Vagrant Story – 1999 Developer Interview
originally featured in the Ultimania guide book
Yasumi Matsuno – Producer/Writer/Director
—Matsuno, when you’re creating a new game, where do your ideas come from?
Matsuno: I don’t see myself as one of those so-called “creators”. The staff that works under me are the creative ones; my job is to unite their different personalities and creativities into one coherent whole. This being a corporation, I’m trying to live up to the role of a salaryman or businessman. That means, even for something like a video game, I’ve got to first think about whether the idea makes commercial sense.
For example, when I made Ogre Battle, at that time RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest were huge hits, but many people were also starting to get tired of them. Players were ready for something new—the timing was right for a strategy RPG like Fire Emblem, something which was a midway point between extremely difficult simulation games like Nobunaga’s Ambition and regular RPGs. So I first looked at the state of the market, and only then did I decide to make a strategy RPG. At that point I thought, ok, if we’re going to do this, let’s weave a really grand story into it, and that was how Ogre Battle got started.
As you can see, the initial impulse wasn’t that I wanted to create a specific kind of game or world; it started from my personal estimation of the commercial value of the idea, and whether it would pan out given the current market and player demographics.
—I admit, it surprises me a little to hear you say that. Especially considering that all the games you’ve worked on share a certain unique atmosphere, I feel. I had always thought that came from your own deep attachment and involvement with the games themselves.
Matsuno: No, that is often said about me, but the honest truth is, I personally have a hard time coming up with big ideas. I really focus on the details and little things though, so that’s probably where that reputation comes from… maybe it’s because I’m an A-type (blood type), but I get really obsessed with details of a setting and world—including things that may not even be necessary.
Also, when it comes to their work, a lot of people on my team are very… how to put it… stoic? masochistic? (laughs) Calling it “adversity” feels weird, but basically, the more impossible something seems, the more fired up they all get about it. From the outside looking in, that aspect of their work ethic would probably be called passion. The whole team has this atmosphere of “no compromise!”
—I can see you’ve assembled quite the talented staff. However, from everything I’ve heard your contributions as the “unifier” is a huge part of what makes your games what they are. If, as you say, you don’t begin with an initial vision for a specific game or world you want to create, then where do you find the motivation to throw yourself into a single development for nearly two years?
Matsuno: I don’t know, I mean, when it comes to making games I’m content to putter along at my own pace, so the long development time doesn’t bother me much. But as for my motivation, if I had to say, it would be the internet that motivates me. The internet is connecting the world more and more these days, and players are writing reviews for all sorts of games online. I get sucked into stuff like that easily, so I always read them, and when I see criticism about our games, it makes me want to fix those flaws in whatever we’re working on now.
To go back a bit, after we finished Ogre Battle, Quest was experiencing a staff shortage, and I had to do the user support by myself. People would call in and say stuff like, “This game doesn’t make any sense! Who’s responsible for this mess?! Put him on the line!” and I’d respond, “Ah, I’m sorry, that would be me.” (laughs) In this way, for 4 long months, I got to hear it all straight from the horse’s mouths… psychologically, it was exhausting, but it was also a good learning experience. I applied the things I learned from that in our next game, Tactics Ogre, and likewise, after that I built on the feedback for Tactics Ogre when I made Final Fantasy Tactics.
With FFT, however, the more critical feedback really caught my attention, and Vagrant Story reflects that a lot I think. I was determined not to make the same mistakes again.
—Vagrant Story, like all your games, possesses a wonderful visual aesthetic. How do you achieve those visuals? Tell us your secrets.
Matsuno: A huge part of it is that I’ve been working with the same extremely talented designers, namely Hiroshi Minagawa (graphics chief designer) and Akihiko Yoshida (character designer). I’ve been extremely lucky to have teamed up with them. The three of us have similar taste in graphics… when we were making Ogre Battle, we studied a variety of strategy games, but the one that really caught our eye was a real-time strategy game for the Amiga called Carthage. It depicts the war between Rome and Carthage, but it felt very fresh and looked extremely cool. Minagawa, Yoshida, and myself have long been fans of Western games, and I think our work reflects that taste and gives the graphics in our games something distinct from other Japanese games.
