AN AU­DI­ENCE WITH… YO­SUKE MAT­SUDA

The pres­i­dent of Square Enix on Marvel, VR, and Fi­nal Fan­tasy’s lat­est re­birth

EDGE - - MAKE BELIEVE - BY ED­WIN EVANS-THIRLWELL

With the ever-chang­ing Fi­nal

Fan­tasy as its flag­ship se­ries, Square Enix is a pub­lisher char­ac­terised by re­birth, and the half-decade since the res­ig­na­tion of long-serv­ing CEO Yoichi Wada has cer­tainly been tu­mul­tuous. Fi­nal Fan­tasy XIV and XV have re­turned from death’s door. The elderly Tomb Raider se­ries has been rein­vented as a cred­i­ble Un­charted killer.

Nier: Au­tom­ata, the trou­bled se­quel to an ob­scure cult hit, has be­come a sur­prise main­stream suc­cess. Hit­man has been res­ur­rected as an ac­claimed episodic sim­u­la­tion – and dra­mat­i­cally sold off to re­al­lo­cate re­sources. Square Enix has a broad port­fo­lio, ex­tend­ing from the throw­back JRPGs created by Tokyo RPG Fac­tory to un­con­ven­tional Euro­pean hits such as Dontnod’s Life Is Strange, and ac­cord­ing to pres­i­dent and CEO Yo­suke Mat­suda, that breadth is vi­tal, even when it cre­ates in­ef­fi­ciency. We sat down with him to dis­cuss the pub­lisher’s many re­cent acts of rein­ven­tion and what the fu­ture holds for its best­known li­cences.

You’ve spo­ken of the im­por­tance of re­dis­cov­er­ing Square Enix’s Ja­panese role­play­ing roots. What does the JRPG rep­re­sent for you to­day, as a col­lec­tion of con­cepts and in terms of its player com­mu­nity?

As long as it’s a role­play­ing game made by a Ja­panese de­vel­op­ment team, it’s OK to call that a JRPG, I guess, as long as it’s a good, in­ter­est­ing game! I think what the teams that make these games think is prob­a­bly slightly be­side the point – the pub­lic opin­ion of these games is more im­por­tant, and I think a lot of peo­ple still con­sider Ja­panese RPGs to be turn-based. I don’t think the idea of a turn-based game is out-of-date or old-fash­ioned at all – it’s just one style of game that you can make, and as long as there are teams out there in Ja­pan that want to con­tinue mak­ing them, they ab­so­lutely should. Games like I Am Set­suna and Lost Sphear fit into that cat­e­gory and out­side of that, Per­sona has done well re­cently. With Tokyo RPG Fac­tory’s games, I think the way you look at it is that ob­vi­ously you need to have re­spect for these older games, but what’s re­ally im­por­tant is that you’re creat­ing games for now. It’s within that style, that turn-based frame­work, but they’re look­ing to make a game for mod­ern au­di­ences.

Will Tokyo RPG Fac­tory ever work di­rectly on an old Square Enix prop­erty, such as Chrono Trig­ger?

The pol­icy for them is to have them fo­cus on new IPs, new ti­tles, and I don’t think that pol­icy is go­ing to change in the near fu­ture. We have a lot of old IPs and games that we made back in the Su­per Nin­tendo days that we may re­visit some time, but they won’t be given to Tokyo RPG Fac­tory. They’re very much fo­cused on creat­ing new games. On the other side, those old IPs and games we might want to go back to – those would be done by the orig­i­nal teams within the main body of Square Enix.

As a plat­form that is per­haps more about ideas and style than tech­nol­ogy, it feels like the Switch is a nat­u­ral home for Tokyo RPG Fac­tory projects. How have Square Enix games fared to date on Switch, and how will you ex­plore that plat­form in fu­ture?

They haven’t done badly! Ob­vi­ously it only came out last March, so it hasn’t been long, but of all the pub­lish­ers who are work­ing on Switch we’ve done quite a few things al­ready. It’s a very at­trac­tive plat­form – there are a lot of peo­ple within the com­pany that are look­ing to make games for Switch.

You’ve talked of how im­por­tant free-to-play and in­di­rect rev­enue sys­tems are to Square Enix’s busi­ness. How do you over­come hos­til­ity to­wards strate­gies such as mi­cro­trans­ac­tions among play­ers?

I think a lot of the time, when peo­ple hear the phrase “games as a ser­vice”, they al­ways fo­cus on the prob­lem of mi­cro­trans­ac­tions – they re­ally close out the mean­ing to just be­ing that. We look at it in a much broader sense. If you look at the idea of adding things to a game af­ter re­lease to keep it fresh and ex­cit­ing, to keep peo­ple play­ing over a long time, and all the dif­fer­ent ways you can do that, it comes to ex­press a lot more. Peo­ple are too fo­cused on the prob­lems.

Fi­nal Fan­tasy XV has un­der­gone an as­ton­ish­ing re­birth, from vapour­ware to best-seller. It feels like the con­cept of a re­laxed open world road­trip has drawn in a lot of play­ers who were de­terred in the past – is that a fair assess­ment?

Fi­nal Fan­tasy is ba­si­cally a new game every sin­gle time. Every time we set out to make one, the di­rec­tors of the team re­ally look to see what they can try out, how they can take it be­yond the pre­vi­ous one. With FFXV they re­ally did try out a lot of new things – the fact that it’s be­come more of an ac­tion-RPG, the open world we put in there, the whole struc­ture of the game is dif­fer­ent in a lot of ways. The char­ac­ters them­selves are cer­tainly very mem­o­rable. I think one of the big things is we re­ally did re­build it to ap­peal to an­other gen­er­a­tion of gamers. If you look at the de­mo­graph­ics for XV, it re­ally brought a lot of younger play­ers in. But the im­por­tant point, given the tra­di­tion of the se­ries, is to do some­thing new and a bit dif­fer­ent each time, and that’s not just Fi­nal Fan­tasy

XV – every game in the se­ries has done that till now.

There are teams who would say that rein­vent­ing the wheel each time is very in­ef­fi­cient. How do you keep costs down be­tween in­stal­ments?

“WE HAVE TO KEEP FI­NAL FAN­TASY FRESH AND KEEP PRO­VID­ING THOSE SUR­PRISES FOR FANS, IN OR­DER TO PRE­SERVE ITS VALUE”

You do have to think about ef­fi­ciency, that’s un­de­ni­able, but be­cause Fi­nal Fan­tasy is our flag­ship se­ries, in some ways it has to be done that way, with all the stops pulled out. When you get into the nitty-gritty of how de­vel­op­ment pro­cesses are han­dled for each ti­tle, there are lots of small things you can do to main­tain cost­ef­fi­ciency. But in fu­ture, we have to keep Fi­nal Fan­tasy fresh, and keep pro­vid­ing those sur­prises for the fans in or­der to pre­serve its value.

Sim­i­larly, Fi­nal Fan­tasy XIV has come back from the brink – you even created an in-game apoca­lypse to pre­pare the ground for the Realm Re­born over­haul. What kind of life­span do you see for it at this stage, and is it a ques­tion of at­tract­ing play­ers now or keep­ing the ex­ist­ing player­base happy?

We want it to go on for as long as it can! If you look at the num­bers for MMOs, usu­ally you start out with a mas­sive au­di­ence and then it slowly de­creases, and when you get up­dates and ex­pan­sion packs it shoots up and then slowly goes down again. With XIV it keeps go­ing up. With the re­lease of Storm­blood, the first ex­pan­sion, it ac­tu­ally went above what we had at the start – it was a very sur­pris­ing fig­ure. So it’s very highly re­garded as a game – we have old play­ers com­ing back be­cause of those up­grades and ad­di­tions while bring­ing in new play­ers.

It’s cer­tainly un­usual to see a big sub­scrip­tion-based MMO pulling in that kind of growth. Do you fore­see any changes to the game’s rev­enue model in a few years’ time, like a change to free-to-play?

We’re not think­ing about that. We want to do it as best we can as a sub­scrip­tion-based MMO.

Square Enix has a large sta­ble of North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean sub­sidiaries and prop­er­ties. What’s the se­cret to man­ag­ing these teams in dif­fer­ent re­gions? How much in­de­pen­dence do you give them?

