FromSoftware – 1999 Developer Interview

FromSoftware – 1999 Developer Interview

This interview with FromSoftware founder Naotoshi Jin originally appeared in Game Hihyou magazine in July 1999. The touchstone of the conversation is the upcoming PlayStation 2 hardware, which provides Jin an opportunity to expound at length on FromSoftware's philosophy on game design and realism. Jin provides a few remarks on the under-appreciated King's Field series and Armored Core, as well.

―The announcement of the next-generation PlayStation appears to have thrown many game developers into a state of disarray. What do you think about that?

Jin: Nice, that's a question other most media outlets wouldn't ask. If they did, I bet they'd want me to say something fawning like "the next-gen PlayStation is going to be a-ma-zing~!" I don't engage in flattery though, which has tended to piss people off. (laughs) And wouldn't it be boring for your readers if I did? I mean, if every magazine just writes the same canned responses.

―What do you think is attractive about the new PlayStation? And is that appeal different depending on whether you're a business manager or a developer?

Jin: Well, in our company's case, those roles are occupied by the same people. A high-end machine has appeal to both sides I think. It's often said that working with high-end machines has the drawback of having to hire more developers and needing more capital investment, but I think that's just the weakness of the developers. You definitely don't have to do those things. There's no guarantees, but isn't it the job of the developers to be clever and find a way with limited resources…?

Jin Naotoshi (1997)

Right now there's this trend in the game industry, this idea that "if you just throw enough money and people at a project, it will be a good game." Trying to make games like movies is a mistake. If you have something with an interesting design, bringing out the personality and uniqueness of that idea is all you need.

―Tell us how FromSoftware created the demo for the next-gen PlayStation announcement presentation. The graveyard seemed fitting for FromSoftware.

Jin: Well, I thought a graveyard would be the most immediately recognizable setting. (laughs) The demo itself was SCEI's idea, they came to us. We were interested in this new hardware too of course. As for why they asked us, I think there are various reasons. We've been involved in PlayStation development from the early days, and they probably wanted to feature some smaller devs too… pretty standard stuff. I don't think there's anything strange about this marketing strategy of SCEI. Big names like Square, Namco and so on may build hype, but if they only have those it would give the impression that you have to be a big company to make a game on the new PlayStation. (laughs) They need to get small and medium-sized developers on board too.

―What's your impression of the new PlayStation developer tools?

Jin: It's all still at the prototype stage, so I can't say much at this point. I don't know yet how it will be in reality. I am very interested in how it turns out, of course. But what I can say, is that although we're inundated right now with talk about how great the new PlayStation will be, I think there's an element of exaggeration there. (laughs) What they say about the Emotion Engine―how it will make detailed facial expressions possible and so forth―that sounds good in theory, but there's no way it can deliver on that promise. If I can be frank, those things are impossible right now. If the hardware was 1000, or 10000 times stronger, then that's another story, but even the "high-end" hardware of today isn't powerful enough.

The PS2 "graveyard demo" mentioned above. The FromSoftware section begins around one minute in.

―Can you explain more specifically why that is? What's the issue?

Jin: Making games isn't simply about graphics capability. We have to consider things like the CPU speed and many other aspects. Even if you have a much more powerful machine, the amount of sprites and characters you can simultaneously display on-screen can still be a bottleneck, for instance. But having detailed facial expressions for every character and then also enveloping them in atmospheric fog… that's not happening with current technology. In terms of "emotional expression", the current PlayStation already does an adequate job. If the next-gen PlayStation further widens the scope a little bit, then new things will be possible. But I think the advertising is exaggerating a bit.

―It kind of feels like it's being advertised as a magic lamp that will answer all your wishes.

Jin: Yeah, everyone's getting carried away about it. I don't pay any mind to that though. It's not relevant to the actual making of games. Graphics and facial expressions and the like, they only need to be good enough so that it doesn't interfere with the gameplay. And one can imagine situations where, if you make the graphics too fancy, it could have the opposite effect of making the game more confusing and harder to understand.

For example, in RPGs, let's say a developer tries to add more variety to the graphics used to represent treasure chests. That may increase the realism, but it also makes it harder for players to recognize what's a treasure chest. You could also make a game where carrying more swords and weapons encumbers your character and makes them move slower… but that would make the game unfun―it's putting the cart before the horse. Most of the time realism and emotional expressiveness are completely unrelated. I do want to make games on the new PlayStation that couldn't be done before, but we're talking things like having more enemies on screen, or larger maps… very simple stuff. We should all be talking about how to make the entire game industry more interesting, but I feel like the focus is always on something else.

―Are you saying the game industry has been over-hyped?

Jin: If one stops and looks at it calmly, I think the answer is obvious. I understand that gaming magazines are going to write fawning things like "GET HYPED FOR THE NEW PlayStation!", it's what they do. And, in actuality, I think the new PlayStation really is an interesting, good piece of hardware. It's just that its real virtues are hard to explain to the average user, so they hype up the parts that are more readily understandable. Hardware is only a tool though―it's how you use it, and what you use it for that's important.

―In reality it feels like the graphics capabilities are the only thing garnering attention.

Jin: Just because the graphics are good, doesn't mean the game will be emotionally expressive. Also, one other thing I think is very strange, is the way people are saying how the new PlayStation will be very difficult for developers without massive technical chops. The people making this claim are forgetting that technology, too, is just one part of the creative endeavor that is making games. "We can't make games because we don't have the technical ability"… I can't understand that. I believe making games involves the synthesis of many things: ideas, technology, and much more. To focus on just technology, that's just a mistaken way of looking at it.

Eternal Ring, FromSoftware's first game for the PS2.

―Is it a given that the visuals must be attractive, though, for a commercial release?

Jin: To a certain level, yeah. But sacrificing gameplay for the sake of pretty graphics doesn't make sense to me.

―Developers have their pride too, in other words.

Jin: The question is really, do we need an environment where anyone can be a game creator? In movies, only a select few are fit to become directors. You never hear creative people in the movie industry say things like "Gee, I really wish I had tools to create a movie easily." I mean, their thinking never goes there. So why is it only in video games that some people insist on having an environment where anyone can make games? To me, that's strange. Everyone knows you can't just wake up one day and become a movie director; yet the same people think they can make games, and think they can be producers or planners.

I realize I'm getting off-topic here, but one other difference between making games and making movies, is that in a video game, the whole development line gives their input about the game design. In a movie, the lighting crew doesn't comment on the story! Nor would they ever tell an actor how to act. But in game development, you'll have a graphic artist saying things like "that voice actor is wrong." And people with no experience at all come in for job interviews. It's truly a strange industry, game development.

―But your own job ads for planners also said no experience required.

Jin: We actually don't have many experienced veterans at FromSoftware, and that includes planners. When you've been in the industry for a long time, your thinking tends to fossilize and people become set in their ways. Ideas and planning are the lifeblood of this industry, so we're always trying to bring fresh blood in.

―The peripheral hardware capabilities on the new PlayStation also look quite interesting.

Jin: I am very interested in that. Personally, I mean. Because you can connected regular PC peripheral devices now. From the beginning, I've always wanted to get into PC game development, and we've had to put up with a lot of inconvenience thanks to the original PlayStation's lack of storage memory… so it would be cool to use the PC card slot to attach a hard drive, giving us access to vastly increased data storage.

―FromSoftware's games consistently sell over 100,000 copies. With the new PlayStation, are you poising yourself to become a big name maker that puts out million-sellers?

Jin: For the new PlayStation I do think that certain companies are being filtered out of the market, but of those that remain, I don't think their relative standing to each other will change very much, you know? They're just changing out the platform―the positions of everyone vis-a-vis each other is probably going to be left the same. Those enterprises who can't step up to the next level will probably be left behind. In any event, all we're trying to do is keep making games that are geared squarely at the users who play them.

―I recall that opinions were divided about King's Field.

Jin: Yeah, and it's really a matter of taste. Our goal in that game was not to create some grand or deeply satisfying story. If games go too far in that direction, they're going to become little more than movies. If you obsess over the story too much, the game loses the ability to express itself as a game. If interactive movies are defined by "the ability of the audience to interfere with the story", then I guess you could call Laserdiscs interactive games when you flip the disc onto the B side. But calling watching a laserdisc an interactive game feels like an exaggeration, doesn't it.

A look back at the King's Field series, with gameplay footage of the first three PlayStation games.

―What games do you intend to make on the new PlayStation?

Jin: What we want to make hasn't changed. We were starting to feel the limits of the original PlayStation, so the new hardware should allow for new gameplay. I mean, I'll be happy just to see more skeletons on-screen. Wouldn't it feel great to wipe a whole horde of skeletons off the map with one powerful spell… yeah. In King's Field, the game would slowdown if there were too many enemies on-screen, and we had to make a lot of compromises there, with smaller maps and what-not.

With the new PlayStation, we won't have those issues anymore… well, of course, there will always be a "next" thing, some new limitation you come up against. There's no end to that. That's why trying to make the graphics realistic, or make the water look more like water, we're not thinking along those lines. Those aspects don't impact the gameplay very much―players will still understand your game plenty well if the art is representational rather than realistic. "This doesn't look like real water!"―people will rarely complain about your game in that way. The important thing is that, within the logic of the game, it appears like water. Looked at in this way, the question of whether the water is pretty or ugly is a meaningless one.

―If you pursue realism too deeply, your game will lose some of its essence as a game...?

Jin: Consider the controller problem. For example, even if you try to increase the number of actions and animations for your character, to give them more expressiveness, in doing so the controls will become overly complicated and unwieldy. Another thing is that, at present, we can't create convincingly realistic dialogue interactions with NPCs. This is the big elephant in the room when it comes to "emotional expression." Games can't yet respond properly to what you say. If you give someone three dialogue choices, well, there's always going to be someone out there who doesn't want to choose any of those―which means you have zero expressiveness at that point. Even if you solve the speech recognition problem, we still don't have AI that can give back anything but incoherent responses. In that sense, regarding what kind of games we're going to see on the new PlayStation… I don't think users or creators know for sure.

But all this talk about emotions, that's not something we're thinking about very much. We're more like… OK, if we make an Armored Core sequel, before we could only have 6 missiles fired at once… but now we can have 24! Just that simple level. Beyond that is impossible, I think. Because emotions, those aren't a simple thing. Just to create a single character with real emotional expression requires a creator who has lived many years and accumulated a wealth of life experience and understanding. Just having slightly more facial expressions though, I can't call that "emotion." Things like having the leaves rustle in the wind… it's good for the backgrounds to have those touches. But calling that "emotion" seems disrespectful to the very word. That's why our company isn't really changing our basic stance with the new PlayStation. We would like to try making new Armored Core and King's Field games, with the caveats above in mind.

―The new PlayStation will have backwards compatibility, but will you continue to make games for the PS1?

Jin: We still have Spriggan and Echo Night 2 in-development, but we're not thinking about doing anything past those. As you can imagine, we want to work with the best hardware available… also, FromSoftware has always had a core of dedicated fans, and I believe they will follow us to the new PlayStation platform.

―I've heard some people say that SCEI's newly proposed middleware system will put a large burden on licensees. It's a change from the previous system which gave abundant support to licensees, isn't it.

Jin: The support for licensees wasn't something Sony did out of the kindness of their hearts or anything. When SCEI launched the PlayStation, Nintendo dominated the market and few companies were willing to develop for Sony, so providing robust support for devs was part of their overall strategy. Now, however, there are many companies willing to create for the new PlayStation―in fact, there's too many. Given Sony's ability to make million-seller smash hits on their own now, it seems like an obvious strategic decision to shift things this way.

The official PS2 announcement, with short developer interviews.

―Do you think it will be harder to nurture the next generation of developers, though?

Jin: I think it's true that without SCEI's support in the beginning, our company wouldn't have been able to create games. But of those hundreds of licensees, I think only a few of the companies remain today. There were a lot of companies that sadly folded, thinking "we'll make money with our next game…" Almost none of them remain today. So in the sense of "nurturing developers" as SCEI called it, it wasn't a very fruitful strategy. There were many developers making weird things you couldn't really call "games." I don't think it's a good thing if we have too few developers, but a certain degree of filtering or culling is necessary. Also, I think having larger big-name companies like Square and Enix publish smaller and mid-size companies' works is just fine. Developers can unearth talent among themselves in this way, without SCEI's direct intervention.

Even in the gaming magazines, they write fawningly about everything, and I think users are starting to lose faith in original games similar to the Atari Shock times. Remakes of old games sell well because players trust the franchise name―but players are avoiding original games. So I think a bit of culling will help clarify the confusion. SCEI can't say "this is a bad game so you can't release it"… but if larger developers act as publishers, they can de facto fulfill that role. I think the market should have a filters like that. If the filters are too few, however, then games will start to all resemble each other and become boring.

Developers should be free to make whatever kind of game they want, and then the industry, through its own efforts, should communicate what kind of game that is to players. Right now things are moving in the opposite direction, unfortunately, with game commercials not showing any actual in-game footage. We should have a conversation about that within the industry, about this situation of selling games while hiding their actual content. And instead of giving point-based reviews, I want the gaming magazines to actually introduce and describe the games with more detail. Just saying "this game has a [insert buzzword here] system!" isn't very helpful. (laughs)

―With the debut of the new PlayStation, how will the definition of games change?

Jin: I don't think it will. Maybe it has changed, but only for Sega. (laughs) In reality I think the userbase is splintered: the players who would buy Um Jammer Lammy are different from those who buy our games. Of the tens of millions of PlayStation console owners, I think only a small fraction are "hardcore" users. There's plenty of light users, so there's no need to focus one's energy there. But there's a wide gulf between the tastes of those two groups, and it's very hard to create something that will appeal to both. It's more the case that if we don't clearly label what kind of game this is, we're inviting confusion. For FromSoftware, our unique stylings are very important to us. We can't create "all-purpose, do-anything" appliances like some major manufacturer. Well, who knows… maybe I just have rather narrow ideas about what makes a game fun. (laughs)

―On that note, let me close by asking you, what do you find fun and interesting? What elements of game development do you pour the most effort into?

Jin: Well, I don't know if I would say we "pour effort" into this, but we just strive to make games in as normal a way as possible. In contrast, I feel like the gaming industry is in chaos right now. Just focusing on "what sells" isn't game development. That's why I say we try to make games "normally".

As for what makes something interesting, I find it difficult to give an answer to that question. If you ask me about other companies, I can analyze what they do―oh, their graphics are good, or they have excellent balance―and say this is the core of their gameplay. But for FromSoftware, I have a hard time pointing to something specific.

If I had to say… maybe it's the aftertaste, the overall impression our games leave. When a player finishes one of our games, I don't want them to simply have a sense of achievement at beating it. I'd like if something deeper remains in their hearts. But how, precisely, to leave that "reverberation" with players… that's something I still don't know. In that sense, every game we make feels unfinished to us. (laughs)

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