The Future of RPGs – 1992 Developer Interviews
In this 1992 feature, originally printed in The Super Famicom magazine, four prominent game designers — venerated Nintendo producer Shigeru Miyamoto, Chunsoft’s Kouichi Nakamura, Sonic! / Camelot Software Planning’s Hiroyuki Takahashi and Red Entertainment affiliate Oji Hiroi — discuss the contemporary state of RPGs, their expectations for the future of the genre and the thoughts behind their latest RPGs.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
—You’ve said before that the Legend of Zelda is not an RPG.
Miyamoto: I think this gets into the problem of the definition of “RPG”, but personally, I think of Zelda as a real-time adventure game. I’m not interested in systems where everything in the game is decided by stats and numbers. What’s important to me is to preserve as much of that “live” feeling as possible. For example, when your sword becomes twice, or four times as powerful, by that point you’ve progressed pretty far in the game and the player’s skill has probably increased too, so when you swing the sword it should actually feel and sound sharper, more deadly. I think action games are better suited in conveying that sensation to players.
—But there are RPG elements in Zelda, too, aren’t there.
Miyamoto: Things like naming the character you use, and raising their levels, that’s definitely interesting and fun. So we drew on a few existing RPG tropes like that, but besides that, we didn’t base Zelda on anything when we made it. In terms of visuals and presentation, I guess you could say we included some RPG elements.
—Did the choice of the Super Famicom hardware inform anything in the development of Zelda?
Miyamoto: The other day, a player asked me if we had been influenced by Final Fantasy when we made A Link to the Past, but the answer was no, we were not.
However, since we are trying to produce something that will satisfy players’ desires, I can see how it might appear that way, whether we were conscious of it or not. It is true that with the SFC Zelda, the RPG elements have become more pronounced. Please think of it as a kind of midway point between an adventure game and an RPG.
—When you try to define what an RPG is, if you consider games like Wizardry and Ultima as the original starting point, then Japan has really gone off in a different direction.
Miyamoto: Yeah. Even Dragon Quest, which is said to be carrying on the torch of the “traditional” or standard RPG, has a rather large amount of puzzle solving elements to it. From that perspective, it’s possible that Zelda would fit into the category of an RPG. The big difference, though, is that up to now, what would be conveyed by dialogue in a game like Dragon Quest, is done by player actions in Zelda. Our question is always, to what extent can we get the player to experience this by controlling the character directly himself? That’s become the main theme that we try to convey with The Legend of Zelda.
—I guess when we say “RPG”, in reality there are many different types.
Miyamoto: That’s why when I’m asked what direction RPGs as a whole are headed in, I feel like I can only respond “I don’t know.” There’s games, for example, like Final Fantasy, which emphasize presentation and graphics… which are clearly different from what Dragon Quest and Zelda are doing. If you ask me about specific individual cases, I might be able to give some kind of an answer.
It’s not at all certain that the interactive cinematic approach of Final Fantasy, which is currently the most common style for RPGs today, will continue indefinitely. Something new may emerge with time. And if we look at games like Zelda, the question there is how long will users continue to enjoy this gameplay of directly controlling your own character. For the players who have grown up with action games, though, I expect they’ll continue to enjoy that kind of action gameplay for a long while yet. Ultimately, whether you’re looking at Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, I don’t think you can talk about these games as if there’s a single process. And that’s also why I sense a danger in trying to fix a definition to the term RPG.
—The importance of the story is often highlighted when talking about RPGs, but what are your thoughts regarding the connection between the story and the gameplay?
Miyamoto: They probably can’t be thought of entirely separately. I think one can only speak that way when the gameplay already exists, to which I want to say, ok—but try creating a new gameplay system from scratch. Because Dragon Quest already has a well-established system, I suppose there’s a higher weight put on the story. It’s why Dragon Quest leans heavily on the writerly talents of Yuji Horii. For me, I don’t place a lot of emphasis on those things in my game design endeavors, so my efforts always begin from the gameplay system side, trying to create something that could support and bear the weight of an interesting story.
In video games, I think the important thing is that it feels good when you’re playing it. And that quality is not determined by the story, but by the controls, the sound, and the rhythm and pacing. No matter how good your story is, it won’t make a difference there. There is such a thing as “compatibility” between the story and gameplay, though. I do think it’s important to create a good match there. And in a game, while the story might advance via multiple threads and storylines, your experience as the player, of course, is linear and singular: a good story can smooth over that discrepancy and make it all feel natural.
—What are some of the key points you focus on when creating a gameplay system?
Miyamoto: I make sure we don’t lose sight of our destination. It’s very common for us to have too many things we want to do, and then things get out of control. My job in those situations is to think of ways to get us back on track.
For example, I was saying this at a Dentsu seminar, but there certainly is a joy to be found in imitating existing RPGs. I’m sure lots of people, when they were young, copied and traced their favorite manga characters. That’s what I’m talking about, but even so, that’s the amateur approach. It’s more like playing at game design, than actual game design. We would rather focus on trying to find a single new idea, a new discovery: “wouldn’t it be cool if there was a video game about this…”, that kind of thing. The idea really could be anything. What if people had two faces…? What if a clumsy person could ride a motorcycle…? What if you had a world without color, how would people react to the introduction of color…? I suppose you have to rely on some RPG tropes in order to bring those themes to life, of course.
