A Decade of Play: 10 Years, 10 Lessons by Patrick Naud

Today, as we blow out the candles on Square Enix Montréal’s 10th  birthday cake, I want to take a step back and share some of what I’ve learned as a studio head, a manager, and a colleague.

The only way to begin is by thanking everyone who has contributed to what Square Enix Montréal has achieved in the last decade. 

While hard work and a commitment to creativity and innovation have been keys to our long-running success, it is to people that we truly owe our success. When I say People Before Products, I mean it.

Thank you to our team members, past and present. We wouldn’t be celebrating without you. 

Thank you to our partners who believe in what we are building. 

And, of course, thank you to our millions of players all over the world who inspire us to always create better.

Let’s hop into the time machine.

Setting up our first office

Remember where you come from

Companies, like superheroes, have origin stories that inform their narrative, identity, and beliefs.

Square Enix Montréal’s origin story begins in November 2011, when a team of 6 in an empty 15,000 square feet office assembled desks and chairs with tools brought from home. 

Staying humble and being hands-on is still one of our superpowers 10 years later.

As we tightened bolts and screws, I was filled with excitement at the chance of launching a brand-new studio within Montreal’s already thriving video game ecosystem. 

Square Enix had given our small team the mandate to create a new Hitman game for next generation platforms (Xbox One and PS4). These were exciting times!

When you are writing the first page, there is no limit to where your story can take you.

But, it might take you in a completely different direction than you expected...

18 months later, we would make a complete 180, stop the development of the Hitman game for console, and change the purpose of our studio to mobile game development.

Adapting to the unexpected and accepting to face steep learning curves, that too is key to our studio’s story.

Make every member of your team an ally

In 2013, less than 2 years after the studio was founded, we were asked if we wanted to take on the challenge of driving mobile development for Square Enix in the West.
It was a massive change of direction for a new studio and a lot of people had understandable questions about the direction of their career.

I knew I could lose key talent.

Don't wait too long to announce major changes of direction to your team. It can be tempting to grapple alone with significant shifts.

I chose to be transparent and work through my thought process with those who had embarked on the Square Enix Montréal adventure with me.

By making members of the team my allies in this transition from day one, I helped them overcome their fear of the unknown during a period of change.

Today, honesty and transparency are still key to my management style and to building a culture of trust. At Square Enix Montréal we openly share project updates, results, and KPIs.

Everyone had the potential to deliver great ideas

A couple of days after the dust had settled on the announcement of our transition to mobile, I broke out the entire studio into teams that were given a week to present concepts for a Hitman mobile game.

After 5 days of brainstorms and 2 weeks of prototyping, the whole studio reconvened to vote on the winning approaches.

That is the story of Hitman GO, which we released a year later in 2014, and Hitman Sniper, which was launched a little over a year later. Both games proved tremendous successes critically and commercially.

At Square Enix Montréal, the door is always open to good ideas.

Hitman Sniper’s famous holiday rifle (the Merry Maker rifle) was created by a designer having fun during some downtime. The concept was so fantastic that we refocused production on a Holiday promotion that was met with huge success.

Two things we learned from the experience:

  • Encourage creativity at every level
  • Special in-game events are crucial to keeping players engaged. (It might seem obvious now, but it was less so in 2015 when Premium games ruled the mobile game charts.)

Read the recipe – and then ignore it

10 years ago, there was a lawlessness in the mobile game sector. There were no rules to break and everyone had the opportunity  to succeed.

The industry has become more controlled, competitive, and professional since then. For better and worse.

The mobile business of 2021 is gigantic and with that comes added pressure. There are now over one billion weekly game downloads on the iOS App Store and Google Play, resulting in more than $1.7 billion in weekly spend, and five billion hours spent playing.

There are dozens if not hundreds of functional mobile games that follow the same recipe and succeed with great marketing strategies.

When we started the creation of Lara Croft GO in 2015, our instinct was to follow the Hitman GO playbook. It worked once! We quickly concluded that what works for one IP won’t necessarily be a good fit for another. Lara Croft GO had to deliver a unique experience worthy of its character and history.

We returned to the drawing table looking to tap into the movements, sense of adventure, and thrill of exploration of the Tomb Raider series while innovating it for mobile.

The bet paid off, Lara Croft GO won Apple’s 2015 iPhone Game of the Year and won 2016’s Apple Design Award.

If I can share one piece of advice, it’s this: don’t be afraid to forge your own path. 

It might be risky. It might take longer. But, in my opinion, if things are too easy, that means our standards are too low. I’d rather strive to create the next benchmark. I never want to lose sight that we always have something new to learn.

I learned that if we want to deliver outstanding experiences for our players, we have to commit to crafting innovative games that respect the worlds and characters gamers love.

To stand out in an exponentially competitive market, I am betting on playing to our strengths by continuing to break the mold. The success and critical acclaim of our GO series and Hitman Sniper helped change the perception of what mobile games could be.

Hire personalities, not resumes

Up to 4 years ago, our team still numbered 40. Today, I am celebrating the studio’s anniversary with 150+ colleagues. That is still small compared to other studios with AAA-level ambitions.

Working in small teams is a perk of mobile development. I am an advocate for the value of entrepreneurship and for giving everyone the space to take on as much responsibility as they want or can.

