Square Enix has one of the most dynamic and interesting game lineups for the rest of 2015, with games like Life is Strange, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Hitman and Just Cause 3 all lining up for release before year’s end. The quality of game seems to be there for Square and we had the opportunity to speak with Square Enix CEO of the Americas and Europe Phil Rogers at E3 2015 about what’s left in 2015, Life is Strange, gaming trends, Just Cause 3 and so much more.
Examiner: How has 2015 treated Square Enix so far?
Phil Rogers: We’re constantly moving, so I don’t think we ever segment a year, but we feel like we’re really in a great stride right now. The industry is in a great place, our business is in a great place. Events like E3 are a snapshot, you show it to people and they see it in its entirety, which feels great. Last year was a good year for us, but I think we’re really looking forward and we’re really excited.
Examiner: You guys announced Hitman and it’s coming out this year, that’s just doesn’t happen that often in the industry these days. How special is it to announce a new game and be able to say, yes it’s coming out this year?
Phil Rogers: It’s great to get that reaction, sometimes when you’re planning these things, of course you’re excited about it, but we see it as a natural next step and we’re excited about the game. It’s great to get that feedback, and other folks were [excited] as well. It’s great that something is announced and that it is coming out [soon]. To be honest with you, I’d like to see more of a trend where that happens. I mean there are seasonal trends where first parties are now announcing initiatives and they start tomorrow or they start tonight, and I think that’s great for consumers. I know it’s a trade show, but consumers look to E3 and that’s why the [press] conference for us was so great.
Examiner: What did you learn from your time at EA and Criterion and how is it helping you now at Square?
Phil Rogers: Criterion was a very passionate business, it had two fronts, the game studio and the technology side. I came from the technology background, so I was deep into solving challenges for development. On the studio side, we were really lucky because we had the leadership of Fiona Sperry and Alex Ward who just did things over their dead bodies, they created the Burnout franchise. Alex had this tremendous vision and exposure to that sort of team; that confidence and ambition [was inspiring], and that is amplified here at Square. It’s about empowering these creators and putting the right people around them, so it was a big learning [experience] for me.
At EA, the thing I loved most about EA is there was no complacency. It was a very big business, but [the company] loved its games, loved its properties, was a work hard, play hard culture. It had this feeling of intellectual rigor about business and pushing boundaries. EA was a very confident business and would try things. When I was lucky enough to join Eidos and Square Enix, it was important to keep that confidence to do things. This is an industry that grows and it grows because people have the confident to try, experiment and push boundaries. The industry is in a great place, our business is in a great place. Last year was a good year for [Square Enix], but I think we’re really looking forward and we’re really excited about [our games].
Examiner: In my opinion, Life is Strange is one of the most innovative, revolutionary games I’ve seen in years. How happy are you with the game’s reception and performance?
Phil Rogers: The reception has been fantastic, internally, and externally with consumers. To be honest, I wouldn’t put Life is Strange in that risk category. It was something where we met the team, DONTNOD presented us the vision and people started playing it. Mechanically, you fall in love with it. It’s funny that in the games industry, there is an industry with a business, but at the end of the day it’s about people connecting with these games, experiences, mechanics, stories and characters and when you have that in a great harmony it’s like, we must do this. [The excitement] has been delightful to see across consumers and they’ve also found it really refreshing. We love the mechanic of episodic storytelling and love that we can actually have the confidence as a business and an industry to tackle some of these themes and do something fresh. They are a pleasure to work with.
We spend a lot of time getting to know partners because there are times when we [are making] tough decisions [and having] tough meetings where we’re not in alignment. I use this expression sometimes internally, the passive aggressor, where everything in meetings is fine and then outside of the meetings, “Oh, I wasn’t really happy about that.” We encourage active disagreements sometimes to make sure we are aligned and that’s the great thing about DONTNOD, it is really a partnership where we can put everything out there and come up with the best for consumers and the game.
Examiner: Just Cause 3’s announcement was a long time coming for a lot of people. How much was the series’ return caused by gamer demand and how much was caused by internal interest?
Phil Rogers: The developers have been awesome to work with. It’s a new studio for Avalanche, the first two were built in Stockholm. Avalanche wanted to build a new studio in New York and we were very supportive of that. I think it’s a great industry when you can then find talented leaders, like David [Grijns] and Roland [Lesterlin]. It was almost four years to the day that they found their first hire, so we kind of assembled this team who have a shared passion for Just Cause. They’re a great team to work with. We love the property and it’s the evolution of games, when you say it’s just having fun. We forget that sometimes in games, right? We forget that we should have fun, that at the end of it, you should smile and feel good, the endorphins should be there. Just Cause is one of those games. In a world where we have so much data now and we understand play styles, people are doing things in Just Cause 2 that we could never have imagined. They’re goofing around, doing stunts, replaying [the game] and it’s almost been this real sort of epiphany for us to see how consumers have played the game. To know we’re giving them more of that in Just Cause 3, it’s a great place for us [to be in].