—It sounds difficult, choosing between ideas like that.
Miyamoto: It’s actually not! Everyone has one or two things they love in life. But in order to know whether that thing would make a good video game, you need to understand the hardware you’re working with.
—I can see how the gameplay system is important to make a game that “feels” good, but I suppose the aesthetics are also a part of that.
Miyamoto: Yeah, there probably is such a thing as an aesthetic which makes the game feel better, or that heightens the tension for the player. The thing is, we never think about the aesthetics in isolation. Film and movie guys are probably good at doing that. But as someone who makes games, I think it’s very important to try and have something that elevates the experience and excites players beyond merely pictures, words, and sounds. I don’t think that “something” should just be an anime veneer, though—aren’t video games capable of much more than that? And that is the question we dedicate ourselves to.
—Finally, what kind of RPG would you personally like to create in the future?
Miyamoto: Hmmm… maybe, something with an interesting setting. I have no more interest in medieival sword and sorcery worlds. Technologically speaking, we always have to continue building on what already exists, but you’ve got to tell new stories with new settings. For games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, where they have a certain world and style they’re iterating on each game, I’d like to see them find a good balance between the gameplay and setting, and continually change things up to keep it fresh.
For other RPGs, though, they shouldn’t keep using the same old hackneyed settings. I worry that the market is going to be flooded with too many similar products, and players wil become bored of it all. Plus, by trying something novel, you have the potential to create something truly new, and I hope producers will try to look at things from a slightly different perspective.
Dragon Quest V
—Given the shift in hardware from Famicom to Super Famicom, what kind of changes can we expect to see from DQIV to DQV?
Nakamura: The biggest gameplay change is probably the ability to have monsters in your party and level them up. Also, with the new Super Famicom hardware, we can express so much more now. Obviously that includes better graphics, but the music, too, is much closer to a live orchestra now. However, because DQV is part of a series, there are some things we decided not to change, in order to maintain that familiar atmosphere. Something like the black and white window menu interface, for instance—many people feel that’s the iconic face of Dragon Quest.
—What are some of the most important things to you when designing an RPG?
Nakamura: Well, speaking for Chunsoft, we place a lot of importance on creating the highest quality programming for any game we’re working on. We take great care to make sure the gameplay systems feel natural and intuitive to the player. Other aspects of a game may be fun, but if the button response is bad, or the scrolling feels weirdly off or slow, then players will feel irritated. We do our best to stamp out things like that.
—What do you think about using anime tropes and other influences in video games?
Nakamura: I think it’s a little misguided. Dragon Quest has all manner of events and scenes, but if we tried to make it look like an anime or something, I think it would completely change the world we’ve created. It’s better to find new modes of expression that fit into, and work within the aesthetic we’ve always used. If someone wants to see anime, why not watch a normal anime video, you know?
—Some people say that video games are already surpassing anime and movies, as a medium.
Nakamura: No matter how powerful computer graphics get, and no matter how beautiful the animation may become, I don’t think it will hold a candle to actual anime. The original appeal of computer games was their interactivity: how the player reacts to the computer, and vice versa, seeing how the computer reacts to the player. This is something that traditional media can’t really do. I think we must never forget the importance of that interactivity when we make video games.
—How do you feel about battle systems in RPGs?
Nakamura: I feel like we’ve exhausted a lot of the possibilities, the low-hanging fruit. I know some developers who have tried novel things, like combining monsters and such. In terms of magic and items, a lot of the general territory has been mapped out now… expanding beyond this frame is going to be quite difficult, I think.
—Finally, how do you think RPGs will evolve from here?
Nakamura: In terms of more interesting stories and settings, I think many unexplored avenues remain there to keep RPGs moving along. The reason RPGs have become so popular today is because they let players feel like they are acting in their own drama. For video games whose key point of interest is their dramatic story, there’s still plenty of ground left to explore, and I do think that kind of drama makes for the most fun. For one, I think we’ll likely see more non-medieval fantasy games in the future.
Tengai Makyou II
—In what ways is Tengai Makyou II an upgrade from the first game?
Oji: It’s a 2 meg game now. That’s a biggie. (laughs) We actually knew we wanted Tengai Makyou to be a CD-ROM game even before the PC Engine system went on sale, but once we started the development, various unexpected problems cropped up… we spent about a year prototyping and doing various experiments, and for awhile it didn’t seem like we were going to be able to make an RPG at all.
—At the time, both users and the industry itself had very high expectations for this new generation of CD-ROM games.
Ouji: Yes, though I think there was also a sense that this was a grand experiment. There was a certain cynicism about whether these CD-ROM games could ever hope to match what anime was capable of, too. To be honest, there was a lot of anxiety and frustration during that development. For the first Tengai Makyou, I mean.
—Had you always intended Tengai Makyou to be a series?
Ouji: Originally, no, it was just one game. The first map I drew for the game was way too huge, though, and we split it into three parts. That left a whole section of the game for China, as well as Kyuushuu and the Ryukyu islands. I realized if we left it at just one game, the player would never learn the origins of the Fire Clan or the Book of WareWare.
—Where do your ideas come from?
Ouji: If you investigate Japan’s ancient religions, you’ll find there are many things still shrouded in mystery there. It got me thinking, what if, long long ago, there was some event, or something that erased all that history. There is a dynamism to the flow of history. “Tengai Makyou” was my way of trying to express that. As entertainment, I know those deeper aspects of the game are easily obscured, but the humor also acts like the suger coating of a pill, a way to make the truths go down easier. It’s also something for adults to enjoy, too.
—What is important to you when making an RPG?
Ouji: I focus a lot on the teamwork between the programmers, who create the game systems, and the writers/directors, who create the story. Over 100 people participated in the creation of Tengai Makyou II. It’s important to maintain everyone’s tension and energy, I think.
—And how do you handle the connection between the story and gameplay?
Ouji: Well, no matter how interesting your underlying story is, if the gameplay can’t support or keep up with it, it’s all for naught. I mean, say you have this idea for a grand multi-level story with 50+ endings—but how are you going to realize that? You can’t. Overall, I just try to make sure it all flows smoothly and naturally.
—For a CD-ROM game, I feel like a lot of weight must be placed on the graphics and sound for the cutscenes, too. If you can pull that off, that’s half the battle.
Ouji: Yeah. A typical pattern for CD-ROM games is to have an opening, mid-game, and final cutscene. That’s it. But I feel there’s other interesting things you can do with cutscenes in games. Like, you could have a scene where it shows a close-up of an enemy’s face, and you see a scar there, and it’s like—ah hah, remember that for later, I bet it will come into play at some point.
—For my final question, what kind of RPG would you like to create in the future?
Ouji: As you just said, CD-ROM games have a definite advantage in terms of sound and visuals. But I hope players don’t come to it expecting something on the same level, or in the exact same vein, as an anime feature. For those people I would recommend just going and watching actual anime. In the future, I’d like to create a musical RPG.
—Shining Force represent a new kind of RPG, I think.
Takahashi: We try to create games that will grab people’s attention and be something they’ve never seen before. Something that will really make you stop and turn your head. If we had been content to just create another Dragon Quest clone, then this series would never have come about in the first place.
—Do you think it’s difficult to create something that has “never been seen before” but still has mass appeal…?
Takahashi: Yeah, it’s difficult. To that end, we do everything we can to refine the game so that it will appeal not only to hardcore fans, but be playable for your average run-of-the-mill RPG player. When making something new, I think the key is making sure the experience is user friendly. It all depends on that.
—I imagine the story is important too. How do you see the connection between the story and the gameplay systems?
Takahashi: When it comes to computers, I’m just a layman, but as I’ve come to better appreciate their limitations, I can see how it would be more interesting if we could link the “story” and “gameplay” sides of a games together more closely.
If you go really deep on the story side of things, it’ll certainly have an effect on the gameplay too. But game hardware still isn’t powerful enough yet to visually re-create what scenario writers see in their heads. That’s why, at present, we still have to think treat the story and gameplay as separate entities. If game hardware continues to improve, though, I think we’ll be able to find more common ground between them.
—How do you think RPGs will be affected by increasing graphics capabilities?
Takahashi: I think presentation will become more and more important. However, to me, that doesn’t just mean adding more character illustrations or animation. That kind of stuff has no relation to the game itself. I want to make a game that pushes the game’s hardware, but does so in a way that goes to the heart of the gameplay itself.
—There have been many RPGs recently that are quite linear, and these have been criticized for their lack of freedom. What do you think about freedom, choice, etc in games?
Takahashi: Well, one solution would be to make it so there is a response prepared for any and every action a player takes in your game. The problem is, we have to make these games in a limited time-frame, so if we take that approach, we can only tell a very small-scale story. If your aim is to tell a more grand story, having a world where anything is permissible and the player can do anything actually conflicts with that.
—Finally, how do you think RPGs will evolve from here?
Takahashi: Whether we’re talking visuals or gameplay, I think RPGs still have plenty of room left to evolve. There’s still more to be done with AI, too, and plenty of possibilities to explore with different combat systems.
For me, “entertainment” means just enjoying things without complex justifications or theories. That’s the level I operate on. I want to continue having an open mind about game design, and try creating different types of games and genres in the future. Right now, though, the ideal RPG I’d like to make can’t be done on today’s 16-bit hardware. When we get to 32-bit hardware, and the memory problems and disc loading problems are solved, then I think we could make it.
Also, another thing I’ve been thinking about lately… we’ve managed to synthesize strategy and RPG elements in Shining Force, but I’ve been wondering if we couldn’t tear down the walls surrounding the action genre, too, and incorporate those elements somehow.
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