20 years of CyberConnect2

The head of the team behind the Final Fantasy 7 Remake and the Naruto games reflects on being in business for 20 years.

Hiroshi Matsuyama never set out to run a game studio. Upon graduating college in the ‘90s, he went into the concrete manufacturing industry, at one point working with some of the people who built the Osaka Dome baseball stadium.

But a few years after graduating, he heard from a friend he’d known from a manga club in school. The friend had gone into the game industry, and was looking for help with a new company he named CyberConnect in 1996.

Matsuyama agreed to join, and in 2001 he took over the company as president, rebranding it as "CyberConnect2" — in part because he wanted to mark the company’s second phase, and in part because the PlayStation 2 was hitting the market. Under Matsuyama’s leadership, the team took on franchises that would come to define the company, including the .hack role-playing games and games for the Naruto anime franchise.

As the years went on, CyberConnect2 gradually morphed into one of Japan’s largest independent studios.

CyberConnect2 keeps a large manga reference library. This is just part of it in the company’s Tokyo office.

One of the company’s main turning points, Matsuyama says, came with the release of 2008’s Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm. The team had been making Naruto games for years at that point, with five PS2 games and a couple PSP spin-offs under its belt, but Ultimate Ninja Storm marked the group’s first on PlayStation 3, which gave the franchise a clear visual step forward.

"That ended up selling over two million copies," he says. "Usually when you have a game series, with each sequel the numbers tend to drop a bit, but that was a point when the Naruto games broke out around the world."

Hiroshi Matsuyama

Around that same time, the company began to expand. Prior to 2008, CyberConnect2 mostly worked on .hack and Naruto games. Since then, the company has taken on original ideas such as over-the-top action game Asura’s Wrath, made licensed games for the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manga series, dabbled in mobile titles and generally spread its wings. On February 16 — two days before our interview for this story — CyberConnect celebrated its 20th anniversary.

In 2016, Matsuyama has his personal branding down to a science. He has an assistant carry around his favorite hat for photoshoots, where he regularly strikes the same handful of poses, mimicking characters from Naruto and JoJo. He appears in silly promotional videos, like one where he runs on a treadmill while pitching the latest Naruto game.

And the company’s success keeps him busy. CyberConnect2 now spans two offices, with about 190 people in Fukuoka and another 30 or so in Tokyo. Matsuyama travels between the two on a weekly basis, generally spending Monday and Tuesday in Fukuoka then Wednesday through Saturday in Tokyo.

It’s a big enough operation that he installed live camera feeds in each office connecting them, as a way to improve communication. He says one of his main priorities when opening a second office was not to split up projects between the two, but to have both contribute to whatever the company does.

"If we had two separate studios working on completely different things, then they might as well be separate companies."

"If we had two separate studios working on completely different things, then they might as well be separate companies," he says.

And CyberConnect2 has continued to push forward on its games’ visuals, with more than half of the studio working on art, animation and cinematics.

In part because of the team’s pride in its visuals, it also worked with publisher Bandai Namco to release a demo for its latest Naruto game, the first on PlayStation 4. Console game demos are rare in 2016, due to the resources involved and because data often shows that they hurt sales. But Matsuyama says the team wanted to show off what it had, similar to how Ultimate Ninja Storm helped establish the company at the beginning of the PS3 era.

"We wanted players to be able to not just see the visuals themselves but also check out the story mode and see how much the game has evolved to prove, ‘Hey look, this is what we can do now’," he says.

Naruto UNS4
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, the series’ PlayStation 4 debut

Currently, he says CyberConnect2 is working on eight games, five for consoles and three for mobile phones. One of those is the highly anticipated Final Fantasy 7 Remake with Square Enix. Another is a virtual reality game — a new IP with an unannounced partner.

Matsuyama declines to give specifics on either of those projects, but says he doesn’t want to spread the company out too far, preferring to nurture a small handful of franchises than to dabble in everything. "We don’t really want to get our hands in as many pies as possible," he says.

For the next 20 years, he says he doesn’t have specific goals for the company to grow at a certain rate or reach a specific number of employees. He says he mostly just wants to continue along the same path of creating visually-impressive games that appeal to players around the world.

One thing Matsuyama knows for sure, though, is he has no plans to change the company name, now that PlayStation 2 is no longer current.

"I get asked that a lot," he says. "Maybe once someone else becomes president, they’ll change it." Babykayak

Photography: Irwin Wong