It’s been a year since Square Enix made crystal clear its desire to stretch operations into the western market, having acquired the European and US stronghold Eidos.
That buyout deal – estimated to be somewhere around the £80 million mark – grouped together an eye-watering fleet of studios, talent and IP. In fact, the name Square Enix Europe is somewhat misleading, with the business owning studios such as Io Interactive in Denmark, Beautiful Game Studios in London, Crystal Dynamics in California, Eidos-Montreal and a further studio in Shanghai.“I know these locations might be a surprise given the Square Enix Europe moniker,” says the groups’ CEO Phil Rogers, “but it’s essentially the studio footprint that was in place when Square Enix acquired Eidos last year.”
In a comprehensive two-part interview, Rogers explains how he sees SEE as a global enterprise, how its various talent channels can converge, and where the future is for the outfit.
How has the SE takeover gone, and are further changes yet to take place?
I’m very happy with how everything has gone. We’ve been set up with a clear mandate for Square Enix Europe, I’m pleased with how the integration has gone, and we are up and running as one business unit. I think the inherent similarities between Square Enix and Eidos and the mutual respect went a long way to helping this process.
The question I always ask myself is whether people internally feel, as yet, part of one business and I find that some people jump into and adopt new identities easily, others take more time and that’s fine.
From an external business perspective we’ve worked hard to set Square Enix Europe up as the business face. From a consumer perspective, we want to manage both the Eidos and Square Enix game identities.
Tell us more about how Square Enix studios collaborate.
We really encourage information share and knowledge share, I think that’s really in our DNA. From the get-go we’ve been running seminars and sessions and sharing data.
I’d say the level of collaboration for each project usually depends on what stage of development the studios are in. If a team is in crunch, perhaps there’s less collaboration with Tokyo or elsewhere, but in the concept stage maybe there’s more.
We’ve encouraged a lot of teams to visit, to travel around, to talk, to show and tell. We’re not saying “right, everyone, collaborate now!” we’d rather want to see things naturally develop.
We also are happy to collaborate externally as well. Our Eidos Montreal studio is working with [Tokyo based GCI group] Visual Works for Deus Ex, and that was one of the immediate collaborations that made real sense to us.
Visual Works is a fantastic CGI team, one of the best in the world, and they loved working with the Montreal guys. Language isn’t a barrier for us – we’re working on projects that you can immediately understand.
So we’ve been pushing collaboration over the last year, and it’s been about setting up the framework to collaborate – when it makes sense let’s do it, but let’s not push it if it feels artificial or set at the wrong time.
If you could name the key IP for Square Enix Europe, what would it be?
[Laughs] I really don’t think I could name a single one at the moment! Right now it’s Final Fantasy and Just Cause 2.
I’m delighted with how Just Cause 2 did. We didn’t want the game to take itself so seriously, and I think the gamers got that. It was a testament to the great work done by Avalanche.
Also, Final Fantasy XIII was the biggest launch in the history of the series for Europe, and we are very pleased with that too.
But that’s just now. Coming up this year we are going to show the major initiatives we’ve taken with Lara Croft as well, and we’re going to be showing more Kane and Lynch 2 – so all of these are very important to us.
It was fantastic to see such success for Avalanche with Just Cause 2, considering everything the studio has gone through in recent times. It also says a lot about the power of third-party partnerships even to this day. What is your broad strategy on third-party business?
I actually want to say that we want to grow third party partnerships. I know it has been a tough time for independent studios – the headlines speak for themselves.
When we started again [in 2008] with this new drive towards quality, third-parties were a big part of that plan, but that wasn’t just working with indies studios at arms’ length. We wanted to work with teams that really got how we can all work together.
We essentially want our third party teams to work with us like our own internal studios. We currently have a new and disciplined green-light process where we bring in all the right people at the table to look at games and key milestones in areas of creativity, technology, sales and business, and all our projects go through that. So teams that are prepared to work that way, then we are going to grow with them.
Is this an opportunity that other publishers have missed? As other companies walk away from third parties, do you have the whole shop to yourself?
If people are walking away, then yes, we will be able to capitalise on that, because we want third-party relationships.
I like having that balance [indies and internal], because it delivers a healthy ecosystem of new ideas, and it’s a very important part of our strategy. The industry has gone through a ton of changes over the years, and I do think that publishers are going to start to look at third-party developers again. It’s going to be up to the independents with how they want to work, and who they want to work with.
Going back to the new Lara Croft game you mentioned, could you explain Square Enix’s digital strategy.
I think the new Lara Croft game is a testament to our strategy to try something new – not as an experiment in a hit or miss way, but actually as a way to meet new consumer demand.
We actually started looking at the Tomb Raider and Lara Croft brands back in 2008 with the release of Tomb Raider Underworld. At the time we were thinking about how much Lara Croft was everywhere but not on the game’s title, so at the time we were thinking how interesting it would be to have a Lara Croft franchise extension.
I’m not saying this is a split – we’re not driving a huge wedge through this – but we had always planned separating the two, with the Lara name in Digital and the Tomb Raider brand at retail.
Digital is now a massive part of our focus. How we offer content to consumers via digital download is very important to us, and premium downloadable content is an absolute must for the titles that we launch.
All of them?
It’s not like a cookie-cutter in that everything needs to have it or else, it’s just that we believe in it.
And episodic content?
Will we see our games split into episodes? It’s not something that we are particularly planning, but I’ve no doubt that we will be over the next three years.
Is it essential for publishers to adapt to digital?
Oh yeah, I’d say everyone is looking at it right now and trying to mirror consumers’ lifestyle. Who would have thought five years ago that BlackBerrys and iPhones would be around? It’s going to be great to deliver games across all these different platforms, and we will be looking at them all from PSP to PlayStation to mobile.
On the subject of new platforms, what’s your view on the latest ones, Natal and Move?
We’re excited by motion control, but it’s not going to be technology on its own that’s going to change the landscape here, it’s going to be the software. As an add-on, both Move and Natal might not work in changing the market, but we have great faith in both right now.
What was your response to the news that the UK may be getting development tax breaks?
It’s very encouraging to see the government recognise the economic and cultural contribution made by the video games industry to the UK. Beyond the economic impact I feel this is a sign of the growing acceptance of games and gaming. With more people than ever playing games in the UK, and more and more businesses looking at the growth potential for gaming, it’s a good move.
Introducing tax credits demonstrates a willingness to invest in one of the UK’s major success stories, we can stimulate further creation of world-leading intellectual property, skills and jobs right for an increasingly digital world. Of course with an election now on the cards, we will have to see which party gets into power and take it from there, but for the industry to be recognised and publicly acknowledged is definitely a step in the right direction.
If tax break plans are enacted, would that convince you to focus more resources into the UK?
I think about this in two ways.
Firstly for games businesses today mainly or wholly based in the UK, it’s fantastic news if these tax plans are passed. We have a thriving business today centred in our Wimbledon office in Square Enix London Studios, the studio who has worked recently on bringing out some key titles such as Batman: Arkham Asylum with Rocksteady, and Just Cause 2 with Avalanche.
So for studios based in the UK, the tax plans should make them more competitive and with exciting projects and talented teams we could see more investment in the UK that way. We are a firm believer in the talent here in the UK and I certainly want to give SELS the resource it needs to continue its recent success.