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Why Square Enix need to cultivate their Fanbase

January 17, 2011

It's January 17th 2011, and Square Enix are set to hold a Press Conference over in Japan that'll change the path of the Final Fantasy series for the foreseeable future. In less than 24 hours Square Enix's "1st Production Department Premiere" will detail information on games we already know about like Final Fantasy Versus XIII and Kingdom Hearts 3DS but also likely confirm some new Final Fantasy titles and spin-offs.

For obvious reasons, we at UFFSite are excited. It means more games for us to write about and play, and hopefully it means new Final Fantasy fans will join our ranks - but that excitement is somewhat dampened by something we've been thinking for a while now - that Square Enix needs to better cultivate their fanbase.

At UFFSite we're lucky - unlike some fan sites we have day-to-day contact with the teams at Square Enix PR. People like - and we hope you don't mind the shout-outs - Roxy, Adam and Alex in the UK and Sonia, Elizabeth and Amelia in the US have helped us out to no end over the years and done an absolutely fantastic job - but we can't help but feel something is missing.

Following Positive Examples

The social networking revolution has led to massive changes in the way publishers promote and market games, but we feel that in spite of the launch of sites like Square Enix Members (which now also has a European portal) not enough has changed for Final Fantasy, or Square Enix's Japanese output in general. While a company like Bioware have their Community Manager 'Evil' Chris Priestly posting on their forums, interacting directly with fans and resolving issues, Square Enix lacks a definitive, strong voice that can represent them within and speaking to the fanbase.

Meanwhile the Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Official Thread on NeoGAF - one of the largest gaming forums on the web - has a SEGA community man answering questions and dealing with some of the fan issues with the deeply polarizing release and promising to pass them back to developers. In 2010, SEGA went as far as to partner with fan site Sonic Retro to garner feedback on Sonic 4, covertly slipping them information on plans for the game to share with the fans to find out what they thought about the game concept and design.

Months later, after a lukewarm reception for the still-flawed game (that's still a firm step in the right direction over other recent Sonic efforts) SEGA PR and Community reps thank fans who bought the game more than once through for their support in a video. Considering the angry fever in the Sonic fan community over the game (not dissimilar to the FF community's reaction to FF13,) the comments on the video are overwhelmingly positive.

To us, that's impressive community management. We love what Square Enix are doing with their official Members website, but, to be honest, it also feels like its lacking. The members’ website tends to come down to a few simple things: you can register your purchases, rewards will be given out for those registrations, and then occasionally there'll be competitions and special events which members can gain access to. There are also news posts, but those largely amount to announcing a new contest, revealing winners or reminding that a game is now out. It's an improvement on what came before, but we also feel it could be so much more.

Few game franchises have the pedigree, history and rabidly loyal fanbase that Final Fantasy has, and it's crazy to us to think that Square Enix don't really do much to leverage that brand's power online. Compare the efforts of Square Enix to Capcom Unity, which is a vast site that has managed to become a major portal for fans of franchises like Street Fighter, Resident Evil and Ace Attorney. On top of that, the posting of actual, personal blog posts from members of the Capcom Community, Marketing and PR teams gives it a personal touch that invites gamers and fans into the 'inner workings' of Capcom, and better still, the site supports fan events such as fighting game tournaments by promoting them. It's hard to argue that isn't a night and day difference from Square Enix Members.

Or how about the SEGA blog, which has separate sections for US and EU posts, and, again, feels a little more personal? SEGA also have truly admirable fan interaction on their Twitter Feed, giving away tons of free stuff every week, laughing and joking with fans, each PR or Community Rep signing off with a signature so fans know who's responsible.

When you compare the Twitter antics of companies like SEGA, Bioware and even, bizarrely, Eidos to the stoic, straight-business tweets of Square Enix EU and Final Fantasy XIV there's a marked difference. We can comment in a slightly personal way, too - Square Enix EU used to Follow both UFFSite and RPG Site on Twitter alongside a bunch of Square Enix staff members' private Twitter Feeds - but at some point inexplicably dropped all of their 50-something follows, presumably after a higher-up decided they had to go; they couldn't been seen to endorse anyone - not even their own staff, who had wisely put disclaimers saying "Opinions are my own" in their Twitter Bios. Contact with fans seems to be somehow taboo. As for us - Surely the big fat "Unofficial" in our name is enough to avoid any confusion?

Even smaller companies tend to get it more right than Square Enix - perhaps because they have less to worry about - with Atlus and Nippon Ichi cultivating huge audiences of fans who they then drive to pick up their niche games on launch day.

Closed Mega Theatre: The Cultural Difference

Perhaps it's a cultural thing. Studios from the West or studios with a Western-focus like EA, Capcom and SEGA seem to be faring better in the community arms race. The Japanese approach is more hands-off - this is a company that, after all, locked down tomorrow's major Press Conference to 10,000 people watching the online stream and in the past have sealed trailers off from the public in a 'Closed' area of their booth. These are things I expect to see behind closed doors at E3 where magazines and websites net exclusives, but not teasing the public, showing some and not others. While I'll be the first to admit it's a different kettle of fish entirely, imagine if Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo did that at E3? Lordy.

