Square Enix Montreal gets what makes mobile games great

Now it just needs to overcome gaming's 'mobile stigma.'

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Square Enix Montreal gets what makes mobile games great

Apple recently named Lara Croft Go its game of the year, and deservedly so. But the back-to-basics 2D puzzler wasn't developer Square Enix Montreal's first stab at mobile gaming. The studio was initially formed to work on a now-cancelled Hitman project for consoles and then transitioned to making premium smartphone and tablet games.

Since releasing Hitman Go in 2014 the team has been quietly kicking a lot of ass in the space, launching the excellent Hitman Sniper and Lara Croft Go within roughly two months of each other. It's this type of repeat success that's afforded lead programmer Antoine Routon and his mobile-exclusive team at Square Enix Montreal the freedom to tinker with publisher Square Enix's biggest properties in fresh ways.

"We have a lot of creative freedom we acquired by delivering good games," he says. "What's the opposite of street cred? Exec cred?" he asks, laughing.

None of the studio's games are console releases shoehorned onto smartphones because Routon knows those are terrible for everyone involved. They're something he'd rather not do because he and his team are intimately familiar with mobile gaming on a personal level. Routon's favorite games these days? Year Walk, SPL-T and Trick Shot -- all acclaimed puzzle games. We recently spoke with Routon to learn more about what makes for a great mobile game. Spoiler: He can neither confirm or deny that the studio is working on a Deus Ex entry in the Go franchise.

How do you approach making mobile properties so they don't feel like they're exploiting fan goodwill? Hitman Go and Lara Croft Go feel like they're designed with mobile in mind and they work really well for the platform.

The way we approach [it] is they could be cash-grabs with the brands, but this wouldn't be fun for us or the players. And most importantly, we wouldn't make that much money. There's no easy recipe to make money in the video game business. One option is to make a really good game, and that's hard. Specifically at Square Enix Montreal, making a really good game means trying to really understand what we're working with. What is Lara Croft's universe? What is Agent 47's universe? What is the platform we're working with?

We don't want to be the smaller brother of the big AAA productions, we want to clearly establish our own space. Mobile games are consumed very differently than console games. The controls are different and they way you play them is, too. Shorter sessions, shorter reward loops compared to big console games. [Mobile] is our purpose.

How do you approach a property as a mobile developer and keep it feeling like its namesake?

First of all, a lot of us are mobile players. Part of understanding the platform is really playing it ourselves and liking it. At the beginning, our studio was founded to be a AAA studio working on a now-cancelled Hitman game. And then it was repurposed to do mobile. For a lot of people, that wasn't really their kind of challenge.

And that's fair. They're people who want to create massive universes and things that fit on console. Most of those people went in other directions, and the people that are here are people who really understand what's cool about a mobile game and really understand the medium.

As one of the two people who started the Go franchise, there's a big part that is not looking too closely at exactly what those [base] games are. You squint a little bit and see what sticks out and you start finding key elements of the franchises. That's what we're trying to do: Not be copy-cats or writing down every important moment, but more so asking what Lara Croft is doing on an everyday basis?

Of course, there's a lot of refinement of remembering a specific moment (if it's something bigger, or, more general gameplay pillars). It's a long process, I'm not going to lie.

Right. When you boil it down, Hitman has always been a puzzle game. You're trying to figure out a way through the environment to get to your goal. The ways you interact with it are either killing someone (or not) or getting past them. That's what really surprised me the first time I saw Go: It felt like a Hitman game even though it was a board game.

We thought gamers, if they play on mobile, they're going to want to play on a big screen. Maybe the missing link is tablets. So at the beginning, Hitman Go was really focused on being a tablet game. Later on, we eventually made it work on phones as well. You can still feel from the camera angles that it was really designed for a bigger screen first. It was actually a good thing we ported because we learned only a third of people play on tablets.

I don't know where it's going to go, though. There is a "mobile stigma" for gamers.

I had that.

It's dissipating slowly, but surely. And maybe we can be one of the studios that helps that. It might take a little time, but I think it's something that's evolving as we speak. We're trying to solve this equation. For a while, the mobile market was dominated by free-to-play games and a lot of people really like those games. But you can't say you're going to do a new Clash of Clans and it's going to be a recipe for money because it's such a saturated market.

For us, we want to find our niche and expand it into a new space: premium, really high quality games.

How does your studio approach mobile in terms of balancing a mobile game for $5 that still feels like a full, appropriate experience for the platform?

We're constantly trying to find the best answer for that. When you look at Go and Hitman Sniper, they're very polished experiences. They're not 2D games developed in two months. [Our games take] one to two years, which is big for mobile games. They usually go much faster than this.

You're on par with AAA development cycles at that point and it shows.

We are much smaller teams than AAA, though. We're spending a lot of time concepting. We're looking at different pricing models to approach this and so far it seems like the premium model, especially with our brands, people feel comfortable having a premium price on those. At the same time, when you think of a game on iOS, it's $5.

For me, I don't see premium on one end and free-to-play on the other. The equation is somewhere in the middle. You have to balance the cost of production; make something that's smart, something you can replay. It's something that Hitman: Sniper did very well.

Square Enix Montreal also gets the pricing right. I know you aren't involved with Square Enix Japan, but the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest stuff costs way more than your team's games do when they're ports rather than purpose-built games for the platform.