—You also help write the setting and story for your games. Did you ever want to be a writer or director when you were growing up?
Matsuno: I did want to make movies once, but the motivation for that wasn’t really related to what you’re talking about now. When I made Ogre Battle, Quest was a tiny company, so I had to do much of the planning and other work myself, by necessity. It was just an accident of fate that the writing I did was well received, and that I was able to continue doing it. Personally, as far as writing stories and scenarios is concerned, to be honest I’m keenly aware of my own limitations—and even now, if possible, I prefer not to do much of that kind of work, if I can avoid it.
During the development of FFT, I actually had wanted to create the battle system myself, but we had Hiroyuki Itou on the team—the guy who had created the active battle system and job system for the Final Fantasy series—so it didn’t make sense for him to write the story. I had asked to do the battle system from the start but ultimately, being short staffed, I had to write the story, again by necessity.
—What kind of story did you want to tell with Vagrant Story?
Matsuno: Ah… I’m really bad with questions like this. (laughs) With Final Fantasy Tactics, I think I really wanted to create my own version of Final Fantasy. I saw Final Fantasy as a kind of “morality tale adventure story.” For Vagrant Story, my first concept was to have two hours worth of event scenes strewn throughout the game. My image wasn’t so much of a big Hollywood movie, as it was a two-hour Tuesday evening suspense drama. (laughs) I wasn’t thinking we’d make something with all these heavy and pretentious themes… I wanted to make it more lighthearted and easy to digest.
There was one thing I knew I didn’t want. Even though we were always going to tell a complete story, I didn’t want to draw the conclusion for players. I wanted to make a game where, from all the different experiences you have as the player/protagonist, you create the conclusion—what it all means—for yourself. I thought we’d try a more fragmentary approach this time, where players are simply presented with bits of information and they have to weave it together into a narrative themselves. In that sense, the question of whether Ashley’s memories are true or not—that is something I didn’t want to give an answer to, I just wanted to tell the tale.
Concept art by Akihiko Yoshida, exhibited at Square’s Artnia Cafe.
—So leaving certain things ambiguous was your way of posing a question to the player.
Matsuno: Some people will criticize that approach, saying the story feels incomplete or half-baked. It’s one of many valid approaches for storytelling in cinema though, so I feel it should be valid in games as well.
—You mentioned that you see Vagrant Story as a “Tuesday evening suspense drama”, but I feel that, as with your previous games, there are heavy themes strewn throughout, hidden within the background of the story. Has that been done at your behest?
Matsuno: Well… actually, it’s interesting. The truth is, the themes I’ve included in my games have usually reflected the people and the situations I was working in at that time.
For example, in Final Fantasy Tactics… the theme of the class-based society, of nobles and commoners, that came about because when I joined Square, as you can imagine, there were individuals there who were like royalty: their talent, and the social capital they had amassed… it made me doubt whether someone without those gifts could ever succeed there, no matter how hard they tried. And those ideas found their way into the game.
For Vagrant Story, I had experienced personally the way in which information and facts can change so dramatically depending on who is conveying that information… everyone interprets things in a way that is most favorable to their own circumstances. This time, I wanted that to be more than just a simple theme—I wanted the very structure of the story to reflect that idea.
—Fascinating. We can see your life in the history of your games, then.
Matsuno: I see it as a kind of “spice” for the stories… in the same way that pepper brings out the flavor in a bowl of ramen. But the pepper itself—those thematic ideas—if you asked me if they had some particularly deep meaning on their own, I’d say no. Not at all.
—You’ve been making strategy RPGs for a long time now. What made you decide to challenge yourself with a new genre with Vagrant Story?
Matsuno: FFT was made at the behest of the higher-ups at Square, who decided that Square needed to add a strategy-RPG to their library at that time. FFT came out of that instruction.
This time, however, I was told I could make whatever I wanted. A sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics was of course an option, but I had to consider the wishes of my staff too, and I weighted their preferences heavily. After talking, we agreed that this would probably be our last game for the Playstation. After this we’d probably move to a next-gen system like the PS2, Dolphin, or Dreamcast. That being the case, we decided it would be better to make a 3D game now instead of a 2D one. Our team has a lot of 2D-experts, so we felt we needed to acquire some know-how—in both graphics and programming—to contend with the next generation. That was how the whole Vagrant Story project got started.
