Vagrant Story – 1999 Developer Interviews
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.
Sound Staff Interview
Hitoshi Sakimoto – Composer
Tomohiro Yajima – Sound Effects
Hitoshi Sakimoto (L)
and Tomohiro Yajima (R).
—What themes did you want to explore in the making of Vagrant Story’s music?
Sakimoto: With Vagrant Story, I wanted to make music that had a tighter fit with the game (compared with what I’ve written before). That was my first idea. In event scenes, for example, I wanted the music to more closely track and sync up with the climax, and for it to end at the same time the scene ends.
I’m particularly pleased with how the opening came out. In that sequence of scenes, no matter how many messages you skip, it always unfolds in sync with the music. It’s probably a rather plain thing that a lot of people won’t notice, but maybe the fact that people don’t notice it—that it’s seamless—is precisely what makes it a success.
—I definitely felt a unity between the sound and atmosphere while playing.
Sakimoto: For this game, I specifically divided the songs into two types: those where the music was meant to be in the foreground and focused on, and those where the music takes a backseat to other events. In places where you’re just walking around, not doing anything in particular, there should only be “ambient” music and sound effects. In contrast, when you’re battling a boss monster—the kind of creature without any humanity—I wanted the music to be in the forefont, conveying a sense of tension and urgency.
Yajima: After the planners shared the story and concept art with us, the first thing we actually created were the sound effects, before the music. That meant there were some scenes which had these really great, impressive sound effects, so we decided to leave the music out entirely in those.
Sakimoto: We found that the sound effects were perfectly capable of fulfilling the role of “sound” in many of those scenes. That allowed us to choose the best approach in any given scene: some were better with music, some were better with just sound effects.
—How were the sound effects created?
Yajima: I didn’t use any sampling. They were all created by manipulating noise and the basic waveforms (square/triangle/saw). Sampling is a great technique in its own right, of course, but it takes up a lot of memory, which imposes a significant burden on the programmers. Thus, even if it’s more time-consuming, I figured if I could avoid using sampling it would result in a higher quality game overall. Besides, if you’re meticulous, you can get near-identical results to sampling by using basic synthesis. Things like the howl of a wolf—I was able to achieve a very similar sound, almost indistinguishable in quality, from a sampled howl. I was very pleased with the results myself!
—It’s rare to see games these days that don’t rely on sampling for the sound effects.
Yajima: We had another reason for using synthesis: one of our core concepts for the sound design this game was “don’t re-use anything”. For instance, when a character moves, I wanted the sound of that movement to reflect the different clothing/armor they were wearing… or if we did use the same sound effect, I wanted it to sound different depending on whether you’re indoors or outdoors. Basically I wanted different sounds for every scene you were in. When you think about it, in the real world, there are no two sounds which are perfectly alike.
—I think we can safely call you a “craftsman”, with that level of dedication. And for the music, Sakimoto, did you use any live instruments for Vagrant Story?
The opening scene for Vagrant Story,
which Sakimoto was especially proud of.
Sakimoto: For this game, the only time we used live instruments was in the staff roll song. I think this is the case for most developments, but for Vagrant Story we had a tight memory “budget” for the sound and music, so there was no space to use actual instruments.
In terms of my personal tastes, I do prefer using real instruments, but I’ve been doing synthesizer programming for a long time now so I’m probably better at it anyways.
—When it comes to game music composers, it seems like there’s two types: those who play a traditional instrument and can read music, and those who use a computer or sequencer. You sound like the latter type.
Sakimoto: Yeah, I never had any formal music training. I simply loved games, and that’s why I got into this work. When I was in high school I made a doujin game with my friend, and the composition and music programming I did then was a major turning point for me, and gradually I shifted my focus more towards music. So in the beginning, I had to ask other people about how the actual instruments are played, and I tried to copy and learn from them, not really understanding any theory. Even today I’m still studying and trying to learn that stuff, while I work. (laughs)
—What kind of sound/music would you like to do in the future?
