Final Fantasy VII – 1997 Developer Interviews
Hironobu Sakaguchi – Producer
Yoshinori Kitase – Director
Tetsuya Nomura – Character Design, Storyboards, System, Mech Design
Yuusuke Naora – Art Director
Motonori Sakakibara – Movie Director
Akira Fujii – Battle Scene Director
Ken Narita – Main Programmer
Yasui Kentarou – Magic/Summoning Effects
Kenzo Kanzaki – Backgrounds
Nobuo Uematsu – Music
FF6 vs. FF7
Kitase: Our development concept for the story in FF6 was to have over 10 main characters, any of which could be called “the protagonist.” We challenged ourselves to create a world without someone you could point to and say, “this is the main character.” This time, with FF7, we knew from the beginning that we wanted Cloud to be the main character, and we were going to tell his story.
Aside from the story, FF6 had a lot of details undecided when we began development. A great many things were filled out along the way. In contrast, with FF7 we knew from the outset that we were going to be making a real 3D game, so from the earliest planning stage we had very, very detailed designs drawn up. The script was also locked in, and our image for the graphics was completely fleshed out. So when we began the actual work, we had already created what you could call “storyboards”. Of course there was some experimenting as we worked, but we were very clear about what we were supposed to be doing from the outset.
L-R: Tetsuya Nomura, Motonori Sakakibara, Akira Fujii,
Ken Narita, Kenzo Kanzaki, Yasui Kentarou
Actually, the very first thing we decided in FF7 was how the camera angles would change during battle scenes. We also decided on the materia system, where any weapon and armor can be equipped with any materia. Accordingly we knew the battles wouldn’t be about characters with individual, innate skills, but rather that combat would change depending on the way materia was used.
Sakaguchi: After FF6 was completed the staff had some free time. We then started thinking about what new hardware there was and what we wanted to do with our next creations, and we created a movie as an experiment. At that time we were working with the SG1 workstations, which had rendering software designed for next generation hardware. For that reason we thought it would be good if we could continue using this setup for our next game. With the SG1 software, we could develop graphics for any hardware. 1 However, for our purposes, we didn’t want the frame-by-frame, slow rendering that takes many hours; we wanted to develop a way to render the visuals in real-time for our new game.
Kitase: I believe we only had 3 months to figure all that out.
Choosing the Hardware for Final Fantasy VII
Sakaguchi: It was starting to become clear to us what the memory capacity for the different next-gen consoles would be. Our games were going to need a huge amount of memory. The Final Fantasy VI CG demo we made for the Siggraph exhibition took 20 megs all by itself. We thought that demo had a lot of visual impact, so there really wasn’t much question about which hardware we would use; if we were going to realize the promise of the demo we had shown at Siggraph, nothing but the CD-ROM format would suffice.
Another reason for choosing the CD-ROM was related to price. I think one of the big reasons the first Final Fantasy was favorably received by players, and the later games in the series gained so many fans, was that you could buy those games for around 5000 to 6000 yen. We tried to have the same pricing for Bahamut Lagoon, Gun Hazard, and our other later Super Famicom games, but using cartridge ROM meant those games had to be sold for over 10000 yen. New players did not flock to those games like they had before. If we used CD-ROM for Final Fantasy VII, we’d be able to have a 2-disc game at a price of 5800 yen. I was hoping it would be possible to make a game that could sell several hundred thousand copies.
Front Mission: Gun Hazard cost an incredible 11400 yen, about $114 in 1996.
The high price of cartridge ROM was a key reason Square chose the PSX over N64.
Introductions, Difficulties, Favorite Moments
Sakaguchi: I’ve been working with Kitase for a long time, since FF5. He did most of the event scenes in FF6: the opera house, Celes’ suicide scene, the scene where Setzer climbs the stairs and reminisces, and more. I’m not exactly turning things over to the next generation just yet, but for FF7 almost all the story was done by Kitase. His original ambition was to be a film director, so he’s well-disposed towards this work–I’ve left all the in-game event scripting in his hands.
As for my part, since FF3 I’ve led the battle team, and that was my role this time too. Well, actually, the battle team is composed of solid veterans, so I stepped back a bit and played more of a producer role.
Nomura: For FF7 I worked on character design, storyboarding, and the underlying story.2 I have too many favorite parts to sum up quickly here… well, I like it all.
Narita: I was the main programmer. I did all the programming related to the field, and I also helped get everything together at the end. As for difficulties… hmm. Since it’s been a pretty sudden shift from the Super Famicom to the Playstation, we struggled first with getting used to the Playstation hardware itself, then finding out what appealing features it had, and learning how to bring out those features to make a good, balanced game. But on the programming side, what was really hard for me was going from 2D to 3D. Probably any programmer would say the same I think.
