Tales Series – 2008 Developer Interview

Tales Series – 2008 Developer Interview

This lengthy interview with key members of the Namco Tales Studio development team first appeared in the Tales of Magazine in 2008. Overall, the theme of this interview can probably be summed up in one word: “fanservice.” After presenting a top-down view of the Tales development process, there are some comments about rpg design and what qualities the developers believe define a Tales game.

Kazuya Ishizuka - Director
Kenji Anabuki - Planner
Takashi Hasegawa - Planner
Tatsuro Udou - Designer

—How is the “Tales of…” development team organized?

Hasegawa: First, there’s the planning group. That group is further divided into a team that handles the event script and one that handles the battles. Next there’s the sound groups and scenario groups, which are their own individual entities. After that we have the background team, which is divided into 5 sub-groups: towns, indoors, dungeons, battle, and field. Also, for 2D we’ve got the event character group and battle character group; separate from that, there’s a monster group as well. For 3D there’s a character motion group, a battle motion group, an event motion group, and a monster motion group. Then there’s a system group and effects group, but usually that work is done by a single person rather than a “group.” Finally, overseeing everything is the project leader.

—How many staff do you generally have working on a single title?

Hasegawa: Well, for Vesperia, we had about 80 in total. Depending on the circumstances we sometimes bring in outside (subcontractor) staff too.

—The Tales series is famous for the design work of illustrators Kousuke Fujishima and Mutsumi Inomata, but there’s a rumour floating out there that they both work on separate teams…?

Hasegawa: That certainly hasn’t been intentional; it’s just happened naturally that they’ve usually been on different teams. It’s sort of like Dev Team #1 is the Fujishima series, and #2 is Inomata. However, there’s a lot of swapping about that goes on between both teams, and we also have a Dev Team #3.

Udou: Bandai Namco Games will ask us “for this game, what do you think about using this designer?” But each time we research and consider that question independently.

Kenji Anabuki. Created events on Symphonia, dungeons on Abyss, and mainly handled the battles in Vesperia.

—What made you decide to start having multiple development teams?

Ishizuka: We do it so that we can have something for the fans every year. With each team taking about 2-3 years to develop a game, we can release a new game every year.

—How does the planning for a Tales game begin?

Hasegawa: How each game starts is different each time. The concept for Vesperia, for example, first came about in a post-Abyss evaluation meeting with Bandai Namco Games. It wasn’t a result of us reflecting on the shortcomings of Abyss either, it just came up in the natural flow of things: “what shall we do next?” In addition to the things we couldn’t fully express in Abyss, we also talked about our brand new ideas for Vesperia. There was a discussion about the visuals too. If I retrace it, that meeting would be the origin point for Vesperia.

We all recognize on the Tales team that we want to keep making Tales games for a long time, so it’s sort of like there’s this really big, overarcing thing we’re all caught up in, and a retail Tales game is just one piece of it that we’ve decided to cut out and present. Each development ends with a master app being completed, but by that time we’ve already begun thinking up ideas for the next installment.

—Is it the planning group, then, that details and fleshes out the ideas for the next game?

Anabuki: That’s right. For example, with Vesperia, our initial concept was a game where, even if you suddenly took away the entire story and scenario, the game system itself would still be fun to play. We also wanted to shorten the load times between scenes, and in general create a game world that would be easier to enjoy playing. The scenario and plot are two things that don’t enter until that planning is done. The “master plan” for the development gets solidified then too, answering general scheduling questions like how long the project will take, and how many staff it will need.

Philia Felice from Tales of Destiny. The left two are concept art images; the right is the final version.

Hasegawa: If you don’t set an overall picture of the scope and volume of the project at the beginning, then people will enthusiastically keep adding and exchanging new ideas, and before long the budget will be all eaten up. You’ll never finish a game if you throw everything in the mix, so you have to decide the limits of what’s possible in advance. That said, Vesperia was bulging with ideas, and setting those limits was very difficult. (laughs) By the way, with Vesperia we had an idea for the story first, and we scheduled the development to fit that. But the way we organize things changes for each game.

