With the last chapter in the Final Fantasy XIII releasing tomorrow, we talked to game designer Yuji Abe and producer Yoshinori Kitase about their thoughts on the title now the project's finished, how the marked the project's end, and much more.
We took each creator in turn, starting with Abe-san, focusing on how he found his time on the Final Fantasy series after migrating from Kingdom Hearts.
This is your first Final Fantasy project; what's been your previous experience in the company?
Y.A: Before I worked on Final Fantasy I was mainly involved in Kingdom Hearts II. I designed a lot of monsters [in the game]. When we started doing the original Final Fantasy XIII, quite some time ago now, they were looking for staff within the company who had experience of creating monsters and characters who moved in real time, because the idea for Final Fantasy XIII was to have the battle system working in real time, rather than turn-based. I had the experience there, so they asked me whether I'd like to help out doing some of the monster creation, as well as some of the subtle tuning on the battle system itself, to make that work.
I did a little bit of helping out with monsters and battles in FFXIII-2, and when we came to do Final Fantasy XIII-3, I was obviously asked by the battle director to help out for some ideas for that. I drew up the main design of the battle system. I showed this to the director of the game, and he liked it, and said ‘would you like to be in charge of the whole game design?'. That's how I came to do what I do in this project.
Final Fantasy has particular foundations and perceptions; Lightning Returns continues to evolve past those. With those new responsibilities you have, what was your goals with the game, and now the project is finished, do you feel you succeeded in them?
Y.A: Obviously the title of the game really says it; we weren't setting out to make Final Fantasy XIII-3. So we changed the name to Lightning Returns. The idea there, from my own personal point of view, was that I was given freedom. I didn't feel the pressure or the weight of continuing the series, or using the Final Fantasy name, or the logo. In that way, I approached it as designing an entirely new game, and with freedom to do what I wanted there.
But certainly looking at previous games in the series, what we noticed - I personally noticed - was that the Field and Battle sections, the gameplay in those was somewhat separated, and too distinct. What we wanted to do was make sure there was things to do in the Field area as well, you weren't just walking through it. And it all comes together as one complete game experience rather than two separate entities.
And thinking of how the player interacts with the world there as well, we had to make sure the world felt right to get that right. So we wanted to introduce some of the time concepts, and how you spend time in the world. Looking at it from hindsight, certainly I don't think we got to do absolutely everything that I wanted to do with the game at the start. But there are other things in there as well that came up halfway through that I didn't really expect from the start. Overall, as a creator, I'm pretty satisfied.
Is there anything you've been particularly proud of?
Y.A: Looking at the Paradigm Shift battle system in the game and what I added to that. It felt like a system that could be expanded a lot further than what is was originally, so I'm very proud of what I did in adapting that, enhancing that. I think that's my biggest thing.
What were the biggest things that came up unexpectedly?
Y.A: Thinking back over development, if we'd just taken my original vision, my original idea, of how I wanted the game to be, and created that as it was, I think it'd have been a much harder game to play than it is in its finished state, a very difficult game.
Looking back over development, we had a lot of input from other staff around the office as well, saying it's very difficult, maybe we could make it a little bit easier, a little bit more approachable. Playable by a lot of different kind of players rather than just the hardcore. There's a lot of elements in the game that were made much more accessible so people can see the whole game and experience all the different bits of it, rather than - if I'd stuck to my original vision - a very hardcore game.
The reviews are up. Do you pay attention to them or ignore them?
Y.A: [laughs] I'm probably not mentally tough enough to read them immediately. Generally when a project is finished I ignore the reviews for at least three months or so, because it's still very fresh in my mind. But after that I'll pick up some reviews and have a read through them, see what people say. Obviously I'm in a more objective frame of mind at that point. I pay attention to what people said they liked and what they praised the game for, and obviously what they pointed out what could have been done better... if there's stuff they say they would have liked, or think could have been put in, I'll certainly take that into account for the next project and try and incorporate some of that feedback in.
Once you finished the project, how'd you mark the occasion? Go out? Relax? Move to the next project?
Y.A: The way it works with us, it's a big team, there's lots of different sub-teams and departments. Generally when one team is finished, there'll still be other people going. There's never really one point during the development cycle were everyone's finished. We don't all finish and say ‘that's the end of it' at the same point. Different teams move onto other projects, so that's quite flexible.
