In 1997, Final Fantasy VII debuted and set new standards for the ways games are made. It was a massive critical and financial success, and it forever changed the videogame industry. This article explores what went into making of this classic game and how it's still effecting the industry almost twenty years later.
In January of 1997, the 6th generation of console wars were in full swing. Sony’s PlayStation had released in 1994 and was building a powerful lineup of games, but in late 1996, Nintendo had finally released the successor to the Super Nintendo and all eyes were watching the Nintendo 64 to see if it would continue Nintendo’s decade long strangle hold on the videogame market. At Japanese developer Squaresoft, a team of over 120 employees had been working on the next entry in the company’s popular Final Fantasy series since 1994 and a decision had been made to leave Nintendo and release Final Fantasy VII on PlayStation to take advantage of the storage capacity of the CD (Wikipedia). Their RPG saga of a soldier with an identity crisis, an ill-fated romance, and a battle to save an entire planet from an evil corporation had combined Square’s best creative minds with 45 million dollars and a development team of unheard of size. Never before had a game been made on this scale, with this number of people, or with this kind of budget (Retroware). It was a massive gamble in an attempt to create a game that transcended anything the public had ever seen before. And it paid off. Final Fantasy VII “was a stunning multimedia achievement that set the standard for how people viewed games in the 32-bit generation, putting it in a special category alongside Super Mario Bros., Halo, and a handful of other generation-defining games. It sold 2.3 million copies within three days of its release in Japan. It owned that period because no one had ever seen anything like it. If it was a trendsetter, it was because it was not just the biggest RPG of its time, but arguably the biggest game of its time” (US Gamer).
Going on to sell over 9.72 million copies on PlayStation alone and selling nearly triple the number of any RPG before it, Final Fantasy VII made the PlayStation a must have console, opened the door for big budget games, introduced cinematic gaming, brought RPGs to the forefront of the North American market, and expanded the scope of what videogame storytelling could do.
Before Final Fantasy VII, SquareSoft had already made a name for itself, primarily due to its Final Fantasy RPG series. They had been seeing steady growth in sales, and had released major hits in both Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger which each sold over 2 million copies and were critically praised even though RPGs were still seen as a niche market in North America (Wikipedia). When it came time to start development of Final Fantasy VII, Square had already assembled what amounted to a development dream team: Hironobu Sakaguchi, who was Final Fantasy’s creator, stepped into the role of producer (IGN’s 4th most important game creator of all-time), Yoshinori Kitase, who had directed both Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, once again helmed the production as director, Tetsuya Nomura who had created art for Final Fantasy VI, was in charge of art design (IGN’s 84th most important game creator of all-time), and Nobuo Uematsu, who had composed music for every Final Fantasy, was returning as well (IGN’s 44th most important game creator of all-time). With immense confidence in their leadership, Square hired a team of over 120 people to bring their flagship series into full 3D, and translating old mechanics and creating new ones for the 3D medium became the focus of the project. Given a 45 million dollar budget, Final Fantasy VII was the most expensive game ever produced at the time of its creation and its development team was the largest.
When Final Fantasy VII released and immediately surpassed all sales expectations in Japan and sold more copies in three days than either Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger had in their entire worldwide runs, SquareSoft launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to ensure the game’s success in North America as well. Spanning three months, the campaign “consisted of three 30-second television commercials on major networks, a one-minute long theatrical commercial, a holiday promotion with Pepsi, and printed ads in publications such as Rolling Stone, Details, Spin, Playboy and comic books published by Marvel and DC Comics” (Wikipedia). As they had with the size of their team and their production budget, Squaresoft pushed the bounds of how games were viewed by the public. “It [was] genius; produce a huge RPG with deep and layered systems, as Squaresoft always had, but sell [it] as an action movie. And it worked” (Eurogamer). The hype surrounding the game caused retailers to break designated street dates, and in the game’s first weekend in North America, it sold over 330,000 units. By December, it had sold well over a million copies and was continuing to fly off store shelves. With such a success on their hands, Square brought Final Fantasy to the European market for the first time, and before long, Final Fantasy VII was a worldwide phenomenon.
