Armored Core – 1997 Developer Interview

Armored Core - 1997 Developer Interview

This pre-release Armored Core interview originally appeared in The Playstation magazine. The questions largely center on mecha designer Shoji Kawamori's contributions, though producer Yasuyoshi Karasawa and programmer Eiichi Hasegawa also share their ambitions (at this point, the game was only 1/3 complete). The interview ends rather abruptly, but we'll be adding more material from the Official Data Book soon!

Yasuyoshi Karasawa - Producer
Eiichi Hasegawa - Programmer
Shoji Kawamori - Mecha Designer

—Who at FromSoftware came up with the basic concept for Armored Core?

Hasegawa: It was Karasawa's idea, wasn't it?

Karasawa: Hmm, yeah, it was probably me. (laughs) The idea went through many revisions, lots of trial and error, until finally reaching a form that I felt was presentable. There were many failed plans, but from their ashes we were able to create the version that we debuted at the PS EXPO.

—You were also involved in the King's Field series, Karasawa. Was a 3D combat game like Armored Core something you were envisioning back then while making King's Field?

Karasawa: No, it wasn't like that. I was very busy while making King's Field… there was no time to think about stuff like that. (laughs) Timing-wise, after King's Field 2 things slowed down enough that I could start thinking about new projects.

—You said there was a lot of trial and error, but at what point did you ask Kawamori to do the mecha design?

Karasawa: We created a prototype with a robot, and once that was moving and able to fire missiles, then we started to see how this would shape up as an action game. That was when I contacted Kawamori. We don't have a "mecha expert" among our internal staff at FromSoftware, so the mech design at that point looked like dolls constructed from cardboard boxes. (laughs) However, although the mechs looked crappy then, the movement itself was well done, and I thought it would be a shame to waste that on lame designs, so we decided to contact someone who could make the mechs look right.

L-R: Yasuyoshi Karasawa, Eiichi Hasegawa, and Shoji Kawamori.

—Kawamori, what was your initial impression of the project when they reached out to you?

Kawamori: The very first prototype I saw didn't feel like a proper game to me yet, but I had them show me a demo screen, and the overall visual design looked good. After I saw that I knew I wanted to work on this.

—Did the original planning docs have the build-your-own mech feature, with millions of potential combinations of parts/components/weaponry?

Karasawa: No, that wasn't something I'd thought of at the beginning. But everyone has their own tastes when it comes to what looks cool, right? I went around and gathered people's input and ideas, and there was a real diversity there, so before I knew it, we'd reached millions of possible combinations.

Kawamori: For me too, at first I thought, "Oh, looks like I'm going to have to design a bunch of robots and enemies…" But then in the next meeting I was told we're actually going with modular components that the player gets to combine however they want. (laughs)

—How did you divide up the different design components for the mechs?

Kawamori: It took a lot of time to figure out how finely we should categorize the parts. There were programming limitations to consider, as well as game balance issues. Currently, we have the core torso unit, the arm unit extending from the shoulder to the hand, the option for weapon loadouts on shoulders (left and right), then the head and lower body units.

The lower body unit, in particular, has a wealth of options, from bi-pedal human type legs, to avian-style joints with reverse articulation, and even four-legged mechs and tank-tread types. In the beginning, we'd planned even more categories: the arm alone would have been comprised of three units (a shoulder, arm, and hand unit). But that would have been WAY too much work. (laughs) And the potential combinations would have become truly astronomical then.

—With so many different parts and so much variety, will you be able to choose your own colors too?

Karasawa: Yeah. First you decide on the color scheme, like military camouflage or two-tone colors, and then you're presented with a RGB palette with approximately 32 levels of gradation for each color. You probably won't notice the difference between one or two grades; it's very detailed.

Kawamori: Please buy a high-end monitor. (laughs)

—It must be extremely challenging, trying to make sure all these parts have their own distinct identity from one another.

Karasawa: Yes, it is. And we're still struggling with that. But we want to be very careful here, because if we make certain components clearly superior to others, then we'll end up in a situation where there's a single "strongest loadout", which we want to avoid. On the other hand, if they all have the same parameters, it will be boring. The trick is making sure the function of each mech part has its own pluses and minuses… so yeah, it's very tough.

Kawamori's concept art for core #3. These were "modeling revisions" completed in 12/96.

—What kind of missions can we expect to see in Armored Core?

Karasawa: In terms of locations, there's no particular limits we're placing on ourselves. There will be normal land maps, and underground dungeon type stages similar to King's Field. There will also be stages where you can see outer space from the window, from within a spaceship (but it won't be total zero gravity). I'm also thinking of doing a stage at the bottom of the ocean (you won't be fighting in the water, technically). Like other aspects of Armored Core, the missions too are being done in a trial-and-error way, so sometimes a really cool idea turns out to be bad once we try it. (laughs)

—When you clear a mission, does the reward you receive vary based on your performance?

Karasawa: It's pretty difficult to calculate an achievement ratio in a game like this. We've made it so the amount of ammo you expend in a mission is deducted from your reward as expenses. (laughs) You could have a really amazing reward, but if you use too much ammo, you might only get half of it. This system will allow good players to get a lot of money.

