Chrono Trigger – 1994/95 Developer Interviews
with Kazuhiko Aoki, Takashi Tokita, Yoshinori Kitase and more
Kazuhiko Aoki – Producer
Takashi Tokita – Director
Yoshinori Kitase – Director
Hironobu Sakaguchi – Designer
Active Time Event Logic System 1
Aoki: In a typical RPG, when an event scene begins you lose control of your character and the computer takes over, and the player has to just sit there and watch things unfold. The result is that if 100 people play the game, that scene will turn out the same way everytime for all of them. But what if players could freely control their character during scenes, talking to different people and steering the conversation in different directions? Then the narrative in that event could unfold in a variety of ways, depending on the individual player.
Tokita: To make that possible, for Chrono Trigger we’ve instituted a system where you can move your character around during scenes, even when an NPC is talking to you.
Sakaguchi: This is called the “ATL” system.
Kitase: Amongst the developers, its also known as the “Active Time Event Logic” system.
Sakaguchi: Imagine a play on stage. If you were free to move around during the performance, you’d be able to go up and talk to the performers during scenes. That’s what you can do in Chrono Trigger, and what makes it different from other RPGs. You’ll be able to influence the development of the scenes as they’re happening. To give one simple example, if you decide you want to meddle with the scene and you go to talk to one of the characters, they could get angry: “Don’t interfere!!”
Tokita: Or in a different scene, maybe you don’t feel like listening to the boss’ long pre-battle spiel, so you start to run away, but enemies attack you when you do! With the ATL system, each scene can have many permutations.
Aoki: Yeah, normally when you reach a boss, he goes into some longwinded preamble before the battle starts, “So you’ve made it! Wahahahha…” In Chrono Trigger, the player can move around freely during such event scenes, including boss encounters. Say you don’t want to listen to that boss and start walking away, then he’ll go “why aren’t you listening to me!!” and battle will begin.
Tokita: As a developer, naturally when you create a game, you have certain scenes you want to show players. So you focus on getting every detail of that scene just right, tinkering with it until it shows exactly what you want. Sometimes you realize that the event is too long. But even if it is too long, as a developer you just really want to show players what you intended to show them. The Active Time Event Logic system was created as a result of our searching for a way to balance those two needs, of the developers’ desire to share and the players’ desire to have freedom.
But implementing this system has been a real challenge. The freedom means you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, like you would in a normal Final Fantasy event system.
to speak, or not to speak…
Sakaguchi: This team is the same group that’s worked on our earlier Final Fantasy games. So collectively there’s this spirit among us as we work on Chrono Trigger, that this is going to be the next step in the evolution of Final Fantasy.
Kitase: We argued a lot with Yuji Horii over whether Chrono should speak or not. Horii said that the protagonist of an RPG must never speak. And at Square, opinions were divided on the issue. We eventually decided to go with a hero who doesn’t talk, but once that decision was made, it greatly changed the way we were constructing the event scenes.
Aoki: Yeah, Chrono can’t just jump into a conversation now. It lends a different mood to things, compared with our previous games.
Tokita: I think both approaches have their merits. When you choose to make the protagonist speak, just by doing that you’ve given him a definite personality.
Aoki: And that causes the player to take a stance on whether he likes or dislikes this hero. At the same time, if you make your hero do bad things, players will hate him. That’s why protagonists in most RPGs who do talk have mostly had bland, inoffensive dialogue. From that perspective, I think there’s a definite advantage in having a protagonist who does not speak at all.
Kitase: Definitely. It’s a fact that by having the hero not speak, the player can more easily get invested in the game. That was part of the thinking behind our decision.
Aoki: Yeah. On top of that, there’s the ATL system we talked about above. Compared with your average RPG, Chrono Trigger should be much easier for players to get emotionally invested in!
Yuji Horii and Hironobu Sakaguchi, from a 1995 Chrono Trigger interview.
Kitase: We did a lot of experimenting to see what kind of battle system would work best: random battles like the Final Fantasy series where you’re suddenly drawn into combat while walking around a map, or one where the screen doesn’t change, but touching an enemy cues a subtle shift in music and draws you into combat.
Tokita: This battle system, where the screen doesn’t change when you start a battle… it’s very different from our previous games. It somehow feels mysterious.
