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MIGS 2010: Square Enix CTO On Working With Japan, Game Tech's Future

MIGS 2010: Square Enix CTO On Working With Japan, Game Tech's Future

November 10, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

November 10, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
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Square Enix's global chief technology officer Julien Merceron delivered a MIGS talk about the challenges facing his company in forming a global tech strategy which incorporates the needs of Japan and the West.

"I think the last 10 to 15 years we've been really trying to understand how we can go about global development collaboration, how to work with outsourcing, trying to understand distributed development," said Merceron. "We've really tried to tame that beast, and I think many of us have a good grasp on how to go about with these things."

Unfortunately for Merceron, the one area the Western game industry hasn't seemed to tackle is effective collaboration with Japan, which evolved its own strong game industry, including practices and technology, in parallel with the West.

"I think we thought that the Japanese world and the Western world wouldn't really collide at any point in time," he said. "The people who thought this wouldn't happen were slightly wrong."

Indeed, in 2009 Square Enix acquired Eidos -- and Merceron became the combined company's CTO. Mercerson thinks more East-West mergers are coming, whether Japanese companies buy Western studios or vice versa.

At first, he said, people in the industry worried that Square Enix might change Eidos irreparably. "Eidos is gone? Not really. But clearly it was a tough ride at the beginning."

Japan's Not Doomed

"The game industry in Japan right now is going through a bumpy ride. [However] I think a lot of things you see on the internet are exaggerated." While statements from prominent developers like Keiji Inafune and Hideo Kojima paint doom and gloom, Merceron sees more hope.

"Is it really that bad? Are they finding themselves in a situation that has no solution? I'm actually not sure at all," he said.

"If you look at the numbers, you have companies that are still making profit," he continued. "You have companies that are still making amazing games and selling millions of units. [Yes,] they've gone their own way when it comes to process, technologies, pipelines... a lot less efficiently than other developers sometimes."

All the same, "even though some of the games that they are making could be made a lot more efficiently, they are still profitable," Merceron said. "Just think for 10 seconds. If they start to be smarter about their pipelines, and how they make their games, they could be very, very profitable in the future. So I have been approaching Japan very optimistically. In fact they could be very rapidly a lot more profitable."

Japan vs. The West: Culture

The culture in the East is "absolutely not the same as Western style," Merceron said. Yet while Western developers "tend to be so humble you'd imagine they are doing something wrong, when you look in the details they're doing amazing work."

One major hurdle in Japan is that "in the West, it's seen as being very cool to be making games. In Japan, not so much -- especially for programmers," Merceron said. "Programmers will tend to look for other types of jobs in the technology space. Gaming is probably not the first option for them. Unlike in the West where you can find a lot of superstars in programming, it will be a lot less in Japan."

Characters, story, and memorable moments have become key to Japanese games, Merceron said, "maybe a lot more than [they are] in the West. The way they think about these things has led their concept of RPG games to really diverge from the Western concept." He continued, "the kind of treatment they have with cinematics is very different from ours."

Japanese games, he said, deliver emotional storytelling more successfully -- albeit largely in noninteractive ways. Meanwhile, the West lags in this area "because we are looking at emotion in a very challenging way."

"It's something that, in the West, developers try to deliver as well. But I think that because we've been moving in these very, very interactive worlds we are trying to find a way to generate emotion during gameplay, while actually in Japan it's usually in storytelling," he said.

However, this has led to a strength for Eestern developers: "great pipelines to make CG cinematics for games."

On the other hand, in Japan "if something is working, teams don't really tend to try to find alternatives. That leads to some process, pipelines, technology that could look outdated. On the other side I think that in the West we try to reinvent the wheel a little too much. We have a bit of two extremes here."

And while Japanese studios "push the quality of graphics extremely high, one of the big problems is that they don't focus on animation as much as the graphic design of the characters," he said. Conversely, "when they look at our games, they feel like the graphics are not good enough."

However, the West has more balance. "When it comes to animation, graphics, interactivity, is more homogenous in the West," said Merceron.

Tools and Tech Falling Behind

Japanese pipelines "tend to have data that are very static, complex tools, long iteration time," because the teams are "not really revisiting their approach to content creation. So that has given a birth to a lot of pipelines that are really slow, and are not as real-time as they could be."

"In the West you tend to have more design-driven technology... while at the same time you try to have technology programming teams that try to lead on the creative side to show a little bit what is possible on different platforms. You have this balance that they don't tend to have in certain teams. Tech teams just work on series of tasks that have been asked to -- which leads to complex relationships, and also leads to some problems when it comes down to memory usage and performance."

