This Final Fantasy Tactics interview originally appeared in jp magazine Famitsu. It explores the challenges of designing a SRPG in the Final Fantasy universe, and Matsuno and Itou share the usual design insights and anecdotes.

Incidentally, in all my research, this was the only FFT interview I could find (and it was indeed advertised as “exclusive!” by Famitsu). It also dovetails nicely with the 1994 Fire Emblem vs. Final Fantasy interview I translated last month, where Sakaguchi professes his love of the SRPG genre.

FF vs. FE Developer Interview
FF7 Developer Interview

Final Fantasy Tactics – 1997 Developer Interview

originally featured in Famicon Tsuushin magazine

Hironobu Sakaguchi – Producer
Yasumi Matsuno – Director
Hiroyuki Itou – Battle Designer

—To begin, please tell us how the FFT development got started.

Sakaguchi: The title “Final Fantasy Tactics” was actually something I thought up four years ago. We even took out a trademark on the name. I’m a strategy game fan myself, and I had been thinking about what Final Fantasy would look like as a strategy game. I’m the type of person who comes up with a name first, so nothing much else had been concretely set down, but there was a “Final Fantasy Tactics” design document that I had made then. Unfortunately I was caught up in the development of the main FF series—which were coming out at a quick pace, one every 12-18 months—so my plans for FFT remained unrealized. But it is true that the kernel of the development goes back 4 years, to 1993.

—Matsuno, I understand that this is the first game you’ve worked on since being hired at Square.

Matsuno: This game has been the fulfillment of a dream for me, as both a creator and a player: as a game creator, I’ve long wanted to make a strategy RPG using the Final Fantasy world and setting, and as a player, I’ve been wanting to play that game myself! When I came to Square and heard about this game, my immediate response was: “Please let me do it.” In a sense, it was the perfect timing to make use of all my previous experience, and a huge opportunity as well.

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L-R: Hironobu Sakaguchi (producer), Yasumi Matsuno
(director), Hiroyuki Itou (battle designer)

—It sounds like you claimed ownership of the project right away!

Sakaguchi: Actually, the truth is I showed Matsuno my 5-6 page design document… although, looking at it now, it seems they adopted a very different system from the one I described, and a lot of my ideas were dropped. (laughs) It was fully up to Matsuno and Itou to decided which ideas to use, you see. My role was more one of watching from the sidelines; as a strategy game fan, I’ve really been looking forward to playing it!

—Matsuno, can you tell us about why you joined Square?

Matsuno: Well, if I had to give a reason, it’s really quite simple. As a child in elementary school, I looked up to people like Shigeru Miyamoto, Yuji Horii, and Hironobu Sakaguchi. I wanted to be like him! I’d always had that dream. Then, after finishing my previous game Tactics Ogre and leaving Quest, I was talking with some acquaintances and trying to figure out my next move when I saw a job advertisement for a position at Square. I decided I’d go and take their entrance test.

Sakaguchi: I’m sure many people must see the title of this game, “Final Fantasy Tactics“, and think that we headhunted Matsuno and reached out to him first, but it’s actually not like that, just as he says. You can write this down for posterity: (laughs) the idea for a Final Fantasy strategy game was one that I had been brewing and fermenting for quite awhile before.

—Ok, I’m writing that down. (laughs) Matsuno, once it was underway, what was the actual process for this development? Who did what?

Matsuno: The two important mechanics of an SRPG, I think, are the battle system and the character development system. I left the battle system in the hands of Hiroyuki Itou, who is the father of the Final Fantasy ATB (active time battle) system. Aside from the world and the battle system, I handled all the other systems.

Itou: I actually have never liked strategy and simulation games. (laughs) I find all the work you have to do with units, equipping them, switching weapons, etc. to be so tedious and annoying that midway through, I always put the controller down and walk away. My goal for FFT was to make a game that I wouldn’t feel like walking away from. I also wanted a game where the strategy would feel exciting and urgent.

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Black Mage concept art.

—Matsuno’s games, especially, have that dramatic urgency to them.

Itou: Yeah. To that, I really wanted to try adding a sense of swashbuckling heroism, like the feeling of a soldier who bursts into an enemy camp and battles his way out.

—I imagine the in-battle graphics must be very exciting and over-the-top, then.

Itou: There’s no inherent need for fancy graphics, but they are important to showing the growth of a character. In order to express just how powerful your unit has become, you want impressive visuals.

—All the combat in FFT takes place in a 16×16 map. Why did you choose that size?

Matsuno: It had to do with the user interface, and how the player maneuvers around the game. We insisted on keeping FFT running at 60fps while you moved the cursor and scrolled around the map. If we had dropped that to 30fps, we could have had larger maps, but the controls would have been degraded. Before CD-ROMs, 60fps was standard for all our previous ROM (cart) based developments, you see.

Sakaguchi: Serious versus FTG players know how annoying frame drops can be. When the FPS drops to 30, you’ll hear them say “Ah, it dropped.” We wanted to avoid that for FFT.

—So was this requirement for 60fps something you decided on very early, at the planning stage?

