Falcom isn't Japan's most prestigious or most successful development studio. The company's president, Toshihiro Kondo, admits that the Tokyo-based company doesn't have any big name developers. The way in which you are most likely to have heard of Falcom is thanks to the Ys games -- a long-running series of action RPGs, originally released in 1987, which has a passionate enough fan base that the games somehow keep coming out in the West.
The company itself has an interesting story. Originally founded in 1981 as Apple's official Japanese distribution partner for the Apple II computer, the company naturally transitioned into game development soon after. It had a string of early hits on Japanese computers, including Sorcerian, Xanadu and Ys.
Falcom primarily stuck to PC games throughout the 1990s and 2000s, even as the platform crashed in Japan. It finally made the leap to consoles -- specifically, the PSP -- in 2006, with a port of its PC title Sora no Kiseki, which was rechristened Trails in the Sky for its U.S. release last year.
Trails in the Sky was a surprise hit on the PSP in Japan, and lead to the property becoming the company's core franchise -- with follow-ups released directly to the PSP. In the wake of its success, Falcom has gotten serious about the Ys series once again too, with Ys Seven coming to the PSP, and a new game, Celceta no Jukai, slated for the PlayStation Vita.
These latest games were produced and dircted by Toshihiro Kondo, president of Falcom. He's been with the company since 1998, when he worked his way up from the IT department to become a developer and eventually take charge of the company, after being a long-time fan.
In this interview, Kondo shares his thoughts on why he thinks Falcom has enjoyed a resurgence in its popularity on the PSP, how the Western and social game markets are affecting the way he looks at game creation, why Falcom games have a particular aesthetic that's remained almost unchanged since the 1980s, and why the company typically focuses on one platform at a time.
What do you think of the current state of Falcom? What's the company's current philosophy?
Toshihiro Kondo: This is our current philosophy, but it's also a philosophy that we kept over the 30 years of our history: we carefully create our games with a lot of care and details. We're detail-oriented, and we've been doing that throughout the whole 30 years of our company history.
Falcom seems to carry the torch for the way games have been for a long time, and doesn't seem to change with fashions and trends in the industry.
TK: Whenever new people join the company, we don't educate our employees. We don't tell them what to do. However, when I joined the company 13 years ago, it was the same with me, too. Nobody taught me what to do. But I saw the titles that Falcom had developed up to that point -- the legendary games -- and I felt like they're there, and they're watching you. You feel the existence of those strong titles, so I naturally felt that I had to live up to that standard, and that kept me moving forward.
The company has that atmosphere -- strong feeling. People who enter the company will just naturally sense that, and just get on the same track as everybody else. That's probably the reason we've been carrying this torch for such a long time.
Are a lot of the staff at the company still the same people who you were involved in early days, or have they since left the company?
TK: You mean from the '80s?
From the '80s, yeah.
TK: Well, just a few people from those days.
I feel like there is a, Falcom aesthetic that's identifiable, and that has carried all the way till today, so it's kind of interesting to hear that.
TK: The reason for that is probably because people who join the company really like Falcom's games, so when they enter the company they come with full respect towards the games. They love the games, so they want to make them even better. They don't come in with the thoughts of making something totally different; they come in to try to evolve the games that they love. That's probably the reason you see "Falcomism" throughout our games.
There's a word in Japanese called "shinise". It refers to people who've been around the whole time, creating history. The traditionalists. There are rice cracker shops that have been around for 200 years -- the kind of people who have history.
Were you, yourself, a fan of Falcom's games? Is that why you joined the company originally?
TK: Yes, I was a big fan, and as a matter of fact, I had a fan site before I joined the company. I was a very big fan of Falcom and I had a fan site back in the day. Now I'm the president of the company, but some people still remember me from the fan site. So people write on the internet, "Is the president Kondo that Kondo, from the fan site?" People are really surprised and happy for me.
What was your favorite Falcom game from when you were a player, before you joined the company?
TK: Legend of Heroes III: The White Witch. It's my favorite game. I love the scenario and the characters. Actually, I had a fan site for this game. This was my favorite title. [Ed. note: find out more about The White Witch on Hardcore Gaming 101.]
It seems like recently the company's been concentrating very much on the Legend of Heroes games, in the form of the "Kiseki" series. Is that connected to the fact that you like them a lot?
