[Gamasutra presents an in-depth interview with Yuji Horii, creator of the seminal Dragon Quest, which remains the most popular console IP in Japan and the root of the country's obsession with RPGs -- a calm center to the storm the game industry faces in the region.]
Twenty-five years ago today, the first game in the Dragon Quest series was released for the Japanese Famicom (NES). The game became the foundation of a genre that boomed in the country over years and years, and gave rise to a slew of imitators and competitors -- including the Final Fantasy series.
One thing has remained the same, even as consoles and even development teams have changed: series creator Yuji Horii, who still works as a writer and planner on the titles, which are developed by external teams.
In this in-depth interview with the Horii, who's president of his own studio Armor Project, Gamasutra tries to get to the root of the Dragon Quest series (called Dragon Warrior in the U.S. until 2005), discussing what it means to Japanese and Western gamers.
Horii is joined in this interview by Square Enix senior vice president Yuu Miyake, who oversees the DQ series from the publisher side.
What do you think you provide to the audience who picks up a Dragon Quest game? If you could sum up what someone gets when they take the wrapping off and put it in their system, what are you delivering?
Yuji Horii: It's the sense of expectation, and a sense of excitement to provide to them, like when they're opening the game and starting the game, "Well, I'm going to start this exciting game!" This is Dragon Quest.
The most recent release in the series was the remake of Dragon Quest VI for the DS. A lot has changed since it first came out on the Super Famicom. Have you changed your approach to the series in that time, or is the approach still very similar to how it was in those days?
YH: I feels the game market itself has changed significantly since then, but the gameplay system itself, it doesn't feel like it's dated or anything -- it's still the same.
Do you feel that that's the case across all games, or just in terms of the Dragon Quest series?
YH: Only the Dragon Quest series.
Why has Dragon Quest been able to sustain the same gameplay over this long time, as everything else in the industry has changed so much?
YH: For the Dragon Quest series, control itself is not the main focus of the games. When we design the game, it's just like driving a car. When you're driving a car, you don't really get concerned about how you control the car itself; you just enjoy the drive. You know how to drive it without thinking about it -- that's what we're trying to do.
We want to let people enjoy the content without really worrying about the control, so we keep maintaining the same kind of gameplay system people are used to playing, so they still play the game and enjoy the content. That's how Dragon Quest VI maintains the fun part of the game, even after 13 years.
I've played several of the games in the series. One thing that keeps coming up is that the games really show their personality through the characters and the details in the world. When you speak to a character in the town, the character is very empathetic, and it seems to be really important to the series; it forms the core of the appeal.
YH: Yes, I agree with you. What I'm always keeping in my mind while developing the game is that it's not just about the main character's dialogue. Everybody in the village has their own storyline, and they're involved in the story, and by talking to them you can actually develop the story and other parts of the story in the world -- and the series.
Yuu Miyake: In other games, when you go to a certain village, there's one key person you have to talk to -- but everybody else, it doesn't matter what they are talking about. But something is happening in that village -- that means everybody in that village is involved in that incident. So we want to make sure the player does not just talk to the one person. The characters are involved in the storyline, and by talking to multiple people in the village, you can actually advance to the story -- not just by talking to the one person to advance the storyline.
And not just to advance the story in terms of getting from plot point to plot point, but to advance the story in terms of having a richer understanding of what's going on. It advances the depth of the world.
YH: So what I'm saying is that something is happening in one village, and then the main character goes there to save them, right? So if he saves the village, everybody in the village should be thanking him, not just one person.
It's not about the main character's story necessarily. Very frequently, in the Dragon Quest series, the main character actually doesn't talk at all.
YH: It is very intentional for me, because the main character in the game is actually the alter-ego of the player -- so you don't want to push words into the player's mouth. We want the player to feel like they are playing the game, and their own play affects the game. So the only thing you can actually say in the game is "yes" and "no" -- but there's no other dialogue.
Obviously that's a matter of some debate between different developers -- how much the player invests into the avatar on the screen. It seems that you think that it's a very tight connection.
YH: Yes, and what I am trying to avoid is the situation where the the main character you're playing is saying something, and you feel like, "No, that's not something I want to be saying if I were there," so that's the main thing.
If you look at the Dragon Quest series, it's often concentrated on family relationships. That's pretty rare for a video game, particularly in the past. Why is that so important for you to explore?
YH: Initially my feeling towards the computer was that it was very cold and impersonal -- so using a computer when creating a game, I thought, "Well why not create a more personal, more warm, human-like game?"
