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How do you tackle industry change?
by Darrell Gallagher on 08/22/13 04:46:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



‘Change’ – there’s a great deal of opinion about our industry, about how it’s changing, how quickly it’s changing, what the outlook is, who the winners might be etc. We watch this play out in front of us in the news, forums, blogs, reviews, sales and charts every week. One question I have to tackle in my new role at Square Enix, is how do we change?

In the last few months I have taken up a new position as Head of product development and studios across America and Europe. It's a great honor to be asked to work across multiple studios as I get to work with many talented teams internally and externally. We are a group that has quality in our DNA, a passion in our veins, a willingness to change how we do things and constantly look to improve.

At Square Enix we care deeply about how our games are received, as creators they are the strongest statement we can make. Every day hundreds of talented individuals across our studios come into work with a single question in mind: How do I make the best game possible?  To feel that drive from so many people is incredibly motivating. The games we make are a labor of love, and we are fiercely passionate about making something great.

My challenge now is how do we make meaningful changes when our industry is evolving?

I’ve had some recent experience in how to approach changing things which are well established in my previous role as Studio Head at Crystal Dynamics, overseeing the reinvigoration of the Tomb Raider franchise.

We faced this same question about ‘change’. The Tomb Raider franchise required bold choices to rejuvenate it to its former glory. We were deeply committed to creating the best experiences by taking what we do well and adding creative, fresh, and new ideas. We challenged ourselves to take new opportunities, try something different and rise above the fear of change.

That trust and willingness to change has given us some great knowledge and success stories. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light released in 2010 as the pillar title in the Xbox Summer of Arcade and great reviews and strong word of mouth resulted in the game now reaching over 1 million units sold across platforms. This represents a great landmark for a digital only release.

The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot was received amazingly well. The team at Crystal and the broader team at Square Enix worked tirelessly to deliver on the promise of a modern reinvention of the franchise. We now sit in a great position where the decisions we made and the willingness to embrace a new direction resulted in the fastest selling game in the history of the franchise and the most critically acclaimed title ever produced from the studio.

Tomb Raider remains one of the biggest selling releases of 2013 in many major territories with more than 4 million units sold worldwide so far.

But these aren't always easy endeavors.

There are moments where only the strongest of belief and the deepest commitment carry you through. It's even more difficult when your choices and the changes are played out in public. We are fortunate that we work with great franchises that are loved by millions of gamers. The strong commitment of fans means a great deal to us, we want them to be passionate about their franchises and hold us to the highest standards.

So now, in my new role I look at our wider portfolio and it’s clear to me how we move forward.

We’ve created some of the most incredible worlds and characters in gaming. The iconic red tie and silver ballers of Agent 47, the unique vision of the future in Deus Ex and the hostile beauty of the Island of Yamatai in Tomb Raider and working together with world class studios to deliver the dark noir of Batman Arkham Asylum, the neon lit Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs and the tropical playground of Panau in Just Cause 2 - all worlds that tens of millions have enjoyed spending countless hours exploring.  Oh, and there is also the depth and beauty in the worlds created by our colleagues in Japan!

I look at a game like Sleeping Dogs, with a world-class development team at United Front Games behind it and still see over half a million people continuing to play it every month. It’s a similar story with Just Cause 2, a game which is over 3 years since release and yet still has over half a million active and unique  players each month, enjoying the larger than life world of Panau, and we’re looking forward to the launch of the community created multi-player mod later this year.

This level of engagement is exciting as a developer. For Sleeping Dogs this continued support has now enabled us to turn this into a profitable game for the business, a critical milestone for a new intellectual property and something I’ve seen our sales, marketing and studio teams across Europe and America work hard together to achieve. It also shows that we are creating content which is keeping millions of people entertained enough to want to spend their time in our world.

Overall as a games business – studios and publishing - we have walked away too early from some of the worlds that we have invested so much time and energy in. If we were to ask people that loved our games whether they would enjoy new content or deeper experiences in these digital playgrounds the answer would overwhelmingly be “yes”.

