Luminous Productions: Square Enix president and studio head discuss mission to create new global AAA IP

An official studio interview with Yosuke Matsuda.

The official website for Square Enix studio Luminous Productions has published a pair of interviews with Square Enix Holdings president and representative director Yosuke Matsuda and Luminous Productions studio head Takeshi Aramaki.

Matsuda shares the backstory of the studio’s foundation, his expectations and outlooks for the studio, his thoughts on game development, and mroe, while Aramaki discusses the initiatives the studio is undertaking, where it is at currently, and his vision for the future.

Get the full interviews below.

Yosuke Matsuda Interview

Luminous Productions

■ To continue thriving in the game business, a game studio needs to establish its own unique identity and develop solid branding

—A year and half has passed since Luminous Productions was established in March 2018. Could you start by reminding us how and why the studio came into being?

Matsuda: When we ask ourselves where the value of the Square Enix Group lies, the answer has to be that it lies in our creators and in the studios where they work. We are after all a group striving to provide the best possible in entertainment.

In this day and age, a studio’s values, brand, and identity are extremely important. How far we can push a studio in terms of developing a unique identity is especially important, I believe. While Square Enix is a company that exists within a corporate group, it is at the same time a game studio in its own right, with a very strong identity. However, having another studio with a distinctly different identity within the same corporate group, I believe, will lead to synergies that add value to the Square Enix Group as a whole.

When we launched Luminous Productions, it was primarily staffed by the development team behind Final Fantasy XV. The studio is Japan based and has a style that sets it apart from any other studio in the Square Enix group. My hope is that it will develop into a studio capable of creating top-quality games that meet the expectations of players around the world.

—The approach you’ve taken with Luminous Productions, namely to establish an independent development studio out of one of your internal development teams, is quite a rare one in the Square Enix Group, I believe. What kind of differences emerge from launching an independent studio?

Matsuda: While it is rare for Japanese companies to establish development studios within their corporate groups, it’s quite common overseas to have various internal studios within a group. Spinning off a team as an independent studio further underlines their identity and uniqueness, and that is something that I believe is crucial to our group as a whole.

There are several different creative business units at our Square Enix studio, each of which is like a studio with a distinct identity. As a new initiative, however, I wanted was to build a separate studio in a more clearly defined form, and that’s what Luminous Productions is. I believe such initiatives will be key for the Square Enix Group to continue to thrive in the gaming business.

—So, there’s a significance to launching Luminous Productions as a studio separate from the existing development teams at Square Enix, and you are looking forward to seeing what comes forth from that effort.

Matsuda: Exactly. While the Square Enix Group has unique studios also in overseas such as Crystal Dynamics and Eidos-Montréal, we wanted a similarly unique studio in Japan and therefore established Luminous Productions.

—There is an incredible amount of diversity in game production and in the game industry. What sort of initiatives do you have in mind for Luminous Productions to embark on?

Matsuda: That would be the fusion of cutting-edge technology and art. Moreover, I want Luminous Productions to pursue their own form of “cutting edge.” Square Enix has always developed and will always develop unique games, but I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what new flavors and style Luminous Productions will bring to the group.

—What do you expect the “fusion of cutting-edge technology and art” will produce?

Matsuda: Naturally, new gaming experiences—gaming experiences that go beyond anything that game fans around the world can imagine. I hope that that will be the style of Luminous Productions and what sets it apart.

—These days companies find a great many ways to leverage their IP, but Luminous Productions will be a studio focused on games, is that right?

Matsuda: That’s correct. I believe that games should come first. Of course, there may be many opportunities to expand the IP down the road, but when we ask ourselves where our core strength lies, it is in game development. As such, I believe that that’s where we should concentrate our efforts.

■ Luminous Productions’ mission is to create new IP with the latest technology

—What types of products and IP is Luminous Productions currently working on? Considering that the studio was initially staffed largely by the development team of Final Fantasy XV, I would imagine that they’re working on something relevant to the Final Fantasy series.

Matsuda: No, they’re actually working on completely new IP. “Creating new IP with the latest technology”–that’s the primary mission of Luminous Productions.

—Scale-wise, will they work in the AAA space with their sights on the global market?

Matsuda: That’s right.

