Square Enix on mobile: “The takeover is happening but you won’t realise until it’s too late”

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Square Enix’s App Store strategy is a brave one. Free-to-play is the talk of the industry right now, and yet here we have Square asking as much as £12.99 for iPhone releases of some of its trademark adventures. This is not a traditional publisher desperately holding onto outdated ideas of software value, though. Asking for more than a little spare change on the App Store is a luxury only a publisher with Square Enix’s dedicated following can afford. It displays a great deal of confidence in its products and its fanbase.

It is confidence earned over years of experimenting in mobile, too. Bespoke App Store games mingle in with successful ports and re-workings of its old properties, from free to 69p right up to £12.99 for The World Ends With You: Solo Remix.

“We treat mobile with respect, it’s central to our platform strategy and is handled with the same care and attention as our boxed and digital releases,” explains Square Enix Europe’s general manager for mobile Antony Douglas. “Mobile’s growth is no surprise, it’s the velocity with which content appears that’s staggering. 1,500 to 2,000 new games are released in a month on iOS  – in the Java era, 100 new titles a month would have been seen as excessive.”

That bygone age feels “Jurassic” now, says Douglas, and it reveals just how long Square has been investing in mobile, particularly in Japan. “In Europe we had a fairly hairy time in the early Java days – as did all publishers bar EA, Gameloft and Glu – but many of those early mistakes and learnings have been absorbed by what is now Square Enix Europe Mobile,”Douglas tells us. “It is a very different beast to that of the mid-noughties.”

Here in 2012 the post-iPhone mobile space is booming, but Square Enix is still experimenting; in the last two weeks, it has released three original made-for-mobile titles with different approaches. Demon’s Score is a £4.99 rhythm action title, Guardian Cross is a free-to-play card battler and Drakerider an episodic RPG, the first chapter of which is free.

And yet the same old problems remain.Douglas says discoverability is Square’s biggest challenge, and one which can’t be solved by “throwing money at it. Word of mouth and visibility are key to mobile success and neither can be assured through spending more,”Douglas tells us. “In marketing terms you have to take over the world in different ways. Console requires a War Of The Worlds-style invasion plan to get your message across; mobile is akin to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. The takeover is happening but you won’t realise until it’s too late.”

Though Square’s unusual pricing and product strategy is working now, relentless, near-annual hardware updates don’t allow the company to rest, adds Douglas. “We’ll constantly need to keep shifting and moving with software and hardware innovation,” he says. “Free-to-play, at the moment, is the future business model for mobile gaming.

“[But] ask me tomorrow and it might be back to full-price downloads. The day after, ad-funded QR codes redeemable against your favourite game. All we can bet on is that it will change again – and we’ll be ready to make that change.”

That next change isn’t far away – iPhone 5, which launches in the UK on September 21, is the next step for mobile games. The feature-set in Apple’s new model might have drawn indifferent sighs from some corners of the media, but a record-breaking two million preorders suggests that consumer demand is greater than ever – and it means more releases than ever from Square this and next year.

“I think, ultimately, less will be more, and mobile production will head the way of console software output as hardware manufacturers seek bigger, richer gaming experiences to show off their kit,” says Douglas. “Fewer bets will be made across the board.”

There are still huge markets relatively untapped, adds Douglas– “FPS meets F2P is a massive opportunity” – and developing both new and complementary App Store titles to fit into its established IPs will be next. Square Enix’s bold release strategy makes it the most prolific and interesting traditional games publisher on the App Store right now. Its contemporaries in the publishing business might find this transition period a little less painful if they took note.