The Last Story And Xenoblade Directors On Developing RPGs

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A few weeks back, Nintendo president, Satoru Iwata, sat down for a chat with the designers of two very high-profile Nintendo-published RPGs.


This “Iwata Asks” session that brought together the minds of Tetsuya Takahashi and Hironobu Sakaguchi (with the occasional brilliant input from Iwata himself) focused on their recent games — Xenoblade and The Last Story, respectively — and their perceptions of role-playing games.


Interestingly, both Takahashi and Sakaguchi described their vision of their games as “romantic.” However, they both chose to express this sense of romance in different ways.


A Sense of Romance:


With Xenoblade, Takahashi was aiming for a romantic image; one that would “reach and resonate with as many people as possible and get them excited about the game.” Rather than telling Nintendo, “Do what we want you to do,” he said, “Do what you do best.” If you missed out, you can catch up with our extensive coverage of Xenoblade’s development to see how Monolith and Nintendo collaborated on the title.


In contrast, Sakaguchi wanted actual romantic relationships in The Last Story, but as production continued, the game took a direction of its own. Currently, the game greatly focuses on the relationship between friends and allies. To help the debug team empathize with his product, Sakaguchi even visited the Mario Club for four straight days because he wanted to leave a good impression behind. Iwata speculated that this was why the debugging staff started crying after finishing the game after nine days.


According to Sakaguchi, an RPG is comprised of its world, its characters, and the events that happen in that world, which are told through cinematics. Unfortunately, the RPG genre is on the verge of being left behind by the rest of the world, he observes, which is why the definition of an RPG needs to change.


The question, then, is what to change and what not to change. Sakaguchi feels that what makes Japanese RPGs special are the smaller details and the emotions that bring the world to life. So long as creators keep these factors dear, he’s optimistic that one day, Japanese RPGs will be accepted by the world.


Memories of Squaresoft:


Once upon a time, both Sakaguchi and Takahashi used to work together at Squaresoft (now Square Enix). Takahashi had started working on the Final Fantasy series with FFIV as the head of graphics. Sakaguchi recalled being impressed with the cliffs and rocky backgrounds, which were extremely detailed for the time. Takahashi was an active worker, and Sakaguchi remembered “Taka-chan” constantly hobbling around from place to place, always busy with some project or the other.


During the production of Final Fantasy VII, Takahashi broke away and formed his own team. It came as a shock, as he was one of the main staff members working on the series. Sakaguchi remembered his conflicting feelings — sadness to see Takahashi leave the Final Fantasy team, but happiness for his new position — and watching the resulting changes gradually become visible on Takahashi’s desk. Gundams and model guns appeared, and Sakaguchi thought, “Oh, so this was what he wanted to do.”


As you can probably tell, Takahashi was extremely proactive in his work. In Final Fantasy VI, Sakaguchi had wanted to make a magic armor for the opening sequence. When he went to see Takahashi, though, he found that the latter had already gone ahead and drawn one that far surpassed the one he had imagined. The design was immediately approved and used.


Sakaguchi always had a vision, but he confessed that he couldn’t draw. He often left the job of being a “brain filter” up to Takahashi, who usually thought along the same lines as him. Like the whole episode with the magic armor in Final Fantasy VI, Sakaguchi didn’t mind if Takahashi outdid him, so long as what he did added to the overall game.


“Some people can draw, and some can’t,” Sakaguchi said to Iwata. When asked why, Takahashi’s response was that perhaps it was because of “imagination.” When he hears Sakaguchi’s explanations of his ideas, Takahashi can imagine the goals and the desired results. This could be also be described as “empathy” because you also imagine what the players are thinking and what others would think of the finished product.


Empathizing with a Vision:


A finished product must not only resonate with the players, but also with the staff.
Sakaguchi added that if all the staff can “empathize” with one vision, then the game becomes all that much better.


For example, ninety percent of Takahashi’s new team was new to 3D. It was a difficult time, since the technology was new and the knowledge undeveloped. Just as Sakaguchi was the pioneer into the world of the Super Famicom, Takahashi was one of the pioneers into the expansion of 3D. Takahashi stated that the greatest lesson he learned was the amount of devotion necessary to “taking mental care” of his team (Iwata’s words, not his).


If people have were having trouble communicating, they would give each other a helping hand, and would always discuss any troubles they had. Sakaguchi related to this…in a way.


Up until Final Fantasy III, most of the programmers at Squaresoft were foreigners, so while their skills were exemplary, they couldn’t speak a lick of Japanese and they had no idea what an RPG was. In order to “take mental care” of his team, Sakaguchi took them out to eat steak every day. Whatever methods the two producers used, they both realized that resonating with their own staff members was just as important as reaching out to the players.


Changing Times, Changing Methods:


Both feel that this becomes harder and harder to do as the years pass, though. Teams work differently nowadays, all three executives (Iwata included) agreed, and sometimes not in a good way. Iwata comments that in the past, a person would have to handle a larger portion of the work — and he would be able to, too, because the different jobs were all related.


This is why he (or she) would treat the product as his baby, and it would show in the cohesiveness of the end product. Everything would “stick together.” Now, team members all specialize, and because each person can only work on one fraction of the overall game, there tends to be a wall between people involved in development.


However, all three feel that with proper communication and “empathy” within the teams, this obstacle can be overcome, just as it was in the case of Xenoblade and The Last Story.

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Former Siliconera staff writer and fan of Japanese games like JRPGs and Final Fantasy entries.