We do keep an eye on them. Each stu­dio has a head who re­ports back to me in Tokyo, and our CEO over here, Phil Rogers, he keeps in close con­tact with these guys. We re­port back to each other gen­er­ally once a week, or at min­i­mum once a month, and ob­vi­ously nowa­days with video con­fer­enc­ing it makes life eas­ier. We stay in the loop, they show us the pro­duc­tion and we keep an eye on it that way. Just to­day, while here in Lon­don, I went to the demo room and saw some work-in-progress builds – we do that a lot. We’re very open with our com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

In par­tic­u­lar, what does the fu­ture hold for the Deus Ex Uni­verse? Do you still see it as an enor­mous cross-me­dia en­ter­prise, fol­low­ing lower-than-de­sired sales of Deus Ex: Mankind Di­vided?

It’s a very im­por­tant fran­chise to us, yes. There are a lot of weird ru­mours go­ing around on­line about how we think about it, but I don’t think any­body in the com­pany has said any of those things, re­ally. We’re def­i­nitely look­ing into all kinds of dif­fer­ent av­enues for what we can do with the next Deus Ex. As this is more of an in­ter­nal de­vel­op­ment and we don’t have un­lim­ited re­sources and staffing to put into those projects, there’s a puz­zle we have to solve. Ob­vi­ously that’s some­thing we have to think about with all of our projects. But yes, Deus Ex is a very im­por­tant fran­chise and we very much feel we have to go ahead and ex­pand on it in fu­ture.

It feels like a nat­u­ral fit for Square Enix, as a role­play­ing se­ries with a sto­ried, non-lin­ear world and very or­nate art di­rec­tion.

What makes it unique and such a great fran­chise in ad­di­tion to those points is the fact that it is a first­per­son game – that’s un­usual for us – and the way the world is con­structed. It’s not just a flat plane you cart around; it has that ver­ti­cal­ity to it, that in­volved struc­ture. I think we’re go­ing to make a lot more use of that in fu­ture, re­ally try to work with that.

Your part­ner­ship with Marvel also makes a lot of sense, given your suc­cess at work­ing with Dis­ney’s prop­er­ties in King­dom Hearts and your man­ga­pub­lish­ing busi­ness. How did that come about, and why is it a good move for Square Enix right now?

“VIR­TUAL RE­AL­ITY IS VERY IN­TER­EST­ING AT THE MO­MENT, IT HAS A LOT OF PO­TEN­TIAL, BUT IT’S STILL TOO EX­PEN­SIVE”

We’re very open in our stance about part­ner­ships. We’re al­ways in­ter­ested in valu­able part­ner­ships with good com­pa­nies. We have been work­ing with Dis­ney on

King­dom Hearts for a long time, as you know, but the dis­cus­sions with Marvel re­ally took place sep­a­rately to that – they took an in­ter­est in us as a great de­vel­oper, and ap­proached us to ask if we could make a game, and we said we’d wel­come the chance to put to­gether some­thing around that. Ob­vi­ously we’re go­ing to put out new in­for­ma­tion about this project in the fu­ture, so please keep your eyes peeled.

You re­cently closed your cloud-based gam­ing ser­vice Shinra Tech­nolo­gies due to a lack of ex­ter­nal fund­ing, but we un­der­stand you still see a lot of po­ten­tial in the con­cept. What role will the cloud play in Square Enix projects in fu­ture?

Shinra was a com­pany that was fo­cused around the idea of creat­ing a gam­ing plat­form, and that some­how didn’t fit with what we do as a gam­ing pub­lisher, pro­ducer and de­vel­oper, so there was a mis­match there, and ob­vi­ously, it in­flu­enced the fi­nance and we couldn’t get the fund­ing in the end – that’s why the com­pany had to be closed down. But cer­tainly, cloud gam­ing is con­tin­u­ing to de­velop, and I think you’ll def­i­nitely see a num­ber of cloud plat­forms in the fu­ture, so we have to keep look­ing at it. Cloud gam­ing as a busi­ness is very cap­i­tal in­ten­sive – you need that money to back it up or it be­comes a very dif­fi­cult thing to do. Cer­tainly there will be a num­ber of big play­ers who are look­ing into this sec­tor in fu­ture, and there are maybe things we could do with them.

