The Future of RPGs - 1993 Developer Interviews
These mini-interviews with four up-and-coming developers first appeared in Famicom Tsuushin. While it doesn't contain many specific development and design details, it presents a neat snapshot of the thinking surrounding RPGs in 1993. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest still loomed large as major reference points, and thoughts were mixed about the pros and cons of CD-ROM media.
Hitoshi Yasuda - Scenario Writer
—Our sister publication, Logout magazine, has been publishing your novel Laplace no Ma in serial form. How does writing a novel, and writing a game scenario based thereon, differ?
Yasuda: With a novel, you can't really start writing your story until the character backgrounds and world are constructed. It's the opposite with writing a game scenario, where you need to be far more fluid in how you write the different events. That's because you have to make sure each event is consistent at the end. With a game scenario I'm tweaking and revising up to the very, very last minute, really.
—What was the hardest thing about writing a game scenario for you?
Yasuda: The development company gave me a relatively free hand in writing the story, but problems arose during the programming. For example, we ran out memory and I had to trim the dialogue down… when I wrote everything I believed it when they said I could do whatever I wanted, but by the end, it turns out I was decieved, heh.
—What did they spend the most energy on then?
Yasuda: Hmm, probably the tactical system, and making sure it wasn't monotonous? We didn't try to imitate or reference other RPGs when we made Laplace no Ma.
—I imagine you play a lot of games, but what do you think of today's RPGs overall?
Yasuda: I don't play many console games. My kids are always monopolizing them. (laughs) That means I've had a lot of time to watch them playing, but my impression is that there's a lot of cheap, not very deep series out there. It'd be nice to see something like Dragon Quest which includes a lot of new features.
Also, about these cutesy anime-style nitoushin1 characters… I guess they appeal to middle and high school students, but aren't they off-putting to adults? It's sad when there's a game that looks like it would otherwise be fun, but when I see the graphics I lose all interest. Such a waste. Though, I guess some of the games I've helped out on are guilty of the same thing. (laughs)
—I see. Do you think RPGs will get better if they improve on those points you've raised?
Yasuda: Right now new hardware is coming out so fast, there's no time to catch your breath. The consequence of that is developers focus on eye-catching visuals and sound, only trying to awe users. They're selling cheap thrills, in other words. What I'd like to see in the future, is developers also value the thrill of a good story or battle system… that'd be nice, right?
—Can you be a little more specific about what you'd like to see?
Yasuda: I think battles themselves are very fun. However, if the encounter rate is too high, players get sick of it. This also weighs down the pacing of the story. That's why I'd like to see something where the thrill is fighting the bosses, and the small-fry enemies can basically just be fast-forwarded through with button presses. That would be ideal. There's no need to waste the players time on pointless battles just to grind for experience.
I'd also like to see multi-scenario games, and multiple endings. I think Romancing Saga is very well-done. It's a relatively new experiment, so players approach it not knowing how to play. The problem is when things become hackneyed and fixed.
—Multi-scenario and multi-ending games would require more memory, wouldn't they?
Yasuda: With CD-ROMs, you could definitely create a large-scale game like that. Actually, this is hush-hush, but I'm currently making an experimental game for CD-ROM. It involves collecting monster data in a compendium, but I'm still deciding how to handle the strategic and battle elements. What hardware will it be for? Now that I can't talk about…!
Kan Naitou - Programmer
—I'd like to ask you some questions about Landstalker today. What were your intentions in choosing that isometric perspective for your game?
Naitou: The biggest reason is that I wanted to depict a three-dimensional space. It was my first foray into isometric graphics, though, so it proved incredibly challenging.
—How long did the programming take?
Naitou: The basic system alone took a year. I had no precedents to imitate, so it was a series of trial-and-error tests, and balancing everything took awhile. For example, in the game you can move diagonally, but diagonal movements are difficult to make on the Megadrive gamepad. This is an action RPG so the controls have to be tight. I took great care fine-tuning the controls to make sure they were good.
—Speaking of which, I noticed there's no experience points in Landstalker...
