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The Art Of International Technical Collaboration At Square Enix

When Square Enix acquired Eidos, it didn't just get IP and a distribution network -- it got a Western understanding of game technology in a generation where Japan has lagged, and new group worldwide technology director Julien Merceron here speaks about taking the helm of this global organization.

One aspect of Square Enix's Eidos acquisition that has not been discussed is how much the Western and Eastern halves of the new company will be collaborating. While it's already been revealed that Square Enix Visual Works, the CG studio behind the film Advent Children and the high quality cinematics in the company's games will be contributing to Deus Ex 3, currently in development at Eidos Montreal, we haven't heard a lot more.

That collaboration runs deeper and more fundamentally than has been previously revealed, it turns out. Recently, Julien Merceron, the CTO of Eidos, has been named the worldwide technology director of the entire company. He now oversees technology coming out of all of the studios, including Io Interactive's G2 engine, Square Enix Tokyo's Crystal Tools, and Crystal Dynamics' Crystal Tech. Merceron has been studying Japanese since last year to ease in collaboration and communication.

Though Japan has become notorious this generation for struggling to deliver technology on par with Western studios, Merceron believes that the talent at Square Enix Japan is formidable and that there's something about the company's approach for its Western developers to learn as well -- and is implementing processes and structures to enable technology sharing.

Here, Merceron, who spent time at Ubisoft as its worldwide technology director prior to joining Eidos as its worldwide CTO in 2006, outlines not only his plan for international collaboration, but also his roadmap for making meaningful and intelligent technology decisions -- whether it be process, structure, or deciding on how and when to license middleware for projects.

Square Enix is a big company with studios all over the world. How do you think it's going to be to manage these studios -- different cultures, different locations, different technologies?

Julien Merceron: I think that having different studios around the world is more of an advantage than an inconvenience for a company. Obviously, it allows us to avoid having one huge studio with, like, two or three thousand people; it gains the possibility to have multiple studios all over the world, and have studios that have a human side. I think that it really provides a much better working environment.

Also, I think that we can take advantage of being able to recruit where the talent is, and I would say that's also the second advantage of being a little bit everywhere. Also, you have to know that I've been at Ubisoft for about 10 years, so I know what it is to deal with a large and international environment, and the size of Square Enix is not something that I see as a problem -- not at all.

Also, the one trend that -- you will probably agree with me -- publishers will tend to grow in size over the next three years... So I think managing a large group is just a skill many managers will need to have.

Also, I'd like to add something about the way I work: I don't work alone. I work with a team, as a team. I tend to call this team a "technology board", and the members are traditionally key people from the studios, from lead programmers and principle engineers to kind of a technology director profile. We now have a technology community at Square Enix Group level that will also include key people from Tokyo, and this will allow the company to work as one in terms of technology.


Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider: Underworld

How you make decisions about technology interests me, because this company is made out of an acquisition of different parts -- you have Crystal Dynamics that has its own engine; you have Crystal Tools coming out of Square Enix in Tokyo; I'm sure there's engine technology coming out of other studios. How do you manage those different technologies? Is that an advantage in your eyes?

JM: Since last year, many people traveled back and forth between Tokyo and Square Enix Europe studios. I've already spent a lot of time in Tokyo, and it was also important for many key technology-related people from Tokyo to travel to our studios to understand better the why and the how about our technology tools process.

It's true that I've been doing, since mid-last year, a lot of presentations over there, but it's not until you basically go to a studio and you see how the technology is used -- how the tools are being used to make games -- that you really understand the fundamentals and the different pros and cons of the different approaches. Right now, I think that the knowledge has spread into Tokyo about what technologies some of the studios have created, and they have a lot of praise for our approach.

Again, all this is teamwork, and I can't take all the credit for the technology that has been created on the Eidos side. But I work very closely to the technology teams on identifying what is key for them to achieve; and then work with them on what they need to be able to know in order to realize the vision. And we have some extremely talented teams working on very amazing technology. And I think it is actually on both sides; I've really had the pleasure to meet a lot of incredible people in Tokyo.

I think that, obviously, the approach that Square Enix Europe studios have had for the last few years has been really welcomed by Tokyo, and also I think that the game teams and the technology teams tend to like the way Square Enix European studios have been organized and the way I work.