Kitase’s famous opera scene from FF6.
As for things I’m proud of, I thought the movies and the in-game field scenes transition into each other very smoothly. That was also the most difficult thing for us in terms of the programming.
Sakakibara: I worked on the movie cutscenes. The challenge for me was just the amount of volume we had to create, it was crazy. What I liked was the opening scene in the beginning. Although I’m already starting to forget it. (laughs)
Fujii: I did the backgrounds for the battle scenes. What was hard for me was that the field graphics would design their graphics with a very high polygon count, and I think had to find a way to reduce that count so the graphics could be rendered in real-time. Selecting the primary elements to render was very difficult. At first I was just fumbling through it, but I gradually got the hang of it and was able to connect things very well. When I first saw characters move around in those backgrounds I had made, I thought they looked great… if I do say so myself. Unless you’re specifically paying attention to them, battle backgrounds aren’t something you usually notice in a game, but we really had to prepare a huge number of different backgrounds for all the different map terrains.
Kentarou: I did the programming for the battle effects and summons. What was fun for me was recieving the storyboard mockups from Tetsuya and thinking “there’s no way, this is impossible.” But then when I got down to it, they came out surprisingly well. The Titan summon was especially memorable for me. The way we did it was new to me, and I think it compares really well with the work I’ve done in the past.
The CG Team
Sakaguchi: We definitely hired a lot more CG staff than we had before.
Kitase: Yes, but they didn’t feel like a separate, “detached force” from our main development team. They had experience in the game industry. What’s more, our existing staff at Square, who up to now had only worked on games, were able to learn a bit about CG from them.
Sakaguchi: For FF7, about 80-90% of the field and game mechanics were done by our traditional staff. For the CG staff with their specialized hardware knowledge, we tried to let them do their thing (but this time with a video game). Several top-grade special fx guys who had worked at Digital Domain and Lucasarts’ Industrial Light Magic also contributed to FF7.
Maps and Backgrounds
Naora: I worked on the unifying all the graphics, including the movies. The majority of my work was on the background graphics. In our previous games, most of those graphics were done with a fixed top-down perspective. To take a town for an example, the map would be composed of various sprites: houses, streets, foliage, fences, and so on. With FF7 we didn’t have to use sprites and could instead present the maps as one seamless image.
Naora’s trial scene in Chrono Trigger
was composed as a single image.
I had experimented with this before in the trial scene of Chrono Trigger. I used a bunch of memory to make one single image for the background. Previously we had to reuse so many sprites for our maps, but it was very exciting to be able to include whatever we wanted for FF7. We could have more varied terrain, and our whole image of the game world really expanded.
The work of mine that I really want people to see is, of course, Midgar. I had the image of a pizza in mind when I designed that city, and I really like how it turned out.
In any event, what we really wanted to convey with the backgrounds was a lived-in feel. Down to the beds and individual toilets, I put a lot of detail into everything.
And even after I stopped working, my boss was still making stuff. On one of the posters hanging on the wall, he added an image of Hironobu Sakaguchi. (laughs) I should be upfront: there’s many graphics that even I don’t know about hidden away in the game. Be sure to look closely at the walls inside the buildings. Who knows what surprising things you might discover. The Rocket Town especially has a variety of interesting things hidden away.
Kitase: Visually, I wanted Final Fantasy VII to be a completely unified work, with a single style running from beginning to end. The cut-scene movies, overworld map, and battle scenes would not be disconnected, but would instead smoothly and seamlessly transition into one another. To call this game “cinematic” would be correct, but what I really wanted was something where all the compositions and shots would be suffused with meaning and show the intent of the creators.
For all our previous games, when we’ve been in the phase of brainstorming ideas and sketching pictures, there’s always been the knowledge that we have to work within the hardware memory limitations. This time there were no limits, and no restraints.
That difference in available memory had a really big influence on the development. For the gameplay system, story, and in-game events, it didn’t change very much. What the increased memory allowed in FF7 was more painterly visuals, with a better sense of space and composition. Naturally the graphics quality itself has also gone up, but I think it’s in the cinematic presentation where you see the evolution.
The famous FF7 introduction movie
embodies the team’s cinematic ambitions.
Sakaguchi: Speaking of cinematic, we also wanted to have a soundtrack with no repeated music. In movies, you don’t hear music get repeated, you know. Depending on the scene the tempo or the intensity might change though. I think something like that should be possible… although there is the matter of how much available spirit/creativity we can get out of our composer, Uematsu. (laughs) Of course FF7 is a game that takes over 40 hours, so some music is repeated, but our overall goal was to make it as cinematic as possible in that regard.
