A lapsed fan chats with Final Fantasy 15 director Hajime Tabata

By Brenna Hillier, Wednesday, 24 September 2014 14:50 GMT

Final Fantasy 15 director Hajime Tabata has a lot of ground to recover if he’s going to win fans back to the franchise.

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Last week I went to Square Enix HQ in Tokyo. As I sat in a waiting room I contemplated the extreme joy this turn of events would have brought me just a few years ago, when my Final Fantasy fanaticism was so violent that I lost my head and gave Final Fantasy 13, a game I now feel has multiple serious flaws, a near-perfect review score.

Square Enix – or rather, Squaresoft as it were – was the developer of my adolescence. The quality and variety of the games it produced on PSOne was astounding, and many of them count among my most favourite games of all time, or at least on my list of unmissable, important experiences.

Sitting in that waiting room, looking around at the displays on the walls, I felt a little thrill of excitement.

The company hasn’t weathered the HD transition as well as might have been hoped, and my passion has died down somewhat as a result. Although Square Enix’s western activities have been interesting (I loved Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Tomb Raider, for example), my interest in the Japanese side of the business has dimmed down to a nerdy obsession with how the hell it’s going to get out of the pit the Final Fantasy series has dug for itself in the west (beyond the wonderful MMO, Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn – a far cry from the single-player experience the series traditionally offers).

Nevertheless, sitting in that waiting room, looking around at the displays on the walls and knowing members of the the First Production Company were stomping around somewhere nearby, I felt a little thrill of excitement. When Square Enix PR told me they had a “surprise” in store for me, I knew what it had to be, of course: the truly surprising thing would have been if it were not Final Fantasy 15. But I got a bit excited anyway.

This was the day that Square Enix announced that Hajima Tabata, director of Final Fantasy Type-0, had stepped into the role of sole director of FF15, with Tetsuya Nomura off to worry about Kingdom Hearts 3 full time. Square Enix let press go hands on with the nail-bitingly difficult Final Fantasy Type-0, showed press the wonderful Final Fantasy 15 TGS 2014 trailer, and told us that a playable demo was coming in 2015. Then it left us in a room with Tabata with the admonition not to only ask questions about Final Fantasy 15 because we were there for Type-0.

My roundtable interview was shared with a couple of other games writers who, for example, never tell the directors of games that after eight years they’re frankly a bit sick of waiting for Final-Fantasy-Versus-13-as-was and had lost interest. But I did that, because I love you, have no tact, and am unfazed by the teeth-hissing of offended PR managers (the soundtrack of TGS 2014 for me).

“When asked would I be able to lure fans back in with the demo, I feel confident that I can,” Tabata said, through a translator.

“Not only with Final Fantasy 15, but with Type-0 as well. Especially with Type-o, I feel that this is a story and a game what will be emotionally moving. It will rock your world. I want to make it a very intense experience. With FF15, my goal is to make it so that the final product is what the fans have been hoping for, and to bring it, in the best form possible.

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“We’re sorry you had to wait such a long time. We want to bring it to fans as quickly as possible.”

“In terms of making it less thoughtful and strategic, I definitely want to pursue that direction. With Final Fantasy 15, I want to make to make it more casual. Of course, the depth of the game is going to be there – but I want to make it so players can easily enjoy the depth of the game.

“One example is: you’ve seen them driving a car. If we were to pursue the driving mechanics to be realistic, it would be involve a lot of thought and strategy and it would be kind of complicated to replicate. We will have that sort of manual mode, of course, but I always want to implement an auto mode. I personally prefer the auto mode, where you leave the car in kind of auto-pilot.

“Another example is in the combat. I want to simplify that. It’ll basically be like a one-button action. The AI intuitively outputs an action that gives you instant gratification. It connects with the single touch of a button.

“I myself am not getting any younger. I don’t want to be frantically pushing buttons. I also want to utilise the intelligence of the hardware, to not ahve to go through too much hassle or trouble to go through the moves.”