I work with all of these game teams; I work also with the general managers that are very important people also in the group. These guys are really proactive in terms of involving me, and we are definitely working well together.


When you're talking about engine development at different studios, do you let them naturally make the decisions on what direction they want to take once you've presented them with information? Or is it more like you have a personal vision on how tools and tech should be deployed or developed?

JM: We could certainly spend some time to talk about the technology strategy and the way I work. As you know, I'm working as a team; I'm working on different fronts. I'm working obviously on structural enhancements; working on basically how we grow from an HR perspective of the group, how we work around the talent, how we attract people, etcetera. And the working conditions that are extremely important for teams to perform in good conditions.

I'm fixed also heavily on knowledge management -- that, for me, is a fundamental aspect of technology development within the group. There are two other parts, that are basically all the development support aspects and basically the technology innovation bits.

And when it comes down to technology, really, over the years I think have attended a few conferences as a speaker, and I've been also talking pretty often about live editing and realtime editing.

I think workflow is one of the most fundamental things to really enable content creators to deploy their vision and also implement their vision and tweak it and tune it and have a really fast iteration cycle through the development of the game, which is fundamental for pre-production, but fundamental for production as well -- and the last bit of the tuning and the tweaking that is involved before getting to beta.

So that's obviously an area where I really define pillars and I really define what I'm looking forward to get from the tools pipeline and workflow.

And then there are fundamental breaks of technology that are really the ones that will enable live editing. So, from the graphics perspective, you need to have an approach that is compatible with realtime editing, so it really needs a lot of things from a lighting perspective; from dealing with materials and things like that.

But outside this, I think one of the big areas I'm really focusing is especially online; I've been also talking a lot in conferences about the long tail, the importance of social and community features, and we have some technology development that is really pushing these aspects and focusing on developing that a lot more, with the importance of services and social features and the connection with the community in games. I think that this an area we really have to invest in.

And there are still also aspects that we need to fundamentally cover related to graphics and animation and AI. I think there is huge room for improvement there, and it's clearly one area that we're focusing on.

It seems like AI hasn't gone as far this generation in becoming as advanced as I think, maybe, I anticipated at the beginning of this generation.

JM: Yeah, I think there's a huge problem with AI. It comes from many different aspects. First of all, it's just very difficult fundamentally. even if you remove the technology aspects, to define an AI that could be extremely convincing in gaming, that's something that is a lot more complex than working around material or lighting technology or just physics engine.

AI has something that is tremendously difficult first of all just from a design perspective. Designing a good AI, a convincing AI, is something that is totally not straightforward. I think that also, on top of that, the hardware that we have today is totally not adapted to making great AI.

I think also that the software that we have, the type of C++ language -- having to potentially move away from it and designing scripting languages -- that's all complex to just get together. As soon as you're trying to work on a scripting language, you have to, obviously, write your own language -- so, potentially, your own compiler, your own debugger, or your own interpreter -- basically, there's a lot of work that comes on top of designing a scripting language.

So not only is it difficult to design an AI, but on top of that, I think that the hardware is not suited to AI. And second, I think that the type of programming languages and software that we have are not also suited to that. So I expect that slow progress will be made on AI, and I'm really looking forward to the next wave of platforms, and to look at what type of hardware will be available by then, and how we could take advantage of it from an AI perspective. I hope it will be a lot more suited to AI than the current one.

You were talking about scripting -- and you weren't necessarily talking about this in this exact context -- but it made me think about some of the debate there is over whether gameplay designers should have to script or whether their tools should present them a place where they don't really have to work at that level. What do you think about that issue?

JM: I think it's interesting to provide a flexible approach -- so, to basically to provide a system where designers or level designers can to a certain extent do a lot of the easy stuff. Then, when it comes down to the complex stuff... When things start to be "complex", and you're having to deal with your AI, you're starting to touch a lot of different things with your AI...

Programmers have a very good understanding of data, how to articulate, how to play with the data, and how to architecture code around that. So when you are doing simple stuff, I think it's very important to give access to designers and level designers. When it gets more complex, I think that, because of the programmer profile, they become suddenly very important to help make it work.