It's maybe a little bit of a different approach. If you buy one of those games where there's a nostalgia factor, it's more of a collector's mentality maybe. Or maybe fan mentality where you want it in your pocket at all times. We're coming up with new products, so we need to convince people that our game is fun. Maybe a price like this for our Go games might be a little high, but at the same time, maybe it'd be interesting to see if we do a game that we feel is worth $15 in terms of quality and depth.

It's not a console port, it's made for mobile with all the things I said before -- short reward loop, etc. -- but we really push the quality and depth so high that you'd say it is worth $15. Maybe that'd be something interesting to see.

The big thing with mobile is that you have to focus on just one design aspect and nail it. There's no room for bloat.

Someone said that perfection is the point where you can't remove anymore. From a design perspective, it's really interesting because we work with very tight design space: You can't have too many mechanics. We need to work with one mechanic or one system. Sniper, the Go games, they're one system. There are very few variables, so the equation is very tight.

Everybody says you make great games through iteration, but for us, a small number of people, we don't have too many voices talking about it, doing a million iterations on everything to get the difficulty curve right, the controls right, make sure it looks good on a small screen. That's something we really value. We almost have a bit of an indie-ish mentality with the advantage of being Square Enix, working with huge brands and having budgets for marketing.

I've played a number of Insomniac Games' mobile titles and it's almost to the point where they're too simple. Then you have something on the opposite end like Infinity Blade 3 which feels way too complicated to me. It's a matter of finding the right balance and your team is consistently delivering on that.

That's obviously very nice to hear, but there's no silver bullet. We've spent a lot of time being very critical and really understanding the medium, really understanding the brands and working fucking hard [laughs]. I'm not gonna lie about this: It's just working really hard, trying, failing, redoing.

You haven't played all the way through Lara Croft, but there's this mechanic where you pull a lever and every time you move, the lever goes one notch back until after five or six moves, a door closes. This was a little more complicated to make. You need to convey a lot of information to the player. When we did that, I remember one of our artists here had a huge Photoshop file and basically he had a 10x10 matrix of what it could look like so people would understand clearly what it is on an iPhone 4S screen.

How much has your approach changed from Hitman Go to Lara Croft Go? The difficulty curve is pretty steep with the former. How much changed from the approach to Hitman and not working on mobile before, to releasing it and then going to Lara Croft Go? What'd you learn going from one to the next?

The structure of Hitman Go -- three objectives, levels finished in five to ten minutes -- that worked well. That's actually something we mostly kept. We did see a spike of difficulty very early; we can see how many people retried. It worked out nicely because Hitman is a more hardcore brand anyway, so people who played Hitman Go were more into difficult puzzles.

Whereas with Lara Croft Go we want people to finish the game. We don't want people to drop out because it's too hard. Our metrics for how we measure success is how many people finish the game. We worked hard on making sure the curve is much, much smoother.

For Lara Croft, one of the things we did differently is that she is not a machine like Agent 47 is. So that's why we switched the structure from different locations with a target to eliminate, to a book with a narrative curve throughout the game. There's a story: a beginning, a middle, an end.

So the difficulty and design change on a per-game basis then. The next Hitman Go, assuming there will be one, theoretically would be harder than Lara Croft Go because of the audience?

That's the thing: it's the same premise, but most mechanics are different between the two games. The way Hitman Go and the mechanics have been built is we are one year older, one year wiser now. I'd say at the very end of Hitman Go, something I don't necessarily like as much is to make more difficult puzzles, we had to make bigger puzzles. And for a lot of people, that's fine. Personally, I like what we did with Lara Croft Go because a lot of the mechanics interact with each other more. We're able to make simpler, more elegant puzzles while increasing the difficulty. In Hitman a lot of the mechanics interact with the player, but they don't interact with each other.

If you want to increase the difficulty of a Hitman level, you'd add one more element after another and linearly increase it that way. In Lara Croft, with the way these mechanics combine, there's a way you throw in one more mechanic and it's going to combine with everything. Maybe it doubles the difficulty, but it's definitely not linear anymore.

How would Deus Ex translate to a Go game then? How would your team adapt a huge, vastly complicated universe and gameplay to the platform?

That's a very good question. Probably it'd be the same approach: Trying to identify what the core elements are, squinting our eyes, asking what the key moments are. Can we derive some kind of core mechanic that would satisfy the mobile platform? And then, a lot of iteration and making sure that people from the Deus Ex franchise are also involved. That's something we did for both Hitman and Lara Croft, making sure that those studios help us really understand what their franchise is about.

Is a Deus Ex Go being considered or worked on?

I can't really confirm anything at this point. All I can really say is we're looking at our options. The only thing that's important to us is that if we do something, that we do it well and something we think is compelling.

Do you feel restricted in any way because you're working with existing properties?

Yes, there's more things established, but at the same time it's very interesting to work around this constraint and come back with something creative. I always come back to this story from being a kid: My parents bought land that was on a big slope. They hired an architect to build the house and I asked if it was difficult for him because the land wasn't flat. He said that the most boring projects for him are when there's a huge flat piece of land. Then there is no contour, nothing to work with. When you have an interesting shape to the landscape, then you need get creative.

This is when you really need to work around those constraints. This is true even for video games. When you've got things that are established, it's easier because you don't have this empty canvas with nothing at all to work with. That being said, there are also cool advantages to making your own universe. You just need to know all the things you're working against.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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