Yajima: Sound effects are all about expressing urgency and atmosphere, so for me the ultimate would be creating sounds that are indistinguishable from sounds you’ve heard and experienced in the real world. Of course, I want to continue crafting everything by hand. (laughs)
Sakimoto: Whenever I compose, I always think about how the music will make someone feel while they’re actually playing the game. Is it ultimately a good thing or a bad thing, for the music to be competing for the player’s attention? More fundamentally, in any given scene, what do we want the player to be feeling? And how can the music contribute to that? Those are the questions I want to continue exploring as a composer.
Programming Staff Interview
Taku Murata – Main Programmer
—I understand this was your first “full polygon” game. How did it go?
Murata: It was something I had been wanting to try for awhile, but once we actually got into it, I realized how much more there is to take into account and be aware of, compared with the 2D games I’ve made.
—Programming-wise, what were some of the things you paid the most attention to?
Murata: Well, take the polygon models, for instance. If you know in advance which models can be rendered incompletely (that is, models which are ok to have missing polygons because they’ll only be viewed from a limited angle), then making a 3D game is very easy. The problem is, when you’re watching an event scene and suddenly the camera snaps around and you see an unintentional missing texture, it dominates your attention and takes you completely out of the scene, right? Of course we didn’t want that, so we tried to fix missing textures wherever we saw them, but in doing so it became an obsession… once we started, there was no end to it!
—A programmers work is as easy or difficult as his obsession lets it be, in other words.
Murata: I think the same is true for designers and planners. The other big headache for us was negotiating the memory card limitations. The Playstation memory card has a 2MB capacity. As the Vagrant Story development progressed there were all these different things we wanted to try, and we quickly ran out of memory. That phase of the development, where we were experimenting to see what we could shave off and still come away with a satisfying finished game—that was the hardest part.
—Were there any mechanics or parts of the game that you had to entirely cut because of the memory limitations?
Murata: There definitely were. For the battles, initially we had planned to use a more complex system of calculations. We had also planned to have slightly more effects for the spells and skills.
—And yet the finished game truly has an incredible amount of volume packed into it, which I can now see was produced through the suffering of the staff. (laughs)
Murata: It is a big game, yeah. But when you’re trying to make a game that allows players to choose from a variety of playstyles, it naturally entails a lot of data. And I think that, as programmers, that’s one of our most important jobs: to find a way to make the game the planners want to make within the constraints of the memory.
—Given the massive amounts of data involved, and the beautifully detailed visuals as well, I was amazed to find there’s absolutely no slowdown in Vagrant Story.
Murata: Strictly speaking, there is slowdown, but we simply tried to hide it so the player wouldn’t notice it. (laughs) We were adamant about not including the kind of annoying slowdown that stresses players out though. There’s so many calculations going on at all times in a game like this, and minimizing the slowdown is therefore extremely difficult, but we absolutely made that a priority—not stressing out the players.
—Speaking of which, I barely noticed the loading times for the CD data as well. Nice work.
Murata: The quickness of the CD load/read times was, actually, one of our secret “selling points” for Vagrant Story. Almost no magazines that covered Vagrant Story picked up on it though. (laughs) We do all the data loading during the event scenes, or while messages and dialogue are displayed. Of course, the planners helped make that a reality.
—The Vagrant Story development seems to have a lot of real perfectionists on the team, people who like to dive into the details: Matsura, Minagawa, Yoshida…
Murata: Everyone here just loves video games. On top of that, we all have our own specific image of the game we personally want to make. When those proclivities are fused and we come together as a single development team, I think it results in a surprisingly solid finished game.
—How would you rate your level of satisfaction with Vagrant Story?
Murata: I think the programmers all handled their individual parts very well, so the overall game turned out good. We succeeded in making something that just feels fun to play… with games, you know, it’s important that it just feels good to control. That simple but pure response—”whoa, this is awesome!”—in the future I want to make games that work even more effectively on that level.
