Pondering… PS4 Stream Blocking

Square-Enix uses the PS4's stream blocking feature to block cutscenes instead of login screens. This is me talking about why I think that's bad, but also trying to work through why they might have decided to do it.

Cross-posted from my personal blog.

I was rather salty about the fact that Square-Enix uses the PS4’s stream blocking capabilities on cutscenes in FFX/X-2 HD Remaster. Having gained some distance between me and the making of my FFX let’s play, I’ve made a video that talks about why I think it’s a bad thing to for Square-Enix to have done and how I think the blocking might have come about.

Hello everyone, Crowbeak here. I recently had a very frustrating experience with streaming to Twitch from my PS4. It’s not Sony’s fault; on the contrary, they have done something awesome which was, I fear, abused by Square-Enix. To be fair, it is possible that Square-Enix did what they did because of legalities. I don’t actually know what all factored into their decision-making. Unfortunately, the fact remains that one of the best features of the PS4 can be used by developers in ways that are harmful to internet content producers.

So first off, a tiny bit of background: in case you’re unaware, Sony built the PS4 with social sharing in mind. There’s a share button on the controller which allows users to easily do any number of things from sharing a screenshot to Twitter real quick to recording a video of that sick move they just pulled off to be edited later to streaming straight to Twitch. In spite of the number of times that I’ve accidentally hit the share button on the controller when I really just wanted to open up an in-game menu, I think it’s great that Sony prioritized ease of sharing.

Also built into the system, and this is the part that’s awesome, are protections to keep users from accidentally sharing personal information. The system will not capture screenshots or footage of system menus. It just won’t. If the user is streaming footage to the internet, the visuals change to a PlayStation blue background with cute little face button icons rolling across the screen until the player returns to gameplay. Whether the person is going out to the main system menu or just saving a file, the system ensures that young, naive children or even absentminded adults can’t inadvertently share something that no one else has any business seeing.

Another great thing Sony has done is make this video blocking available to developers. I first discovered this when playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. That game allows you to sign in with your EA Origin account details, but it blocks recording of visuals before showing users the login screen. I don’t know if Sony requires developers to use this feature to protect account information before giving them PS4 console certification, but I hope they do.

This brings me, however, to Square-Enix’s use of the video blocking system in Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster. There’s no logging in to be done. Instead, it’s used to block cutscenes. In playing Final Fantasy X, the only cutscenes blocked were the love scene in the Macalania Woods and the ending of the game, from the defeat of the final boss all the way through the end of the credits.

I found this both incredibly frustratng and utterly mind-boggling.

The first blocked scene is at least halfway through the main storyline. I had been making a let’s play of the game, recorded by streaming to Twitch and then cutting episodes out as highlights to export to YouTube. Not an elegant solution, but the only one available to me without a capture box. My frustration arose specifically because my let’s play was largely focused on the main character’s transformation from selfish jerk to a man willing to set aside his own wants and needs to do what was required for the good of all. Both of the blocked scenes are important parts of the storytelling surrounding that, and not being able to show them was awful.

To add insult to injury, the game is older than YouTube and both of those scenes have been readily available for watching online for almost as long as YouTube has been around. Even if that weren’t the case, there are plenty of people with capture boxes bound to be making HD Remaster let’s plays to put online. What could Square-Enix possibly gain?

My first thought was that there must be a music licensing issue. This is still my only theory, in spite of a number of things that don’t add up. For one thing, when the video is blocked, the audio still plays, so if they were trying to keep the music from going through, they failed. Second, the rendered blitzball cutscene at the beginning of Final Fantasy X also has a vocal song in it, and that scene wasn’t blocked.

However, the pumped-up strains of rock that infuse that blitzball game and, later, the final real boss fight of the game are not the pop song which was undoubtedly cross-promoted with the game. I wasn’t in Japan for the release of Final Fantasy X, but I was here for the release of Kingdom Hearts II and have been here for the release of other games and anime and who knows what else that have been marketed via the use of music.

It’s not uncommon in Japan for a musician to make a song for use in some other form of media but still retain the rights to sell that song, be it as a single or part of a full album. They promote the song months before the cross-promotional media is set to come out and both parties benefit from interwoven hype trains. It’s a very effective tactic in Japan, where some people care so much about having physical tokens of things that they’ll pay the equivalent of twenty bucks for a CD single. And if the song goes viral, well… the cross-promoted media is guaranteed to be a success and could get a pretty big boost to its long tail. The popularity of Frozen’s “Let It Go” still hasn’t waned much here, as an example of the longevity of viral music in the Japanese popular market.

Since we’ve already seen that Japanese companies don’t always understand the internet, thanks to Nintendo stomping all over let’s players trying to share their games — and they’re a gaming company, even, one which opted to skip big events and move all their announcements online! — between that and my own experiences with regular Japanese people, proving to me that they often don’t understand the internet, it’s easy to imagine that Square-Enix could fail to see how blocking these scenes might cause bitterness in users, particularly in the western users who are likely to make up the bulk of streamers. It’s even easier to imagine that whoever owns the rights to the music might have refused to grant Square-Enix rights to use the song in the remastered version of the game unless they agreed to block video recording.

Whether it’s legal concerns or just plain bullheadedness on Square-Enix’s part, it’s still sad to think that companies could be inclined to use a great feature of the PS4 to drive a few miles backwards. We’ve got indie developers actively marketing to YouTubers and streamers, but not Square-Enix. They’ll block recording for everything from the moment you load up Final Fantasy X-2 to the end of the opening cutscene so that it feels from the get-go like there’s no point in bothering.

I really don’t know what lesson to look for here. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. This could have been (and almost was) a rant video. I was really looking forward to playing Final Fantasy X and its sequel back to back and analyzing the second as best I could in light of everything I know so well about the first game. I’m still doing that, but I won’t be able to share my thoughts on Final Fantasy X-2 with others the way I shared my thoughts on its predecessor, and that’s sad. The two games are very different in so many ways that comparing and contrasting them is not just a great way to study game design but also, perhaps, important from a historical perspective.

Anyway, I digress. Sadness. That, I guess, is what I will leave you with. This whole thing has made me very, very sad.

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