The most important management lesson I learned during our growth spurt is that less is more. Keep your team small as long as you can.

I would rather have fewer truly engaged employees than a huge team of people who don’t believe in what we are doing, even if they have the skills to get us there.

When building your team, follow your gut. Don’t hire an impressive resumé, hire a person who is there for the right reasons. The smaller your team, the more you need people who are a good fit because each person has a measurable impact.

Hire personalities first and skill sets second.

Structure is not the enemy of company culture

As our studio grew,  there was a fear of losing our core identity; losing what made us a tight knit group in the first place. Would success be our kryptonite?

Don’t fear structure. It’s ok to jump into the OKR alphabet soup.

Accept that you need structure and organizational processes to deliver your projects. But adapt processes to project phases. In the creative phase, you can afford to be flexible, but once you launch to market, your processes need to be solid for your team and especially your players. 

As you grow, it won’t always be possible to wing it as you used to in those start-up days. 5 years ago, we held our weekly all-hands-on-deck meeting around a conference room table and informally discussed projects and updates. 

Today, I have a communications team that organizes these weekly get-togethers and ensures that messages are shared clearly and efficiently. Truth be told, we’ve gained much more than we’ve lost in the process!

Always be ready to change

In 2016, we had to face facts; the premium mobile game market was giving way to the Free-to-Play model.

Rather than an abrupt transition like the one we faced in 2013, we started an evolution that is ongoing 5 years later.

Transitioning from console to premium mobile requires similar development skills with a twist.

Transitioning from premium mobile to Free-to-Play, and doing it right, is a complex process that demands that we acquire new skills, change internal mindsets, develop new technologies, learn to operate games in a live environment, and so, so much more.

If you are wondering what Square Enix Montréal has been up to the last 5 years after launching 4 games between 2013 and 2016, there you have it!

We’ve been busy learning how to create and operate the next generation of F2P mobile games such as Hitman Sniper: The Shadows and a new vision for Space Invaders that I cannot wait to introduce to the world!

Make values more than words on an inspiring poster

In fall 2021, I invested in our company culture by rethinking and reintroducing our studio values.

By sending everyone home, COVID-19 reset our employees’ experience and expectations. The events of 2020 provided the push I needed to develop even deeper and more meaningful connections between our people and the studio.

Today, as I imagine a future when we will no longer all work full time under the same roof, it has never been more crucial to provide teams with a sense of belonging to a community with a common purpose.

I am convinced that to attract and retain talent, we must deliver a powerful, engaging, and inclusive company culture that everyone will feel connected to, even from miles away.

Our core values guide of Collaboration, Innovation, Inclusion, Entrepreneurship, and being Player Centric advise:

  • Who we’ll invite to join our team
  • How we will communicate with each other and as a company
  • How we will decide what actions and projects to prioritize
  • How will we act as a corporate citizen in the community

I will avoid our values being relegated to an inspiring poster of a sun-drenched jumping dolphin by making values an everyday priority at every level and by involving our team every step of the way.

A few months ago, we created employee-led values committees that have the mandate to propose priorities and action plans that will support our values. I stand behind them 100%

Our company culture will stand the test of time if its foundations are built and strengthened by our people, for our people. 

Don’t view work-life balance as an end goal

These last 18 months, we have made huge strides towards achieving better work/life balance. I am proud that we have invented Magic Mondays, a permanent perk that gives the entire team every second Monday off to recharge. We also implemented a flexible work time policy.

Does that mean that we can transfer work-life balance to the “Done” pile? Of course not.

In the months and years to come, we will continually reinvent how we work as a team and learn how we can encourage creative collaboration.

I don’t have a crystal ball to guess what the workplace will look like 10 years from now, but I envision that workspaces will evolve into collaborative spaces.

The quest to attain work-life balance and provide a caring and understanding workplace should be ongoing. There is no clearly defined finish line or one-size-fits-all formula.

I have always believed that happy employees will be more engaged and have the energy and drive to commit to projects and overcome challenges.

Believe in yourself. Believe in your team.

The future looks bright for Square Enix Montréal with our teams working on new games based on popular brands and new IPs, and our studio continuing to grow with top talent that will help us succeed in the Free-to-Play space.

If I could choose only a few words to describe the last decade for  Square Enix Montréal they would be: humility, creativity, empathy, trust, and respect.

As I look back on 10 years, I am most proud of the quality of people that have worked at our Studio. The success of our games, starting with Hitman GO quickly followed by Hitman Sniper, Lara Croft GO, and Deus Ex GO,  is a testament to our approach of prioritizing craftsmanship and innovation.

Our biggest challenges for the future are implementing processes that will evolve at the speed of our industry, never losing sight of our team’s wellbeing, and onboarding new colleagues to our company culture.

Just this week, our Studio was awarded a Best Places to Work award by gamesinsdustry.biz. That this recognition is based on employee surveys is the best birthday present I could ask for!

What will keep me motivated to helm Square Enix Montréal for another 10 years is our people. Working with kind, generous, and talented people who believe in what we are trying to achieve  is the greatest motivator.

To quote an employee who was  asked what is the best thing about working at Square Enix Montréal: Because friends.

Here’s to another 10 years of making great games with great people!

Thank you!

Patrick Naud

Head of Studio, Square Enix Montréal