though admittedly paltry for a Final Fantasy game.
The issue here is control. I think most gamers checked-out of this series because the most cutting and pessimistic view you could have is that you were basically a cutscene director who just pressed “X” a lot. That’s either terribly reductive or extremely accurate depending on what your tastes are. If Lightning Returns finally gives us that level of control that we have come to expect from modern games, I think it really has a shot next year to generate some positive buzz.
Square-Enix has done a good job so far of branding this game the exact way it needs to, as it continues the story for people who have stuck with the series, but also welcomes new or lapsed players into the fold by setting it many years in the future so that you don’t feel like you’ve had to have played the previous two games. Lightning is unarguably the most popular aspect of this series, and at five games within a three year release window (including handheld offerings Dissidia 012 and Theatrhythm), is curiously more utilized than any other Final Fantasy character in history, including Cloud and Yuna, the stars of the franchise’s most popular modern entries. For better and for worse, Square-Enix is hitching its wagon to the character. Whether or not it’s a good game, and whether or not it finally returns the series to a 90+ Metacritic rating, which it hasn’t reached since the release of Final Fantasy XII seven years ago, there’s one thing both fans and detractors of this series can agree on:
I think the general consensus of Halo 4 is that it is a gorgeous and well-made AAA shooter that long-time Halo fans will love. The multiplayer manages to incorporate a lot of the customization concepts Call of Duty has made the genre standard while still retaining, more or less, that unmistakable Halo feel. The reception to the single player has been more mixed, the campaign dense with lore that punishes you for not reading all of the novels and comics, eerily mirroring similar complaints leveled at another Xbox 360 exclusive, 2011’s Gears of War 3. You might not like Halo at all on a personal level, and you might have wished that Halo 4 was more innovative in certain respects, but it inherently has too much quality to be deemed a bad game by most any practical measure. The green box with the 87 on Metacritic confirms that.
Then there’s the 5.8 in the yellow circle next to it, aggregated from user reviews, and the now-infamous 1/5 score given by Tom Chick in his review for Quarter To Three.
I have not played Halo 4. I am not going to buy and play it. I own a 360 but I just don’t like Halo. This write-up is not about the game or the series as a whole. It’s about this user comment, made on the website Giant Bomb:
“…but goddamn its not a 1/5, and id hate for this to dock their metacritic and possibly make 343 lose a bonus for the game that they worked years on and IS a quality product,” (sic)
I think games journalism is still reeling from the controversy surrounding Rab Florence, Geoff Keighley, Lauren Wainwright, and a bag of ostentatiously-placed Doritos. I’m not going to provide links because you’ve probably read about the whole thing already. If accusations of “payola,” of games journalists being too cozy with PR reps, is a major concern most gamers have about the business surrounding our favorite hobby, I’m going to posit another, far more serious concern that I have as a gamer and consumer.
Why the fuck do I feel personally responsible for some guy keeping his job?
Look, we live in a consumer capitalist society. We vote with our wallets. It is because of us that the gaming industry is now bigger than Hollywood. It is because of our passion and devotion to the advancement of interactive software that many talented programmers, artists and designers can make a living creating the games we love to play. That’s all well and good.
But, the amount of pressure put on us to purchase product is now officially getting out of hand.
So, let me get this straight. You want me to plunk down $60 six months in advance based on trailers and preview articles? Alright, fine. OK, you want me to drop $80 for a limited edition that includes a 24-page artbook and a soundtrack, and maybe a steelcase? I…guess that’s cool. I see, now you want me to pay $150, nearly the price of the actual console itself, to buy a version of your game that includes the artbook, the soundtrack, the steelcase, and a statue? Um…OK.
But that’s not enough, is it? It’s not enough that I can’t name another fairly-accessible hobby that is as expensive as video games (we’re talking common hobbies here, not collecting condor eggs). Now, we’re talking about Metacritic scores, pre-order numbers, bonuses, and how I am actually responsible for someone’s job. If I don’t buy Halo 4, or if Tom Chick decides to give it his honest low review score, then guess what? We are directly responsible for the jobs of all the people at 343.
Why do we know that this is how the games industry works? Why should we care? Why is the inherently self-interested act of spending our discretionary income on video games being turned into some sort of virtuous act of helping people keep their jobs? Is it my fault that I didn’t buy Blur, which lead to Activision closing the doors of Bizarre Creations? Or is it simply that I was already enjoying Need for Speed, Forza, Gran Turismo, Dirt, Mario Kart, or any of the other racing games already on the market? Did Activision honestly expect a racing game not part of an existing franchise to move 3-4 million copies in the first place? Is it my fault that I didn’t buy Vanquish, further putting Japanese game development in the grave and leading to the departure of Shinji Mikami from Platinum Games? Or was it the fault of the developers and Sega, who decided to make a five-hour score attack game? A modern-day shooter with no multiplayer mode?
For the record, I eventually picked up Vanquish used and thought it was a great game. But I still personally felt that I just wasn’t going to pay $60 for it, period, as is my right as a consumer. It is grotesque, disturbing and wholly unnecessary for the gaming industry, publishers, developers, and yes even journalists, to put so much pressure on us to, well, give them jobs.
