In early 2012, Ollie Sykes was tapped to help build up Square Enix's brand new Montreal studio and reinvent the Hitman franchise for new audiences on the next generation of consoles. With the backing of the publisher and a core team centered around a handful of series veterans from IO Interactive, Sykes was eager and optimistic about the task ahead.
"At the time I'd just come from EA Mobile and I was like, 'Yeah, AAA, finally I'm here! Awesome,'" Sykes told GamesIndustry.biz last week after his presentation at the Montreal International Game Summit, saying he had been a bit turned off by the "me-too" mentality of the mobile space at the time.
"It was kind of this sinking feeling a little bit, like this tidal wave I'd tried to run away from had eventually got me."
"I was very happy to leave all of that behind," Sykes said. "There was a sort of me-too attitude at that time of looking at what the top 10 were and seeing how we could apply our franchises to that. And that's not really creative, that's just copying a formula."
So a little over a year later, amid Square Enix's massive losses and subsequent departure of CEO Yoichi Wada, Sykes was understandably not thrilled when he found out the studio would be abandoning its AAA aspirations in order to refocus on the mobile space.
"It was kind of this sinking feeling a little bit, like this tidal wave I'd tried to run away from had eventually got me," Sykes said.
Naturally, the move to mobile was viewed with similar skepticism by a team experienced in, and hired for, AAA console titles. Some of the developers simply had no interest in working on mobile; in all, the team shed about one-third of its headcount, Sykes said. (It would have been even more, but the team hadn't ramped up to the size of a full-blown AAA studio yet.) Despite that initial reaction, Sykes said the discouragement of returning to the mobile space was fleeting.
"The goals we set up were to deliver new Hitman experiences, to bring Agent 47 to new audiences." Sykes said. "And the first thing we realized was that we could still do that. In fact, we could probably do that even more powerfully than we were going to in the first place by delivering something on new-generation consoles."
"Maybe they've got an ax to grind. Maybe there's something about video games they think could be done differently. They're the kind of people we want. And through them, they form the culture of the studio."
The studio's first game, Hitman Go, has been evidence of that. Released on Android and iOS earlier this year, Hitman Go reimagines the franchise as a turn-based puzzle game with a board game theme. Although the idea received a mixed reception from fans when it was first announced, the game was generally well received. It currently boasts average user reviews of 4.5 out of 5 on both the App Store and Google Play, and was nominated for two Unity Awards and nine Canadian Video Game Awards, including Game of the Year. The second game from the studio, the Hitman Sniper, soft-launched in Canada last month and is expected for wider release early next year.
By all accounts, the studio has handled the switch to mobile well, something Sykes attributes in large part to the culture it fostered from the outset. Sykes listed four key values that the studio was built around: ambition, innovation, transparency, and being developer-centric.
"Obviously we try and give ownership wherever we can," Sykes said. "We know what we don't like from working at other studios. We don't like politics. We don't do politics, or tolerate them at all in the studio. And we just think as long as people are passionate and driven, hungry for something... Maybe they've got an ax to grind. Maybe there's something about video games they think could be done differently. They're the kind of people we want. And through them, they form the culture of the studio."
While there are few studios that would claim to not share those four key values, Sykes did talk about one focus that stood out. At least, it stood out from the message of the MIGS keynote from earlier that day, wherein Riot Games' Brandon Beck talked about the company's focus on hiring only people who fit the culture perfectly. Sykes said when he hires for Square Enix Montreal, he likes to find people who go together "like chalk and cheese." Mixing together people from different backgrounds with different ideas produces some natural opposition that sparks great creative energies, Sykes said.
"I worked on Tetris for four years while at EA and that was always, 'Can you keep it the same yet make it different?' So I quite like the sort of contradiction of that challenge."
The studio's first two games might be a good reflection of that. Despite both being mobile spin-offs of the Hitman franchise, they take drastically different approaches to the idea. Hitman Go is a premium game that Sykes sees as a horizontal approach to the series, replicating the broad concept of the traditional console experience at a very superficial level. On the other hand, Sniper is a free-to-play game that focuses on one facet of the Hitman experience, shooting people with a sniper rifle, and tries to replicate that facet as accurately as possible, from the AAA-style visuals to the abundance of gore. They are, as Sykes sees it, two different answers to the studio's original challenge: reinvent Hitman for new audiences.
Going forward, Square Enix Montreal might apply its skills to some of the publisher's other big franchises, or possibly to its own original intellectual property. Just don't expect it to return to the AAA console space it was originally created for. Sykes is a mobile convert himself now, and doesn't foresee a return to consoles any time soon.
"I think we enjoy the shorter development cycles, that closeness with the community that things like the App Store provide," Sykes said. "We enjoy the challenge of taking something and making it the same, yet different. I worked on Tetris for four years while at EA and that was always, 'Can you keep it the same yet make it different?' So I quite like the sort of contradiction of that challenge, and we've learned to embrace this now."