So what am I saying? I'm saying Square Enix need to be more hands-on with their community. They need to embrace the fans and the fan sites - or at least those who are legal and safe and aren't sharing out tons of illegal game and music downloads and FF-themed pornography - and be more diverse and dynamic in their community offerings.

Expanding Square Enix Members to do more and be more useful and be more of a portal would be great, and so would deeper relations with fan sites. A community day, inviting them out to the offices, before the next big release, would be ideal. We're lucky - we get to go to all the FF press events thanks to our connection to RPG Site anyway - but few other FF sites do.

I'm not saying they should necessarily do this with their current team, mind. I know those guys. I know that they all work themselves very, very hard, and the last thing they need is yet another duty on their plates. Indeed, when you're managing as much as they are, it's no surprise that the Marketing and PR guys at Square Enix (props and a call-out to Antonio here) have had to fight hard to get the community efforts so far off the ground.

What they need, perhaps, is a dedicated Community person - even if it's just one person to handle all their community stuff for Japanese titles. They need to learn lessons from their now-brothers at Eidos, who have Community Management positions for popular series' such as Tomb Raider. They need a strong voice, a stand-out individual, perhaps - to become the conduit between the company and the fans. Somebody who is, themselves, a fan, too. Somebody who understands both the necessities of business and the yearnings of the fan.

Past that, I think above all else they need to start embracing the other hubs for fans. The only way to continue to grow Square Enix members as a true hub for fans - as Capcom Unity has become to fans of Capcom's games - is to also embrace those that were leaders in the fan community before those sites existed.

This isn't easy. These things aren't free. They cost money. It's expensive to employ a Community Manager, expensive to hold Community Days and expensive to fly important figures from that community out to places to see new games - and right now, Square Enix Upper Management might not believe that such things are a good way to spend their money. It's down to us, then, to raise our voices and stamp our feet and raise the issue with them - which is half the reason this article exists.

A negative pattern

We spoke about the leaders in the community from the old days. Along those lines, we have to extend a shout-out to the guys at Eyes on FF, the ever-dedicated folks at the FF7 Citadel, the FF-Wiki before Wikipedia existed at FF Compendium, our buddies at The Final Fantasy, the French guys over at FF World and the half-dead FF Spirit. Hell, hello even to the illegal-download havens of FF Insider and FF Shrine, who we don't tend to associate with too much any more due to some of the stuff they host.

But are you noticing a pattern? FF Compendium closed in mid 2009; FF Insider has months between news posts, and FFShrine's last post was in 2006. I didn't even mention FF Online, whose banner doesn't acknowledge the existence of any FF past FF10. These are just a few examples. We at UFF aren't entirely innocent either; we moved on to brighter, shinier things in the form of a general RPG Site that lets us deal with the likes of SEGA and EA's Community Teams.

While new sites have popped up to cover new games many disappear as fast as they arrived and the community now is decidedly smaller than it was in the late 90s/early 00's heyday of PS1 FFs - strange, considering the amount of online discourse about games in general has grown. The online FF community is stagnating - and Square Enix could and should be the ones to stimulate it once more. They perhaps aren't at fault for why it stagnated - too many game releases with dwindling quality and fans growing older and leaving and not being replaced will do that - but they can fix it.

What's in it for them to do this? Well, they'll get excellent fan feedback that could help 'fix' some of the perceived problems with the series. Again, I point to SEGA, who took fan feedback very seriously with Sonic 4. While still flawed, Sonic 4 is an undoubted step in the right direction and SEGA's fan community played a massive role in its conception. The true opinions of hardcore fans can be as valuable if not significantly more so than any focus group.

To stick with the common thread of examples used so far in this piece, the guys at Capcom also took on major fan feedback in deciding the character line-up for Super Street Fighter IV via Capcom Unity, and Bioware have openly appealed for suggestions of new weapons to use in Mass Effect 3 from their Community. They've also said in interviews that they closely watch to see what fan-favourite characters should return in sequels.

So there's a bonus for development already, but past that, truly invested fans are more likely to go out and buy the games on day one. The community spirit means a member of such a site isn't going to want to wait to buy Final Fantasy XV because they'll want to join in with the intense debate amongst the fans. Even better, large fan communities draw in more, new fans - whereas right now it feels like Final Fantasy is attracting the same people it always did but failing to make any 'new' fans in the process. Treat your customers right and they'll treat you right in return.

Quoting a Fan
In the end, we moved on to save ourselves. RPG Site allowed us to continue down the path UFF and Final Fantasy set us on, writing about games we love. It's a shame to the PS1 FF fan in me that the way things have evolved have led us to write less about Square Enix's work and more about (absolutely awesome) games like Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls and Persona - but those are the cards we were dealt. I've rambled for long enough, so I'll finish this up with a quote from a friend and FF fan, who said this when I said I was writing this:

"It's amazing how different companies like Atlus and NIS [Nippon Ichi Software] are, who actually actively participate with their fanbases. Square has a lot to learn from companies like them. They come off very static in comparison."

And that's it. More dynamic, less static, more interaction - and by that we don't mean some exclusive, outlandish invite-only event for a small number of Square Enix Members at the next game launch - we mean day-to-day interaction with the fans and fan sites that helped make Final Fantasy the phenomenon it is.