Have you con­sid­ered creat­ing a uni­fied de­vel­op­ment plat­form, sim­i­lar to what EA has done with Frost­bite?

We have been think­ing about it. The down­side of that is that if we had one uni­fied de­vel­op­ment plat­form, it would make it a lot harder to ex­press the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, the dif­fer­ent pro­cliv­i­ties of our ti­tles – we make a very broad range of games, and it might af­fect the vari­a­tion we can get in there. I think a much bet­ter way of im­prov­ing the ef­fi­ciency of our de­vel­op­ment that is more fit­ting to the way we work is, rather than uni­fy­ing ev­ery­thing on the same plat­form, to take all the dif­fer­ent ap­proaches the in­di­vid­ual stu­dios use and are very fa­mil­iar with, and have them ex­change in­for­ma­tion about the tools and meth­ods they use. In that process of uni­fi­ca­tion, con­sol­i­da­tion there is ob­vi­ously the trade-off in terms of in­di­vid­u­al­ity, and I would rather value that than the ef­fi­ciency gains to be had from con­sol­i­da­tion.

You’ve said that VR needs to be more widely ac­cepted be­fore it can take off as a gam­ing plat­form. What’s your view of the VR in­dus­try and mar­ket right now?

I think it’s very in­ter­est­ing at the mo­ment, it has a lot of po­ten­tial, but it’s still too ex­pen­sive – the in­vest­ment con­sumers have to put into the hard­ware is just too high right now. I think there will be a low­er­ing of the price and wider ac­cep­tance in fu­ture, but the other point is the wear­a­bil­ity of the equip­ment – it’s still very bulky, it gets in the way. I think if you look at it ob­jec­tively, rather than go­ing for some­thing that you put on, like a head­set, to cre­ate that kind of en­vi­ron­ment around some­one that you don’t have to wear any­thing for, that is in­dis­tin­guish­able from real life – that would be a more ex­cit­ing way of creat­ing a VR en­vi­ron­ment, but it’d ob­vi­ously cost much more, too. The other thing I’m in­ter­ested in right now is aug­mented re­al­ity on mo­bile. We’d like to make quite a few dif­fer­ent kinds of games in­volv­ing that kind of tech.

There has been a lot of dis­cus­sion in the in­dus­try re­cently about in­sti­tu­tional sex­ism and a toxic cul­ture of over­work. Is there any­thing Square Enix could do to im­prove, on this front?

Cer­tainly. Square Enix re­cently got a lot more fe­male de­vel­op­ment ta­lent work­ing for the com­pany, and I think that’s very im­por­tant in terms of broad­en­ing the creative base. We want to make a wide va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent games for dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and in or­der to do that the de­vel­op­ment side has to rep­re­sent that – you need a lot of peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds who work in dif­fer­ent ways. So be­cause of that, at Square Enix as a com­pany we ab­so­lutely do not dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween male and fe­male em­ploy­ees. Ev­ery­body is treated flatly and ex­actly the same – within our com­pany, we very much strive to­wards that, be­cause from our point of view it will make it a much bet­ter busi­ness and give our games that va­ri­ety they need. And then as re­gards your sec­ond point about over­work, it’s the same thing re­ally. There’s a big dis­cus­sion in Ja­pan right now about work-life bal­ance and re­duc­ing over­time, things like that, so it’s cer­tainly be­ing looked at from sev­eral an­gles. But in the same way, as a game com­pany we want peo­ple to be at their best when they make their games, to try their hard­est and put their best in when they’re work­ing, but also to be able to take time off and recharge. We do see that we have to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where you have that work-life bal­ance and peo­ple can take time off when they need it.

In 2013 Square Enix an­nounced the Deus Ex Uni­verse, a cross­me­dia en­ter­prise uni­fied by the story of a global con­spir­acy. Fol­low­ing Mankind Di­vided, this idea ap­pears to have now been shelved

Once some­thing of a laugh­ing stock, Fi­nal Fan­tasy XIV is go­ing from strength to strength. It will receive an­other up­date shortly

Blur­ring Dis­ney’s sta­ble of char­ac­ters with FF, King­domHearts is bizarre but com­pelling. The next in­stal­ment fea­tures at­tacks based on Dis­ney re­sort rides

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