I think a lot of people in America aren't quite as aware that Dragon Quest is, in a way, considered a casual game in Japan. It's played by people of all ages and both genders from kids up to adults.
Especially nowadays, you're seeing people who have been playing the series since the original game, and now have their own kids. They're sharing it with their kids. It's part of the fabric of Japanese society. How does that affect the way you approach developing these games?
YH: My objective is to make the games intuitive and accessible for anybody. I'm the kind of person who doesn't read the manual before playing a game, so I want to make sure the game is simple, with simple controls -- but you can still have complex action, and enjoy the gameplay. I wanted to include humor in the games -- so the people who play can actually really enjoy, and have laugh-out-loud moments.
And then for Dragon Quest IX, we included the multiplayer mode. The reason behind it was because this is like a classic series, and people who play the classic ones they actually play with their kids -- so if they had the multiplayer, the son can play with the dad and be like, "Oh Dad, come on, we're going this way!" -- playing together.
Did you find that people played with their kids, with Dragon Quest IX in particular?
YH: Yes, online we found lots of people saying they played together with their parents or kids. And for Dragon Quest IX the Tag Mode was really very popular. And then the reason that Tag Mode got so popular was because some people created a really rare map, and then people wanted to have the map, so they actually went outside during the Tag Mode seeking that specific map -- so the virtual world actually influenced the real world.
[Ed. note: Dragon Quest IX's Tag Mode allows players to passively trade dungeon data wirelessly, similarly to Nintendo 3DS' StreetPass.]
I remember reading stories of people gathering in Shibuya or other busy places to do Tag Mode, and that's fascinating to hear about. Were you expecting that kind of reception?
YH: At a certain level, yes, we were kind of expecting it.
YM: When we were originally creating Dragon Quest IX, we did have the Tag Mode feature -- but we didn't and include the map exchange function at first. But then Mr. Horii said, "Well, we shouldn't just do Tag Mode; if players can actually exchange something with each other, that would be more fun." That's why we added the map exchange feature.
YH: Also, my idea was that to let the player have their own name on the map -- so when the map is distributed to different people, some of the maps can become really famous, because of the name. This is exactly what happened to Masayuki's map.
I myself have done Tag Mode with over 1,000 people. When I'm driving, I usually just have my Tag Mode on. I put the DS on the dashboard while I'm driving, and when I'm waiting for the light, I see somebody walking by, and boom!, the Tag Mode comes up. I'm like "Oh, he was playing it!", so it's really fun.
Do you sign your maps? Like, are they "Horii's map?" Do people know when they end up with your map? I would imagine that people would freak out.
YH: I don't use my real name -- I use the name "Joel."
Do regular people know it's you?
YH: They probably don't know. I joined the social network site Mixi in Japan, and I used the same name for it -- and not too many people know that's me.
I think that the Tag Mode was actually really innovative passive multiplayer, which is kind of a big deal right now. However, the way it was implemented is much tougher to make it work in the U.S. Have you run into that, and has it played out as you expected?
YH: I'm aware of that situation, and I was kind of expecting that the same kind of phenomenon would not happen in the U.S. It only happened in Japan, where millions and millions of copies sold.
But then in the U.S., because a smaller number of copies were sold, if you actually succeeded in the Tag Mode, your joy of actually getting someone's data would be like a hundred times more than a Japanese person doing it in Japan. (laughs)
The U.S.' geography makes it difficult, too. Have you thought generally about the fact that, as of 2011, every single game in the series will have come out in America, finally, and you can get data on how players react to them?
YM: When we develop the games, of course we make the games for the Japanese market first -- and the basics of the games, which make the games fun, are the same for the U.S. market and European market, so we don't feel that it's necessary to change the fundamental parts of the game.
But some like the inner parts of the game, like Tag Mode and stuff, might need to be adjusted in different markets -- but because we make the game for the Japanese market first, it's hard to do that just for a certain market.
YH: In addition to that, we feel that there are localization issues too. In Japanese, in a short sentence, we can actually express a certain sense of humor, and have a very good personality of the characters, which makes the game really more fun -- but localizing that into different languages has been hard. It's been a challenge, but we also heard that since Dragon Quest IX's localization really improved, the quality got better, and the humor is actually really communicating well to the American market too.