—Being your first foray into 3D games, what were some of the challenges you faced, and the things you focused most on?
Matsuno: While making Vagrant Story, we experienced what I like to call the “Metal Gear Shock”… it was stunning, the high level of sensibility of that game, and the quality of the gameplay. That was the summer of 98. Our Vagrant Story wouldn’t be released for another year after that, but it made us all buckle down and realize the challenge we faced. We then added a variety of new things to the game, one of which was the characters’ facial expressions—we didn’t want their emotions to be conveyed only with movements and speech. Those facial expressions were a lot of work, but it was something we felt was absolutely necessary, and we were refining it up to the very end of the development.
The achievement of Metal Gear Solid pushed the Vagrant Story team to new heights, which was rewarded by high praise from Kojima himself in this interview.
—The way the monsters move was very well done too. Even the common enemies move in a way that seems thoughtful and intelligent, like they’re really thinking.
Matsuno: The AI routines for the monsters are really well done for this game. There’s guys who will give orders to their underlings and stay back in a fight, as well as enemies who will attack and retreat, attack and retreat… lots of variety. However, in order to show off the AI routines, we had to make the enemies sufficiently strong. If they’re too weak, they’d just die before they could do anything, looking as dumb as any other enemy. That was one of the reasons we made even the common monsters relatively strong.
Here at Square, people had divided opinions about that. “Why do I have to use support magic just to kill this stupid enemy?!”, complaints like that. However, one of my concepts for Vagrant Story was that I wanted the monsters to appear stronger than the humans. People have often told me how strong the Crimson Blade knights are, but they’ve come to this city the same as you. It wouldn’t make sense if they were just weaklings, right?
—What kind of games will you be making after this?
Matsuno: As long as I have the time, I’d be down for anything. I personally love shooting games, so if I didn’t have to think about business or anything I’d love to make one. Also, I’ve said before that I don’t like making sequels because it gets boring, but if I had the time, money, and human resources, I would like to try my hand at making a proper sequel. But we’ve got a small staff, and it’s not like I have some huge buffet of choices available to me, so I’ll probably just end up doing whatever is most feasible at the time.
—Hypothetical question: would you rather work in a capacity like Sakaguchi’s, where you’re managing a number of productions (and could therefore have different teams working in parallel on all your ideas you just mentioned, at once)… or, would you rather be personally involved in a single development, from start to finish, as you have been?
Matsuno: That’s a difficult question. I think Square probably wants me to be the former. For myself, I still want to work on the floor with everyone—whether it’s a remake, or whatever, I want to be involved from the beginning. It would be tough for me to leave everything up to someone else. It may be greedy in a way, but I don’t want to just keep writing scenarios and stories either, I’d like to do the actual game design myself, and try managing a team in that capacity. When I consider those feelings, I think it would be impossible for me, right now, to be overseeing multiple games at once like Sakaguchi. It’s something I’ll probably have to think about someday, though.
—So with many possible game developments lying in your future, where does that leave Vagrant Story?
Matsuno: If asked, I don’t think there will be a sequel to Vagrant Story. I think I want to leave it concluded here, as-is. However, one of the goals for this project was to acquire skills and know-how for the next-generation of game development, and I think we accomplished that. For example, in the future we may be working on online (network) games, and those games often have a lot of characters on-screen at once. Even the PS2 would need to use very limited polygons for the characters to make it work. In that event, the skills we learned in Vagrant Story—how to make beautiful and attractive 3D graphics—would really pay off, I think. That’s why, even if we don’t make a sequel to Vagrant Story, I think its essence will live on and be seen in any future work we do.
One part of the graphics team. L-R: Tsutomu Mouri (Texture Designer), Akihiko Yoshida (Character Designer), Akiyoshi Masuda (Map Designer).
Graphics Staff Interview
Akihiko Yoshida – Character Designer and Background Visual Director. Also supervised the polygon models and texturing. He contributed to the overall aesthetic unity of Vagrant Story. Father of two.
Akiyoshi Masuda – Map Design and Map Data creation. An inveterate craftsman, Masuda revised the polygon graphics again and again until they looked good from every angle.
