Square Enix Montreal is at a tipping point.
The studio has barely paused for breath since the release of 2014’s Hitman Go. The Montreal studio was founded in November 2011 with the purpose of creating a new Hitman game for consoles. However, in 2013 it was decided that the company would instead create mobile games, and they quickly became one of the biggest developers in the premium mobile space.
Patrick Naud, named as the studio head of Square Enix Montreal in 2013, and Square Enix’s head of mobile in 2016, was at Casual Connect to kick off the next stage in the studio’s evolution: freemium.
“We’re at a very exciting spot right now,” enthuses Naud. “We’ve announced that we’re officially moving into the freemium space, but actually we’ve been transitioning over the last few years toward that mindset.”
Currently, the team doesn’t have any titles to announce, but Naud says that they will still be making games that feel familiar to fans of the studio’s previous titles.
“We’ll keep the DNA that we had when we created the Go series, or even Hitman Sniper. That is the DNA which shows that we want to create something different, something that will change the industry because no one else has given it this treatment before.”
Naud talks about the success of Hitman Sniper, which came along after several other sniper games were already on the market. He says: “There’s none [of the clones] that have the level of depth and the level of complexity that Hitman Sniper has, and no one has found a way to clone it yet so we’re still very happy. That’s going to be the same focus going forward, even if we’re in the freemium space. If we attack a genre or an IP we’ll have our own special twist on it, and it’s going to be definitely a Square Enix Montreal product.”
Hitman Sniper is an apt example, as it’s come to be emblematic of the studio’s journey to freemium. It launched as a paid game, but lit the way for the studio to start working on live titles, with Naud saying that the version of Hitman Sniper that exists now is “drastically improved” from the title that the team launched in 2015.
Back then, Naud says, the team wasn’t using analytics much and hadn’t yet picked up the mindset of saying: “We made a great game, what can we do to make it better?”
He continues: “We’ve taught the product to evolve now, we brought it to new territories, we improved retention, we’re tracking things better, we’re proposing in game campaigns. We’ve grown Hitman Sniper so that it actually performed better in its third year than its second or first year. All the projects that we’re making now are influenced by that journey.”
Naud says that while most people focus on Square Enix Montreal’s Go series, many of the innovations are actually coming to Hitman Sniper.
“The technical innovations on Hitman Sniper are amazing. We’ve heard from a partner in Asia that has tried to clone it and couldn’t,” Naud laughs. “The amount of characters, the scripting, the depth, the physics… There was so much happening in that scene that they were not able to do it.”
However, the premium games market is in decline, he adds: “Right now, premium games just cannot reach a big audience, even if they’re amazing. It’s disappointing for us content developers that are crafting something with love to see that so few people are interested in paying a few dollars for it. The state of the premium market has declined since we released Hitman Go four years ago.”
Naud says a large issue is that, despite an ever-growing mobile install base, the amount of games on offer has increased exponentially over the past five years. In a marketplace where players have been conditioned to expect their games for free – often supported by microtransactions – getting people to pay for a game is proving increasingly difficult.
“People often won’t buy a premium game, even if they have been told it’s really good,” Naud adds. “In order for people to convert upfront they need to be very convinced by it, whereas people are much more likely to try a game they’re not sure about if it’s free-to-play.”
As players expect more and more, Naud says that Square Enix Montreal is just trying to show them the games that the studio is making are worth playing.
“Players have so much on offer they can take their time and pick-and-choose what they really want to play and whether they want to pay,” he says.
Naud points to the launch of Lara Croft Go, a game which he describes as “the talk of the town,” with
positive press, word of mouth and even prominent placement on Apple’s app store. Naud says they got somewhere in the region of 11m people on Lara Croft Go’s store page, but describes the amount of people that actually bought the game from that store page as a fraction of that number that is “much lower than you would expect.”
He explains: “People that follow the press are more likely to buy premium games. They trust their favourite journalists, they know if they like that kind of game and it is well reviewed, it’s worth trying. Thing is, that’s an infinitely small part of the mobile audience. Most people discover games in the store and buy from there without ever knowing a title is critically acclaimed.”
However, although the way Square Enix Montreal does business might have changed, the way they make games has not.
“Originally we were working on a new console version of Hitman, right? So we were all recruited from triple-A development backgrounds,” Naud says. This led to two mobile games, Hitman Go and Hitman Sniper, although the team originally shied away from free-to-play because it seemed like it would have been too big of a leap.
“The DNA in the studio is still the same. The same DNA that we had in crafting the Go games is still there,” Naud says. “So whatever we do, even if we change the way we monetise our games, or the way that we approach the design of our game, the craftsmanship is still going to be there.
“I believe that you win by making great games that engage people, and engage them for a long term. Then these players become your biggest evangelists.”
Square Enix Montral is still early in this retooling process, but the studio is currently hiring heavily for the next step – a process that it’s taking seriously to ensure it retains what makes its games so unique.
“Our triple-A legacy of crafting these pristine experiences is something that we’re keeping in the business model,” Naud says.
“It’s just a different way for us to reach more and more people. Our fans will recognise what we’re putting out, and although we can’t reveal anything just yet, we know we’re still doing what we do best: making great games to engage people.”