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By GameSpy Staff | June 14, 2003

Square's Innovative Strategy Guide Strategy
Suggested by Paul Soth

In 2000, the Internet was still in that "hot" period where people were excited about taking perfectly workable business models and ideas and flushing them away to fit the latest gimmicky online trends. Square's Final Fantasy IX, the last new FF for the original PlayStation, was released in November. While the game was, in many ways, viewed to be a revisiting of the themes of the older games in the series, it was also a forward-looking adventure. What better way to celebrate that "information age" forward-thinking than with the game's strategy guide?

Sure, you can go to your favorite game retailer, as usual, and buy the handy $15 strategy guide, as you've been conditioned to do by clerks and game designers for years. The problem is, to enjoy the full benefits of the guide -- which you've already shelled out money for -- you've got to use it in concert with the game's official website.

My nightmares persist.
Want to access the website without buying the guide? You can't, because you need a special password. Want to play the game with the guide in your lap without running back and forth to your computer? Sorry! You'll have to access the website for the best strategy information. Chalk it up to marketing the wannabe-revolutionary PlayOnline website, which was intended as an online haven for RPG aficionados, but more or less resembled just about any other company's promotional website.

The kicker? Square had done something even dumber in Japan that July and was already aware of the disastrous results. Japanese gamers didn't want to deal with this convoluted mess any more than they did in the U.S. In its cataclysmic 2001 shareholders' meeting, Square executives had to account for the sluggish sales of IX (and the non-sales of guides, a big money item for any RPG) compared to VII and VIII, and the then-imminent black hole that was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. When questioned about the FFIX problem, President Nao Suzuki had this to say:
"In place of a guide, we decided to release strategy information gradually online, to take advantage of the opportunity to connect the game to PlayOnline. We believe this has produced definite results. We have also decided, however, to publish a strategy guide for Final Fantasy X."
That final line is the kicker. Incidentally, Final Fantasy X was wildly more successful than IX in both Japan and the U.S. -- and this was assuredly one of the reasons. Was it stupider to never release a guide (as in Japan) or to charge people for a paper guide and then force them to go online for the real meat (as in the U.S.)? It's not clear, but either option left fans sour.

ferricide: Fortunately, there's always GameFAQs if you have to go online, which doesn't cost a dime. But I didn't have to, as Final Fantasy IX wasn't my problem: I was playing the superior Skies of Arcadia for Dreamcast instead. Final Fantasy IX was definitely a love-it-or-hate-it game for series fans. It didn't appeal to me one little bit, so I managed to largely avoid the issue.

It's amusing to look at how confused the people running Square were in 2000, though. While sinking tons of money into one project after another, like FF:TSW and PlayOnline, they actually removed potential revenue streams -- like strategy guides -- from the equation. That had to hurt, and so it did. There was a big management shake up at the company. While its games are still successful, Square is still recovering from both the bad rep it earned at the time and the lack of planning for new software releases that was done then. If it wasn't for Final Fantasy X's excellence and popularity, things would be very ugly now indeed.

hardcore_pawn: The whole point of a print strategy guide is to have the information you need close at hand when playing a game. Final Fantasy RPGs are possibly the best example of why print strategy guides exist. To tie and restrict a print strategy guide with an online destination is pure madness! I can't comprehend the rationale behind it at all. But a valuable lesson was obviously learned by Square, so everything worked out in the end. Apart from the bit where it lost stacks of potential sales, cash, and street cred, that is....

Ben: Throughout gaming history, otherwise good games have been sabotaged in an amazing variety of ways. SNES Mortal Kombat had the gore removed. Numerous RPGs received atrocious, drama-killing dubs. Contra Hard Corps. was made even harder. In short, game companies have a long and illustrious history of making stupid or silly decisions that adversely affect the gamer's experience. By 2000, most of those ways had been tried at least once.

Leave it to Square to innovate. Releasing an incomplete guide is a stroke of genius. What's next, companies releasing incomplete games? Huh. Well, I'm off to play Enter The Matrix now.

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