Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Technology Squared - Interview with Square Enix's Julien Merceron

Worldwide technology director might sound like a daunting job title, but speaking to, Square Enix's Julien Merceron was still excited about the future of gaming. Even after 17 years in the industry he was enthusiastic as he explained the opportunities for connected gaming that cloud storage and computing can bring, and revealed his hopes for the next generation of consoles.

Merceron, who has also worked with Ubisoft, was speaking in advance of Cloud Gaming Europe, currently underway in London, and which he's attending.

Q: What are the priorities at the moment for Square Enix in terms of technology? Both in terms of the cloud and in general?

Julien Merceron: There are two aspects to that. First of all we are developing a lot of technology internally within the group, and at the same time we take advantage of some middleware. We tend to support many platforms internally, almost all the platforms out there, so when we think about technology we think about what platforms we want to address, the type of products we want to do, how consumers are going to interact with it, and the different services that are out there.

So there's a strong interaction between the creative side of the company and the technology side of the company, we learn a lot from what creative people want to do and technology on the same side tries to inspire creative people. So there's a strong dynamic there to make sure that obviously the technology planned is aligned with the intentions of the company, and also aligned with the platform and the business out there. And at the same time that we can inspire.

So we support the usual suspects, and when it comes down to cloud we look at it in many different ways. As you know with cloud storage and cloud computing there's a wide variety of services out there that do a little bit of both, whether it's Amazon or Azure that are more cloud storage, or whether it's OnLive and Gaikai that are more cloud computing, we tend to look at these services and try to see how we could take advantage of these to do something different. Especially this is the way creative people look at it.

And I think that we kind of experience this already, as you know Square Enix is doing MMOs, as you know we have some social and community SDK internally that we use in our games to support different types of asynchronous game play services for our traditional core games out there on hardware platforms. So basically we've done some cloud storage features already, sharing save games, allowing players to share items, pictures, videos exporting to YouTube, linking to Facebook. We've done a little bit with what cloud storage was able to offer in the last few years, cloud computing is definitely something we've started working on with OnLive so far, but we have a partnership with Gaikai also, and definitely we want to dive more into this.

So going back to your question about where this is going to lead, obviously cloud storage is really great for designing asynchronous gameplay so you're doing something in your game and someone is going to do something later, not at the same time in the game but because a lot of the data you are manipulating is shared online while you are connected or you are not connected, you can have some asynchronous interaction between players at different levels. And I think that's where the cloud storage services are just going to make that more and more present in the game.

One thing that that's going to change in the gameplay is that definitely game designers are going to find out the more online they are in the game, the more platforms they can connect together, allowing a player to be on the home console and then when he takes the train being able to continue doing something within the world of these games from his iPhone or his Android. And this kind of many platform activity is going to develop a lot thanks to cloud storage.

I think it's going to change also the way players interact together, and the way NPCs are designed. Because I think we'll be able to probably use a lot of player's data to actually influence how NPCs are going to play in the game. So you could potentially have NPCs in your game that play like your friends, or like some of your friends. So I think cloud storage will actually have a huge impact in terms of gameplay, game design, artificial intelligence, etcetera. It's also going to allow players to play an experience almost on any platform, if they want to, and that's a big changer both for the business and for the games.

Now cloud computing is very different, it's more the notion of playing from anywhere, whatever device you have in your hand, you can talk about UI issues after that, but almost any device you have in your hand could run your game. And its not just accessing your data from different interfaces, it could be just accessing your game. And the fact that OnLive has signed up with Google TV and will work on all Google TV Smart TVs and devices, and Gaikai will be integrated into LG Smart TVs, even OnLive is starting to run Windows 7 on iPad. And it's just now whatever device you have in your hand that has a screen and networking capabilities could run almost anything from a cloud computing perspective. The big issue will definitely be the UI aspect, and how you interact, but cloud computing is definitely offering something different and it's also something that we are looking at very carefully.

Q: Is it something you would like to see taken up more then, because it would solve those issues of working on so many different platforms, as you currently do?

