Panzer Dragoon Saga – 1998 Developer Interview

Panzer Dragoon Saga – 1998 Developer Interview

This Panzer Dragoon Saga interview originally appeared in the AZEL -Panzer Dragoon RPG- strategy guide. It features three of the primary developers sharing their thoughts about the character design, favorite scenes, and the challenges of the development. I have also included a small selection of the concept art included in the book.

Manabu Kusunoki – Director
Yukio Futatsugi – Designer
Hidetoshi Takeshita – Programmer

—At last, Panzer Dragoon Saga is complete! And the fact that this is a conclusion to the series must make your feelings all the stronger.

Kusunoki: Yeah. The main feeling I have is definitely, “we did it.” Until it’s actually released, though, I can’t really breathe easy… so I guess the real relaxing is a ways off yet? Either way, I won’t really feel settled until I see it lined up on the shelves at stores.

Takeshita: Yeah, I feel that way too. This was such a big project, and we worked on it for so long.

Futatsugi: We started working on Azel at about the same time we finished the first Panzer Dragoon. That was right around March 1995, so yeah, we’ve been working on this for almost 3 years now.

—You didn’t start working on Zwei after the first game?

Kusunoki: After the first Panzer Dragoon was complete, there were originally two development groups working on two different projects concurrently: a STG group, which was Zwei, and an RPG group for Azel. The groups were supposed to share team members, but doing everything we wanted proved to take much longer than we had anticipated. At this rate we were in danger of stalling out, so we decided to put Azel on hold until we’d completed Zwei.

Futatsugi: The length of this project was really a test of endurance…

Takeshita: Yeah, endurance is what you need for game development, ultimately.

Kusunoki: My involvement in the Panzer Dragoon series goes all the way back to the first game. In the very beginning we were featured in a Saturn Magazine article. I took a look at my face from then, and wow… I looked so young! I was kind of shocked.

Manabu Kusunoki, director.

Takeshita: It’s crazy how the time just flies by.

Futatsugi: We’ve had people who joined Sega because they played the first Panzer Dragoon and loved it, and wanted to make more games in the series. That’s how long it’s been! As a developer, I’m very thankful that we’ve been able to spend this much time on a single world and work.

—Each of the characters in Panzer Dragoon Saga is fascinating in their own right; do you have any particular favorites?

Futatsugi: Craymen, of course. I like how in the midst of this large cast of characters, he never wavers from his own principles. I liked him so much, I kept wanting to give him more and more to do in the story.

Kusunoki: The player’s character, Edge, actually left the biggest impression on me. No doubt the fact that I’ve spent so many years with him is part of it. At the beginning of the development, his character was actually much less defined. We thought that would make it easier for players to feel like they were the main character themselves. But before we knew it, we had given Edge his own personality: that of a naive, boyish upstart. That’s actually more of what I wanted, so I really like how he turned out. I think he’s a character that players will find very likeable, too.

Futatsugi: I think the supporting cast has a lot of character too. Paet is one that really stuck with me. I like his sarcasm and his personality, being able to ignore the world around him and forge ahead with his own pursuits.

—As a programmer, were some characters easier to create than others?

Takeshita: Hm, not really. What came my way was mostly data, and it’s kind of hard to get a feel for what a character is like from that. I didn’t touch the character design stuff. I did see the illustrations as they got completed, and those would set my imagination off. There were some things I was surprised by in the final game, compared to what I had imagined from those pictures. So playing the game for the first time was actually a pretty fresh experience for me.

Futatsugi: Hah, that sounds weird for a developer to say about his own game!

—I’d like to ask some questions about each character now, if you don’t mind. First, if you could speak a little more about Edge…

Kusunoki: Originally he didn’t have that strong independent streak. As I mentioned, he was more of a blank slate… it was our plan to not give him much personality. But as the development progressed, and the scenarios got completed, he started to take on the personality of a somewhat sheltered, privileged kid, the kind other kids would probably call “obocchan! obocchan!”1 With all the other characters having such strong personalities, keeping Edge this way made sense. Not having a lot of weird quirks, the majority of players would be able to empathize with him. I think he was the perfect choice for the main character.

