In 2009, Brian Reynolds, of Big Huge Games, shocked the traditional gaming space when he left that studio and joined Zynga. It later came out that he did so to work on FrontierVille. At the time, he seemed incredibly enthusiastic about this opportunity.
Another big-name strategy game developer has changed sides -- but this time, it's across the ocean. Toshiro Tsuchida, creator of the Front Mission series and longtime Square Enix developer, who contributed substantially to the Final Fantasy series, has joined GREE, one of the top two companies in the Japanese social game space.
Unlike in the West where Facebook reigns, the biggest area of compehatition for social games in Japan is in the mobile space, where GREE (which owns OpenFeint) and DeNA (which owns Ngmoco) are battling it out for supremacy.
Gamasutra spoke to Tsuchida to find out what attracted the console development veteran to the social space, and why specifically GREE. How does he see the market evolving as more and more traditional developers get attracted to the space -- or are forced into it by the declines in the fortune of console games in Japan?
"Social gaming really is about the direction the gamers want to take it, in a good way," Tsuchida told Gamasutra, about this new-to-him style of development. The following interview, which was conducted at the Tokyo Game Show last month and which represents Tsuchida's personal thoughts on the revolution, follows.
Why did you choose to go to GREE as your next step?
Toshiro Tsuchida: Well, one thing is that, as I got hands-on with social games as a player, I wanted to learn more about the design methodology behind them. I didn't want to be out of the loop on that knowledge as I continued to work on games, and I felt I might as well be where there's the most available on the subject. I didn't know what they'd think of me, but I figured I'd contact them, and it went from there with GREE.
What do you think about working at the company which has the biggest booth at TGS 2011?
TT: Well, I joined GREE on a personal basis, because I wanted to find out more about this business in general, but since then I've really felt like the rest of the industry has started to shift along those lines as well.
That's true, and in the U.S. there are a lot of developers from the traditional space doing the same thing. Why do you think that's happening?
TT: I think part of it is the income factor -- the way that it brings revenue to developers on a closer basis -- but in the background, I think we also have a user base that's grown larger because they're attracted to the structure of social gaming. As a game maker, I always have a desire to be someplace where my work reaches as many people as possible. That's how I got into it, at least.
You created a lot of very deep games at Square Enix, but social games tend to be lighter. Can you talk about that?
TT: It's true that they're lighter, and yet they're the titles that are attracting all these users. That's what I wanted to get to the bottom of. I've worked on "deeper" games that tried to attract users by really having them develop a love for the title, by having them be moved by it. That was my philosophy, and yet all these users -- including myself -- are getting addicted to this lighter stuff. I wondered how it was made, and that led to my curiosity. Since I had experience with deeper content, I thought that once I learned how these games work, I could see how I could then deepen that experience.
So in coming to GREE, you want to use the skills you already had to make new games.
TT: Right. Currently it's less a case of me outputting games, and more a scene where I'm getting all these games inputted into me.
And what role do you have at the company?
TT: I'm part of the department that works with developers to create titles under the GREE label. Currently I'm overseeing several of these projects.
Do you give feedback on the projects? What do you do when you receive one?
TT: I do give advice based on what I've learned, and depending on the situation, some of the developers are a lot more well-versed in social games than I am, and I get to learn from them. That kind of mutual thing.
Do you primarily provide feedback on game design in particular, or more generally on everything you see?
TT: On a case-by-case basis, yes. My attention is primarily devoted to two titles at the moment. On one of them, which is a smartphone title, I'm more directly involved with the development process -- managing production, determining what needs to be done next, and so on. The other project, which is on feature phones, is nearing release at the moment, so right now it's more of a two-sided discussion on how we can get this game popular -- more monetizable -- and make it into something gamers really like.
There are two major companies in this space in Japan -- DeNA and GREE. Why GREE and not DeNA?
TT: [laughs] When I decided I wanted to learn more about social gaming, I did a lot of research -- looking at all the companies, seeing how people from GREE and DeNA and so forth commented to questions in interviews.
I felt after all that that GREE was a better fit for me, because on the whole, they were more driven by the creators. It felt more like a group of developers that they then built a business around, instead of the other way around -- not that every company is the opposite, but GREE was the company is where I felt that atmosphere was the sharpest.
In the U.S., many developers that went into social titles have a background in strategy games, as do you. Is that a coincidence, or is there something about strategy that lends itself to a social setting?
TT: I think there's definitely something to that, because a lot of the process behind strategy games connects to what you see in social games. It's very compatible, so once I learn enough about the social game market, I think it'll be easy to make the most of the knowledge I've learned in the past. It's certainly not a coincidence.
You mentioned you were working on the monetization of a game. Have you learned a lot about that since you joined the company?
