Final Fantasy IX – 2000 Developer Interviews

Final Fantasy IX – 2000 Developer Interviews

These Final Fantasy IX interviews were originally published in Hyper Playstation magazine, shortly before the game's release in July 2000. As pre-release interviews, they contained a good deal of promotional fluff, so I have slightly edited them down to capture the more substantive parts. The conversation is largely focused on Sakaguchi's big-picture vision for FFIX, with interesting design tidbits scattered throughout.

Hironobu Sakaguchi (Producer)

This time we went in a fantasy direction. I suppose you could say we wanted to return to our roots. (laughs) I was saying we should do that because it's the last single digit Final Fantasy game, but also, I just love the number 9… because of kabu.1 I see FFIX as bracketing, or bringing to a close, this era of Final Fantasy. FFXI will feature online play, and FFX will be released for the PS2. Being our first PS2 title I thought that, for FFX, rather than getting too hung up on the world and backstory and lore and all that, we should focus our efforts on maximizing the hardware performance and impact of the visuals. In contrast, since FF9 is the third of the original PlayStation trilogy of Final Fantasy games, we're not struggling to squeeze every last drop of performance out of the hardware―instead, we can once more focus on building a world and atmosphere that really feels like Final Fantasy. That was the direction I wanted to go in.

With FF9, I'm hoping to free up the Final Fantasy series itself a bit. Both FF7 and FF8 had a somewhat cyberpunk vibe, with taller, more realistic characters. Actually, in the planning stages of FF7, we tried using smaller, deformed characters (about 4 heads tall). But when we gave Cloud a sword, he couldn't lift it. Just raising it up, it would get stuck in his forehead. (laughs) We knew that was a non-starter so for the battle scenes we changed the characters to the full-size you see in FF7 today.

But because those animated 3D cutscenes of FF7 were so well received, Yusuke Naora, who was the art director, decided to take FF8 in an even more realistic direction. This time I decided to fight back. The black mage Vivi is a good example. With that hat of his, he can't really hold a weapon, but I said oh well, let's not worry about that. And while there may be limitations to the animation, and it may end up looking a little anime-ish, I think that style has a charm all its own. It helps bring out the individual appeal of the characters. That's what I'm going for with FF9.

Amano's concept art for Vivi, who was a key character for both the story and graphic design, as described below.

I understood that people may be expecting another realistic game like FF7 or FF8. But if we did that, I thought, we'd probably become locked into this pattern for FF10 and FF11 and not be able to create anything new ever again. So that's why I wanted to break down everyone's assumptions about Final Fantasy, and remind them that Final Fantasy was a free world where anything was possible.

As for themes, the theme of FF9 is the same as the movie The Spirits Within. Their worlds are completely different, but the core theme is the same. I didn't directly try to make them the same, and there are differences to be sure, but I wrote the scenarios at the same time. The first draft of the story for FF9 was written by me, by the way. Two other people were added to help finish the final draft, and it's very different. The latter half, in particular, changed quite a bit.

Character and Art Design

Each character in FF9 is harboring various traumas. Some of them are troubled by matters of life and death, and some are troubled by other things, but each one has their own theme. In that sense I wanted to make FF9 as much like FF6 as possible. The characters in FF6 stood out both in terms of story and gameplay, like how Gau can learn enemy attacks. I wanted the same thing for FF9, for all eight characters to stand out as much as possible.

As for Zitan, he didn't even have a name yet then, but early on, I wanted to make him more of a girl chaser (laughs). The type of guy who is always touching girls' butts… I wanted to try and take a lighthearted, unserious character like that and burden them with a very heavy, serious theme. A few of those scenes remain, but unfortunately I had to cut most of them. Ito and the others seemed to feel that we shouldn't had too many scenes like that. So most of the womanizing stuff was cut… especially the scenes where he touches their butts. (laughs)

Looks like not all the scenes got cut...!

The graphics in FF9 have warm tones, which is the color palette that Hideo Minaba prefers. I like Minaba's colors―I love what he did on Final Fantasy Tactics. The first time we worked together was on FF3. I thought it might be a bit of an adventure not to have Tetsuya Nomura as the character designer this time… on the other hand, when Amano held his solo exhibition in New York, we talked a lot, and we decided to go back to our roots. Using the crystals in the logo was one such idea.

There are of course legitimate fantasies that contain grotesque elements. But we tried to do something a little different with FF9. It's a world full of color. Minaba, the art director, did a lot of work on this, and the world he wanted to depict came out very well. The streets of Alexandria, for example. When I saw that I was very impressed! "Whoa! So that's what you had in mind for Alexandria…!" (laughs) It exceeded my expectations.