Two pieces of early concept art for Azel and Edge.

Futatsugi: We also had a version of the story where Edge was an Imperial Soldier himself, not a mercenary. At first he blindly follows orders, but gradually his eyes are opened to reality… unfortunately, this made the main story too long, so we abandoned the idea. We tried to keep the core of that idea by making him a mercenary. As for the other aspects of Edge’s character, I feel like there was a lot of trial and error: creating, scrapping, creating, scrapping…

—Can you give some examples?

Kusunoki: His hairstyle, for one. That weird-looking hair…

Futatsugi: When we started the development, that straight spiky hair was popular, and Edge’s hairstyle bears some trace of that. We kept some of that pointed feel with his bangs, and re-arranged the rest of it into the style you see today. I think his hairstyle made him look all the more sheltered and inexperienced—don’t you think that’s the haircut someone like that would have?

Kusunoki: Heh, again, there’s something weird about developers saying their own designs are weird.

—Next, I’d like to ask about Azel, the series’ first female character. Was their resistance to featuring a girl character?

Kusunoki: The Panzer Dragoon series definitely features a certain masculinity, and since that has been popular with the players so far, we did have various concerns about introducing a female main character. But it was something we wanted to try. We thought it would help expand this RPG world we were trying to create. However, the one thing we didn’t want was your typical wide-eyed, anime style little girl. We laid that down as a rule from the start. As a result I think we’ve created a character in Azel who really matches the mood of this world.

—What was your design concept for the character of Azel?

Futatsugi: A cute, but somewhat scary girl. She’s not a person so much as a biological weapon; she is both human and not-human, and accordingly we thought her character should be both attractive and frightening. And because of this she required the most retakes and revisions of any character.

Yukio Futatsugi, designer

—Does that mean her final character ended up very different from your original vision?

Kusunoki: Yes, she changed a lot. You can see it in the various concept art included in this book, but the earlier versions of Azel were much more frightening and intimidating.

Futatsugi: But there are also some surprisingly girlish depictions in there, too.

Kusunoki: Either way, I’m glad we didn’t use those early images.

Futatsugi: Definitely. I don’t want to say this too loud, but… in our first illustrations, she had a hole in her torso. (laughs) Maybe we were overly focused on the image of a biologically engineered weapon, but it was pretty crazy. You can still see the traces of that design in her hairstyle, I think. I actually thought of her hair almost as a tentacle, rather than as hair.

Takeshita: Huh? That’s not her hair?!

Futatsugi: No, that’s not what I’m saying! I guess this is why we developers shouldn’t say things like that… (laughs)

Takeshita: Well, like I said, I only looked at the data, so I don’t know…

—And how about Azel’s personality?

Kusunoki: Unlike her appearance, her personality was something we didn’t understand too well in the beginning. We thought she would be somewhat cold and abrasive. While it’s true that she doesn’t know how to communicate with others, she does have some connection with Craymen and Edge. As a character Azel may be a strange choice for a heroine, but after meeting Edge at Uru she gradually becomes more human, showing more of what appears to be real emotions. This development is one of the highlights of her story.

Early concept art of Azel.

—Next I’d like to ask about Craymen, who has so many pivotal scenes.

Futatsugi: Craymen is a very memorable character for me, for a number of reasons. He’s my favorite character, but I also feel he’s the character we left most unfinished.

—Are you saying you wish you could have done more with him?

Futatsugi: It’s more like we originally had a great deal more scenes planned for him. We wanted to show more about his past, and the reason why he rebelled against the Empire. However, we calculated that adding all that would have filled nearly the entire first disc, so we had no choice but to cut it all. That’s why Craymen has no scenes between his early appearance and the second half of the game. He has the most thematic presence of all the characters, so it’s all the more a shame.

