When Patrick Naud was tasked with setting up Square Enix Montreal, he was handed a familiar brief: build a team to make console games. It was a world he knew intimately. After 14 years at Ubisoft, AAA console development was Naud's bread and butter, and Montreal had a richer pool of suitable talent than anywhere else in the world. Then, the brief changed: Square Enix wanted its Montreal studio to shift focus to mobile.
"It's something we wanted to do," Naud says, recalling the team's immediate enthusiasm for leaving its comfort zone. "We were still in pre-production for the next Hitman and we thought, let's try this. The mindset of the studio was very, very premium. The mindset was Montreal, actually. Montreal is premium. It's about big, blockbuster experiences."
"The mindset of the studio was very, very premium. The mindset was Montreal, actually. Montreal is premium"
The strategic shift didn't mean abandoning those premium values, however. Square Enix wanted to introduce AAA standards to the mobile market, an objective that Naud and his team were well equipped to satisfy. What they couldn't do was easily fit in with the prevailing trend towards free-to-play, a model that demands very specific skills and expertise. Square Enix Montreal had "the DNA to make premium games," Naud tells me, and Square Enix had the kind of IP that could justify a price-tag in a marketplace that seemed to have abandoned that concept altogether.
The three games that followed have used Eidos' most storied franchises to create one of the most distinctive brands in mobile gaming - premium or otherwise. Hitman GO, Lara Croft GO and, most recently, Deus Ex GO were all built to get past what Naud describes as, "the curse with mobile."
"There's so much content coming out that you're exposed to a lot, but it's not all good," he says. "On a given week where you might get featured by Apple, there's another 100 games that aren't at the same level of quality. The player might not be getting a great experience, especially the kind of player that will try a lot of free-to-play games without being really satisfied. It doesn't help the cycle.
"We are running a successful business with premium games. It's challenging. I won't deny it, because yeah, the market has evolved [towards free-to-play], but if you look only a few years back traditional handheld consoles were 20% of the console market. There are people who are looking for high quality experiences on the go."
There is something gratifyingly old-school about Square Enix Montreal's business strategy as Naud describes it; a call-back to the days of bricks, mortar and plastic boxes in a marketplace where spending millions of dollars on user acquisition is de rigeur. "We've heavily invested to make the best premium games out there," he says. "This helps us get press coverage, Apple and Google coverage, Editor's Choice, Game of the Year, Apple Design Awards. It establishes our products as games that people need to play on mobile. That has always been our strategy, and that will be our strategy going forward.
"We are used to designing enclosed experiences, with a start and an end. With free-to-play you need to design a never-ending game"
"We always knew that Apple would support high quality products. In a survey of our players, we found that half of them discovered our games through the app stores. But one quarter still came from the press: because of our IP, because we talked a lot to the gaming press, because we are at all of the events. We get that extra reach."
Naud doesn't attempt to mask the advantages that Square Enix Montreal enjoys. There is no doubt that the studio has made three games that compare favourably to the vast majority of mobile releases, but the importance of having iconic names like Hitman, Deus Ex and Lara Croft attached cannot be underestimated. Nevertheless, some insight can be gleaned from that success, not least that the support of the enthusiast press can still make a significant difference to mobile sales. Indeed, a lack of ease with the free-to-play model is a major contributor to the dearth of mobile games coverage on so many of the biggest enthusiast websites. Speaking from experience, games journalists are simply more comfortable with writing about premium products. Square Enix Montreal simply gave those journalists an increasingly rare opportunity to do so.
Nevertheless, with Deus Ex GO, Square Enix Montreal has used its observations of free-to-play to address a shortcoming of the series' previous two entries. "We are used to designing enclosed experiences, with a start and an end," Naud says, referring to his team's track record of AAA console titles. "With free-to-play you need to design a never-ending game. The GO series was all about having a beginning, an end, we had a story. But one of the issues we have is that a lot of people know about the games, but when they are done with the content after eight hours, what can they do? There's not enough replayability. It's hard to be an evangelist for a game you're not playing any more."
Following "great" launch periods, the sales of both Hitman GO and Lara Croft GO started to fall away. In an era defined by digital distribution, when a given product's tail could theoretically stretch on for years, the fact that two highly praised and widely promoted releases followed a similar sales pattern to a boxed AAA console game was a clear indication of opportunity missed. With that in mind, Deus Ex GO features a level editor, allowing its players to create and share their own puzzles, and Naud's team to quickly and easily generate new content. The content plan is based on the New York Times crossword, Naud says, with increasingly difficult puzzles released throughout the week, building to a final puzzle on Friday that will take an entire weekend to solve.
"Deus Ex: Go is a premium game, at a premium price, but we focused a lot on long-term retention"
"Deus Ex Go is a premium game, at a premium price, but we focused a lot on long-term retention," he says. "We've been learning. Deus Ex Go takes all of our learning from Hitman and Lara Croft to offer a product that people will talk about, that will get full press coverage, that will get front page of the App Store when it comes out and hopefully pick up some awards. But we'll also engage players on a longer time scale. We believe that having a game that is always active will help drastically with organic downloads down the road."
Naud won't be drawn on what comes next for the GO series, but one need only look at the Square Enix IP library to see the possibilities. What is certain, though, is that the Montreal studio will continue to build premium products, offering a counterpoint to the idea that mobile games with a price-tag are long since dead. Indeed, Naud now oversees two other mobile teams in London and Copenhagen, and there is no shortage of support from the very top of Square Enix.
"We invest a lot more in our products than most of our competitors, so we feel like every product we put out there has a chance of succeeding," Naud says. "It's not every company that would allow us to spend so much effort on premium.
"We are being told to succeed in mobile. Greenlight. Go. Go. Make great games."