But Final Fantasy VII was selling more than just games. It was selling consoles. In 1996, Sony sold roughly 9.2 million Playstations worldwide. Thanks in large part to Final Fantasy VII, in 1997 they more than doubled that number to 19.37 million (VG). Without a game that could equal Square’s masterpiece on Nintendo 64, Nintendo began their decline from controlling a vast majority of the gaming market to holding only a third by the time the Gamecube/PS2/XBox era began. Final Fantasy VII was the killer app the PlayStation needed to succeed, and Playstation became the must-have console of its generation. “This was undoubtedly an important factor in the Playstation’s success as the next-generation video game console. Enix’s Dragonquest series followed soon after Square’s decision to “defect” to the Playstation. Even now, Nintendo still [has] not quite recovered from this double-blow” (Stanford). Final Fantasy VII became known as “the game that sold the Playstation” and in so doing, it was the game that truly began Nintendo’s console decline (Wikipedia).
Upon Final Fantasy VII’s release, games with massive production budgets were proven to be financially viable and development studios the world over had to step up their games to compete. Squaresoft had set new standards with both the quality of their game and their advertising campaign. “The game proved that big budget games are possible and heralded the end of garage-based game development. Final Fantasy VII also started a new genre of “cinematic RPGs” as opposed to “old-school” RPGs” (Stanford). “At the time, the graphics of Final Fantasy VII were so phenomenal, so astounding, so utterly gorgeous, that people would sit wide-eyed and stunned as one of the various Full Motion Video sequences would play out” (RPGamer). In a way, Squaresoft introduced the world to the videogame cutscene, and over the next several years, games tried to be increasingly like movies, delivering “cinematic experiences” and more complex storylines. Final Fantasy VII shifted public expectation, and games moved dramatically closer to having the cost and amount of people involved that movies did.
“Like it or not, this game became an ambassador not just for Final Fantasy, but for the entire genre of Japanese role-playing games” (Destructoid). Due to Final Fantasy VII’s success, RPGs were no longer a niche market in North America and the late nineties saw more RPG releases than any other time in console history. "The critical and commercial success of Final Fantasy VII led to a surplus of RPGs trying to cash in on the popularity of Cloud and Aeris" (US Gamer). Final Fantasy VII’s epic combination of story, character, art, and music “hit a range of feelings and a variety of concepts that no other game has managed before or since -- it might not have hit all of them perfectly, but when you truly stand back and look at what the game accomplished narratively, from beginning to end, it's hard not to be impressed” (Destructoid). People wanted more, and developers did their best to oblige. Final Fantasy VII “utterly shook the foundations of conventional wisdom, and hearkened the beginning of a totally new era of RPGs” (RPGamer). Stories were bigger, sales were better, and people realized through elements like the death of Aeris that games could have a broader impact than what anyone had realized before.
“Recognized by fans the world over, Final Fantasy VII frequently graces the top of “fan favorites” lists, including the reader-driven GameFAQs Best Character, Best Villain, and Best Game Ever summer poll contests, which have had Cloud Strife, Sephirtoh, and Final Fantasy VII coming in at the top of their respective categories year after year” (Gamespot). But despite creating a game that continues to hold a special place in people’s memories, perhaps Final Fantasy VII’s legacy is a sad one. Nintendo is still struggling to maintain footing in the console market. Game budgets have become so divided between small and massive that creativity is often difficult to sell in triple A titles. For a time, games became so “cinematic” that there’s now a push towards creating experiences that truly separate games from movies. Even Squaresoft is having trouble living up to the expectations of creating a “cutting edge” product and seems to live in the shadow of its previous successes. But it’s also possible that without Final Fantasy VII, games wouldn’t have become the mainstream medium they are today. In creating a game of such epic scope, artistic beauty, emotional depth, and musical resonance, SquareSoft forever changed how people look at videogames and delivered more than just a memorable experience. They delivered art, and “there is no denying the high level of craftsmanship present in the game or the enormous impact it has had on the RPG genre and the industry as a whole” (Retroware).