Last week at Anime Expo, we had the honor of sitting down with Hironobu Sakaguchi and Kimihiko Fujisaka about Terra Battle, the upcoming mobile gaming title Terra Battle 2, and gaming as a whole. Hironobu Sakaguchi, best known as the creator of the Final Fantasy series, left Square Enix in 2003 and founded his own game development studio known as Mistwalker. It would release titles including Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and The Last Story. Fujisaka is Mistwalker’s lead artist and designer, who previously worked on all three Drakengard titles, Sands of Destruction and The Last Story.
NR: So for both of you working on Terra Battle, how has the experience been working on both titles?
Sakaguchi: As we are developing this on smartphone and when we finished one, I was really satisfied with the outcome. I thought it was a really great game. But in terms of comparing Terra Battle 1 and 2, I think that random elements of TB1, which was the nature, really didn’t lend itself well to the storytelling. And that’s something that we wanted to improve on.
One year after TB1 has been out on the market, I decided I wanted to tell a story. So, we developed the system for TB2, which lends itself to a much better storytelling. The battle system is extremely similar between 1 and 2, but the way the story is told and the certain elements around it — you claim the field, the world map — that’s the kind of thing we altered a lot to tell a better story. So I think it evolved in a good way between 1 and 2.
Fujisaka: I think a really big change, especially on the art side, was that TB1 was the first mobile game we were developing. And in doing so, we were figuring things out. After it was out in the marketplace and we looked at it, we said to ourselves, “Oh wow, if we had done this in a different way or had adjusted it, we would’ve made our lives a lot easier and improved the quality of the game.”
So we learned a lot of that as we developed the first Terra Battle. Also, one part to Sakaguchi’s point about the storytelling element is that in the gacha system, you don’t know what character each player has. If you want to tell a strong story that has character relationships and development, you can’t do that because every person’s got their own set of characters. So we developed a system in TB2 that really helps you keep the core strength of the main characters in the center while also having that nice fun randomization and customization to play with. So, when developing the world from our perspective, we made it easier, especially on the character side, to know what characters people are going to have.
NR: Having worked in game development for so long, what has surprised you the most in how the industry has changed?
Sakaguchi: This might sound like an excuse but there are so many elements in the game. The evolution of the game industry in the past really caught us off guard during the transition to CG from polygons. Also, smartphones. I never would’ve thought you could play games of this quality and nature on your cell phone alone!
So for better or worse, I really don’t know what the future holds. I think it’s almost good in terms of entertainment space to leave it up to the trend and then develop content on top of that platform.
NR: How do you see yourself now compared to when you first worked on the original Final Fantasy?
Sakaguchi: It’s interesting. You can take this two different ways. I don’t think I’ve changed much looking at myself thirty years ago. What I wanted to do in terms of my goals and onsets back then is still very similar. Back then, even more so than now, I think the importance of programmers were the ones to define how good your game is going to be because they’re crucial to a game’s development. So I always try to partner with really good programmers and I would make an effort back then to do that.
The other thing that I’ve learned in my younger days, which I had a hunch, was the importance of marketing. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to me when people develop a game and the marketing team comes in the very end to try to sell it. You’re not going to have a good quality product [this way]. So, I believe it’s very important to get the marketing team involved almost at the game concept level and phase. That way, they’re more in touch with what’s happening in the marketplace.
Looking back now, I’ve really had the same thoughts that I’ve learned and proven in my thirty years in the industry.
NR: The Super Nintendo (Super Famicom) has been hailed as the “golden age” of JRPGs. Many have considered the SNES the best with the Squaresoft titles you’ve worked on in the past. What are your thoughts on this?
Sakaguchi: I think that’s an interesting question. In terms of RPGs, a lot of it comes down to how you define them way back when we were developing Final Fantasy. Compared to games like Dragon Quest in which the protagonist would never speak, players believed they were in the role of the main character. This is why some people said: “Oh Final Fantasy isn’t a “real” RPG because you’re watching other characters enact. You’re not in there. You’re not playing the role of someone.
So, I think that kind of depends on what you consider to be an RPG. And I don’t feel like there was necessarily a golden era of RPGs. That’s kind of gone down now. More so, the format of storytelling has changed. Take an action game, shooting game, or any kind of game, there are still characters that are acting in the game. The type of game you’re playing might be different, but how is that not an RPG? I think the RPG [genre] expanded, extended, and evolved into different formats, but there’s still that same formula you can see with the characters, the acting, and the storytelling.
NR: Fujisaka-San, how different is it developing 2D character designs or the art for Terra Battle compared to 3D model design? Does the design processes change?
Fujisaka: That’s a good point and they’re very different processes. When developing for 3D, I feel like I’m more designing a blueprint than designing a character per se. In doing so, there are publications and art books that show the concept art in a “final format.” But then again, it was a kind of medium to then translate into a 3d model.
For 2D, especially on mobile like Terra Battle, when you’re looking at the final character, it really changes the way you think and how you approach the way you want to design the character. So, there’s really a big difference.
NR: Do you design characters where it’s more appealing?
Fujisaka: In 3D, there are certainly different sets of restrictions and needs. When you design a character for 3D, I’ll get messages like “don’t make the hair too complicated” or “put a mask on [the character].” As such, there are certain restrictions that I know will affect other people down the line.
In 2D, you don’t have those restrictions. There’s a lot more latitude as to what you can do.
NR: So your possibilities are opened up a lot more, I take it?
