Building a New Studio: Square Enix Montréal
When I was offered the role as general manager of a yet to be opened studio (what is now Square Enix Montréal), it gave me a double shot of both excitement and adrenaline-pumping fear. On one hand, it was the chance of a lifetime as I would be part of establishing a brand new studio, which is both liberating and inspiring— defining what type of studio it will be in both vision and development projects; on the other hand, while I already have general manager experience at Square Enix London Studios, the pressure would be all on me (at least initially) to lay the right foundation for a successful studio. With all of this running through my mind, I took on this challenge wholeheartedly and defined the cornerstones needed to make an industry-leading studio.
Making great games is hard, very hard. So, in designing and building out a new studio, we need to do everything possible to make our jobs as easy as possible. For the last 20+ years I've specialized in working with independent studios, so I've had a lot of exposure to different teams, learning what works well and what doesn't work so well.
The most valuable asset in any studio is the people. It doesn't matter how good your technology is or how great your space is, if you have the wrong people, you will fail. So many people talk about making AAA games, but very few have done it or really understand what it takes.
This is why we are pulling together a team with a disproportionate balance of experienced domain experts who know what it takes to build great games – and we will complement this team with younger, fresher talent who are fearless, helping us to discover new things and push our boundaries.
For me, it’s essential to gauge how passionate and motivated people are to do their part in establishing the studio. I always ask in interviews (I guess the cat’s out of the bag!),”What would you do differently or change if you got to start over again?” This is quite a powerful concept and it sometimes catches people off-guard. Often, when you join an established studio, you have to fall in line with the way they do things.
Some studios do things a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always done them and changes can be hard when a culture has been set for a long time. Here it’s different, we’re creating a new culture, new processes and new ways of doing things and there’s a rare opportunity to legitimately make a difference. It’s essential to find people who embrace change and have passion – these are important, inherent things that we can’t teach!
On top of this, there is no substitute for the experience of shipping games. When I shipped my first game as a developer, I thought I knew everything, but in reality I only had exposure to one way of doing things and I quickly learned there were different solutions out there.
Shipping one game gives you a key to one lock, while shipping twenty games gives you a great big bunch of keys that fit many different locks. Often you find a small core in a studio that makes the difference; some call this the 80-20 rule or the Pareto Principle, where 20% of the studio does the bulk of the work – I want to change this by growing our pool of talent who can make the right decisions and get stuff done.
Next we need to make sure we can work together. Multidisciplinary teams collaborate on big problems and it only takes one person to smash the team dynamic and send that part of the project spiralling toward failure. This is a real priority for us. We see some super smart people with all the right “hard” skills, but patchy “soft” skills and in my book soft skills are just as important.
So our people are number one priority, another important factor is where we work, it needs to provide the necessary components for the teams to deliver great things. We have a theory here, where we think people’s equipment and desk set-up at work should be better than what they have at home.
Today, we’re in a temporary space while we are designing our final studio location, but we’re trying to build this around our people and we have some strong goals around what we want to achieve here. I want people to smile and feel good about the studio space when they enter it every day. Some smart thinking on our part will help us build a space where people will want to spend time, and a competitive environment that makes our jobs easier, while promoting what we do and what we believe in.
Today, the team is still small as we need to ensure we hire the perfect team members, but we’re growing at a steady pace and making strides in reaching our key studio milestones. We’re in the always exciting conception phase of our very first game—a brand new Hitman title—but I very much look forward to the days when we move into our permanent space, reach our 150 capacity, and start full production on the game.
Be sure to look out for monthly blogs on Gamasutra from me and other Square Enix Montréal team members about our progress!