—And which games have been the other way, where the story came after?

Hasegawa: Symphonia was like that. We first decided how we wanted the gamplay to be, then we approached the scenario group with that as a baseline: “we want to do this and this, so please make the story accommodate these ideas.”

—What were some of those initial ideas you had for Symphonia?

Hasegawa: We asked ourselves, what new ideas could we bring to Symphonia that would be different in shape and form from previous RPGs? We wanted to try adding a non-linear, multi-branching structure to the overall game. The biggest “multi” aspect of Symphonia is in the branching paths the story can take and the way you can choose who to befriend via the affection stat. Had we not had that overall “multi” theme for the gameplay from the start, I don’t think the story would have been structured in the same way.

Tatsuro Udou. Created maps for the PSX port of Phantasia. Since Eternity, he’s done programming and planning for Destiny 2, Reverse, and the remake of Destiny.

—Vesperia was the series’ first release for a next-gen console. Was it planned from the start as an X360 title?

Hasegawa: No, not really. The Vesperia plan was solidified during the Abyss post-release evaluation meeting. Shortly after that we decided on the X360. It just so happened that we wanted to upgrade the hardware side for Vesperia; if we had not wanted to do HD graphics, then there’s a chance it could have been developed for a different system. But once it was settled that we’d be going the X360 route, everyone quickly got on board with the idea of improving all the specs for this Tales installment.

—Don’t you feel like the choice of hardware puts constraints on the development, though?

Hasegawa: No, we feel very free in choosing hardware, provided it fits the framework of the plans we’ve drawn up.

Ishizuka: But there is sales strategy to consider too, so we nevertheless always consult with Bandai Namco Games.

—How much time would you say you put into a development, from the beginning of planning to final completion?

Hasegawa: In the case of Vesperia, it took us about half a year just to study and learn the X360’s hardware. If you take that into your calculation, then it took almost a full three years. For the PS2, Abyss took about two years. Those are our 3D titles though. Our 2D games, with handdrawn graphics, can take longer than that.

Ishizuka: In this grizzled veteran’s experience (laughs), it depends a lot on the organization/structure of the development itself, but about ~2 years is the average time for many of our games. A lot of the Tales games have been released at year’s end, which means we usually have to have everything completed a few months before in Fall.

—So how does it all go down when you’re in the middle of it? Do the planners send down their directions, like “We want the battles to look like this” or “we want the scenarios to be like this” ?

Anabuki: That’s basically right, but in actuality they don’t really give us orders like that. More often the planner comes to the person working and talks to them directly, and together they talk out whether the idea is possible. If they have an idea for battle they consult with the programmer directly; likewise, for effects they’ll talk with someone in the graphics group so that the new idea slots into the existing game design. The opposite happens a lot too, with someone from the graphics group, for example, coming to the planners with ideas and feedback.

Hasegawa: Udou is an interesting case: he not only makes the design plans for the battle on his own, he also does the battle programming all by himself. So he doesn’t really need to give anyone instructions. We call him our “super hybrid programmer.” (laughs)

Draft illustration by Fujishima for the Tales of Phantasia cover. The text reads: “I tried fixing it. But I didn’t add any ground. -Fujishima. P.S. Mint is barely visible”

—Tales of Destiny has a direct sequel with Tales of Destiny 2; have you thought about doing direct sequels to the other games?

Hasegawa: This is just my opinion, but I think sequels should be something left to the player’s imagination only. I do understand the feelings of fans, who loved a certain game and want us to release a sequel so they can enjoy more of its world and characters…. however, by making a sequel we have to set some things in stone, and that inevitably ends up negating much of the expansiveness that existed in the fan’s imagination about the first game.

