Interview: What is Square Enix Collective?

We spoke to Director of Indie Publishing Phil Elliott to get a deep dive on how Square Enix works with Indies… and what’s coming next.
By Duncan Heaney

Square Enix Collective has published some of the most interesting Indie games available - from brain-teasing puzzlers like The Turing Test, to emotional narrative adventures like Forgotton Anne.

But how do Indie developers get their games published by us? What exactly does Square Enix Collective actually do?

We sat down with Phil Elliott, Director of Indie Publishing at Square Enix, to take a deep dive into Square Enix Collective, how and why it works with Indie developers, and what’s coming up in the future.

Hi Phil. In your own words, what exactly is Square Enix Collective?

Square Enix Collective is essentially a service provider for Indie developers.

We help them publish their game - but we’re different to a traditional publisher, because we don’t take ownership of the game or intellectual property, and the devs still have full creative control.

Our role is to take the lead on marketing and communications (with approval from the Indie devs), and provide advice and guidance where we can.

Ok, so why do you do this? What’s the point of Square Enix Collective?

(Laughs) What’s the point of us - harsh question!

I guess that answer has two parts. Firstly, it’s an incredibly crowded market, and it can be tough for Indie developers to get their games out in front of people. Our goal is to help people create sustainable businesses within the Indie space, and our resources, connections and even just the Square Enix name helps us do that.

So what’s in this for us? That brings me onto my second point - independent development is where the most innovation and creativity take place.

Gaming is a creative medium - new ideas, fresh thinking, and rising talent are all necessary for the market to thrive - and a thriving market is good for all of us.

So if we contribute towards the creativity of the gaming industry, we also help ourselves - that’s why all our profits go back into Indie development.

So how does Square Enix Collective fit into the larger company structure? Is it a separate entity or…?

We’re fully part of Square Enix - but we operate as a separate unit. We have the flexibility of a startup, but with the benefits that come with being part of a large organization - like QA teams, sales teams and so on.

We have a lot of autonomy on how we fulfil our brief - it’s up to us what projects we look for and which devs we sign. We’re an experimental team - we can try things that it would be harder for the larger business to do.

The Turing Test (2016)

How did Square Enix Collective come about?

The idea originally came out of (Square Enix CEO) Matsuda-san’s desire to explore new parts of the market, including crowd-funding and community development. Collective was a combination of all those things when it started back in 2014.

Over time though, the focus has shifted - now we help find and nurture new talent, and help those Indie developers build viable businesses.

And if we find a team we like, we try to work with them again, in some cases maybe on Square Enix IP - if they want to.

For example, last year we invested in Bulkhead Interactive - the team that made The Turing Test and Battalion 1944, and commissioned them to work on an original Square Enix project.

What project?

(Laughs) Wait and see!

Goetia (2016)

Aw… Ok, so how long has Square Enix Collective been around?

We started out in 2014 - not as a publisher, but as a website where we could invite the Square Enix community to give feedback on pitches. The idea was that we could help developers build a community or following before crowd-funding.

The next phase was to start supporting crowd-funding directly. We helped devs by sense-checking costs, their messaging, their pledges and so on - to reassure potential backers that this is a viable project. Also to spread awareness of the game. I think we raised around $1.2 million across 12 projects during that time.

We then started looking for publishing projects in late 2015. The first title we helped with was Goetia - a point and click horror game. That was followed up with the Turing Test, and that’s the path we’ve followed since.

How has Square Enix Collective changed over the years?

Conditions change all the time in the games industry, and we develop and grow accordingly. We learn more with every release, and that knowledge is fed back to the developers with work with to help their projects and businesses.

We’re very aware that Indie devs are taking a massive creative risk, and it’s these ideas that feed the industry and filter into bigger budget games.

So while the way we work changes as the market does, the fundamentals have remained the same. Specifically, what we do must be beneficial to the teams we work with.

Tokyo Dark (2017)

How do you find games to invest in?

When we first announced Collective, we had to do a lot of exploring. We were an unknown entity coming out of a big publisher, so we had to prove ourselves.

