[Takashi Tokita -- a lead creative force behind Square's Final Fantasy IV and lead designer of recent sequel The After Years -- looks back at the creative process of the original game from 1991, and also reflects on how the developer has strayed from its glory days.]
Lead designer Takashi Tokita joined Square 25 years ago -- prior to the company's merger with Enix, and prior to the Final Fantasy series becoming popular in the U.S. He was a lead creative force behind the game Final Fantasy IV, which is being rereleased on the PSP this week. Originally released on the Super Famicom (SNES) in 1991, the game has also hit the original PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS.
It is a seminal title in the series, in which two Final Fantasy mainstays were introduced: the real-time Active Time Battle combat system, and a reliance on rich character-based melodrama -- two elements which remain part of the series to this day, forming the underpinnings of last year's Final Fantasy XIII.
In this candid interview, Tokita, also lead designer of recent Final Fantasy IV sequel The After Years, looks back at the creative process of the original game from 1991, reflects on how the developer has strayed from its glory days, and examines what Square Enix could do to bring those days back in an age of changing consumer behavior and rapid platform expansion.
When did you originally join Square?
Takashi Tokita: Twenty-five years ago. I started just as a part-timer, and not a full-time employee, doing graphic design. From FF IV, I became a full-time employee.
So this [revisiting of FF IV] is you returning to your roots at this point?
TT: Yes. With FF IV, as a game designer, I was previously doing graphic design as well; but it was the first time I really saw a project from beginning to end. With The After Years, and these additional titles, and then also the 20th Anniversary Complete Collection, I really feel like I was able to return to my roots -- it was a fated project.
Has it been reflective for you? Twenty years is a big milestone. Has it given you a lot to think about?
TT: Yeah, I realized I've done so much over these years, and the game industry overall is an industry that changes so quickly. It used to be that every five years was essentially a new platform, but now we're at the point where the environment itself, including mobile, is just constantly changing. You never get bored, and so I feel like I blinked and it's been 25 years.
Game development used to be "what can you create? What kind of software can you provide for a specific platform?" But it's no longer really about platforms; it's about infrastructure and content. In terms of that, it's really a lot more flexible, and it's really about what kind of fun content can you create. That's what's going to get noticed.
That's a big change for Square, I think, because it was always about what is this epic new world that's going to be created, with what new characters. Maybe hooking people isn't going to be the same in the near future; maybe gaining interest isn't necessarily going to be about that as much.
TT: Yeah, I definitely feel that now, as well. Of course, we have the main big franchises of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, but beyond that it's about what kind of opportunities and challenges can they take on. Like getting into military, it's not just about having an Air Force and an Army anymore; it's also about having your guerilla troops and your people who are looking into R&D (laughs). It's just a much wider range of teams and areas to explore.
Final Fantasy IV has probably been ported to more platforms than any other Final Fantasy game. Can you give me an idea of why that is?
TT: When we made the original Final Fantasy IV, we wanted to collect all the best aspects of Final Fantasy I, II, and III, and create what is the basis for what a Final Fantasy is. As the standard for Final Fantasy, we really wanted to bring it to a variety of platforms.
You're right; it introduced Active Time Battle, and it introduced melodrama to the series, which is probably just as important. If you can think back to when you originally created it in 1991, what were you thinking? What was the goal with the original project?
TT: For Final Fantasy I, II, and III, they were for the NES. At that point, Dragon Quest was the number one most popular game in Japan. With Final Fantasy IV, we really wanted to surpass that. The previous Final Fantasy titles were not million-sellers yet, and so we really wanted to jump over that hurdle this time.
One of the things I really respect about Final Fantasy IV is that it seems like every dungeon has something different to do in it.
I was wondering if you would talk about why. That didn't continue throughout the series; it's very specific to that game.
TT: What we really wanted to do was to have a variety of different concepts for dungeons, and we felt that, without that, it just wouldn't be interesting enough. So we spent a lot of time brainstorming the different concepts that could be applied to each dungeon.