Personally I don’t like doing that. If it can help deepen one’s understanding of the original game’s world, I suppose there’s some value to such a sequel… for example, with Destiny and Destiny 2, I think we achieved that, but it was by digging further into the characters’ relationships, not so much in the world itself. As for a Destiny 3 that goes even further into those characters? I don’t personally see a need for it.

No matter who the character is, ultimately I think it’s the the player who should have the final word about who that character is, and what he/she is like. With characters, especially, when we present a new game to players, aspects of that character get permanently fixed. Then there’s a high chance that we’ve crushed some fan’s dreams about that character, you know? So our basic stance, from the get-go, is to not do sequels. We might think about them if we weren’t able to depict everything we wanted in the original game, but I don’t think the Tales games are really suited for sequels.

Udou: This is true of all the Tales titles, but the story always concludes with you saving the world. Also, I think that generally sequels are made when the first game was somehow lacking something. If we really receive a lot of requests for a sequel, then that’s another story, but basically we pour all our energy and effort into each individual title, and we consider them complete works.

—I imagine the response you get from fans varies for each game, but is their feedback ever reflected in the game design plans?

Hasegawa: Of course. We do our best to to satisfy all the fans who are giving us their support.

Udou: Most of the letters we receive are really positive, and they influence us a lot. We also listen to players on the internet, of course.

Ishizuka: Many of the letters contain fans’ opinions on the story and scenarios. There’s both criticism and praise, but we consider the very act of sending us a letter to be showing us support. We can’t promise we’ll always do what a letter suggests, but we do hear the voices of fans when they say “you should have done this here!” and so forth. We objectively consider and make use of all their thoughts.

Kazuya Ishizuka. Does overall direction for dev group #2. On the original Destiny he did the scenarios, and for the PSX port of Phantasia he wrote the chat dialogue.

—Why do you think the Tales series has had such longevity (13 years!), and why do you think it is so loved by fans?

Ishizuka: The Tales games all have the same “Tales” name and are a series in that respect, but the world, characters, and game system are different enough that each can really stand alone as its own game. I think we’ve maintained a high level of quality all these years; in other words, our brand is strong, and I think that’s a big part of it. There’s also a freshness to the series since each game is different. That well-struck balance of our brand image and the continuing novelty of each game is probably the biggest reason, I think.

—Whenever you make a new Tales game, there must be some things you leave in each game that gives them a “Tales-ness”, but what do you think that quality is?

Ishizuka: Well, if we’re talking about gameplay systems, the very minimal criterion would be the real-time action battles (the linear motion battle system). Compared to other RPGs, we also place a big emphasis on characters, and that’s very important to us with any new Tales game. There’s an atmosphere to the visuals that we keep consistent as well, but to a certain extent the “Tales-ness” is something that’s created among the staff as they’re working on whatever their current project is, so it can really only be defined in situ.

For example, if someone creates some mecha enemies, no one ever flatly rejects it by saying “that can’t be in a Tales game.” If that mecha goes with the story, then the staff will discuss how they can make it fit tastefully without disrupting the rest of the game world—and the very fact that we can have conversations like that is one key ingredient of the essence of Tales. The emotional, moving quality to our games is very important to us too, and I think that’s something everyone understands. The essence of Tales, therefore, is really us trying to fulfill the wishes and requests of our fans as much as we can—that’s how I choose to see it.

Udou: As developers we’re very aware that the special quality a Tales game has is the biggest part of what players find satisfying about these games. “Satisfying players” is an ethos we have, and we’re always searching for new ways to live up to that. As for the battle system, which I’ve been most deeply involved with, each game we solicit feedback from the fans, getting their opinions and pros/cons about the system we’re working on.

Concept art for Agarte from Tales of Rebirth. According to Inomata, this is one of her favorites.