And for me, this is where the future starts. We see the opportunity for some of our games continuing beyond a traditional beginning, middle, and end. We can have them become extendable and more persistent - with an opportunity to build and grow across games. To design in a way to keep our games alive for years instead of weeks. I’m not talking about an MMORPG – although the concept is similar - I’m talking about creating persistent online experiences built on the foundations of the games we are well known for. Now, this doesn’t apply to every game, there is no one solution that works in every case, but as a wider goal it’s certainly something which some of our franchises are incredibly well suited to and something I want to explore further.

This is one starting point - we also need to look at the opportunities to diversify on different platforms (maybe that’s for another blog).

It’s a great time to be a gamer as there are so many choices on how and where we play games. As developers we love the challenge of new platforms. It’s exciting to think of ways to design on tablets or mobile, to think differently and ask ourselves how we could apply our skills in these spaces and to work on these emerging platforms sitting alongside our talent on console or PC. We see a great opportunity to build and extend an ecosystem to work across platforms and provide unique complementary experiences to different types of gamers that fit the hardware.

We are still working on our future at Square Enix and on how the next generation of titles could be shaped.  As game creators, we always have one thing that is more important than anything else - the gamers we are working to entertain. We are always reading, listening and interested in feedback.

The most exciting thing about change is that it brings opportunity. So change is coming to Square Enix, we’re working on it, we’re going to be open in talking about it and we’re going to embrace it…

Oh…and it’s going to be fun.

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Connor Wack
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One step is to take the people who called Sleeping Dogs (1.5 million), Hitman (3 million) and Tomb Raider (3.5 million) sales a "disappointment" and either send them back through training or fire them. Budgeting titles based on an algorithm that combines content, genre, and metacritic scores, and the sales figures that you expected, the lesson isn't that the games were a disappointment, it should be that your algorithm is severely broken.

There is also the understanding the Square Enix Japan will blame everything on Square Enix NA. Forget the astronomically mismanaged market failure that was Final Fantasy XIV, the mismanagement over Final Fantasy Versus XIII. There are a million different ways Square Enix could fix their financial situation: Stop budgeting their games with that algorithm for starters, take a serious look at sales figures (not metacritic) to understand which franchises sell and which don't, throw some of your mobile Final Fantasy ports on sale once in a while, recognize that games like Final Fantasy: All The Bravest are likely damaging your brand.

Matt Ponton
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It's not just SE with that issue. I hear often from various NA companies with JP home offices that the industry is becoming very conglomerate. The only way you can get anything done is by promising how many more game sales it will make - regardless of if the thing will make the game fun or just in marketing it, you can't possibly answer that for them. I know of a few companies that aren't run like a games but more of an industrial company, and the number of companies is sadly growing.

Dane MacMahon
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I think one major hurdle is that the publishers are scared to give up their one big advantage over smaller teams and indies, which is production values. However in order to keep increasing production values they have to keep increasing budgets, along with your typical corporate bloat, which leads to needing huge sales numbers to balance everything out.

I'm not sure the "hardcore" market for video games is large enough to keep pushing required sales in this way. Hence the change all these publishers are seeking, either by further monetizing the existing market to in effect pay more for the same (or less), or by making more casual games and courting non-traditional gamers.

The next ten years will be super interesting.

Dane MacMahon
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If I ever write a blog on here it will be titled "most games are leaving me behind, but that's okay." This article kind of speaks to that a lot.

My style of gaming is mostly being left behind but the great diversity in the industry today is still offering me a lot to play, simply because a lot of different styles exist and can coexist in the marketplace. And that's exciting.

Steven An
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Sleeping Dogs was awesome! The only GTA-style game I've ever finished.

Adam Bishop
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It's too bad that Sleeping Dogs didn't find a bigger audience. Everyone I know who's played it thinks it was more fun than Grand Theft Auto IV.

Robert Green
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One thing I would caution you against Darrell, is assuming that your customers are all looking for multiplayer experiences. If what your players are coming for is a strong single player narrative experience, they may not even want to play multiplayer games in general, and if they do, you're going to have to aim to create the best single player and multiplayer experiences in a single box, which is an enormous challenge.