While Arc System Works are experts at making stylish 2.5D fighting games, it was Battle Fantasia that made the Yokohama based developer shift from 2D artwork to the third dimension. Siliconera caught up with Emiko Iwasaki, the director of Battle Fantasia, on how the JRPG inspired fighting game was created.
How did Battle Fantasia start out as a project?
Emiko Iwasaki, Director: At first, I was supposed to work on a new 2D fighting game based on a famous manga IP as a joint development project. But the project was stopped for business reasons.
Using my own motivation, I decided to make my own original 2D fighting game proposal and the CEO asked to change it to 3D so that we can improve company’s knowledge base for the future. And then, the proposal was officially approved from publisher.
Did you want to make a fighting game with a fantasy setting?
Yes. In those days, it was known that the popularity of fighting games was declining like shoot ’em up games because they were too difficult and will only be played by hard core players. I wanted to make something rather attractive for the not-so-core players, so I figured that the JRPG genre would be an ideal theme and fit for a fighting game to attract such a crowd.
It’s also the first game from Arc System Works to use 3D characters in a 2D battle system, a style many fighting games even Guilty Gear Xrd uses today. That was a big shift from the 2D games you worked on, can you tell us about this too?
In those days, it was the turning point when 2D fighting games were trying to shift to 3D, but no one was able to make that marriage perfect. It was said that incorporating 3D in a 2D versus fighting game was impossible.
We were a team with zero 3D experience, it was difficult to assign to me men who have experience and who entered the company earlier and are older than me. There were gender role issues deeply rooted in Japan. It is considered a shame for a man to work under woman because many people think "men first, ladies second".
I only had 2D art experience, so I had to buy a 3D textbook to study and to find a way to make a 2.5D basic game format work with a main programmer and a newly-graduate junior artist I found. We treated 3D as just an art style to give expression to a 2D fighting game, and we combined it with 2D techniques from pixel art ages. I have experience as a pixel artist and I’m free from common 3D wisdom.
I discovered that the way we did this was very unorthodox, at least for most 3D graphic experts. Most experts focused too much on consistency and realism.
Some of the unique things we did:
1. Flip character for real-time rendering:
This was required to improve player’s experience. Normal 3D has different looks for Player 1 and Player 2’s side.
For example, Player 1 shows the front of the character while Player 2 shows the back of the character. I think that players of 2D fighting games memorize the poses and animation of the characters, and often, they focus on the frame details of the character’s movement. I felt that if the characters look different for Player 1 and 2, it would make gameplay stressful.
2. Unique mask system:
Usually when 3D models hit each other, the parts will intersect. The programmer made a unique mask system to make it have more of a 2D look.
3. Less motion interpolation:
Motion interpolation was a big benefit of 3D graphics, but I reduced it a lot to make brisk animations and game tempo.
4. Irrational movement in between animation frame, less recovery animation frame:
I prefer cool and irrational movement than natural “correct” ones. During the age of pixel, we usually don’t make animation frames for recovery to keep the data size small and development time short.
5. Change body parts size using animation frames, depending on the situation to give the characters a more 2D look.
Many of Battle Fantasia’s characters are rooted in medieval times, but the characters also have an anime feel to them too. There’s Coyori, a cat girl, and Face feels like he stepped out of a Western. How did you blend those styles?
Battle Fantasia’s characters are based on JRPGs. I wanted to make a cosmopolitan world, with different types of character as heroes (= player character). We planned to make dark skin girl and Goblin Chief…
We were frantic to develop the game and sometimes random things came out. Face was my first 3D character. I used him for self study and as a test model. I used a primitive cone polygon on his head as a joke. However it looked good, so I went ahead with the test first to avoid using a lot of time for modeling. And so he became like that.
Can you tell us about designing Watson, what inspired this mascot character?
I planned to make an animal character; like a fighting game dog. But for fighting game, we needed characters with just enough height to have standing attack hit them. So I created a rabbit with a big hat.
Between Guilty Gear Petit and Battle Fantasia you’ve directed games designed to expand the fighting game genre to a broader fan base. What elements in these two games helped achieve this goal? What didn’t work?
Battle Fantasia became the basis for future 2.5D fighting games, I believed this helped more players become interested in this genre.
What brought you to Singapore and how is directing games here different from Arc System Works?
I was able to work in Arc System Works for a long time because the CEO, the Guilty Gear team and some passionate colleagues treat me as just a developer, not as a girl. But for most people, experienced women and my age are not welcome in the workplace. This is why I am interested to go to other countries, I’m looking for something fun.
What are some of the difficulties being a woman director in Japan?
For franchise or series IP projects, it isn’t so difficult, but it becomes extremely difficult when it comes to original projects started from scratch. In Japan, there is a thinking that the important work is meant for the men, while the women are responsible for smaller tasks. Original projects are regarded as important works because it is something developers aspire to do. Because I’m a woman director for an original project, a lot of people thought that I broke some taboos. This was not something that was acceptable to many people.
What do you think would make the working environment better in Japan for females who aspire to have leading roles like yourself?
Raising awareness is one way to help make the working environment better. In Japan, 95% of female developers retire within 5 years. We need to create an environment that would allow women to prove her worth via her skills and ability. Not only in the game industry, but everywhere else.
In Japan, most people assume that there are no gender issues in the working environments. In fact, it is hard to visualize such issues due to many factors and complex social structures. It also does not help that there are very few places for women to voice their real feelings safely. Many people say that "our work environments have no issues", but we can still see female workers crying in the ladies room, and then quit her job quietly.
A change in perception can also work. Having observed most men around me, I realized that there are 2 different types: The ones who treat me as a "girl" and the ones who treat me as a "developer".
The ones who treat me as a "girl"; they seem to think of women as accessories for men. They are focused on things like titles and social standings instead of making a great gaming product due to their supposed low esteem.
The ones who see me as a "developer" first would rather focus on creativity, research, studying new things and challenging themselves. They love game development. So I hope that more men would see women as developers, and not just as a "girl".