The WiiWare service may be debuting behind Sony and Microsoft's services, but also it may well capture a distinct audience that Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network cannot -- just as the Wii itself does. One of the most notable things about it is how high-profile developers like Square Enix, who've sat out the online battle thus far, are delivering games to the service.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King is a spin-off of a spin-off of what's likely the most popular role playing game series in the world; it's also the dawn of a new way of working for a company used to high-budget, CG-laden games.
The city-building simulator - a break from conventional Final Fantasy gameplay - is a launch game for the service, which debuts in North America this week and Europe next week.
Here, lead programmer Fumiaki Shiraishi and producer Toshihiro Tsuchida discuss the philosophy behind the biggest title in the WiiWare stable so far, in an interview conducted shortly after their presentation at this year's Game Developers Conference.
Jeremy Parish: I was at the panel yesterday, and it was very interesting and very candid, and I appreciate that. It was interesting to see the difference in development this game took from the usual Square Enix approach.
Do you feel that the growing size and complexity of games has stifled the individual creativity of games? If you look at current Square Enix games today, they tend to be more of a certain type, whereas in the PlayStation era, you had things like shooters and fighting games that you don't see so often now. Do you think that moving to WiiWare will help create smaller projects that can break out of the current Square Enix mold?
Fumiaki Shiraishi: That's a lot of questions at once. (laughs)
Toshihiro Tsuchida: To answer your first question about stifling creativity, I don't think it's about stifling creativity. It's just that you expect a division of labor when you work in such a big group. You have creativity in your own little field, but you're limited to that field.
But with WiiWare, as we said in the session, people get to see the creative part of the game. Hopefully, we'll get to train more people who see the larger picture, and hopefully, until then, will go on to make different kinds of games.
JP: So going back to the division of labor aspect of it, does the size of current game development and requirements keep games from being a single person's vision? It becomes more of a group vision, and focus-tested. Do you see WiiWare as a remedy of that?
FS: That question assumes that without a single vision, it's not as good.
JP: Not necessarily, just that you create different games when you have a single vision.
Brandon Sheffield: I think the phrasing of it suggests that, but I don't think you mean to suggest that.
JP: Maybe you can rephrase it for me.
BS: To rephrase, I would say... does the smaller team size of WiiWare allow for more person-directed projects, rather than brand-led projects?
TT: There's two ways. One would be games with a single focus, I think. We can make more of those. On the other hand, even the larger teams... it's not necessarily that you can't have one focus. I think we've managed to have some games with focus, but it does show up in different ways, I think.
Square Enix's Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King
BS: I'm curious to know how difficult it was, or if it was a welcome challenge, to fit that game into a small file size. Was it challenging? I know when people saw the screenshots of the game for the first time, they were like, "How did that happen?"
FS: It actually wasn't that difficult. I think we designed the game to fit in the memory space. It wasn't so much that we had a game and had to squeeze it down. If anything, I think the size restriction helped us. I don't think we would've had this game design idea if we didn't have the memory restriction to begin with.
Once we had the restriction, we had... all our artists are veterans, so if you tell them the size, they'll hit it right on. And once we started making it, in the beginning, a lot of people didn't think we could fit this game in the given size, but we were actually quite a bit under. It uses a little bit of compression, and a little bit of techniques. You can fit a lot of game in a small size.
BS: Did it help focus the scope of the design as well?
FS: Yeah, definitely.
Did you experience any periods of difficulty when making this game?
TT: From my experience, this time is a lot better than my previous titles. I think part of that is due to the fact that if you have a large amount of data, there's more of a chance of bugs. So maybe it's a little bit better. But in the end, it depends on how well the team is run, and it depends on the scope of the game. Even if you don't have a big enough team, you can still have a lot of functionality.
JP: Could you maybe explain a little about the gameplay? You talked about how you went through four revisions of the battle system, and eventually came up with the final product. Does it actually have a battle system at all? From what I can tell based on the screens, it's really more like at the end of the day, you're given a list of the results of the assignments that you make, and there's no actual fighting that takes place within the game.
