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Interview: Inside Square Enix's Major Montreal Expansion
Interview: Inside Square Enix's Major Montreal Expansion Exclusive
November 21, 2011 | By Christian Nutt




Today Tokyo-headquartered Square Enix announced plans to expand Deus Ex: Human Revolution studio Eidos Montreal by 100 staff to 450 total; meanwhile, Hitman development is set to begin at a new 150-head Square Enix Montreal studio.

It's a major move for the Japanese Final Fantasy publisher, which continues its expansion into Western markets. The announcement comes shortly after Square Enix announced that August's Deus Ex: Human Revolution, developed by Eidos Montreal, shipped 2 million units.

Now that Eidos Montreal has "proven that our methods and organization is successful," Eidos Montreal general manager Stephane D'Astous tells Gamasutra it's time to expand the studio to three teams.

"We're expanding Eidos Montreal because we feel it's the right time to increase our output."

"Basically, with the new expansion, we're aiming to host three triple-A games within the studio," says D'Astous. This expansion will bring the studio, which shipped Deus Ex: Human Revolution in August and is currently developing a new game in the Thief series, to a headcount of 450.

"But we're also going to grow the team carefully," says D'Astous. "The last thing I want is to create a factory-like setting -- I've been part of a much bigger studio in the past, and our priority is to make sure we retain a 'human approach' on management, where we're close to our people and transparent with them."

And it's going to see the studio branch into new areas, too, he says. "With our latest expansion we're investing in a motion-tracking facility, several areas related to R&D, online/social connectivity, and in-house recording capability. This will all help us improve on areas in which we lacked previously."

Square Enix Montreal Set To Open

At the same time, the company also announced the foundation of a new Montreal studio, Square Enix Montreal, to be headed up by Lee Singleton (pictured), who has served till now as general manager of Square Enix London Studios, an organization which works with external developers (such as Rocksteady, on Batman: Arkham Asylum).


"I've always wanted the challenge of building out and running an internal studio in my own way, so when the opportunity came up I jumped at it," says Singleton, a 21-year industry veteran.

The studio's first project will be a new game in the Hitman franchise. The latest in the series, Absolution, is under development at IO Interactive in Denmark -- the creators of the franchise.

Was the new studio created for that purpose? "Kind of," says Singleton. "As a group, we identified the need for more high quality games and there's a limit to how much service our current studios can give our IPs.  The natural solution was to investigate opening a new studio, and as soon as we knew this was the right answer, we needed to find the right IP for the studio in order to attract the right talent."

That doesn't mean that the series is done at IO, however. "Square Enix Montreal will work in step with IO Interactive so we can both contribute great games to the Hitman franchise in the future. We will increase the frequency of game releases, but we have no plans to migrate the franchise to Montreal in its entirety," says Singleton.

"We've not locked our tech solution yet, but we do have an option to use the proprietary Glacier 2 engine that's been developed by IO Interactive in Denmark," he notes.

"We will start with a single team, but we will manage a controlled growth plan so that over time we're able to work on more than one project," says Singleton.

Three IO developers are moving to Montreal to start the studio alongside Singleton, who plans to recruit up to 150 people.

How fast he does that "depends on how quickly we can find the right talent. I'm not going to put bums on seats for the sake of it -- that's counterproductive and insulting to the real talent," he says.

And when will the real work on the game begin? "We'll only turn the production taps on when we're ready, and we're clear on exactly what we are building. Our process follows best practice, and we will only go into production once we've build a robust and fun vertical slice that shows the necessary production metrics we need to plan out the full production."

Montreal Hasn't Peaked Yet

"It's the right location, and coupled with the support we're getting from the local government here it was a no-brainer," said Singleton, of opening the new studio in Quebec.

And given the region's history of delivering triple-A franchises, "This is where it's all happening!" says D'Astous.

"I don't think Montreal has peaked yet," says Singleton. But is there really enough talent to go around, with all of the studios opening and expanding?

"As a new studio in Montreal, we have a responsibility to do our bit by bringing new people into the business and helping to expand the talent pool in the province," says Singleton.

Says D'Astous, meanwhile, "I think our challenge will be to work closely with local education institutions and the government to make sure that we can help them to train their students more effectively. We also want to have master-classes for our mid-level staff and expand our senior-level recruitment externally."

Finding talent "might become a problem if you don't have a strategic plan, but that's not the case for us," says D'Astous. "We're quite confident we'll be able to attract great talent -- because great talent wants to work on great titles. And to add to that, we've got a great working environment, upcoming cutting-edge facilities, and I think our management style is really appreciated."

"I'm not underestimating how tricky it is to find strong, new talent," admits Singleton. "We're not looking to recruit all 150 people in the first 12 months -- we'll take our time and get the right people doing the right jobs."

Square Enix Japan IP... Out of Montreal?

Square Enix Montreal is getting its start working with established IP: Hitman. Will the studio ever touch Japanese IP, like Final Fantasy?

"We'll be working on Western projects for the foreseeable future -- although obviously I wouldn't say that we'd never work on one of the traditional Japan-developed franchises. There just aren't any plans for that right now," says Singleton.

D'Astous is similarly cagey. "That's a hard question to answer. I think franchises like Final Fantasy are so well embedded with the Asian culture that I don't know if we could develop it without hugely changing the essence of it. We don't have any plans to tackle it at the moment, but as with most things I'm not sure I could say it would never happen."


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