Col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity

Square Enix is chang­ing the rules be­tween devs and pub­lish­ers by in­volv­ing the crowd

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How Square Enix is re­defin­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween pub and dev

Three years since its in­cep­tion, Square Enix’s Col­lec­tive ini­tia­tive has hit the $1m mile­stone in money raised through Kick­starter. This year, it has al­ready pub­lished moody point-and-click ad­ven­ture Goe­tia, with two more games to come be­fore De­cem­ber. Each month, it at­tracts more pitches from in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers than it can ac­com­mo­date. Its suc­cess so far is a val­i­da­tion of the ef­forts of one man: the Col­lec­tive’s cre­ator and project lead Phil El­liott.

The first seeds were planted when Yo­suke Mat­suda took over from Yoichi Wada as pres­i­dent of Square Enix. “He had a se­ries of things he was in­ter­ested in look­ing into more,” El­liott tells us. “One of them was: how do we em­power our com­mu­nity more in pub­lish­ing de­ci­sions? Oth­ers in­cluded a gen­eral in­ter­est in crowd­fund­ing and sup­port­ing new ta­lent, build­ing re­la­tion­ships, think­ing about the health of the in­dus­try and sup­port­ing cre­ativ­ity.” At the time, El­liott was the pub­lisher’s head of com­mu­nity – a role he re­tains to­day – and, as such, it landed on his desk. He be­gan to spit­ball con­cepts, won­der­ing if there was a way Mat­suda’s ideas could some­how be com­bined. “I guess I wanted to find some­thing that would make it re­ally ben­e­fi­cial for teams to be able to work with us,” he says. “You know, we’re a big pub­lisher – can we open up the scale of that pub­lish­ing busi­ness? It costs us very lit­tle to do that, and we can per­haps al­low other teams to ben­e­fit from those re­sults.”

El­liott sounded out a num­ber of con­tacts he’d made within the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity as a jour­nal­ist for feed­back. “They were mer­ci­lessly hon­est!” he re­calls. “But they re­ally helped me shape what was a good ap­proach ver­sus what was per­haps an ob­vi­ous ap­proach. Very quickly we came to the de­ci­sion that we didn’t want to do some­thing that would just be a good one-line sales pitch. We didn’t want to do it for mar­ket­ing rea­sons. We wanted to set out with the phi­los­o­phy of try­ing to be ben­e­fi­cial, and with the mind­set that any­thing else can change apart from that.”

That was around three years ago, and the first part of the process was launch­ing a feed­back plat­form on the Col­lec­tive web­site – a place for de­vel­op­ers to sub­mit pitches, with the un­der­stand­ing that Square Enix would then drive traf­fic from its ex­ist­ing com­mu­nity so that they could vote on whether or not they would be keen to sup­port that game through crowd­fund­ing. The com­mu­nity would also be in­vited to leave more gen­eral feed­back about what they liked and didn’t like about the pitch. “The idea be­hind that first phase was to help teams build up more mo­men­tum be­fore start­ing a crowd­fund­ing [cam­paign], be­cause at that time we saw a lot of teams go­ing into Kick­starter and Indiegogo pretty cold. Be­cause crowd­fund­ing is such a psy­cho­log­i­cal process, they go in cold, they don’t do any­thing in the first few days, the tra­jec­tory is [head­ing to­wards] fail­ure, and it’s very hard to come back from there. So we wanted to try to see if we could do some­thing about that.”

At the time of writ­ing, the Col­lec­tive has pub­lished a lit­tle over 100 pitches on its feed­back plat­form. Each pitch gets on av­er­age around 20,000 views, an or­der of mag­ni­tude more than any fea­tured game would or­di­nar­ily have seen prior to that. “Some­times de­vel­op­ers run [Steam] Green­light cam­paigns in par­al­lel, which is cool,” El­liott says. “And then for some of those teams – de­pend­ing on [our] ca­pac­ity and also if they re­quest it – we’ll pos­si­bly work with them on sup­port­ing a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign di­rectly.”

First, that in­volves some due dili­gence on the part of the pub­lisher, a process El­liott says is sur­pris­ingly time-con­sum­ing. “We look into their ex­pe­ri­ence, try to get a feel for their pas­sion and ded­i­ca­tion, and make sure they know what it’s go­ing to take to put their par­tic­u­lar game to­gether,” he says. “We ob­vi­ously tend to check that with folks from in­side our dev stu­dios and our busi­ness, and that al­lows us to then of­fi­cially en­dorse a cam­paign.” The ben­e­fits to a small team are ob­vi­ous. Hav­ing a well-known pub­lisher on board makes it eas­ier to spread the word. It can send emails to its huge fan­base, com­mu­ni­cate with the press, post to its of­fi­cial blog, and use its so­cial chan­nels to ex­pose a game to a much wider au­di­ence. “Crowd­fund­ing, by and large, is a num­bers game,” El­liott says.

“We’re a big pub­lisher – can we open up the scale of that pub­lish­ing busi­ness? It costs us very lit­tle”

“Very sim­ply, the more aware­ness you have, the greater your chances of suc­cess. Not ev­ery time, but that’s the over­rid­ing fac­tor.”