FS: I'll just go through quickly with what the game is about. You start out in an empty field, and start building houses and stores. By populating the cities, you have heroes that come out, and they go out and explore, and when they beat a boss, they get items, and they unlock buildings which you can then build and grow your city more.
You don't actually see the battle on your own. You just see the city that you're building. The battles actually happen in real-time, so you'll have little pop-up windows that tell you, "John's party is fighting the boss." And then fifteen seconds later, "John's party was destroyed." They'll tell you in real-time what's happening.
At the end of the day, you'll be able to read what exactly happened: things like who cast magic, and what kind of items they got. In terms of the battle system, we have a battle system. It's pretty much everything you'd expect from older RPGs. It's all in there. Heroes can form parties, they have abilities, they have jobs, and they have equipment. Enemies have special abilities. They have strong magic.
All the stuff you'd expect from all the Final Fantasy games are pretty much in there, and it's all happening in real-time, but you can't actually see it.
BS: That sounds really interesting. So it's not a character-driven game, then. It's more of a God game-type thing?
TT: The game design is more of a God game, I suppose. You see things on more of a macro level. But at the same time, we wanted for you to be able to get closer to the heroes in some of the villages. All of the heroes have personalities, names, and a family. We tried to incorporate the God game with some of the things that we're better at, which is character-driven games.
BS: What was the main inspiration for the design on this?
FS: When Nintendo talked downloadable games, I wrote down a bunch of ideas that we could make for this game. The one that I wanted to do at the time was a simple action role-playing game. It was kind of a tried-and-true formula. But I thought that we had to make several games to make it profitable, maybe. I was pulling numbers out of my head at that point.
So one of the games... based on the action role-playing game, I came up with a lot of other game ideas that would use the same resources and the same source code. One of those was this inverted game, as you would call it. [Tsuchida] hated the action role-playing game idea, but he liked this idea, so we ran with this.
BS: So it wasn't the overarching game, but it was still one of the games within that design set. Do you think you'll be able to build out that universe as you use those resources and things?
FS: He and I have different plans. We're definitely throwing ideas around. It introduces new ways to think about games and come up with ideas. I think that's one of the approaches we're taking, but we're just throwing ideas around at this point.
JP: Something I thought was a really interesting content that Tsuchida made in the speech yesterday was that you can't use CG as a weapon in this game. Do you think that Square Enix tailors design to use CG as a weapon in many of its other games?
TT: Yeah, that's definitely one of our strengths. You can look at the staff roll, and you can see that we put a lot of effort and energy into those graphics.
JP: So taking that away from the game, how did that affect the team's approach? Aside from the obvious, in that you don't have a battle system that's visible.
FS: If anything, I think it's going to go back to the good old days -- the Nintendo and Super Nintendo days. It's not something that's new to us, per se, but it's more like going back to the basics.
BS: Was there any particular reason behind picking the Wii platform as the first vehicle to do console digital distribution stuff, as opposed to the Xbox 360 or the PS3?
TT: I don't think there's that much thought into it. Like I said, the session I saw somewhere that [Nintendo president Satoru] Iwata-san was talking about all the little content that's going to go in there. That was just an idea. You can tell from this game design that if it succeeds, it will probably succeed better with the Wii, as opposed to other platforms.
BS: Was it designed to be more casual for that particular market?
TT: It's not a casual game. My thoughts are that you have to have rules in place and win and loss situations for a good, solid game, and we don't want to sacrifice that just to go for the casual market.
FS: The director and I talked a lot, but neither of us are casual gamers. We're pretty hardcore, usually. It's hard for hardcore developers to make a casual game. We didn't think we'd be very good at it. But one thing that we did try to do was to make the UI simple, and try to make the tutorial helpful enough that casual users who might be interested could learn the system and get into the game.