Tsutomu Mouri – Texture Designer. Responsible for quality control alongside Yoshida. At the end of the development, he took a whip to his tired body and also did the illustrations for the commercial release.
(above intros written by Yasumi Matsuno)
—Yoshida, I believe you are the one most responsible for defining the visual look of Matsuno’s games. Where does your unique vision come from?
Yoshida: In a sense, it comes from my ignorance. Before I joined this industry, I didn’t know anything about sword and sorcery fantasy worlds. So when I was asked to draw monsters in that style, I didn’t have any influence from fantasy novels or other similar sources; I could express myself freely. I also, consciously, did not want to draw what others had already done.
—I know it’s common praise, but the art for Vagrant story really is cool and stylish.
Yoshida: Before this game, I had mostly drawn “cutesy” style fantasy art, but with Vagrant Story, I was given free reign to do whatever I wanted, to express my own tastes. I get the feeling some of the character designs may have turned out a little too sharp, though… I guess it was a backlash to drawing nothing but cute characters for years.
—Were you set on this style from the beginning?
Yoshida: No, we weren’t. The world got darker and more grim as we were making it. In the beginning, the background graphics were more cute, looking kind of like Moomin Valley or something. The characters were also drawn in the cartoonish san-toushin style (where the head, body, and legs are all the same proportion).
Masuda: Our initial concept was to create backgrounds that would be an evolution on the style seen in Final Fantasy Tactics. However, as more of the story got written, we realized this style wouldn’t fit, and we changed direction to something more realistic that would make fuller use of the Playstation’s capabilities.
—I heard you also took a trip to France to do research and get ideas. That must have been very helpful for creating a more realistic world.
Yoshida: Matsuno wanted “ruins”. His image was of a town that was falling apart, already half-crumbled. So we took our cameras in hand, and just wandered around the streets in France. Leá Monde was modeled after Saint-Émilion, a city in Southern France.
Mouri: In order to convey that ruin-esque, dungeon quality, we made a lot of the areas quite dark and dim, but I think the brighter scenery we saw in France made for a nice lighting contrast, and hopefully that comes across in the game.
Dragon concept art by Akihiko Yoshida. As described above, Yoshida’s lack of familiarity with fantasy tropes lends his work a certain individuality. In this case, his dragon has a more squat and hunchbacked figure when compared with the typical noble depictions of dragons in fantasy.
—I was also amazed at how, despite creating so many different characters and objects (which move around a lot, no less), there’s almost no missing polygons.
Masuda: Well, we had three people working on checking the polygon models and making sure they didn’t have any missing/broken areas. They rotated each model, really going through them with a fine-toothed comb, revising as they went. If they thought players—even just a few—would notice something, they fixed it. A crazy amount of dedication.
—The character’s facial expressions look realistic too, even though they were done with rougher pixel art.
Yoshida: Yeah. That’s all down to the persistence and diligence of the pixel artists.
—With the industry shift to polygonal 3D graphics, I’ve been hearing there’s less work for 2D pixel artists now… is that true?
Yoshida: For the graphic artists on our team, that hasn’t been the case. They can all do both: polygon modeling and pixel art, which is precisely why I think we were able to create a game like Vagrant Story, actually. Not only the facial expressions, but for the background graphics as well, ultimately a lot what we accomplished there hinged on the older skills and techniques of our pixel art craftsmen.
—In the future, when hardware specs have improved and hardware limitations are a thing of the past… what kind of game would you like to make then, graphically speaking?
Masuda: I’d like to make something where you can climb to a high point and overlook the vast world beneath. A world so expansive, you could take out binoculars and see it all in pristine detail.
Mouri: I’d want to challenge myself with the opposite: a small diorama world, but one where the the density of objects and detail is super high.
Yoshida: No limits? Honestly, I prefer limits. Maybe it’s just masochism or something, but I like doing things that seem impossible. Like taking a sprite and drawing it with 3 pixels instead of 10.
—The graphics for Vagrant Story surely look impossible for a Playstation game. Can we attribute that to your leadership, I wonder?
Yoshida: I guess I enjoy the accomplishment that comes with working within limitations. If there were none, I’d probably lose interest in this work, I think.