—Creating completely new, AAA-quality IP with the latest technology at a newly established studio – I feel that’s an incredibly challenging undertaking.

Matsuda: I agree. It’s crucial that we constantly push ourselves to take on new challenges–it’s something all of us in the gaming business must strive for. Square Enix along with other studios within our group will continue to take on new challenges as well, but I want Luminous Productions to really showcase their own unique identity and flavor.

—It’s an initiative on a global scale. What are your thoughts on the talent that will take part in it?

Matsuda: While Luminous Productions was originally formed from the development team behind Final Fantasy XV, we are regularly bringing on new people and are actively recruiting new talent, not just from Japan, but from overseas as well. Our goal is to open our doors wide so that we can welcome people from diverse backgrounds to create games with us.

There is a great deal of mobility among game development professionals. I believe there are many developers out there who want to try their skills in game studios in Japan, particularly in a place where they can take on new challenges. I hope that Luminous Productions will be a prominent choice for people with that sort of drive.

—It sounds like Luminous Productions is a studio where creators can try their hand at something innovative and new. I assume there are very few studios that offer an environment where everyone is allowed to take on new challenges to that extent. At the same time, I believe some companies take a cautious stance on the production of massive AAA titles given the risks involved in investing in such productions. Despite such risks, do you believe that it’s important to produce next-generation AAA titles?

Matsuda: Well, it’s obviously a major investment, but again, what’s important is that it results in highly original content. Since we’re trying to do that at a newly established studio, that studio needs to be able to show what’s unique about it. That’s what will generate a major return farther down the road. There is always significant risk involved in the gaming business, but at the same time, you won’t reap great rewards without taking on risk.

—Again highlighting the importance of creating new IP?

Matsuda: It’s important to maintain and innovate in our long-running franchises. Creating new things is likewise important. The combination of the two will enable us to expand our group’s portfolio.

—Your hope, of course, is that new IP created by Luminous Productions will remain a favorite among gamers for decades?

Matsuda: Yes, that’s my hope. Of course, it won’t be easy—it will be a major challenge for us. However, I want the Square Enix Group as a whole to strive for that constantly, and Luminous Productions will play a major part in that. I’m very much looking forward to the amazing titles it will produce.

Above all, gaming experiences have to be exciting, so the desire to create something truly exciting is essential

—You’re defining Luminous Productions as a studio that works in cutting-edge technologies in fields such as graphics and AI. That’s very straightforward. What are your thoughts on research and investment into technology and on talented professionals?

Matsuda: I would like active engagement with cutting-edge technology to become a core facet of Luminous Productions’ identity. Digital entertainment is deeply rooted in technology, and so long as you’re developing games, you have to keep up with the latest breakthroughs.

I personally consider games as an all-encompassing form of entertainment. I want Luminous Productions to create their own identity and flavor by deciding how to leverage technology and articulate it meaningfully within the context of games.

—So, Luminous Productions will engage in R&D, but you mean that at the end of the day, how that is articulated in the context of games is key, right?

Matsuda: Yes, the point is not simply to engage in R&D but for that that to result in products that provide gaming experiences. I don’t believe in R&D for R&D’s sake. Without the final output, we have nothing to provide our customers. What we gain from R&D must result in something our customers can enjoy.

How will the evolution of technology improve and change the gaming experience? Or, will the gaming experience evolve into something groundbreakingly different? I want Luminous Production to constantly seek answers to those questions, and more importantly, to pursue exciting gaming experiences.

—I get the impression that you want to see exciting games, but that you are also putting some emphasis on productivity and speed. Is that correct?

Matsuda: We must be focused on output and create products that can surpass our customers’ expectations. No matter how much we discuss concepts internally, that is not what will reach our customers. Does the finished game excite our customers? Do they say it’s amazing and like nothing they’ve ever experienced before? That’s what matters more than anything else.

—And that policy is reflected in your development efforts as well, right?

Matsuda: Yes, I am always saying, “No matter how epic our ideas are, it is only the final output that matters to our customers.” I also tell our entire group that the output that reaches our customers and what they think of it is what makes or breaks a studio.

—Do you have any messages for developers or other professionals who are interested in Luminous Productions?

Matsuda: I’d like them to know that Luminous Productions is an environment where they can challenge themselves. If what the studio is trying to do resonates with you, we’d love for you to join us.