Examiner: Are you happy with how the game’s development is shaping up through today?
Phil Rogers: Very much so. When games begin to get awards and nominations, we know our lens on where we feel it’s at is in line with where third parties and consumers do as well.
Examiner: Why was 2015 the right time for Square Enix to host an E3 briefing?
Phil Rogers: Several things came into play. We felt we had a great lineup. We were looking at it, planning and planning months out, we were thinking we had some really amazing experiences to talk about. From that point of view, we were thinking, should we do an event? I think our event was very personal to us, we wanted to stage it in a Square Enix way. There are so many competing events here, you see the first party events are tremendous theater and for us, we wanted to give every game and its developers [time] to go in-depth with the passion they wanted to. Over the last couple of years, we’ve made really great progress getting closer to our gamers. You know, we’ve rebuilt Final Fantasy XIV, which is a huge testament to the team, and fans have rewarded us with having fun in that game and they’re loving it. We’ve been getting closer to gamers and listening to feedback and again, an E3 [press conference] with a livestream for fans to join, it just felt absolutely right for us.
Examiner: Would Square ever think of creating its own games subscription service, similar to what EA has on Xbox One?
Phil Rogers: In Japan we have launched a subscription service called Dive In. Our philosophy on this is we look at the expansion points of the industry and I think business models and trying to find new ways to package content are just a few examples of things we could do. Again, it’s a testament to EA and one of the things they do try, it’s not for everyone, but a lot of people who want to subscribe at a certain level and then have full access, I think it’s good to experiment. This is what keeps the industry growing in my view. When you look at other media like music or film, sometimes it stagnates because people aren’t prepared to make those decisions. We’re always actively thinking about how we can grow more consumers and get people to try [our games].
Examiner: How do you approach your IP? Why don’t we see more yearly franchises from Square Enix?
Phil Rogers: First and foremost, I think it’s about getting [the plan] right for the IP. On our story-based games, characters and worlds, we feel our cadence is not annual. When we look across our studios at how we work, we generally, whether it’s two years or three years, feel more right in that time frame. It is about getting it right for each game. I think there are new ways to engage gamers in between each [iteration] because it is a long time to wait sometimes. Whether it’s digital or extensions of IPs, these are all things we are very interested in, but again, first and foremost it’s about doing what’s right for each game and I think that’s what we hold ourselves to.
Examiner: Would a remastered version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution ever make sense?
Phil Rogers: There are new audiences with those, and that’s what were constantly seeking. We believe in the quality of our games and when people actually replay with a different gen lens, it’s a testament to the fact that there is an audience there who plays [remasters]. Final Fantasy 7 is a wonderful example, I look back and 1997 is a long time since it came out. Many people were doing different things then, so if you didn’t play Final Fantasy 7, now they’re going to have the chance. [All along], they’ve heard about one of the most loved and endearing games and now they’re going to get a chance to try it, in addition to the fans who want to experience this remake [again]. I think it’s the industry moving forward and how we [try] to bring more people into our worlds.
Examiner: What does the company look for when deciding whether or not to do a remaster?
Phil Rogers: I think it comes out in the passion of the fans.” There are plenty of franchises that fans would like to see updated versions of, but Rogers provided one he tends to hear quite a bit about from fans. For all of our IPs, the one that gamers often talk most to me about is Legacy of Kain and it’s another IP where people have really just lose themselves in it and love that world. I think that’s often what sets our cadence or our plans is thinking about where those fan bases are. To a certain extent, what’s becoming more popular, where these stories appeal are all factors that we take into account. First and foremost is knowing there are fans who would really enjoy [a remaster].
Examiner: Everyone wants to know more about why the exclusivity with Microsoft happened for Rise of the Tomb Raider. What don’t people know about the partnership that you think they should know?
Phil Rogers: I hope fans know that it wasn’t an easy decision. I think any sort of partnership at this level is a decision that took a longtime for us to get to. The decision at a studio level, we took very, very seriously. We knew it would, in the short-term, disappoint fans. What we saw in Microsoft, which is probably not as well known, is that Microsoft’s passion for Tomb Raider is amazing. Having been working with us on previous games in a lesser sense, they’ve been supportive. [However], for Rise of the Tomb Raider, they’ve just brought this passion and belief that has really enabled us to blow people away. People should feel that about Microsoft. Their commitment to Tomb Raider is just amazing for us.
To see Tomb Raider showcased with Halo, Forza and Gears and see Tomb Raider there, it’s amazing for us. If you don’t know, Phil [Spencer] visits Crystal [Dynamics] every time he’s in the Bay Area. Phil is the most welcomed guest, he’ll come talk to the team, play the game and [Microsoft] is a very committed organization to our properties. It just makes it that much more exciting for us.
Examiner: Without that passion, would the exclusive have been possible?