We also had Yoshitaka Amano do illustrations for the world of FF7. Some of his work appears as a frescoe on a wall in the game.
Kitase: We had really been wanting to use Amano’s artwork in-game before. In FF6, we wanted to have one of Reim’s drawings being Amano’s artwork. In the ending scene Reim would have painted a wall mural showing scenes of all the adventures the heroes had undertaken.
Nomura: Since the characters in FF7 were going to be rendered in real-time, the nitoushin,3 chibi-style character design we’ve used in previous games wasn’t going to work here. If they brandished their sword overhead they’d end up stabbing themselves in the head. Not using the super-deformed style meant we had no limits on how to animate these characters.
Naora: I helped out on the character design too. In the previous games with the nitoushin, deformed sprites, it would look really lame if they rode a motorcycle or something. By changing the character’s dimensions, we were able to have them ride different vehicles.
Nomura: My involvement with FF7 goes back to helping create the basic story, and we came up with the characters during that time too. I think that was a good way to do things. Barret and Cait Sith were two characters whom I had wanted to create for a long time, but everyone else was created as we were writing the story.
As for things I personally designed, I think the Yin and Yang boss came out really well. Also, the Iron Giant. It wasn’t enough to just have a good initial design though. I had to create a design, then translate it into a 3D model, then see how it looked all-around, and only then could I say “alright, this is good.” Yin and Yang and the Iron Giant were two designs I felt that way about.
I also helped out on all the storyboad designs for the summons. Since 3D allows you to change the perspective in various ways, we decided to make the summons have really flashy camerawork.
Square’s concepts for characters expanded when
they switched from chibi-style pixel representations to full 3D.
Kentarou: I personally really like Red XIII’s scenes. Every time I remember that one scene of his, I start to tear up. (laughs)
Kanzaki: My favorite would be Tifa, because of her ample bust. (laughs)
Fujii: Yuffy. I like the sounds she makes. Also, it’s not a character, but I like all the summons.
Kentarou: Ah, yeah, I have a special love for Titan. Nomura said Titan should flip over the ground that the enemies are on. He would peel off a slab of the land: no matter what terrain he was on. (laughs) At first I had him come in on normal ground, and he’d flip the same slab of ground no matter what terrain… but that looked boring. I had a small insight into the problem and was able to solve it.
Narita: My favorite character is Barret. Because he does the same damage when he’s in the back row. (laughs)
Kanzaki: Yuffy and Vincent can do that too, though.
Narita: You can clear the game without getting Yuffy. I didn’t add her to my party. As for Vincent, nope, sorry. (laughs) Yeah, it’s Barret all the way for me.
Sakakibara: I like Jessie. She cleans your face for you. (laughs) If only you could have had Jessie in your party.
Nomura: For me, it’s of course Cloud and Sephiroth. My concept for Sephiroth from the beginning was that everything about him would be kakkoii.4 His battle movements, and all his in-game scenes too. My image of the relationship between Cloud AND Sephiroth was that of Musashi Miyamoto and Sasaki Kojiro, and I had them in mind when I designed their appearance, as well as their swords. Of course Cloud is Musashi, and Sephiroth is Kojiro.
Compare this model of Cloud and Sephiroth
with the Musashi vs. Kojiro statue in Ganryujima.
Animating the Characters
Narita: The movement of the characters during the in-game events was actually all done by character designers in the planning group. Normally those designers convey what they want to a motion specialist, who then animates them. But in our case, the character designers learned how to do the motion work, and if they wanted to add some movement or gesture to a character they did it themselves. That’s why each character’s movements differ depending on who created them. There were designers who liked very exaggerated movements, and those who preferred more quiet, subtle movement.
For the character battle animations, however, we had motion specialists for each character. But for all the other in-game events, the designers created the character’s movements themselves.
Narita: Nomura was the Demon King of retakes. He was always making the designers re-do things. “Nope, that’s wrong there.”
Kanzaki: But it’s really thanks to him that we achieved very realistic motion.
Nomura: We spent more time on the typical, everday motion of the characters than we did on other types of motion. That’s where the character’s personality comes out, after all. So yeah, I stuck my nose into everyone’s work there. (laughs) I drew the designs for these characters from the moment we had our basic idea of them; no one told me “draw him this way” or anything like that. Every character in FF7 is one that I designed just how I wanted to.
The first characters we had were Cloud and Barret. From there we kept talking, and as we worked our ideas out, new characters would come up. All the characters were created in the course of our discussing our ideas for the game. None of them were created after the fact, as in “oh, let’s make this kind of character.” As we brainstormed about the game, we’d realize a character was already there in our minds.