Who the hell is out there doing that for us?
The flip-side to this is that, well, it’s nice to know how the industry works, and the idea that 343 would be in trouble if Halo 4 doesn’t sell truckloads and garner a high Metacritic score is unfortunately true. Imagine some sort of nightmare scenario if Halo 4 bombed. Let’s say it only sold 100,000 copies, after we already know that the game is Microsoft’s most expensive to date and probably needs to ultimately sell 4-6 million to turn a profit.
Safe to say that everyone at 343 probably would be out of a job. A scary thought, and one that I should not in any way feel responsible for, just as Tom Chick should not feel responsible for snatching bonuses out of the development team’s hands because he’s part of the reason why that aforementioned green box on Metacritic doesn’t have a 90 inside it.
We’ve been subjected to a lot of sales talk recently and some of it truly boggles the mind. THQ posted a loss because they needed Darksiders II to shift two million units just to break even and it’s only reached 1.4 million with interest in the game waning. Did any real gamer who talks to other real gamers honestly expect Darksiders II to be a smash-hit? If I asked you before its release if you thought the game was going to move two million or more, what would you have said?
Square-Enix also posted a loss and Sleeping Dogs appears to be the culprit. The game has only moved about 1.5 million, which was apparently far below their projections. So, let me get this straight. Square-Enix expected a game everyone knew was abandoned by Activison during its True Crime days, a game that used a brand-new IP that isn’t exactly going to win any branding awards anytime soon (the word “sleeping” should probably never be in the title of a AAA video game you want to sell millions of units), to sell, what, 3 million? 4 million? More? Just because we knew it was like Grand Theft Auto doesn’t mean that it is Grand Theft Auto brand-wise. Even though I bought and loved the game, the three casuals I work with who own every GTA game have never even heard of it. So now the industry will take the failure of Sleeping Dogs as proof positive that the Activision model works. That you over-leverage an existing, already-popular IP until you have systematically squeezed all of the value out of it like it’s an orange being juiced for breakfast.
Activision posted profits of $751 million this past quarter and now it all makes sense to me. Even though someone at 343 might get fired because I didn’t buy Halo 4, my six year old, Skylanders-obsessed nephew has paid for the college funds of the kids of 2-3 dudes at Toys for Bob.
I hope he can get into college himself. He’d probably have a much better chance if he wasn’t playing and collecting Skylanders all day.
This is not going to be about GameStop being evil and how the used games market is killing the industry. I’m not going to toss hyperbole around and make any moral or ethical judgments about the re-selling of previously purchased video games. The practice of re-selling physical property you bought with your own money is legal, period. Used game sales might be taking money away from hard-working publishers and developers, but the reality is that everyone gets laid-off due to factors beyond their control, and if you have a great civic argument about why people who make video games deserve to keep their jobs more than farmers, teachers and cops, I’d love to hear it.
No, the truth is, you shouldn’t trade-in your games because it’s simply going to cost you more in the long run.
First off, the retail consumer goods industry as a whole is built upon a very simple principle: to sell goods for more than what they are worth, as well as what they actually cost to produce. This is an intrinsic aspect of buying things sold to you by someone else, be it an online or brick-and-mortar store. For the convenience of buying a boxed product, you are also paying for the cost of manufacturing, marketing, customer service, and the various other activities a business needs in order to operate. These things are commonly referred to as “overhead.”
What this means is that, unless you’re a jerk eBay reseller who buys up all the copies of a rare Atlus release and sells them for a 150% mark-up, you are always going to lose money by trading-in your games, or even by selling them yourself. You are going to take a loss on the purchase because, no matter what you get for it, you no longer possess the product itself. Even if it’s just collecting dust on your shelf, and even if you haven’t played it in five years and don’t plan on popping the disc in the tray ever again, the moment you enter into a transaction to rid yourself of the game, you are losing money.
I know you must be thinking, “Well, duh. This is why trade-in programs exist in the first place. Video games lose value quickly and, once I’ve beat the campaign or story mode, I’m not going to play it again anyway.” It might seem like trading-in a game is the best solution to getting at least “something” for an item that is no longer “worth” anything to you, either in terms of personal utility or market value, but this is often a myopic perspective. I regularly check eight gaming websites multiple times throughout the day. I watch trailers, live demos, and reviews as soon as they are posted. I love games and am always excited for the next big release, as I’m sure many of you are. Video game marketing is greatly effective in generating hype, but the downside to the perpetual, iterative nature of the industry is that you often don’t really take the time to truly appreciate a great game because its sequel is already due out for release in five months. Before you pull the trigger and trade-in that game, I want you to ask yourself the following questions:
1) Have I beat this game on every difficulty level?
2) Have I played the game so much that I have memorized the level design/drops/secrets/enemy spawn areas?
3) Does my personal taste in games dictate that I would, one day, feel like breaking out this game again and playing it, even if that day is years from now?
4) Do I appreciate, grasp, and understand the actual gameplay mechanics of this game?
