Grandia – 1997 Developer Interviews
In these two interviews (one pre-release and one post-release) from 1997, Takeshi Miyaji and Hidenobu Takahashi discuss the origins of Grandia and their approach to characters and world-building. Miyaji takes care to distinguish Grandia from other RPGs at the time, particularly in its light, optimistic mood when compared with darker contemporaries like Final Fantasy VII. These were found at the GSLA, a Japanese archive that preserves interviews from older print sources.
Hidenobu Takahashi - Art Director
Takeshi Miyaji - Director
Miyaji: What we are aiming for in this game isn’t just simple fun. We are trying to bring out a theatrical vibe with the scenes and events. You know staged theatre like musicals, right? That’s the kind of feeling I want to evoke, but using polygons in a game. Doing that will require a lot of detailed work with regard to the way characters move, camera angles, and so forth. Right now we’re laying the groundwork for those scenes.
Takahashi: To say that Grandia’s combat system is a vs. fighting game would go too far, but I was definitely conscious of the vs. fighting genre when I designed it. Some examples would be the combo battle commands and the way experience is tallied up after a fight. I wanted those things to give players a whiff of fighting games.
There’s fighting games that display your score, right? So that when you use a special move or perform a combo, you get a higher score. That gets players fired up too, and allows them to readily evaluate their performance. I want Grandia to feel like that.
It seems to me that RPGs lately have been been taking the fighting more and more out of the players’ hands. Battles are starting to feel like repetitive grinding. You fight to gain levels or get items, but those rewards only come after a long span of time. However, I don’t think battles are like that by nature. Winning a fight should give you cause to celebrate in that moment. That’s why, with Grandia, I worked on some ways to let the player experience that joy of victory more immediately.
Miyaji: There’s a lot of RPGs out now that use polygons for the towns and overworld. All of them are enjoyable to look at, but they aren’t fun to interact with. Take, for example, a barrel in a town. If you’ve played RPGs, your first instinct is to search that barrel. But lately, there’s been a lot of RPGs that create all these suspicious places, but the players can’t interact with any of them! In Grandia, even if that barrel had nothing in it, you’re able to roll it around, or get some kind of message as feedback to the player.
Takahashi: If I had to sum up the fun of a game world, it wouldn’t be just looking at it, but also interacting. No matter how realistic you depict your world, if the player isn’t having fun in it, you’ve failed.
Miyaji: “A living, breathing world” is our slogan at Game Arts.
Takahashi: The title “Grandia” comes from a Formula One race car. To us it means a variety of specialists coming together to challenge themselves with a new design. How can we create something amazing? That’s the single question we ask when we’re developing a game, and we’ll work ourselves to the bone to answer it. It’s the same as an F1 team, where they get specialists from all different fields together to build the fastest car. We’re in the final stages of our work here, so please look forward to Grandia soon!
Takeshi Miyaji - Director
One fundamental element of our planning design for Grandia was “to create an RPG that has never been done before.” To that end, the first thing we thought of was not a schematic, abstract plan; rather, the first thing we worked on was depicting characters that felt like living, breathing humans. We really wanted players to feel like they’re adventuring through a world where human beings actually live. With that concept in place, we then proceeded to flesh out the story and characters. In deciding to make an adventure game, there’s too many RPGs nowadays that take a ruined or post-apocalyptic world, and just insert the player, like “ok, here you are, what do you want to do?”
Also, many RPGs rely too heavily on exposition, explaining everything with words; whatever crisis the world is undergoing isn’t conveyed in a visual way. I don’t think players can really experience the game world that way. They’re just suddenly told “ok, you have to save the world now.” It doesn’t work. If the world needs to be saved, it isn’t enough to just tell the players about it–they should be shown, right? That’s why the story of Grandia doesn’t begin with a “save the world” trope. In fact, the story doesn’t really start developing in that direction until the second disc; the first disc gives players time to get thoroughly acquainted with the characters and the game world.
Another of our initial design premises was to always be rewarding the player for his actions. I think there’s very few RPGs today that make you understand why the protagonist is the protagonist. With many games, ultimately it feels like another one of the characters could just as well be the protagonist. In RPGs it’s supposed to be the player=protagonist, so in those games the player doesn’t feel rewarded for inhabiting that role. That’s why we wanted to have clear reasons for why Justin was the protagonist, and why he’s adventuring around the world.
Also forefront in my mind for this development was to show players that “this is what a next-gen RPG looks like,” from the gameplay system to the story. I’m not talking about using polygon graphics just because we can use polygon graphics now. In truth there are a lot of RPGs like that though. If it is only the graphics that improve with this next generation of hardware, it will be quite a sad state of affairs. No matter how much graphics may improve, if those improvements aren’t directly connected to the gameplay, then the game itself has not improved. The important thing is presenting players with new gameplay and entertainment.
With the advent of the next generation of gaming hardware, we at Game Arts have been challenging ourselves to imagine what new kinds of RPGs can be created. On that point, and I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I think that Grandia represents the very first RPG of the next generation. It’s a veritable parade of details and features–the result of four years of care. But to say this is “perfect” would not be true. We wanted to do even more, but that probably would have meant asking for an additional four years!
