Square Peg, European Hole

We chat to new European president and CEO John Yamamoto about the expansion of Square Enix' European division, a move that heralds a whole new era for the Japanese giant in this territory.

The arrival of one of Japan's biggest publishers on European shores is a fairly major event for the games market in the PAL territories. Although some Japanese firms - Konami and Capcom are good examples - have major presences in Europe and have been publishing their own titles here for years, they remain the exception rather than the rule. In general, Japanese firms - even those with US subsidiaries - have been happy to sit back and allow other publishers to handle their products in Europe.

The winds of change started blowing in this regard when Sega re-established itself as a fully fledged third party publisher in Europe a few years ago; but if there was ever a sign of the rapidly changing attitudes towards Europe which can be found in the board rooms of Japan's top games companies, it's the fresh focus on the PAL markets which has been adopted by Square Enix - godfathers of that most quintessentially Japanese genre, the console RPG, and for years the originators of critically acclaimed titles which were denied to European gamers.

Earlier this month, Square Enix changed the name of its European subsidiary from Square Enix Europe to simply Square Enix Ltd, and announced plans to bulk up its UK headquarters - centrally located in London's Regent Street, a stone's throw from Oxford Circus tube station. One of the first steps taken was the appointment of a new president and CEO for the European division - with the former president and CEO of Atlus USA, John Yamamoto, being the man chosen for the role.

Squaring Up

"Actually, I joined Square Enix Ltd on April 1st of this year," Yamamoto tells us as we sit down with him in the company's London offices, "so I'm pretty much new here! I spent a couple of months in the Tokyo headquarters to study what they are doing and what kind of meetings were held, and during the meetings what kind of things were being decided. So, I was sitting next to Mr Wada, [Yoichi Wada, Square Enix' president and chief executive] and studied there for exactly two months. On June 1st, I actually moved here and became the CEO and president of Square Enix Europe - then recently we had the name change from Square Enix Europe to Square Enix Ltd."

Yamamoto's appointment to head up the European division indicates a major change in Square Enix' approach to the territory - and he'll be responsible for overseeing the transition from licensing titles to others to publish, to being a fully hands-on European publisher with an active involvement in the marketplace, a process which will really begin when the firm self-publishes massively multiplayer title Final Fantasy XI in Europe this September.

"We used to license our titles to other publishers, such as Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, or Electronic Arts Europe, or Take Two, or Ubisoft," he explains. "We're announcing that we're to be the publisher, and start our own distribution. So, Final Fantasy XI, that is going to be released on September 16th, in two months time - we are going to be the publisher. We're not going to distribute the package, but we're going to be the publisher, so we'll do our own marketing. That's the first step."

"The second step," he continues, "is that we will have all the distribution channels, and distribute our console products by ourselves - such as PS2 titles like Final Fantasy XII or Kingdom Hearts 2, which we'd like to distribute by ourselves, as a publisher. That's going to be in the next fiscal year, I think."

European Invasion

At present, the company continues to work with publishing partners - "Right at the moment we're working on the marketing for Star Ocean 3, which we're planning to launch in September of this year - we're working with Ubi Soft on that one," Square Enix PR manager Abbass Hussain tells us - but the company has every intention of running a fully featured publishing business in Europe, and may even consider developing original titles in the region.

"In the future, it's possible," Yamamoto confirms when we ask about the possibility of European product development. "I don't have any particular action yet, at this stage, but in the future, yes, it's possible." For now, however, the product work in the UK office is restricted to translation and localisation. "We have translation teams here, and also in Japan, so this is about team play between the Japan side and the UK side," he says. "We have the German team, the French team, the Italian team and the Spanish team in this office."

One of the biggest changes which consumers will notice as a result of Square Enix' establishment of its own publishing channels in Europe will be that the company will publish more of its content in this market - hopefully silencing some of the criticism that a lot of hugely popular Japanese titles, particularly RPGs, fail to appear in this market. "Yes," Yamamoto says when we ask if the company plans to increase the number of titles it publishes in Europe, "because we're going to be our own publisher and distributor, the answer is yes."

It's not just console games that Square Enix hopes to bring to Europe in future - it's as much of the company's range of media as possible. Yamamoto picks one example - "the TV animation, Fullmetal Alchemist, ideally we want to announce in Europe - manga and animation is kind of a trend. We are working on that right now. In the United States, Cartoon Network is going to air that program; then that'll go to DVD, and then through to PS2 titles. Hopefully we'll have the same trend here too."

Hip to be Square

While Square Enix' commitment to the European market is now definitely stronger, and more of the company's range will definitely appear here, consumers shouldn't expect to see everything that's released in Japan making the jump to Europe. "Anything that fits in the European market, I would like to release here," Yamamoto assures us. "Unfortunately, you know, some of the titles only fit in the Japanese market, and they're not recognised here - so those titles, we have to pass."

This isn't the first time that Square Enix has published its own titles in Europe - the company did have a publishing operation here some years ago - but this is its most aggressive expansion in Europe, and indeed into global markets outside Japan (the European expansion comes along with a renewed focus on the North American and Chinese markets). So why the sudden move on Square Enix' part to look outside the Japanese marketplace?