It certainly had a lot of different settings, as well. We had the underground, the main world, and the moon -- in a sort of similar way, is it just to keep the variety to the game?
TT: Even the monsters in the different dungeons -- if you were on the moon, they would be very alien-like. We spent a lot of time creating ideas for all the different types of characters.
Why did you feel the need to have multiple different worlds? At that time, that was pretty rare. Was that just another thing that you thought would improve the game and propel it to the kind of sales you were looking for?
TT: It wasn't just about the story. Each person who was handling the map design or the battles came to the table with their own ideas, and there was kind of a sense of a competitive spirit among us, of how we could make this more fun for the fans. Right now, a lot of games are more movie-like and more cinematic, and it doesn't offer the full, robust feel, when it's that kind of cinematic game.
Final Fantasy XIII doesn't offer the same concrete understanding of where your characters are and why. There's Pulse and Cocoon, and that makes sense; but it doesn't have the same sense of progression or differentiation.
TT: And for Final Fantasy IV, because for each of the characters you know the country that they came from and their backgrounds and how they grew up, it gives you more of an ability to relate to each of the characters.
I also remember something that FF XIII director Motomu Toriyama said last year at his GDC presentation, which was that, in the old days, it was much easier for people on the team to throw out different ideas and have those be accepted, whereas the kind of planning that goes on for contemporary games doesn't allow for that.
TT: I think there's something to be said about everyone freely offering their ideas and that creating a really great game, even if that means you're sacrificing some consistency; at least it's offering a wide variety.
Is it possible to do that these days, and, for that matter, is that something that could happen, say, with The After Years when that was being created?
TT: Yes, for The After Years that I had done, and also Final Fantasy Legends, which is a content scenario-based game for the mobile platform in Japan, we are doing something like that. Essentially, I create the concept in the beginning, and then, in the middle, the staff throws out all of their ideas; and then we bring it together and finalize it at the end. I really feel like that helps motivate the teams and also creates something that's more than we expected.
Final Fantasy Legends
Especially when you're working with mobile or portable titles, it's not as complicated; but also you don't have as many resources, so trying to keep the team focused on contributing interesting ideas has got to be a real challenge, I think.
TT: Similar to Chrono Trigger, which has many different worlds, for each world to have a director of its own is kind of another way to work on that, and a way to use the team.
One of the things that I think was interesting about Final Fantasy IV originally, is that it was one of the first games that had a real character arc for the main character. Cecil went from being a dark knight to being a paladin and learned a lot about himself. That really set the stage for the kind of characters we would see from RPGs from that point forward. I'm interested in why you arrived at that sort of character arc originally.
TT: For Final Fantasy I and III, of course, we used the job system where you could change jobs to grow. For Final Fantasy IV, the growth of the characters is really tied to the abilities they gain in battle; so the ability growth they receive through battle is directly related. That decision was definitely a major one.
Tying together the arc of the story to the way the characters develop throughout the game, and deciding to make characters that couldn't change -- characters that were tied to their roles.
TT: Yes, the story-driven part was the main component; the fact that we focused on the characters' stories first, and laid those down initially and then, after we had that finalized, added the variety on top.
It's actually something the series has moved away from a little bit in the sense that characters like, say, Yang or Kain, had roles in battle where the character class was very well defined, and tied into their character from the story perspective. It seems like, in the newer games, the character's role doesn't have as much to do with the character's skills.
TT: All of that has to do with how the team is organized. For now, because the teams are so large, the teams creating the story, the teams creating the battle, and the teams doing the level design are completely separate; whereas, for Final Fantasy IV, I handled the story all by myself, and then there was someone who did the battles by himself, and someone who did the maps. It was very easy for them to communicate very clearly and to coordinate, whereas now just the sheer size of the teams makes that a little more difficult.
