Former Eidos Montreal boss reflects on decline at Square Enix Europe

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In an interview with GI.biz, the founder and former boss of Eidos Montreal criticized Square Enix management, describing the decline of the Western studios as a “train wreck in slow motion.”

Speaking to editor-in-chief James Batchelor about The Embracer Group’s acquisition of his old studio, as well as Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix Montreal, Stephane D’Astous said, “it was a trajectory that could be predicted,” saying the demise of the relationship between those studios and Square Enix leadership began even before he left in 2013.

“I left because things were missing at head office,” D’Astous said of Square Enix’s Western leadership. “[Pre-Square Enix] Eidos has a great tradition of development teams, but they don’t have superior knowledge of how to sell their games. And that was quite clear.”

In 2015, two years following the departure of D’Astous from Eidos Montreal, Darrell Gallagher left Crystal Dynamics, where he led the studio’s reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. Gallagher now serves as head of The Initiative, the Xbox studio currently working on the Perfect Dark reboot. Another two years later, Hitman dev IO Interactive negotiated a buyout with Square Enix securing its independence.

Now, following the sale of Eidos Montreal, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix Montreal to The Embracer Group, Square Enix is a leaner company that is focused almost entirely on games from its Japanese development studios (as well as its ambitions to harness the blockchain). The sale allowed them to pocket $300 million, a figure that’s largely seen as a bargain for Embracer.

Eidos Montreal Square Enix
Stephane D’Astous, former studio head at Eidos Montreal. He now works as a consultant and adviser to tech and game companies.

“It was clear that we had great IPs that were sleeping on the shelf. Legacy of Kain that was discussed, but wasn’t as strong as Deus Ex and Thief,” D’Astous said, reflecting on his former studio’s legacy. “[With Thief,] we did our best, and we struggled, and that’s life in development in games. You don’t hit it off all the time. And we were close, but just missing some finishing touches.”

D’Astous recalled that his departure from Eidos Montreal followed a tense period where Square Enix expressed disappointment in the financial performance of the studio, something that would come to be a familiar refrain regarding the Western studios. Eidos Montreal was expected to turn a $65m profit despite not having any “deliverables” that year.

“We were dumbfounded,” D’Astous said. “The pressure was starting to build, and my employees towards me, me towards my superiors. I think when people are in a crisis situation where there’s a lot of situations, you do see their core behaviour or values. And I didn’t like what I saw. There was really a lack of leadership, courage, and communication. And when you don’t have those basic things, no employee can do their job correctly – especially when you’re heading a studio.”

D’Astous began to despair over the relationship between Square Enix Japan and Eidos. “In their annual fiscal reports, Japan always added one or two phrases saying, ‘We were disappointed with certain games. They didn’t reach expectations.’ And they did that strictly for certain games that were done outside of Japan.” Ultimately D’Astous felt that Square Enix “was not as committed as we hoped” to its Western studios.

D’Astous says that based on rumors he has heard, that there is an interest from Sony in acquiring the publisher, but only the Japanese part of it. “I heard rumours that Sony said they’re really interested in Square Enix Tokyo, but not the rest. So, I think [Square Enix CEO Yosuke] Matsuda-san put it like a garage sale.”

2014’s Thief is a game close to Stephane D’Astous’ heart, which he believes could have used an extra nine months in development.

It’s the only way the price tag makes sense to D’Astous, at least, as he pointed to the fact that Eidos has five times the IPs and just as many employees as Gearbox. The latter was purchased by Embracer for $1.3 billion, more than four times the $300 million paid for Square Enix’s Western studios. He asserts that the lack of any changes at the Square’s head offices must have a role in Eidos’ continued underperformance.

“It was a train wreck in slow motion, to my eyes, anyway,” he concluded. “It was predictable that the train was not going in a good direction. And maybe that justified $300m. That’s really not a lot. That doesn’t make sense.”