—Do you have to buy ammo then, in addition to weapons...?

Karasawa: No, you don't have to actually buy ammo. We had it that way in the beginning, but with all the different ammo calibers it would have been a mess. And there's a lot of different kinds of weapons. That's why you start each mission with a "full tank" of ammo, and the amount you use is treated as an expense.

—How far along is the development?

Karasawa: We're about 1/3 of the way there. The work officially got underway last September. So the version we showed at the PS EXPO was created in about two months.

While not certain, this was likely the early demo (with versus mode being the only mode available) displayed at the PS EXPO.

—I think a lot of people who saw that demo probably thought Armored Core is a versus fighting game.

Hasegawa: I think we're going to hear more people saying they want to play PVP, yeah.

Karasawa: Well, it's not like we were going to remove versus battles or anything.

Hasegawa: Most players don't have Link Cables though.

—Is a split-screen 2P versus mode possible?

Hasegawa: In that case you have to render twice as many polygons, resulting in a lower framerate. The only option is to create special maps that use fewer polygons.

Karasawa: We're going to keep the link cable versus mode in, but we don't have plans for a split-screen versus mode right now.

—Kawamori, was this your first time working with FromSoftware?

Kawamori: I'd heard stories about FromSoftware from an acquaintance, but I'm always too busy to play games myself. I only knew that they create extremely hardcore games for maniacs. (laughs) But I was surprised when I visited their offices and saw how orderly and organized they are as a company. (laughs) I come from anime, so the fact that their games have good graphics is a big plus for me. I'm also very happy that I get to focus on realism with my designs for Armored Core.

—Coming from anime, how is it working with 3D graphics?

Kawamori: I love model building, so I had no reservations about it. I love 2D art too, of course, but it's cool to be able to see everything in three dimensions.

—But when you're designing mechanical things in an anime, I can't imagine you design every part and component individually!

Kawamori: No, we don't. (laughs) To that end we had a series of conversations in which I asked them to make things as simple as possible for my design work. First, I asked them to settle on the main cores. If there were hundreds of cores there'd be no design unity, so we made the individual core designs in the spirit of functional beauty, and I could then create all the parts that would attach to them.

—How many types of cores are there?

Kawamori: We ended up with three types. One is an angular, tank-looking core; one is a more sleek, dynamic core; and another is what I imagined a combat helicopter might look like if you deployed it as a land-based weapon. Those were my design ideas. I think it would be cool if we can add one more type as a little bonus, too.

—It sounds like players can make some really unnatural, weird combinations if they want.

Kawamori: Of course. There's lots of people who enjoy weird designs and shapes, and there are embarassing combinations too. (laughs) We've basically designed it so the player can create their own design however they see fit.

While Kawamori's design for the player mech was confined to extremely detailed renderings of the parts and cores, his distinctive enemy designs show the full breadth of his abilities as a mech designer.

—How has it been for FromSoftware's employees working with Kawamori?

Karasawa: Kawamori's initial designs were visually stunning, but they looked too difficult to render in polygons, so I wasn't sure what to do at first. (laughs)

Kawamori: My first designs were used for the opening demo movie, so I made them very detailed. After that, I did my best to make the designs suitable for real-time polygon rendering. But little-by-little I've found myself approaching that polygon limit, and man is it annoying. (laughs) So I think I'm going to make my weapon designs as angular as possible from here on out. (laughs)

—How do you create the designs?

Kawamori: I drew about six layout blueprints for each of the basic cores, showing them from different angles. Then, using copies of those layouts as a reference, I designed the parts so they could be attached to each core. In this way I was able to preserve a sense of integration in the designs. I doublechecked every part I designed against each core. Like Karasawa said about not wanting to have an "ultimate" strongest weapon, I also thought it would be boring if there were one design that everyone wanted, that stood out above all the others. So I tried to make every part unique, so the choices would be meaningful.

—Are you still working on the mecha designs?

Kawamori: Yeah. But I can see the big picture now, so it'll probably go easy from here on out… at least up until the last 30%. That final portion is tough because you've used up all your good ideas. (laughs) If the designs can't be distinguished from their silhouettes alone, it's no good.

—Kawamori, I understand you were very pleased when you first saw the mechs in motion, but as an animator, did you offer any suggestions or pointers on their animation?

Kawamori: They had a "bolt upright" standing pose that looked too stiff, so I asked them to add a bit more looseness there. I also said they should put more swing in their hips. Right now it's adequate, but with just a touch more it would be awesome.

—How about the programming? Has it also been a twisted path...?

Hasegawa: The basic system hasn't changed much over the course of the development, but the direction we're taking the game in has changed a lot. (laughs) In the beginning Armored Core was more of an adventure type game. I wrote a function that loaded the graphics from the CD silently in the background, like the King's Field series, in order to make the movement between the layers look smooth. That way the game wouldn't be interrupted while loading assets. Unfortunately when we changed the game to a stage-based mission format, that code was no longer needed. (laughs)

—It sounds like you've cleared all the major programming hurdles then.

Hasegawa: I've been handling the gameplay programming, and it's mostly done. Another person will create the menus (and other story-related things), so that will be the bigger challenge from here out.

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