TT: That's true. I know a lot about what sort of things you can put in a game to make it more interesting or fun for the user, but with social games, you need to figure out how to work that into the framework; that's what I'm working on now. You have to take gamers who start playing for free want to purchase something, while still having it work as a game.
It's very different from what you've been doing before. In the past, you could assume gamers have paid up front. Has it been a shift for you?
TT: Certainly. Looking at the data generated by social games, a lot of people quit or drift away before very long. That's something you need to think about with console games as well, of course, but you couldn't get that kind of data before, so all you could do was predict and hope that they'd stick around to the end.
Being able to see that gives you a chance to respond to it, to say "This part must be hanging them up" and fix it on a realtime basis. That's really neat to me, being able to see how much my ideas are coming across to gamers through the logs.
Tsuchida served as battle director for Final Fantasy X (pictured) and Final Fantasy XIII.
Do you find that your tastes have matched so far?
TT: The parts related to the fun of the game have matched, I think. I've played social games enough that I think my own tastes and what I find fun has changed a bit, though.
There have been times when gamers quit the game in areas where I thought it was a lot more fun, however. Looking at the logs and seeing where people falter and where they really enjoy things has really been a lesson to me, more so than a lot of things I've done in my career. Social gaming really is about the direction the gamers want to take it, in a good way.
Some Western social game companies are very analytics-driven; some less so. How would you say GREE is?
TT: More along the analytics line. As a result, having someone like me without that sort of approach enter the company and interact with others has resulted in a lot of positive things for both sides. I think we can make use of both perspectives, since if we relied on nothing but analytics, we'd be so beholden to the data that we'd do the same thing over and over again.
There's no data to rely on when you're trying to do something new, after all. An analytics-driven company knows how to make customers happy, but it is harder for them to try new things, I think.
On the other hand, there are companies that do whatever they want and, oftentimes, it doesn't reach out to players well enough. I think that was somewhat the case with me on consoles; I'd do something really neat and other gamers wouldn't quite get it. Combining that experience with the analytics, I think, could result in a much better approach.
Do you think that free-to-play games with microtransactions are a better way, from a business perspective, rather than having one sale up front?
TT: From a creative perspective like mine, it's always a matter of getting as many people to enjoy your game as you can. Therefore, the lower the hurdles -- hardware or software -- to achieve that, the better.
Business-wise, though, it's difficult to say which is better in the end. There are a lot of ways to monetize social games, and on the other hand, a lot of console games get their budgets only because companies can predict how much they'll sell. There are a lot of approaches, but from a creative viewpoint, going free and seeing the amount of players expand as a result is a very welcome thing.
I've heard many people say that the way you monetize is fundamental to the game design -- there's no separating them. Do you agree with that?
TT: I do think so, yes. However -- and this is just the ideal in my mind -- but the core thing that any game needs to have is the ability to entertain players and give them a sense of accomplishment. How monetization fits into that is part of finding the answer to that question. You figure out what gamers would really enjoy paying for -- that's something you think about from the start of the design process. Not all social games are like that, though.
Facebook games in the U.S. started very simple and became more and more complex over several generations. Now they're getting close to par with traditional games. Do you think a similar evolution will take place in Japan?
TT: I think we'll see more complex games enter the social marketplace, which I think will make our jobs quite a bit more difficult. If graphics get better and games become a lot larger and more complex, I worry that it'll be harder to monetize that via the traditional item-microtransation sort of methods going into the future. It's a little hard to put into words, but I'm not sure we'll see this great march forward simply because it's become possible.
At Square you had the luxury of being able to develop games over a long period. Has that been a big shift?
TT: It has been a shift to a higher speed, and it hasn't necessarily been a bad thing for me. I'm 47 years old, but if I kept going at the speed of Square Enix -- let's say I thought about how many games I could make before turning 50. I'd guess it'd probably be just one title. [laugh] That's if I stayed there -- but at GREE, it'll certainly be multiple titles. That's fun for me, and it's been a great experience overall, one I'm glad I've had so far.
So you've been seeing an evolution in the games you've been making in the time you've been at GREE?
TT: Certainly. Just that rate of speed I've been talking about -- for a creator, you can see some of the merits in that, especially given that I've come from a company where things go at a slower pace.
On long projects, the viewpoints of the people involved invariably change over time. You have the same team working on the same thing for all this time. In a way, you start worrying more about your boss and your co-workers more than the customers you're making this thing for.
Working in a shorter span, the needs of the customers grow a lot more vital. You have to think about them, whereas in longer projects, it's like you're making the game and it's someone else's job to sell it. GREE is different from that thought line.
Another thing I hear a lot from people who enter this space in the U.S. is they get a chance to work on smaller teams; that it kind of reminds them of the old days when you had more direct contact with your coworkers. Do you find the same thing happening here?
