L-i-t-t-l-e M-o-n-e-y

Final Fantasy Tactics and the bizarro psychology of Apple App Store pricing

Final Fantasy Tactics CalculatorsAs we all know, Final Fantasy Tactics is the best video game ever made. In the thirteen (!) years since it’s been released, I’ve been looking for other games that hit all the right notes as well as FFT did, with no luck. Plus I’ve been looking for rereleases as an excuse to buy it again, in the hopes that I could play through once more as if it were the first time.

Which is why Square’s announcement that it was going to be released on iOS was exciting: sure, I’ve still got a version — two versions, actually, since I got the PS1 Greatest Hits release way back when — that runs on the PS3, and I bought the PSP rerelease a while ago. But here was a chance to play it on a machine I actually use!

We were all warned well in advance that there’d be separate versions for iPhone and iPad, and not only did I not complain, I thought: even better! I get to buy it two more times, twice the chance to reaffirm how much I like the game. Once you reach a certain age and a certain level of Western entitlement and media saturation, buying a copy of a game or a movie becomes less about getting access and more about saying “I liked this enough to spend money on it.”

What I hadn’t been warned about, though, was that the iPhone version would be sixteen dollars.

Even the “prestige” titles for iOS max out around five dollars, with the super-fancy or particularly lengthy ones going as high as ten. Sixteen bucks for an iPhone game is outrageous.

That was my reaction to the price, even though I’d already paid $20-$40 for the game without a second thought, three times over. Even though it’s my favorite game, and I know that I can get at least 30-40 hours of play from it. And even though I’ve done enough iOS development to realize that developing for the platform can be every bit as time- and asset-intensive as developing for PCs and consoles. I’d become part of the race-for-the-bottom problem without even realizing it.

The two aspects of the App Store that have usually justified the lower pricing are: apps and games are smaller and simpler, so there’s a much lower barrier to entry; and the market penetration got so huge so quickly that you could sell an app to less than 1% of iOS users and still make a sizable profit.

Neither of those are true of Final Fantasy Tactics. Even though it’s a port of a 13 year old game, it’s still a pretty huge game with a ton of assets, not to mention a redesigned input system. And even though it’s spoken of in hushed tones as one of the greatest games ever made, it’s way too niche a game to reach even Plants vs Zombies-level sales. And it’s worth pointing out that the iPhone version is still cheaper than the PSP remake from a few years ago.

It’s a bizarre market to get into. The traditional rules of “charge what it’s worth” don’t seem to apply to the App Store; it’s become more a gamble, hoping that you can appeal to a large enough tiny fraction of the iOS market to recoup your lower production costs. On the one hand, that’s horrifying, as it creates a gold rush mentality of making unambitious and derivative games that are just “mainstream” enough to be another Angry Birds. On the other hand, it’s part of what makes the platform appealing: even with more and more huge corporate monstrosities (like, well, Square-Enix, I suppose) barging in and trying to dominate, it’s still egalitarian enough that a one- or two-man operation can make something novel and see it not only compete with the bigger guys, but surpass them.

In the fifteen years since I got into game development, it’s the closest I’ve seen to a creator-driven, “great American novel” environment in games. I know I’d never have even considered “going indie” if my only options had been PC or console releases. (I’m not even sure a one-man operation can release something on XBLA or PSN anymore). Now it feels like I’ve actually got a chance to recoup my minimal investment.

Assuming of course, I don’t waste all my time playing Final Fantasy Tactics. It’s a shame that it’s the War of the Lions release, since the more earnest translation lost a lot of the charm of the weirdly-translated original. Ah well, Life is short: Bury! Steady Sword!

7 thoughts on “L-i-t-t-l-e M-o-n-e-y”

  1. The window for the 1-2 person operations is closing fast, though. More and more of the available channels for awareness are now dominated by the big players with deep pockets, and awareness is the biggest problem on the platform. Apple likes to tout the small teams, because it does keep the developer dream alive, but the big successes are really few & far between – and even making enough to sustain 1-2 developers full-time can be a really big challenge.

  2. There’s a huge difference between challenging and impossible, though. As far as I’m aware, an independent developer is completely barred from releasing anything on XBLA, PSN, or Nintendo without a huge investment and a publishing deal. You’re shut out completely. The closest is XBLIG, which is so overloaded with garbage that nobody uses it. That leaves Windows/OS X development, which has all the problems of exposure/marketing, but with no unified storefront and no convenient or consistent way to handle payments.

    I don’t think the window’s closing, I think it’s just that the gold rush hype has died down. People are starting to realize you can’t crap out anything they want onto the App Store and then automatically become millionaires. I wish the best of luck to anybody trying to make a full-time living off of it, but there’s still no way I’d jump on without supplemental gigs as a possibility. But then, I wouldn’t quit my job and work full-time on my first novel, either; that doesn’t mean that prose is dead.

  3. Star Control 2 is the greatest game of all time. It’s a scientifically proven fact. They did clinical trials in Austria.

  4. Jonathan, you know those findings were dismissed once it was revealed that the “test group” was an echidna, two wallabies, and a few guys playing Final Fantasy Tactics with the words “Star Control 2” taped over the screen.

  5. My girlfriend was pretty addicted to this game. She usually compares it to Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. A quick Google search reveals that the same person designed/directed both.

    I played a bit of the PSP version. It was fun.


  6. (My point being that there are similar games out there of [supposedly] the same calibre.)

  7. Yeah, over the years there’ve been several strategy RPGs touted as the successor to (or better than) Final Fantasy Tactics. I’ve tried most of them, including the two FFT Advance games, a few of the Disgaea series, and the most recent Tactics Ogre.

    The most recent Tactics Ogre comes closest, but nothing really hits all the right notes like the first FFT does. I think it’s a combination of all the cool stuff about the Final Fantasy series, the awkward original translation, the level progression, the job progression, the music, and clockwork robots and vampires.

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