Dragon Quest IV was released for the Famicom in early 1990, about 8 months before the new Super Famicom. I’ve made some minor editorial adjustments to this interview (actually a combination of two interviews) to remove some sections that were promotional in nature.

Here Yuji Horii discusses the differences between DQIV and its predecessors; his remarks point toward the future trends of jRPGs in the 90s and beyond: open worlds, side quests, multiple endings.

This interview was found at the GSLA, a Japanese a website that, among other things, preserves game developer interviews from older, now-defunct print sources. The GSLA often redacts the original interviewer questions, so the text ends up reading more like a narrative than an interview.

Dragon Quest II interview
Dragon Quest III interview

Dragon Quest IV – 1989/90 Interview

with Yuji Horii

Changes from DQIII to DQIV

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Yuji Horii, circa 1990.

In DQIV, the NPCs in town are not simply messengers who exist to convey some information to the player. Each one is living their own life, with their own personal drama. Also, while the protagonists of the previous Dragon Quest games were all essentially avatars of the player, in DQIV they have their own individual stories and drama. In earlier games it was fun progressing towards the final goal. That is still here in DQIV, but the human relationships that are interwoven into the main quest are now a large part of the game’s appeal, too.

The day/night system from DQIII was very popular, so we naturally kept it in for IV. RPGs already involve a lot of talking with NPCs. Just talking to them one by one takes a lot of time. So in DQIII, we didn’t try to add dialogue that changed according to what you did in the game world. Actually, in some limited, special circumstances we did, where we didn’t think it would be too burdensome for the player.

In fact, we had plans for one such special scene in DQIII, in a town called Portopia.1 It happens when the hero stays at the Inn. During the day it’s just your normal Inn, but at night the Hero hears a rustling sound in the dark… and upon waking and checking his belongings, he discovers that the Final Key, which he had only just obtained after a huge ordeal, has vanished! Panicking, he starts to gather information from everyone in town: “now that you mention it, I did hear something strange last night.” Following the trail of clues, the hero makes a startling discovery. But this took way too much memory! So unfortunately we had to cut it.

The era when RPGs competed over who has the biggest map is already. Today its the content that matters: quality over quantity. So the map for DQIV is about the same size as DQIII. The numbers of towns and castles has increased, of course. But DQIII had around 70 dungeons, and there was no way we were going to double that with something like 140 dungeons! Please consider the expanded 4MB size to be for increased, deeper content.

Also, as for dungeons, I think players are getting bored of just navigating mazes. For DQIV, we removed the complex mazes. Instead we added various traps and contrivances to entertain the players.

The monsters are always a feature of Dragon Quest, and Toriyama does that work. The illustrations he gave us for DQIV were really great, and they inspired us to come up with all kinds of special attack patterns. There were also a lot of funny-looking monsters that made us burst out laughing. I think there’s even more silly ones than there were in DQIII.

Menu and Interface Revisions

One issue we faced was clunkiness with the system for buying items, and specifying the quantity you want to buy. For example, when you buy a Medical Herb the shopkeeper asks how many you’d like to purchase. But he also asks the same thing when you buy the Copper Sword–and who is buying more than one of those?! It also seemed weird to only have the merchant ask “how many?” when you buy items like medical herbs, though. Updating even that aspect of the shop menus proved to be difficult. But I think that with each game we’re gradually ironing out the frustrating parts. At meetings everyone airs their grievances about such things.

Memory Limitations and the Notebook command

You could call it the fate of every RPG, but when it comes to solving puzzles and mysteries, if enough time passes the player will forget the clues he’s heard. In DQIII we addressed this by having most of the information you’d hear that day relate to puzzles in the same area. But that gives the events of the game a very segmented, disconnected feeling. People weren’t very satisfied with that, and we wanted to emphasize the story elements more for DQIV, so we increased the amount of foreshadowing throughout the game.

But this introduces its own dilemma. Previously we had talked about adding a “Notebook” command to Dragon Quest, for players who couldn’t remember everything they’d heard. It would record what people in the various towns said. However, recording one entry took about 5 bytes of space. If you record 50 people’s conversations, that’s 250 bytes. There was no way we could afford that much memory to be eaten up, so we had to abandon the idea. The cart SRAM needed to be used for many things other than Notebook recordings; to make-up for the scant 2kb of RAM on the actual Famicom system, we had to use the cart SRAM for battle AI, map storage, and more. To add more SRAM would have raised the price of the game by about 2000 yen (~20$), and DQIV already had two SRAM chips installed.

On Dragon Quest sequels

If we had written another story, we could have continued the Loto2 saga. But I thought we could probably make a better game by starting a whole new story. I’m thinking that DQIV’s story will be the start of a new trilogy, too.

I think there are two ways to make a sequel. You can keep the game system exactly the same and simply change the story, or you can evolve the game system. I think Dragon Quest’s has been successful precisely because we always update the game system with each sequel. But if you make too many radical changes, I think you run the risk of alienating new players. So for DQIV we made less changes to the game system than in previous games.

If we had made DQIV on the Super Famicom,3 the biggest change would be the graphics. And maybe the increased graphics capabilities themselves would spur us to create new events and scenarios. But I think that having more memory is what will really increase our possibilities. Every time we make a Dragon Quest game, we have to cut out about 1/3 of what we’ve planned… if only we had more memory, we’d have so much more freedom. Just having more space for side quests would really increase the quality of the game, I think.

Ideally, I think it would be amazing to have a game where fighting monsters isn’t necessarily the main goal. You could fight them, or maybe you just want to do something else. One problem that would come up there, I think, is the so-called multi-ending. If a game has 5 endings and the player only finishes one, wouldn’t he be left without a sense of closure? Wouldn’t it be a pain to then have to play the whole game again to see the other endings? On the other hand, if you know there’s 5 endings from the beginning, its like you’re playing 5 different games, not one. Instead of having 5 games in one title, it would be better to just make one solid, good game… anyway, it’s a difficult matter.