One way I tend to look at it also -- and what we tend to do -- is that when the programmer is not really needed in the process, then we tend to use the programmer in the post-process; like when AIs have been written down, and basically we have programmers who are looking at how things have been architected and reviewing that to either make things perform better or to make things more flexible to reuse moving forward.


Obviously, by the time the acquisition happened, development of Crystal Tools had progressed very far, and development Final Fantasy XIII -- and XIV, for that matter -- was well underway. But at the same time, there's been a struggle this generation for Japanese studios to get their technology online and up to the same level as Western studios. Have you been a part of helping that process? What do you think about the technology that's been coming out of the Tokyo studio?

JM: I think that the way that developers tend to work in Japan is very different from what they call "the Western style," but it to me comes down to a question of focus. I think developers in the East and in the West are basically focusing on different aspects.

I'm very interested in one aspect of the thing that they are focusing on; this is basically that they are trying to really move toward the goal almost as fast as they can.

So they are really, really focused on the goal. They are very, very focused on the very goal they are trying to achieve. When they are thinking about a special effect; when they are thinking about a specific character doing something, they basically move toward that.

It's more granular.

JM: Yes, and it's almost from a certain perspective, they are really thinking features. In the West, you can find sometimes teams that are thinking too much architecture as opposed to feature.

So I think, if you look at it... The Square Enix Europe studios can learn a lot from Tokyo, and I think that Tokyo can also learn a lot from the Square Enix Europe studios. It's going to be mutually beneficial, basically, for all of these talented people to meet and share.

So that's also why there's this will to work as a group; there are complementary strengths and amazing talents of their own, and we really would like to have a structure that really takes advantage of that. I think benefits will be huge.

Also, I think that there is a huge respect between Square Enix Tokyo and our other Square Enix European studios. I don't know if you know this, but it's pretty funny -- less than a month after the acquisition happened, there were already Final Fantasy posters on the walls in Eidos Montreal, so this really shows something.

Personally, the first time I went to Tokyo, I went with my Square Enix game box covers to get signatures from all the staff that work in the Shinjuku office, and I'm pretty happy with that. I've already been to Tokyo many times, and obviously many initiatives have been already highlighted of all the things that they would like to use from the other studios; and I truly believe it won't be East versus West -- that it's really going to be about East plus West.


Final Fantasy XIII

When it comes to sharing technology between the studios -- obviously, you have studios in Europe and in North America. Like you mentioned, Montreal, there's also Crystal Dynamics, who's near San Francisco; and of course in Tokyo -- you have language barriers too in terms of sharing that technology and tools. Is that something that you have to tackle now that you've all come together?

JM: Yes, obviously it is something that is very important to tackle. Obviously, we'll have a progressive approach. We'll need to start with things that that can be done with the way we are structured today, and the more we achieve, the more complex things we'll be able to do.

I'm learning Japanese; I've already started since November. I know that there are people in Tokyo that are starting to put more effort into English, as well. So on both sides, I see that people are really willing to make it work, and I find this extremely amazing.

There's a lot of tech being developed in your different studios which we've talked about. How do you feel about licensing versus developing your own technology?

JM: Well, that's a very good question. To start with, I think I wouldn't believe in a middleware-only approach. I believe middleware should always be evaluated from a game perspective; very few middleware technologies are actually versatile or multiplatform enough. To my knowledge, there are still some areas that are very badly covered by middleware. So I wouldn't believe in a middleware-only approach, and I'm ready to discuss this point in a panel anytime.

Regarding internal technology, I believe that it is possible still to have an internal technology-only approach. That said, in some projects today, it would not be serious not to take advantage of middleware technologies that allow you to avoid reinventing the wheel, or allow you to have a faster path to shipping your game.

I think also it is important to highlight that there will be a time I think it won't be possible anymore to work without middleware because of time, talent, and cost reasons. So, as a conclusion, I think a balanced approach is needed.

And, to extend your question a bit, I think it's very important to consider technology and tools as enablers. Technology is there to allow creative people to express themselves and realize their vision; when I think about technology, I think like that. Building internal technology shouldn't be a goal in itself; neither should be using external technology. I would have thousands of stories about what happens when you get lost in weird technology-related considerations.