I think one of the most fascinating things about Dragon Quest IX, specifically, is that it was the first mainline Dragon Quest game to come out as a portable title first, and it really shows a shift. If you look at the Japanese market, it's dominated by portables more than home consoles now. That seems likely to continue.
YH: I agree. It is easy and convenient that you can play on a handheld. Even when you're at home, you can play at home, and then you're not in front of the TV anymore -- so it's very convenient and nice. But on the other hand, some people might want to play the game on big screen, with much better graphic quality... So it's just case-by-case depending on what the market wants at that time.
One of the things that's really interesting about the way the Dragon Quest series has come about over the years is that you had a development partner on all the games.
You did the planning, but you know had partners like Chunsoft, Heartbeat, and Level-5 working on the games. It's obviously worked, though. Could you talk a little bit about how you made that work over the years?
YH: Each developer has their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Level-5 was best suited to creating the kind of 3D world that we wanted in Dragon Quest VIII. That's how we choose different types of partners and make the games.
YM: Depending on the situation with the hardware, we have to select the team that can make the Dragon Quest game Mr. Horii wants to make.
So would you say the partners you've worked with have affected the way you design the games over the years?
YH: Yes, it's very true.
Lately you've primarily been working with Level-5. As a developer of Dragon Quest how would you evaluate what Level-5 has been able to do with the series so far?
YH: So Level-5's strength is 3D graphics, and we feel that really brought out the Dragon Quest world really well.
YM: Right before that, they were with working on Dark Cloud, and they had really nice skills and game quality, and they really brought that to the development of Dragon Quest.
It was reported in the past that you had designed a prototype of Dragon Quest IX with action-based gameplay, but based on audience reaction, you changed back to turn-based battles.
YH: Yes and no, to that rumor. When we worked on the prototype, we actually did make it more like an action game, where you can kind of do the action button mashing, but people didn't really like that kind of gameplay system well. But we didn't change it back just because of that; we also found that turn-based battles are actually fun in the multiplayer mode, so that's what we wanted to do, too.
When you say "people didn't like it", do you mean people internally developing the game, or focus groups, or something else?
YM: It was actually a media event where we brought that prototype, and then there started to be comments on YouTube -- people started arguing about which style was better.
Fundamentally, the core gamers don't like the change. Whenever we try to make some slight changes, they will reject the idea and just bash it. They key is to balance what kind of things we need to change, and what kinds of things we need to maintain.
Well, that's difficult. Ultimately there's an expectation that every Dragon Quest game will sell in the multiple million copies range, in Japan. You need to keep your audience happy, and to keep a lot of people happy at the same time is not an easy thing.
YH: It's very high pressure work.
When you start a new game in the series, how fundamental is the idea you start with? How basic and simple?
YH: The first thing we do is create the game world, what kind of main character we want to have, what kind of evil enemy we will have -- but we also have postmortem meetings from the previous titles and try to make sure that things which were difficulties in the game are addressed in the new one too.
The world we live in is increasingly complicated and it seems like Dragon Quest still manages to stay simple. Is that deliberate? Is there any connection there?
YH: No -- it's maybe just because I'm a very simple person. (laughs)
YH: Yeah. After all, it is just a game. We want to provide simple enjoyment for people; we don't want to make complex things for people to think about. In the real world, there are so many difficulties people are facing. Sometimes, there are no rewards. They don't get any rewards for those difficult things in life, but at least in the game, we want to make sure they will be rewarded for working hard to play the game.
Dragon Quest games are generally challenging, but the thing about Dragon Quest is that if you persevere, you'll eventually succeed. If you just continue, even if you die and you're sent back to the church, you just get up again and go back to the dungeon and eventually you'll make it.
YH: Yes, that's a very traditional thing for us. At the end, you will always be rewarded for your hard work.
That seems to be Japanese somehow. I don't know if that's true or not, but that just seems very Japanese, and not as American.
YH: What does an American think?
I don't want to necessarily speak culturally, but if you look at games right now -- especially mainstream games -- you'll be rewarded just for putting the disc in the drive. It will be cool immediately, and you don't have to work at it. We'll give it to you; it's like a rollercoaster.
YH: Yeah in Japanese style, you have to try, try, try, try -- and then at the end you can finally get a reward.
You'll often hear American game designers often talk about theme park rides as a model of how games should play out and I don't think that Dragon Quest is Disneyland.
YH: Agreed. It's like climbing up a steep mountain -- you have to keep climbing, climbing, climbing, climbing, and then at the end you finally get to the top of the mountain, and you see the beautiful view.