For the world of Grandia, there were several ideas floating around, but we settled on a dynamic, lively world. A world where you can hear steam whistling in the air–that’s the strong, vigorous age we wanted to have as our backdrop. The stereotypical RPG is usually either sword and sorcery or science fiction. With sword and sorcery you can depict a fantastic world, but that will have a strong image of the middle ages, and the denizens of that world, the villagers and such, won’t have an atmosphere of liveliness about them. On the other hand, with science fiction you can have a stylish, dark setting, but it tends to be either a world of superheroes or a world of decay and dystopia.
We didn’t want either of those for Grandia. In searching for an era that would be appropriate to a dynamic and lively world, we came upon the idea of a post-Age of Exploration, post-Industrial Revolution era, a time of new and sudden prosperity for mankind. Everyone living in that time would have their thoughts turned toward the future, and their present time would be overflowing with energy and optimism. In people’s hearts, there would be a desire for new horizons and unseen worlds–“adventure”. Hence the “age of adventure.”
To me, “adventure” and “recklessness” are two different things. In your typical RPG, with a journey through some magical kingdom, I sometimes don’t feel a sense of adventure at all. I guess I just consider the word differently from others. In science fiction settings, where space is like a vast new frontier to explore, I would call that an adventure, but… I guess the word can have a lot of different meanings, and the difference lies in what aspect of “adventure” you want to depict. For me, I wanted to tell an exciting, heart-pumping adventure story, one where you go to many different places, see many different things, talk with many different people… I wanted to convey that kind of joyfulness with Grandia.
Lately I’ve felt that we’re at an impasse with certain problems in the world today. I wanted to make a game that felt like a breath of fresh air, like you were seeing the blue sky break through the clouds. Of course there are sad stories and painful episodes in Grandia, but when it’s over, I wanted players to feel that blue sky. That’s the kind of game I wanted to make. In Gungriffon, the world is set in 2015, the start of the 21st century, and I tried to show a dark world, where problems from the previous century were unresolved. But in Grandia I wanted to show the optimism of welcoming something new, and the hopes and expectations people have for the 21st century: something new is about to begin.
When designing the characters for Grandia, the first thing we thought of was their color, or personality. Taking the protagonist as the central axle around which everything revolves, we asked ourselves: what characters could we surround him with that would make the world of Grandia flourish? Balancing their exterior (musclebound? beautiful?) and their interior personality, we very carefully and with great detail went one by one in designing each character.
We also spent a good deal of time on the character portrait expressions, of course. If you put them all together I think there’s about 200 different expression portraits. Justin’s face changes subtly as the adventure progresses too.
Personality, expressions, dialogue, movement… taken together, these are the essential things to make a “living human” character. It is extremely expensive though. (laughs) Just considering the walking and running animations alone, it’s about the same level of work that you’d have to do for a television anime production.
Another thing about Grandia is that the characters are all basically good people. Hardly anyone is evil to the core in this game. If we wanted to show a scene where a character was bad, by showing things from that character’s perspective, the necessity of their situation would be shown. In the midst of so many cynically dark, savage games, I suppose it’s rare to have a game like Grandia which is decidedly not savage and bleak. That’s also why Grandia is a game all ages can enjoy. I think the player will be left with good, warm feelings after completing it.
I like games that have a certain humanity to them. The reason Gungriffon didn’t have that is simply because I wanted to depict a harder, more realistic world in that game. Had I brought more human character out in Gungriffon, it probably would have turned into something like Gundam.
Grandia has a big cast, but I’ll be happy if players find that one character they really like. When we designed the characters, we worked hard to make a variety of characters so that any player would find something they liked. Incidentally, my favorite character is Lieutenant Leen. I’m also fond of Liete. I can feel the “love” from the way she moves and her gestures. But my favorite is still Leen, because she’s a real beauty. (laughs)
We make our games easier because the age range of RPG players is very wide. Our basic stance is to make things easier and easier with each revision. But the problem comes in knowing just how easy things should be. I’ve personally been called a “casual gamer” for liking RPGs. (laughs) Of course it’s action games that are where the “hardcore gamers” lie. But the difficulty balance of RPGs has always been different from that of STG games. With STG and action games, your own personal abilities grow as you play them, so there’s been a tendency for them to get harder and harder as the years go on. RPGs, on the other hand, are essentially thinking games. We developers are tinkering with stats as we tool the game, and it’s very uncommon for the game to get harder and harder as the development progresses.
With RPGs, one problem is that developers don’t always clearly know what players will find difficult in a game. I think there’s probably many players who found navigating the full-polygon maps to be a major difficulty. For developers the question is, will it take the player 10 minutes to get used to that, or an hour? If it only takes 10 minutes, then we consider it a success. That is the kind of thing we give the most attention to.
For games, it’s a thin line between fun and pain. Ultimately, many games that are failures fail because they got that difficulty balance wrong. The whole reason we make games is because we want players to have fun. But when players find a game to be boring or uninteresting, it’s because we as developers failed to properly convey what was fun about our ideas. I think it’s fair to say that a good difficulty balance determines about 70% of a game’s appeal.