JP: Does the game make any use of some of the Wii-specific features like motion controls, the wireless connection, multiplayer, etcetera?
FS: Yes and no. Not to the full extent. We do a little bit of motion sensing. One of the things that our director was really keen on was to be able to play this game online. But he's off of that. We designed the game so that you can play with just one hand. That's kind of how we use the Wii functionality, but it doesn't use it to the fullest extent that some of the Nintendo games do.
BS: Since this is a more accessible game, does it still feature an MMO-style level grind?
FS: I guess you could make a good game that grinds if you really wanted to, but in this current game... there's a fine balance between too little and too much, but in this case, we tried to keep it pretty simple so you could play it through and not have to grind too long. At the same time, we tried to add more things so that you could play it a second and third time so that if you really like this game, it should add variety so that you could keep on playing it.
JP: You talked about how the game's heroes have personalities. Are these randomized, so that they'll be different every time you play through, or are there certain set conditions within the game, especially in regards to the characters?
FS: There's a little bit of both. The names of the characters go through a little bit of randomization, but in some direct and some indirect ways, we let you steer them a little bit so that you can kind of customize them. The second or third time, you could import and continue from your previous game.
BS: I'm assuming not, but is it a persistent world that's always going, or is it just when you have the console on.
FS: It's just when you have the console on.
BS: Have either of you played Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida, by Acquire?
FS: Yeah. He's played that one.
BS: That's also kind of an RPG inversion, because you've got a dungeon, and there's a hero going through it, and you choose a path and the monsters try and get him and stuff. It's interesting that there are two games like that that will be out within a year. Do you think that there's a trend toward trying to play with conventions right now?
TT: For game creators, I think we've saved up a lot of frustrations. We feel like we've been waiting for a chance to change conventions, I think. That's maybe showing up around that.
Sony/Acquire's Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida.
BS: Do you think conventional RPGs are coming to a limit of what they can do, in terms of advancing games?
TT: I don't think that. RPGs are still a genre, so there's still ways to keep them fun. The problem isn't so much as that the genre has reached a limit as it is the risk of making one game is so high that it's sometimes prohibitive, in terms of being creative or taking chances.
JP: So you see WiiWare as the antidote to that?
TT: Yeah. I personally think the command [menu] type RPGs might be approaching a limit, because of all these expressive technologies. We may be reaching a limit.
BS: That's interesting. To me, it seems like traditional RPGs and first-person shooters and a couple of really established genres are all sharing this problem, where it's been established for a while, and now because they have to be so much bigger and better and reach such a scale that expectations have to be managed so much that it's harder to take a risk.
FS: Do you think that's the case in other genres too?
BS: Yeah, like sports genres, FPS...
JP: Platformers. Platformers have been pretty DOA for a while. Fighting games.
TT: I think it's all a matter of risk. It doesn't matter what the genre is. If the cost becomes expensive, they just can't take risks anymore. With a platform like WiiWare, maybe we can take on some risks and try some new things out.
JP: You mentioned Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida. Something I like about that particular game is that it has a very retro pixel-art style, and if you look around the GDC show floor, you'll find a lot of independent games also adopt that retro style.
Do you ever see some of your games go in for that particular look -- that very deliberate style -- or do you feel that the Square Enix feel that you mentioned a few times in your speeches yesterday demands that you push the limits of visuals, go 3D, and see how far you can take CG?
TT: It's not something that we've thought about. Just because it's retro-looking doesn't mean anything about the game. But both of us... it may not be a preference. For some of our generation, retro is kind of cool, because it reminds of the good old days, but it's not necessarily... It's a style, I think. If you just make it retro, it's not something new.
JP: I was also thinking just in terms of practicality, because bitmap artists didn't have much space in comparison to CG. If you look at the size of a Super Famicom Final Fantasy, they were massive games, but they also fit in a very compact space.
FS: Maybe not the retro look, but 2D is definitely an option, to keep the size down. If you want to make a big game in a small amount of space, 2D is definitely an option, but 2D isn't necessarily retro.