Julien Merceron: I think it cannot solve the multi-platform development, at least in the short term and the middle run. No company in the cloud computing business will be able to support all the relevant platforms the right way. You look at just the UI aspect, and the connectivity aspect, depending on what platform you're playing on and what bandwidth and latency you have, and what interface you have, the interaction with your game is better or worse. And from a game designer perspective it's terrible to imagine that the experience could be not great on one platform. I think it's going to mature and in the long term I think that actually platforms will take into account that a lot of services are cloud computing, maybe there will be more alignment in the interfaces in the long run. But in the short term you still see games that actually don't play well as a result of interface, screen size, resolution, interactivity, on certain platforms.

That's why I'm saying its not going to solve multi platform development, because we are still going to make native games for certain platforms where cloud computing is not going to be the right solution from a consumer perspective, from a player perspective, and also it's important to note that some platforms are closed platforms, so there are definitely some hardware devices that won't allow, whether OnLive and Gaikai or any other cloud computing service to actually be a game delivery service on their own device, because they want to be the only one to provide that service. So because of these aspects it could end up solving the development issues in the long term, but definitely it will take many, many years before hardware devices and the concept of open and closed platforms evolve.

Q: So do you think cloud tech will be part of the next generation of machines?

Julien Merceron: I think it will have to be somehow. I think that cloud storage and cloud computing are... you can see how important it's going to become and how much of a game changer, how much of an experience changer, it's going to be. And I also think the development sides of the companies are very excited about this. You look at digital revenues and some companies announced really great performance. So for a company like EA, digital was super-important, I think it was $1 billion? You look at the fact that we're saying that calender year 2011 business went down but actually it's just because we are capturing retail revenues. But the digital business is huge, so I think that both from a creative perspective, from a service perspective, from a many platform, and from just a gamer perspective as well, this is going to be welcomed and embraced. So when it comes down to future hardware platforms, and official home consoles, I think it's going to be instrumental.

So coming back to your question, it has to be. It has to be part, somewhere, somehow, of something that can be done on these devices. One additional thing is that if you imagine a platform that would basically have cloud computing capabilities, for example, then why would you eventually need to change the hardware? Because actually what you then just do is basically change the back end to be more powerful. You can still have a hybrid, local computing, remote computing if the platform is secure the client can actually run on a pretty heavy hardware configuration. And of course you can scale, potentially, the back end.

So it could extend the life cycles of the platforms. I think it has tremendous benefits. I don't see any good reason not to investigate for platform holders how they could actually think about cloud storage and cloud computing for their next platforms.

Q: As someone on top of the technology and aware what the current consoles are capable of, if you could send a wish-list to Sony and Microsoft what would you like to see in the next generation, as well as that cloud element?

Julien Merceron: There's a lot obviously, but there are a few things that are probably more difficult for them to do than others. This is probably what I would insist on today, one of the cool things about cloud storage and cloud computing is these platforms are open. Because when you store information out there, it's cool to be using it within the community of that platform. But if you can open it so that it can actually be shared out there with other devices, other platforms, actually you really enable the many platform and many devices approach.

And you also allow things that are pretty difficult to do these days on PS3 and 360, like community management. If you make a game on PC you can manage your community. You know who they are, you have a lot of information, you can have websites, you drive your community, you understand a lot of things, when you release a game on PS3 and 360 it's way more complex to manage your community.

Most of the time you basically release your game on PS3 and 360 and then it's not fire and forget, because obviously there's DLC, there's a lot of things that you can do to federate players around your game, but having an interaction with your community is definitely complex and one thing I would really like them to think about is indicate they are going with some of these cloud computing and cloud storage services, they should try to think about how to enable community management, bi-directional interaction, and how it could also enable the many device, many platform aspect because that could be really great next time around.

Q: And you were mentioning before that you were on almost every device, so how big a part does the console still play in the business? Do you think it is less of an important platform?

Julien Merceron: No, it's very important. Home consoles are today, obviously, extremely important. There's a very strong digital business on PC and on smartphones and tablet devices, but there's also a strong digital market on home consoles. The home consoles are very hybrid devices. They could do more, they could push very unique and new business models, and that's definitely something they don't do right now, so we don't see it. We see the 360 and the PS3 as platforms that are very retail-centric with a bit of digital, you can't really have the wide variety of business models you would find on a PC platform for example.