Nat­u­rally, this re­quires a few things in re­turn. The Col­lec­tive will only sup­port a cam­paign if a game has been through the feed­back process first. The stu­dio will also have to fill in a ques­tion­naire, which asks about ex­pe­ri­ence, li­cences, staffing, a game de­sign overview and, sig­nif­i­cantly, a weekly pro­duc­tion sched­ule through to re­lease. “Ba­si­cally, we try to get as much [in­for­ma­tion] as pos­si­ble,” El­liott tells us. “Now some­times I’m pretty sure teams won’t have a weekly pro­duc­tion sched­ule through to launch. They may not have re­ally thought that through at that point. So [by ask­ing for that] we’re try­ing to make sure they’re as clear as pos­si­ble about what they need.”

Cur­rently, there are lim­its to how many projects the Col­lec­tive can take on, and while it’s clearly some­thing that frus­trates El­liott, he’s mind­ful of re­sources be­ing stretched be­yond ca­pac­ity. The cur­rent sched­ule for the feed­back site al­lows one pitch per week, with a break for Christ­mas, which equates to around 45 cam­paigns per year. On the crowd­fund­ing side, be­cause it’s more time- and re­source-in­ten­sive for the pub­lisher, the ini­tia­tive can only sup­port around seven or eight per year. “There is a bit of a fun­nel there, and we can’t per­haps be quite as agile or flex­i­ble [as we’d like],” he tells us. “At the mo­ment, for ex­am­ple, we’re booked up un­til Oc­to­ber. And that’s a shame, but where the crowd­fund­ing cam­paigns come in, that’s where peo­ple are back­ing real money, so we can’t com­pro­mise and speed up the process just for the sake of hav­ing more peo­ple in. Ca­pac­ity-wise, we’re very mind­ful of dis­cov­er­abil­ity, and be­cause that means cu­ra­tion is im­por­tant, I think one per week is the right amount.”

De­mand has in­creased over time, such that the Col­lec­tive only ac­cepts sub­mis­sions for two days each month. And from those, only a select few are hosted on the site. El­liott ac­cepts that the na­ture of Square Enix’s fan­base means there’s a cer­tain in­evitabil­ity about the games that tend to do well, though his aim is to be in a po­si­tion where it can re­al­is­ti­cally sup­port any game in any genre. “I think as we grow, we will break out of that,” he says. “I def­i­nitely don’t want to go down a path where I’m look­ing at a pitch and say­ing, ‘Yeah, that one’s a slam-dunk be­cause it’s a JRPG, so let’s go with that one.’ For me, that’s counter-in­tu­itive to what we’re try­ing to do. My aim is to be genre-ag­nos­tic and also re­gion-ag­nos­tic – so far the teams we’ve sup­ported have come from the US, Canada, the UK, France, Ger­many, Ro­ma­nia, Ja­pan, Spain… I want us to be able to work with any­body, any­where.”

How, then, does he see the Col­lec­tive grow­ing in the com­ing years? “I hope what’ll hap­pen is that as more peo­ple un­der­stand what we’re do­ing, we may have the po­ten­tial to help teams raise big­ger amounts,” El­liott says. But I think the main growth you’ll see from us in the next year or two is where we’re pub­lish­ing games and work­ing with teams to help them get the best sales re­sults pos­si­ble.” That process has al­ready be­gun with the April re­lease of Goe­tia, which Square Enix will con­tinue to sup­port in the com­ing months: it made an ap­pear­ance at San Diego Comic-Con, and will be on the pub­lisher’s stand at Gamescom. Be­yond that, there’s first­per­son puz­zler The Tur­ing Test (due this month), with dystopian ad­ven­ture

Black The Fall and anime de­tec­tive story Tokyo Dark slated for 2016, too. These are busy times for El­liott and his small team, then, but he’s rel­ish­ing the chal­lenge, and is unswerv­ing in his be­lief that the Col­lec­tive is a gen­uine force for good. Play­ing devil’s ad­vo­cate, we sug­gest that it may look to some like Square Enix stands to risk very lit­tle and gain much from the deals its strikes (see ‘Square num­bers’ for a break­down of the fig­ures). His re­sponse is sur­pris­ingly forth­right. “I com­pletely un­der­stand that view,” he says. ”That was my ex­pec­ta­tion when we first an­nounced [the ini­tia­tive]. Peo­ple should be cyn­i­cal about this. They should be cyn­i­cal about com­pa­nies mess­ing around with the in­die [sec­tor] and crowd­fund­ing, be­cause it’s very im­por­tant for the fu­ture of the in­dus­try.”

El­liott is hope­ful that over time the Col­lec­tive will prove its in­ten­tions and its value to doubters but, more specif­i­cally, he’s keen it will be ben­e­fi­cial to the crowd­fund­ing ecosys­tem. “I re­mem­ber when peo­ple started first get­ting into it, and it felt great,” he says. “Sure, it was a bit Wild West, but it felt like you were there and along with the devel­oper for a ride. Re­cently, peo­ple have be­come a bit dis­il­lu­sioned with some things. We can’t make crowd­fund­ing 100 per cent safe, but we want to try to take as much risk out of it as pos­si­ble. I think it’s vi­tal that there’s this in­de­pen­dent source of fund­ing that en­ables teams to ac­tu­ally go out there and take risks and do things that in­vestors and pub­lish­ers don’t nec­es­sar­ily see the value in. And it’s im­por­tant for us all to find good so­lu­tions to build­ing that trust be­tween back­ers and cre­ators.”

“We can’t make crowd­fund­ing 100 per cent safe, but we want to try to take out as much risk as pos­si­ble”

Square Enix Col­lec­tive cre­ator and project lead Phil El­liott

The Col­lec­tive found a suc­cess in Tokyo Dark, which aims to meld western point-and-click me­chan­ics with a nar­ra­tive in­spired by Ja­panese vis­ual nov­els

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