An Interview with Square Enix Collective’s Project Leader
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An Interview with Square Enix Collective's Project Leader
9 July, 2015
Interview

Square Enix had an amazing booth (more like small village) at E3 and the lineup of games coming out in the next year is phenomenal – from Kingdom Hearts III to Just Cause 3We had some questions about the Square Enix Collective so Phil Elliot, Project Leader for the Square Enix Collective, took time out of his busy schedule to give us insight and advice on this new program.

– Special Thanks to Reilly Brennan, Sr. Director of Public Relations, Square Enix

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About the Square Enix Collective

Basically, we’re trying to help teams build greater awareness of their projects – so that can in turn help them to increase the size of their community (and hopefully their chances of success through crowdfunding therefore); but it’s also a great chance to get feedback from gamers who could be potential backers or customers, about what they like/don’t like, or what they understand/don’t understand about the pitch.

There are a few parts to it:

The first phase is the Feedback phase. We publish one pitch per week to the Collective website and over the course of the next four weeks, we use our community, social and email channels to help drive visibility of that pitch. We also help developers to understand what needs to be included in a pitch, and help them to get the best out of that opportunity. It’s a practice run for crowdfunding, but it’s a great chance for a team to increase their own mailing list numbers, and also see (sometimes for the first time) how gamers react to their project. This bit is totally free.

The second phase is Funding support, although we can only offer this for a handful of teams. This involves conducting a Team Assessment with the developer to make sure we understand the team’s plans and capabilities. It’s like a mini due diligence process, and it means that the endorsement we give can help the trust relationship with backers – because we obviously work with external developers all the time, and have the experience to know what making a game will take. And once the crowdfunding campaign starts we help with marketing that to as wide an audience as possible, again making great use of the Square Enix community, social, PR and email communication channels. If the campaign is successful we ask for 5% of the net crowdfunds raised (ie 5% of what the developer receives); otherwise there’s no charge.

And finally we may offer to support the release of a successfully crowdfunded project with distribution or publishing. We can help with a range of services, dependent on what the developer actually wants or needs. Typically this includes QA, platform relations, marketing, and so on. The amount we ask for is dependent on the services asked for, but basically ranges between 10-30% of net revenue (ie 10-30% of what’s left after tax and sales platform royalties). The developer always keeps the IP.

On top of that, we’ve also started making direct investments into projects when developers don’t want to go through crowdfunding – and we’re also open to providing publishing services to teams who are self-funded, but just want support when they’re ready to release.

It’s also really important to remember that developers aren’t ‘locked in’ to the process at all. If we offer to support a project through crowdfunding, the developer doesn’t have to accept that. After the Feedback phase they’re free to go in whichever direction they feel is best – and the same is true after crowdfunding. We may offer to distribute or publish a game, but it’s up to the developer if they want that. They might have another publisher, or launch the game themselves – it’s totally up to them. Of course, we believe that we have a very competitive approach in terms of what we provide versus what we ask for – but we don’t want to force anybody into something that’s not in their best interests.

Submitting a Game to the Collective

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It’s a simple process – you just go to the Collective website (http://collective.square-enix.com) and log-in with your Square Enix account. You’ll see a Submit button in the top right… and the rest is just like writing a blog. There are some info boxes to fill in, some terms to accept, and then just adding in your pitch. Once you submit, we review pitches once per week and then go through rounds of feedback to help teams make the pitch easily understood and as effective as possible.

We started out by looking primarily for PC projects, but earlier this year we opened up to mobile and digital console projects too. The key things to remember are

  • People submitting need to have the expertise to create the game themselves (either solo or as part of an existing team)
  • Projects must not have already been through a crowdfunding process (though things like Steam Greenlight are fine)
  • Projects must target core gamers – this is particularly relevant for mobile games

As long as the pitch is as polished as possible, we want to let the community judge the quality of the game idea – so there’s no specific genre that we’re looking for.

Feedback Stage and Promotion

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Each pitch runs for four weeks, and during that time we’ll feature it on the Square Enix blog, the Square Enix social channels and it will form part of a monthly Collective platform email that’s sent out to a wide range of Square Enix users. On average, each pitch will receive tens of thousands of unique views, although numbers of votes and comments will vary depending on the response to that idea.

In terms of preparation, the key is ensuring that the pitch is representative of the planned final game. This basically means you need visual assets that help gamers to see exactly what it is they’ll be playing. Usually the lead image needs to include something like this too… box art is pretty much irrelevant – so you might have a nice piece of key art and logo, but people are much more interested in gameplay, and how that looks. Often teams underestimate this, and we’ve seen that it can be the difference between confusion and clarity – which is vital.