It's a simple commercial decision, according to Yamamoto. "If you look at the PlayStation 2 market, which is the largest market for games, I think that three quarters, maybe 75 per cent, is occupied by the US and European markets," he explains. "The European market is growing up - it's now almost 80 per cent of the US market, and still growing."

"The Japanese market is kind of shrinking; we still have good share in Japan, but to make our company grow, we have to oversee the US market and the European market. The US market is only one language, and only one country, but the European market.... We say European, but there are so many countries here, and so many languages here, and the business customs are different. I know that it's not that easy to distribute everything by ourselves at once, but with very strong content, such as Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts, I think we can penetrate the market. It's a very huge, but very complex market."

Despite the complexity of the marketplace, Square Enix has set aggressive targets for its European expansion. "In terms of the size of the business, we're planning to sell about four million units in the first year," Yamamoto tells us. While it's not clear which titles will be included in that year - Kingdom Hearts 2 almost certainly will be, whereas the schedule for Final Fantasy XII is less certain - it remains a forecast which reaffirms the company's confidence in its European plans.

Going Mobile

One of the first things to be announced by the company in Europe since Yamamoto was appointed is the launch of the firm's mobile content business - worth some $30 million in Japan alone at present - into the EMEA territories. Square Enix is working with mobile content experts Macrospace to get its titles into Europe, starting with conversions of SNES-era classics Aleste and Actraiser, and a tie-in title to recent PS2 action RPG Drakengard, which are rolling out across European territories and networks at present.

"High end handsets in Japan already handle video calls, can play music and movies and games to a very high level - and technology in Europe is starting to realise some of that potential," explains Macrospace's John Ozimek, talking about the deal. "Square Enix have one of the, if not the most successful i-Mode channels in Japan - i-Mode being a massively popular content system which only the UK doesn't have currently."

"I think users in the UK have only ever seen Square Enix as console gaming, and there's an awful lot more to it than that," he continues. "I think that starting with this announcement we will hopefully see the quality and the heritage of Square Enix coming through to mobile gaming."

Console games, online PC games and mobile games, with the promise of TV shows, DVDs, manga (comics), mobile wallpapers and ringtones and more besides to come in future; it's a holistic approach to gaming content which Square Enix has perfected in Japan. It's all part of a vision of "polymorphic" content, Yamamoto tells us; an idea which is similar to, but yet quite different from, the types of cross-media efforts we see from many other companies.

Poly-morphin' Power... Er.

"I think polymorphic... That's maybe a Square Enix created word," Yamamoto says, laughing apologetically at some puzzled expressions when he uses the phrase first. "That's a key word. So, I'd like to explain about the idea of 'polymorphic' as precisely as possible."

"For Square Enix, until now, media hardware has come before the content. That means that when we create, there is the hardware first, and then we put the content on it. For example, if you set out to write a novel, you would need a story to fill its pages; or if you had a PS2, a game would need to be created to play on it. In the current fashion, multimedia is very popular, but that is nothing more than part of the same trend, if you see what I'm trying to say."

"Put simply, then, the pattern has been to create entertainment according to the hardware," he continues. "The hardware is restrictive to the content. Our current vision is to create polymorphic content. So, we are aiming to form original ideas without being restricted by the notions of hardware or media, and to deliver these ideas via consoles, online gaming, mobile gaming, or DVD. "

"We understand that this might be difficult to imagine," he concedes, "but when you see the entertainment content that we will offer in the future, it will all become clear. So, it's still very abstract - but please expect our future; we will show what we can do."

Not-so-Final Fantasy

Square Enix mobile business global coordinator Misa Murohashi steps in to give a more concrete example of the concept. "For example, with Final Fantasy VII, we currently have a project to launch an extra story in Japan, with a DVD movie from the Final Fantasy VII world [Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which is also confirmed to appear on the UMD disc format used by PlayStation Portable movies]," she says. "At the same time, we're creating Final Fantasy VII Before Crisis, which is online content; that's kind of our first try at creating polymorphic content, so we're currently starting with that kind of big concept."

Yamamoto nods. "Also, we believe that the mobile phone, which we carry every day, being a multi-functional device, is an ideal channel through which to deliver polymorphic content," he says. "So, maybe the mobile is one of the best multi-functional devices to make delivery of our polymorphic ideas. Utilising the everyday quality of the mobile phone, we will continue to provide content that everybody will enjoy."

"So, that's a brief explanation of our polymorphic idea," he concludes. "That is going to be the keyword, not only for mobile, but it will appear in our console business, PS2, or online, PC entertainment, everything. This is the worldwide Square Enix vision and concept."

Almost as much as the simple business reasons which Yamamoto explained to us, the adoption of the polymorphic concept perhaps explains a significant part of the firm's newfound desire to establish itself in Europe. The idea - spreading original IP across as many different forms of media as possible, effectively, rather than shoe-horning a fixed piece of original media into other mediums - is a fascinating one, but for it to work, all of those different types of media need to be available to consumers. Fullmetal Alchemist is a perfect example; the games alone would probably be quite good, but taken in the context of a long-running manga story and a popular animated TV series, the franchise takes on a whole new depth.

For Europeans, though, the good news is a lot simpler than the polymorphic concept and all that it brings with it. Square Enix is taking Europe seriously at last; very seriously indeed, in fact - and as one of Japan's behemoths decides to take full control of its own destiny in the world's fastest growing but most complex games market, can the others be far behind?

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