Recently, Siliconera caught up with Final Fantasy and The Last Story creator Hironobu Sakaguchi about his studio’s new game, Terra Battle. Developed for smartphones, Terra Battle is a strategy RPG with a focus on gameplay over story, and Sakaguchi provided us with insight into how he views the game’s strengths and the games industry at large as well.
Terra Battle has three different groups of people—the Lizard Men, the Humans, and the Beast Men. How did you come up with these three groups, and, do they have different ideas about who the maker is?
Actually, there are more than three races. There are Aliens as well. There’s a machine at the core of their planet, and that’s the heart of the makers here. They take races from other planets and make them into their own. We obviously can’t go into too much detail, but you can expect to see a lot about the relationship between the aliens, these three races, and the planet.
Your work tends to evoke a lot of emotions. From the sound of it, the scenario in Terra Battle sounds no different. What kind of themes can we expect to see in Terra Battle?
To start, all the gameplay is very important to me and the balance even more so. It’s really easy to get into the game through the first few chapters, but the latter half becomes considerably difficult and I think that that experience will be on par with console experience.
In regards to story… it is important, and it will be there for those that really read into it. People can play through the game and choose simply to play through it, have fun with it and challenge themselves, or people can of course read into it, into the lore and the biographies of all of the characters, and how those characters relate to one another. In that way, there’s emotion there, but… in the end, this is a mobile game, and I wanted to put an emphasis on gameplay.
Terra Battle has over 150 characters and you mentioned that each has a unique back story that connects them to some of the other characters in the game, but were there any other considerations put into making the cast memorable?
In regards to the 165 characters, there are four characters that you’re going to follow through the bulk of the main story. We also added another 161 characters with unique skills and jobs that will help to make them memorable. Also, again, if you read through the profile, like the Twins I talked about earlier, that will act differently in battle.
[Sakaguchi explained earlier that, like Bravely Default, each character will be able to customize their abilities by progressing through three jobs unique to that character.]
There are three bodyguards to a specific princess, so maybe you want them in battle – and maybe they’ll behave differently based on that relationship. There will be different strategies involved in using different characters, so I’m hoping people look more deeply into that. There’s really no character [Fujisaka] didn’t work hard on, so there should be a significant visual impression left with the player as well. Looking at different games, there are a lot of artists that think ‘you know, if it’s not rare, what’s the point in putting so much effort into it?’ Fujisaka-san, on the other hand, was like ‘No. I have to make each one special.’
So why did you choose to make a tactical RPG and how does it differ from games like Fire Emblem and Tactics Ogre?
I think that flanking is an important aspect of Terra Battle that games like Fire Emblem and Tactics Ogre don’t really have. The ability to be far away, but still interact thanks to the grid setup is something I haven’t really seen in games of a similar nature – it’s that sort of puzzle element that Terra Battle focuses on.
Earlier, when we were running through the demo, you mentioned how the player could purchase items to recover stamina after difficult sets of battles. Can you explain this in a bit more detail?
I’m putting a lot of emphasis on the gameplay, and of course there’s some strategy involved in how we’re approaching things like stamina. For example, during events, there may be days where we hand out codes for free energy via our Twitter account, and things like that. With Terra Battle, we want to pass these out more than other games have, so that people are more likely to enjoy the game than force them into buying continues and the ability to continue.
Terra Battle has something like 30 chapters planned. Do you see this as an episodic RPG or are you aiming for something akin to a T.V. Drama, which has a definitive end?
I see this more like an American T.V. show, with seasons. It doesn’t necessarily have to end, for example we could stretch it into a season 3 or season 4.
Will those same four characters you mentioned earlier be consistent throughout these “seasons” or are you planning on changing up the narrative perspective?
I’ve been working through some ideas. I don’t think it necessarily has to be those same four characters throughout all of those ‘seasons,’ you know, maybe there’s an instance where those characters get trapped and you have to use another set to free them – scenarios like that. It doesn’t necessarily need to be locked to four characters.
It seems like people’s perspectives on RPGs have changed since you helped popularize the genre. Why do you think JRPGs have generally declined in popularity and, what do you think will help them come back?
I don’t really know how people’s perspectives of the genre have changed, but, I don’t see the JRPG genre as in decline. I see one of the issues being that the games that are popular in Japan is a little bit different than what’s popular in the west—especially when it comes to open worlds and high-end graphics.