Hasegawa: For me, I think the “Tales-ness” comes from not being too pretentious, or taking ourselves too seriously. You know, when developers start saying high-handed stuff like “we are artists“… well, that’s not our attitude. And I think that’s very important for the Tales series, and also for fans. We don’t want to make the type of games where the characters expound at length on serious, difficult themes. Next, for our game systems, we try to make the basic elements easy to understand, and more fun the further you get into it. And finally, for the visuals, we try to create scenes that leave a little space for the player to imagine and wonder. In other words, we don’t try to overdo the scenes. We want the players to be thinking while they play, and to think about it some more when the game is over. We want players to then be able to talk about what they experienced with each other, in real life.

If you’re a player who finds that kind of game fun—you’re our target audience, and that consideration is how I conceive the “Tales-ness.”

Anabuki: For me, a defining trait with the battle scenes is having lots of talking, and lots of movement. The most important thing is a battle system that’s fun even if you’re just watching someone else play. I feel like I was very conscious of that when I worked on Vesperia. Also, as Hasegawa said, we’ve released many games in the Tales series now, but having games that leave players with something to talk about with each other has always been important to us. And not just story / scenario events—we want the game system to be something players talk about, too.

Takashi Hasegawa. Handles overall direction for dev group #1. He did systems planning for Symphonia, and on Abyss he wrote dialogue and acted as scenario director.

—There’s clearly many things that go into making a Tales game a Tales game. Has keeping to those principles ever caused you difficulties?

Hasegawa: I think almost all our staff would say this, but our attitude is that we want to keep doing this series for years to come, and because of that, there aren’t a lot of frustrations of that kind on the planning end.

Anabuki: When we made Vesperia, we were trying to outdo Abyss. It’s like we’re always in a race with ourselves, trying to beat our previous best. This means, of course, that the wall keeps getting higher and higher with every release. Whether that kind of challenge invigorates you or exhausts you probably determines how long you’ll make it in the planning group!

—What kind of person, then, do you think is suited for planning and design on the Tales games?

Hasegawa: I think the most important quality is being able to handle embarassment well. When you’re presenting your game ideas, you need do convey them with ample enthusiasm and zeal. If you get embarassed at that point, no one is going to be convinced and the project won’t be able to move forward.

Also, when you receive criticism and suggestions about your ideas, and you get embarassed because your ideas were mistaken, it’s important that you can calmly and quickly correct course. So to a certain extent you must be someone who can handle the spotlight and the scrutiny of others.

Two other essentials: analytical thinking and communication skills. You definitely need that ability to discriminate between ideas that are interesting and those that aren’t. There’s no such thing as a game where everything is interesting; you need to always be thinking about how the parts that didn’t work last game can be improved (and how to build on the successful parts, too). Now, in addition to being able to analyze your own games like that, you also need to be able to communicate your ideas clearly to the rest of the staff. If you can do that, you have a much higher likelihood of having your ideas realized.

Ishizuka: I think the general public’s idea of game design is that you have some lone genius who thinks up the entire game, and everyone else follows his instructions. That is an out-of-date image though; the times have changed, and game production is done on a large-scale today. Programming, graphics, sound, packaging, marketing—many different people are involved in each of these activities. If you want to work as a planner—the core of the project—you must have the communication skills to convey your new ideas and intentions to a very large number of people.

Where the magic happens: the Namco Tales development room.

Anabuki: There’s a number of ways to convince people your ideas are good. There’s a style of slowly, thoroughly explaining yourself. Then there’s people who just go right ahead and make their idea, and present it that way: “this is 80% done, please take a look!” Those who can program or draw can be very effective communicators this way, and that’s totally fine. In other words, you can be a good planner even if words aren’t your forte. I think communication skills really come down to what kind of charms you can put on, right?

Ishizuka: I think so. People who possess such wiles are the kind of people you always to work with, too. Sometimes appearing to need help can also be an effective strategy. “This poor guy, I’m gonna help him out.” I’m not joking! It’s an important skill. (laughs)

Udou: In the games I’ve done planning on, I think confidence and the lack of confidence are both equally important. The trick, however, is knowing where to be confident, and where not to be! When you’re presenting and explaining your ideas to others, you need to be confident. But when others are critiquing and offering their ideas, you should not be over-confident; you should objectively take in their advice and adjust things as needed. I think it’s very important to balance these two attitudes and use them at the right times.

