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From Panzer To Draco: Yukio Futatsugi Speaks

Finding out about world building from one of the pioneers of creating rich, believable worlds: the creator of the Panzer Dragoon series, who is currently hard at work on a new game, Project Draco, for Xbox Live Arcade.

The world of the Panzer Dragoon games was a startling revelation for those that played them. While the first two games were unexpectedly rich and engrossing shooters, the third game in the series -- little played but much revered -- 1998's Panzer Dragoon Saga, expanded the universe to encompass an RPG, seamlessly, showing that the amount of attention given to world-building by the developers wasn't put to waste. The game also had some of the most believable early 3D environments in games.

Now -- after working on the equally memorable and even more overlooked Phantom Dust for the original Xbox -- original Panzer Dragoon creator Yukio Futatsugi has reunited many of the developers he worked with at Sega's Team Andromeda to create Project Draco, a Kinect-based dragon-riding game for Xbox Live Arcade, at his new studio Groundling.

In this interview, in which he discusses his philosophy to building worlds with real texture and memorable detail, he's joined by Toshiharu Tange, Microsoft's producer for the game.

Is this the same world as Panzer Dragoon?

Yukio Futatsugi: No, it's a completely different world.

Can you use a controller?

YF: You're sitting on the dragon, and you control it by shifting your body weight around. It doesn't have support for that. Basically, it's a rail shooter. You control the dragon as it goes along the course and fights enemies.

In this game, you have one weapon for each hand, along with another that uses both hands, and you switch between them as you go. Your main weapon is on your right hand. That was the homing laser right now, but in total there are about 150 skills, and you're able to teach your dragon your choice of these and customize him in any way you like.

The Kinect can sometimes have lag. How does that affect an action game like this?

YF: At the moment, it hasn't become a major issue. We're helped by the fact that you're piloting a large dragon in this game, and so in the game world, there's going to be a little bit of a delay between your commands and his movements. There isn't going to be the sort of lag that causes stress to the gamer, however.


Project Draco

Is the Team Andromeda staff working on this game?

YF: Tomohiro Kondo, who was one of the original members, is the game design lead on this project. There's also Manabu Kusunoki, who is doing the design concepts here. The programming team, as well; the lead programmer on Draco was at Team Andromeda from pretty much the very beginning. Saori Kobayashi, too, on the sound side.

The dragon designs are kind of different.

YF: Well, there wouldn't be any point to having the same designs as before. With this game, it's set on a planet inhabited by dragons that humans are in the midst of colonizing, so they're designed to be a bit more organic -- previously the dragons were a lot more weapon-like, but this time we're aiming for more of a creature-like look.

How do you create that look?

YF: Well, it's hard to really say how, but for example, we've tried to work out the ecosystem the enemies and so forth live within. Now, depending on the results of the quest, you can obtain different food to give to your dragon. Between what you feed him and the experience points, or score, you obtain within the quests, your dragon gradually grows. In that respect, the game isn't a shooter so much as a mixture of shooting and character-raising.


Will the title be Project Draco on release?

YF: There will be a different title. We have several candidates but no final decision yet, so that's why we revealed it like this.

What is it like to make games for Kinect?

YF: It's interesting, but it's also tough.

Why?

YF: The fun part lies in the ability to control things with your body, the way you can directly affect what's going on with your body instead of going through something else. But making games for it presents a lot of challenges. It's hard to really make a game that can only be done with Kinect -- something that can be said for any title, not just ours.

Toshiharu Tange: You come up with ideas for motions in your mind, but when you actually try them out, they don't work well.

YF: You can tell a player to move their hand in a certain way to fire, but different players will interpret that in different ways. Previously you could just say "Press the A button" and everyone got that, but trying to catch all the possible ranges of motion can be tough to implement.

Do you interpret the different motions that players do, or do you tell them exactly what to do?

YF: The game is able to pick up on either small or large movements, and so it can adapt to player styles like that.

How do you playtest this?

YF: That happens over at Microsoft, and that's an ongoing process.

It must be difficult.

YF: It is. Playtesting is difficult, as is finding space for development. Japanese studios don't really have a lot of open space, and you need about twice as much space as usual for a project like this.

Panzer Dragoon Saga changed the shooter series into an RPG. How did you deconstruct the game system? The game really felt like it was in the same world, but the system was totally different.

YF: We did spent a lot of time reworking the system into a shooter-RPG format. That in itself took a good year, figuring how what kind of battle system to have with a small core group. The results turned out pretty well, but... a lot of it I've forgotten, but locking on, whether in battle or just talking to people, became one of the basic actions of the game. We had that as our base action, and thought about how the rest of the game world would work from that. That's why I think the game felt the same, as it did.

Were there ideas you couldn't use?

YF: There were a lot that we couldn't use.

Do you remember any?

YF: Well, it was 10 years ago, so a lot of it I've either forgotten or wound up using in other games.


How do you create the worlds of your games?

YF: We always start with the gameplay system first, the way it works -- or with Phantom Dust, it started with the hardware specs. Then it shifts over to what sort of world will be the best fit for this kind of gameplay. I don't really come up with an intricate world setting at the very start or anything. The system comes first, then the world.

And yet the worlds of Panzer Dragoon and Phantom Dust feel like they really exist. Does that have much to do with the system? How do you come up with this "real" feeling?

YF: It basically comes down to the amount of information you provide. We put a lot of background information into our games, almost more than is really necessary for the game. That increases the costs of development, but we create and insert a whole bunch of backdrops, and it's up to the user whether he really goes in-depth with it or not.

Setting serves to add depth to the game, and in a way it comes down to how much so-called extraneous information you decide to put in. We also put lies in -- of the information you see, around 70 percent is the truth and 30 percent is false. That sort of balance.

For example, with Phantom Dust, you're essentially playing through the memories of a person. When the camera goes past characters, they dissolve. Also, when you go through the village, the music suddenly changes from moment to moment, like in a dream. Could you say those are examples of "lies" told to the player through gameplay?

YF: Well, 70 percent is created with a "realistic" bent. The things you see in the world of Phantom Dust are based off the real world, but 30 percent of that is stuff you would never see in real life, such as the supernatural abilities people have and the memory-loss part of the story. You have these lies working their way into the reality of the game. Everything seems like the truth to you.

And the world is true to itself; everything fits together in the game world even if it's not true to reality.

YF: Making a world like this requires you to be able to mix truth and fiction together pretty well. For the fiction part, the more information you put into that portion -- the more lies you pile atop one another, in other words -- the more it seems to become part of the reality. The more time you can devote to that process, the better the results.

Is that sort of process behind Draco as well?

YF: Yes -- or I should say that we are right in the midst of building that portion of it at the moment. I'd like to devote as much time to it as I can.

There were parts of Phantom Dust you couldn't enter, like the area under the village, even though the story discusses it a little. Were there plans for those areas?

YF: In the original plan, the idea was that the town would move around and proceed underground and expand that way. You'd use the drill to expand what you can access underground, letting you proceed along and eventually get to the final area. That was the first idea, but we didn't have enough time to implement that. So the town stays still, but there are still some aspects of that left in the story.

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