Aoki: This system also allowed us to prepare a bunch of cool little individual scenes: for example, you’re walking down the path and your foot gets caught in a vine, and then enemies that were hiding in the bushes suddenly appear! We created over 100 of them—all by hand. Like the event system, the battle system was another way for us to make Chrono Trigger more exciting and dynamic. For us creators who had to make all these scenes though, it was very difficult.
Tokita: It took just as much time as the story and events, and we really squeezed every last drop of brain matter from our heads to come up with all those different battle lead-ins.
Aoki: In the Final Fantasy series, when you get into a random battle, the first thing you think is, “oh, it’s these guys again.” But in Chrono Trigger, you don’t have to fight if you don’t want to: you can sit back and observe the enemies’ behavior, and see their personality. Some act like little show-offs, others are all weird—you can learn about them before you fight them.
From 24 to 32
Tokita: We also put a lot of energy into the graphics. It’s our first 32 meg game at Square… when you think about it, you could fit four FFIV’s into this cart. (laughs) Of course that size also meant four times the work.
Sakaguchi: Our original plans called for a 24 meg game. But being a time travel RPG, we really wanted to show different outfits and clothing for all the NPCs in different time periods, and we wanted to change the appearance of the towns… lots of details like that kept coming up as the development went on. The designers spent a ton of time carefully detailing all the sprites, down to individual furnishings like a clock or dresser. When I saw the volume of what we had created, that was when I knew we needed to go from 24 to 32 megs.
Tokita: The graphic designer who made that clock kept tinkering with and redrawing it, until someone finally had to make him stop! The result of all this work is really amazing though—with Chrono Trigger, I wonder if we haven’t pushed the Super Famicom to its limits, graphically.
Working with Yuji Horii
Sakaguchi: Horii is a very quiet person, but I think that’s because he is intently observing the people around him. He reads people well. And I think he uses that ability to help in creating his own dramatic scenarios. I didn’t realize that about him when I first met him, but I felt it strongly after we worked together on Chrono Trigger.
Chrono Trigger is announced.
Horii and I both work in the same field, so there were no real fights between us, but he has his own ideas about how a game should be made, and we clashed on a number of points. Those confrontations gave us the opportunity to think very deeply about the game, though, so I think it was probably a good thing. Things that we at Square normally don’t pay much heed to were things that, in contrast, Horii always paid attention to. He gave me a lot to think about: if these were things that Horii was concerned about, then that means players must be too.
In general, Horii and I are on the same page—it’s the elements we focus on that are different.. If those differences could be fused together, I thought it would make an awesome game. When we announced Chrono Trigger, it was portrayed in the media as the “Horii <-> Sakaguchi” joint project, but as game designers we didn’t really pay attention to all that.
1995 Chrono Trigger – Post-Release Developer Interview
Masato Kato – Planning. Joined midway into the project, from another company. Worked on the story and the events.
Akihiko Matsui – Planning. Worked on Final Fantasy and Romancing Saga games, joined Chrono Trigger midway. Worked on monster animations.
Katsuhisa Higuchi – Programmer. Worked on the Final Fantasy series. For Chrono Trigger, worked on the battle programming.
Yasuhiko Kamata – Graphic Designer. Was on the Secret of Mana team before joining Chrono Trigger. Mainly worked on the backgrounds.
Too Many Ideas
Kato: For the enemies, at first we had a mechanic where certain enemies could only be killed with the right weapon, like a bow and arrow. But it was annoying so we cut it out.
Matsui: Sometimes the easiest approach is to cut away rather than add. It’s like pruning the leaves of a tree so the wind can come through. If we had created Chrono Trigger with all the ideas originally contained in our first planning docs, it would have been an overgrown thicket. The latter half of the planning docs especially was just cut, cut, cut.
Higuchi: Our process was that if an idea came to us, we’d always try it out, but if it felt boring, we’d toss it out right away. The one thing you’re not permitted is to bore the player, after all. If you add ideas that are boring just because they’re written there in the original planning docs, then you’re just you’re just a developer on an ego trip. When in doubt, cut!
