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Interview: Star Ocean 4's Creative And Technical Evolution

Gamasutra recently had a chance to catch up with Yoshinori Yamagishi, producer, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, and discuss the tech and development of what is likely to be Square Enix's most successful Xbox 360 RPG, shy of Final Fantasy XIII.
Arguably the most significant title Square Enix has yet announced for the Xbox 360 is Star Ocean: The Last Hope. The series has a huge Japanese audience and, as of the last installment, a sizable Western fan base, too. 2004's Star Ocean: Till the End of Time reached North American Greatest Hits status on the PlayStation 2 thanks to its action-packed battles, deep story, and detailed graphics. Judging from the long lines and appealing demo at last month's Tokyo Game Show, the new title, due early next year globally, will also meet with success. Gamasutra had a chance to catch up with the game's producer at Square Enix, Yoshinori Yamagishi, and ask him about the series, the technology that external developer tri-Ace is deploying in the title, the company's relationship with tri-Ace, and the question of audience reception for Japanese-developed RPG titles in the West. I wanted to talk about this game in terms of improvements over the last game. Particularly, did you take any feedback from Western audiences? The last game did very well in the U.S., but I think it was the first game in the series to really reach a mass audience in the West. Yoshinori Yamagishi: First of all, the biggest difference from the previous title, Star Ocean 3, is that they have created a totally new original engine for the platform. Right after finishing Star Ocean 3, tri-Ace started to work on this new engine; the same engine is used for Infinite Undiscovery. In Star Ocean it has been evolving. It looks like the technology has evolved greatly since Infinite Undiscovery -- in terms of graphics, character models, frame rate. I assume this engine will be used for the majority of tri-Ace's new projects. YY: Exactly. So from here and beyond, tri-Ace will probably use this engine for many other titles. Actually, I'm really interested in the relationship between Square Enix and tri-Ace. I don't think anybody has ever published a game by them. I've interviewed you many times, and it's always been for tri-Ace games. I was wondering if you could talk about that relationship. YY: The relationship between tri-Ace and Square Enix has started from the Enix era. The first title that tri-Ace developed for Enix was Star Ocean 1 on the Super Nintendo. [Ed. note: Star Ocean was released in 1996, only in Japan, though a remake recently shipped for the PSP in North America.] Enix used to be a company that outsourced their work to development houses outside of the company, and that was how we mainly dealt with productions, and tri-Ace was one of our outsourcers; that's where the relationship started, and it's still going on till this day. Square is a company that has had internal development staff, so for this title, the visual works part of Square has created the movies, so this is kind of like a collaboration project. In terms of the collaboration the two companies share, obviously tri-Ace is an independent company, but because the relationship has been so close over a number of years, I was wondering how the working relationship is. Does Square Enix have a lot of input into the titles? How are these things decided? Does tri-Ace have the free range to develop the series as they see it? YY: All of the creative decisions are made by tri-Ace. It's interesting, because this is tri-Ace's oldest series, and they've released one per generation so far. It's interesting to see the evolution of the action-based battle series with every title. tri-Ace's games have their own unique feel. I was wondering if that's something that's been encouraged from Square Enix's side, and they feel these titles fit in well with their product mix and have been satisfied with the relationship so far. YY: The Star Ocean series, this series, this game -- it's something that tri-Ace wanted to create, and it's what they have been creating because they wanted to. There's no creative direction from Square Enix. I believe that having the creator create the thing that they want to create the most earns the best quality. As was mentioned before, this is the same engine that was used for Infinite Undiscovery. Could you talk about when the original development of the engine began, and what the main goals were for the development of tri-Ace's next-generation game engine? YY: They have started to create the engine right after Star Ocean 3. For the goal, it's more like there is no goal, because there's no ending part of the evolution. The graphic board and the CPU [support], we keep evolving it. What we always have in mind, and what we're always aiming is, one or two steps ahead of the highest PC quality. That's what we've been aiming at the whole time, and at this point the engine is going to keep evolving toward that goal. [Ed. Note: "After SO3" would be approximately 2003-2004.] I know there are no PlayStation 3 games from tri-Ace yet, but is it one of the goals of the engine to maintain multiplatform compatibility when that becomes a possibility? YY: I have heard that tri-Ace has already created this engine as a multiplatform engine. Something I wanted to talk about -- and this is a more general question about Square Enix's position -- it seems that people in America are maybe getting a little bored with Japanese RPGs or they're waiting for an evolution of the genre. Overall, as the company, where do you see that evolution coming from and how will you continue to satisfy audiences looking for new things coming from your games? YY: I'm not sure about how Japanese RPG players are thinking about RPG games, but within Japan, I think that there are people who are fans of command-menu style RPG games, but tri-Ace and I also, think that RPGs with this action genre feature are the most fun way to play RPG games. You can also see that from Valkyrie Profile. The people who enjoy those kinds of games are probably the people who become tri-Ace fans.

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