Siliconera met with Kazuyuki Ikumori, the director of Visual Works. Visual Works is a fully owned subsidiary of Square Enix that specializes in making computer graphic movies for the Final Fantasy series and now Eidos titles including Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Hitman. In this interview, Ikumori talks about evolving CG movie technology, making Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and the balance between action and CG cutscenes in Final Fantasy XV.
A long time ago you worked on Romancing SaGa. How was developing event scenes different in the 16-bit days compared to being the director at Visual Works where you have realistic characters and detailed worlds made with 3D models?
Kazuyuki Ikumori, Director: [Laughs] Thank you for playing that game, I did work on it.
The biggest challenge with the change in technology is meeting player expectations. Back in the dot era days with the Super Nintendo and 16-bit systems, we got emotions across through words and players would envision these cool scenes and battles. With new technology, we can express these through actual visuals, but we have high expectations from fans. Meeting those expectations are probably the biggest challenge for us.
You also did some mecha design for Xenogears, can you tell us about working on that title?
I was involved with creating Xenogears. We were on a very tight schedule and they reached out to me saying, “we need your help to model ships, battleships, anything!” I did a lot of the modeling for the ships. I was involved with the mech designs, but I actually don’t know their names. At that point, nothing had a name set to it so I don’t know the names to what I created. I just remember there was a transformable robot that changed into a gun and attached on to another robot or something like that. That’s the one that sticks out to me, but I don’t know what it’s called. [Laughs]
Do you think when people envision scenes in their mind they fill in the gaps and the scenes become more personal for them? I think in the dot era players came up with their own ideas of how the characters appeared which might be different from the creators.
It is difficult and this is a concern. What I think we can do moving forward is it is interactive media so we need to identify areas where players need to experience the gameplay themselves and other areas where we use cinematics or CG to express things in an objective view where we want players to experience the game world not as an active player. Finding that balance is one of our big challenges going forward.
It feels like we are reaching or perhaps have reached a point where the difference between CG movies and in game graphics isn’t that wide. One common discussion in the West is some people may feel they want to control a character rather than watch a cutscene, which is different compared to Japan where players want to watch the story unfold.
I agree with your thinking, but I don’t think we have to go all one way or the other when it comes to developing movies or focusing on gameplay. It depends on the project and the title, what the themes of that title are, and the vision of that team. Depending on that, we will look at the balance [between gameplay and cutscenes].
If the game calls for certain scenes that are movie like so players can sit back and take in the story we will put those in. If we fell other sections need more immersive gameplay we will focus on that. Personally, I am more an immersive gamer and there are times when I see a movie and go, “Why did you guys put a movie there? That was unnecessary.” But, I do understand the other side of the coin too.
It does sort of feel that way about the graphic quality tapering off. Part of the reason is when CGI movies were implanted it was so different from the actual in game graphic quality. The quality wasn’t that great, if you look back it now. Now, you have all of these graphic art companies working on visuals even Hollywood as well being involved in CG. Everyone was working hard to improve it and now we’ve come to a point where it is almost photorealistic.
Thinking about improvements in technology, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children was a big leap at the time. It must have been a risky project too since Square Pictures in Hawaii had problems with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. What it was like making that project?
We learned from The Spirits Within and made sure not to repeat history, so we went with the opposite direction of Square Pictures. What they didn’t do we decided to do for Advent Children. If we were to try to sell Advent Children now it might not work because it is a different time with everything within the company. I think that’s part of the reason why Advent Children was successful.
Do you think Visual Works will ever get a chance to make full CG movies again using Square Enix’s IP library?
I would love to! [Laughs]
What would you personally want to create?
Does it have to be our IP? [Laughs] I would like to make a title tied to the Final Fantasy series since it is so well known globally. If we were talking about just Japan alone, probably Dragon Quest would be a good IP to use. I would probably pick a past title like Final Fantasy VIII or Final Fantasy X because those stories are complete and I wouldn’t want to ruin a game that is still ongoing. Since the stories in VIII and X have concluded it is easier to make those into movies and tell a story instead of trying to incorporate gameplay. To be candid, there are plenty of IPs I would want to use from other companies.