Matsui: There’s really a mountain of ideas that we tried and then cut. We wouldn’t know if it would work until we coded it and saw it in-game, but then it was like, “yeah, this wasn’t very interesting after all.” You always make those revisions when you create a game, but with Chrono Trigger, it really did feel like there were too many ideas at first, and you weren’t sure what kind of game this was supposed to be. I’m sure we made the programmers’ lives hell, with all our changes.
planner Akihiko Matsui (L) and programmer Katsuhisa Higuchi (R)
Kamata: The opening pendulum was made using computer graphics, the kind that have been popular recently with the Donkey Kong Country games. We’re all starting to think about the next generation of hardware at Square, you know, so we thought we’d try making a small fraction of the graphics in Chrono Trigger using those next-gen cg tools. They look different from hand-drawn pixel art.
Kato: Didn’t we use them in Final Fantasy VI?
Kamata: Yeah, with FF6 we used cg for the magical effects, I believe. In general we did things by hand for that game though. But yeah, with cg, we’ve been watching movies like Terminator 2 and studying the technology they used to make those graphics. Recently at Square we’ve been using those tools a lot. Originally we tried the technology out just for texture mapping on 3D objects, but with Chrono Trigger, for the first time we’re using texture mapping methods to add three-dimensionality to actual objects in-game. We still want the warmth of hand-drawn graphics though, so we’re trying not to make it too obvious where we’ve used the cg. But we felt it could add some nice variety to things if used sparingly.
Kato: We argued a lot about that actually, where to use cg.
Kamata: Yeah. It wasn’t a question of whether to use it at all, but how visible it should be. And it wasn’t a case of cg art being better than pixel art, or vice versa; you have to decide on a case-by-case basis which is appropriate, I think. With everyone thinking about the next generation of console hardware, it makes sense to have our designers studying that new technology now, in advance.
In reality, though, you can’t just take something you’ve independently drawn using cg methods and add it directly to the game anyway—the resolution is different. If you draw something on a Mac, a 3cm square will take up the entire screen on a game console.
Kamata: At first we were working with 24 megs, but in the last half year we suddenly increased it to 32. The increased memory wasn’t for programming; if I had to say, it was mostly used on extra music and graphics—adding branches to the tree, so to speak. Our space for graphics doubled overnight.
Kato: Yeah, the majority of it went to graphics. Some was used for scenarios, events, and some extra dialogue too.
Kamata: I think about 6 of the 8 megs was used for graphics.
Kato: We had done our best to fit all the graphics into 24 megs, but it turned out to be too much. We couldn’t fit all the scenarios we wanted in either. It’s thanks to those extra 8 megs that Magus’ castle looks so fantastic. Those setpieces couldn’t be done just by reusing sprites and tiles from other dungeons. Well, we always try to reuse things where we can, like that moon. At the planning stages of a development, when your mindset is much more conservative with regard to memory, you can’t really create elaborate setpieces and scenes. So that 8mb came at just the right time.
The opening demo shows off the additional
material that was added once the cartridge
memory was expanded from 24 to 32Mbit.
Higuchi: Yeah, almost all the things we added with that 8M can be seen in the opening demo.
Matsui: That’s right. We wanted everyone to know what kind of game Chrono Trigger was, and of course to show the best parts. The demo was going to be looped in storefront displays, after all.
Kamata: It’s also cool how it gets the player wondering how all these different scenes connect up. That’s the kind of thing that’s best conveyed visually.
Development at Square
Higuchi: I don’t want to go into too much detail about this, but the way Square develops games is different from other companies, I feel. In general, planning/design staff at other companies don’t create data or do any coding themselves. The amazing thing about Square is that all our planners can create actual in-game data themselves, at a programmer level. From the beginning of my time at Square, I’ve seen this as a looming problem—that is, now that we’re hiring more and more new people without those skills, how can we effectively use them?
Kato: As someone who recently joined Square, I’ve thought about that a lot myself. Basically all of the planners at Square have some software experience, and can code in C or Basic. If you aren’t the kind of person who, at least to some extent, likes to get into the code and tinker with it yourself… let’s just say if you try to join Square just as an “idea man”, then you’re going to have a very hard time here.
