The Last Story Interview: On Standing Out From The Crowd

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The Last Story is Takuya Matsumoto’s second major collaboration with famed RPG director, Hironobu Sakaguchi. Matsumoto, who is a development lead at Marvelous AQL, had previously worked with Sakaguchi on the development of Blue Dragon for the Xbox 360.


Plans for developing The Last Story came about over drinks one day, when Matsumoto and Sakaguchi began to discuss the state of videogames. Looking back at their past work, the two recognized that Blue Dragon hadn’t been very warmly-received in the U.S. and European markets, and that they would need to take a new approach with their next project in order to avoid falling into a rut.


Siliconera caught up with Matsumoto, who served as The Last Story’s lead designer, to ask what kinds of ideas he feels make the game stand out, how the online multiplayer feature ended up in the game, and what his thoughts on the future of role-playing games are.


Which one of Sakaguchi’s ideas was the most challenging to implement? And which one of your ideas did Sakaguchi think was difficult?


Takuya Masumoto, Development Lead: To answer your first question, the most challenging was implementing a wide range of strategies into battles. We prepared a “solution” to each battle from the first design stages, but it was a real challenge to allow for each player’s unique way of solving problems (strategy) on top of maintaining a balance between difficulty level and understandability.


Whether it was gathering, the command mode, or the deleted rewind feature, Sakaguchi-san spent months testing everything with us.


Next, for somewhere that I gave Sakaguchi-san trouble, a large part of the level design for each dungeon was left up to me. As a result, I think that reconciling the parts of the levels, story, characters and settings ended up causing some contradictions, which caused more work for Sakaguchi-san to readjust things to have consistency.


How did you develop the battle system for The Last Story? It’s pretty different compared to Mistwalker’s other works with a cover system for crossbow fire and acting as a decoy. Did you experiment with any other mechanics with “Tofu-kun” before finalizing combat?


First of all, let me introduce Tofu-kun. He’s something like the NCAP crash dummy in America. His sacrifices in many rigorous tests of the battle system gave us valuable feedback.


A large part of the direction of the battle system in The Last Story was impacted by the projectile weapon system that was a central mechanic when the project first started. However, one day Tofu-kun came out wielding a lightsaber. We repeatedly refined our system and AI through tests like chaotic battles royal between over 20 people wielding swords, magic and guns or ally command systems.


Similar to Lost Odyssey, players can use the environment in battle. How did you design and balance areas to make use of falling bridges and other traps players can set?


In preparing elements such as destructible bridges and poles, we were always conscious that the player should be able to recognize those elements. We wanted to foster a play style where the players were using view mode to survey the battlefield and determine if there were elements that could be used, or characters or terrain that would reveal an enemy’s weak spot. As with the prior discussion of strategy, we wanted to give each player the ability to choose how they do battle.


The Last Story also has a multiplayer mode, where you can play both deathmatch and co-operatively with other players. Was this a bit of western influence making its way into the game, and do you think it’s important that more RPGs allow for players to interact with each other in some way, in order for them to be noticed more outside Japan?


Personally, I’m part of the generation that was addicted to Dungeons & Dragons, Wizardry, and Ultima Online, and now I’m a huge fan of Diablo and Gears of War. Beginning with EverQuest, Sakaguchi-san is an expert on western games, and those titles probably had a big impact on The Last Story.


A game where I thought the interaction between players was great was From Software’s Demon’s Souls. Regardless of being direct or indirect, I feel that connections between people are an important element that underpins the whole world. A big part of the appeal of MMORPGs especially and online games in general is that people from different counties can communicate on a deep level.


Mistwalker have always said that, with The Last Story, their intent was to break the mold and create something that was different from other RPGs. What about this game is different from other role-playing games out there?


If previous JRPGs were about enjoyment and immersion in storytelling and character portrayal, I wanted The Last Story to be more about experiencing vivid feedback in battles and perilous exploration.


Unlike in most JRPGs, where the player can control all the members of the party, we were aiming for the world to be experienced very directly, indicated by the narrow player viewpoint that is created through experiencing everything vicariously through Zael alone.


Which scene in The Last Story’s story is your favorite and which one defines the game’s underlying themes?


When the protagonist Zael visits a certain dungeon a second time, there is a conversation where his companion Syrenne gives him a hard time. “When we came here last time, that Zael did ___ to me.”


Like Syrenne, it’s a very playful and ribald joke. As we were doing level design, there were a lot of times where characters would automatically start that kind of conversation. As if they were alive, the characters created by Sakaguchi and Fujisaka developed rapidly.


Beyond just the relationship between Zael and Syrenne, a lot of interrelationships came out of level design and are well connected to keywords like “companion” and “alive” at the core of The Last Story. I hope you’ll play it and experience it for yourself.


Have the kinds of stories you want to tell in your games changed as you grow older, and how? Also, has developing The Last Story left any kind of influence on your design sensibilities that we should expect to see more of in the future?


In the past I had a lot of experiences developing action games, so I preferred the emotion and experience that comes from actually playing the game to less involving dramatic elements like cut scenes.


My experiences with the RPGs Blue Dragon and The Last Story taught me the appeal and depth of theatricality and strategy. Especially in The Last Story, I discovered how dynamic character interactions unfold in real time, expanding the world of the game, and in the future I also want to combine the visceral feeling of action with the subtle depth of an RPGs strategy and worldview.


While narrative drives modern JPRGs, The Last Story’s gameplay aspect took priority with the gathering mechanic being central to the story. How exactly do you go about developing an RPG with a gameplay first theory from a production process standpoint and break up the script? What aspects of the story were decided upon at the start, and how much of the story was fleshed out prior to the actual development?


A difficult part of The Last Story was balancing story and game functions. If gathering didn’t have an obvious effect, then it couldn’t drive the story, but if it was overpowered then the balance would be broken.


This conflict continued all the way to the final adjusting stage. However, Gathering was at the center of Sakaguchi-san’s scenario and image for gameplay from the beginning, so the philosophy of “lead from Gathering” never changed. Regarding changes to the story, while there were revisions and alterations to level design settings along the way, once we decided on the current fantasy world there were no large changes. If I gave it a percentage, it’d probably be about 10% difference.

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