Also, in game creation, we developers have an idea about what the appeal of our game is, and we try to combine that with a gameplay system that will express that idea. Therefore, you’ve got two cases for games that fail: either the developer’s idea about what was fun wasn’t really all that interesting to begin with (a “mis-intuition”), or the idea was interesting, but the gameplay system didn’t do a good job implementing and presenting it.
Final Fantasy VII
By the way, Final Fantasy VII recently came out. I like it, it feels like they took all those ideas that had been building up in them–things they’d been wanting to do, but couldn’t during the 16 bit era–and unleashed them all at once. It really feels like they put their heart into it. Since the 16bit era put such limitations on what could be expressed, I think everyone probably has had a similar reaction to Final Fantasy VII. Now with the increased power of 32bit, you can clearly see the developers thinking “I always wanted to do this!” in different parts of the game.
On that note, what we’re making has a completely different orientation from FFVII. I want to avoid outlining all the differences one by one, but I will at least say that only Square could pull off something like that opening CG movie to FFVII. Or it might be more accurate to say that something like that can only be depicted in the Final Fantasy universe; the dark atmosphere of that CG opening is emblematic of the world of Final Fantasy.
In a certain sense, the Final Fantasy games present a very a negative world. It’s not that I personally dislike that kind of world or anything, but it’s 180 degrees from what we’re trying to depict with Grandia. Our world is essentially a happy one, one that’s fun to touch and play around in (for us developers too). Final Fantasy VII is a game that’s fun just to look at, as that wonderful CG opening shows. In Grandia we want players to enjoy walking around the towns, touching and interacting with everything they see. That aspect of the game reinforces the feeling of happiness we wanted to present, too.
We put a lot of effort into this scene. After spending a normal day with your Mom, there’s the final dinner scene, and that’s followed by the early morning departure–all the essential steps. I also hope players talk to the people in town during this scene. The conversations are really good, some of them could even make you cry. We thought, the way Justin prepares to leave in the middle of the night and set out before dawn, that this was exactly how a young boy running away from home would act. (laughs)
From the very beginning, it was important to us that each town and village have their own culture and customs. Our designer Osamu Kobayashi was the main person behind this, giving each location the atmosphere of a real place. Things like the people who worship frogs in the village of Gumbo, or Dight Village, where they value bones… those were his ideas.
It’s essential that towns have the actual presence of a town about them. There’s so many games where the towns don’t feel like actual towns at all. Having a town with a lived-in, realistic presence greatly contributes to the atmosphere of the game. There’s almost no scenes in the game where you must talk with all of the townsfolk to get through, and yet there are still many townsfolk and a huge volume of text to enjoy. By adding more and more fine details of this sort, I think we’ve achieved the first RPG town that actually feels like people are living there. Roughly speaking, Grandia has about 80 hours worth of playtime, but if you talk with all the townsfolk it will take far longer to complete.
In RPGs, new members join your party as you adventure. Before they join your group, there’s usually various dramatic scenarios you experience with each character. But the minute they join your party, they become like a pawn on a chess board. You can’t even talk to them. I thought it would be more fun if you had more time to get to know your party members. And the best occasion for that might be dinner. That’s how we came to add the dinner and camp scenes.
We wrote a special program to make the smoke from the locomotive actually look like smoke. With hand-drawn animation, it’s difficult to draw the smoke in such a way that you can distinguish between the train when it’s moving, and when it’s stopped. So we wrote a program to handle it. It uses some legitimate 3D, and I think it turned out really well.
I know a lot of people talked to Justin’s Mom with the express intention of seeing her hit him. (laughs)
We had two main considerations with the music. First, we wanted a cinematic, hollywood style. And second, we wanted to create music that fit each scene. The places in the world of Grandia feature a variety of terrain and cultures. In order to bring out the atmosphere of each locale, we adjusted many things for each scene: from using different instruments in different ways to the compositional character of the songs themselves.
We’re in the GDNet group, and CSK, another participating developer, helped us out in Grandia by providing us with the ADX audio compression technology they developed. The wonderful thing about this technology is that it can loop music files endlessly, with no gaps or breaks. With the raw music files there was usually a small time lag when the file looped back and restarted. With this technology that problem is gone. Another merit is that ADX allows game content to load while the music continues to play.
Music and sound effects are extremely important, so these advances were big to us. To put it in extreme terms, for RPGs, I think music and sound might even be more important than visuals. Music alone is enough to make people cry, but can visuals do that alone? I don’t think so. People’s hearts are moved by a good story, and it’s words that convey that. For music, the notes take the place of words. Take silent movies: they used text for the dialogue too. I think RPGs are the same. Without those words, and just the visuals, you won’t understand anything very clearly. Yet we do have radio dramas that work without visuals.
Obviously I want to make a game with beautiful graphics, but what I’m saying is that conveying the drama of the story is the most important consideration for us. That’s also why we worked to fit Grandia on 2 CDs. I didn’t want the drama to be interrupted by switching discs all the time, and we nearly went insane trying to stuff everything into the space of those two cds. (laughs)
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Obon means tray, as in kitchen tray.↩