As you address process changes and the way that games are made in the company, do you think that's something you want to address, and try to bring back a way to collaborate, and add consistency into the games?
TT: Yes, definitely. We're looking for different ways that we can reorganize some of the large teams; we're definitely working towards that. That would definitely help in terms of teamwork, and also individual motivation for the people on the team.
I attended a talk in November given by Julien Merceron about the collaboration that's happening between Eidos people and Square Enix; about how things move forward on the teams. Has that affected anything on your end in terms of the way that you're thinking about moving forward with development?
TT: Definitely. For last year, when we were in pre-production, we received some feedback from Eidos and incorporated that into what we were doing.
It's a very interesting time for the company, for Square Enix. Well, it's an interesting time for the industry, because so much is changing, but at the same time your company is at a spot where you have a lot of different ways you can go with how you move forward, I think.
TT: I definitely think there's a lot of change going on in the world overall. It's not just about games, but things like Facebook mean that those categories are increasing. Having the freedom to create your own concepts and having that motivation to come up with new things is definitely interesting.
To return to the question of The After Years, it was originally a mobile phone game in Japan. Was it motivated by the mobile platform being available, or was FF IV something that you had wanted to come back to and that was the right time to do it?
TT: When we were making the FF IV remake for the Nintendo DS, we were talking to the mobile staff. The conversation was: "Wouldn't it be great if we could create a game that would continue the story that would be available immediately after the DS game was out?" In order to create a game that quickly, the mobile platform was the best option.
Obviously, when that was announced, there was no way it was going to come to America because the platform wasn't available. It was a nice shock when it came out on WiiWare. It was interesting to see what form it took there, because episodic gaming has never quite hit the mainstream the way I think people have been anticipating for a number of years.
TT: For long RPGs, it can take a really long time to develop them. In this current climate, if you're developing something for a year, everything can change within that year. The way the market is right now, I think it makes more sense to make the kind of content that you can release monthly, similar to a TV drama, where you can watch the reaction of your fans and your market and adjust accordingly. That also helps to motivate the teams, as well, for developers.
As we see changes in the market in terms of people going to Apple's devices, and releasing low price-point games where you can add more content, people get this expectation that they can try a game on the cheap and decide how much they want to invest. It's very different from selling people a $40 disc.
TT: For The After Years, there are about 13 total scenarios, and so it's actually kind of the opposite concept. If you think of it as a $50 game, each of those scenarios was about $3. Instead of offering a full-course meal, you can offer each of the items to people as an a la carte. That's kind of the opposite business model, and the opposite way to look at it, but it's definitely an interesting way to offer the content to your audience.
To go back to what you said just before, you said that there's a possibility of being responsive to what the audience wants from the game in that kind of model. Were you able to do that with the original release of The After Years on mobile platforms in Japan?
TT: The major development arc didn't change; we had that set, but we did definitely tweak some of the things like the character reactions and the way their relationships unfolded.
The development team's staff looked at what fans were saying online, and part of what's key to entertainment is answering some of the hopes that fans have -- and then going the opposite of what they hope for as well. It's a fine line, but we definitely did pay attention to those details.
It's becoming increasingly important, especially in the age of social media, to engage with the fan base and be aware of what people want because there's so much discussion between people about what they feel. It's not just fans talking to fans anymore; it's fans talking to the world.
TT: Definitely. In terms of that, I think it would be very interesting if users and developers kind of come together and share the development, essentially, and create something together in the future.
When this game was originally released, you couldn't easily get feedback from fans, particulalry in the West. Nowadays, you'll find out many people's opinions very easily, even in America. So it does profoundly change your relationship with your audience, I think.
TT: When I was creating Parasite Eve, I was in LA and Honolulu for about a year and a half, working with the U.S. CG staff to finish up the game. Those people who were working on it were all fans of Final Fantasy IV and had grown up on that game. The fact that I have spent my career creating new things with this variety of people is really something that I hold a lot of pride in, and something that also has given me a lot of confidence.