What I see is the gaming industry as a tree, where you start off with the Super Nintendo, it moves on up to the PS2, now we’re at the Xbox One… I can see the gradual improvement on graphics, performance—all of it.
Mobile Games are a whole different branch. I don’t see an evolution of games, but I do see a separate branch. Right now, it’s really new. Maybe three or four years from now, there will be a different branch. In terms of the future… I don’t really know how everything will look. In terms of right now though, I feel like I’m in the midst of a change.
You mentioned open-world games just now. I feel like many people consider the latter half of Final Fantasy VI to be their first open world experience with a console RPG. Do you think that perception of what an “open world” is has changed since then, and if so,how?
I can’t really say how it’s changed. There’s not really a good and bad when it comes to open-world. There are just players that like it and players that don’t. I see the pain and amount of work put into open-world games, but I can see how that is a challenge as well. I don’t have a definite answer, I just see open-world as a vehicle.
Cry On was a really, really interesting concept—a game that makes you cry. Could you tell us a little more about its intended story and if you plan on revisiting the concept?
I can’t say that I plan on revisiting, it, but, enemies from Cry On will make an appearance in Terra Battle!
While we’re on the topic of revisiting ideas how about Blue Dragon or Lost Odyssey? The writing in the flashback scenes of the latter were particularly impressionable, so we’re sure people would be interested in seeing an elaboration of that.
I can’t say much on that, since the franchise license holder isn’t just me. That doors not shut, though, so you never know.
Terra Battle blends science fiction elements with fantasy elements, similar to a lot of Final Fantasy games. What is it about these two genres that you love working with?
Oh man… because I like it! I like the visuals of both. I really can’t give an answer better or more honest than that.
In an earlier interview with Famitsu magazine, you mentioned that Party Wave had a hard time selling. With so many apps on the market and a race to the bottom for prices, how do you plan to market a game like Terra Battle? What do you plan to do differently?
First and foremost, I feel that a lot of titles haven’t done a lot of ‘real’ promotion. With my past experience as well, I haven’t started with the promotion of the game. Like you saw in the video, I’ve put a lot of effort into the download-rewards model, into the trailer itself, or coming to events like PAX and doing interviews like this. I see that as a challenge. It’s not just making the game—it’s promotion and a whole bunch of other things.
We’ve seen a lot of developers from Japan have made appearances this year at tradeshows. Konami’s Igarashi-san showed up at GDC, as did Yoko Taro and Keiji Inafune, all of which have their own opinions of the industry or how to fund a project. With Terra Battle, you looked away from Kickstarter and created your own model.
In the beginning, I was thinking about Kickstarter—and I liked the fact that all kinds of people could be a part of the development process. When I started thinking about it, though, a lot of the development was already done, and the idea that a lot of people are paying you directly through development doesn’t really jive with the style.
What I did with this model was take the elements of what’s involved with Kickstarter. It’s more like a festival – it’s bringing together friends, designers, creators, and making the game grow, and that’s the concept of the download starter. Collabs, different IPs, those are total possibilities. With download starts, you don’t have to worry about money, It’s just based on downloads.
I was speaking to Yuu Miyake and Noriyoshi Fujimoto earlier today, and they mentioned that the demographic that loved Rocket Slime in America was on average 25 years old. I’m wondering, with an audience that’s roughly the same age by now, do you approach Terra Battle as something with classic appeal, or something that doesn’t quite rely on that old guard?
To be honest, we’re not really targeting anyone specific. I know what you mean, about fans of the original Final Fantasy games being grown up now, but we’re not specifically saying “let’s target their kids!’ Developers are really young at heart, and because of that, I think what we’re making is centered around fun—the kind of fun that’s universal, and not audience-specific. Gamers are all young at heart, after all.
How is it that you realized you wanted to make games? America and Japan had very different upbringings, with Game Centers being more prominent in the East and home consoles really pushing the industry in the West. Did any of that influence you, or was it more personal?
It was more tech-based, and I can pin it as being when I got a pirated Apple II computer. I started building stuff as soon as I got it, and that was a huge culture shock to me. I wanted to learn more about it, and, that’s how I got into game design and just creating stuff.