The other thing I’ve seen a lot of is teams starting the publicity before the game is really ready. It’s a very hard balance to find, because the point of crowdfunding is to raise money to finish development… but at the same time, you’ve got to have enough in place that people can a) buy into what you’re creating and b) trust that you can make the game. Often I’ll talk to teams (either via Collective, or when I meet them at conferences) who are close to being ready, but if they just improved a couple of areas they’d have a much stronger proposition. It can be hard, when you’re working on something in your spare time, sometimes for many months… you want to get it out there, you can get impatient. And sometimes, the value of a fresh pair of eyes just pointing out a few things can be super-useful. Giving that advice is something we’ve improved at a lot.

Team Assessment

The first step is that developers will complete a questionnaire, which asks lots of questions about experience, expertise, tools, design, budgeting, crowdfunding plans, and so on. We’ll initially look at that, and then follow up with an interview – this is conducted by one of our senior developers internally, somebody who will have a lot of experience working with external developers and with experience of working on multiple games in the past.

So far we’ve not had a team fail this phase – although the advice we provide can vary. It’s clear some teams know exactly what they need to get to launch; sometimes other teams need a bit of objective advice. We don’t force teams to listen to that advice, although if we thought that there was an area that would pose a problem in terms of getting the game to backers, it’s certainly possible we’d decide not to support a project.

Common Budgets for the Collective Program and Cost of Game Development

It varies wildly. There’s another very tricky balance with crowdfunding – what do you ask for that’s achievable, versus what do you actually need to finish the game. We’d always advise that teams find a way to scale the costs of development according to the results of the crowdfunding campaign – so that as long as you hit the target you’re in a position to release the basic game. But the more that backers provide, the more you can actually add into the game.`

It’s not easy – certainly the crowdfunding environment is volatile and unpredictable, and it will take some time to settle down. The initial targets we’ve worked with are generally around the $50,000 mark, but for anything other than a solo developer, putting together a compelling game experience for that amount is very optimistic. Ideally you’d aim for around five times that amount… but going to Kickstarter as a new team with a new idea and no real track record, raising quarter of a million dollars is a big challenge (regardless of who is supporting you).

So far all the teams we’ve supported have had back-up funding in place. Sometimes that’s in the form or a grant or loan from a government support agency, sometimes it’s self-funding (ie savings) or it might be angel investment or even friends and family. But getting a game to completion is tough, and for each team member you add, you’re multiplying your budget out each time.

Biggest Challenge for Modern Indie Developers in the Contemporary Market

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The sheer number of games being made – that’s the biggest challenge to indies now. On the one hand it’s brilliant for the industry that we have accessible tools that can allow pretty much anybody to make a game. Even me. There are enough tutorials and courses out there, there’s never been an easier route into actually building something.

But at the same time, it does create a problem in that there’s so much competition. And often teams will take inspiration from similar sources – you’ll see a lot of roguelikes, or a lot of pixel-art RPGs. And lots of them could be awesome – but it means there are a lot of projects competing for the same (relatively small) audience, pretty much all of which won’t have any kind of marketing budget, and most of which won’t use a recognised IP or have a known developer behind it.

So what we hope we can do, with the Collective initiative, is to help some teams find a route to better visibility. It’s incredibly important for new talent to find a way into the industry – it’s the responsibility of everybody, and we hope we can help with that in a small way.

Advice for Developers Building Their First Indie Title

First of all, don’t be tempted by complexity. I’ve played a number of cool games very early in development which have real potential – but then the team has wanted to show what they can do, and started to clutter what was a clear and clever idea with lots of extras which take away from the accessibility… and also add a lot in terms of dev time for building out those systems, and also balancing them. So remember the core fun of the game, and think very carefully about whether your project really *needs* certain features – especially if they’re adding a lot to your dev time. Don’t forget, you can always add things later with updates if your core game is successful.

Also, seek feedback wherever you can. I love to go to conferences or expos and see teams who are looking for people to play their games and give them honest, fresh-eyes feedback. If you get a chance to demo your game, as long as it’s in a place where you think it’s in a pretty good shape, definitely do it. Listen to everything that people say, try not to be precious about any part of your game (which is very hard…) and watch the reactions of people as they play as well. It’s easy enough to see if people understand a certain function quickly by what they do on-screen, but what is their face telling you about their emotional response?

And find a way to network. Game development is great in that while there are some big, central hubs, it’s actually a very distributed industry, so connecting with other devs nearby is usually possible. Take part in game jams, help others with advice, become a net contributor to the development landscape – the industry is small enough that the effort you put in will often come back around.

Most importantly, if you think your game is good, have conviction. In some places there’s a lot of support; in others, it’s very hard. One of the first teams we helped through Kickstarter actually drove for 19 hours (and through the night), to attend a conference I was speaking at. It showed me right away the dedication they had to their project. Would you do that, or more, for your game?

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Phil Elliott, Head of Community, Square Enix Europe

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