Dragon Quest III – 1989 Developer Interview

Dragon Quest III – 1989 Developer Interview

In this 1989 interview Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura talk about their disappointments with Dragon Quest II and the nature of their creative relationship as designer / programmer. Nakamura was the lead programmer for Chunsoft, a developer later known for their “sound novel” and roguelike games. The extent of their work on the Famicom Dragon Quest games is still not common knowledge in the West.

The Challenges of Dragon Quest II

Nakamura: Dragon Quest II ended up receiving favorable reviews from everyone, but from our perspective as the creators, we felt like we were only able to accomplish about half of what we had wanted to do.

Horii: We didn’t have enough time for Dragon Quest II, did we?

Nakamura: No, we were just too busy. Everyday I’d get updated instructions from Horii and programming those occupied all my time. I couldn’t even do any debugging myself until right before we were supposed to take the final version in for production. I feel pretty good about DQII up until you get the boat. After that I don’t like the game very much… the difficulty balance with the monsters, you know, fell short of my aspirations.

Horii: Yeah. We just didn’t have the time.

Nakamura: Yeah. You yourself didn’t even have time to play the game all the way through!

Horii: I had to write the scenario and adjust the game balance at the same time, so I was very busy. I too played up until you get the boat many times, but there was absolutely no time for me to thoroughly play the latter half of the game… from the boat to Rhone, the content is a bit thin.

A young Kouichi Nakamura

Nakamura: It wasn’t just you and me either. On the day the final version was ready to be taken in for production, I was shocked to learn that not a single person on the development had played the game all the way through. I was horrified! How were we supposed to release a game in this state? Thankfully, for Dragon Quest III we’ve resolved this problem; the game has been completely balanced and tested from start to finish.

Horii: Even I couldn’t really tell how DQII played from start to finish. But for Dragon Quest III, we were able to spend a lot of time fine-tuning many different sections. Take the dungeons, for instance–we ended up revising about 70% of what was in our first draft. Almost all the details got updated and changed around during development. I really feel confident saying that DQIII is perfect.

Nakamura’s Contributions

Nakamura: The “za za za za” sound when you change screens is something I made on my own, without any guidance from Horii.

Horii: For the scenarios too, there’s parts where Nakamura added his own unique touches. Things like sound effects and the graphical presentation. For example, I’d usually just tell him “I have this image in my head, and I want to do this.” Then he would come up with a very refined, sophisticated way of translating my ideas into the game.

Nakamura: The way the Traveler’s Gates look and the teleport effect in DQIII were both devised by me, too. Well, to be more precise, my role for DQIII was that of a director, checking the programming and guiding the direction of the project. So I didn’t personally program those things in myself, but rather had my chief programmer do it.

Chunsoft offices in the late 1980s, where Nakamura must have spent many hours.

For many of his scenarios, Horii doesn’t give very detailed guidance. (laughs) He just writes his general intentions, “it should feel like this!” and so on. I read his instructions and if I understand them in my own way, that’s great. “Oh, this is what he’s trying to say.” But of course, sometimes there’s things I just don’t understand. Then I get stuck with the difficult task of filling in the gaps.

Horii: Hey now… if I gave you more specific guidance, your programming skills would start to atrophy. (laughs)

Nakamura: Give me a break! (laughs)

Horii: I think the relationship is the same as that between a manga artist and story writer. The writer says “here’s the scene!” and the artist uses his intuition to depict it visually.

Nakamura: And DQIII had way, way more of those scenes that DQII.

Horii: It easily has more than the double. And the puzzles, for example, are of a far larger scale than DQII. Whereas DQII had simple puzzles that were solved by finding a single person, in III it’s been scaled up, and entire towns form the subject of puzzles. I think this way is much more dramatic.

Intelligent Monsters

Nakamura: I found the battles to be very funny too.

Horii: The monsters have more tricks up their sleeves this time. The AI routines are far more sophisticated than before.

Nakamura: There are dumb monsters and there are intelligent monsters.

Horii: For example, with monsters that can use magic, the dumb ones will keep trying to cast the same spell even after all their MP is gone. But smart ones will try something else. Take a monster who can cast zaoriku or zaoraru (revive or vivify), the spells that can revive fallen comrades. If he’s a smart monster, after he’s used up all his magic points he’ll try and cast mahotora (RobMagic), steal some MP, and revive another monster.

A two-spread Dragon Quest III flyer. "What is the mystery of Alefgard...?!"

Another monster only has enough MP to cast ionazun (explodet) one time. In such a case you’ll probably think your safe after he casts it. However, next turn he’ll cast mahotora, steal your MP, and cast ionazun again. Now you’re panicking… (laughs)

Nakamura: In any event, the battles are really fun. Regarding magic, we also made different characters learn spells at different speeds.

Horii: When I played recently I had a character learn 3 spells in one level, all at once. That kind of thing can happen. The timing at which you learn spells is based on the character’s intelligence. The smarter the character is, the more (and stronger) spells he’ll learn.

Nakamura: The speed at which spells are learned can also vary greatly. There can be characters that only ever learn a single spell– for example, take a really stupid magic user. At level 50 he might still not have learned a spell that another character learned dozens of levels before, all because his intelligence is too low.

In that sense DQIII is made for hardcore players. It has a battery RAM save ability, so each person can make their own unique party.

The Joy of Combat

Nakamura: I really want players to enjoy the battles in DQIII. In previous RPGs gaining levels could be boring, having to fight the same enemies over and over: “Ah, I’m sick of seeing this guy.” And since you need to win battles to gain experience and level up, there’s a tendency to always run from strong enemies the first time you encounter them, defusing the tension. We wanted DQIII to have less monotonous fights like that, and for the player to enjoy himself battle after battle.

Horii: Your commands in battle have greatly increased too.

Another neat DQIII flyer.

Nakamura: Right. There’s more magic, you can attack party members, a character’s position in the lineup has an effect… we wanted players to be curious and experiment. “What happens if I do this?” I think there’s a lot of room for strategy and I hope players enjoy it.

Horii: The support spells are more effective this time too.

Nakamura: That’s right! In previous games spells like manuusa (surround) haven’t been very useful. But manuusa, sukuruto (defence), and others are now all effective in their own right. There’s about 60 different spells, and not one of them is pointless.

Horii: I think players will enjoy the full breadth of the story as well.

Nakamura: There’s all sorts of detailed hints and foreshadowing woven into the dialogue. I hope players notice. There’s hidden secrets as well. I thought the story overall was very moving.

Horii: And it won’t reveal itself to you completely until the end.

Nakamura: There are many parts where I was moved to tears. DQIII is on a whole other level from previous RPGs… you could say it’s more like art or literature now. The story is that moving.

These two definitely agreed.

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