Square Enix made a surprising announcement at Tokyo Game Show 2014 when it unveiled its plan to create a cloud gaming service under the name Shinra Technologies, the same name of the evil corporation at the center of Final Fantasy VII. At the head of this cloud gaming initiative sits Yoichi Wada, the former CEO of Square Enix who stepped down in 2013, presumably to get Shinra up and running.
To many people, it was an interesting but confusing announcement. Fans will eat up anything related to Final Fantasy VII, so people were excited to see the name "Shinra," period, but the fact that Wada's new venture was targeting cloud gaming seemed odd. How would Shinra Technologies be different from the competition? Would it only publish Square Enix games? What did this move mean for the future of Square Enix games on consoles? These are all fair questions, but the answer to the first one is the most important of all. In Wada's words: "We built this company because we want to provide completely new game experiences that no other company can provide. That's the only reason that we created Shinra Technologies."
"We built this company because we want to provide completely new game experiences that no other company can provide. That's the only reason that we created Shinra Technologies."
Such a statement could be interpreted in any number of ways, but Wada and his partner, Jacob Navok (Senior Vice President of Business at Shinra Technologies), are approaching the cloud in a different way than other companies. Where other game streaming providers such as Nvidia, Sony, and OnLive serve pre-existing content that was developed for consoles or Windows first, Shinra Technologies is seeking brand new content that's created specifically for its cloud platform. Exclusivity is one thing, but according to Wada and Navok, they're leveraging their technology and taking a risk by venturing into a new frontier of game development, where developers can leverage a so-called "supercomputer" to make games that they couldn't before.
Traditionally, most consumers haven't had the power to run games that, at a minimum, require multiple graphics processors, so it's never been viable for for publishers to invest in such projects. Shinra Technologies is telling developers to shoot for the stars.
Wada points to previous innovations in the industry, which fundamentally reshaped gaming as we knew it: "...when Nintendo made cartridge games, it was all action games. When PlayStation made CD-ROMs, it extended the loading times for games, but you have great and rich expression, almost like movies. For cloud gaming, I think there's another change that's going to happen."
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Shinra Technologies showcased a multiplayer demo at GDC last week to illustrate how its platform can empower developers to deliver new experiences that simply aren't possible on other platforms. This demo, running on Shinra's server, had over thirty people (and 16,000 AI characters) flying around the same landscape, with physical effects like water reacting in real time to terrain deformation that was controlled by one of the participants. If you look at most online multiplayer games right now, you don't see things like real time physics and terrain deformation, primarily because the complex calculations that drive particle effects and the like is very difficult to sync across multiple computers, and timing differences could result in a poor multiplayer gameplay experience, so most developers avoid attempting such feats. By processing the game solely on its supercomputer-like server, which is comprised of multiple high-powered Nvidia GPUs, Shinra can offer games that include things like advanced physics because the supercomputer, not an individual player's game client, is handling all of the rendering. In other words, the effects aren't processed on a computer, then sent to a server, and then out to every other players computer, as it would have been in the traditional model.
There's no doubt in my mind that the there's great potential in a service like this, but in order for it to fly, developers have to be interested in taking risks. Navok recognizes the inherent risk of jumping to an untested platform, but doesn't think it's a major hurdle, so long as they properly manage their relationships.
"Disruptive innovation demands that you go into places where customers and revenues are far lower than relative to your current market," said Navok. "We made a conscious decision back in the fall when we began to more actively work on the prototyping accelerator to look for studios that could move quickly, that cared less about precisely on this day how much money we're going to make and more about doing them because they're interesting, because they're fun to do, because it allows them to do something they always wanted to but couldn't afford. It was an initial struggle, and a point that we had to come to grips with, but I feel like we're at a very good place now, because it becomes self-selective. The studios that want to work with you already believe in the vision, think this is going to be the future, and they understand the way that disruptive innovation works. You end up in a place where it's a lot faster to have discussions, where it's a lot faster to get to a point where you're happy with a concept and where they're able to deliver on that concept because they understand intuitively what they have to make to make it unique and interesting." Navok adds: "One way to think about this is that this is an industry of software, and software is built by engineers, and engineers want to do new things. The only thing that stops them is the business people."
One way to think about this is that this is an industry of software, and software is built by engineers, and engineers want to do new things. The only thing that stops them is the business people.
I wondered where Square Enix fits into Shinra's vision, given that it currently owns Shinra. Wada's experience at the company gives him a unique perspective, and he sees them as a partner through and through, but that relationship may or may not last forever. "When I was the president of Square Enix, I was always thinking that if a new platform came out, then I wanted to create games that leveraged the new platform. I've had this idea that by changing to cloud gaming, that the games would be different," said Wada. Navok jumped in. "He didn't look at cloud gaming and say this is a cynical business opportunity for Square Enix to cash in and get more catalog title monies. What he said to himself is: 'if I genuinely believe that cloud gaming is the future of the industry, as the CEO of a publisher whose responsibility it is to pick the platforms for on which we will develop to ensure the customer gets the proper titles and products, how do we make a game that fits with this. What process do we have to do to make a great cloud game for Square Enix.' That was his original thinking."
Wada continued Navok's thought. "That was the original idea, but unfortunately, nobody made any appropriate cloud gaming platforms. Nobody did. That's why we had to make one, otherwise, the gaming industry itself is going to deteriorate. That's why we made Shinra. Shinra provides the cloud gaming platform, but Square Enix just provides the content. That's why I'm serving as the President of Shinra and leaving publishing to Square Enix. And I'm negotiating not just with Square Enix, we also have all different content providers and developers." Navok jumps in again, "Even if we are a 100% owned subsidiary right now, we will steadily be pushed away and we will put ourselves in a more independent position where publishers and developers will feel more comfortable coming to us."
Before my time with Shinra came to an end, I had to know: why did they choose the name "Shinra?"
"It was December of 2013. I remember right before Christmas break having that discussion," said Navok. "He (Wada) pitches it to me and my initial reaction is 'no, no, no way.' I wasn't interested, I didn't want to be an evil corporation."
After much laughter, Wada gives his reasoning behind the division. "I don't want there to be distance from content, entertainment and games, because cloud gaming tends to focus or emphasize too much on the technology, but I don't want to be distanced from the entertainment aspect. That's why I wanted to make the name, because anybody in the gaming industry will know it."
"I'll tell you, I'm very grateful for the name in the end," said Navok, "because it has been very playful and it has made it a lot easier for one to get developers interested and excited. If we were Super Cloud Gaming Computer Company Technologies Inc, they would be cynical, but you say we're Shinra, we're awesome and fun, come make great games with us, then they're much more open to it. Also, from the hiring perspective, there are a lot of people who want to work with us just because they want to be a member of Shinra."
I asked who's the Hojo (the evil scientist from Final Fantasy VII) in this iteration of Shinra. "I'm not going to say!" said Navok. Sounds suspicious, if you ask me.
Shinra Technologies' platform is set to launch sometime in 2015 or 2016. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates as they develop.