It’s interesting that you mentioned Final Fantasy VIII and X being complete, but you skipped over Final Fantasy IX. Are there plans to expand that world?
The reason why I didn’t bring up Final Fantasy IX is I love it because I was very involved on it. I was involved with probably 50% of the map design and background design. I’m really familiar with the story and I really like it, but I do not know if there is as much of a calling from fans as there is for Final Fantasy VIII or Final Fantasy X.
Final Fantasy IX had an interesting West meets East blend of development staff since some of the staff developing the game were in Hawaii. Visual Works is now working with Eidos titles like Deus Ex and Hitman. How is making visuals for these games different than say a Final Fantasy title?
Instead of looking at the East or West, we see it as a project or team. Because even when we say Western developed Hitman, Tomb Raider, and Deus Ex are all developed at different studios and each of those teams in the studios have their unique characteristics, their own brand and culture. It’s similar in Japan where each Final Fantasy game, has a different culture and vision depending on the team. It’s more Crystal Dynamics is this way, the Final Fantasy numbered team is this way, and Eidos Montreal is this way.
CGI is a continuous evolution. It’s always improving and always changing. We’re just trying to keep up with the times and adapting to the technology. It’s not like we’ve come up with a problem that we couldn’t do with a Final Fantasy title that we could do with a Crystal Dynamics one. Timing wise, it might work out that way, but that is not the goal. When it comes to Crystal Dynamics or IO Interactive titles, they do a great job of giving us an idea of the atmosphere they want to create. We’ll take that into account and add a little flair of own. When we get back to them we’ll say, “we think you wanted this kind of look, but this might look a little cooler. What do you think?” When it comes to Final Fantasy, pretty much anything I make ends up looking kind of like Final Fantasy. [Laughs] It’s pretty easy in that sense since I’ve worked on the series for so long I’m comfortable with it.
Characters in the Final Fantasy series have larger than life movements. In the mocap studio at Visual Works, how do you prepare actors to do these grand gestures?
To be honest, we don’t have elaborate sets where we do motion capture for those scenes with superhuman feats. When it comes to motion capture when it comes to how strong they can hit or how fast they can run, it’s really about the center of balance and that transition of balance. Standing up from a chair, for example, can they stand up in a straight line? Is that transition smooth? That’s what we’re focused on.
We create the big animations with key frame animators which are added on top of the motion capture. It’s not flashy movements, but actually clean movements. It may seem dull, but it’s to make it look clean.
How much creative freedom do you have when it comes to working on a Final Fantasy title? Since these games have big stories and scenes that you’re working on it’s a contrast to the Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 trailer where you could put in whatever monsters you want to add in.
It changes from project to project. Sometimes there is complete freedom, but other times there are restrictions like this movie will be played between these two events, here’s your time limit, here’s you’re in and here’s your out. It really depends on what the team wants and what the story is.
How is the balance between CG and action in Final Fantasy XV? It seems like out of all the Final Fantasy titles, this one will be the most action oriented.
I think it’s going to end up being a pretty good balance. It’s going to depend on the story and what we need to get across to tell it. We’re going to try to focus on real time as much as possible, but depending on the story if there are things we cannot express or visualize with real time graphics, like huge armies fighting each other or a world being destroyed, that may not look as good with real time graphics compared to a CGI movie.
In those instances, we’re going to look at what is necessary and what we’re trying to invoke in the player. If it’s better to do as a movie or if it is only possible to do as a movie, we’ll go with a CGI movie. If we feel it is better to do real time we’re going to focus on real time. We’re going to try to balance this as much as possible.
When fans first saw Final Fantasy Versus XIII players saw all of these blades swirling around Noctis which was an impactful video when the game was announced. Now with the new hardware in PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, do you feel you need to top those scenes from the PS3 CG?
The E3 announcement trailer [for Final Fantasy Versus XIII] was designed to give players a concept of the gameplay we were envisioning. With the transition to PS4 and Xbox One, that is now more possible.
That was the destination we were trying to aim for and with the improvement of technology there are more things we can do when it comes to expression and rendering that we were not capable of doing back then. It’s not that it’s easily done, it’s still quite a hurdle, but it’s not as high of a hurdle as it once was. We are taking steps towards reaching that goal with technology.