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Square Enix Looks for Answers in the Cloud

Shinra Technologies may be owned by Square Enix, but it's actually hoping to change all video games.

We've always been buying consoles and PCs to play our games, and the power bringing them to life happens on the machines in our homes. A popular vision for the future involves cloud computing breaking that cycle. Shinra Technologies, a wholly-owned spin-off of Square Enix, is one of those companies.

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The elevator pitch for Shinra is an attempt to move consumers away from buying hardware by having the computational heavy lifting take place in the cloud. This could, in Shinra's words, open the door to game concepts that wouldn't be possible when companies like Microsoft and Sony must always compromise console technology to make it affordable.

Shinra is lead by Yoichi Wada, the former CEO of Square Enix. Wada left his post last year, not long after the publisher revealed it would take a huge financial hit. Slow sales prompted Wada to step down, but he became a chairman of the Square Enix board later that year.

It's not hard to imagine how Shinra might apply to online games. In an MMO, where bits of latency are less of an issue, developers could create worlds impossible to render on consumer-level hardware. All players would need is the ability to log-in and receive a video stream.

When Shinra was announced, the company released this teaser video:

You might have noticed two experiments in there. One involves a big, complicated 3D world. President of technology Tetsuji Iwasaki estimated there were roughly 20 miles of game world being shown at once, with more than 620,000 trees loaded into memory simultaneously.

"I began to think 'if we have 100 people playing together, and, up until now, they've only been putting their positioning data on the server, what if they were all playing together in a way where their game calculations were done once for those 100 people?'" said Iwasaki. "We would be able to vastly simplify the way that the game is calculated. As an example, let’s imagine the protagonist is running on everybody’s screen, and we have the animation and rendering calculation that has to be done to get that protagonist to be running. Instead of calculating that 100 times, we calculate that once and send that video back to the users."

This doesn't have to only apply to big-budget games, either. Wada views Shinra as a technology to enable a broader spectrum of games. Right now, he views development exclusively moving towards small scale creations built by tiny teams and huge projects funded by tens of millions of dollars. The middle is falling out, and Wada argues cloud computing could play a role in bringing it back.

"This is our true feeling," he said. "This is what we feel very deeply [about]. We want to open up the future of games, together with the users, together with the developers. Together, with everyone, we open up a new future for games."

Use of middleware is a relatively new phenomenon in Japanese game development, one that contributed to setbacks during the past generation. It's not uncommon for Japanese game developers to build entirely new engines for the next game, and often won't share tools between teams. While there's been great change in this area, it's certainly not to the point where one could imagine a Japanese game company sharing technology outside its offices. More than anything, this is why Shinra isn't an internal project.

"There’s two important points in splitting it off from Square," said senior VP of business Jacob Navok. "One, we need to be able to gather content from lots of developers and publishers. Two, Square Enix, as a company, needs to be free to be able to put its content on to various cloud systems, including PlayStation Now and others."

"We want to open up the future of games, together with the users, together with the developers."

When asked whether this was a heated discussion within Square Enix, Wada smiled.

"In those terms, I may not have been a typical Japanese [executive]," he said. "This method didn’t seem particularly unnatural to me. I thought this was the best, and this was the natural route to take."

Wada looks at the video game industry in 2014, and sees creative stagnation. Throughout my conversation with Wada and his team, everyone emphasized a belief Shinra could benefit game design. It's early days, however, and there aren't many games to prove this potential. It could. It might.

"My aim is to bring the cloud [to everyone], and create a very extreme game that is just mind-blowing," he said. "This is a win-win situation for the consumers and us because the consumers don’t have to invest in the machines that we will have in our data centers. Everyone will be sharing them. Consumers will be able to have these extreme gaming experiences without investing a lot on the machine of the devices."

Wada and company speak of themselves in a sort of savior role, one that's identified core issues with modern games, and technology can provide a solution. It's ironic, then, to choose the name Shinra. Final Fantasy VII players recall Shinra was the tyrannical corporation from the series' PlayStation debut.

Pointing this out prompted laughter from the whole group.

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"Cloud is the protagonist in Final Fantasy VII," said Wada. "As a joke, we chose something from Final Fantasy VII. Shinra was a very evil, massive company, and they always remained evil. But we are very good people! [laughs] The logo for Shinra Technologies was drawn by the artist who drew the logo for Shinra in Final Fantasy VIII. The logo in-game was black and red--evil. We took that away, and we changed it to blue and white, to not make it so evil."

The "coincidences" go even deeper.

"Our New York office is actually within the Avalanche Studios office in New York" he said. "If you remember, in Final Fantasy VII, the resistance that tries to go against Shinra in the game is called Avalanche. They battle Shinra."

Clever girl.

Shinra's business center is located in New York for talent recruitment and tax reasons, while its development efforts are happening in Montreal. Though Shinra shares an office with Avalanche Studios, there are no formal plans for the company to work on anything using Shinra's systems. That said, Wada suspects something will come of the close cooperation and interaction between the two companies.

We won't have to wait very long to see Shinra in action, either. A beta launches early next year in Japan, with other countries to follow soon after. The initial beta will feature "catalog content" (read: old games) and a stress test in the form of a simple, overhead 2D RPG.

It's not much. Technology means nothing without games to back them up, which Shinra doesn't have yet.

"We come from passion and love for the industry and a feeling of frustration about what we see happening right now--a lack of innovation in game design," said Navok. "Everything looks cookie-cutter. [There's] a lack of innovation in technology, which is resulting in products that always have to look the same because it’s the only way that they’re going to sell. We are hoping that by introducing a very different type of technology, we can come up with new game designs that will get people excited and see something new for the first time in a long time."

Patrick Klepek on Google+