—Is there a secret to delivering high-quality titles quickly?

Matsuda: I believe each studio has its own optimal ways of working and organizing itself. It’s difficult to say that there is one right answer. In particular, the more you try to create unique titles, the more complex and original the approach becomes. Similarly, the less original a title, the more cookie-cutter the structure of the team tends to be. The latter may be more efficient, but it’s hard to say whether it will help create an exciting game. I think it all comes down to balancing efficiency and originality.

—Since you are looking for Luminous Productions to take on new challenges, are you hoping that young professionals will join up and have opportunities to shine there?

Matsuda: I hope to see both people looking to gain experience and those who are already established. The drive of aspiring young professionals is important, just as are the insights of seasoned veterans. So, I’m open-minded on that point. After all, what’s most important is the desire to create exciting games.

Takeshi Aramaki Interview

Luminous Productions

■ “Deliver a brand new gaming experience across the world!” A new IP and AAA game title development under the new structure

—Luminous Productions was launched in March, 2018 and in December of the same year, Mr. Aramaki was appointed the new studio head. It’s been eight months since the studio made the transition to the new organizational structure. Please walk us through your experience leading up to now and what the current organizational structure is like.

Aramaki: 2018 was a pretty hectic year for me. I was working on the DLC for Final Fantasy XV, and at the same time, we took the whole year to make solid preparations to kick off the new IP game title to be developed at Luminous Productions. And we’ve started creating that new title since the start of 2019.

—You were the lead programmer on Final Fantasy XV before taking over as the studio head.

Aramaki: That’s right. For Final Fantasy XV Windows Edition, I was pretty much acting as the director in addition to being in charge of the development of the game engine, Luminous Engine. I was already managing nearly 70 programmers who were involved in the development of Final Fantasy XV back then, and now I’m undertaking a challenge of a much larger magnitude as the studio head–so things can be tough.

—What is the current size of Luminous Productions and how many employees do you have roughly?

Aramaki: We have about 130 employees. In terms of the number of projects, we have several production lines in motion, including engine development and R&D.

—Among your ongoing projects, would you say the largest production would be the development of the new AAA-scale game that will be a brand new IP?

Aramaki: Yes. The team with the largest number of staff assigned is the development of the next-generation AAA-scale game title for a brand new IP. As we all know, Square Enix has a number of popular titles under their belt like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest; Luminous Productions’ mission is to develop a new title that’s on the same playing field as those titles. Our objective is to deliver our audience a completely new IP that is marketable worldwide.

—An opportunity to develop a AAA game for a global audience, in Japan. Honestly, an opportunity like this doesn’t come along that often, does it?

Aramaki: I’d assume there are few opportunities like this in Japan. To launch a new studio to do AAA-scale development for a global audience, and even a brand new IP at that – it’s not often that we get to take on a big challenge like this.

—Tell us about your drive and vision toward the said challenge.

Aramaki: It might sound a bit overboard if I say to “deliver a brand new gaming experience across the world,” but that’s actually how I feel (laughs). My lifelong dream ever since I joined Square Enix has been to create a game that can stand as an equal with existing titles that are loved around the world like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. So I certainly hope to make that dream come true here at Luminous Productions.

—Are there many people who share your dream at Luminous Productions, to create a brand new title?

Aramaki: My impression is that most of the Luminous Productions team are the type of people with the desire to create a new title. We, all the employees of the company, are putting a concerted effort into this project.

—Are there many developers from overseas at Luminous Productions?

Aramaki: Right now, out of the 130 employees we have, 20 or so are foreign nationals, most of whom have experience of working on the development of well-known titles.

—So, the studio is located in Japan and yet its environment is international and isn’t bound by nationalities.

Aramaki: That’s right. On top of that, since our work involves constant communication with companies abroad, we have an in-house translator at our studio.

—You are in the position to manage employees as the head of a studio with a very international environment. It must be a constant challenge, or perhaps I should say, a struggle with no one right answer.

Aramaki: It’s tough, but at the same time rewarding. Each country has its own way of creating games and I hope to incorporate the best approaches from each. Our plan is to do solid marketing research and conduct user testing before the launch. We’re also aiming to perfect the game with our technologies based on the analysis of user trends.