Planning Staff Interview
Jun Akiyama – Planner
Kazuhito Maehiro – Planner
Takayuki Suguro – Planner
—When you first laid out the plans for Vagrant Story, what kind of game did you want to make?
Akiyama: For the event scenes, we knew they were going to be in 3D, so one of our first questions was how to move and direct the camera during those scenes. When it comes to 3D games, lots of them use CG movies like the Final Fantasy series, but we wanted to distinguish ourselves from that crowd, so we came up with the dialogue bubbles which we hoped would evoke an American comic book mood. We didn’t want Vagrant Story to feel like a “Japanese” game—that idea was with us from the start.
L-R: Kazuhito Maehiro, Jun
Akiyama, Takayuki Suguro.
—The camerawork is really well done.
Akiyama: I had never worked on a game with a camera, so I watched a lot of movies and did a bunch of independent research on my own. At first I was moving the camera around way too much, and we had to do a bunch of retakes. (laughs)
—And which scenes, in terms of camerawork, are you particularly fond of?
Akiyama: The opening scene, I’d have to say—the scene where Ashley is introduced in front of the castle gate, in the rain. It was the first scene I created, actually, but when everything was over I felt it still held its own, so it’s the most memorable for me.
—It blows my mind that you produced something this accomplished with your first 3D game.
Akiyama: Well, for me personally though, there’s stil a lot of things I’m unsatisfied with. There were also many elements we had to cut due to a lack of time or memory… such as flashback dialogue between Sydney and the Duke of Bardorba, and scenes explaining Rosencrantz’s motives… it’s really a shame I couldn’t include them.
—I’d have loved to see those. I wanted to ask some questions about the map too. What were your intentions there, at the beginning of the development?
Maehiro: If we were going to do a “dungeon” game, I wanted to evoke an atmosphere similar to the old Wizardry games. I also wanted to get a nice mix of puzzle and action elements, so the puzzle mode was there from the beginning too. People often refer to it as a glorified Sokoban though. (laughs)
—The puzzles are very hard!
Maehiro: They were actually a lot more difficult at first! There’s a guy on our team who is really bad at puzzles, and we tested them on him… if he couldn’t solve it in 5 tries, we would re-do it to make it easier.
Akiyama: But they still came out tough. (laughs)
Suguro: Indeed. (laughs)
—The different names for the individual maps are really cool too.
Maehiro: I came up with those names while I was thinking about the story in my own way. For instance, take the city walls: if you read through the names of the rooms in order, it should give you a feeling of a youth who is maturing as a swordsman. It’s my hope that those names will evoke the rest of the story for players.
The inclusion of old-school block puzzles likely reflects the sensibilities of the veteran development team.
—Speaking of the maps, I was also surprised at all the different movements and behaviors of the monsters in each room.
Suguro: In games like this, there’s usually a number of things that feel distinctly unnatural, right? For example, the way enemies will sometimes get stuck on terrain and just sit there not doing anything, or the way you can’t reach certain terrain without a “jump” power upgrade or something like that. We tried to purge Vagrant Story of stuff like that.
—What kind of things did you pay attention to when creating the battle system?
Suguro: I’ve always loved strategy games, so I wanted to include as many strategic elements as possible. Even enemies that appear very strong, for example, if you attack them from behind they’ll have a hard time counterattacking. Lots of stuff like that—I wanted to include a variety of ways for players to approach the battles, so please enjoy discovering them.
—For my final question, what kind of person is Matsuno, from your perspective?
Suguro: His sensibilities, when it comes to making games, are second to none.
