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The Art Of International Technical Collaboration At Square Enix

February 17, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

One aspect of Square Enix's Eidos acquisition that has not been discussed is how much the Western and Eastern halves of the new company will be collaborating. While it's already been revealed that Square Enix Visual Works, the CG studio behind the film Advent Children and the high quality cinematics in the company's games will be contributing to Deus Ex 3, currently in development at Eidos Montreal, we haven't heard a lot more.

That collaboration runs deeper and more fundamentally than has been previously revealed, it turns out. Recently, Julien Merceron, the CTO of Eidos, has been named the worldwide technology director of the entire company. He now oversees technology coming out of all of the studios, including Io Interactive's G2 engine, Square Enix Tokyo's Crystal Tools, and Crystal Dynamics' Crystal Tech. Merceron has been studying Japanese since last year to ease in collaboration and communication.

Though Japan has become notorious this generation for struggling to deliver technology on par with Western studios, Merceron believes that the talent at Square Enix Japan is formidable and that there's something about the company's approach for its Western developers to learn as well -- and is implementing processes and structures to enable technology sharing.

Here, Merceron, who spent time at Ubisoft as its worldwide technology director prior to joining Eidos as its worldwide CTO in 2006, outlines not only his plan for international collaboration, but also his roadmap for making meaningful and intelligent technology decisions -- whether it be process, structure, or deciding on how and when to license middleware for projects.

Square Enix is a big company with studios all over the world. How do you think it's going to be to manage these studios -- different cultures, different locations, different technologies?

Julien Merceron: I think that having different studios around the world is more of an advantage than an inconvenience for a company. Obviously, it allows us to avoid having one huge studio with, like, two or three thousand people; it gains the possibility to have multiple studios all over the world, and have studios that have a human side. I think that it really provides a much better working environment.

Also, I think that we can take advantage of being able to recruit where the talent is, and I would say that's also the second advantage of being a little bit everywhere. Also, you have to know that I've been at Ubisoft for about 10 years, so I know what it is to deal with a large and international environment, and the size of Square Enix is not something that I see as a problem -- not at all.

Also, the one trend that -- you will probably agree with me -- publishers will tend to grow in size over the next three years... So I think managing a large group is just a skill many managers will need to have.

Also, I'd like to add something about the way I work: I don't work alone. I work with a team, as a team. I tend to call this team a "technology board", and the members are traditionally key people from the studios, from lead programmers and principle engineers to kind of a technology director profile. We now have a technology community at Square Enix Group level that will also include key people from Tokyo, and this will allow the company to work as one in terms of technology.

Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider: Underworld

How you make decisions about technology interests me, because this company is made out of an acquisition of different parts -- you have Crystal Dynamics that has its own engine; you have Crystal Tools coming out of Square Enix in Tokyo; I'm sure there's engine technology coming out of other studios. How do you manage those different technologies? Is that an advantage in your eyes?

JM: Since last year, many people traveled back and forth between Tokyo and Square Enix Europe studios. I've already spent a lot of time in Tokyo, and it was also important for many key technology-related people from Tokyo to travel to our studios to understand better the why and the how about our technology tools process.

It's true that I've been doing, since mid-last year, a lot of presentations over there, but it's not until you basically go to a studio and you see how the technology is used -- how the tools are being used to make games -- that you really understand the fundamentals and the different pros and cons of the different approaches. Right now, I think that the knowledge has spread into Tokyo about what technologies some of the studios have created, and they have a lot of praise for our approach.

Again, all this is teamwork, and I can't take all the credit for the technology that has been created on the Eidos side. But I work very closely to the technology teams on identifying what is key for them to achieve; and then work with them on what they need to be able to know in order to realize the vision. And we have some extremely talented teams working on very amazing technology. And I think it is actually on both sides; I've really had the pleasure to meet a lot of incredible people in Tokyo.

I think that, obviously, the approach that Square Enix Europe studios have had for the last few years has been really welcomed by Tokyo, and also I think that the game teams and the technology teams tend to like the way Square Enix European studios have been organized and the way I work.

I work with all of these game teams; I work also with the general managers that are very important people also in the group. These guys are really proactive in terms of involving me, and we are definitely working well together.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Task Tanaka
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The biggest problem is that programmers in Japan get paid the same (terrible!) money as the planners and artists. The people with real technical skills (not just talk skills), are not important. I've heard this many times especially at Square, the producer and director get all the money. In Japan the programmer with 6 years experience makes the same money as a new programmer in California. Many game programmers in Japan get paid less than 30k!!!! It's incredible. Just the unskilled programmers that can't get a real job do games in Japan. The skilled people HAVE to leave or starve. Maybe if the salary was competitive things would be different...

It's all Fantasy of the executives.

Clinton Keith
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Good article! Lot's of excellent common sense. I liked the focus on the pillars of workflow and iteration speed.

Good luck on learning Japanese! I tried, but failed. The shame is great.

Dave Endresak
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I think we need to recall some cultural differences that impact the wage scales in different areas of the world. For example, "Japan's income distribution is roughly sixty percent more equal than the United States'" (2005, Alston, Jon P. and Yakei, Isao, "Japanese Business Culture and Practices: A Guide to Twenty-First Century Japanese Business", p. 26). This has also been confirmed in specific major entertainment companies such as Sanrio. There are also factors such as factory housing. After all, rent is by far the largest bill in an American worker's monthly budget, particularly in expensive living locales such as California. In a similar mode of thinking, most Japanese have typically considered themselves middle class, and Japanese society has had a relatively low level of extreme poverty. In fact, the impact of "the lost decade" of the 1990s and the current recession is all the more extreme in Japan because, traditionally speaking, Japanese society has not had to deal with rising unemployment rates and tight labor markets, and thus they don't really have much in the way of social safeguards to deal with such events.

The bottom line is that actual quality of life isn't necessarily about take home pay, even net take home pay, but rather about the overall experience one has at any particular moment due to a great number of factors, including indirect impacts on freedoms due to cultural and social elements. Globalization of socioeconomic factors impacts different societies in different ways even if the ultimate general result is social upheaval.

Dave Endresak
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Oops... typo... the second author's name should be "Takei". Sorry.

Jonathan Nagel
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I think this is a good article. I personally agree with Julien that not all tech is universal and that you need to look at your specific project's goals and then build or buy depending on what those are. So it's interesting to hear the part about trade-offs that teams and key decision makers have to make.

I second Clinton that learning Japanese is tough! I commend you both, as I haven't even tried! :) haha! But I think it goes a long way when you see two companies putting that sort of effort in!