Square Enix Yosuke Matsuda interview – ‘it's better to be a leader than a follower’
Lost Sphear – the latest game from Tokyo RPG Factory

GameCentral talks to the man in charge of everything from Final Fantasy to Tomb Raider, about loot boxes, games as a service, and Lost Sphear.

We’ve interviewed a number of CEOs over the years, but we think Square Enix’s Yosuke Matsuda might be our favourite. Rather than the stern Japanese businessman that you’d expect, he turned out to be a fairly unassuming figure with a keen sense of humour. Which was a particular surprise given he’s never been a games developer and instead served for years as Square Enix’s chief financial officer. But now he’s in charge of everything.

We got a chance to meet him just before Christmas, but not for a major announcement or game reveal but because he wanted to raise awareness for developer Tokyo RPG Factory and their new game Lost Sphear.

As Matsuda-san explained, the studio was set-up specifically to create old school Japanese style role-players, with the first example being last year’s well-received I Am Setsuna. Lost Sphear is out next week, and does look very promising, but we also used the opportunity to talk about Square Enix’s current policy on everything from games as a service to mobile gaming.

We were warned not to ask about any ongoing franchise though, even though Matsuda-san has previously indicated that series such as Deus Ex are not quite as dead as they might seem. That meant we couldn’t ask about Tomb Raider or the Avengers licence either, so we snuck in a question about Bubble Bobble instead…

Formats: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
Release Date: 23rd January 2018

There’s a certain amount of faffing about as we set up two separate recorders.

Translator: Dolby surround sound!

GC: I once did a one-hour interview and it didn’t record, so I like to be sure…

YM: [laughs]

GC: Perhaps we can start with your personal background. Did you already play games before starting at Square Enix?

YM: My history with games… I’m actually 54 this year, so you look back to what kind of games I’d have been exposed to when I was younger and it was mainly the original arcade games. After leaving school I would go and play games, but when I actually graduated and moved onto my first job that was really the time when the change around occurred and you started getting the home consoles coming out.

It’s about 30 years ago now we’re talking about, and we’ve certainly had a lot of 30th anniversaries with our own games lately. It was Dragon Quest last year [2016], it was Final Fantasy this year [2017]. When I left school and started work I wasn’t playing games much for that period, I was very busy doing other things. [laughs]

But I joined SquareSoft, back when we still hadn’t done the merge, and I’ve generally been in charge behind the scenes, away from the development floor. I was basically in charge of the finances of the company for most of that time. So that’s how I’m professionally related to games.

GC: Given your position I can’t resist asking you about the problems the Japanese games industry had last generation. To us, as consumers in the West, it seemed to happen very suddenly, where Japan went from being the Hollywood of gaming to near irrelevance in just a year or so. It’s become clear recently that the problem was largely technical, thanks to a slowness to adopt modern practices such as using middleware, but what happened from your point of view? And are we now safely out of that difficult period?

YM: There’s lots of different ways you can look at this problem and the issues that happened then. But I think, certainly, it really was the changeover in the hardware generation. I think the real thing that happened there was that the scale of game production – the people involved in it and the amount of effort you need to make a single game – really, really expanded at that time.

It is undoubtedly true that a lot of Japanese companies, including us, did hit that barrier. And certainly, with the technical issues you mentioned, bringing in middleware and things like that was difficult.

I think one of the other things that happened is that there was a changeover in some of the mainstream genres and what was popular. The rise of shooting games really happened between that changeover to the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 generation. And even within the field of RPGs it went very much towards the more open world kind of action RPG style. So I think there are a lot of things that Japanese developers had to catch up with, and there was a lot of scratching of heads and really wondering what the best way of doing that would be.

Also, I think if you look at what happened then a lot of the Japanese companies tried to emulate the Western game designs and styles, and certainly made those kind of shooting games. And I think the truth of it was they didn’t go that well. [laughs]

GC: [laughs]

YM: I think what changed is that basically after those experiments and those failures, and then it not working out, a lot of the Japanese developers have now used that experience to say, ‘Well OK, we can make games in the style that we’re comfortable with in our own way’. And that newfound confidence is I think what you’re seeing with the current resurgence.

Yosuke Matsuda appeared as a boss in NieR: Automata's DLC - that's braggable
Yosuke Matsuda appeared as a boss in NieR: Automata’s DLC – which is braggable

GC: It’s not just that Japanese creators are good at making video games, but the fact that many Japanese titles make their origins very obvious. They’re not trying to be American, which in itself can be very refreshing. Is that something you encourage now? Do you tell your developers not to be scared to make the games appear Japanese?

