When you think of Kingdom Hearts, you tend to think of Square Enix. Likewise, when you think of a good portable games developer, Square Enix are one of the first companies that come to mind in that regard.
The reality, though, is that Square Enix are a publisher of games. While they have sizeable internal teams devoted to inhouse videogame development, they’re also one of the largest sources of contract-based work for smaller developers in the industry. Developers that thrive on high-profile game development for which manpower can’t be allocated internally by Square themselves.
If you’re a big Nintendo DS gamer, you’re probably familiar with some of these names: Matrix Software; Think & Feel; Jupiter; Arte Piazza; and h.a.n.d.
That last one in particular has frequently been in the news of late, for their work on Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. Depending on your tastes, you might also remember them for Final Fantasy: Chocobo Tales, the Nintendo DS port of Flower, Sun & Rain, or for Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, which is their most high-profile project to date.
But h.a.n.d. weren’t always a game developer.
“Originally, president [Teruaki] Matoba was selling Macintosh hardware and software to universities and the like, before they were widely known to Japanese people,” general manager of h.a.n.d., Satoshi Mikami, revealed to Siliconera. “When similar companies increased, we reformed our organization to develop software on our own.”
The earliest game listed on h.a.n.d.’s website is One Piece Pirates’ Carnival, which was published by Namco Bandai as late as 2005, 13 years after the company was originally founded. Like many contract-based developers in the industry — TOSE being the most famous for this sort of thing — h.a.n.d. were put to work on numerous projects over the years for which they weren’t credited.
Nor were they allowed to reveal their involvement with these titles. The earliest game Mikami-san can talk about was Treasure Strike: Full Swing for Windows, a multiplayer battle game, published by Kid in 2004. Full Swing was a follow-up to the original Treasure Strike on the Dreamcast.
But the game that would eventually lead to the majority of contracts h.a.n.d. have landed was Final Fantasy: Chocobo Tales on the Nintendo DS. Not only did Chocobo Tales lead to more work from Square Enix, it also led other companies — like Sony with Ape Escape for PSP and SEGA with Puyo Puyo 7 — to take an interest in h.a.n.d.
But being a contract-based company also means that you can’t afford to be choosy. h.a.n.d. take on a variety of work, including projects like software development for museum exhibitions and a “Body Manager” app for mobile phones, for which they have a separate division named North Point Inc.
“It is a software development company,” Mikami-san elaborated when we asked about North Point. “Some staff belong to North Point Inc. because of our employment style and contract relations. However, they actually work with h.a.n.d. staff.”
A third division, S.N.S. Inc., works on social games for Facebook and Mixi. At present, h.a.n.d. aren’t self-publishing social games themselves, but Mikami-san doesn’t rule out the possibility. “Since we have cultivated the know-how by working on applications for other companies, there might be some possibilities in the future,” we were told.
So, what is the plan for the company’s future at this point? For one thing, h.a.n.d. don’t want to restrict themselves to game development.
“We will keep creating video games, but in the coming years, we want to correspond to work related to developing various kinds of entertainment and creative software aimed at the market of the future,” Mikami explained.
“Moreover, we have a feeling that we must have world-wide aspects not only with regard to the commodities we produce, but also to our system of development,” he went on. This is likely the reason North Point, while a separate team dedicated to a different line of work, collaborate with h.a.n.d.’s game division. A flexible team setup allows for people of different talents to be swapped in and out to provide solutions to a variety of problems.
But while h.a.n.d., like so many others, aspire to be a global organization, they’re willing to take their time and ensure they rack up enough experience points along the way before they reach their goal.
“With regard to becoming known world-wide as a game development company, developing portable video games might not give off much of an impression. However, there is an advantage to releasing many titles in a short term,” Mikami emphasizes. “Because of that, our staff actually gains valuable experience.”
He also believes that it’s important to keep the difference between portable and console games in mind, as we head toward a future where the line between the two starts to blur.
“Because the line between portable and console is getting thinner, we are concerned about more and more portable video games becoming overly deep experiences like console video games,” Mikami-san reveals.
He concluded: “Even if the game requires higher technology and capacity to develop, a portable videogame should have the features of a customer-friendly and casual experience, and we don’t want the market to forget that.”
This is, perhaps, most evident in Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, where the game is structured into missions that can take anywhere from ten to thirty minutes to complete, after which you can save your game and turn it off to be resumed at a later time. Given how surprisingly well-suited it was to the DS format, it’s clear that h.a.n.d. have their priorities worked out.