There’s also the fact that RPGs, being what they are, can’t show the lives of every character like an omniscient third-person narrator; this was the best way to advance the story from the protagonist Edge’s perspective.

Kusunoki: We also had this idea for a scene where, after Craymen dies in the tower, his henchmen would talk about what he was trying to do.

Futatsugi: It was always a battle with the available memory, and there were many things we couldn’t include in the game. But because we did depict other things with great detail and care, I think players who diligently gather all the info and hints scattered about the world will be able to imagine what was left unsaid. In fact, that guessing is one of the fun things of this game.

Kusunoki: One of the features of the Panzer Dragoon series is that in the games, we only reveal 1/5 of the total world we’ve actually created. That is to leave space for players’ imaginations, and to allow players to enjoy talking with each other and comparing the different experiences they’ve had. Player’s opinions are bound to diverge, and that’s a good thing. We think it’s an important part of making the world of Panzer Dragoon feel more real.

—What can you tell us about Craymen’s henchmen?

Kusunoki: We aimed for your stereotypical henchmen: the intelligent, calculating type (Arwen) and the overzealous, aggressive one (Zastava). We talked about Craymen having a female lieutenant as well, but that idea got canned early on. I guess it really is somewhat difficult to feature women in the world in Panzer Dragoon…

Futatsugi: I think we may have killed Arwen off too early. It’s necessary in the story, but I wish we could have given him a bit more to do.

Takeshita: Arwen’s voice actor had a really cool, deep voice.

Futatsugi: Now that you mention it, so did Craymen. Though that’s to be expected, since it’s Masato Ibu.

Takeshita: A lot of the guys in Craymen’s fleet had cool voices too.

Concept art of the bar in Zoah. Text reads: “Lined up along a cabinet behind the gloomy bar are bottles of luminescent liquor made from distilled bio-engineered creatures, filling the screen with dazzling color.”

—We’ve talked about the different characters now, but could you tell us about your favorite scenes featuring those characters?

Futatsugi: If we’re talking about favorite scenes, then mine would have to be the Uru Underground Ruins. It’s the place where Edge and Azel first meet, and cooperate together to escape Uru. You learn from the conversations why Azel works with Craymen; this scene is the key to the whole story. Azel, who seemed emotionless at first, first begins to show something like feelings here. At first it seems like she’s come out of her shell, but once they’ve succeeded in escaping, they revert to being enemies.

Kusunoki: After that episode, Azel becomes more and more human.

Futatsugi: By the way, did you know that whole scene with escaping Uru is supposed to take place in the span of one night?

Takeshita: Oh, really? That’s how you wrote it?

Futatsugi: Yes. It’s afternoon when Edge first arrives at Uru. As he gathers the Protect Keys the day passes, and by the time the dragons fight night has fallen. It then takes Azel and Edge the entire night to escape, and as day breaks, Azel flies away on Atolm…

Takeshita: I didn’t realize that at all. I thought it was just a sunrise. (laughs) I wonder how many people who played understood that?

Futatsugi: Those who got it, got it.

Takeshita: In that scene, I wish I had had more time to adjust the textures on Azel’s face. I had already tinkered with them a bunch, but I’m still a little unsatisfied with it.

Futatsugi: With polygons, changing facial expressions can be very difficult. It’s something for us to work on more next game.

Kusunoki: Another iconic Azel moment is when she says “nerae” (“take aim”).

Futatsugi: Yeah, that’s a memorable line. And if you don’t dodge then, you get hit by Atolm’s Berserker Rage attack.

Kusunoki: Also, this isn’t a scene, but I like the music that plays in Azel’s scenes. We deliberately used that music whenever there was an important scene with her. I think it will be a memorable melody for players.

The “nerae” scene from the first fight with Azel and Atolm.

—We’ve talked about the characters a lot now; can you tell us about the dragons?

Futatsugi: I’ve stated this before, but for me the dragons are the real heroes of the Panzer Dragoon series. With Azel we introduced a new hero, but the dragons were the original heroes. That’s why we gave Azel an enemy role in the beginning of the game, to distinguish her from the dragons. It might sound a little strained and put-on, but I wanted to convey to players just how central the dragons are to the Panzer Dragoon games.

