Square Enix social-game devs talk about clones, growing pains and hope for the future

This week's issue of Famitsu magazine features an interesting interview with Ichiro Hazama and Takehiro Ando, two Square Enix producers who handle primarily social games on smartphones. Hazama produced Final Fantasy Airborne Brigade (out last month in English) and the iOS version of The World Ends With You, while Ando led Chaos Rings and Emperors Saga, a trading-card game version of one of the publisher's lesser-known console RPG series.

What's it like taking classic Square franchises (which, it's probably safe to say, have already been heavily merchandised in recent years) and trying to make a coherent social game out of them? "Difficult," Ando replied. "Usually I've been working on original titles, but thanks to assorted coincidences I wound up leading Saga here. Saga, not to mention FF and Dragon Quest, are all games I grew up with and the idea of making a social game out of one made me pretty nervous, like 'I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't.'"

Airborne Brigade, Hazama's current shot at the same mission, is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary in the Japanese iOS and Android marketplace. "Brigade is one of those games where the quality pre-launch had nothing on where it is today," commented Ando. "In a market packed with similar games, Brigade brought a really challenging and new gameplay structure. Instead of just going for the usual card-spin purchases, it's got a pretty complex system, but it gradually opens up to the user so it's never overwhelming. I was a little worried at first about whether all these disparate components would come together into a coherent game."

Hazama, for his part, sees Brigade's success in Japan as a byproduct of his team focusing on an individual aspect of the FF brand instead of covering the whole thing in one go. "I think it's important when you're making a social game out of a known brand that you cut out an individual part of it and make it as big as you can," he said. "With Brigand, and with Theatrhythm for that matter [which Hazama also produced], the bit you decide to focus on completely changes the lay of the game. The hardest part of this is to decide what to focus on so you don't get complacent and lose track of what gamers want."

But consistent success in the social market remains elusive, even for major publishers. To Ando, the main difficulty lies in the market - the fairly decent processing power at hand, but the very unique demands phone users place upon their games. "You can do different things from consoles, but you have to make it something playable during short bursts of free time," he explained. "You aren't going to see people playing your game on the phone for hours on end. So I think you really have to nail down the essence of the brand."

To Hazama, though, what the social-game scene suffers from the most is a lack of respect - which, in turn, leads to the current raft of poor-quality games and clones that can be found in the iTunes Store.

"I think one problem is the way that 'console games' and 'social games' get discussed as separate categories," he said. "I'm talking about by the developers here. You have people enjoying these games based on the FF or SaGa connection, and I think later we can link that to a title with a fuller sort of game experience. It sometimes annoys me when I talk to other social-game designers. I seriously had one say to me 'Just stick some cute girls in, then it'll be okay.' Of course that's not okay! You have developers pigeonholing themselves like this, and that's not everyone, but I think people like that are going to get weeded out going forward."

"I think the sort of gamer who reads Famitsu will say 'All social games are the same,'" Ando added. "And they're right; the scene is filled with copycats. The arcade and console markets were the same thing at first, too. You had lots of companies start by making slightly different clones of Space Invaders, and then that branched into action games and more evolved shooters like Galaga and Xevious. I think that heavy cloning period peaked in social last year, and now this is the year where we start seeing the equivalents to things like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, games that really provide a revolution."

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