But Tabata-san, I said, stealing some of Square Enix’s bottled green tea, aren’t you concerned that the market has moved on in the last, let me repeat, eight fucking years? Who has 200 hours to commit to a brutally hard RPG, especially a port of a PSP RPG? Noctis is all, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting” but like, you really did, mate. I’m an old lady now. I want your FF7-reminiscent spiky-haired ass in my life, but maybe not for the months and months you seem to be demanding.

“I joined about two years ago on the project,” Tabata said.

“Since then, we’ve kind of changed our platform, we’ve also had had a staff change, as well as revisiting what game contents and mechanics would be included in this version of Final Fantasy 15.

“We’re definitely sorry. We have that feeling. We want to apologise for keeping the fans waiting for such a long time. We understand that it has been a very long time.

“The current status of Final Fantasy 15’s development is about 55% at this point. While we would love to continue just polishing, raising the quality as much as we can, we wanted to bring it in a playable form – a demo, attached to Final Fantasy Type-0 – so that people can see that there is progress being made. People will be able to play the game.

“We’re sorry you had to wait such a long time,” Tabata added.

“We want to reach out to people like you who have been waiting. We want to reassure you. We want to bring it to fans as quickly as possible.”

Tabata seems a lot more switched on than the Square Enix of two, five, ten years ago. He’s interested in what western fans, a huge proportion of the video game market, think.

Since I don’t mind asking rude questions, I also asked why the Type-0 HD cameras were so rubbish; they felt a lot like the PSP’s D-pad, with four cardinal points, rather than a true analog controls. Anybody who’s played Monster Hunter or Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on the PSP knows what I’m talking about. Luckily, it turns out they’re not final.

“We’re still tweaking the camera controls. Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be able to get it more stable,” Tabata said. “We’ll try to keep polishing as close to release as possible, until the last minute as we can.”

This surprised me a little bit; Type-0 is a kind of hardcore take on the Final Fantasy series, so if Tabata had elected to emulate the PSP controls as closely as possible to satisfy an existing fanbase I wouldn’t have argued.

“I’m not trying to recreate that feeling from the original PSP version,” he said. “My intention is to make it more smooth – especially with the camera controls. To be able to navigate your surroundings more smoothly. Since the demo version you played, changes have already been applied.”

Later, Tabata said the changes to the camera control system don’t deliberately echo famous third-person games like Gears of War, but are designed to show off what’s going on in the world rather than being closely focused on the player character.

Final Fantasy 15 was once considered a system seller, and FF13’s “defection” to the Xbox 360 was quite a thing. FF15’s switch to the new console is quite an important thing, from Sony and Microsoft’s perspective.

Tabata acknowledged that the PS4 and Xbox One aren’t “catching on” as well as might be hoped in Japan. But the console version of Type-0 is something he expects players to invest a great deal of time in.

“I want them to be so immersed that at near the end of the game they have a bittersweet sense of oh, my time with this game is ending. I hope that instills a sense of joy in playing good console games,” he said.

“It would be an indication for me to see people enjoying playing Type-0 and FF15, to take that experience and want to play more games for console.”

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“I want them to be so immersed near the end of the game they have a bittersweet sense of ‘oh, my time with this game is ending.’ I hope that instills a sense of joy in playing good console games.”

Tabata believes the Japanese market is full of gamers wanting to play good quality console games on the big screen, and that Type-0 is a game that might encourage that. In the West, he’s not so sure, because there are already so many popular games on the newer consoles.

(At this point a little fangirl dream came true; Tabata asked if anybody had played Destiny, and when we all put our hands up, a Square Enix PR manager pointed to me as an especial fan. Fame at last, you guys.)

I personally found it very interesting to hear Tabata say that fan interest was a major motivator in Square Enix’s decision to bring Type-0 west; I’m pretty sure our sister site USgamer was a major part of that movement. “I would personally like to thank each and every fan who contributed to the decision to release the HD port worldwide,” Tabata said.

Tabata seems a lot more switched on than the Square Enix of two, five, ten years ago. He’s interested in what western fans, a huge proportion of the video game market, think. He’s interested in making games accessible while keeping a challenge for hardcore fans. He doesn’t want to keep gamers waiting.

It was quite a trailer, wasn’t it? I’m quietly excited to check out the Final Fantasy 15 demo, aren’t you? How quickly the years fall behind us.

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