I understand that games are entertainment and there are many of you out there who play for the experience and the story. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; in fact, you are the exact consumer the games industry covets. The people who make the games want you because you will buy the sequels and they don’t have to work as hard to impress you as veteran gamers, and the people who offer trade-in programs want you because you might just be that type of gamer who plays a game on Easy, blows through it in five hours, and trades it in immediately after that.
No matter how many cutscenes or QTEs developers cram into our games these days, however, the unassailable truth is that the absolute worth of a game lies in its gameplay mechanics. It’s easy to understand how someone could pour hundreds of hours into Skyrim and Mass Effect, games that are designed for multiple playthroughs, or the obvious multiplayer examples like Gears of War and Call of Duty, but if you truly grasp the complexity and genius-level work that it takes to develop and code a game, you can find replay value in even the most linear single-player experiences. Mirror’s Edge might have been derided for being too “short,” but not for the community of speedrun maestros who have learned how to beat the entire game in an hour by studying it via countless playthroughs. Dead Space 2 might be the industry’s first and only two-DVD, six-hour game, but if you haven’t played that game on the hardest difficulty setting, you haven’t really played it.
From memorizing levels to studying physics engines to trying to break the game by looking for glitches, you need time to really appreciate a game instead of just “beating” it. If you’ve never felt what it was like to “master” a game instead of just fumbling through it on your first and only playthrough, you are missing out on one of the irreplaceable things about gaming that no other entertainment medium can replicate.
Now, say you’ve played the living shit out of your game. You’ve played it so much you are sick of it and can’t think of what else to do except trade it in. At that point, I would ask myself the following questions:
1) Would I list the game as one of my greatest games ever?
2) Did I love the art and/or sound design of the game?
3) Do I think that games are art? Or, at the very least, that this particular game qualifies as art?
On one level, video games are tech, and like all tech, they become obsolete. Graphics get better, sound gets crisper, voice acting gets more professional, etc. Yet, just as there are people who collect Apple products and display them as artistic works, games are made by master craftsmen and cannot possibly be seen as entirely replaceable.
Games are an immersive medium that engage multiple senses at once. I have been known to stick Persona 3 into my dusty Playstation 2 for five minutes just to run around the mall area and listen to a lady sing in Engrish that she “never felt like” something or other. The polygon count of the character models might be low compared to today’s standards, and it might be running at 480p instead of 1080p, but the art design itself is never going to age for me. I pop Jet Set Radio Future in every once in a while just to admire the artistic quality of the cel-shaded graphics, the catchy-annoying “Birthday Cake” song, and to reminisce about the fact that, a decade after its release, I still have never been more thrilled by a game than I was during JSRF’s “The Skyscraper District and Pharoah Park” level.
I can play the final boss battle in the original Gears of War probably every single day and never get tired of it, just as I will never tire of running alongside Liberty Prime in Fallout 3. Even a simple, solitary moment, like running across a suspended bridge in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow just to admire how beautifully the cursed castle itself is rendered, is an act of appreciation that can enrich your passion and understanding for the medium of video games.
This is something that not everyone can bring themselves to do, and while that is understandable, there is a value to seeing games this way that cannot be assigned a monetary value. Games aren’t just tech, and they’re not just art. They’re art that you can play, manipulate, and interact with. Adopting this type of mindset will help you to see the true “worth” of the games that you buy.
The one thing that you should never do is get rid of your game without thinking it through, only to realize that you made a mistake and purchase it again. Purchasing a game that you have already owned once before is both unnecessary and highly costly. Not only do you spend your time buying something you’ve already bought once before, but whatever price you are paying for the second copy should be deducted out of the trade-in credit you received. If you traded-in a $60 game for a $20 credit only to buy it again later for $20, guess what? You just threw away the entire $60 you initially spent. Think about that for a moment. You literally gave away your game for nothing.
You will notice that, often, used games come without manuals or cover art. The discs are sometimes scratched, though they will still play. I have often asked myself just who these people are – people who will pay $60 for something and then proceed to treat the item with a complete lack of respect. Who the hell throws away manuals and inserts? Who the hell treats $60 game discs like coasters at a local sports bar?
I can’t answer that question, but what I do know is that the lacking condition of many used games reflects the mindset of some of the people who trade-in games in the first place. Everything is disposable. Everything is throwaway. It’s always about the next big thing instead of the thing they already possess and have already paid for. The games industry hype machine is about fostering this mindset, but in the ways I have outlined, this kind of thinking costs you in the long run.
Lastly, I know most of us don’t have the money to buy every new game we want at full retail price without some sort of assistance, and that’s perfectly fine. If you determine that trading in your games is the only thing that you can do in order to afford Dishonored or Halo 4 in the coming months, I only hope that you have really considered the long-term costs of getting rid of your games. Maybe you can even look at it like you’re the curator of your own personal collection of perfect games. Games that make a statement about your tastes as a gamer. Games that you have lived with for a long time. Games that you will always remember. You don’t have to own every single game; just the games you really love. Whatever you decide to do, games are an expensive hobby, and it would be a shame for you to waste your hard-earned money on them unnecessarily.