We do do a celebration of each game that we release, but that's generally done at the time when the game itself is released. We all get together and have drinks and celebrate, have the game's ending played on a big screen - you see everyone watching that and think ‘that's the end of that'.
[Yuji Abe motions at the translator that he's more to add]: Generally, we have a little tradition were before we play the ending scene we have the head of game design defeating the last boss, in front of everyone. In this XIII that was my job, and it was a very hard battle, a real time battle, a difficult thing to do. So I'd been practicing for weeks and weeks in advance, just to be able to do it quickly in front of everybody. But when we went out there they played it without needing to fight the last boss, so I was a little bit disappointed.
You said you'd been involved in Kingdom Hearts. Are you involved in the third one, and if not, what are your impressions so far?
Y.A: Personally I'm not involved at all, but from what I've seen from all the video footage stuff we have internally, it looks like it's going to be a pretty good game. It looks quite impressive.
With that, we turned to producer Yoshinori Kitase, to discuss the impact of the franchise, what the series means to him, and his personal favourite moments from the franchise's past.
Do you read reviews, or do you avoid them?
Y.K: [laughs] Maybe a little different to Abe; I'm quite used to reading reviews now. I think I'm mentally capable, look at them straight away. Obviously to see what people are saying, read different media reviews, online and on message boards, and over social networks as well. Rather than looking at it from the perspective of what to do in the next project I'm on, I mainly look to see how players are reacting to the game, and the bits they're not so satisfied with, or having frustration with, and see that in real time. I think that's very useful feedback.
This is the end of the FFXIII project, with multiple games released under its name. Are you satisfied with what you've done, or just glad it's over?
Y.K: Certainly the whole team have been involved in the game for a very long time and put a lot of effort in. It was a great experience overall. But what we could do with the XIII series that we haven't really done with Final Fantasy before is develop the same game ideas and themes and polish them over a series of three games.
Because generally with Final Fantasy, the numbered series anyway, we start with nothing and we build everything from scratch, so there's a lot of processes there. This is really the first time we've had the opportunity to take the same characters, themes and ideas and work on them and adapt them. That was a new experience in a lot of ways and I think we did quite well. Overall I'm very satisfied.
Was this an approach due to escalating development costs? That it made sense to reuse assets for more titles, and is this something we should expect to see in future Final Fantasy games?
Y.K: When we talk about FFXV, that's being developed by a slightly different team. I am involved in that in some way, but the way that's developed and carried after the original game's released is something they'll do in their own way. But from my own personal perspective, and from the perspective of our team and what we diid, there are a lot of advantages using the same world, the same universe setup and the same assets. It makes it quicker, easier - cheaper - to develop the next one.
But like I said, with the XIII series, it allows us to polish things, improve the quality and get a really finished, polished product. That's the two main benefits; cost and that you can get higher quality.
What is Final Fantasy to you, now?
Y.K: For the Final Fantasy series overall, when we went from FF to FFII, it was already setup that we weren't going to stick to a certain rules or characters, or have to repeat. So really, from the start Final Fantasy has been to me been a platform. To do new things, new challenges. To try out what I want to do, what we want to do with it. That's what Final Fantasy is, to me at least: opportunity to do different things.
What's been your favourite Final Fantasy story?
Y.K: Personally, Final Fantasy VII was one of the most memorable. And perhaps sticks with me, has the biggest impact. Because up until then, in FFVI and most RPGs, it was taken as given that the player becomes the character. You had this mute protagonist. They knew everything. They're basically there same person. But we put in the idea and the conceit that you didn't know everything about the character's past, and you find out halfway through that maybe Cloud isn't the person you thought he was, and he had his own personality. it was one of the first times we tried that. certainly for me I found that very interesting; something new at the time. It remains with me.
Something we really wanted to do with VII was like in mystery novels, where you got the writer's tricks to pull the wool over the eyes of the reader. it's not just the character that's being deceived, but the reader's being pulled into that, or be made to think that what they heard isn't the truth. And we really wanted to try that in a game. It'd been done in literature, but really hadn't been done before in games.
You can read our review of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII here.
Loading next content