Fujisaka: I’m sure a lot of people really want to get to your point about having freedom design whatever you want. Some people might like that. Personally, adding onto that, I come from a very product-design perspective. I don’t just draw something flat and that’ll be the end of it. For example, you take the belt on this character and I think about what’s behind it — I’m all thinking about that. In that regard, it’s really well suited for that kind of a blueprint phase.
Akira Toriyama is the same. He looks at what is behind this [an object] as well as the character from behind too. So, there are a lot of elements that I feel when I design for 2D, I try to think about the perspective of which people are going to look at it. But at the same time, I’m also thinking about all those different elements as well.
NR: For Terra Battle 2, did you incorporate or implement any new smartphone based ideas like using new touch-interface controls that you didn’t utilize from TB1?
Sakaguchi: There’s still a lot of things that we need to think about when designing for a touch screen interface. There are parts of the game that looking at it now might seem of course you’d make that decision, but developing it was a big challenge. For example, when we added this field map or kind of dungeon view of TB2, you can move your character. However, when you hit an obstacle, your finger will keep going, but your character will get stuck. This sort of level of interaction between the screen and the person gets really weird. So once you start to go into the mountains or something where your character isn’t able to access, it really kind of is jarring to the person’s mind.
We have a system now where when you go through these obstacles you can, but it’ll consume your movement time much quicker. It took a long time to get to this answer. Looking back at this problem now, getting feedback from people playing it makes perfect sense. At the time when we hit the block and you can’t move forward, it was really weird. I think there’s a lot we need to learn and explore how people interact with touch screen interfaces and how that translates the game.
NR: Fujisaka-San, what are some inspirations that got you into drawing?
Fujisaka: Basically I take anything that comes into view as my inspiration for what I design whether that’s a person that exists in real life like a friend who wears a weird article of clothing. I’ll keep that in the back of my mind and that will reappear somewhere else down the line as a design or element. As such, I try to look at everything that people are wearing and carrying. I take this later into the characters that I’ll design.
NR: Is there anything specific that you like to look at or that catches your eye for these inspirations?
Fujisaka: Mainly people. I like looking at people in a sort of overall look and style put together. Even if I’m walking in alleys here or a better example, sitting on a train, if someone catches my eye, I’ll start to look at everything they’re wearing or whatever they’re doing. There are a lot of designs I make that come really come from these real life scenarios.
NR: Have you gotten any inspirations you’ve seen at Anime Expo? What about the cosplayers here?
Sakaguchi: Don’t get inspirations from cosplayers. It’s copyright infringement. (laughing)
Fujisaka: Anyway, it’s also a sort of combination. For example, people with certain features like a tall nose or a certain hairstyle, that’s a very different feel. And the vibe is what I look at as well. I think a lot of those combinations are a source of inspiration too. One thing that’s very fresh is middle-aged guys wearing sailor uniforms. In Japan, guys are more feminine, but here you see guys with beards. It’s very fascinating and I think a lot of that might be interesting if I reproduce as a character or something. I don’t know how it’ll translate as I’ve never seen anything like this before.
It’s a really interesting mixture because again I saw another person this morning at the JW Marriott when we were waiting for our panel. From the neck up, he looked like a very normal, smart, and capable guy. Upon closer inspection, he was wearing a sailor uniform from the neck down. The gap between normal versus abnormal was just fascinating to me.
NR: After working on titles like Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and Last Story, are there any plans for developing new titles on consoles?
Sakaguchi: I don’t know if it’s a matter of do we want to do it, but I did promise at the download starter for TB1 that at two million downloads milestone, we would start development on the game. We are and it’s in development currently. There are, of course, plans to do more console stuff. It’s not a matter of planning or not but I have to keep my promise.
NR: What about titles outside of Terra Battle?
Sakaguchi: At the immediate future or moment, there aren’t plans. However, like they say “never say never.” There are possibilities.
NR: Sakaguchi-san, have you tried or considered developing games for VR? What’s your take on games that utilize this platform?
Sakaguchi: Fujisaka and I both have Oculus and Vive. We’ve been playing around with the space and seeing different types of content. The most amazing thing is, of course, the immersion and experience in VR. I think because of that at the same time whatever you design, I know you want to call it a game or an app. It’s almost like an experience. That experience you design for that platform needs to be fit for it. If it is some kind of experience that’s designed to tell a story, you need to utilize the fact that you can look in 360 degrees. I don’t think you want to slap a game onto a platform and hope it does well. It might not even be game.
NR: It’s not a game anymore. Like you said, it’ll be an experience. That’d be interesting as VR starts blurring the trend on how you define the game versus how you define entertainment.
Sakaguchi: I think it’s something in between not a game, but not straight entertainment and not a story. There’s some kind of medium in between that hasn’t been discovered yet.
NR: I think it’s kind of interesting how games started with blocks of pixels. Now within those thirty years, you’ve gone from pixels to immersion into game worlds.
Sakaguchi: It’s a really interesting time that we were born into. I don’t think many people get to see what I saw, from pixel art all the way to VR. The rate at which it’s transforming is fascinating.
NR: What can fans expect from Mistwalker in the future? Are there any messages you would like to give to fans?
Sakaguchi: I really kind of mentioned during the Terra Battle 2 portion of the interview that I wanted to create engaging stories, narratives, and vast worlds. Once we can successfully express that to users, have them experience and immerse themselves in it, then it’ll help raise expectations for more projects in the future. I really just want to help bridge that gap and communicate that to the users. I’m really looking forward to that as well.
Fujisaka: We’re a small team. There’s only five of us and we’re only taking one thing at a time. With TB2, it was hugely successful and maybe we can look at it again during console type work. At the moment, however, we’re taking care of what’s in front of us. So, I don’t know what I can tell you.
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