Rundown (5/01-5/07) Ret-2-eScape TSF Hell

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Wherein I discuss the 10th anniversary project’s progress, the Square Enix separation, and an ARG with a zero chance of escape.

Over the past two weeks, I have been focusing on Natalie Rambles About TSF, which has blossomed into two things. An expansive 9,000 word essay where I describe what TSF is in detail, my thoughts on it, and some of the appeals of the genre. The other is a showcase of 37 TSF comics that I really like, which has surpassed 16,000 words. …I thought it would be neat if, instead of only showing off 10, 20, or even 25, that I read and describe 37 different comics. Currently, I am working on the final phases of the initial draft of these works, but these articles will also necessitate detailed edits and careful image selections, as I want this to be the TSF post for Nigma Box… at least for a few years.

In total, I expect to put in at least 80 hours into this project, and I’m honestly looking forward to being done with it. Not because I haven’t enjoyed this process— it has been a blast— but because I want to focus on other things… like reviewing TSF visual novels… and writing a TSF novel. …There is no escape from the TSF hell I have crafted myself, is there?

For their 19 years of existence, Square Enix has been an… interesting company to observe. Back in 2003, they were a mega studio with access to some of the strongest IP in the Japanese game industry. But over the ensuing two decades, the corporation has had so many duds and wasted so many resources into overly ambitious projects that their continued success routinely surprises me. And one of their more expensive endeavors that did not pan out as they would have liked was their attempts at embracing the western market with the 2009 acquisition of Eidos Interactive, including subsidiaries Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics. 

This decision was seen as bizarre at the time, and over the ensuing decade, most Eidos or Crystal Dynamics games were… held back by something or other. Whether it be unrealistic expectations like with Tomb Raider (2013). Corporate-mandated reworkings like with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016). Terrible business models that worsen the game, like with Marvel’s Avengers (2019). A litany of terrible presentational decisions, like in Hitman (2016). Or… everything associated with the build up to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2021).

While Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics routinely showed their capabilities as developers, and some of their titles did meet Square Enix’s expectations, there was a sense that the companies were not working well together. This added credibility to the rumors that Square Enix has been looking to sell off their western studios for a while… and this past Monday, they did just that, with the buyer being none other than Embracer Group.

The sales involves Eidos Montreal, Crystal Dynamics, and Square Enix Montreal (who predominantly make mobile games for Eidos properties), and associated IPs such as Tomb Raider, Deus Ex, Thief, and Legacy of Kain. A full list of IPs has not been revealed, and likely will not be cleared up for a while, but IPs not developed by either Eidos or Crystal Dynamics, including Just Cause, Outriders, and Life is Strange will remain Square Enix properties.

To me, there are two surprising things about this transfer. One, I was seriously expecting Microsoft to buy these studios instead. I thought this because Crystal Dynamics is working with Microsoft on the Perfect Dark reboot and I remember that time Microsoft allegedly paid $100 million to make Rise of the Tomb Raider an Xbox exclusive for one year. However, with the Activision Blizzard acquisition still pending government approval, Microsoft probably won’t be making any gaming-related acquisitions for a while. And two, this transfer of dozens of IPs, several in-development projects, and over 900 employees, will only cost Embracer Group $300 million. …WHAT?

Now, acquisition prices have ballooned in recent years, and I do not have a comprehensive list of prices to analyze. However, I cannot help but look at how Embracer paid for other studios and think that these three are being undervalued. $1.3 billion for Gearbox, $525 million for Saber Interactive, $125 million for Perfect World Entertainment (now Gearbox Publishing), and $100 million for Aspyr. Yes, all three studios have reported concerningly low profit margins in recent years, but how much of that is due to corporate meddling? Knowing Square Enix, I’d say almost all of it

Now, do I think this is a good thing or a bad thing? Well, for the subsidiaries, I think that just about any home is better than Square Enix’s. Otherwise, this is a major boost in Embracer’s scope and influence over the industry. When this deal closes, Embracer will have over 14,000 employees, 10,000 engaged game developers, 124 internal studios, a pipeline of more than 230 games, including 30 AAA titles. That is bonkers! That is a daunting amount of resources for one company to have in a single industry, and I don’t know if any other publisher can match them in every category. It begs the question of how this group manages to even operate if it is so large and spread out, and how much bigger it can get before things start falling apart.

Also, Square Enix said that they will use these funds to invest more into “blockchain, AI, and the cloud.” People seem to think that means something, but this something’s probably a whole lotta nothing. I barely trust Square Enix to make fully finished AAA video games, so you can imagine how little faith I have in them making money in the world of crypto.

Let’s see, what else do I have for this week? No other acquisitions as, while NetEase opened a studio in Austin and Tencent opened a studio in Liverpool, those are both brand new studios, and I have nothing to say about mega corps opening up additional offices. Though, I do like to take note of these things, as I try to be mindful of the moves made by these Chinese gaming giants. Because they will become major players in the western gaming industry as this decade lingers on.

There was also a Spike Chunsoft teaser that went live on Saturday night, which revealed an ARG that is related to AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative which, based on the 9 motif in the ARG, could be implying a new Zero Escape title. As someone who considers Zero Escape to be the reason why I am invested in visual novels, in addition to being a major creative inspiration, I personally would love for this to be the case. 

However, in the years following Zero Time Dilemma, I have become far less of a fervinant fan when it comes to… everything, really. And with Zero Escape… I was happy to get Zero Time Dilemma, happier to get a spiritual successor with the original AI: The Somnium Files, and even happier that AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is coming out this June. So I am not really clamoring for any more, but I will happily take all that I can get.

…Okay, now to get back to writing! The sooner Natalie Rambles About TSF is done, the better!

Yep, that’s seriously it for this week!

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