March 6th 2013, and Square Enix’s UK team were in jubilant spirits.
The Tomb Raider reboot had launched and was an instant critical and commercial smash hit.
And that came on the back of a 2012 where the publisher released the UK’s best-selling new IP (Sleeping Dogs) and its latest Hitman was the fifth best-selling game of the year.
However, two weeks later that joyous mood disappeared as Square Enix announced its Western division had failed to meet targets and that the company would undertake ‘major reforms’. President Yoichi Wada stepped down.
“We had high expectations for all three games across all our major territories and we had to work really hard to realise their full potential,” says Square Enix’s America and Europe CEO Phil Rogers.
“In some ways the reported shortfalls – coupled with the supportive comments from gamers – spurred us on to work harder across our teams worldwide.”
Nevertheless, questions were being asked of Square Enix. How could Tomb Raider sell over 4m units and be deemed a disappointment? Were expectations too high? Did the company spend too much making it?
“I wouldn’t say costs were not tightly controlled. As a group we use a greenlight process that is pretty disciplined,” defends Rogers, before explaining why it was important to take time making Tomb Raider.
“Take last week when a cancelled Hitman story
appeared online which MCV reported on – a year
ago we probably wouldn’t have commented on
it but we’re changing that. I don’t want people to
be confused about what we’re doing”
Phil Rogers, Square Enix
“Tomb Raider was a really important reboot and we had to get it right. We took decisions on a new direction and had to deliver on it. The team at Crystal learnt a lot through the reboot and we now have valuable experience on how we build more of a non-linear structure for Tomb Raider; and in systems we made huge steps forward in combat and making Lara Croft feel relevant. I genuinely feel these were all the right investments to make Tomb Raider excite gamers again.”
That’s history now. Square Enix has re-emerged from its restructure and the change is noticeable.
It’s admitting mistakes, discussing projects that haven’t been formally announced and generally being more open with fans. Rogers has even updated gamers via Square Enix’s blog.
“It is all deliberate,” he tells us. “We are entering a new world – a connected world where consumers are hyper-aware.
“We have to adopt openness and transparency. Many will point out that there’s risk in doing this but if we can we’ll capture hearts and minds, earn trust and command loyalty.
“Take last week when a cancelled Hitman story appeared online which MCV reported on – a year ago we probably wouldn’t have commented on it but we’re changing that. I don’t want people to be confused about what we’re doing.”
That openness exists throughout Square Enix. Naoki Yoshida, the man tasked with fixing and re-launching the MMO Final Fantasy XIV, has been candid on the mistakes of the predecessor. Released last August, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was a significantly better game.
“The relationship Yoshida and the team have forged with the players is superb, it’s a great example of how we want to work and hopefully it goes some way to gaining trust with fans,” adds Rogers.
Square’s big franchises may not have met their lofty expectations, but the publisher continues to believe in triple-A console games.
It will launch Thief next month and is working on new Hitman, Deus Ex and Tomb Raider titles.
Yet these are just the big Western brands. The company is in the process of re-launching its Final Fantasy series, it’s working on free-to-play projects and it’s investing heavily in mobile.
Last year, Square Enix’s mobile team launched Deus Ex: The Fall on iOS, a game notable for its console-quality visuals. It was even billed by the media as the first console game on tablets. It wasn’t perfect, but Rogers says it shows what you can achieve on mobile.
“I see mobile and tablets as ways to deliver new experiences to grow a new audience or deepen and extend an existing game. We’ve got to be open-minded here,” he says.
“With Deus Ex: The Fall, we learnt a lot; we created a game true to the series with a compelling story and mechanics based on a successful console game. It won a lot of awards. Internally it showed a lot of people what the potential is for mobile games, but console experiences on mobile and tablet are still niche.
“To me the goal was to see if we can open up Deus Ex to more people, while also engaging core fans as well. We partly achieved that but we need to ask ourselves: Did we choose the right platform? Did we get the controls perfect? We’re always trying to learn from what we do.”
“With Deus Ex: The Fall, we learnt a lot; we created
a game true to the series with a compelling story
and mechanics based on a successful console game.
To me the goal was to see if we can open up Deus Ex
to more people, while also engaging core fans as well.
We partly achieved that but we need to ask ourselves:
Did we choose the right platform? Did we get the controls
perfect? We’re always trying to learn from what we do.”
Phil Rogers, Square Enix
Square Enix has it all to prove. It has to re-establish Final Fantasy, generate profit from its big Western IP, crack mobile and work out free-to-play… all while reaching the quality levels its players demand.
It’ll require hard work and not everything will go to plan. But Rogers paints a more optimistic and forward-looking Square Enix, one that’s moved beyond the doom and gloom of 2013.
“Square Enix is a great gaming company,” concludes Rogers.
“Of course there’s so much change around us and within us but we have the talent to create games that remain in our players hearts.
“We have some fantastic brands, we have some of the most creatively talented people I’ve ever worked with and we have some of the most passionate consumers. I’m excited about the future.”
One area of the games industry that Square Enix has been exploring is free-to-play.
The model is proving lucrative, but core gamers are sceptical. One glance at the forums and you’ll find legions of players accusing F2P of being poor in quality and ripping-off fans.
How does a company like Square Enix deal with that?
“Very carefully, openly and with respect,” says Square Enix?West CEO Phil Rogers.
“Today people might be suspicious of free-to-play – some fear this is a tag for low quality. We understand that a lot of core gamers don’t like the idea of free-to-play and it’s seen as a way to charge them more than they want for something. That’s not the intention nor is it a strategy that will last and take any business forward.
“But F2P is one model, not the only one. We still have a lot of focus for those day one gamers, which – frankly – this business has been built on. We have no plans to abandon them, and we value their responses – even if sometimes that can be emotion and hard to read.
“To me different business models give us an option to make different games for different gamers.”
He added: “Here in London where we’ve centred a Live team focused on learning with games such as Heroes & Generals and Nosgoth. Both of these are free-to-play and we’re engaging with the core gamers to get their insights and help steer their direction. I love to see this – it’s another example of the openness we want to adopt.
“We want our consumers to help us, so when we explore new areas – which every company needs to do – we need to be upfront on what we’re doing.”