What Final Fantasy XV Japanese sales mean for the FF series and Square Enix

Final Fantasy XV’s debut has managed to break sales records. Curiously, it managed to simultaneously reach new highs and lows for the mainline series. On one hand, Final Fantasy XV became the fastest selling title in the franchise with 5 million units shipped. It also posted, by far, the worst first week numbers for a Final Fantasy game on PlayStation. In fact, it is the first time a mainline title in the series has dipped below the million unit mark in first week sales on PlayStation.

A quick comparison to the last mainline titles shows XV selling just 45 % of the units Final Fantasy XIII managed on release (0.69 million vs. 1.52 million).

And while the Japanese console games market has been contracting for several years running, this is too simple an explanation if we compare PS4 and PS3 numbers. With 3.6 million PS4 units sold in Japan compared to 4 million PS3 units sold when Final Fantasy XIII was released, this 10 % gap does not explain the massive sales drop between XIII and XV.

Digital sales, which are not included in the Final Fantasy XV numbers since MediaCreate doesn’t track them, can’t make up the gap either. While Final Fantasy XV has broken the record for first day digital sales in Japan, this should come in at around 100k units. The previous record holder, Monster Hunter X, sold 111k digital units over a period of 3 days. So even incorporating a digital estimate would still leave us at around half of the numbers Final Fantasy XIII did.

Common analysis of Final Fantasy XV’s sales numbers has often neglected to look at the sales of sequels to mainline titles on consoles. There seems to exist a belief that such games don’t count “whole” and so can be safely discarded. I would argue that looking at the numbers posted by those sequels can tell us a lot about the health of the Final Fantasy franchise in Japan and maybe even help to find a reason for the decline.

Source: Media Create, retail sales only, excluding re-releases and PC ports

As we can see, Final Fantasy X-2 posted strong numbers, with first week sales just 16 % below those of Final Fantasy X. It continued selling strongly and the gap between mainline game and sequel stayed virtually the same at 16 % for lifetime sales. We can presume that a majority of gamers that played X in Japan were so engaged by the tale of Yuna and Tidus that grabbing the sequel was a no-brainer for them.

Around a million Japanese gamers decided after playing XIII that they didn’t care enough about Lightning’s story to continue following the trilogy.

But the comparison with Final Fantasy XIII’s sequels couldn’t be more dramatic. First week sales of Final Fantasy XIII-2 were just around a third of what its predecessor managed. Or, to put it more bluntly: around a million Japanese gamers decided after playing XIII that they didn’t care enough about Lightning’s story to continue following the trilogy. And as bad as the numbers for XIII-2 were, Lightning Returns did even worse, cutting sales almost by half.

Total lifetime sales tell very much the same story. Final Fantasy XIII is barely on par with X-2, but well below X and XII. And while Final Fantasy XIII-2 managed to at least close the gap somewhat to XIII it still fell more than 100k short of the million mark. Lightning Returns surprised no one by not even managing half a million.

From looking at those numbers we can draw two conclusions:

1) Sequels to mainline FF titles can perform almost on par with mainline titles.
2) Final Fantasy XIII did massive damage to the Final Fantasy brand on consoles.

The minimal difference in install base can’t explain lacklustre sales nor is it a more general JRPG trend. In fact, 2016 was a good year for JRPGs on PS4, with at least 3 beloved and long-running series debuting mainline titles on PS4: Tales of with Tales of Berseria, Persona with Persona 5 and obviously Final Fantasy XV. Only Final Fantasy XV suffered such a dramatic decline. Persona 5 first week sales broke series records while Berseria’s first week sales were 27 % down on Tales of Zestiria. A decline far less dramatic and especially if put into context of widely fluctuating sales numbers which are common for the Tales of series. The best-selling Tales of title on PS3 sold 525k units compared to 215k for the worst selling entry on PS3.

Instead if we look at the numbers available it seems that Final Fantasy XIII eroded gamers trust in the Final Fantasy brand and especially Square Enix’ ability to continue delivering strong new entries in the series. The gradual switch away from turn-based battles to real time action might have played a part as well, an evolution continued in Final Fantasy XV. And in fact in Japan those sales numbers won’t surprise anyone. Expectations in Japanese business circles were around 1 million total domestic sales for Final Fantasy XV, a target the game is well on track to reach.

If global sales continue strongly, a below par performance at home might become an after-thought for Square Enix. After the dismal Lightning trilogy they took a risk by trying to appeal more to Western gamer sensibilities. And if this pays off in the long run, throwing away a bit of what made Final Fantasy Final Fantasy may just be a price worth paying to ensure Japanese games continue to stay relevant in the gaming world.

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