■ “Graphics technology that paves the way beyond cutting-edge” incorporated in the Luminous Engine.

—What do you consider as the strengths of Luminous Productions?

Aramaki: First and foremost, our technology. I’m confident that Luminous Productions’ technological capabilities can definitely hold their own against other studios around the world that also possess a high level of technological aptitude. We are one of the very few studios capable of creating a large-scale open-world title, in Japan or in the world.

Another one of our major strengths is the extremely high quality of art. We have experience working with teams capable of producing so-called state of the art pre-rendered cinematics, such as Visual Works, which plays the main role in creating high-quality cinematics at Square Enix. The know-how we gained from working with such teams is not only visible in the art and design we create, but the technology behind their pre-rendered video production is also reflected in our graphics technology.

—I assume that is directly linked to the advantage of having your own internal game engine, Luminous Engine.

Aramaki: Yes. While there is a number of game engines out there such as [Unreal Engine] and [Unity], Luminous Engine stands out by being infused with our expertise and skill in pre-rendered cinematics production. And these days, Luminous Engine has a leg up on other engines in terms of optimization for consoles as well as optimization of CPU usage.

We previously released a tech demo titled [WITCH CHAPTER 0[cry]], which was the first in the world to support DirectX 12. Such efforts of “supporting the latest technology from the early stages onward” have been ongoing since then, and now the engine can support and is optimized for the latest graphics technology on a continuous basis.

—I see. You mentioned that the Luminous Engine is continuing to evolve. In the area of graphics, for instance, for what sort of technology have you added support recently?

Aramaki: To name the most notable, we’ve been working on adding support for ray tracing (*).

One of our strengths is our use of state-of-the-art pre-rendered cinematics technology and now we’re working on incorporating ray tracing, which has mainly been a pre-rendered cinematics technique, into our real-time cinematics.

In addition, normally in the production of a game and the production of 3D CG cinematics, separate workflows are adopted to create separate data. What we are trying to achieve is “the ability to bring over what has been created using a cinematic production workflow, straight to the game” and vice versa.

*Ray tracing is a rendering technique that traces the path of light to compute the color and brightness of the surface of an object. It is capable of producing a more realistic and natural-looking cinematics through representation of the precise physics of light.

—Which allows you to carry over and use the cinematics data as they are, without needing to create the game-specific data?

Aramaki: That’s correct. There are companies in the US and China that excel in creating the state-of-the-art cinematics, and we’ll fall behind in terms of technology unless we continue to absorb the know-how from such companies. To ensure that we can keep up, we are striving to actively adopt such cinematics technology, and further, working so that we can carry it over straight into the game graphics.

—I see. In addition to adopting the latest technology of the cinematics industry in effort to further advance your graphics technology, it’s important that you’re able to carry that data over straight to the game. So, your main focus remains firmly on the game.

Aramaki: Yes it does. When we changed the organizational structure of Luminous Productions, I was determined to “create a solid game first and then venture out to other initiatives.” The ideal order is to create the game, create the game engine, establish our presence with the technology and art, and only then look into various business opportunities.

—The game comes first.

Aramaki: Yes, I definitely want to firmly focus on the game first and foremost.

—I’m thrilled to hear those words as a game fan myself. In terms of graphics technology, are you working in collaboration with graphics card manufacturers?

Aramaki: We are working very closely with graphics card manufacturers as well as consumer hardware manufacturers. The nature of our collaboration is more along the lines of creating something together in a joint effort through an exchange of ideas, rather than getting them to teach us about the latest technology.

—So, instead of simply utilizing their technology, you, as the state-of-the-art studio, are working cooperatively to extend their graphic technology and its application.

Aramaki: For example, not only do we use DirectX, but we also have discussions with the graphics API development team. Similarly, we are in communication with the graphics card manufacturers. These manufacturers involved in the graphics technology, I believe, recognize us as a technologically advanced studio, and the fact that we can work on graphics from such a standpoint is, again, one of our strengths as a studio.

—AI-automated and streamlined tasks allow artists to focus more on creative work.

Aramaki: At Luminous Productions, apart from graphics, we are working on AI technology support, particularly the automation of tasks with AI. We’re also moving forward with mobile support in parallel.