Naitou: That's right. You don't make the character on-screen stronger; it's you who accumulates the skills and experience.
—That's something similar to action games. By the way, what do you think of turn-based battle systems, which have come to dominate the RPG market...?
Naitou: Ah, yeah… personally I'm not a fan. Whenever I play them it inevitably just turns into mindless button mashing to get the battle over with. On the other hand, making the battle scenes too flashy, and the controls too complex, ultimately slows down the tempo of the story I think. I find that annoying too.
Even in Dragon Quest, for example, there's times when I want them to remove the battles and just show me the story. I think if players had to choose between battles and stories, everyone would choose the story. I don't want to play battles merely for the sake of grinding experience.
—Do you think magic should be perhaps be removed too?
Naitou: Experience points and magic are probably indispensable to RPGs. If you took them out, I don't know if you'd really be able to call that an RPG.
—I see. But don't you think there's players out there who find using and managing the magic system just as annoying as grinding for XP?
Naitou: Opening the menu windows to select things takes too long. For spells you use often, I think they should make them quicker and easier to use. For example, it's not magic, but look at the auto-mapping feature of Shin Megami Tensei. It's convenient, but you have to press a bunch of buttons to access it. It's a tiny thing, but just that alone probably bloats the playtime in that game quite a bit.
—I feel like the Final Fantasy series has been trying to improve on that point. By the way, can you think of any ways to make magic more convenient?
Naitou: Perhaps magic that gains experience points after battle…? Maybe have spells that you can use on the last boss. But they'd have to cost an exorbitant amount of money. (laughs)
—That would be something. (laughs) I'd like to ask about your next games... do you have anything planned?
Naitou: I can't go into concrete details, but I'd like to get on the 3D game bandwagon. I think there's so many possibilities in 3D. They don't take much more memory than a 2D game, either.
—What about multi-scenario games, do you have any ideas there?
Naitou: If I was going to do that, I'd want to do it on CD-ROM. But if I tried to use every last inch of space on a CD-ROM, the development would take 10 years. You can't make a profit like that, obviously. On top of that, I haven't been very impressed by the offerings on CD-ROM so far. To be honest, I get the feeling those kind of games are on their way out. Don't you think so?
—Ah, I don't know. Thank you for your being so frank today!
Tsukasa Masuko - Composer
—Masuko, you've written a great deal of game music in your career. I'd like to ask you, what role do you believe music fulfills in the medium of video games?
Masuko: Well, I think it's like the spice. You can still make a game without it, but it will be bland and boring.
—Is that how you approached the music for Shin Megami Tensei?
Masuko: Megami Tensei already has a fully-constructed world, so I took care not to harm that image with my music. It was also my first time writing music for the Super Famicom, so the many experiments I did took a lot of time. The development environment and tools for Nintendo's hardware were still in the process of being created, too, so I got lost quite often…
—Was it a very difficult process then?
Masuko: Anytime you work with new hardware it's like starting from zero, so yeah, it was tough.
—You mentioned that game music is like spice... do you feel the same way about games and game music made overseas?
Masuko: In Japan, I think we place a heavier emphasis on the background music and songs, while in America and Germany, they put more into the sound effects. When I'm making the sound for a game aimed at American audiences, the developers always insist that the sound effects have to be realistic.
—You also produce CDs, but how do you feel this work differs from game music?
Masuko: The production method is very different. On a CD, the song alone has to create the world in the listener's mind. Game music, however, is made knowing that it will be a unity of sound and image. In other words, with game music I try not to destroy the atmosphere of the visuals, and create a song that people will enjoy listening to over and over without getting bored.
—I think the sound sources themselves are a big difference, right?
Masuko: Yes, but even on a very limited system like the Famicom, if you put the work in, you can make something that sounds good.
—Does that mean you don't really feel CD-ROMs are necessary for good music?
Masuko: Yeah, with CD-ROMs you can playback any kind of music you want, but they don't support sound effects. 2
—Do you think game music will change in the future with the introduction of new hardware and tools?
