Q&A: Square Enix president Yoichi Wada

Company pres Yoichi Wada opens up the Square Enix bag of tricks; talks about his plans to go big--in mobile, online, and the still uncertain turf of networked gaming.

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Tokyo-based Square Enix Co. Ltd. kicked off E3 week with a sophisticated presentation of its E3 game lineup held in the new Walt Disney Music Hall. The games looked good, and the company brought out its creative firepower to introduce product--as expected. But what wasn't expected was Square Enix president Yoichi Wada's future vision of a gaming environment where the network is effectively the platform, where the full array of terminals and platforms speak (and play) with each other across the vast Internet, and where console verticals share access to multiplayer gaming via less regulated avenues of access. It was pretty heady stuff, but Wada-san appeared committed. In this unusual face-to-face interview, Wada-san made it clear: Square Enix is ready to go global, go mobile, and push the limits of gaming, both single-player and online. But first, he's got to survive E3...

GS: What are you most interested in seeing at this year's E3?

YW: Well, so far there hasn't been much originality in games that are played online. I want to see how creative the online games are getting. I’m sure I'll see many online games, but I’d like to see how imaginative online game design can be.

GS: Is Square Enix overly reliant on its two key franchises, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest? Is there any concern that the markets for those games will become saturated or that it may become difficult to attract new gamers to the franchises?

YW: It is true that Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are our major two franchises. However, two years ago, we released Kingdom Hearts, which has grown to a point that can be called a franchise. And last year, although this is limited to Japan, we released the Fullmetal Alchemist. And starting this year or so we will also release it in the United States and Europe. So we have tried to expand the scope of our titles, and in fact we have been able to see results.

The second point is that you’ve indicated that there might be a concern vis-à-vis our users in single-player gaming, but I think network-based entertainment is an area where there is a potential for an enormous markets--so long as you provide exciting and new concepts in games. If we consider a game to be a stand-alone console game alone, then there might be a limit to how far the franchises can go. However, the issue here is how we can utilize the network environment to give the games ongoing significance. And in that regard I think there is much more room for us to reach the game community.

GS: You have a bigger booth at E3 this year. Why? What's the value you hope to get from attending?

YW: Well, we spent a lot of money. However, I think it is well worth the money because it provides us with an opportunity to introduce new titles, as well as to present our future vision. Square Enix staff also participated in a couple of conference program panels where we were able to provide information on various aspects of the company to a wide range of people.

Because we are able to promote the brand to consumers as well as industry people, I believe it is well worth it--it is very effective. Now, here, this E3 is the right time.

GS: The new Square Enix model is network-focused. In your words, network is the game. If the network is so important, where does that leave story, creativity, and rich ideas?

YW: Communication is not valid unless there is a theme, a story, and a background. Merely getting people together physically doesn't imply communication...it doesn't necessarily provide the valid basis for establishing community. If we’re talking about unilateral storytelling, or a story that can only be interpreted in one way, it wouldn't be suitable for a networked environment. However, I think there is a certain flow of story that needs to be there at the very basis of communication. An underlying story is essential in establishing community.

GS: Why doesn't Square Enix support the Xbox?

YW: There are two reasons why we didn't commit to Xbox 1. The first reason is that when you look at the Xbox from the standpoint of a stand-alone game console, it’s no different from the PS2. But when you look at it from the installed base perspective, there is a big difference. There is no reason for us to allocate development staff for Xbox when we can have PS2. Another thing that we can say is that Xbox pursued network gaming, and that is a fine idea. I would evaluate that to be good. However, the attempt was to create a closed network in a closed environment. That is completely contrary to our concept of networked business.

I do appreciate that there has been an evolution in the thinking as far as Microsoft is concerned. I think the next generation of the Xbox would fully deserve consideration.

GS: Movie licenses have become a key building block of the US game industry. To what extent does that model interest Square Enix?

YW: I don’t believe that this type of approach would last or be successful for long.

GS: What are you looking for when you walk the show floor?

YW: I'm interested in what content is being shown, but at the same time, the manner in which the booth is set up is reflective of the vision the company has toward the future, so that’s what I look at the most.

GS: What's the message you want the Square Enix booth and its presence at E3 to communicate to the retail community and to the press?

YW: I don’t think people know who Square Enix is in the true sense. Certainly a franchise such as Final Fantasy has a very solid foothold in this market, but I hope that observers would understand that Square Enix is a company that creates content with the utmost care--and that this content is extremely cool.

GS: Who is the target audience for Advent Children? Existing gamers or a consumer unfamiliar with the Square Enix brand?

YW: We want to appeal to a broad demographic, but we also want to reach our core audience. I’m not interested in trying to acquire or cultivate new users from a totally unrelated group...that would destroy the brand.

GS: What is the personal investment and personal challenge behind your commitment to building the Square Enix brand?

YW: Well, regardless of which company you are talking about, those of us that belong to the entertainment industry try to provide people happiness, and fun. And therefore what I hope to see is for Square Enix to be involved in providing that--a kind of happiness to people, on a global scale. An analogy might be Disney as it was 10 years ago, or decades earlier. When people throughout the world are excited and feel joy, and that that is a reflection or result of a Square Enix product, and I was involved in that, then I would consider the Square Enix brand to have penetrated the marketplace, and I will feel rewarded.

GS: Has there been any news this week from the industry or from competitors that’s gotten your attention and made you rethink the strategy?

YW: No.

GS: Does that mean that Square Enix is so committed to its own strategy it's not terribly interested in others' strategies, or that the news has just been slight?

YW: I think both. We feel that we are on the right track in trying to fulfill what we started out to achieve. But what is more important is that we are setting up our strategy based on the premise that eventually the industry will go through a radical change, that there would be a shift in the structure itself. When we are on this track, the accuracy of our forecasts or anticipation of what our competitors might do is extremely important...it's a crucial factor for us to be successful. And we have actually worked very hard to be as accurate as we can. So far, we’re not that far off from what we anticipated. Everything that’s happening currently conforms to what we anticipated.

GS: Thank you, Wada-san.

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