—You mentioned the automation of tasks with AI–would that be something in the lines of, for example, getting AI to generate natural-looking tree/grass layouts on a field map?

Aramaki: We have that too, but as an example of something different, with regard to the error logs we keep every day, we get the AI to collect information such as where the issues are occurring as well as sending a report of it to the developers.

—That is something that was done manually by hand in the past.

Aramaki: Exactly. Furthermore, QA (Quality Assurance) was also something that used to be done by sheer manpower, but now, we can get AI to check the collision detection and monitor the status to make sure there are no errors.

—So you’re getting AI to handle the debugging and quality check process as well. How are you integrating the use of AI into the game development side? Some say that a designer’s role is on the verge of changing into being in charge of adjusting the parameters required for AI to perform auto-generation.

Aramaki: That’s true. The reason being that creating a vast open world from scratch, manually by human hand…is not realistic. That’s where AI comes in; the question of how can we maximize the use of AI to create the game world is important.

We utilize AI as much as we can to create the game world as well as the moving objects that exist in it. On top of that, the current trend is that we are using AI for checking the quality of what’s been produced.

And the Luminous Engine is capable of doing all of that within the engine.

—I see, the areas that are most labor-intensive are being handed over to AI.

Aramaki: After all, the artists should dedicate themselves completely to creative work, so my idea is to delegate to AI all tasks that can be left up to the AI to handle.

—I get the impression that sort of thinking stems from your unique position as an individual with a programming background and from being in charge of the Luminous Engine. In that sense, we could say that it’s an ideal development environment where developers can focus on what they really want to achieve with the latest technology.

Aramaki: Yes, I hope so.

—You mentioned mobile support for the Luminous Engine earlier. Compared to the activities centered on the high-end cutting-edge technologies, having you also embark on mobile support comes as somewhat of a surprise. What is the concept behind your effort in mobile support?

Aramaki: A great many of the younger gamers are in the ever-expanding mobile market. We create high-end games, so the focus of this initiative is to take that high-end game, bring it to mobile and make it playable, all while maintaining its quality.

As for the Luminous Engine itself, while our main focus is using it for the high-end title that is currently being developed at Luminous Productions, I do at the same time have the desire to expand to a wider userbase. And by moving forward with mobile support, we can attract more teams world wide to use the Luminous Engine, which will hopefully result in further increasing its potential. That is how I hope things will flow.

—I see, the fact that you are able to take on such a flexible initiative in itself is an advantage of developing a proprietary game engine. Are there any other advantages of creating the game engine internally?

Aramaki: It allows us to create game prototypes at a fairly fast pace. A couple of weeks ago I asked my team to come up with new combat concepts, and they managed to develop a game prototype in only about two weeks.

That sort of speed is only possible, I believe, because we are creating the game engine internally, which allows us to optimize and coordinate with the development team smoothly. My belief is that, if you want to produce high-quality work, you should start off by creating the engine.

■ Game development founded on a meticulous plan, promoting a healthy work style. Providing an environment with an open atmosphere where employees are able to have active discussions and work with enthusiasm.

—There may be some artists out there who will get inspired to work at Luminous Productions after reading this interview. I’m interested to hear what the atmosphere is like inside the office.

Aramaki: Let’s see. Luminous Productions’ basic policy since its launch is to work a fixed shift from 9:30am to 6:00pm. Many of our developers are married, so we make sure that they get to spend time with their families, and while at work, they are able to focus on their work with a sense of contentment.

Concentrate fully on work while in the office, have a good rest at home, and get back to work the next day feeling refreshed; our studio is set up so that such a cycle is possible.

—While the perception of the AAA-scale development studios is generally associated with an intense, heavy workload, you’re promoting a wholesome workstyle. I assume you have been through a wide range of situations and as a result of this experience, is it your belief that albeit the focus of the development is to pursue quality, a healthy work structure will yield to better results?

Aramaki: Yes, it is, but in order to make it work, it’s essential that we establish a solid plan.
That said, leading up to the game going gold, there may be a period where we just have to crunch in order to further refine the quality of the game. If a time like that comes, we’ll just have to push on through until the game is out (laughs).

—I see. What is the employee ratio like? Do the programmers account for the biggest proportion of employees?

