Interview

The life and death of Square Enix Montreal's Go franchise

The life and death of Square Enix Montreal's Go franchise

One of the most painful things to watch during the mobile games market's awkward teenage years was big publishers trying to bring their console and PC IP to mobile.

Inevitably, this ended up with clumsy ports of the likes of the original Tomb Raider games and the PlayStation 2 era Grand Theft Auto titles - to pick just two examples - rendered on mobile devices with awkward virtual thumbsticks and buttons.

It was a real technical feat but not one that was conducive to a fun playing experience.

This was precisely what inspired Square Enix Montreal in 2013 to attempt to bring this triple-A IP to the platform in a more elegant manner.

Mobile-first

"We looked at the Hitman IP and asked how we could bring it to mobile," studio head Patrick Naud tells PocketGamer.biz (thanks, PCGamesInsider.biz).

"The approach was crafting an experience that could be aligned with the values of the IP but at the same time would be tailored to how people play on mobile; the gameplay loops, attention level and so on.

"Hitman is about trying to be the cleverest person and trying to find the best way to get a target. We took that literally and made little puzzles out of it with the aesthetic. That board game look felt very Hitman.

"You're in this amazing world of luxury; we felt that taking that from the big screen and bringing it to mobile, it was also fun to go from the big house to the architectural models so that's our way of transposing it to smaller screens, smaller devices."

For Square Enix Montreal, the goal of Hitman Go was to essentially figure out how the mobile games market worked. But it was going to bring some of its console and PC heritage to the table too, namely a premium business model.

For Hitman Go, Square Enix Montreal adopted an easy to understand board game aesthetic where consumers used swipes to move protagonist 47 around various arenas

"It was very interesting because we had just switched the studio from having a console focus to being more mobile-centric," says Naud.

"Part of the transition was saying we'd still work on Hitman, as that was a brand that we knew, and we'd still keep the same monetisation model: premium.

"The goal of this project was to learn mobile and have different reflexes and make great mobile games. Expectations were somewhat high because it's a great IP.

"When we saw the treatment of it, we felt we had something good. But that initial joy when you refresh the App Store until the game appears and you're Editor's Choice, you're on the big banner for the week was great. That's now standard treatment for us."

Maintaining a franchise

After Hitman Go hit digital storefronts, Square Enix Montreal moved on to the Tomb Raider franchise with 2015's Lara Croft Go - and then onto the Deus Ex IP in 2016.

While the core tenants of what formula the studio set out in HItman Go remained, iterating on them to reflect the IP being featured was a challenge for the developer.

The Go series was a great adventure for us as a studio. We've done the three games, we've seen the wind. The hardest element is making premium games on mobile.
Patrick Naud

"It's more and more difficult because you have to reinvent the treatment," Naud says.

"That's why the Go series has a similar type of gameplay, but what takes time is how the IP is represented in the gameplay and art. We could have said: 'Lara Croft Go is going to have a board game style and users move Lara around' but that wouldn't have worked.

"It goes back to the conception of Hitman Go, the big mansions that we were making smaller, the chess game of the user trying to make kills... all of that fit with the board game idea.

"When we tried to distil the essence of Tomb Raider, it's not the same. That's why we kept the same gameplay, but the whole treatment; the music, the animation, it's more vertical. We felt it needed that level of treatment. It needed to have a boss. We crafted that experience.

"The same applies to Deus Ex Go. That IP is sci-fi, it'll have a different colour palette, we need to implement hacking. If you look into it, it's the same mindset, the same kinds of puzzles, but the experiences are still very tailored to the IP that we're working on."

It's somewhat paradoxical that traditional console and PC games didn't really work so well on mobile, but Square Enix's mobile-focused Go franchise worked perfectly across multiple platforms including PC, console and virtual reality.

"That wasn't the goal, but we're happy it works," Naud admits.

"The main focus was mobile. Even today, Square Enix Montreal's main focus is mobile and how we can craft new experiences for that platform. We just felt it was an amazing game and wanted to bring it to more people.

"That's how we brought it to Oculus, to PC and so on. The Vita fans were so happy that we brought the game to that platform."

For Lara Croft Go - and 2016's Deus Ex Go - Square Enix Montreal kept the same core elements as Hitman Go, such as swiping to move around levels - but changed up the aesthetic and ways users could interact with the world. Lara Croft Go, for example, is more vertical in its design

Yet the franchise has always performed the best on iOS and Android.

"Mobile performed best. It was a massive success on mobile. It was a critical success on console and PC, don't get me wrong, and we saw some amazing revenue," Naud says.

"Maybe it's because of the stigma of being a mobile game, but we didn't achieve the same level of sales despite the fact you can say it's a console or PC IP. It worked, but not to the same extent on mobile."

No Go

But despite the critical acclaim the Go franchise received, the series is no more. Naud confirmed to us that the pressures of the premium mobile games space have made it harder and harder to make projects of this type.

We've done the three games, we've seen the wind. The hardest element is making premium games on mobile.
Patrick Naud

"I have to say no [we're not working on other Go games], I'm sorry," he says.

"The Go series was a great adventure for us as a studio. We've done the three games, we've seen the wind. The hardest element is making premium games on mobile.

"It's one of the challenges we have today is the premium mobile market is diminishing. You've got more and more high-quality free titles so there are even fewer and fewer people inclined to try something that will not be free.

"Despite the critical success and the great revenue we've had, it's sad to see that our games are only played by a small slither of the population because of the price point. That's such a big barrier for mobile users. A lot of people consume mobile games only and they have all these options, all these games; why should they invest money in this one unless they're very convinced?

"That doesn't mean they won't spend in-game, but they want to spend on a game that they're sure they're going to like. The perception of choice makes it that even if it's only $5, that's too much."

All of this isn't to say that Square Enix Montreal won't be working on mobile in the future. The developer is still very focused on this platform, with Naud even going so far as to he wants the designs his staff comes up with to become the bar for other games makers.

"The focus is still tailoring high-end, high-quality pristine mobile experiences," Naud explains.

"If we are to work on a known IP, our treatment will somewhat reinvent that IP. If we are to work on a new genre, our treatment - I hope - will be a style that's cloned by everyone else.

"There's still the ambition of crafting the best games in the industry. If we keep that as part of our DNA, we're going to engage users for years and years to come, which is the plan now."

Editor - PC Games Insider

Alex Calvin launched PCGamesInsider.biz in August 2017 and has been its editor since. Prior to this, he was deputy editor at UK based games trade paper MCV and content editor for marketing and events for London Games Festival 2017. His work has also appeared in Eurogamer, The Observer, Kotaku UK, Esquire UK and Develop.

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