I'm sure you have a lot of discussions about it internally, but there was a period where Square games were the most acclaimed, and it's not as consistent anymore. What might bring that time back, in your opinion? How could you approach that sort of period again?
TT: I don't think it's just about Square; it's Japan overall, where we put an over-importance on technology and really let slide some of the important use of story and concept and, really, the collaboration and coordination between the teams. I think, if we find a way again to have teams come together and motivate them and really share their energy and their knowledge, that will really bring that back.
[Tokita pulls out two smartphones -- a Japanese device and an iPhone.]
These two smartphones really exemplify what I mean in terms of an overreliance on technology. Whereas the iPhone is really well-balanced and easy to use overall, this Japanese phone has a lot of great tech features, like a 12 megapixel camera. You don't necessarily need something that high-end. And it's waterproof, and it has a TV antenna. But it's really hard to use. They focus so much on these tech aspects that they've forgotten to create something that's user-friendly.
I was at Tokyo Game Show, and this is a term that I heard a few times: Galapagos. I'm sure you've heard about, referring to Japanese technology evolving in its own way. It seems almost like that's how the game industry went, too, maybe.
TT: Right now, we're thinking about it in a way-too complex way. It used to be that our creativity could run free because we didn't worry about the end result. We could just be original and creative, and whatever came of it was original and creative. Now, we're becoming too concerned about marketing and all these other aspects, and that's limiting us right now. There's this saying that essentially means that "you're crossing the bridge and checking every stone while you're crossing it" -- that's how I feel development is right now.
I like to reflect on Final Fantasy IV and, at the time, how far ahead it was. It's not to say that Square Enix doesn't make games that are on par with what's being made contemporarily, but you don't push as hard anymore.
TT: Right now, we're so influenced by everyone's opinions, and the internet, and everything you hear, and what everyone else is making. I actually think it would be better if we would shut all of that out and just made what we want to make. That would create something that would be more original.
I feel like creating things without getting too hung up on little details, and paying more attention to the importance to the concept itself, is the way to move forward.
I always think of Japanese games as being very detail-oriented, though. Maybe that's not what you mean. I always feel like it's the little touches that make a big difference.
TT: In Japan, I think what's interesting is that things started with manga, and there's a very strong influence of Osamu Tezuka. He was a doctor, and started to create these manga in his free time, and he was really looking up to Disney. That was his main inspiration, and then he started creating animation, as well. People who saw that and wanted to make movies and make animation got into that field.
When I was young and looking to see what I could do creatively, game development was the field that came up -- from my love of manga and animation. That progression of manga, anime, and games is very unique to Japan. The fact that young people who were free to create and express the way they wanted developed these new fields in entertainment is something that's very unique and interesting to Japanese culture.
The one thing I will say about Final Fantasy IV, looking back on it, if you contrast it with newer games... you sit down to any contemporary game and you know you're going to have two hours of boredom until you've figured out everything; but Final Fantasy IV, you sit down, and pretty much within 15 minutes you're into the world, because older games were simpler. I think that it's probably time to bring some of that back.
TT: I think a lot of current games are too high-tempo or fast-paced. There's just a little too much show; they're trying to show you too much, and there should be more of a balance between allowing the user to play and discover for themselves. There's a good balance between showing and having them experience for themselves.
Ultimately, in Final Fantasy IV, you couldn't do much in the way of stuff that wasn't along the path of the main game. I've played Final Fantasy IV a ridiculous number of times, so it's easy for me to remember.
But it didn't feel constrained because it had good pacing and good drama; whereas, with contemporary games, you will feel like "I don't want to be doing what you want me to be doing right now," but you have no choice a lot of the time.
TT: I think there are really two important points. One is that you really need to leave the important story arcs to the players; they need to resolve those things while they're playing through battle scenes, and it's very important not to use cutscenes to explain those main story arcs.
