At EGX Rezzed 2017, I was able to sit down for a chat with Phil Elliott - the Project Lead of the Square Enix Collective - to find out more about the lessons that they have learnt in the last year and what they’re most excited for going forwards.
You have a lot of games here again this year - last year you had a room to yourself, and now you’ve got nearly two rooms worth of games; is this just a sign that Collective is growing?
It is, yeah, it’s just the fact that we’re 12 months on really. We always had this plan, the endgame when we first launched Collective a few years ago was to aim to publish up to ten games a year. We didn’t want to go at that all in and try and do too much too soon, we’re aware that we know how to sell big games with big marketing budgets. The challenge here is how to be super efficient with much smaller budgets and really try and put everything into the success of the game to help the devs.
So, we wanted to build it up over time to make sure it was sustainable and learn as much as we could to improve things going forwards. Last year we were here with five games, of which at the time we expected four to be published in 2016 and in fact two were. A couple moved back to this year, and we have eight games here this year which we’re pretty sure all of them will be out in 2017. It’s a big step up for us, which is really exciting. It’s been fantastic here to see the reaction as well; we brought Black The Fall and Oh My Godheads last year and it was the first time we were showing them at events, and just to see how the games have come on after 12 months of development polish.
I remember playing Godheads and Tokyo Dark here last year. I also remember playing a game that did release last year, The Turing Test - it was one of my games of the show from last Rezzed and I reviewed it very highly.
Turing Test was really good for us; it was the second game we published and we learnt a lot from the first game, Goetia, and we really put everything into. I’d say it was the first game that everything came together for, and it was a good success. It was the proof of concept that what we’re doing is gonna work, and it was great for everybody. It was also our chance to work with Bulkhead Interactive, and they’re the team behind Battalion 1944. For us it’s great to see our ambition to build relationships - we didn’t lock them into working with us on Battalion, it’s completely their choice. And I’m happy to say they had a lot of choice in terms of who they could have worked with, so we’re really privileged to be working with them again. It’s been a very exciting 12 months: a lot has happened and a lot more is gonna happen in the next 12 months, that’s for sure.
Talking of Battalion 1944, this is the first time it’s been showed off to the public?
Yes, world exclusive - well they did have a closed door session at an event a couple weeks ago, but that was invite only. This is the first time the public can get their hands on the game, and the response has been pretty strong. It’s been great to hear people talking as they finish playing and I think it’s really scratching the itch for people that yearn for that classic first person shooter gameplay from about ten years ago. I’ll be honest, Call of Duty 2 is probably where I got into console first person shooters for the first time, before that it had been the preserve of PC gaming.
The FPS games we get of today, the CoDs and the Battlefields are amazing; they’re incredible games, but it’s nice for people to get that fix of something they maybe loved and we (as an industry) have moved away from a little bit. The Bulkhead guys, I’ve never met anyone who knows more about first person shooters than them; they’re proper nerds about FPS games and they’re very clear about what they want to create.
Do you find it difficult working with the clashing styles and aesthetics of the different games you work with?
I find it thoroughly exciting - this industry is powered by the passion of gamers, of which I am absolutely one. I remember when I studied back in university doing my english language and philosophy, this idea that meaning comes from difference and I really believe that. I think that as an industry we have to be a little bit careful; we have a lot of strength in big triple-A franchises and sequels. And there’s a reason for that: big publishers put a lot of money into the big games, and you have to think about the risk you’re putting in. You’re not necessarily going to go with something untested with tens of millions of dollars at stake, which is good - there’s a lot of excitement driven by those games. But, as a creative industry, we need new ideas and new perspectives and diverse backgrounds - I think a lot of that really shines through at the indie level. For us, we want to go out and find different types of games - arguably we could go out and find eight or nine JRPGs and probably do quite well but we want to support talent across the board and help teams make loads of different games.
Collective is a small team and everyone on the team works really hard - that can be fatiguing sometimes. But actually getting to meet lots of really talented developers and working with the teams that we do is such a privilege.
Do you have any particular favourites of the games you’ve worked with?
I’ll be honest, I think when you look at stuff there are games that you immediately see it and it clicks. I mean, obviously I love all the games otherwise I wouldn’t have signed them, and I believe in all the developers or I wouldn’t have signed them. In the end, it’s always subjective - you always have your favourite genres or visual style. I remember when I saw Forgotten Anne, I’m an absolute sucker for that art style - it’s just gorgeous - and it took me about 0.6 seconds for me to fall in love with that game. It took a lot longer for us to sign them!
I have to love the game, I have to really feel that emotional attachment to something, because otherwise it’s a little hard for me to understand how we’ll generate that excitement in other people and therefore who we’re going to sell it to. Turing Test will always hold a special place in my heart because that was such a big milestone for us. Different games for different times though I guess; if I’m in the mood for something serious, then Tokyo Dark or Children of Zodiarcs maybe. If I’m in the mood for something with rich atmosphere, then Black the Fall. If it’s some craziness we have Deadbeat Heroes and Godheads.
It’s great to see a game like Fear Effect: Sedna, more from a licensing side. We’re trying to enable teams to work with our old IP because it can be easier than working on original IP. It’s hard for me to say that there’s a favourite: it’s a bit like choosing between my children, I’m not sure I could ever really do that. If somebody said to me “The house is burning down, which game are you gonna save?” I don’t know how I would answer it.
You mentioned Fear Effect: Sedna is using a Square Enix license, is that something you see Collective doing more of?
Absolutely. I think the key is if we get a good pitch in, we’re open to suggestion on a range of IPs. We publicly announced Fear Effect and Anachronox and Gex were up for grabs, but there are others. If someone has a great idea for Kane and Lynch or Mini Ninjas or Daikatana or something like that, they can come to us via Collective. The most important thing that devs need to understand is that we’re not looking to fully fund stuff. We may potentially be able to support with some production funding, but we’re really trying to make these things available to devs to use as a stepping stone. We want them to be able to benefit from the experience and make money for themselves, and be able to put that money into retaining creative independence on future titles.
That’s what the IP is there for, it’s not about saying “We don’t have plans for this, can someone else make us truckloads of money?”. The deal structures are designed to make sure that even if it’s our IP, or we put money towards production costs, it’s still the developer who’s gonna be the major revenue owner. As with everything else to do with Collective over time, it’s been experimental so we’ll try something. It’s great to see Fear Effect: Sedna, where it is now. It’s going to be coming out a little later this year. If people pitch for these things, we have an open mind.
What are The Collective’s plans going forward?
At the moment, we’ve got our slate for 2017. All the games you see here are expected to be out at some point this year - we’ll obviously be spreading them out throughout the year rather than launching eight in a month! We’re meeting with indies and looking at what we’re going to work on to release from January next year onwards. One of the biggest challenges is schedule management, even since January this year I’ve seen dozens of games that if we only had the capacity to be able sign up more games. There are so many good possibilities out there, the bar has been raised again in the last twelve months. It’s amazing to see so many talented people.
It’s the industry's challenge to be honest, how we as an industry curate games. The biggest challenge for teams will be: can they generate enough awareness to actually make sure that they can break even on projects and can they go on and make more games in the future. That’s a big issue for the industry. The good news is there is no shortage of really awesome creative talent.