#117: Embracing the future

Thoughts on Square Enix's knockdown sell-off of its Western studio network.

First up, my thoughts are with US-based readers, pals and colleagues on a thoroughly miserable day. We really are going backwards, aren’t we.

Over to Embracer Group, which if you’ve somehow not already heard is buying Square Enix’s western studio operation — Eidos Montreal, Square Enix Montreal and Crystal Dynamics, plus a raft of revered IP including Tomb Raider, Deus Ex and Thief — for what in the current context seems like a paltry $300m. This is by far the most eye-catching deal in Embracer’s years-long shopping spree, and means the group now employs over 14,000 staff, at 124 studios, in more than 40 countries around the world. Fuck about.

For Embracer itself, the benefits are fairly obvious: it is a statement of intent, one that transforms the company’s image from that of a rapacious vacuumer of studios you either haven’t heard of, had forgotten about, or simply didn’t rate into a company with true triple-A credentials. I play a lot of games and I do not recall seeing an Embracer Group splash screen on any of them; yes, I knew Embracer was big — always in the news for its latest big-money acquisition, or simultaneous cluster of them — but our paths simply did not cross outside the Hit Points Google Drive tab. That just changed.

The price seems like a steal given that there are surely a number of parallel dimensions in which the Tomb Raider IP, with its history and crossmedia potential, is worth $300m by itself. In the last 12 months alone Codemasters, Sumo Digital and Gearbox have each been acquired for at least four times that figure. The deal gives Embracer over a thousand development staff at three heavyweight studios in some of the most talent-rich cities in the world: Crystal Dynamics is headquartered in San Francisco, the others in Montreal. All that for $300m, in this economy?! My first thought was that the higher-ups at Square Enix simply hadn’t been reading the news. Will someone please tell these cats about Hit Points.

Having dwelt on it a little longer, however, I can well imagine a few metaphorical corks being popped in Tokyo at the news as well. Those western studios haven’t exactly changed the world under Square Enix’s stewardship, have they? While much of the blame for this falls with the publisher, you can pretty much set your watch by how long it takes after the launch of a western-developed Square Enix game for company president Yosuke Matsuda to tell investors it has underperformed. Montreal and San Francisco are two of the most expensive cities on the planet in which to make games, and are only becoming more so, with competition for talent in Montreal in particular pushing salary expectations ever higher.

And for all the player community’s evident fondness for the IP Square Enix has just sold, I’m not convinced the publisher had much interest in using it, nor that the trio of companies it has offloaded would do it justice. Those studios were slow, expensive and inconsistent, at least under Square Enix. In that light, we can think of the publisher’s western operation as something of a money pit, and one it may be quietly amazed it has managed to sell for anything at all.

In which case this might just be that rare sort of acquisition where everybody wins. Embracer gets a high-profile addition to its ever-swelling portfolio, and a substantial reputational dividend on top. Square Enix gets to offload a costly western-focused development experiment that never really came off, reducing costs substantially and enabling it to focus on the things it does best (please insert your own joke here). And the gaming community gets, potentially at least, to see a raft of beloved, forgotten and at times mishandled IP restored to prominence. And in the context of a truly bonkers year, it’s all been done for an amount that doesn’t make us throw up a little bit in our mouths. Sure, it says a lot that suddenly $300m feels like pocket change, but let’s try not to dwell too much on that. We all need to get to sleep somehow.


  • “As Elden Ring was my first FromSoft game, I would have bounced right off a two-hour trial,” writes Seán in response to Friday’s missive about game trials. “For those first sessions, I feared I had made a terrible, costly mistake. Having made an economic commitment forced me to give the game a far bigger chance to convert me.” Yes, this is a fair point — I was thinking of FromSoft veterans, rather than newcomers — and actually, now you mention it I wasn’t sure about Elden Ring at first either. Later in his missive Seán makes mention of the wonderful John Woo’s Stranglehold demo, which I absolutely rinsed back in the day. What a cracker that was.
  • “Consider the first two hours of Elden Ring using the FromSoftware method,” writes Jon. “Starting with a few bewildering cut scenes that will remain largely bewildering until the end of the game, drop your clueless player into a hostile environment and ensure they are slaughtered instantly before transporting them to the tutorial area. Make sure to hide the tutorial in the tutorial area, and instead lead the player to view a beautiful open-world vista. (It is important that everything in said open world is trying to actively hurt the player, including sheep and birds.) To somewhat orientate the player at this stage you might introduce an NPC, but it is paramount that they do not shed any light on the player’s current situation but instead direct them towards an early boss battle they will be too underlevelled to complete and which will induce cyclical trembling rage in the player. If the player a) is still playing after two hours and b) has not broken their controller we shall consider them successfully onboarded!” Yes, yes, fine. Perhaps Elden Ring was a poor example.
  • Mart gets in touch about Reggie Fils-Aimé’s predictable love of all things blockchain. “Here’s the thing with business people, blockchain entrepreneurs and crypto traders. Of course they think ‘wouldn't it be great to monetise what I've built’. They're money people. Monetising things is literally what they do for a living. In Dutch we have this word: ‘beroepsdeformatie’. It literally translates to ‘occupational deformation’. It refers to the behaviour of looking at things through the lens of your profession, distorting how you view the world. I feel like the value of any monetisation-related game idea can never be properly judged by someone whose very job is making money.”

Beautiful. Man, I love MAILBAG. Leave a comment or hit reply and let us keep this train a-rollin’.


  • Activision Blizzard is urging its shareholders to reject a New York state proposal that the publisher produce an annual report on “abuse, harassment and discrimination in the workplace”, according to Axios. In a regulatory filing last week, Activision said: “The Board believes that, rather than diverting energy and resources toward creating yet another report, we should continue to directly respond to employee concerns,” as if those two things were somehow mutually exclusive.
  • Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger says the global semiconductor shortage will now extend into 2024. The constrained supply of chips has now led to a shortage of the machines used to manufacture them.
  • Sony has admitted it has temporarily blocked the stacking of PlayStation Plus subscriptions in the run-up to the launch of Nu-PS Plus. Online wags discovered that by stacking up Plus subs, then buying a short-term PlayStation Now membership, they would be automatically rolled over to the highest tier of Nu-Plus for the entire duration of their existing subscription. While there’s a chance this is just a backend cock-up that Sony is trying to dress up as intentional, it suggests Sony will be far less tolerant of such workarounds than Microsoft: a similar Game Pass Ultimate tactic has been in place for donkeys’ years. It looks like Sony, rather than being motivated by user numbers, sees Nu-Plus as a revenue add — which in turn means we should probably lower our expectations for the service even further. Ho hum.

There you go. Feeling a bit under the weather today, so I hope all that stuff I wrote makes sense. Have a great few days, and I’ll see you all on Friday.