Since the onset of the current generation of hardware, the differences in Japanese and Western game design have been brought into sharper focus than ever before. Dissent among the ranks in Japan’s biggest software houses has served to only further highlight the different approaches and call upon the major developers in the East to appeal more to a Western audience.
None of Japan’s biggest game franchises are immune to that call. Not even Final Fantasy.
Recently we were lucky enough to talk to the legendary Yoshinori Kitase, long time producer and director of the Final Fantasy series. Our interview below begins by focusing on the successes and failures of Final Fantasy XIII and the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII-2 before moving onto the tastes and approaches of Japanese and Western gamers/games.
Our hands-on preview of Final Fantasy XIII-2 first eight hours can be found
*All images have been taken from Final Fantasy XIII-2.
IncGamers: What do you see as the successes and failures of Final Fantasy XIII and what specifically did you think needed changing for XIII-2?
Yoshinori Kitase: I think one of the successes of XIII was that it delivered a very Final Fantasy-esque performance with its epic scale and the fantastic storyline. It was the first Final Fantasy for the current generation of consoles so we wanted to implement a new battle system which was speedy and tactical, and I think that was a success also.
We managed to show a lot of progression in Final Fantasy XIII over typical Final Fantasys that had come before.
The game was supposed to be very story driven but a lot of people thought that the gameplay was too linear which limited the amount of exploration available to players. That was mentioned by a lot of people and we’ve taken that fully onboard and accepted that that’s something that could have been better and something we’re looking at improving in XII-2.
IG: Just how important is the story in a Final Fantasy title? Is it equal to the gameplay, more important than gameplay?
YK: Both story and gameplay are very important to us, but we need to be very careful about finding the perfect point at which to balance them. If we add too many elements of exploration (such as treasure hunting and sub-quests) that could make the flow of the main story a little bit slow. Sometimes when the main story is slow it causes the player to get very frustrated.
Our mission with XII-2 is to provide a magnificent story in an up-tempo, quick manner. However, at the same time we want to achieve a much more satisfactory level of exploration in the game.
One of the key features of XIII-2 is the Historia Crux which allows players to move between story episodes quickly and directly and means there are no awkward pauses. We hope this will rid any of the frustratingly slow pace from the story. As with previous Final Fantasys we feel that we’ve achieved a good story as well as much more interesting gameplay. The two elements serve each other very well in this game.
IG: Jumping between episodes is not the usual Final Fantasy method of telling a story, has that been a difficult element to get right?
YK: It did require a lot of balancing and debugging as it’s not something we’ve got much experience with. Each time and location in the Historia Crux is represented by a point that you can jump straight into, this allows the player to make their own decision about what order they want to play things in.
It’s possible to go back to the same area again later in the game and play through as a more powerful character which allows you to fight the battles but from a different perspective. It means there are a lot of different routes for you to explore.
We have an expectation about which route players will likely take through the game but some players will take very unexpected routes and that’s been something we’ve thought about a lot and have had to take into account when designing areas and the time in history that they exist. The balance of that had to be perfect.
IG: And how did you decide on having Serah as the main character?
YK: In Final Fantasy XIII Lightning is the protagonist and Serah, her younger sister, gets crystallised. You then have to play as Lightning and find a way of bringing her back to life. That was a massive part of the main story. We thought it would be nice to switch that around in XIII-2.
At the start of the game Lightning has disappeared, but Serah’s friends don’t seem to think that’s all that odd and don’t really worry about where she is or if she’s okay. Only Serah is worried that she’s gone because up until that point Lightning had always done her best to stick with them. So now it’s the younger sister that has to save the older one, I thought that role reversal would be quite appealing to players and fans of Final Fantasy XIII.
IG: What’s your approach to designing a Final Fantasy villain? They don’t tend to be simply ‘evil’, there’s usually a bit more going on than that.
YK: Well, the villain that we’ve already shown off in a trailer is called Cauis. He’s very complicated but we don’t want to give too much away so I can’t tell you too much about him. But it’s safe to say that he’s not simply ‘evil’.
In Final Fantasy in general we do try to refrain from featuring simply all-powerful, all-evil characters, each of our characters must have a degree of mystery. As you play against them, or along with them, we want you to find out and understand their real personalities bit by bit. It’s very important that we give some meaning to the personality behind the immediate actions you’re seeing take place.
IG: How important is the Western market today? Do Western tastes affect the design of your games?
YK: As you probably know, Final Fantasy XIII was a great commercial success and it sold over 6.2 million copies worldwide. Interestingly, when you look at the breakdown of those numbers in Japan, North America and Europe, each area has an almost equal share of the total sales. That means each region is equally important to us.
When it comes to the scenario, the story and the universe we’re creating we have to trust our own tastes – we really have to stick to our guns. On the other hand, when it comes to the gameplay – the user interface and the battle system – we must listen much more closely to what the market wants. What we did in the development of XIII-2 was round up some test players in each of the three regions, which is something we’d not done before.
We ran a few test sessions and looked at the feedback and reactions from players in all three regions. That feedback is directly reflected in the design.
IG: For some time we’ve seen Final Fantasy character design that is more realistic. Will we ever see a return to the ‘deformed’ manga style of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX?
YK: The consoles we have now have excellent levels of performance and are capable of running some fantastic graphics. So it’s natural that we pursue more and more realistic expressions so that we can make the characters and the world seem more attached to reality. In the future we’ll be trying to make things even more realistic and I think that’s expected by the audience.
On the other hand, are we going to make our characters look exactly like live-action actors? The answer to that is no. We have to stick to the Final Fantasy tradition of manga and anime to a point. We don’t want to move away completely from that. There’s a very thin line between being truly realistic and having that edge of a manga style and we have to be careful that we find it.
Also, the deformed look is still quite popular in Japan but we assume that Western audiences don’t want the super-deformed look to their characters when the consoles are capable of such high level graphics.
IG: I personally prefer the deformed look.
YK: Oh, that’s interesting…
IG: Finally, I wonder if you could touch upon why it is that Japanese developers seem to be more willing to tackle issues of religion and spirituality? Most Western developers tend to avoid the area completely.
YK: I haven’t really thought about that before… Some Japanese ideas about life and death, and to an extent religion, are often very different to those of the West. I suppose that some Western gamers playing our games might be extra sensitive to those differences and it could make it seem that those things are super-important to us, perhaps even that we’re obsessed by them.
The truth is that we don’t pay that much attention to it, though. For example, in Final Fantasy VII when characters die they turn into a form of energy that is fed back into the planet. In a way that’s quite philosophical but Japanese games often deal with these kinds of imaginary themes and ideas and ethics.
Western games tend to be more realistic. FPS games, for example, they don’t really need an original, strong set of ethics or ideas to give them a backbone. Call of Duty and Battlefield are set in the real world and don’t need such grand ideas to drive them along. But in Japan we often make games with grand mythologies so we need to concentrate on those elements more to make them meaningful. We have to create our own mythologies.