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Q&A: Inside Square Enix's New LA Studio

Q&A: Inside Square Enix's New LA Studio

March 23, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

March 23, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
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While Square Enix has long been an established name in game development -- with Square internally developing its own games since the 1980s, and often pushing boundaries in visual arts with each new release -- the company has not made much of a splash in Western development.

That is changing. Fumiaki Shiraishi, who's worked for Square Enix since 2000 in Tokyo, grew up in Tokyo and New York and attended MIT, giving him a unique perspective to straddle the sometimes-incompatible worlds of Japanese and American game development.

Having most recently served as lead programmer and game designer on Square Enix's successful WiiWare title Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King, Shiraishi is currently living in Los Angeles, where he's the game development manager at the company's fledgling North American studio.

Interested in recruiting staff who have the same sort of creative spark that he feels essential to Square Enix's products, he here lays out what he sees as the mission of the studio and the greater philosophy of the company, on the eve of GDC.

Obviously there's been a lot of speculation about the studio you're forming in LA. I guess my first, obvious question is how many people you've recruited so far?

Fumiaki Shiraishi: We're in the mid-single digits.

How big do you intend to grow the studio?

FS: We're actually probably going to have to figure out as we go along. We're probably aiming for between 10 to 20. The idea is that we want to have the core team here, and then try to work with other companies for a lot of the more specific tasks and skills.

So you're talking about using outsourcing, potentially.

FS: Yes.

What kind of titles are you looking to work on in that studio? I read an interview that [Square Enix USA CEO] John Yamamoto did last year that talked about doing downloadable games. Is that still the plan, or has it expanded?

FS: It has expanded. We do like to have one full-size project if possible, and then have the downloadables on the side. We're still in the process of trying to figure out what the first title will be.

Right now we're still in the very early phase of testing out gameplay stuff and testing out the technology. The scope of the game, and how it's going to be sold, is going to come a little bit later.

Square Enix has made a lot of different moves recently as regards addressing the Western market -- whether it be something like president Wada's comments, which are more a philosophical look at the industry in Japan and what changes need to be made, to bidding for Eidos. What's the philosophy that's guiding Square Enix's moves right now?

FS: Well, I can't talk for Wada-san, really, right. There's a lot of stuff going on in his head, I think.

I have to answer from my own little part. We do think that it's important to have our own studio, on this side, outside of Japan. On one hand, we're trying to move to acquire studios outside of Japan. At the same time we want to have an internal studio, outside, and the roles would be a little different.

My role here, already, on one hand we're trying to have a project, but at the same time some of my job is to look at technologies, to look at various information that I can pick up in the United States, and feeding that back to the Tokyo studio.

I'd read about that. Also you guys just announced that you licensed Gamebryo. Is that part of that? Obviously, I'm assuming you're not licensing it just to check it out -- you're going to make a game out of it.

FS: Yes, that is the hope. But the actual game is still going through approvals, so we can't announce it. We're still in the very early stages.

Approvals with Square Enix management?

FS: Right.

The goal of the studio in LA then almost seems to have two parts -- one is almost like a skunkworks where you guys investigate the moves you could be making for the company at large, but you are also going to be producing actual products.

FS: I think you just nailed it on the head. In my mind, I'd like to have a skunkworks kind of setup. On one hand, we do want to do some research here that we can send back to Japan, but at the same time, I don't think that pure research works well in this industry. I think it's always good to have a product to work towards, and therefore you have a framework for evaluating technologies and new methodologies.

So what you said is actually close to what I'm trying to achieve here.

In terms of the sort of freedom that you guys have in the LA studio to pursue projects... can you talk about what your focus is?

FS: I've been doing a lot of soul-searching to try and figure out what it means to make a Square Enix game.

It's because we're an internal studio. I think it's important that whatever we come up with, even though it is made by a new team with new people, it would be nice if people could look at it and say, "That game has the good qualities Square Enix is known for." So what I've been trying to do is to figure out what ht is -- what are the good things that all good Square Enix games have in common?

I think that good companies have that. I think there are companies out there that definitely have a feel to them. Even though they have a wide portfolio, there's something that kind of ties them together. I think that Square Enix has that too, and I'm just trying to put my finger on it.

One thing is that I think that Square Enix games do try to push the boundaries of stuff... I'm sure that people are going to argue with that. But we don't do straight-up fantasy. We do have strange races, and strange monsters to populate this world. Even if we do science fiction, we don't do straight-up science fiction. I think we do try to throw some curveballs in it.