TT: I guess it was like [Koji "IGA" Igarashi's] Castlevania last year about 2D and 3D games, and how they have different ways of being fun. I totally agree with that session. I'm also kind of sad that 2D is kind of gone, so if there's an opportunity for it in a game, I'm all for it.
BS: Speaking again of risk, it seems to me that not taking risk is a way to not make money, because you can only really get a big, breakthrough hit if you do take a risk. How do you feel that is reconciled right now? It seems like a very difficult line that people are treading.
TT: When we're making a big game, it's still a risk, because it costs a lot to make one game. The problem is, until recently, that's the only risk we were taking, whereas with some of the smaller-sized titles, we could do quantity, and try a lot of different kinds of stuff. Obviously not all of them will succeed. There are a few that will make us some money, and maybe we can grow those.
BS: I think that is definitely a good approach, as long as the company is willing to accept a couple of failures, which seems really difficult for a lot of companies to accept.
TT: What winds up happening sometimes is that you have one big title, and you're afraid it's going to fail, so you put more resources in, and it gets even bigger. You kind of get stuck in a rut.
It's true that when you have a lot of little ones, you have all these little failures, and that could be kind of painful too. But at least for us, these little ones, if they fail... let's say out of ten, eight of them fail and two succeed, that's still better than having one big one and having that fail and not make up for its costs. We crunch numbers, and I think we'll take those risks.
JP: Speaking of making lots of smaller games, I know that in Japan, Square Enix has lots of unique niche DS titles, like language training, music appreciation and yoga. How does the development cycle and team size of games like those compare to the work cycle and team size that you have for Crystal Chronicles?
FS: Those are made not in-house, but by external developers, so I don't know exactly what the team make-up or the design process is like. But it's still part of the same strategy of trying to diversify risk, and trying to take a bunch of smaller risks than one big one at a time.
BS: Do you foresee Square Enix doing more in the downloadable space for the other consoles, or will it just be WiiWare for now?
TT: We're definitely looking into all the other download mediums.
JP: You mentioned in your speech that you initially saw the Virtual Console as the main competition for WiiWare. To date, Square Enix hasn't really participated too much in the Virtual Console. I think you have a few games available for the system. Is that something you're looking more into, or something you've tried to do and Nintendo has been hands-off with it?
TT: We don't think the games and the IP that we have have lost value yet, so we haven't decided if releasing them on VC is the best idea.
JP: So you feel that releasing older games for the Virtual Console suggests that they're not as valuable anymore?
TT: It's a matter of the package -- which is downloading. You look at a game, and you have to decide whether it will be better to be sold in a retail store, or if it will be better for download. We're making that decision carefully for each of the games that we have. It comes down to the games that we think we could make a good remake of haven't been on VC yet.
JP: It's interesting, because the one Square Enix game that has been on the Virtual Console is ActRaiser. This game reminds me a lot of the sim elements of ActRaiser. I don't know if that means anything, but I am kind of curious about how this became a Final Fantasy game instead of an ActRaiser sequel, because it didn't originally start out as a Final Fantasy.
FS: I'd like to make an ActRaiser sequel. That would be kind of fun.
Square Enix's ActRaiser
JP: I'd love to see one.
TT: I wanted it to be a part of the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles universe, because I believed that the character design and setting and atmosphere fit in really well with the Wii user.
JP: I just have one last question. Obviously, by drawing from the GameCube game, you've saved a lot of time and trouble creating the art assets for the game. But obviously, not everyone making WiiWare will have a library of assets to build from. They won't be able to pull from those games. What kind of challenges do you think that smaller developers might have, from the process you experienced?
FS: Independent companies always have less overhead than some bigger developers, and less overhead is their strength. Having previous titles to work on, assets, and a world setting is our strength. It's all about working on your strengths. I think the question at the session was translated badly, but it's a competitive market, and everyone's got to work on their strengths, I think.