Aramaki: No, programmers account for about 1/3. The same goes for the artists. I think we have a well-balanced team.

—Does your studio as a whole attach particular importance to dedicating time to technical research?

Aramaki: The same can be said about the game development team as well, but the team that is developing the Luminous Engine, in particular, has been continuing to take on aggressive initiatives. They conduct advanced research on technologies, including those that are so new that we don’t know if they’ll be widely adopted in the future, and incorporating them into the engine.

—How are the internal discussions on such technological efforts held?

Aramaki: There are study sessions and presentations hosted on a rotating basis. In addition, we implemented a fairly unique initiative starting from this year, in which we held an internal call for new proposals and ideas. Just the other day, we called for ideas on “which part of this game needs enhancing?” and ended up with presentations of around 80 ideas (laughs).

—Does that mean anyone is welcome to express their opinion, regardless of their position or age?

Aramaki: Absolutely. And because we wanted to make it an open environment where anyone and everyone is able to give presentations, we even live-streamed the presentations internally.

—Through such effort, are you trying to create an open and frank atmosphere where all individuals feel free to contribute their opinions in their daily work?

Aramaki: Yes, I consider all of the employees at Luminous Productions first-class professionals and, as such, I want to cherish their talents above all else. I believe that having each individual demonstrating their potential will allow us to produce the highest-quality work, and it’s necessary for the studio to promote the growth of employees through various initiatives.

—That’s really inspiring. What would you say about the people who have become interested in Luminous Productions? While I assume it would be ideal that new hires can be an immediate asset to the team, what is your view on hiring aspiring developers with potential to grow?

Aramaki: The ratio of programmer’s recruitment at Luminous Productions is 50 percent people who are ready for action and 50 percent people who want to kick off their quest for challenges and growth. Regardless of what their past experiences are, anyone with high energy and drive will impact our company in a positive way, so I value the potential of such individuals.

They can take on tasks and responsibilities that are appropriate for their skill set, on which they can further build and grow based on that experience. And I’m sure the presence of such aspiring people will inspire and promote growth of those around them too. Luminous Productions is a company with an environment where people from various career backgrounds can take on challenges.

—As you mentioned earlier, you are open to hearing ideas from those who are still on their path of development – you value an open and frank atmosphere like that.

Aramaki: Yes, I don’t consider myself much of an ideas man myself, so while setting forth with our vision as a company, I also want to bring out the ideas that each artist has and make sure they lead to a successful outcome.

—I imagine that receiving too many good ideas adds to your already busy life?

Aramaki: No, it’s the opposite. I’m actually happier because I can just sit back and relax while they come up with good ideas (laughs).

—(laughs too)

■ Aspiring to be a studio that is always striving towards what it can bring to the world

—I understand that, for Final Fantasy XV, the team was successful in developing relations with the fans and communities overseas. Are you planning on engaging the game community as Luminous Productions as well?

Aramaki: With Final Fantasy XV, we gained a great number of fans who have been truly supportive. Similarly as Luminous Productions, we’ll continue to make efforts so that we can excite people to become the fans of our studio. Perhaps they will choose to be our fans because of our technological approach or fall in love with our game design, or maybe the artwork.

For Final Fantasy XV, many young generations played our game – younger than our initial marketing forecast. I was also pleasantly surprised that there were so many female players as well. So, we hope to leverage that experience to fully engage with the community to win over and cherish our new fans.

—Interesting! How about core game fans?

Aramaki: To tell you the truth, for Final Fantasy XV Windows Edition, I was the one checking the Steam forums pretty much every day, thinking to myself “what sort of features should we add to the game…?” (laugh). I hope to engage with the community and mature gamers as we craft our game.

—Understood. Lastly, to wrap up, please tell us about the direction Luminous Productions is aiming for in the game industry that is becoming increasingly diverse.

Aramaki: Final Fantasy XV did well sales-wise overseas, and to my delight, players in countries like Brazil and Russia were really enjoying our game. In addition, the data also indicated that many younger generations have been playing our game as well.

I believe it’s important that we engage younger generations through a solid market research and deliver our title to RPG fans around the world. I hope that we’ll become a studio capable of exploring and conceiving new ways to further develop our identity and deliver a new gaming experience to the world.

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