Phil Rogers: I think we look for that passion and commitment from everyone. It becomes the most important thing. We’re about growing our IP, this is a long-term decision. We’re going to take Tomb Raider up to the next level. With Microsoft’s belief, passion and sort of muscle to help us deliver, we really think this is going to be an awesome game that people will enjoy for years and years to come
Examiner: How important is the Final Fantasy franchise to Square Enix moving forward?
Phil Rogers: I mean Final Fantasy 15 has been a really great project for us and when you talk to Tabata-san, he really wants to embrace the Western gamers. He knows how important they are and the feedback he’s soliciting is from fan events and group discussions. It’s amazing when people come to [the] office and talk to him and he’s really listening. The demo we put out and retuned based on feedback is really important for us. Again, we take our IP very [seriously], we want to build its value.
It’s wonderful when we can announce things like Final Fantasy 7 and when you get the biggest round of applause in the show, it’s really humbling. It’s the humbling moment when you know it’s coming and you can hear people around you anticipating it, that’s when you know you’ve listened and you’re doing something very right. We take our IP really seriously, we really want to stand back in 10 years time and see our IP being played by more people, enjoyed by more people and a new audience coming to the IP. That’s how we plot our IP and then when you break it down, you sort of see what the right cadence is with a certain IP or project.
Examiner: How will Square support Steam Machines this Fall?
Phil Rogers: I think we actively look at those opportunities but we are waiting for more details. It’s a “wait and see” for us right now.
Examiner: It seems like Square Enix is done making games for the Xbox 360 and PS3, would that be an accurate assessment?
Phil Rogers: What’s been amazing is the rate at which Gen 8 (PS4 and Xbox One) has picked up. I think it’s gone ahead of anyone’s expectations. If you dust off market reports from three years ago, [analysts] would be embarrassed about how wrong they were on both devices. It’s been an amazing start. I think last-gen for us, we have naturally moved off, but I don’t think we’ve ever made a [purposeful] decision to not support it. We just decided to take a more [purposeful approach] in moving forward with Gen 8.
We are really most excited about Gen 8 and really hitting that sort of stride, and I think people were feeling that [at E3]. The technology is there, the pipeline, the creativity; it’s all good for us. I think there’s a confidence [in the industry] and business needs confidence and creativity needs confidence.
Examiner: What have you seen from the PS4 and Xbox One so far that you didn’t see this time last-gen?
Phil Rogers: Digital is such a new paradigm for us in terms of how we connect to consumers and how we create and deliver content, so I’ve been really pleased with how digital adoption and acceptance has gone ahead as planned. I think consumer [support], in terms of store, consumption and time spent on the machine, has been really encouraging. I think this early wave of gamers are really going to blaze an incredible path for people. It really feels like these machines are truly delivering. I think for us, digital has had a really encouraging start.
Examiner: Is that why Hitman is digital only?
Phil Rogers: I love IO the studio and it’s a great day for me when I visit or spend time there. First and foremost, it was their creativity that brought about the new Hitman, was to think about how they could fuse this creativity and production with new distribution methods. [Digital] is a very natural decision for us and it’s great that the machines can deliver on this, but for us, when we think about the ultimate Hitman experience, it really plays out this way. We love this fantasy, world of assassination and what that might mean in terms of the types of gameplay and I just think digital is the right way to deliver it. The creative harmony of that production, of IO, it was almost fate that this was how we wanted to bring it to life. This was a very organic decision.
Examiner: How have game development costs changed over the past few years?
Phil Rogers: I think what has happened [can be described as] ‘pressure creates diamonds’, and what that’s talking about is how do we create within certain budgets and constraints? You can create absolute diamonds. I think developers, generally, at all of our studios are all smarter than they were five years ago in thinking about production. What I say to the question of development costs is that now there’s more range in development budgets. Now everyone is saying ‘oh it’s last [game] plus 10 percent.’ That’s lazy thinking, so how should we think about this? How do we really get more creative? Tools are improving, engines are improving and I think those are really positive things for the industry as a whole.
I think everyone is aware of budgets, just like in every credit sector, you have to be mindful of it. I love the fact that we can look at products and fall in love with them. Those games can really be different sizes and shapes, all within a range of different budgets. I think that’s really healthy for us.
Examiner: Square Enix is in the midst of a major renaissance for its brands. As you move forward, what’s the most important thing for the company to keep in mind that’ll help ensure success?
Phil Rogers: I think one thing we really want to do is embrace [our company’s] diversity. When you see it together, it is a very diverse business, [with diverse] IPs and games that we work with. I think if there’s one thing we hope to keep our eye on is embracing that diversity. We all don’t want to be the same, I mean there are common threads so when you start playing these games, you love them. The more we push our boundaries and maintain the health that you alluded to earlier, [the better]. Again, shows like this for an international company like Square Enix, we have a truly global footprint and it’s great when we come to events like this, it feels like a family. It feels like we are connected with the badges we wear and the games we play so I think it’s wonderful. To be able to maintain all of that is really key for us.