I actually had a lot of complaints about the movie cutscenes during the filming, such as the lack of depth and contrast. Let me take this moment to apologize to the team for that. (laughs) In the end, they came out much better than I'd hoped for and I'm very satisfied.

Battle Systems, Difficulty, and Balance

The truth is, we're hoping there won't be a need for a bunch of strategy guides this time. What I'm telling Ito, in any event, is that I want the difficulty to be balanced in such a way that players can enjoy it without having to resort to strategy guides or relying on very specific strategies. He understands what I'm looking for, and FF9 has a decidedly more old-school approach to gameplay. I want it to be playable the same way those older games were, when strategy guides and the like weren't really a thing. Your progress through the game won't be gated by some specific info or knowledge, for example.

The battle system for FF9 was created by director Hiroyuki Ito, who also created the original Active Time Battle system. He has so much experience creating different battle systems that I know it will turn out good if I let him handle it. In the beginning I showed him my draft idea of the battle system for FF9, and he was like, "Sakaguchi, this is boring. I'll fix it for you." (laughs) He came up with something much better than what I'd thought of.

Ito really worked hard on balancing and reworking the battle system. He pointed out that you could probably dash through the game and skip almost 2/3 of the content, and still beat it. You don't need Curaga to beat this one… it's the first Final Fantasy you can beat with Cura. (laughs)

We're also bringing back the four-character battles. With a three-person party, you always end up relegating one person to healing duties. But having four characters makes the assignment of roles much more complex. It provides a more dynamic experience, as players must decide what role each character will fulfill each turn. The downside is that more characters == longer battles, so we're trying to keep the battle effects quick and snappy to keep things moving along. Instead of flashy big graphical effects I want to prioritize that briskness and the strategic aspect of the battles.

In FF7 and FF8, it was more like… let's have the camera whirl around and let's include all these lavish effects even if they take a long time, to wow the player and make them go "whoa! look at that!" (laughs) But I don't think that kind of ostentation would be impressive or surprising anymore. So we're aiming for a snappier pacing. The summons will also, for the most part, be much quicker.

Finally, I'd also like to increase the amount of gameplay. One of my favorite events is in FF5, where you have to choose between the Chicken Knife or the Brave Blade. I want the team to put a lot more stuff like that, where you have to make a choice, into FF9. The Chicken Knife/Brave Blade was originally Ito's idea, by the way, so I'm sure he'll put similar stuff in FF9. I've got a lot of confidence in him, as I've said many times before.

Hideo Minaba (Art Director)

The first work I did for Final Fantasy was the background graphics for FF5. After working on FF6, I helped out with the graphics on Super Mario RPG. Then I worked on FFT, and now I'm working on FF9, this time as art director.

During the latter half of the FFT development, Sakaguchi called me over and told me three things he wanted to do with FF9. First, that there would be crystals in this game; second, that the development would take place in Honolulu, and third that he would write the scenario himself. Those three things are all he said to me, and the rest he told me to think up myself―I was very much left to my own devices, as it were. (laughs)

There's this old movie called The Dark Crystal, and I thought I'd like to create characters who'd look similar to the hero and heroine of that movie. But when I actually set out to create them it was extremely hard.

Kira and Gen, protagonists from Jim Henson's fantasy classic The Dark Crystal. Personally I wouldn't have minded if FF9 had leaned even further into this influence...!

We made the FF9 characters 5 and a half-heads tall, but that is basically the smallest possible size for getting "human" like performances from the character models. For FF8 we used full-size character models, and there was a feeling amongst the team of like, why not just go with that again? But we feared it might lack impact if we did the same thing again, and copying ourselves sort of runs contra to the spirit of the Final Fantasy developments themselves, so we lowered their height.

In doing so, however, it made the reference standard for non-human characters a bit vague. In the end, the 2D character designer had to model all the characters side by side, lined up next to each other, one by one. That was one of the most difficult parts of the project.

The black mage Vivi is a key character in FF9. When I designed him, I asked, OK, what kind of place does he come from, where does he live? So first off we created a "black mage" environment. The actual black mage village that appears in the game is something we revised later, but initially we made a sort of test-plot black mage village, and got a feeling for the character by designing those environmental details, such as how big the doors are, things like that. Then later we went back and revised it to be in keeping with the main story. In this way, the background designers worked closely with the people making the real-time polygon character models.

As mentioned above, the decision to use the somewhat uncommon "5 and 1/2 head" height for characters meant the designers had to frequently check character sizes and proportions. Many of the other FFIX concept art pieces for NPCs and enemies, like this one, use Zidane as a reference to keep everything proportional.

I was also very particular about the colors in FF9. Vivi was the central anchor around which we made choices about the other characters' colors. This time, we used a lot of the primary colors red and blue. In order to make the best use of them we had to hold back on using too many other colors. I've been hearing people say that we used a warmer color pallete this time, but I didn't consciously aim for that. I think it just ended up looking that way, with a lot of intermediate colors. I also have my favorite colors, and I think that comes out a little. (laughs)

To make sure all the visuals had a unified look, we had to ensure everything was easy for the English-speaking team members to understand. As designers they're capable of a lot of different styles, so initially we talked a lot to figure out what direction we should ultimately take. We started by talking about things that both English speakers and Japanese would have in common―Disney, stuff like that. From there, we gradually got an idea of the unique visual look FF9 would have.

At first, the visuals had a more angular, CG-ish aesthetic. But when we demoed it with the Playstation's resolution, it looked bad, so we decided to soften it up. Instead of straight lines, we tried to make things curved like a vase. We rounded the edges off any sharp triangles too.

The story of FF9 is rather serious, but the visuals are cute and cozy, and we tried to lean into that gap. You see a lovely, cute flower, but then a wind blows and it sways sadly, forlorn… I hope players notice those touches because we worked hard on that. For each event that we designed the graphics for, we consulted with the event writer to make sure our visuals captured the spirit of the scene.

Kazuhiko Aoki (Event Designer)

I handled the direction for the event design team, including story events. I joined the team about one year ago. Ultimately, we ended up making a ton of revisions on every scene. The first scene, for instance, we revised 3 or 4 times. We re-worked the ending too. In terms of sheer volume, we created about double the content compared to what appears in the final game.

Even now, there's a lot of debate about the scale of the characters, whether they should be even a little more deformed, or a little closer to actual humans, but I think we managed to strike just the right balance.

The characters' movements were not captured by motion capture; we had to create them all by hand, which was very difficult. But it did give us some leeway for exaggerated, caricatured portrayals, which in a way made things easier: if the graphics were more realistic, people would be like, "oh, that would never happen in real life." Besides, we wanted to give the characters a lot of fine movement, so it was inevitable that we'd have to do a lot of the work by hand.

Kazuhiko Aoki (2000)

Hiroyuki Ito (Director)

Including the time it took to decide on our direction and get everything prepared, it took about two years to make FF9. Maybe a year and a half of that was the actual production time. Since the shift to 3D, the amount of time we have to spend on character modeling has gone way up, so in our previous 3D games we would limit the extra 3D modeling we'd do… but for FF9, we decided to go all-in. I think we were able to do a lot in a short time-frame, for the 3D modeling. Still, the time constraints meant we had to cut things down a lot. I would have liked to show more of the character development using the ATE system, for instance. But I think most of our vision is in there.

FF9 probably has the most events of any Final Fantasy game. There's still a lot that I haven't seen myself! It also holds the crown for longest debugging. I think, at our peak, we had 120-130 people on the debugging team.

In terms of struggles… well, I can't really point to one thing, it's honestly all been a struggle. It's all a blur and my senses have become numbed. (laugh) There was someone who broke his leg in Honolulu. That was a shock to me. He ended up working with crutches. I thought, "Whatever you do, don't break your hand!" (laughs)

Nobuo Uematsu (Composer)

My first assignment at Square was Cruise Chase Blassty… for the PC-88, or maybe it was the PC-98. I wasn't the main composer though, I think I wrote 3… or was it 5 songs? That was my first project though. The sound chip was still PSG only then, and there wasn't an official designated music guy at Square yet either. One day they just asked me, "You want the job?" and I said, "Sure." (laughs)

At the time of the first game, I had no notion that Final Fantasy was going to become a series. One thing Sakaguchi did say to me was that he didn't want Final Fantasy to be just another Dragon Quest clone. I was familiar of course with the music of Dragon Quest, and we decided we would avoid Sugiyama's classical-inspired sound. I mean, to be honest, even if they'd ordered me to write music like that I couldn't have done it. (laughs)

In any event, in the beginning there were no specific requests or instructions really to make the music this-or-that way. The Famicom could only play three sounds simultaneously anyway―there's only so much you can do. Every song pretty much came down to a lower bass track, an arpeggio in the middle, and a melody riding on top. Or you could apreggiate the lower register instead, and then use the remaining two voices for a melody and an echo effect, to give a floaty, ethereal feeling. But that was about the extent of what you could do, so why worry about it? (laughs)

Nobuo Uematsu (2000)

With the Super Famicom, we could now do synthesizer-type stuff. Before there was no way to make orchestral sounds, but with the SFC we could sample trumpets and other instruments. I remember feeling, wow, there's so much I can do now! But I'm also the type of person who, if I aim too high I know I'm going to crash and burn. (laughs) So I didn't try to push it too hard. Basically I just took things as they came, and didn't have grand ambitions with the SFC sound chip, like "this time we're gonna do THIS!"