TT: I think there's something to be said about that, the smaller size. If you become a big company, you can't really go back from there, so this change in environment has been a good thing for me. The fact that you can have this sort of environment and still attract a large audience and make money from it makes it a good thing for both player and developer, I think.
Do you think that, as social games mature, people that'd normally be more traditional gamers will flock to them? Or is it going to stay separate audience-wise?
TT: On that topic, I think the two cultures -- playing on the go, going home to play console games -- might remain separate. At the same time, though, I wouldn't separate those audiences in my mind. I think it's fun to sit down and really get into a console game in-depth, not that I've really had the time lately [laughs].
You may have people who only play console games, and you may have people that run out of time and only play social games. This can shift very fluidly depending on what you want to do; maybe you get older or busier at work and move over toward social games more. As a result, it's hard to separate the users that much.
Companies like GREE, DeNA, Zynga, and others are typically founded by people with web services backgrounds; game people only come in later. Have you seen many game indsutry people coming to GREE, or is still primarily web-background people -- or is that characterization even accurate?
TT: Well, I don't know what the current situation is across the board, but right now GREE is in this phase where lots of game people are coming in, one after another.
They aren't immediately contributors to the company, though, and in that respect, the web and internet people -- the people who created this whole model -- they're still at the core of the company. A ton of people here love games, though, including a lot who played my games when they were kids or in college.
Obviously GREE has OpenFeint in the US; do you think you have any games which will launch in the U.S.?
TT: There is the potential, I think. Obviously the purchase happened in order to make the most of both companies' strengths, and if there are GREE titles that work on that platform, I definitely think talks will proceed along that way. I think it'd be particularly great if the smartphone title I'm working on now could have that happen.
Nowadays companies like Square Enix are themselves entering the social space. Do you think outfits like GREE have more of an advantage here than the large publishers?
TT: Well -- just talking about Square Enix because I know them the best -- Square Enix's social group isn't anywhere near as big or well-funded as what they give Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. The focus is always going to be on their main franchises, because that's what they're good it.
I think what's going to happen is that they'll find ways to extend those franchises in social, which is good for both Square Enix and GREE, because the social market is larger than the console audience at the moment.
So you think it's a better strategy for companies to work with GREE directly than try to enter the social space on their own?
TT: I think their core strengths lie in their creativity and ability to attract a really dedicated fan base, and I think that's where they'll devote their energies. It's difficult for a company to start from scratch in social and slowly build up an audience; if they devoted energy to that, that'd affect the creative side to the point where it'd be meaningless. In that respect, we can work faster.
There's a danger that if you don't do monetization right, not only will the game fail; you might alienate users. How have you thought about that?
TT: I do think about that, but there are assorted ways to approach that. Every gamer is going to get excited about different things in the game, and I doubt we'll be continuing with the current style forever; there'll be a wider range that will allow more freedom for the creators in terms of being able to obtain budgets for their games. This may be a bit of a dangerous topic, but...
You're saying that there are assorted types of monetization possible, and having more of this will allow for more freedom.
TT: Yes, that's correct.
That's true. I don't know if the mechanics are all the same here, but in the U.S., there's "appointment gaming" where you do something and can't play again until later, there's "energy", and items you can buy. And then that's it -- there aren't that many choices. Are you hoping to develop more choices or mechanics that way?
TT: Definitely. That sort of variation will become even more important, and we'll need to think more along those lines in the future, as the games themselves grow more complex and monetization becomes more important.
We've seen the core game market in consoles and portables really trend downward in Japan; do you think it will continue that trend?
TT: [pause] Yes, I do think so, and there are two reasons for that. First, you have smartphones which are perfectly capable of matching the needs of gamers that would've used consoles before.
Second, talking from the business side, the costs associated with high-end game development are getting really high. We're at the point where, depending on the scope of the business, there's just no managing the risks involved with a potential sales failure. I do think it'll remain a difficult market for consoles going forward. I don't think it'll simply go away; it'll retain a user base.
When you say "matching the needs", are you referring to graphics?
TT: That, and the complexity of the games. Compared to web apps, native smartphone apps can do quite a lot of what game consoles can. You can create simple interfaces for complex games, and it's a lot easier to make games with real depth on them.
Are you planning to oversee an entire project yourself while at GREE?
TT: I'm really not sure about that, but I do want to be really involved in whatever titles I work on. This will depend on how my duties here unfold, but I'd like the ratio to be greater than it has been in the past. It's still up in the air, though.
You come from a company that had a lot of success in the U.S. market. Do you look at GREE and see a company that can achieve the same thing?
TT: I hope so. I'd like to see that happen, and I want it to be the sort of company which can make games that achieve that goal -- making games that capture the hearts of people in the U.S.
Final Fantasy X screenshot taken from the Final Fantasy Wiki