—What was behind the original idea to use dragons?

Kusunoki: We decided on a world with dragons when we made the first Panzer Dragoon. Despite being called “dragons”, that is just what these bio-engineered creatures are called in this world; they’re not related to “real” dragons in any way. I’ve always liked breaking people’s preconceived notions, you see, and I enjoyed the challenge of creating a creature that was distinct from the typical image of a dragon. These winged bio-engineered creatures were what I came up with.

—The big feature with the dragons in Panzer Dragoon Saga is the morphing; how did you come up with that idea?

Takeshita: That was one of the ideas we came up with very early, in the course of our initial conversations about the game. We had added the ability to change your dragon in Zwei, but we thought it would be fun this time if the player could choose the pattern by which the dragon evolves. And we thought it would look cool if the player actually got to see those changes when the dragon morphs.

The idea sounded good, but it turned out to be very difficult to do. To be honest, we thought it was impossible, and we forgot all about it for awhile. Then one day, out of the blue, one of our programmers created the morphing system all by himself! And it was really cool. We had an emergency meeting at which we decided we had to have this in the game, and we quickly went about including it.

—So you’re saying in the beginning, there was no type select or morphing?

Takeshita: That’s right. Once it was decided that we’d add that feature, the programmers and designers quickly got on board with the change. “Morphing” sounds simple enough, but to make it look right we had to make sure the dragon designs before and after morphing all connected up. Otherwise all the parts wouldn’t fit together smoothly. The designers worked really hard on those pre/post morphing dragon designs, and it’s thanks to their efforts that it looks believable. They also had to design the specific characteristics for each dragon type. The whole system is the fruit of their (the designers and programmers) efforts.

Futatsugi: We also added an event specifically to show players how to effectively use morphing. It’s the battle with the gigra in the Garil Desert.

—Tell us about how you created the dragons’ movements.

Takeshita: That also took a lot of work. We had to take the static patterns we’d built in the first Panzer Dragoon and make them vary according to the way you develop your dragon. One example would be the speed at which your dragon flaps its wings, which varies depending on the dragon.

Hidetoshi Takeshita, programmer.

One thing we spent a lot of effort on was the way the dragon’s tail moved. The majority of the time the dragon is facing away from you, into the screen, so the dragon’s tail is what the player spends the most time looking at! How realistic the tail moved would have an effect on the player’s perception of the dragon’s movement as a whole.

We had been thinking about the tail like this since Zwei, but I think we were able to achieve the next level of realism here with Azel. I think it’s a huge part of why the dragons feel real and alive when they’re flying through the sky.

—So the secret lies in the tail, eh?

Takeshita: Yeah. Of course it’s a combination of several things that makes it look realistic: the tail, the movement of the wings, the timing with which the body sways…

—To close, please tell us what you, as developers, find most interesting about Panzer Dragoon Saga.

Kusunoki: Definitely the battle scenes. Since battles occupy about half your time in any RPG, if they’re boring, the game will be boring too.

Azel keeps the results of your combat recorded, so there is an optimal playstyle as far as fighting goes. You really have to use your head if you want to get an “EXCELLENT!” grade for every enemy, but we think it’s a system that is new, exciting, and accessible for all players.

Takeshita: I think the way characters talk incessantly during the battles is an industry first, too.

Futatsugi: I also want players to enjoy the conversations with the people in town. To be honest, I was thinking of the visual novel game doukyuusei in that regard: I wanted the information the NPCs give you to change each time you talked to them, and for your conversation to have an effect on them. You’ll really get the most out of Panzer Dragoon Saga by talking to all the people in the caravan and the various towns.

Kusunoki and Futatsugi would later return for Panzer Dragoon Orta.

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  1. This is a difficult term to translate directly; it literally means “little boy”, but actually connotes a child that has lived a privileged / sheltered life and not known any real hardships.

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