Many people know I've been using a lot of middleware in the past at Ubisoft and Eidos, and I am still today, obviously; but only where it makes sense and where it really helps. I'm always trying to make sure game teams avoid the trap of this false sense of security that middleware provides sometimes. I know that some producers feel choosing a middleware as opposed to developing the technology for the game within their teams will make things smoother. But in case the middleware selected is not really adapted, their great project could rapidly become their worst nightmare.

So obviously I don't think that I am the only one that is prudent before choosing a middleware, but I think everybody should be.


When you talk about middleware, are you speaking about plug-ins and less about engines, or do you feel the same way about licensing engine technology?

JM: Both of them can be of great help, and both of them can be extremely dangerous.

This is before your time, but Square Enix had its first Unreal Engine game, The Last Remnant -- and it was...

JM: You saw the talk last year at GDC?

I didn't actually see that talk, but I played the game, and its implementation of the technology was not great.

JM: Yeah. Again, you know, I think that sometimes it gives producers or game teams a false sense of security, and when they discover how non-adapted the technology they have chosen is, it's far too late already for them.

One of the traps with middleware is that some game teams believe that, because they got this middleware, maybe they need less programmers on their team, or maybe they don't need that many skilled programmers. Sometimes middleware is just something that a studio or a game team is going to use because they don't find the right people.

And it's true -- how many talented physics programmers are there out there? I don't think that you could find three to four extremely talented physics programmers per team. For example, let's say you have like 30 game development teams; if you're looking to find two or three extremely talented physics programmers for each of your teams, that's going to be extremely difficult.

Some companies decide to restructure around building some physics middleware and sharing it within the group; some others decide that, "okay, I'm going to put my physics programmers in these teams, and then I'm going to basically use physics middleware on these other teams."

But, again, coming back to what I was trying to say, some people use middleware because they just don't find talent, and I think that replacing talent with middleware is the first mistake that some game teams can make because, when it is too late -- when you realize that actually the middleware won't be able to provide the features that you need -- then basically you don't have anyone that is able to solve the problem on your team.

Most of the time, you get down to... if you're trying to make this type of game, then this technology is really adapted to it; and if you're trying to make that other game, then probably choose the other one. And again, that's the only approach you can have if you're kind of lacking innovative people and talented people.

And our industry is still small! I think that, in the good days, everybody's fighting for finding the best talented people in our industry; and even when there are layoffs in our industry, I think that most likely it's not these highly talented people that are back on the market.

I think many teams are struggling to find talented people and to find actually the skill that they need in their teams, and so sometimes they just need middleware; and there's no other task for them. You have the choice. I think that this is where you need to be really creative and really serious about your approach.


The Last Remnant

You're talking about making decisions on a project basis, which seems to me deciding at the level of what game do you want to make and then making the technology decisions. Is that something that you're going to help with when it comes to projects starting up across the whole empire of Square Enix?

JM: Yes. Yes, and one of the most important things is to get projects starting in the right condition and putting every game team on the right path. That's probably one of the top five most important things that need to be done. Obviously, one other aspect is really looking ahead and building the long-term for the company on the technology side, and when you're working with people that have a vision, with people that know where they want to go, that is fantastic.

The Tokyo branch had kind of a road map going before the merger; externally, we knew what was going on with the Fabula Nova Crystallis games, so I have a feeling that there was already an overarching plan there. And Eidos Montreal obviously had Deus Ex and Thief already decided upon, too. So a lot of decisions I guess are being made in advance in those studios already.

JM: Yes, there are a lot of things that had been established in the past. I had, obviously, the pleasure to be part of all of these big aspects on the Square Enix Europe studios aspect of things. When it comes down to Tokyo, obviously there are a lot of projects that started, there are a lot of things that are happening, and basically, right now, I'm working with the people over there to start to get on the right side. That's why I'm going to be very involved on the Japanese side.

The way I will work with all of the studios will be similar to how we have worked before. But you might imagine that there will obviously be an explosion of workload, now, as many synergies and technology tools transfer have been identified already, and obviously I need to catch up and start working on the sharing aspect of things. Obviously, the list of things to do is pretty significant, so right now a team is being assembled in Tokyo, and that team will work with me and help us accelerate the early steps.

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