And they don't always work. But the thing that I think I admire, is that the people in the Tokyo office are always willing to try. Even if their previous ideas didn't go well with the users, or something, they don't go back to the tried-and-true science fiction or fantasy formula. Every time they try to come up with a new game, they try to create a new world altogether. And also they do try creative gameplay ideas, too.

I think that spirit of challenge is what I want to try and keep intact.

Obviously, you've talked about how the studio in Tokyo has a lot of talented people making interesting creative decisions, and I'd agree with that. Obviously, bringing some people from North America into the mix, you're going to get people with a very different background, or perhaps concepts. How can you allow their ideas to flourish and still create within the context of this Square Enix ideal that you see?

FS: I don't think that there is one silver bullet for that. I'm constantly talking to the guys about that, and I tell them that's the kind of stuff I want. Even in the recruiting process, I really talk about that and try to find people that are going to buy in to that.

With that said, at the end of the day, we are going to have to let whatever we come up with speak for itself. It should be interesting going forward. At this moment I don't how we can really enforce it -- we just have to try.

It's a bit open-ended, on both counts -- both in terms of maintaining that essential quality, and in terms of letting people explore their ideas. They're both very open-ended scenarios. I imagine it's the kind of thing that will arise naturally out of the plans that you end up making with the staff that you recruit.

FS: Yeah. I actually have some solid concerns. One thing that I've noticed as I speak to a lot of studios in North America are often led by people with technical backgrounds -- often the one guy who was a game designer and a programmer and maybe even did the graphics, or something. So the studios have a very technology-driven way of making games.

Whereas the Tokyo office, for instance, we don't have that. A lot of the creative vision comes from people with art backgrounds, or a straight up game design background, with no technological background.

Like [Kingdom Hearts director, illustrator Tetsuya] Nomura-san.

FS: Yes, sure. And I think that leads to different priorities. On one hand, I want to learn from some of the studios here that have found really efficient ways of doing things, and have found really technical ways of coming up with great games.

On the other hand, if we go too far down that path, then maybe there's no way to incorporate some of the Square Enix stuff anymore. Because I personally come from a technical background, I'm pretty confident that we can have a pretty efficient studio.

But I'm definitely afraid of not having enough of the creative side. It's something that I'm concerned about and will constantly be working with, going forward.

I think that when you're saying things like "Square Enix stuff" you mean a sense of values of how games should be made, more than a method.

FS: I think you're right, yeah.

I think that clarifies it and makes it make sense -- because people can look at the superficial elements, or even the important elements of a Square Enix game and think that's what you're talking about, but I get the sense more that it's more that sense of values that leads to the kind of games that are made by Square Enix.

FS: Mm-hmm. One thing I've found after coming here, is that I think that the Square Enix internal development -- Square Enix as a company puts a lot of confidence in individual developers.

There is actually a quite of bit of room to come up with your own ideas [for example] about what the monsters should be, should do, how they should act. There really aren't that many top-down decisions on those kinds of things, and that's what I'm going to try to keep.

One thing that the Tokyo office does -- I think the development team doesn't listen to the marketing department that well, and makes their own thing. I think that has its pros and cons. I think all of that stuff contributes to the culture and philosophies that Square Enix has. I'm sorting through these issues, and trying to figure out which ones I want to keep and which ones I want to get rid of.

You talked about about technical knowledge not being as emphasized out of the Tokyo studio. Obviously, that's hurt a lot of Japanese companies this generation. You don't want tech to overshadow the products that you make, but I think that it's a major concern -- getting technology to the point where it needs to be.

FS: I don't want to go into this as Japan versus the West, or Japan versus United States, but there are a few companies in the United States that have really taken technology to the next level. I don't think it's United States development as a whole, but there are a few companies that have really stood out on their own.

In this generation, I feel like we're trying to play catch up a little bit. And part of that is because we were really focused on consoles. And we didn't have that PC development.

This current generation, I think that companies that had invested a lot of time and money into the PC side are seeing payoffs on the console side of things. The companies that just did PS2, for instance, are falling behind a little bit.

I think there are a lot of factors going into the technology issue. I think that, this generation, maybe some companies will catch up, and afterwards everyone will be on even ground again. Or maybe it's going to be a continuing issue going into the next generation -- I really don't know.

Will you guys be able to leverage the technology that's coming out of Tokyo, like the Pollux Engine or Crystal Tools?

FS: I do talk to them fairly often. We have a lot of exchange of information. So, I think right yet, so far, we haven't had so much, probably not enough, but the door is definitely open. So if there's cool stuff that we need or we want, or just want to look at it, I think we definitely can.

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