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Interview: Square Enix Collective’s Phil Elliott on the Importance of a Thriving Indie Game Scene

Square Enix Collective

Having launched in 2014 as an initiative to provide support to indie game developers in what is a challenging and often daunting environment, the Square Enix Collective is beginning to see the results of its hard work.

Commandeering an entire booth in EGX 2016’s indie-exclusive Rezzed zone, the company showcased a number of titles that have been brought to fruition with the Collective’s help, including the recently released and critically acclaimed first-person puzzler The Turing Test, along with promising upcoming titles Tokyo Dark, Black the Fall, Oh My Godheads and Forgotton Anne.

At the convention, I had the opportunity to sit down with Square Enix Collective’s project lead, Phil Elliott, to discuss the philosophy behind the initiative, its goals and where he sees it going forward. As a decorated former games journalist, Elliott is passionate about the gaming industry, and a man who has a genuine interest in helping to secure its future health.

“The indie sector is the artery supplying lifeblood to the industry… vital to its future health”

It was this passion that led the Collective to getting off the ground, which was initially seen as a risky move for one of the world’s largest triple-A publishers to make. Elliott, however, sees past the bottom-line sales figures, and considers it more about investing in the future of the industry as a whole:

“It’s very important for us to look ahead through the mists of time, about how we see the industry, and what direction it is going in. What you don’t often hear talked about is the health of the industry. We’re very reliant on creativity, and if the industry is going to continue to be healthy, then part of that is – of course – how many triple-A games are going to sell, and how many consoles are going to sell. But there’s also a sort-of nebulous concept; about are we as an industry still going to be coming up with interesting games? How, as an industry, are we continuing to push diversity of emotion, of experience, of perspective? And we know that that is a much riskier part of the industry.

“So do you see that sort of risk taken at triple-A level when companies are putting 50, 60 million dollars – or whatever it is – into games? No, of course not. Because the more units you’ve got to sell, the more risky that becomes and the more of a gamble that sort of investment is.

“But the indie sector, as it’s grown up in the last six or seven years, has become a real vital artery, supplying lifeblood to the industry – it’s absolutely vital to the future health of the industry as we look at it.

“That’s a bit of a long winded way of saying we’re looking at how that sector is faring – what are the challenges, what are the issues? And we started throwing ideas around: what can we as Square Enix do to maybe address some of those challenges?”

Square Enix Collective

Initially, the team looked at the crowdfunding model adopted by numerous indie developers over the past several years. While Elliott agrees that the direct relationship between creator and consumer afforded by these platforms “felt exciting”, he also concedes that a lot of teams would launch their campaign with no marketing experience, and would consequently soon fall out of the industry and be lost into obscurity.

“Who knows what could’ve happened if they’d just had a bit of support; could the story have been very different?” he questions. “Could we have found another Thatgamecompany or another Hello Games; a team that in the future could have gone on to create something that really captures the attention of lots of people?”

With that in mind, Square Enix initially considered how it could open up the scale of its business to drive traffic and build awareness at a pre-crowdfunding stage for indie titles it appreciated, giving them a little bit of positive momentum heading into their Kickstarter campaigns. In late 2014, the Collective started supporting crowdfunding campaigns directly, using Square Enix’s marketing clout to raise awareness of some of the games it saw potential in:

“For that, we’d do some due diligence on the team – we understand the importance of that trust relationship, so can we try to underpin that a little bit more – and ultimately send an email out to millions of people alerting them of this cool thing, which we think is cool; so why don’t you go check it out? And in the end I think that probably helps.

“Since then, we’ve supported ten Kickstarter campaigns, all of which have been successful. Altogether we’ve helped teams raise over a million dollars, which with the exception of one have all been original IP, and with the exception of zero they’ve all been new or unknown teams.

“The only exception on the IP side was Fear Effect. We asked ourselves if we could help teams with market awareness by opening up some of our old properties that we have no plans for, if they then use that project to get attention, raise more funds, get more sales, and help them fund their next game.

“Getting involved in crowdfunding has been a big learning experience; it’s been pretty tough. Kickstarter campaigns – even though we’re not running them directly and just supporting them – are emotionally draining.”

At the point where the Collective was satisfied it could add value and help get teams support with their crowdfunding campaigns, it then started to explore opening up Square Enix’s publishing arm for those studios. While developer pitches may eventually lead to a formal or informal partnership with Square Enix Collective, Phil says that it’s important for the creator to retain its control over its own projects. “For us, Collective is not about trying to skim money off the top of indies and try to fund the next Final Fantasy game or the next Tomb Raider game,” he insists, stating that the deal structures are set up so that the developer retains the rights to its own IP, that they are the majority net revenue earners and that they always retain creative control on their concepts.

“We see ourselves as services providers and they’re the clients, and we’re just trying to use our experience and scale to benefit teams that way,” he says, stating that any money earned over and above covering costs for the Collective will be reinvested into it, helping the initiative with production funding, marketing and other services.

What about the expectations placed on a team that Square Enix has invested directly in, I ask? “Set the day and date release a year in advance, and no less than Metacritic 95”, jokes Phil, quickly adding that no, it’s a much more complicated process.