Higuchi: I don’t know exactly how it is at other companies, but at Square it feels like you can’t be a planner unless you can also handle data. Very few people are hired and go right into planning. Even if you have experience elsewhere, if you don’t have any technical skills then it will initially be rough-going for you at Square. Those who don’t study up will find themselves falling further and further behind, always doing lower-level work and never able to do anything more. Just as we don’t hire programmers who don’t know how to program, a certain level of technical ability is required to work here. How is it for the graphics side, I wonder?
Kamata: Yeah, we only hire people who are already talented to begin with.
Higuchi: Ah, I thought so.
Matsui: It’s not easy, but even for me, if I can’t reduce my ideas to actual data then I’m out of luck. Plus, I feel like the real work of game development isn’t just coming up with ideas, it’s translating those ideas into actual data. If you don’t have those skills, then you’re at the mercy of the programmers when they tell you something can’t be done, and if another planner comes up to you asking how to do something, you won’t be able to help. So you see, it’s really those with ideas (planners) who are most hurt by not knowing anything about data and coding.
And when it comes time to create the actual data, even if you think “oh, well I’ll just have other people implement my ideas, and they’ll add their own flavor to it”, what will happen is that they’ll end up taking control of the work. That’s why planners should be able to handle data. There’s so many software tools available today to make it easier, so its not like you need as much expertise as you did in the old days.
There’s also some planners who are more inclined to art and drawing. I have no skills with art myself, so I really envy those planners who do. And there’s a lot of places where their skills come in handy. We actually do hire some artists who only do “pure” art and don’t touch the software side at all, but for planners, I think it’s best to be able to handle data.
Higuchi: Also, on the programming side, there was a time when programmers could get by purely by programming. For example, for a business or office program, you could code it just as you were instructed in the blueprints and that would be 100% ok. For game programming, however, you need creativity and awareness: how do I make this interesting and fun? You need to consult a lot with the planners, and be able to say “this isn’t possible” when you see something weird in the planning docs. It will be difficult to succeed without that level of judgement. Just as a planner should know a bit of programming and graphics, a programmer must think for himself and not just blindly follow the planning docs. In the end, whether the game is fun or not comes down to the programmers, and if you don’t have that mindset, you won’t get far.
Matsui: If you work hard and have the will, you should be able to get the data work down in a year.
It isn’t really the planners who have the most influence at Square, you know. It’s the programmers who seriously wield a lot of power. Even the graphic artists and the concept artists have more say than the planners, I think. When you think about it that way, Square isn’t really a company that gets hung up on job titles.
Higuchi: With all these planners who know about programming, though, it can be tough for a programmer working at Square! Say you get some task and think, “man, this is going to be annoying to code.” If the planners didn’t know anything about software you could just say “I can’t do it.” But at Square we can’t say that!
Sakaguchi and Kitase reminisce on Chrono Trigger in 2014.
Hironobu Sakaguchi x Yoshinori Kitase – Developer Interview
excerpted from this 2014 interview at Famitsu
Sakaguchi: I was a really strict boss during the development of Chrono Trigger. Every morning I’d gather everyone together and make them give me status reports. I had never done anything like that during Final Fantasy.
Kitase: When Sakaguchi officially joined the Chrono Trigger development team, the first thing he got his hands into was the scenarios. There was a scenario involving Marle, where a time paradox occurs and the Marle you end up spending the rest of the game with is actually from a different timeline.
Sakaguchi: With time travel as our theme, you could have the same character be a totally different person if they belonged to a different timeline. That was the planners’ original idea, but I said it was no good. I said that even if the player changes history, when you return to your original time, it should be the same Marle there that you knew from before.
Kitase: I hadn’t thought about it that deeply, but Sakaguchi insisted that we should focus on building these characters consistently and thoroughly. It left a big impression on me. Even at the very end, just before the final deadline, Sakaguchi was saying we should add extra scenes to flesh out the characters. Tokita did Marle’s scenes, and I did Lucca’s.
Sakaguchi: Those turned out really well too. Since they were made at the very end, everyone was settled in and acclimated to the development by that point, and knew what they should be doing and how to do it. Those episodes came out in one burst of energy. That last bit of seasoning is very important for a game. When people are under pressure, their best comes out, and that’s how interesting games can be made. Players may think, “oh, they must have had the story all planned out from the beginning.” But that isn’t always the case!