Nomura: With each Final Fantasy, the entire team contributes to the initial design/planning documents, and we then pick out the best ideas from there. During that highly individual period of brainstorming, I came up with the idea of adding limit breaks to the battle system. In FF6 we had desperation attacks that would happen when you were near death, and I wanted to build on that idea. Since you were free to build your character by adding and removing materia, I also wanted to add limit breaks as a way to bring out the individual, innate personalities of each character. For that reason I’m really glad we were able to include them. It also allowed us to add more unique animation for each character, too, further emphasizing their individuality.
The Music of FF7
Uematsu: I know many players were hoping that with the move to the Playstation, we’d have studio quality music instead of the internal sound chip like that used in the Super Famicom games. And I know other companies are recording CD quality music for their games, but with FF7 we decided to do all the music with the Playstation’s internal chip.
The FF7 OST, in all it’s MIDI-ish glory.
That’s because as far as sound quality goes, we felt the Playstation’s hardware was more than capable. It has a higher dynamic range than the Super Famicom, and 24 voices (the Super Famicom had 8). The sound effects were all recorded in the studio, but the music, from start to finish, is all the Playstation’s internal chip. This way the music puts less demands on the read access time of the CD-ROM. It’s stressful to be playing a game and have to wait all the time for the CD-ROM to load data. So we prioritized a less stressful experience over better sound quality.
From the first Final Fantasy up to Final Fantasy V, the music has had a European atmosphere: the north, castles, blue skies… But FF6 started to break away from that, and FF7 begins with a new image, a dirty city of the future. So I was thinking the music should change too. I personally like a lot of different styles of music, so I saw this game as a chance to show parts of myself which I hadn’t been able to express before.
I used keyboard and guitar for the basic compositions, and I read the story and script as I composed. But there were so many songs this time that I was really worried I would run out of time. There were something like 100 songs needed. I’d compose, then program it in, and if it was wrong I’d revise it. Rinse and repeat. I write the music out first and then proram it into the sequencer, but there was no guarantee that the Playstation hardware would have the kind of sound I was looking for. And the sound quality might be very different. For that reason there ended up being a lot of unused songs.
Wrapping things up
Narita: At the end of the development we had a closing party. We gathered all the development staff together, and we all watched the credits roll after the last boss was defeated. As the staff was listed, each respective developer stood up and took a bow. It was the first time I realized “oh, he did that.” And it was the first time I really felt how many people had been involved in making this game.
Fujii: Once the field, battle, and world maps were all joined, that was when I first felt the power of FF7 as a finished work.
Narita: Until then, everything was being developed separately, and only at the end was it all joined together. When the world map was added and you could walk around, that was definitely the moment when I felt, “wow, we’ve really made it.”
You see, the way we made FF7 was totally different from the way we made the previous Final Fantasy games. Before, there was no real “director”–everyone was, individually, their own director, and everyone created the actual data that would be used in-game by themselves. There was a head person who generally controlled the flow of work and made sure everything got into its final form, though. I guess you’ve got to have someone like that.
But to imitate that with FF7 would have required a huge number of staff and hardware for them all to work on. You could say that the way we made FF7 was closer to the way they make movies.
Sakakibara: Speaking of that, we were also asked to make sound effects that would be of the same quality and character as those you hear in movies. It felt entirely different from the way we made sound effects before.
Kanzaki: The quality of the backgrounds took a huge step up, too. We didn’t have to reuse any sprites or tiles.
Kentarou: When I was making the battle effects, it felt like business as usual for me, so I didn’t have a feeling like “these are awesome!” then. But at the very end when we were debugging and I saw them, I thought for the first time how nice they looked. I also thought, “damn, it’s a good thing I didn’t slack off.” (laughs) It would have been really bad if we had just made a bunch of shoddy effects. (laughs)
Kanzaki: There were a lot of worries at the start of the development though.
Narita: Yeah, in a certain sense, FF7 is something of a minor miracle. I mean, we only had a year to do everything.
Fujii: It’s the shortest development we’ve had so far.
Narita: Yeah, that it was. And normally you’d start developing your game after you’d learned the new hardware. But we had to learn the hardware and create the game all in the same year. I really couldn’t believe it when I saw the finished product of FF7. It’s amazing that so many people were involved, and that we completed it in so short a time.
Fujii: Time is always the one thing you’re in short supply of. We had to do the battle system after all the field stuff was done, so practically speaking we only had half a year for that. The last dungeon was a real slap-bang, rushed affair.