—I think many people see game design and planning as “coming up with ideas”, but how is it in actuality?

Ishizuka: Being a designer is more about having a passion for creating things, not so much being full of new ideas. What do you want to do with this new project? How will you make that a reality? You need a requisite degree of passion and enthusiasm to get anywhere. For me personally, it’s especially important that you don’t see what you’re doing as work. Of course it’s my job, but I don’t see it as “work”; it’s just a means toward the end I want to achieve. It’s best if you can see it that way.

As for ideas, I try to keep my antennae up everyday, spotting interesting ideas and saving them to try out in the future. That’s probably something every planner does naturally, I suppose?

This is a result of a survey given to the sales team during the original Tales of Phantasia development. It shows alternate titles which were voted on (ToP won with 19 votes). Some of the other candidates: “Innocent Blaze”, “Elemental Wars”, “Fandarisu”, and “Elemental Legend.”

Hasegawa: I don’t think that coming up with new ideas is really all that important for being a planner, either. You can think of it this way: the person who gets a flash of inspiration and comes up with new ideas once the boundary lines of the project are drawn, that’s the “idea man.” But the person who does everything to make that a reality, that’s the “planning man.” As Ishizuka said a moment ago, even if you do have some great idea and want to create something, if you don’t take the steps to make it happen, it will never take form. So if you do have great ideas, you should really work to develop the skills to help you actualize them, I think.

—Would you say you need a lot of energy for planning, then?

Anabuki: Well, ultimately, if your idea never takes shape, then it will never be shown to anyone. So for us “this is a good idea!” is always followed by “this is a good idea, look, look!” That’s not only true for designer and planners, but also for programmers, graphic designers, and musicians too. Expressing yourself means wanting to share the things you think are cool. First you have to create your idea, then you share it, then you get feedback about it, decide what should be left as-is, what should be improved, and what should be removed and redone. It’s a chain: thinking, creating, sharing. Put all that together and you have our work, “game creation.” I guess all that does take a lot of energy.

—To close, please give a final message to all your fans.

Anabuki: We’re very dedicated to creating the Tales series. Actually, we pay close attention to the opinions our fans share with each other. (laughs) We always look closely at your ideas, and they inform what we should keep/change in each installment: “this was a hit, we’ll keep that in” or “this was kind of ‘meh’, so let’s try and tinker and remix it”, etc. Making the Tales games is a huge amount of work, but knowing that our fans around the world enjoy playing them, and hearing their feedback and encouragement gives us the motivation to keep striving. So long as you fans cherish these games, there will always be more Tales for you to experience!

Udou: The Tales series is one with many different entries, but each presents a different playstyle. As for the battle systems, there’s a variety of ways to fight, and auto-battles are fine, but I hope players occasionally switch to manual and enjoy the action too.

Hasegawa: This is my request for fans, but I hope you create communities where you can have fun talking with each other about all the characters you’ve loved. Our job is to present you with the raw materials of your entertainment in the form of a game, but to take the Tales movement to the next level, I think the voices and participation of the fans is key. More than anything else, it’s those voices that are our motivation. Whether it be on the net or elsewhere, let’s keep sharing info about these games and enjoying them together, building the Tales series into something even more special.

Ishizuka: Today, we’ve had the honor of talking about these games in this interview, but I want to say here that it’s more than the four of us who make the Tales games: graphics, programming, sound and music… there’s many people in each group, and it’s their collective talent that makes the Tales series what it is. Making these games is a joyous experience for us, and we’re very grateful to our fans. That’s partly, I think, what imbues each of our games with such feeling. I hope you continue to enjoy playing the Tales games, and please keep showing us your support!

Ready for the next Tales game.

If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *