AN AUDIENCE WITH… YOSUKE MATSUDA
The president of Square Enix on Marvel, VR, and Final Fantasy’s latest rebirth
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 I don’t think the idea of a turn-based game is out-of-date or old-fashioned at all – it’s just one style of game that you can make, and as long as there are teams out there in Japan that want to continue making them,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