Matsuno: That’s right. In our first meetings with the programmers and graphic designers, we figured that out. To be sure, there are tricks to “fudge it” so that players don’t notice as much when frames drop, but we didn’t use those methods. We want players who have grown up with ROM-based SRPGs with consistent framerates to be able to enjoy this game in the same way. After all, it would be pretty lame if this new CD-ROM technology couldn’t do what the old ROM carts could!

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“to be enjoyed as a diorama”

—I like how you can rotate the map 360 degrees, too, and look for enemies hiding behind buildings.

Matsuno: Yeah, there’s a number of parts like that, where you can’t see something important unless you rotate the map.

Itou: It’s meant to be enjoyed like a diorama, or a miniature garden: “ooo, what happens when I turn it this way?” And that’s also a big part of the cuteness factor. (laughs) Before you know it, you’ll be looking at the map and saying things like, “oh, I bet it would look cool if I put this guy up there…” (laughs)

—Is it possible to build a “super character” that has all the 400+ job abilities?

Itou: Of course.

Sakaguchi: It is, but we’ve balanced the game in such a way that you can clear it well before you finish making such a character. We tried to have about 30% more content/abilities available to master for completionists; this way, beginners too can enjoy simply beating the game without having to go that deep into it.

—Turning to the music, Matsuno, you seem to enjoy featuring grand, dramatic music in your games. Will FFT be the same?

Matsuno: Actually, in the beginning the idea for the music was more in-line with Sakaguchi’s tastes: exciting, energetic, and upbeat music. But owing to the direction we decided to take with the game—or my personality—we changed it. (laughs) If FFT had mainly involved Humans vs. Monsters battles, then I think exciting, upbeat music would have been very appropriate, but in this strategy game your opponents are other human beings, and that kind of bright, upbeat music wasn’t working. There’s also the fact that Final Fantasy Tactics takes place in a hard, serious world. So I think it’s only natural for the songs to be similar.

—When the theme is humans fighting other humans, I imagine the relationships and themes can get pretty heavy.

Sakaguchi: One time I took a look at the whiteboard that Matsuno would sometimes have by his desk, and I saw this huge chart that detailed all the character relationships 1 . He’s quite the obsessive when it comes to his work! I remember seeing one of the connections between the characters, and it said “they have a hard time understanding each other.” I thought to myself, man, this is going to be a deep game.

—Speaking of which, a lot of the character scenes I’ve seen so far seem to have a new style of dialogue for the Final Fantasy series.

Sakaguchi: Yeah. “Someone like you wouldn’t understand.” We’ve never had a character in a Final Fantasy game utter lines like that.

—When I hear the title “strategy rpg”, what first comes to mind is images of war, big battles, etc… but this feels a little different.

Matsuno: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a traditional war simulation, if I had to say. “War” games makes me think of huge armies facing each other. That wasn’t the direction we wanted to go in, though, because we wanted to make something similar in feel to the Final Fantasy series: a game you can clear with 5 individual, main party members that you’ve raised and developed.

—Will there be branching paths in the story, then? I don’t believe there’s been anything like that in the Final Fantasy series yet.

Matsuno: That must remain a secret for now, but I can say that basically, our philosophy was not, “Final Fantasy does this, so we have to do it that way too.” Rather, it was the opposite: we tried to fill our game with ideas that haven’t been featured in the previous entries.

—Such as?

Matsuno: For example, Final Fantasy VII really capitalizes on CG and polygon visuals, and in a sense, it’s a very cinematic title. In contrast, we wanted to emphasize a more hand-drawn look. We also wanted players to find the battles intrinsically fun, rather than only play for the story. In those regards, rather than an extension of the Final Fantasy series, I hope players see FFT as a whole different take on it. We tried to fill it with ideas that could only be done in a SRPG.

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Three legends of JRPG design.

—Are there terrain effects in FFT, by the way?

Matsuno: “Strategy games must have terrain effects” — we didn’t want to be bound by that way of thinking. As far as the player’s experience, though, I do think terrain effects are fine if they’re for easily recognizable and obvious situations, like the difference between playing volleyball in a gym and on a sandy beach. But yeah, the effects we did add were a product of that way of thinking—the user’s experience—rather than arising from strategy conventions.

—Please give a final word to our readers.

Itou: When it comes to RPGs, there really haven’t been a lot of titles that challenge the conventions of the genre, right? We thought this was fertile ground for something new and exciting. I hope you’re looking forward to it!

Matsuno: As a developer, with a major series like Final Fantasy, you don’t normally expect to be able to make a lot of radical changes. But with Final Fantasy Tactics we wanted to undertake a brand new challenge. I know that when people hear “SRPG”, they often think of a genre for hardcore niche gamers, but our game is not like that. I hope you find it to be a novel discovery.

Sakaguchi: I’m just really excited and happy that this game is finished. Four or five years ago I had a dream that this would be an awesome game, and that dream has finally come true… so my feelings are more that of a player: I can’t wait to play this! (laughs)

—Thank you very much for your time today!