The second thing is that there can be a lot of characters, but the main character needs to be the main character and side characters should be side characters. When side characters are a little bit too overdeveloped, it takes the focus away. I think it's important for side characters to remain that.
Final Fantasy IV has a lot of side characters, and they're very memorable, even though some of them are not in the party for very long. Edward [Gilbert in the Japanese version] is not really in the game very much -- but he adds something without taking anything away.
TT: In terms of that, everyone fulfills their own role; each character has their role. I didn't used to like Gilbert when I was young, but now, at my age, I finally understand the good points of Gilbert.
That's funny; didn't you basically write Gilbert?
TT: While we were creating FF IV, regardless, the staff all had our own likes and dislikes between the characters. I liked Edge the most, whereas the current person who is handling battles for games like FFXI and FFXIV really liked Gilbert. That was part of what created the ability to hide. [Gilbert can hide from enemies in battle.]
I think that that's a real strength of this game; that it has a well-realized cast, but it doesn't get in the way of the story.
TT: Yeah, definitely. The side characters don't do too much, and that's what's important. At that time, the entire story wouldn't fit into the memory of the cartridge, and so we had to cut it down to about a fourth of what we had created. It was really, really painful cutting down everything so that it would fit, but, because we did that, we kept all of the key and most important elements; and that's what created a great game.
That's a real problem we actually face as an industry right now. The opposite thing is that, very often, we're trying to create as much volume as possible because people get hung up on "How long is this game? How much am I getting for my money?"
TT: I think partially that's just something that publishers put up a front to say "Look at how much content we're providing!" I think a lot of users actually don't want a game that's long; they just don't have the time.
They want something that would be shorter. Because of that, downloadable games that I mentioned before are perfect for the current climate, because you can choose how much you want to play.
You see that all the time. Like I said, to start a contemporary game you often have to spend a couple hours with the tutorials and stuff, but if you play some game on Xbox Live Arcade you'll be right there, right in it, immediately. You know that, so if you only have an hour to play in the evening, that's really important.
TT: I definitely think that an important thing for an interactive entertainment industry is to have the ability to play just a little bit when you feel like it, having that freedom through mobile or handheld platforms.
On the other hand, of course, it's great to have massive experiences like Avatar in 3D where everyone gets together and puts their glasses on together. But, in terms of games, it's great to have those kind of more casual, easy-to-play elements, and that will allow us to expand our user base.
Or even the sense that I was 14 when Final Fantasy IV came out, and now I'm 33. My life is very different. Even though I still really like Final Fantasy, I had to put my life on hold to play Final Fantasy XIII. Basically, I had to not have a social life for a couple of weeks. That wasn't a big problem when I was in high school, but it's kind of a problem now.
TT: And also, back at that time, there was no internet. In Japan, there was definitely no 24-hour TV, either. So, when you had nothing to do at night, it was either comics, or rental videos, or games. There's definitely that emotional nostalgia going where young, single guys, playing games is what they did at night.
Whereas those young, single guys are probably fathers now, with full-time jobs. The thing is, in America, people still play games; I don't know if Japan is exactly the same. It seems like it might be a little bit different.
I always feel like, these days, a lot of RPGs in Japan seem to be made for teenagers. If you look at Cecil... I know that kids were playing this game, but the character was in his twenties. Usually, the character's like 15 years old in RPGs these days. I always feel like, "Who are these games for?" Because in America, I think the primary audience for games is a little bit older and probably want something a little bit more that they can relate to.
TT: In Japan, I think the core game users are from about middle school to their twenties, and early thirties at the most. I think the fact that they're the middle and high schoolers is because it's really linked to the anime fandom.
There's a word called "chuunibyou," which is literally "second year of middle school sickness", where it's like you're reaching that point where your body is becoming more of an adult, but you emotionally want to stay more as a kid. That emotional state is something that happens to a lot of anime characters, and that people can relate to, and so there's that link.