“It’s absolutely very hard to call it, because we look at it as a client-service provider relationship, as opposed to a publisher-developer relationship, because the developers are the IP owners; they’re the boss. Obviously, it’s in everyone’s best interests to try to get a sense of when a game is going to be released and what it’s going to take to get that game released. So we feel it’s our responsibility to try to help those teams as early on as possible, make sure and sense-check their planning, look at their weekly production schedules, look at if they’re doing milestone builds and that kind of stuff.

“For the projects when we do put some money into funding production, we will have a milestone process, and guide the teams through that, and say, ‘At that point the game needs to be doing this, and then that will release additional funds’ and so on – which is a pretty standard industry way of working.

“But in the end, we never want to be in a position where it’s like, ‘Well, you said your game would be ready in February, and unfortunately we’ve got games releasing in March, April, May, June, July – so bad luck, you’ve got to release February.’ That attitude is bad for everyone, so we try to catch that as early as possible; help with the QA, help with evaluations and just try to be constructive. In the end, though, if we need to be flexible then we need to be flexible. We’re never going to force a developer to release a game that they’re not ready to release. It may be that their money runs out, so maybe we then get into a conversation where it’s like, ‘We weren’t planning on putting money into this but perhaps we can help the team,’ or perhaps the scope of the game is cut… Who knows, it’s going to be different for every game. But in the end, we’re not the ones making those decisions. We can offer advice based on experience, and hopefully work with developers who are going to be open-minded and responsive to that.”

Square Enix Collective Pitches

Our conversation then turns to the proliferation of digital distribution services, and I ask Phil how difficult it is to uncover the hidden gems amongst a plethora of independent and self-published games. “It’s a big challenge,” he admits.

“Maybe seven to ten years ago, as a big publisher, you could have a little biz-dev team who would know, personally, all the heads of the double-A and triple-A studios, and you’d have a pretty good idea of who was working on what, when they’d be free. If you had a project you needed working on, you’d have five or six go-to people and that was really how the industry worked at that point. But then with the global economic crisis, gamers – especially in the triple-A spend – moved more towards the products they knew, the franchises where they knew what they were getting, and the bottom really dropped out of the double-A side of things. There was a lot of contraction, and a big void left over.

“When you’ve got 10,000 micro-studios worldwide, how the hell, as a publisher, do you build relationships? How do you know where the next talented studio is going to come from? How do you find that talented team to either work with them on their game or them with you on your own IP? So yeah – it’s a big challenge.

“Collective provides a feedback platform on which we publish one pitch every week; that’s them coming to us a little bit, and while we don’t lock people into working with us, we start to build those relationships. Talent can now be anywhere, because the barriers to making games have never been lower. And that’s a really cool thing, but at the same time it brings what I think is the industry’s biggest challenge right now: and that is curation, or visibility. In the last few years, when we’ve been seeing pitches, the quality has really increased significantly. What that means for a new team, however, is that the bar has never been higher to actually make something that can ultimately compete for that visibility and make them enough money to make their next game.

“For us, it’s really about, can we find things that others have missed? Can we look at the teams as much as the games they bring as well? We perhaps have a bit more of a luxury, because we have scale and have great relationships with Steam and Microsoft and Sony, and we can send emails out to millions of people and that sort of stuff. Over time, we’ll hopefully be able to take on projects that might ultimately be more challenging to sell loads and loads of copies of the game, but the team behind it has thought of something really cool. If they can stay in the industry, what could they do in game two or game three or four? And I think for us that’s really one of the most exciting things about it.”

The Turing Test

Even if the Collective isn’t the right fit for a team, Phil points to other publishers specialising in smaller games as important players in the scene. Describing the likes of Team 17, 11-bit Studios, Raw Fury, Devolver and Mode 7 as “awesome indie publishers”, he states that Square Enix isn’t trying to compete with such companies. “It would be bad for the industry if our interference in this area would end up driving those people out,” he says, stating that he’s actually introduced teams to other such publishers in the past.

With our chat drawing to a close, I press Phil on the Square Enix Collective’s aspirations going forward.

“Our ambition is to publish up to ten games a year,” he replies. “We’re not in any hurry; we don’t want to say if we don’t release ten games we’ve failed. We’re sure there’s still loads to learn and we’re sure we can always get better, but we’re pretty happy. The Turing Test was released a few weeks ago and has been a good success; it’s really lovely to be able to say that. And we’re excited to be bringing out these cool games – well, I think they’re cool games because I signed them, so I’m biased! There’s a variety there, and the key thing for us is that, ‘Does that team have a spark of talent that we can nurture; can they go on to do amazing things in the industry in the future?’ That may not be with us – we’re not locking people into working with us on their sequels or future IPs – but it’s good for the industry. That, indirectly, is good for Square Enix because we believe the high tide raises all the boats.”

During the course of EGX 2016, we had the opportunity to play many of the games featured in the Square Enix Collective booth and chat to some of the developers about their experiences in working with the initiative. Further interviews and previews will begin to appear here at Power Up Gaming later in the week.

Do you have any thoughts on Phil Elliott’s comments on the Square Enix Collective, the indie sector and the health of the game industry as a whole? Let us know in the comments below, or sound off on Twitter, @PowerUpGamingUK.

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