TK: If I say it's my personal preference that would be a problem, so I don't want to comment on that. But Falcom has been creating our games on the PC for 30 years, and with Trails of the Sky, we ported the series to the PSP, and we gained a big fan base on the PSP. Because of that, that's the reason we are concentrating on the Kiseki series -- because we wanted to satisfy our fan base in the PSP market. That led us to publishing the recent game in the series, Zero no Kiseki, as an original PSP game.
That was one of your most successful games in recent years.
TK: When we first released Trails in the Sky, the PSP market wasn't as big as what it is right now, so it didn't sell too well. But after that, we put a lot of effort in selling the title, and also there were some elements of luck, like the PSP market growing. Because of that, when we released Zero no Kiseki, we were able to sell a lot of copies. The series got acknowledged more by fans. The latest title, Ao no Kiseki, came out in September.
In America, Falcom is probably best known for the Ys series. What are your thoughts about that series and how it has evolved?
TK: Ys is, of course, one of my favorite series as well. When I was in high school, I played Ys I & II on the PC Engine [TurboGrafx-16 in the U.S.] I was shocked at how great of a game it was. For Ys Seven, I produced and directed the title. It's a title that's really strongly connected to me.
In Japan it's very common for people to stop playing games as they grow up and take on jobs and families. In America, people continue to play games longer, it seems. How does that affect the way you think about your audience?
TK: Actually, we have a very strong fan base, and Ys is a very long series. It seems that the fans have kept playing the series. Before we started putting our games out on PSP, the average age of the fans, there were a lot of people in their 30s, and then there were even people in their early 40s.
But after we started releasing our games on PSP, we gained more younger fans. And so the fan base for the PSP games are more like in their mid-20s -- we have our old school fans, and then there was an addition of newer, younger fans with the PSP version.
A lot of PSP games in Japan are very otaku-centric, with moe elements, and it seems you avoid adding that kind of stuff.
TK: Falcom has had a philosophy, right from the beginning, that has been carried on to this day. When we create a game design, the gameplay system has to be interesting, and if the gameplay system is not interesting, the designers get in trouble. There are people within the company who would say, "Okay, let's use the character to attract the audience." Those kinds of game designs would get canned. They would get in trouble.
That's one of our strong, strong philosophies that has been helping us avoid going in the direction of those otaku, moe characters. If the gameplay system is fun and interesting, we value that the most. If the gameplay system is fun, then we probably might not mind adding those things as another factor to the game, but we don't want that to be the main pull of the game.
Especially with the Ys series, we concentrate on how good the action feels, so we create a lot of prototypes in our development process. The first thing we do is have the character walk and run. And so we have prototypes of the character walking and running, and we try the prototype, and if you feel good just walking in the game, and running in the game, then you know that's a go sign for you to move forward. But if it doesn't feel good at that point, then we just go back and recreate the prototype. So that's how we create games.
That's the reason we don't have those elements in our games too much. Yeah, the Kiseki series, it's not like we've totally said "we don't do that" with it. The Kiseki series has some of those factors. But for us, those factors are never going to be the main pull of the game. We always concentrate on the gameplay systems. The main thing is the gameplay system, for us.
How long has the company been pursuing that prototyping-driven development process, and have things changed in recent years at all?
TK: When I entered the company, they were already creating games in that way, so I'm not sure how long that culture has been going on. As far as I know, it's been going on the whole time. When we create games at Falcom, usually you would have the design document and the specs, but the game would never turn out to be the exact way that they planned in the documents. How we create the games is that we create it, and we check it, and then we modify it. It's like we're polishing our game up. That's how we create our games, and that's the way it has been since I entered the company.
That philosophy is considered to be the best way by most developers in the West, but you hear so much about Japanese developers sticking to documents and not being flexible with their designs.
TK: Most of the time, there's the publisher and then there's the developer -- these are different companies. And so because you have a schedule, and because you have a budget, you have to stick to them. That might be the reason a lot of people need to stick to the documents.
In our case, we have the artists, the designers, the programmers, the music composers, scenario writers, the movie creators, and the designers for the packages and everything, and the people who do promotion. We have everybody on board inside the company. Every part of that is the fun part of creating a game. We feel like, "Why hand that out to somebody else when it's the fun part to do?" So we've been taking care of all of that ourselves.
And also by doing that, we would not want to put out something that we're not happy about, or that we're not proud of. So to be able to create something that we're proud of, we feel like we should do it ourselves. So that is probably one of the reasons we are able to do this "polish-up" way of creating games.
The founder of Falcom, Masayuki Kato, has taught me to always put out something that you're totally, 100 percent proud of. And of course, that's a huge challenge to do that. And most of the time it's impossible to put out something that you're 100 percent proud of. But after hearing that from the founder of Falcom, I've always been trying to aim for that 100 percent.
Tell me a bit about Kato.
TK: Falcom was originally the official branch of Apple in Japan, so he's been the guy that was there. And after that he produced Xanadu, Dragon Slayer, and all the big Falcom series.
Is he still involved with the company, or is it more of an advisory role?
TK: He has given me most of the responsibilities now, but every now and then he will come and give me some advice. Those words are usually fall very heavily in my heart, but I carry most of the company responsibilities now. He will come to the office every now and then, and he will say, "If you keep on doing real work, creating good stuff, then it's going to be all right in the end."
You said earlier that you produced and directed Ys Seven. It's pretty rare for the president of the company to be involved so directly in game development. What effect does that have on Falcom as a company?
TK: When I first joined the company, I was in charge of maintaining Falcom's servers and their network systems, and then from my second year I was involved in development. I've been a dev guy for the whole time. Mostly in different game companies, they have the PR, marketing, and sales side, and then they have the dev side of the company. And usually they don't get along well, because marketing might say, "We need to show more boobs!" And then the dev people are like, "No, we're creating a game. We're not creating a flashy boob movie. We want to sell a game!"
They might have conflicts because of that -- but I understand development. I feel that that's probably the reason the company wanted me to become the president.
Since I understand the development side, I can be a cushion between like the sales side and the creative side, and I can understand both sides. I'm able to pass along the message from the sales side in words that the dev people will not react badly to, and also understand what the players want.
I can also tell the developers, "Okay, I think you guys are going a little too far. The players don't want that. This is what the players want." They listen to me because I understand what development is about. I can be hands-on, too. Because of that, I'm probably a good influence on the company.
If Falcom is like the shinise-style shop that's been there for 200 years, do you see yourself as a craftsman in that traditional Japanese sense of someone who's furthering a specific technique, or a specific ideology?
TK: I would say half and half. I'm half the craftsman, but I also understand management, I also understand marketing and promotion, and all of that. I'm in a very tough situation, because since I understand both, I have pressure from both sides, and understand the concerns of both sides.
I understand those things two times more than a normal person would, but when both of them come together, when they line up, the satisfaction is two times more, too. When that happens, I feel really good. That's why I like what I'm doing, what my position is right now. Me, personally, as an individual, I'm 90 percent a craftsman type. But because of my position, I'm toned down to fifty-fifty, to be able to carry on this role.
Have you given much thought to your Western audience? Recently, you've been working with XSEED to get your games out in America. But do you think about the audience who plays those games, or is it just a bonus for Falcom beyond the domestic Japanese audience you concentrate on?
TK: Up to a couple of years ago when we put our titles out in the West, it was always just licensed to other companies, so we weren't actually putting them out ourselves. But in the past couple of years, we've been working with XSEED, and I've been directly working with XSEED to put the games out. And by doing that I, and Falcom as a company, are starting to think about that.
With our games up to this point, we've been concentrating on the Japanese market when we created them. But when we put those games out in the West, we've noticed that a lot of people in the West are enjoying the titles that we've created, even when we're just concentrating on the Japanese market. But we are starting to understand, and starting to process, what the Western market has liked about Falcom's games.
We are starting to realize that Ys is a popular series in the West. Up to this point, we were concentrating on the Japanese market, but now we're starting to understand the West a little bit. We are really happy that we are able to get the Ys series out in America, because by doing that, to be honest, we've begun to realize what parts of the games are lacking in effort. It was a good opportunity for us to notice that. We're hoping the Western audiences will really enjoy our new PlayStation Vita Ys game, Celceta no Jukai, and we're putting a lot of effort into it.
You've been concentrating on the PSP and now you're moving onto the Vita. Have you given any thought to any other platforms? What about Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network, even Steam or other PC platforms? Or mobile?
TK: I can't give you the details, but we have been buying dev equipment from other platform holders, and we are analyzing these platforms right now. First, as you know, we were concentrating on PC games, and now we've moved onto the PSP. We don't want to skip around; we want to concentrate on one thing and do it well. And so we've been doing that with PSP, and now we feel like we could look into other platforms, so we are in the process of doing that right now.
You don't need to go through a publisher in the iOS or Android markets, globally.
TK: Right, you can release it by pushing one button. The iPhone Android markets are easy to join, and there are a lot of people who enjoy games on those platforms. I view them as a kind of similar market to the PC market, so I'm interested in that market, but Falcom is not a huge company. We can't make a huge jump towards a different platform like that, but we are like considering teaming up with different companies, using our original IPs.
We're working on Sorcerian for the iPhone and Android platforms. The development is done by another company, but we're overseeing the project; we're watching over it, so it will keep the Falcomism. It should be interesting.
You're also working with GREE on a version of Ys called Ys Nexus.
TK: Yes. A bunch of young people are creating this game. I was surprised -- the fan base is GREE Ys fans; it's not the same as the original Ys fans. Of course there are original Ys fans that are there, too, but there are also GREE Ys fans -- so we're a bit surprised by the different fan base that's playing this game.
Does the social games space, such as GREE operates in, interest you? It's so far removed from the kind of games that you usually make.
TK: Once I played a social game, I was surprised -- it was actually fun. I played a game that's really popular here in Japan, Kaito Royale. [Ed. note: Kaito Royale is one of the most popular social games in Japan and is published by Ngmoco parent DeNA.]
It was so much fun I was able to play it for six months. Online games are a little bit of a pain in the ass, but still, these social games are able to create something that captures your attention, so much that you'll forget about that and just play the game. That's an amazing thing to do.
People who are not game creators came up with these things, so that is another surprise. I feels like we, the people who have been in the game industry for so long, and who were creating games, might have been just lacking a little, maybe have been a little lazy, to have these other people come in and just try something and make a huge success.
I have been seriously thinking about this situation a lot. I also thought about Falcom as a company -- do we need to join this social business as well? But I thought that just because the market is getting big, doesn't mean a company like us joining it would lead to success.
So I was thinking, "Okay, so where should Falcom go? What should we do?" and I realized that what we've always been concentrating on is to create something really good, so the players can pick it up and feel happy that they bought the game, feel happy that they were able to get that experience. That was the thing that we valued the most.
So taking a look at the success of the social games market really gave me an opportunity to think again about our values. And after thinking about all of that again, the conclusion I came to is that I, and Falcom, need to keep on doing we've been doing. And so I was really happy to have another opportunity to think these things over again, and really notice what's going on.
Between what you just said about social games giving you a chance to think, and also what you said about seeing how Ys is received in the U.S., it sounds like you've been doing a lot of thinking about the direction the company should go.
TK: Yes, I've been been thinking about the future a lot. I love games, and I love creating games. The reason I've been thinking about those things is because I want to keep on creating games. I love creating games, and I want to keep on doing that, and so my thinking is like, "Okay, I want to keep on creating games, so what do I need to do to keep being able to do that?"
And that's the motivation in thinking about the social market, and thinking about the Western market. What I want to be able to do is keep creating games, and also increase the size of their fan base. As a person who's heading a company, that might not be the right motivation, but that's my motivation in running the company.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
I think it's a pretty good motivation for running a game company. If you look at some of the most successful game companies in the West, they're really motivated by a desire to keep making games, to keep pushing forward.
TK: So after releasing Zero no Kiseki, we haven't made a huge change in the style of how we create games. We've been evolving the way we create games, but we haven't been changing the company's whole direction. But still, a lot of people are going back to the series, and there are new people that are acknowledging the series, too, and appreciating the games.
So I feel like, throughout the whole time we've been concentrating on creating these games, being a detail-oriented developer, and creating a perfect game. I feel like the game players are also realizing once again that's where a good game exists -- and that might be the reason why they're appreciating Zero no Kiseki.
You can tell when a company is just making a sequel because they have to make a sequel, not because the people who work there want to make a sequel.
TK: Everybody here is creating games because they want to create games and because of that, I feel like nobody in the company feels like they're forced to create something. The marketing side might come up with an idea, saying, "Oh, we need a sequel for this title," but when that happens, everybody has a positive vibe for it. They're like, "Oh, okay. In that case, why don't we do this for the game? Why don't we try this, this time, so as to improve the game?" They always have like a positive attitude about it, and so that's probably why they are able to like create something really good.
Falcom doesn't have any creators with big names in the company, but we have staff who have ability a little higher than average -- everybody has some skill that's a little higher than average. And people like that, when they gather, this is the kind of game that comes out of it.