YM: I do very much tell our developers that kind of thing, that’s very much the way we think about it. Certainly, I think rather than trying to copy something from someone else it’s better to be a leader than a follower. And rather than saying, ‘You’ve got to make this in this kind of style, as these foreign companies make it – because that’s popular…’ I think you always get a better result if you tell them to make what they want to make. And you get a team together because they’re passionate about making it in a certain way.

Rather than giving them a certain style to follow, we say, ‘You make something that represents you and what you think’. And I think that definitely results in a better product. That’s the way I always advise my development team!

I think when you try and bring in all kinds of elements from outside and mix them together… things get lost and you don’t know what’s going on. We often say things are getting ‘blurred’ and you’re not sure what you’re making. So we always try to avoid that and make sure it’s a solid vision.

GC: One thing that’s easy to forget in the West is how much of an influence the Japanese mobile industry has on traditional games companies. It’s always seemed to me that traditional Japanese role-players are poorly suited to mobile phones, so I worry whether new and casual gamers are losing touch with the genre. Is that a concern for you as well?

YM: There’s lots of different ways you can look at mobile games. Obviously that is one opinion, definitely. I think you can take it in different ways. Certainly, there are some very good mobile games out there, don’t get me wrong, but I think the younger generation of players… they’ve got a different way of playing to older players. Their lifestyles are different and the way they relate to games will obviously be different.

If you look at it from my generation then it does seem like mobile games are not the kind of games we’re used to. But I think from the perspective of younger gamers, they look at older, more traditional games and think, ‘Hmmm… that’s not quite what I’m used to’. So personally, I think there’s a place for all different kinds of game approaches, and having all of them can only be a good thing – having that variation.

I like the idea of exposing the newer generation to those older kinds of ideas and style of games. Certainly, to remake them into a modern format, that’s more palatable for them, to get them to experience that. Because a lot of the time, these newer gamers, they wouldn’t have been born when the original games came out. And so to experience that older style as well, I think that’s really something we should be pushing.

One thing that makes it a really good time to be in games at the moment, is the way that the mobile technology has evolved so that you’ve always got a high-end device in your hand now. And that’s a very good platform for bringing those older experiences to the younger generation of gamers. Obviously, previously you had the backwards compatibility issue, that every generation you basically lose the ability to play those games which were released on the previous hardware. But now we can remake and remaster them, get them looking good for the current generation, release them on mobile, and that gives them the opportunity to play these older games. So I think it’s a great time to be doing this.

GC: What is your primary aim with Tokyo RPG Factory? Is it to placate older gamers with old school style games or to attract newer gamers that maybe discovered these style of games on mobiles? I imagine it’s probably a combination of the two?

YM: It’s both, it’s definitely both.

Interestingly enough, the name itself, of the company – Tokyo RPG Factory – it’s not a name that was decided in advance, before the people started work.

It all started out with discussions with various developers within the company itself, and talking to them. Obviously, not to make a big scale production but to really bring back the idea of doing a turn-based, story-driven RPG by those within the company that really want to make one. That’s where the whole discussion about creating the studio started.

The other things was I really wanted to try out a slightly new approach to creating a team and starting a project. Which would be that we get a project proposal down and really get people to volunteer to take part in the project. I really wanted to try it out at least once. That’s where we started out on this adventure.

So once that team of enthusiastic people was together I said, ‘OK, you can decide what do you want to call your studio? What name do you want?’ And they came up with Tokyo RPG Factory, and that’s really the identity they want to put forward and give to themselves.

GC: It must be very difficult though, to create the right balance between old and new styles of game. Perhaps this is more of a developer question, but are these games still intended to show progression in terms of mechanics and the style of storytelling?

YM: It’s not really a case of a new style or an old style, it’s one particular style… and that’s the important thing.

The way that the Tokyo RPG Factory thinks about it, is really how we can take that specific style of game and express that as a game for the modern day.

We couldn’t just redo what was done in the past. Time has passed since then and people have different expectations now, so we really have to update it to a certain degree.

What they really are seeking out there is that idea of, ‘If we make a turn-based style game as a modern game, in the modern era, what kind of form is that going to take?’ I personally think that games have to evolve and move on, and so they are really creating games for today but using older influences.

GC: In terms of the style of storytelling specifically… older games, not just from Square Enix or even just Japanese titles, could be problematic with their portrayal of female characters, and minorities and LGBT issues. Is that something that you purposefully look at now? Because modernising a genre can mean many things, not just updating the gameplay.

YM: I think, certainly, you have to think about those kind of things. And obviously there are differences in the cultural perceptions and societies that you sell them in, and there will be those variations across the world. But we want to sell our games worldwide and we’re trying to appeal to a global audience here, so that’s obviously something we are having to think more and more about, and going forward in the future.

