GDC: Final Fantasy Maker Square Enix Goes After U.S. Gamers With New Studio
SAN FRANCISCO -- Square Enix, the Tokyo gamemaker behind ultrapopular role-playing games Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, doesn't just want to make Japanese games anymore.
The company, which established a game studio in Los Angeles last year, is at Game Developers Conference here this week recruiting staffers to build games aimed at American audiences. Studio head Fumi Shiraishi says that while Final Fantasy is still quite popular around the world, his company thinks the only way to grow is to create games with local development teams in places outside its native Japan.
"Before, you could make a game for the Japanese market and localize it quickly, and be competitive in the global market. I don't think that's true anymore," says Shiraishi. "We have to expand our horizons in terms of technology and game design."
Shiraishi says the new studio will have a good deal of autonomy to create the sort of games it wants to -- but his Tokyo bosses "told me to not talk too much about the specifics of the game" in our interview.
"We are exploring genres outside of role-playing games," he said, but did not specify which genres. In a separate interview with Wired.com sister site Ars Technica, Shiraishi said the game would not be a first-person shooter: "There is no point in making another FPS. Our task is different."
This is not the first time that Square Enix has attempted to establish Western game-development studios. In 1995, it launched one in Redmond, Washington, hiring local talent to create a game aimed at American audiences called Secret of Evermore. It was the only game that studio produced.
Later, Square opened offices in Honolulu and Los Angeles, and tried to "make a Japanese game in the U.S.," Shiraishi says. Those projects didn't quite work out for a variety of reasons, he says: "They tried to get a lot of creative people from outside the industry to make games for us, which in theory sounds pretty cool but in practice there were a lot of problems."
Square Enix has also occasionally attempted to create games in Japan that are specifically meant to appeal to an American audience, from 1992's Final Fantasy Mystic Quest to last year's The Last Remnant (pictured). Most of these have been critical flops.
"I think there's a big difference between trying to make a Western game in Japan, which is kind of a forced process, and that's different from a bunch of guys here making games for ourselves," Shiraishi says.
Shiraishi is the only person from Tokyo in the U.S. office. "We are trying to hire locally. We have talent from Take-Two and Electronic Arts. We want the game design to come out of the development team here, so we are naturally going to make a game that wouldn't be made in Tokyo."
Shiraishi, who has a game programming background, sees Western game creation as being fundamentally different from Japanese game creation. "A lot of U.S. studios were founded by programmers, so the culture is very technology-driven. In (our) Tokyo office, on the other hand, a lot of the leads have an art background. The way (they) approach making a game is from the art or the graphics perspective, and oftentimes the technology comes last."
Establishing a U.S. development studio is just one part of Square Enix's broad approach to invading the Western market. It also recently signed its first publishing deal with an external game developer outside Japan, and will release Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander 2.
Square Enix is also on the verge of buying rival game publisher Eidos.
The plan sounds all well and good, but it's not as if Square Enix isn't successful outside Japan. Japanese games made for Japanese people, like Final Fantasy, have sold millions of copies here. The Square Enix brand name has a certain cachet among role-playing fans. The name denotes certain specific styles of artwork and gameplay.
"On the one hand, we want the games to be different from the ones we make in Tokyo, but on the other hand, we do want them to be Square Enix games," Shiraishi says.
"Attention to detail, attention to art, those are things people expect from Square Enix games, and we'll try to hit those. For better or worse, Square Enix games are adventurous in what they try to show -- they have unique characters, unique gameplay systems. They're never afraid to try something new. I hope we can maintain that spirit."
Image courtesy Square Enix