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Square Enix's Community Approach: One Year On

January 23, 2012

Just over 12 months ago I wrote an article that expressed a desire for Square Enix to properly cultivate and utilize the online communities of their Japanese-developed titles. That article was something I was fairly proud of, setting out a manifesto from a community perspective of what should be done and why, citing good examples from other gaming companies as well as examples of why Square Enix had failed up to that point and theorizing why that was the case.

That article feels like it was published far more than a year ago now, mostly because so much has changed. There's material stuff that you guys, our readers, will already know - at that point Final Fantasy XIII-2, which has caused a flurry of community activity, was yet to be announced (it was confirmed later that day at the 1st Production Department Premiere) - but there's also a metric ton of behind-the-scenes action across the last year that has changed my opinion of Square Enix's Community efforts.

Community Manager Appreciation Day

I'm publishing this today because January 23rd is Community Manager Appreciation Day online (more info here) and I do believe that the Square Enix teams in the entire of the Western world deserve a pat on the back for the conviction and eagerness they've approached this year and future plans with. I enter 2012 excited for Square Enix's Community plans where 2011 had me apathetic.

The words 'Social Media Strategy' are incredibly boring to say or to hear, but what they mean is actually quite exciting if you like the properties involved - and what we've heard from Square Enix on their Social Media Strategy in the past 12 months invigorates us. We've had our own suggestions of how to better it, too, and handed them over.

Days after that article members of the European Community team behind the Square Enix Members site reached out to me via IM and stood up to be counted. It takes balls to read an article like that and not only argue points of contention but also throw your hands up to the things highlighted in there they knew they needed to change or improve - and they did that. My respect went through the roof immediately - and future plans were laid out and made me very excited indeed.

One thing that is clearly understood by the team at Square Enix is that 2012 is a vital year for them to get right with both their games and their communities. With Final Fantasy turning 25 this year and Kingdom Hearts turning 10, the two largest banner Japanese series' in the West both have major things to celebrate, as well as new releases in the form of XIII-2, Kingdom Hearts 3D and probably - probably - Type-0.

2012's also vital for Final Fantasy XIV, which is to see a rebirth of a sort - and hopes are high we'll see more on Versus XIII at E3, GamesCom or Tokyo Game Show this year, if not all three. On top of that the Square Enix community team has to manage efforts for top-drawer Western-developed games like Hitman and Tomb Raider - but they seem to be more acutely aware than ever that community efforts for Japanese games need to be equally as comprehensive.

The Japanese Problem

There's a problem here, of course, laid out back in that article 12 months ago - those games are developed in Japan. Tomb Raider has Megan Marie in-house at Crystal Dynamics to co-ordinate community efforts from inside the developer, whilst Hitman's IO Interactive has Nick Price and Deus Ex's Eidos Montreal has Kyle Stallock. It's much easier to build communities when constant contact with the developer is easy and assured. For those who ask why FF doesn't have management like that - and we've been asked a fair bit - it's because of the ocean.

The same is true of some of the big community successes in the past 5 years - EA's Bioware Social website is massive and has built a huge community which is sometimes borderline cultist towards the games they're about, but a big part of that is how members of the development team - like Mass Effect Producer Jesse Houston (now no longer with Bioware) would interact, moderating forums and addressing fan concerns directly alongside community leads Chris and Jessica. Incredibly, even the Bioware Doctors - the dynamic duo in charge of the company - have visible and semi-active Bioware Social accounts.

I don't know about you, but I can't see Tetsuya Nomura or Yoshinori Kitase posting on a Japanese forum, leave alone an English one - it's just not in the genetic make-up of the company for that to be considered something that's done. FF14's Naoki Yoshida does interact directly with his community, but bringing this up with Kitase in November underlined that it's unlikely you'll see that level of openness for single-player FF or KH games.

"Generally speaking I think it's a good idea to get all of the community involved, and we are definitely about that," Kitase told me. "On the other hand, you have to think of the natures of the different genres. MMO and 'boxed' titles are very different."

