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Divide and Conquer: Square Enix's Endgame

‘Square Enix has regular meetings about how they can carve up content and sell it piecemeal to the customer.’

I’ve heard a few varieties of this warning hailing from the mouth of the outspoken Jim Sterling, who reports having heard this from a source within the company. Now, with the advent of the new episodic Hitman experience, I’d say the idea that this is their plan is beyond all reasonable doubt.

Square Enix wanting to split up its games is one of those propositions where it’s not immediately apparent what the problem is. Episodic games are, after all, a thing. People seem to get on with the concept well enough. People certainly don’t seem to be ringing alarm bells over it. Anyone could be forgiven for wondering what the problem is with Square Enix entering into this model.

I don’t personally think that the episodic gaming model exists to benefit the player so much as the smaller studio who might need the more constant flow of cash in order to stay afloat…but that perhaps is a discussion for another time. Instead, I want to talk about how the concept of episodic content relates to Square Enix’s goals…and what their endgame may potentially be.

To understand what Square Enix stand to gain from this move towards episodic content, we need to examine the deal they’re offering with regards to Hitman at the outset: an experience spread across seven episodes that you can subscribe to in its entirety (essentially buying the first episode and pre-ordering the remaining episodes) for the standard AAA cost of £44.99 / $60. Alternatively you could buy the first episode on its own for £11.99 / $15, try it out, and then make the decision to pre-order all remaining episodes for £36.99 / $50 by buying the ‘upgrade pack’. This is slightly more expensive overall, standing at a total of £48.98 / $65.

If, however, you’re not prepared to take them on trust at all, you’ll find yourself paying a total of £59.93 / $74.93 for all seven episodes combined. You’ll notice this is slightly higher than the current standard AAA launch price – and knowing the industry as it stands, I wouldn’t count on there being more content than is typical once all the episodes are out.

“Well it makes sense from their perspective to incentivise buying the whole collection; of course it’ll be more expensive to buy each episode individually. That’s just how that model works” you might say. And yes, there does need to be a reason for people not to just wait until the rest of the episodes come out before investing money if Square Enix intend to get anyone to buy the ‘Full Experience’ package. But there’s something else we need to take into account:

They could have lowered the price of the full experience. Instead, they raised the cost of buying each episode individually.

Square Enix is a big ol’ company; it would not have hurt them to marginally reduce the price of the full experience from standard AAA levels. Instead, players who want to wait until reviews are out before making decisions will find themselves paying an above-average price if they want the entire game. Rather than make trusting them to deliver a quality product a more attractive prospect, they’ve made not blindly believing in them more expensive.

The implications are rather unfortunate: the episodic structure of the new Hitman exists to mask a price hike…and the price hike only applies to those who don’t put their faith in Square Enix. They’re not incentivising consumers into trusting them…they’re strong-arming them.

Some will undoubtedly put forward the idea that this is fine as the option is there to not buy all of the episodes, only opting in to the ones that take your fancy…but Square Enix is not selling these episodes with the intention that people won’t buy them. “You can skip an episode, but you’ll miss out on some of the story elements” an IO Interactive representative warns Eurogamer – pushing the idea that players have the choice to not buy certain episodes out of one corner of their mouth while planting the idea that those who do will have an inferior experience with the other. It’s not just parts of the plot they could hold to ransom in the long run, either. Games already have little bonuses hidden behind pre-orders. What’s to stop them including content that can only be accessed by buying all the episodes? I can see it now: a couple of bonus disguises unlocked by buying episode 2, a special sparkly new gun for episode 3…they could even throw in a new level that only unlocks if you have all the episodes. Fuck, they could hide the story’s conclusion behind that. After all, if you’re not buying every episode then clearly you don’t care enough about the story. If you cared enough, you’d get on your knees and empty out your wallets.

You may well have the ability to not buy every episode, but you open yourself up to being psychologically besieged by the notion that by not having all of these shiny trinkets, yours is a lesser experience – an incomplete experience. And if you want that experience completed, well…you’d best fork over the cash, sunshine.

But let’s not forget, Square Enix has often employed another method of convincing players that their experience is incomplete. Anyone who owns an HD remaster of a Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts game, or has followed either series closely enough, may well have taken stock of the number of spin-offs generated for each one of these titles. Capitalising on the success of these titles, these peripheral games are sold on the idea that to get the true complete experience of the game you’re already invested in, you need to own all of these connected games as well.

Now imagine if Square Enix could split all of these games – the main series entry and all of its spin-offs – into seven parts apiece, and in doing so quietly increase the price for everyone except those who put their unwavering trust in our lord and saviour Square Enix.

Are we seeing yet just how much Square Enix could stand to gain from the success of this model?

At this point all I can do is speculate that this is their plan. Hands in the air, I’ve got no proof that this is the eventual result that Square Enix were aiming for. But it’s worth bearing in mind that if I could come up with this, chances are it’s crossed the minds of a few folks at Square Enix years ago. So we have a decision to make: we can assume the worst and remain vigilant, or we can shrug this off as a purely hypothetical worry…right up until the moment that it isn’t.

All I’ll say is this: if it turns out this was Square Enix’s endgame…I for one will take no solace in having called it.

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