Kobojo came on Siliconera’s radar when we heard Kazushige Nojima was working on a new RPG. While Zodiac looks like a JRPG, the iOS/Vita game is actually being developed internationally similar to Project Phoenix. Zodiac is being developed in by teams in Paris, Scotland, and Tokyo. Hitoshi Sakimoto who composed the music for Dragon’s Crown and Final Fantasy Tactics is making the music for Zodiac. Nojima known for his work on Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts is writing the scenario.
Nojima-san is working with Kojobo to create the story for Zodiac, which I believe is his first Western developed game. Can you tell us how you got in touch with him?
Julien Bourgeois, Game Director: It started last year. Sakamoto-san was in Paris to do a concert. After the concert, I was a bit nervous but I talked to Sakamoto-san and told him we are developing a RPG and we would be honored if you could give us some advice and come to our company.
With great pleasure and surprise, he came to our studio. That’s how we started talking about working together. Then we talked about visiting Japan. We came a few months later because with a translator who said he could have us meet Nojima-san.
[Mario Rizzo, the CEO of Kojobo, shows photos of when they met Nojima-san and the first piece of concept art from Zodiac that they showed him.]
Is the artwork is done in Europe?
Mario Rizzo: We have some other people that are working with us, but we are not announcing everyone we’re working with today.
JB: We can say part of the art direction is done in Japan, but we can’t say who. You can guess as much as you want!
Nojima-san, the story for Zodiac takes place in a world that can expand. How does this compare to Final Fantasy X which had a journey and an end?
Kazushige Nojima, Scenario Writer: Actually, this game has an ending, as well.
JB: While it is an episodic [game], there is a main part for the scenario. He is only writing the first three parts of the story. Like Final Fantasy XIV, it can go from story to story. For the other episodes, we haven’t started building those yet. The first set of the story has a beginning and end, which is an open ending that can be expanded upon.
If the story is expanded will Nojima-san help with the extra episodes?
JB: I hope so!
KN: Yeah, that would be nice. I would like that too.
MR: We saw our partnership with Nojima-san long term. Ideally, something that would span many years. That’s how we want to work with him. Of course, that all gets negotiated as we go, but our intention was never to do one core story and then launch the game with his name. Our idea is to continue to work with him on the story for Zodiac’s life.
Nojima-san, many of your stories are about fighting a deity or a god. Even in Super Smash Bros. there’s a puppet master controlling Master Hand. What makes fighting gods so interesting?
KN: Hmmm… I’ve been writing stories for a long time. If a player is going to fight an enemy, they want it to be the strongest enemy and that would be a god or deity. What I want to do in a story is to overthrow a system that is represented by a god.
Also, Gods aren’t the villains. There is a relationship [between the hero and the villain], but I can’t say anymore. [Laughs]
It seems like the idea of overthrowing a system is a core theme in many JRPGs. Do you think this is because Japan is such a structured society that this concept is appealing to the local market?
KN: Hmm… this is a really difficult question! In the past ten to fifteen years, we’ve seen a socioeconomic hierarchy form, but before that there wasn’t really a rigid hierarchy in Japan. In a sense, this change is kind of realistic. So the idea of overthrowing a system to us is kind of like a fantasy that may be why it’s a trope in games.
Could you tell us how the story in Zodiac begins? Why does the hero become a hero?
KN: He doesn’t go off to kill an enemy. He goes on a pilgrimage to gain power and on the way these enemies come in and obstruct him. That’s basically how it begins.
So, the hero has an original quest and then he’s kind of derailed by the events that propel the story?
KN: Yeah, that’s kind of what I think. What do you think Julien?
JB: It’s difficult to say without disclosing details. We talked about where the story should go and how the characters should interact with each other. After that, I fully trusted Nojima-san to deliver what he knows best.
How we worked is we basically sent a scenario and gave him feedback compared to the original idea we had and how I see the game evolving with the story. The original idea was kind of like Final Fantasy X where you have an original goal with some checkpoints on the road, but there is a bigger story behind that.
Along time ago, you directed Bahamut Lagoon. When you saw Julien’s game design for Zodiac, what was your initial feeling?
KN: Bahamut Lagoon is in 2D, but the recent trend is most games are made in 3D. It was refreshing to see a 2D game being made. Back in the day, that might have been complicated, but these days that complexity is considered normal!
Zodiac’s battle system has 12 different classes and each one has four moves since one attack is mapped to each face button. That gives them access to 48 moves at any time with three different characters in your party, you have access to a lot of attacks. How are you going to make all of these skills and attacks useful?
JB: One of the things I can tell you, is in Final Fantasy they don’t make buff and debuff spells as useful as they do in the Shin Megami Tensei games. We intend to use buff and debuff way more than Final Fantasy. Part of the skills revolve around that. Mainly raise, evasion and decrease evasion like the Shin Megami Tensei games. The idea is we have active skills, passive skills, and buff/debuff on top of doing damage.
MR: For balancing, we have some support. Our design director at Kojobo is Ben Skilley. He couldn’t be here today because he’s working on the build until the last minute. Ben has been designing MMORPG systems for twelve years starting with Everquest 2 to Star Wars Galaxies. The number of balanced abilities and skills in the close JRPG system, you’re talking about hundreds of combinations compared to 100,000s in Everquest 2. If you watch him manage a giant excel spreadsheet, he’s a guy that built combat systems from scratch. We have strong confidence in Ben that he will be able to work with Julien to find the right balance for skills.
We saw the world you can fly around with the griffin and there are resources to collect. What else can you do in the world?
JB: There is a crafting system. Similar to the materia system in Final Fantasy VII, there are sockets in your weapons where you can place gems that give you unique skills you wouldn’t be able to get another way.
Also, the multiplayer element is present in exploration. Some areas you can only access with the right combination of zodiac signs. Of course, because you only have one sign you need to have the right characters in your party to access other optional areas and optional bosses.
That plays a role in the battling system too. Depending where you are in the story, you will have access to a limited number of skills. You can back yourself up and strengthen your skills by having characters that are the same sign or you can compensate your weakness by having opposite signs. The fact that you can switch realtime gives you flexibility in battle.
Nojima-san, Glory of Heracles is rooted in Greek mythology and the Final Fantasy games have a mythology all of their own. What mythology would you like to work with in the future?
KN: I’ve never done anything with classic Japanese mythology. [Pauses to think.] But, I’m kind of hesitant to draw upon that for a story because it’s close to me being Japanese.
For Kingdom Hearts, you were one of the original writers. Were all of the parts of mythology part of the original plan? Or were the extra stories added later on?
KN: [Laughs] I don’t know if I can answer this. Actually, maybe I better not.
What’s going on in Final Fantasy X-2.5, the light novel where that takes place after Final Fantasy X-2?
KN: Tidus, comes back in the light novel and he doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive. He’s just a ghost. The story is not necessarily about death, but it’s about whether he knows if he’s alive.