"For example, Final Fantasy XIV is an online game, and after the release it still has to keep evolving and taking in all sorts of ideas, and even if there's some mistakes or some areas that could be better, you can actually release a patch - there's a different way for the game to develop."

We get it - MMOs are different, and the way companies like Bioware have invited the public into the development process of single-player games like Mass Effect in small ways is probably too progressive for the conservative 1st Production Department to consider right now. This is the group that's behind the closed mega theatres - pictured above - remember. The Western community teams will have to find a different way.

Positive Examples Revisited

Previously I underlined SEGA, where Community reps have entrenched themselves so deeply into the fan communities it's sometimes hard to pick them out. Aaron Webber, known to the Sonic community as RubyEclipse, has become the spokesman that current series boss Takashi Iizuka cannot due to both language and cultural barriers, switching from a Community role to one as a Brand Manager.

Capcom has the same, with Seth Killian taking on dual roles. He's technically the 'Strategic Director for Online and Community' - a boring old title - but he also revealed to me in an interview that he has another role within Capcom - 'Special Combat Advisor' - not only cooler-sounding, but more interesting.

An ex-tournament fighting game player (and University Lecturer) himself, Seth was a community hire who knew acutely about the systems of the games he'd be managing. He became a conduit of sorts, gleaning information from tournaments, websites and message boards, filtering and summarizing it before feeding it back to game producers Yoshinori Ono and Ryota Niitsuma and into the creation of the hugely successful Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

There's a lot of people to thank for the fighting game revival, but Seth Killian should be one of the first names on anyone's list - it was his feedback that led to a lot of what made Street Fighter IV so successful, reviving a series that was for all intents and purposes dead. What he's been instrumental in doing has been huge not just for the community, but for Capcom as a company. The fighting game revival has helped them hugely. Seth's position as part of the community as well as Capcom has allowed him to steer the company through community outrage at 'on disc' DLC and disliked gameplay elements expertly, too.

The problem here, though, is that these guys have much more focused roles. You generally won't see Seth rolling around at events for Resident Evil, for instance - and the brilliant Square Enix team have a lot of duties to tend to outside of the Japanese franchises. For this strategy to work roles would have to change and it'd cost money - and they're perhaps not ready for that yet.

That's me laying out what would be really nice to happen, but it's worth saying that Square Enix's Community teams are working on some really exciting projects that will have impacts on the online communities as they are - and hopefully stem some of the bleeding that has continued to strike fan sites down in the past year.

Success in these ventures isn't guaranteed but feels fairly likely given the effort and thought being put into it - and hopefully this will then cause the top-end of the company to kick more money and tools the way of the community team to build a larger team, run better events and make more things happen.

Ahead on our Way

As FF13-2 debuts record low debut sales in Japan despite being a better game, it's clear that the boom years of FF7-10 and appear to be gone (for now) for FF. Even Kingdom Hearts has seen shrinkage - likely due to the lack of a 'proper' KH3 - and so these communities need to be handled more carefully and grown less aggressively than before.

What Square Enix does for their Japanese franchises has to be grass roots - and we think that's what they want to do, too. The initial lay-out may be extensive, but it should be repaid in kind with a greater series interest as fans help to generate hype both on and offline. It's exciting.

Our interest in Community Management and how it works and how it could work for Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts and Square Enix continues to grow - and we're definitely looking forward to the back-end of the year where Square Enix plans may start to materialize - but also we fan sites have some tricks of our own which involve bringing several sites and communities together - but we'll talk more on that later.

We've rambled - and we come full circle to the fact that today is Community Manager Appreciation Day. Because of that, we want to reach out and thank them all publically for the last year - Rob, Phil, Ben, Matt and Antonio (Jem too, who is no longer with the company) - and the Eidos developer CMs, too - as your efforts are amazing. They're what’s made us try to keep the pulse beating on UFF as it enters its twelfth year - so thank you - keep up the great, hard work.

There's a long way to go, but the road looks a lot clearer for us than this time last year. Here's hoping things continue to get better - we've just got to keep at it. After all, "There ain't no gettin' offa this train we're on 'til we get to the end of the line," Right?