For FF9, no one specifically requested that I make the music old-school. However, when composing video game music, it's inevitable that the art, story, and world of the game will exert their influence on you to one degree or another. FF7 and FF8 were very different from what came before and their music naturally diverged; in the same way, I thought FF9 should be closer to the older games in spirit. And once I got down to the actual composition I found that was the right call. I wrote the battle music with that old-school vibe in mind. (laughs) The crystal harp song has some older elements too. It's just one section really, but, well, I'll let that be a secret.

The sound production period for FF9 was quite long, about a year or so. I usually try and make a "main theme" type of song in the very beginning of a project. I think about how it would sound playing on the world map or something. I made a song like that for FF9 and thought to myself, "this is a good one!" But in the end there was no place to play it, so it was left floating in space, and ultimately went unused. (laughs)

The unused "main theme" discussed above.

The first thing the team handed me was, let's see… the main character, and… actually I think that was it. (laughs) Normally we have a discussion about the story and play, and based on that we'll decide on roughly how many songs there will be. I actually start writing the music without seeing any of the graphics or game screens. Everything proceeds simultaneously, you see. I wish there was time to write the music after everything is done, but there's never time for that in reality.

One thing I changed for FF9 was the sounds themselves. Previously, we had to load all the sounds into the PlayStation's RAM beforehand, and those would be used as the basis for every single song. The reason why we did that is to avoid loading times when changing songs… by pre-loading, the songs could change smoothly. We felt like the main priority should be making sure the gameplay is speedy and snappy. But one day I thought, "you know, the sounds we use are kind of plain compared to other games." So for FF9, we've changed it back so that each song uses its own individual palette of sounds. Thanks to that, the music of FF9 sounds a LOT better. I think you'll notice right away if you compare it back-to-back with FF8. Of course, that has meant some additional loading times, but I think players will find it acceptable given the overall increase in sound quality.

Another thing I did different in FF9 was that instead of creating the songs via sequencing directly into the computer, I recorded live versions of the songs, and then did the sequencing afterwards, trying to capture the energy and expression of those live performances.

The complete OST to FF9 (with Japanese titles)

During the production of FF7, I had about a week off, and I went to Ireland, where I saw a video of the musical Riverdance. I was so shocked. I was like, "What is this..!?" My whole body was shaking. I bought it, but because I was in Europe, I couldn't watch it on my Japanese player. (laughs) So I bought a foreign player. I watched the video of Riverdance over and over again, and every time I watched it, I cried, it was so wonderful. I have a lot of Riverdance stuff, including a video of the U.S. version with a different cast.

The opening theme of FF9 is closer to Early Music (Medieval and Renaissance music) than Irish folk music, though. Early Music is a kind of bridge between Irish music and classical music. At first, I was thinking of using Early Music for the entirety of FF9, but that would probably be going too far. (laughs) But the opening theme and the fanfare were composed when I was still thinking about doing it all in an Early Music style, and I think that comes through in those pieces.

The Game Over, Battle, Dungeon, and Town themes were all created before I read the scenario. Basically, in Final Fantasy games it's sort of a given that the town music will be peaceful and relaxing, so I usually create those without reading the story first.

Of course, that isn't to say I'm not influenced by the visuals and the story. FF7 and FF8 had a very different atmosphere from the previous FF games, so I drew more inspiration from the story and visuals there. But for FF9, I was less bound by that and the music came more naturally. To be honest it was more fun for me this time.

For the vocal part of Melodies Of Life, initially we were considering names like Elton John and Enya. But I thought for FF9 it would be better to be in Japanese. Although "Eyes on Me" from FF8 is not bad, for a Japanese player playing the Japanese version, I'd like them to be able to hear and understand the lyrics straight away. So I had CDs of various Japanese singers sent to me in Hawaii.

A live performance of Melodies of Life by Emiko Shiratori.

Sayuri Ishikawa's name came up… I thought she might be a good fit if we could have her sing without kobushi (a style of melisma specific to Enka). I don't really listen to Enka very often, but when I first joined Square, I heard Warashi, her album of children's songs, and I thought she was great. They weren't really Enka per se, it was more restrained… it felt more like a mother singing to her child.

But with Emiko Shiratori, who we ended up selecting to sing Melodies of Life, she gave me more of a stoic impression, like she was detached from our everyday worldly concerns. If we were going to sing about life, death, and other big themes, I thought something like that would be more suitable. And she has a lot of experience and insight. She even sang on a demo for me. Usually, that kind of thing is done by a semi-pro, but she collaborated with me all the way from that early stage.

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  1. A reference to gambling games like Oicho-kabu, a variation of Baccarat where the goal is to reach 9.

1 comment

  1. This is cool! Thank you for the translation!

    Two things I want to note are the healing spell “Cureaga” should be “Curaga” and “Curera” should be “Cura”.

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