Masuko: Well, it depends on how trends in games themselves evolve, too, but I think there will probably be two directions. One trend, I see games becoming more like movies, becoming more potent entertainment. I think this is the direction things are moving now within Japan. The other trend, would be that games become more like virtual reality, getting more and more realistic. I think games will start using QSound, a virtual theatre positioning system. And I imagine many other technologies will emerge too. We've already got surround sound, after all, where you can place a sound above, below, or behind you. Music recording techniques have come quite a way.
—That would take racing games to a whole other level.
Masuko: The problem there, as I mentioned, are the sound effects. As games become more and more realistic, naturally the same realism is expected from sound effects. The biggest bottleneck there will be the hardware. We have sampling now, but the Super Famicom, for instance, only gives you 32kb for samples, or about 4 seconds of time. To create a hardware system that could handle QSound, with our current technology, would just cost too much.
—It sounds like it will be awhile till those things hit the consumer market then.
Keisuke Gotou - Illustrator
Hiroyuki Katou - Illustrator
—This was your first time working on character designs for a video game, right? Did you find it challenging, compared to the illustration work you've done for magazines and novels?
Gotou: Not really, I don't think?
Katou: Not being able to focus was hard though. The development period lasted about a year, but there was a gap in the middle. When we're trying to construct the visuals for characters, we want to be immersed in that world as much as possible, or the inspiration just doesn't come.
—Your illustrations have a transparent, ethereal quality to them similar to watercolors; did you ever worry that such a style wasn't very conducive to the bold primary colors commonly found in pixel art?
Gotou: They made sure to retain that beauty when translating them over. We weren't really worried about that. It's not like the pixel art version invalidates or harms the illustrations, after all.
Katou: The pixel artists working on Lennus were pros, so we felt confident leaving it to them. They could do a better job than us. I think you could say the same about the story as well.
—You mean, that it's probably better for you, as amateurs, not to butt in there...?
Katou: As illustrators, we do transform the writers' view of the world with our imagery. But if we're too insistent on our vision, it will destroy the world that they're wanting to create. And that will lower the overall quality of the finished product. It's important for both sides to be able to compromise, I think.
—By the way, I've heard that the two of you do not play games... is that true?
Gotou: I've played arcade shooting games, but console games I've only ever stood back and watched others play.
Katou: Likewise, I was into Xevious back in the day, but I haven't played anything since then.
—Well then, looking at other games... what do you think about their designs?
Katou: There's a lot of computer-ish graphics, you know, pixel art. I think that style is fun, I like it.
Gotou: There's games with realistic graphics too though, right?
Katou: I prefer pixel art… nothing wrong with it, right?
—So you're saying you don't really care about virtual reality... this level of graphics is good enough? Finally, let me ask: as pro illustrators and amateur gamers, what kind of game would you like to make in the future?
Katou: I don't know if it would fit into the RPG category, but I'd like to make a kind of "environmental game". It would present you with a fictional world, but the player wouldn't have any particular goals. And time would flow as it does in real life. For example, if you plant some dandelions in a certain spot, they'll mature and produce seeds. Eventually the wind will scatter those seeds and carry them to other places, planting new dandelions.
All the player would do is sit back and observe this—kind of like a moving painting, you could say. The graphics for everything, from the dandelions seeds to their full bloom, would be drawn in lush detail. Unfortunately, given the sheer volume of the graphics this would probably take, it'd probably be a beast to make. (laughs)
—That sounds like Sim City to me. And Gotou, what kind of game would you like to make?
Gotou: Many RPGs have you following a single, linear quest. Instead of that pre-established harmony, I'd rather make something with a lot of side stories, and as you play them, it leads to the next major development. Each story would be connected too. That would be a cool RPG. I'd definitely want to play that!
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The Japanese term “ni-toushin” refers to a character illustration where the body and head have the same size. This was the typical 8/16 bit era Final Fantasy design for character sprites.↩
This comment is likely referring to the access loading time that made loading small sound effects impractical for most games.↩