That said, I think this is going to change, and I think home consoles will again prove, next time around, that not only are they crucial to the business, but that they have really thought through the digital approach, and they are going to come back with more ways of delivering content and more opportunities for a wide audience to find, basically, something that is suited to them.

So I think they will play a very important role moving forward. Obviously everything that is mobile is going to explode because I think mobility is probably something that old generations don't care too much about, but I think that to all the new generations of gamers mobility is something that is essential for them.

And sometimes it takes four years to make a game for home consoles, and actually the funny thing is that if your game ends up being a Mature [title] only, for whatever reason, when you start making your game the public that will be 18 years old when the game ships is actually 14 years old when you're starting. So when you think about a mature game and you know it's kind of going to take you four years to make the game, you have to actually think about how 14 year old people are playing today. What are these guys doing? Where are they spending their time? And I think most of the time we think about 18 years old people when we start developing the game and that's actually very wrong.

The other thing I would say is that consoles will always be very, very good for that type of Hollywood, interactive experience. The home consoles will always be very good at this, and I think that's what we're going to see moving forward, that there will be platforms that will be better for certain types of games than others.

So a lot of the platforms are complimentary and coming back to your question on Square Enix, we look at platforms that way. We look at our franchises, the type of game we are making, and we actually select the platforms that are the best for delivering that type of experience. So I think this is one of the reasons why we end up with different games on different platforms.

Q: So from a technology point of view, what are Square Enix's plans for 2012? More work on the different devices? Are you hoping for big leaps in visuals?

Julien Merceron: Yes. 2012 will be extremely busy. As you know we are developing a lot of technology, we have a lot of recruitment to do internally, people to spearhead some of the new initiatives for this world of tomorrow and many people to take part of in all these initiatives, so a lot of recruitment is going to happen. We're obviously consolidating our tech base on current home consoles, because we still have many games that are developed for 360 and PS3, both in Tokyo and in the Western studios, this tech base will be really important moving forward as well, because you know smartphones and tablets, their specifications evolve very rapidly.

In less than two years from now we'll have the power of a 360 on a smartphone, definitely. So these things evolve very rapidly, so these current gen technology bases will be extremely important for us moving forward. Then we're obviously continuing expanding our technologies to the different software platforms on smartphones, Android, iOS and continuing our work there. On web browsers we are running on native clients now and looking at things like HTML5, because for us it's always very important to be able to run on the different devices, different platforms that are out there.

Then we have a lot of research starting in what could happen moving forward in artificial intelligence, in animation, in rendering, in physics, in tools, development, pipeline, work flow, how to be efficient in content creation moving forward, as production values are going to ramp up so that's also something that we will continue tackling this year and then we are still working on all the knowledge management and sharing initiatives within the group to make sure that the right people are collaborating and making sure that we can move faster through the life cycles of the consoles.

The platform explosion started to be really impactful two years ago when some really important stand outs started to emerge on smartphones, etcetera. We found out that web browsers would actually explode the same way, and so we started working on native clients etcetera, about a year ago. And so obviously 2012, it's just more platforms, more initiatives, thinking about things a little bit further.

So it's not like we are starting this year looking at new platforms, I mean, outside of 360 and PS3 and PC, this is something we kind of started in 2010 with smartphones and tablets and web browsers last year, and now moving towards the world of DirectX 11 and all the cool things that we could do when it comes down to RPGs which is a genre that Square Enix develops a lot, but also thinking about some of the other types of games that we are working on, so thinking horizontally with platforms and thinking vertically with genres of games and actually where we want to be with that type of game on what platform, and when in the future.

So a lot of recruitment, a lot of new platforms to support, a lot of very interesting initiatives, and it's both great on the technology side but also very much on the creative side in the company and the business also, it's becoming very creative these days as well with all the new things you can do in terms of business models and structure. So I think it's a very exciting time for the development teams in the industry.


1 comment:

  1. Bluehost is ultimately the best hosting provider for any hosting plans you might require.