Maehiro: He’s a taskmaster, but once you get to know him, he’s really a funny guy. You just have to solve the “Matsuno Puzzle” first, then you can see his true form. (laughs)
Akiyama: When I work with Matsuno, there’s a sense of assuredness that I appreciate. Whenever something seems impossible, either technically or because of scheduling, if you just sit and talk with Matsuno for 30 minutes you’ll see a way to get through it. Then, after you’ve returned to your seat, you’ll realize it wasn’t really all that impossible to begin with. That happened a lot to me. He’s got a certain charisma to him that’s hard to describe… kind of like Sydney. (laughs)
3D Graphic Staff – Interview
Hiroshi Minagawa – Art Director / Character Model supervisor
Eichiro Nakatsu – Character Model creator
Tsunataro Yoshida – Character Motion creator
—What parts of the graphics did you really focus your efforts on?
Minagawa: Making sure everything moved in real-time was very important. In recent Square games, the beautiful CG movies have become a big selling point, with many titles pushing them to the fore in an effort to appeal to players. That approach has its merits, of course, but for us, we wanted the visual appeal of our game to come from the player’s own actions–from the player controlling the visuals in real-time. Maybe it’s because we have so many veteran designers on our team, people who have been making games since the early days.
This development was largely about seeing just what this Playstation hardware could do, visually-speaking. Long-term, our plan was to take the know-how we acquire here and apply it to the Playstation 2 hardware, which is a level-up in terms of power. Those were the thoughts on our mind while we made Vagrant Story.
L-R: Minagawa, Nakatsu, and Yoshida.
—The character illustrations feel like they’ve been very naturally translated into polygon form. I bet that was challenging work, wasn’t it?
Nakatsu: Illustrator Akihiko Yoshida’s characters are very slender, which is balanced by their somewhat large hands—and that gives them a unique aesthetic. I knew if we could translate that in 3D it would look great. However, when we tried animating the models, many inconsistencies showed up, and it caused a great deal of trouble for the character motion creators.
Yoshida: I made a lot of adjustments, like increasing the size of the hands, to make sure that that their movements had a sense of balance to them.
—The character animations (motions) are another eye-catching part of Vagrant Story. Were there any special techniques you used to achieve that?
Yoshida: For the human characters, I would basically try the movements out myself on the spot, and use that as my reference for the motion creation. I think I annoyed a lot of the people next to me, always walking and running up and down the hall. Also, for the event scenes, I would reference other scenes from specific movies and so forth.
Minagawa: Both the character modeling and animation were a big challenge because of the low polygon-count. In FFVII and FFVIII, the texturing was very different, but there we had about 700 polygons to work with for a single character. In Vagrant Story, because the backgrounds also use polygons, we only had about 320-330 for each character—in other words, about half of what we had for the Final Fantasy games. Figuring out how to model the polygons within those limitations was very much like a puzzle.
Nakatsu: The sprite textures we used for the characters’ facial expressions were also extremely finicky to work with. We only had a 32×32 wide pixel space for them.
—That’s almost the same resolution as the Pocket Station. Yet strangely the impression they convey is very realistic… how’d you pull that off?
Minagawa: Well, take a character’s smile. We used a single row of pixels to depict that, but the problem is, say you then want to show the character’s mouth opening: if you suddenly increase that mouth line to two pixels wide, it won’t look smooth. Our solution was to animate it by subtly changing the shading of the individual pixels. Nakatsu here did almost all the facial expressions. We definitely couldn’t have done it without his longtime experience as a pixel artist.
—And having done all this very detailed, craftsman-like work on Vagrant Story to bring the real-time graphics to life, what do you feel you’ve gained from the experience?
Minagawa: This was our first full-polygon game, and what I think we realized is that all of our experience as 2D game designers did not go to waste in the transition. Whether it was figuring out how to make-do with low-polygon count models, or how to raise the processing speed by reducing the available colors—ultimately that kind of work demanded a similar skillset as our older, Super Famicom era pixel work did. Even the Playstation 2 will have memory and processing limits, so ultimately what decides the quality of our games is that old know-how we’ve accumulated over the years.