Postcard from GDC Mobile 2005: Final Fantasy for Mobile: A Case Study

Kosei Ito of Square Enix shares with mobile developers some of the problems and successes in moving one of the most recognizable game brands in the world to mobile platforms.

Kosei Ito

Before Kosei Ito of Square Enix was introduced, a moderator from an earlier mobile panel remarked to the audience, "One of the things I like about this industry is that it's easy to predict the future. go to Japan and you see what's going to be coming out on our [American] phones in three years." If Ito has his way, however, it may not take nearly that long.

In his first seven years at Square Enix, Kosei Ito worked as a game producer for the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises. While there, he was instrumental in building Square Enix's mobile business from nothing to $30 million dollars a year in Japan. This year, he is hard at work in Seattle, leading the new mobile division in the US at Square Enix, Inc. Ito sees a huge potential for the American mobile market, "because it looks like three years ago in Japan."

Before looking at Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII, Ito looked at the challenges that faced the development of their first Final Fantasy mobile game: a port of the original NES/Famicom game. Although the game was in planning stages for four years, the game only saw its release in February of 2004. There was no way to do such a port any earlier, Ito explained. "Releasing a bad quality game is not an option."

Ito quickly moved through the problems that kept Final Fantasy from developing more quickly. Memory was a big issue with the majority of handsets working with a ~200 kb window. Earlier QCIF-size screens would have required massive redesigning of maps and art assets. The number of sprites that could be displayed simultaneously was also not ideal. Heap sizes were always different from handset to handset. Around one hundred audio assets had to be retuned specifically for use on individual handsets as well.

Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII

Being able to go past these limitations with new technology affordances was specifically due to close collaboration between Square Enix, NTT DoCoMo, and Panasonic. "We can do this in the US," Ito said, "but we need [carriers and handset manufacturers] as partners."

In making Final Fantasy a success on launch, all three partners used their market presence to push both the game and the new technology into the market. As Square Enix promoted the game, NTT DoCoMo used the Final Fantasy brand to push their new 9001 series phones, and Panasonic created a special "Cloud Black" edition handset.

With Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII, Square Enix strove to make a uniquely mobile phone experience where picture taking and networking were the key components. While playing the game, the player can take pictures of their environment to create new types of materia, an element from Final Fantasy VII that allows the player access to more magic abilities. Ito demonstrated the function by taking a picture of the audience and showing the result: an earth-type materia. The audience picture slowly transitioned into a clear image of the created element. A simple image recognition system allows the user to create materia that is related in some way to the picture that they just took.

The exchange of materia over the network is highly encouraged in the game. If someone needs a specific materia in a particular scene in the game, he can ask his friends to help him out, and they might send him materia from their inventory or try to create materia on the fly to help him out.

Before Crisis is also the first in a series of games that Square Enix is calling "Polymorphic Content." Traditional mobile games, Ito explained, are created as extensions of other products, and a chain of products is created, with each link being filtered in some way. The concept of Polymorphic Content is that every product that comes from novels and/or games, has a direct connection to the original creative property, keeping the strength of the brand and the individual pieces closer to the source rather than just branching off. With Before Crisis, Square decided to go back to the very beginning of the story by creating a prequel to original game, allowing the player to explore the six years that happened before the events of Final Fantasy VII.

Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII

"Can we enjoy MMORPG on phones?" Ito answered his own question with a decisive: No. "Mobile phones are not good for long and intensive play." That should not, however, keep developers from exploring other aspects of the networked component of mobile devices, Ito insisted. "To create great games on mobile phones, you will come across many hardships. please do not give up. Mobile gives us a great opportunity." Ito again iterated his point on hardware and service partnerships; once handset makers and carriers see the possibilities and are willing to form partnerships with developers, we can explore a "new world of game [creation]."

He ended the talk with a little jab that showed his confidence that Square Enix, Inc. would be the leader in the U.S. mobile games market. "If you would like to explore these great opportunities, please e-mail here." The last slide of the presentation featured the e-mail address: [email protected] .


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