But of course, within that you’ve got to leave your own stamp and your own character on these things, and getting that balance right is something that I think is a very difficult question to get right.

GC: Oh, certainly.

YM: But we do have to have a certain level of consideration, that goes without saying.

GC: One of the big issues at the moment in the industry, is the question of a middle ground in gaming – in terms of budgets and price tags. We’ve seen some movement on this in the West recently, but can you imagine taking this same approach with genres other than RPGs?

YM: I think what I was saying previously, about trying to find a new approach to creating a development project is in some ways linked to what you’re saying there.

One of the other ways of getting a game funded is the idea of crowdfunding, and that’s something we’ve supported for several years with the Square Enix Collective.

GC: Yes, you’ve done very good work with that.

YM: We use that to support indie developers and get them onto a higher platform. And we also considered, a while back, doing a similar kind of thing in Tokyo as well.

We’ve found from our research into it that it would be very difficult to try something similar to that in Tokyo, it wouldn’t quite work as well as it has over here. So in order to achieve the same objective we changed the idea and decided to gather together people from various companies who wanted to participate in a certain project. So it’s a very similar idea, just done in a different way.

GC: I read with interest in your latest business results, which doesn’t happen a lot with financial reports…

YM: [laughs]

GC: It was interesting because it talked about the success of NieR: Automata, and yet in the same document it also talked about the rise of games as a service and the idea that single-player games were no longer as popular as they used to be. And we’ve heard a lot of similar things from other publishers recently as well. What exactly is your approach to games as a service and how do you contrast that to a game like NieR? Which is the exact opposite but has been an unexpected success.

YM: Games as a service has a very wide meaning, it can mean a lot of things! [laughs]

Recently people have been discussing loot boxes and people not using that properly, I think that’s all linked to this bad perception people have to the words ‘games as a service’. But really, the way we’re looking at it, what it boils down to is… that idea of keeping people engaged with our games and enjoying them for longer periods of time. That’s the way we really look at the problem.

The way we use that expression, really… the whole idea, for a single-player game particularly, is the idea that you have the game released and you keep adding more content to keep the players engaged and enjoying the game. And that helps to make it more of a full experience, and that brings in more players to the original game. That’s the rough approach we take to the idea, and that’s why we described games as a service in that sense.

GC: I wonder if your thoughts on loot boxes have changed in the last few weeks, for any particular reason? [The interview was conducted shortly after the controversy over Star Wars: Battlefront II reached its peak – GC]

YM: [laughs] I think what’s really important about loot boxes is whether they match the original game design or not.

It is obviously very bad to have loot boxes that get in the way of the player experience, or detract from it in some way. That’s clearly not a good thing. You have to really think about what they do to add to the overall gameplay experience, and how they fit in with that and the overall design of the game. I think that’s the way we should look at these things.

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GC: You’re right that games as a service can mean almost anything, a lot of it positive. But I think what worried people was the idea that single-player games were becoming no longer tenable, at least on a large budget. And many publishers seem to be stating that fairly unambiguously too. With Square Enix having so many great single-player-orientated franchises, can you reassure people that, as a company, you have not lost any interest in the concept?

YM: We will definitely be making more single-player games, don’t worry about that! [laughs]

GC: That’s a relief. [laughs]

YM: We will definitely be making more single-player games, definitely. I think the environment now, that we have, there’s even more platforms, there’s even more opportunities to get single-player games out to people. So, for example, mobile phone games, we’re not just making free-to-play games for that, we’re making proper single-player games, re-releases of old titles, new titles as well. So mobile phones don’t just have to be about that kind of thing. The Switch is another great platform to come out for single-player games, so we’ve got a lot of opportunities and we really do want to continue making single-player games!

GC: Now, I’ve been told not to ask about any modern franchises, so instead I’ll take this opportunity to ask about one of my favourite series… Bubble Bobble. And in particular Rainbow Islands – one of the best games ever made. Will we ever see these titles return to consoles?

YM: [laughs] I’ll have a think about it. [laughs]

GC: Taito franchises like Arkanoid and Space Invaders have been quite active on mobile, but the only time we ever see Bubble Bobble nowadays is via Puzzle Bubble.

YM: We are working on a lot of things at the moment, that’s all I can say.

We will be announcing these in the fullness of time, there will be a lot of information coming out. So wait for it to come through!

GC: I’ve waited this long.

YM: [laugh]

GC: OK, well thank you very much for you time.

YM: [in English:] Thank you very much.

GC: It was a pleasure to meet you.

YM: I hope your recording worked.

GC: So do I! [laughs]

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