Crafting Solutions

Observing the Japanese studio and talking to its tech teams was crucial to learning its ways, Merceron said. "Every company is different... you can't just take your recipes and try to apply them without thinking about what this company needs," said Merceron. "It's very important to tailor your approach to the nature of the company, its culture, its needs, its vision."

Eidos first met with Japan's tech teams in July 2009, shortly after the merger, inviting them to Eidos' tech presentations at Io in Copenhagen. That August, Merceron spoke at Japanese developer conference CEDEC, and based on discussions at that time delivered a six-hour tech presentation in Tokyo the following month, around the Tokyo Game Show.

The idea of the presentation was not just to present Eidos' tech, but "for them to understand why we make tool A and make tool B." It was recorded and put on the Square Enix intranet -- and watched extensively by developers there.

In January 2010, Merceron said they "had to start identifying goals, and possible paths we had forward, while still making progress on a lot of different aspects... We had already identified a few technologies we had wanted to share and a few things we had wanted to make progress on.

"We did a lot of really, really small early steps just trying to figure out if we were actually able to do simple stuff together or if simple stuff was already complex... just making progress and helping some teams," he said.

Merceron quickly found that some, but not all, of Eidos' tech would work for Japan. A "copy and paste" approach would certainly not work. They still, however, had a lot of things in common, and recognized mutual strengths -- Square Enix's prowess in art, and Eidos' in tech.

"In terms of content creation, they are mindblowing," Merceron said of the Japanese team at Square Enix. He was particularly impressed with "everything around rigging... to get the animation and deformation right... they way they manage helper joints is really, really advanced compared to what I've seen in the West."

However, in areas where teams are far apart from each other, you can't instantly expect the lagging side to adopt high-level practices. "You have to ramp up one till they get to that level, and then start doing things together," he said.

Japanese teams are also sometimes unwilling to ask for outside help, because they don't want their dirty laundry exposed to the company. So Merceron said he's created ways for teams to ask for help "under the radar."

The Mechanism of Change

Ultimately, it was decided that the company needed a Square Enix Europe technology board for West-specific tech solutions, a Tokyo technology committee for Japan-specific solutions, and a Global technology committee which shares members of both for global solutions.

This past September, the team had its first global technology meeting, and "this time [the Japanese] weren't spectators anymore, they are involved in the discussions," Merceron said.

Merceron sees the path forward as including global technology sharing and asset sharing. "We have a huge focus on tools... We are very, very focused on tools and pipelines. I think we spend a lot more energy and time on delivering pipelines and tools than we are working on engine aspects," he said.

Given the terrible difficulty many developers have had finding business success on current generation platforms, tackling technological hurdles is essential, Merceron said.

Moving forward, Merceron sees art will be a huge area to tackle -- especially as a new generation of boxes takes off. Also, "a wide complexity [is] waiting for us on the engine side," he said. "The time it's going to take to create the content is going to grow, so we need to make sure we continue to be extremely proactive on the tools side."

"I can't say I am happy about the stability of the middleware development industry," said Merceron. Providers get gobbled up by publishers, and solutions can disappear. However, he says he does not think it makes sense for studios to spend effort developing many of these solutions internally.

And he worries that digital content creation tools are simply not innovative enough in their solutions for creating art. The pipelines are "not ready" for the next generation, and this is a "huge concern," he said. Since he doesn't want to build his own, he wants to see more innovation -- and particularly called out Autodesk, the largest supplier of these tools, in this regard. Providers are "not proactive enough, not helping enough," he said.

Closing Thoughts

Right now, said Merceron, it's a great time for Westerners to consider a career in Japan -- but the language barrier is not going to go away.

Japanese developers, he thinks, will continue to get better at developing games targeted toward the Western market, and as they do that, local tastes will become more in line with global trends.

However, the same won't happen with Japanese casual games -- they will stay focused on a single territory, he said.

While Western developers tend to be dismissive of Japanese developers sometimes, he said it's worth remembering that while it's simple for Westerners to jump onto forums and get help, Japanese developers mostly can't read English and can't participate -- they've been isolated.

But Merceron said that perhaps the most concerning issue, in this age of splintering platforms and new opportunities, is the rigidity of the major platform holders. If developers can't be profitable with games this generation, this "will be the end of hardware platforms." He says that the major platform holders have "one more try" to get it right -- the next generation.


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