Now we’ve published 12 games in three years, and we’ve built a solid reputation. So while we still look for talent - at events, for example - now people come to us.

We also get recommendations from teams we’ve worked with, and even from other publishers who have seen a project or team they like, but don’t have the capacity to take it on.

What’s your process for working with devs?

It begins with a pitch - either in person of via email.

If we like it, we start to discuss the terms of the agreement. This can vary depending on who we’re working with, but when everyone’s happy and the legal stuff’s all taken care of, it’s all systems go!

We assign a producer who will help the team however they need - from helping them structure their team to advising them on how to interact with the community. They’ll also help the devs identify any potential problems with the game, so they can avoid any nasty surprises.

We mentor them on the business side of things, and there’s the legal elements too - such as submitting to console platforms - and we help Indies get to grips with those challenges.

We provide advice and feedback that can help teams make good business and creative decisions. Of course, they don’t have to take any of our advice - we don’t own the IP after all - but they generally understand we’re trying to help them.

If we do our job properly, we help the teams we work with get better for future projects - whether it’s with us or others.

How hands on are you?

Look - there’s no point in working with Indie devs if we think we’re better than them. If we tell them exactly what to do, we might as well just make our own games.

Our advice is only ever advice - except when it comes to legal matters, of course. At the end of the day, we want to give the benefit of our experience, but let them make the game they want to make.

Forgotton Anne (2018)

Are there any challenges when Indie developers - or them working with you?

Sometimes, sure. Devs are often passionate. The game is their baby - it’s a very precious thing we’re taking responsibility for.

We work with a lot of first time teams - when you sign someone, it’s not always possible to know how they’ll deal with the challenges and stress of development. Seeing how teams react to those situations is interesting.

It doesn’t happen often, but on occasion a dev can make a decision - ether business or creative - that we advise against. We’ll voice our concerns, and explain our reasoning, but ultimately, they have the final say and we have to respect that.

On our side, managing expectations is tricky. Different teams have different expectations, and we have to be realistic about what we can do for them.

For example, one team came to us with a pitch - they thought they’d sell a million units. They were shocked and disappointed when we told them that was unlikely for a first time Indie dev!

What are some of the key successes of Square Enix Collective?

One big early success was The Turing Test. When Bulkhead Interactive first showed it to me, it was just a grey box demo. So the final visual treatment was a delightful surprise.

The team found that really nice puzzle game core of a simple concept that can be iterated on lots of times, and layered in a good story too. It was a good time for that type of game too - Portal was still fresh in the mind, and it wasn’t a flooded genre back then. Basically, great idea, looked nice, great game.

Forgotton Anne was another hit for us. It’s a really strong title, and that’s reflected in the awards and nominations it’s received since launch.

Again, visually it’s beautiful. ThroughLine Games nailed that look - right down to lowering the framerate to mimic the visual style they were going for.

And the story… you can have a lovely looking game, but without substance it’s meaningless, right? Forgotton Anne told a great, thought-provoking story, with some great twists.

Battalion 1944: Eastern Front (2019)

Anything else?

Battalion 1944’s also worth a mention. The idea of an old-school World War II shooter really caught the imagination of backers on Kickstarter (we weren’t involved with that). When the team approached us, it was exciting to get involved. Now it’s out of Early Access and started its post-release life well, so I’m looking forward to seeing how far it can go.

What makes the perfect ‘Square Enix Collective’ game?

That changes over time. For example, at the moment, we’re looking for a best in class single-player game, or something more of a persistent multiplayer or service model game that could last years.

But a good game is a good game, right? So a ‘perfect game’ will always boil down to a well-made title from a talented and passionate developer.


What’s next for Square Enix Collective?

Overall, we’re taking on fewer games, but bigger projects. We’re working behind the scenes on some very cool stuff.

In the immediate future though, we just announced CIRCUIT SUPERSTARS - a new racing game by Original Fire Games. I’m quite excited about this one - it’s a charming title from a lovely family-run team, and, basically, just tremendous fun to play. It’ll be out some time in 2020.

And with that our interview with Phil was over. We’ll have more Square Enix Collective news in the future, but for now, you should check out some of the great Indie games they’ve helped publish: