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The Mind And Heart Of Final Fantasy XIII
Director Motomu Toriyama speaks about the controversial and unexpected gameplay design of Final Fantasy XIII, the series' audience, and the possibilities that are open to the future of what's arguably the world's most popular video game RPG saga.
March 22, 2010
20 Min Read
Well, it's finally out.
On March 9, 2010, the ridiculously long-awaited Final Fantasy XIII was released in the Western world. Originally released in Japan in December, the game was originally announced at E3 2006, before problems in the development of the company's Crystal Tools game engine -- which drives Final Fantasy XIII, XIV, and beyond -- came to light.
Development of the game lagged, and when the game was finally released in Japan, fan reaction was mixed.
The development team had created a game that nobody had been expecting, and its design (which omits or streamlines many of the traditional facets of RPG play, such a towns and dungeon exploration) has been controversial and is much-discussed, including on Gamasutra.
During GDC, the game's director and writer Motomu Toriyama spoke frankly about the production problems in the game leading to its overall design. Before that, though, Gamasutra got the chance to sit down with him for a lengthy discussion, which is presented below.
The game has as many fans as it has detractors, and is an interesting permutation in a series best known, perhaps, for its lack of consistency. The task, then, was to find out why.
It's been a long time since the project started. What was your original goal for Final Fantasy XIII, and how close did you get to the goal you set out when you originally started the project?
Motomu Toriyama: In terms of the game's concept itself, we wanted to create an ultimate single-player RPG, and that was our main goal. To break that down further, there were two elements; the first one was to create an incredible story-driven RPG, and then the second one was to create an all-new battle system that provided speed as well as tactical battles.
In terms of this, yes, we did achieve these two goals. Additionally, we also had in our minds the number of five million units shipped or sold, and we reached that goal, as we announced, so we are extremely proud and happy about that.
I've read a quote from someone on the team saying that this game isn't exactly an RPG, or not to look at it as an RPG. What is the game, and how do you look at it?
MT: So, in terms of "it's not a traditional RPG," in the sense that an adventurer doesn't go to the town and shop and buy items and prepare and then he goes outside and he kills monsters and he comes back and then he shops again.
We don't follow that type of traditional style and model, and we just didn't want to categorize the game as a JRPG or a Western RPG or to fit into a certain mold. We instead wanted this Final Fantasy to create a brand new model for games. In terms of that, that was where that comment came from, that it didn't fit into a traditional RPG model.
Part of the reason I ask is because I feel like the RPG genre's changing a lot, and not just with Final Fantasy XIII. Look at Mass Effect 2 and Fable III. It seems like, at this point, we're starting to pick and choose as an industry what "an RPG" means. That's why I'm interested in what you think is necessary to create a game.
MT: An RPG, at the bare minimum, has characters that you can control to perform certain actions, and those characters grow. This is what's basic in terms of moving the story forward. In terms of all the games that you just mentioned, they all have that similarity in common, but, when it comes to the story or the type of world or the time period that it's set in or the different characters, those differences there are where the positive aspect of each game comes through.
I think, when I look at Final Fantasy XIII based on what I've played so far, what the game really does is it takes the elements such as story, graphics, and battle system that Final Fantasy is very good at and retains those, and it gets rid of things that Final Fantasy hasn't done much or wasn't as good at, like town simulation, NPC interaction, or the field map. Was that the goal -- emphasize what you're good at and drop what wasn't as much of a strength in the series?
MT: Personally, the Final Fantasys that I have worked on have been very story-driven, and so, in terms of the development, I wanted to of course utilize my personal strengths, which were those.
But in the past, in the Final Fantasys on previous, non-high definition consoles, we were able to kind of take everyone's ideas and include all of them in the game -- kind of a bento box system, where you have all the different little things in there. So we had mini-games or we had towns where you were able to talk to all of the townspeople.
But with a high definition console you're really no longer able to do that because it takes so long to develop. When you think about how long it's already taken us to develop this game, to have to have included all of those other aspects it would have been far too long. So what we did instead was to define what was truly important to the game and include those aspects and really emphasize those items that we wanted.
Were you able to put more resources and concentrate on the specific items you chose more so than you had in the past, when you were worried about having a larger variety of gameplay options in the game?
MT: When there are too many elements like we mentioned, it's hard to create a perfectly finished product for every single one of those or to really have them unified into the same feel. There could have been some good parts and some bad parts, but in that aspect, for Final Fantasy XIII, I really feel like we created a unified world as well as a unified game for all of the components.
It seems like the production process for this game drove the decisions that you're making. I think that's pretty common in this generation, too.
When you're sitting down to plan what you can actually accomplish, how much does the kind of production you have to undertake on the current-generation consoles drive that decision-making?
MT: You have to consider the amount of time it took to actually create the game engine, which we built from scratch, as well. With that additional time included, we had to decide what we could and couldn't do.
Now that we do have that base technology, we will be able to do more for the current generation high-def consoles or the next-generation consoles as well, since we have that groundwork built.
So the next time that you see a Final Fantasy, we might be able to pack in more of those elements that existed in the past, and I also think that a game doesn't necessarily need to have every single one of those items in the future. We can create additional downloadable content for people to add, too. It doesn't have to come with the game itself.
A friend of mine, who is another journalist -- we were talking about the game and had a very passionate debate about it. I talked about what I mentioned before: that you chose the things that the series is good at and dropped what it is not. His argument was that, rather than dropping things, you should strive hard to improve them. What do you think about that idea?
MT: (Laughing) You can wait longer for the game so that we can improve those... (everyone laughs) The next title that we create will have those elements -- the improvements to those elements that you had mentioned. However, it's important for us to choose what we can and cannot include, and that's the role of a director: to have to decide what we can accomplish within a certain period of time.
The Final Fantasy Audience
One thing I'm really curious about is the audience for the game, particularly since Final Fantasy changes between entries. How do you define the audience for this game?
MT: Our goal was to create a game that would appeal to the widest amount of users and the widest audience worldwide. Of course, we created the game for Final Fantasy fans, but with every game that we create for Final Fantasy we always want to bring in new users. So even though we want to please the core users, we also want to make sure that we bring in new fans and appeal regardless of age or nationality worldwide.
I'm a big fan of the series, and I have many friends who are big fans of the series -- but if you talk to us, the games we love and the games we hate are different. Some people hate the games that I love and vice versa. I'm sure that you've encountered that; I just want to hear your thoughts on that issue.
MT: For Final Fantasy, each development team is different for each game. Because there's a different director for the game, the teams' strengths and elements come through for each game. For me, I've worked on Final Fantasy VII and X, so the kinds of people who like those games tend to like my games because my vision comes through in each of the games.
However, for Final Fantasy XIII, unlike past games, we really tried to broaden the appeal and bring in new users, whether it's people who like action games or people who really only play shooters. We created a new battle system that would appeal to them and really bring in new fans.
Recognizing the fact that the games change development teams and change style, you can't completely pin down what Final Fantasy is. Do you worry that you don't define it for your audience if they're not thinking that way? In terms of the fact that, "Oh, this changes development teams!" Most people don't know those sorts of things. Do you worry that you have to redefine what the game is every time that one is made, and not always the same people are involved?
MT: We often get asked that question, and because of that, and for our own thoughts as well, we have clearly defined what Final Fantasy is.
The first is to deliver a game with the newest graphics and the newest technology for the newest hardware -- to really deliver the ultimate technology and beauty for our games -- and the fact that Final Fantasy is always evolving is a main thing. The game always changes with each title; there's a new game, and there's a new team. We feel that change is good, and that's one of our tenets.
The second one is to deliver a story that's truly universal. The story's always the most important aspect of the game, and we really want to touch upon the universal human emotions that anyone in the world can understand. So it's really those two items: one which is always changing, and one which never changes.
It's a turn-based game, still, and it seems like turn-based games on major consoles are getting less and less prevalent. I think that's interesting. Is that because it's important to a core tenet of the game? Is it what the audience wants? Is it just fun? Because you did a very good job of making it a fast turn-based system that, actually, I think people could really enjoy, but in this day and age...
MT: The concept for the game was to have speed and have it be tactical, so those are the two items -- and, in terms of that, Final Fantasy is known for turn-based battles. We felt that was a good aspect for players to be able to play out their strategy, and we didn't want to eliminate them.
But, you know, usually, in turn-based games, characters spend a lot of time kind of standing around and waiting for their turn, and so we did want to make it speedier and get rid of some of those aspects and improve upon it.
In the future, if someone were to ask, "Would we return to a complete turn-based game?" -- probably not. But what's important to me is to have a combat system that offers players the ability to be strategic and to really think about their next move and use their brain in order to proceed in the game.
Final Fantasy XIII really, really gradually introduces the gameplay and really gradually introduces new elements over the course of a long period of time, and I was interested in why you went with a design that is structured that way.
MT: Because the game is extremely story-driven, and because the battle system is really all-new from the previous games, we wanted to create a step-by-step process to introduce people to it that would allow them to really delve deeper into the strategic components of the gameplay. We wanted the players to experience each character's role in battle very well so that, after they experience that, they get a little bit more freedom going on.
You are getting complaints, though, from people who feel like it takes too long to get to that sort of level of freedom, especially from experienced users. What do you think about that balance? Is it more important to guide less experienced users or to satisfy the experienced gamers?
MT: The game itself offers two worlds, Cocoon and Gran Pulse, and we divided the gameplay between those two worlds. It's true, as you mentioned, until you get to Gran Pulse, the story is long; but, when it really comes down to it, that open world gameplay that you receive at Gran Pulse is about the same amount of time. It's about 50/50 in terms of the actual gameplay. The game is story-driven, but that is one element that we do have some kind of hindsight looking backwards that's kind of like a learning point.
It's very rare for a high-profile game to get a wide range of scores from reviewers. Usually, they're all up at the top. With Final Fantasy XIII, we've got tens out of ten; we've also got, from mainstream reviewers, five out of ten. Are you surprised to see a huge disparity? It's a polarizing kind of game.
MT: Because we created a completely new style, and because the game is so different from XII, if you were expecting that [game], then yeah, it was probably a little bit of a let down or was different from what you had hoped for. But the challenge for us is to create something new. I don't really mind that the reviews are kind of all over the place, in particular since, in North America and in Europe, the reviews have probably actually been better than in Japan. I found that to be a nice surprise.
One of the things I think is really interesting about Final Fantasy is that, when you eliminate Nintendo from the question, there are very, very, very few games that sell equally well in Japan and the Western markets, and Final Fantasy is one of them. That's got to be difficult, right? To create a game that can do that.
MT: Final Fantasy VII is what really changed our thoughts for the game when it succeeded worldwide; before that, we didn't really think globally. It was mostly domestic. But with that kind of success, the games became bigger worldwide, and the thought was natural to us to begin to think more about the world.
It's not that we purposely changed anything that we wanted to do or that we were doing; the idea just began to permeate among the team that it is a global phenomenon, a global game. Because that concept exists, that's why I feel that the game sells so well worldwide.
In particular, the recent news of the huge lines in France and people waiting to buy FFXIII was really amazing and incredible news. It was very emotional; it was the first time in a long time that I've felt that, and I don't want to forget about that. I know that we need to continue that feeling for the future.
I always feel like Japan and France have some sort of special cultural connection. When you go to Japan, there's so much French culture and French food particularly, and I feel like there's almost a meeting of the minds there, culturally. Do you have a similar feeling?
MT: I think it's that the French really appreciate Japanese culture: they love our films, and they love our anime, and our games as well. They've always been very positive in their reception towards Japanese things. The long lines I had mentioned in France, again, were very emotional for me and made me very happy because it's something that we didn't even see in Japan -- all the cosplayers who were there, and everything. So I was very happy. (Laughing) When I'm here now, there's GDC, and I have all this work; I wish I were in France.
Charting a Creative Direction
(Laughs) Speaking of France, I'm sure you've heard of Heavy Rain; I can't recommend it to you enough. I think that, if you're making a strong narrative-based game right now, you should probably play it.
MT: (Laughing) I'm so busy that I haven't been able to play it, but I'm really, really interested in it.
It's only about nine hours long, so you can pretty much demolish it if you can set aside a day, and I recommend it just because it's not just fascinating story-wise, it's not just fun to play, it's also really creative. So I think that all adds up to a good package.
MT: I agree; I'm really interested in it. It has kind of a dark storyline, but it provides some really interesting new style. But if we kind of take that and create a story that has a wider appeal, it might be interesting as well.
One thing that's interesting about Heavy Rain is that it's supposed to be set in America; but there's just something you can just tell it's made by French people. There's a certain, slight difference.
In Final Fantasy -- the characters are Western, but you can still feel a Japanese style. I think it's impossible to completely erase a cultural style no matter how hard you try, but I also personally feel that you should never try. You should just do what feels natural. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that.
MT: Yeah, as long as you know that we as Japanese developers are creating it, our style comes through; our Japaneseness comes through. So it's not something that's really ever going to go away.
Part of the reason that Final Fantasy is so iconic is particularly [Tetsuya] Nomura-san's character designs; they're something that would never, ever, ever come out of an American studio. They're very influenced by Tokyo street fashion, as well. I think that that's the kind of thing that, just on one level, is important to maintain because it actually makes the game so distinctive.
MT: Yeah, I agree that Nomura-san's character design is essential to the game.
With, of course, the increase in high definition consoles, everyone will be able to create pretty graphics and a pretty game, so we have to differentiate somewhere else. That's really in terms of the character and the originality. So how do we create characters that are really expressive, and how do we create that high quality, something that we always consider, and that's very important to us?
The art direction is really, really important to Final Fantasy. In fact, I feel like it's one and the same, that the experience of playing Final Fantasy is looking at Final Fantasy and drinking in the visuals. Do you feel the same way?
MT: Yes, our art team is amazing, and with the art they create, having an amazing graphic design team as well, taking that art and expressing it is what's very important for Final Fantasy and the series.
You just see things in this game, like the crystal Lake Bresha early on in the game, and it's the kind of thing where I'm like, "This is why I bought a PlayStation 3 in the first place." It's not just because it's technically impressive; it's because it's beautiful, but it's completely unexpected. I never would have anticipated it, as well.
MT: That body of water you were mentioning is crystallized, and technically it's very difficult to create something that's basically half see-through to bring that frozen effect. So it's not only that artistic vision, but it's also providing that technical expertise to create that; and that's something that really sets us apart from other developers. Other developers I don't think can really create that.
It's interesting that Final Fantasy, the first game in the series all the way back in 1987, was a quest for the crystals. You've still managed to retain -- even though that was a very simple game -- that whole idea that crystals always permeate through the series. Even as things get more complex and more humanistic, you have to hew to this sort of basic concept that was dreamt up in the '80s. What do you think about that, creatively, as a challenge?
MT: As I mentioned before, an element of the series is to continue changing, and so, frankly, for my games -- the games that I worked on -- the crystal did kind of go away a little bit. In VII and in X, there were elements of the world that took the part of the crystals, that had that kind of spirituality that the crystals previously had and that we used instead to express that kind of world vision.
It's not that we're necessarily set on crystals; however, with Final Fantasy XIII, the larger umbrella is the Fabula Nova Crystallis series, and so, because of that, for this game in particular we tried to include a lot of those crystal elements.
It's interesting that you use the word "spirituality" because I do think the games have a certain spirituality, particularly X's story. Even though there's not a specific religion that's addressed in the series, you can sense it throughout. Can you talk about that?
MT: Yeah, as you mentioned, there's not a specific religion; it's definitely kind of a broader spirituality -- and, in terms of Final Fantasy XIII, because it's part of the larger Fabula Nova Crystallis series, there's definitely a world origin type element that kind of goes beyond religion as part of the main core spirituality elements that are embedded in each of the characters. So we do feel that kind of spirituality is important in the vision of the world that we're trying to communicate.
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