Hajime Tabata talks in detail about Final Fantasy 15’s sometimes rough but fascinating development.
Japanese developers are typically a bit buttoned-up. There are exceptions, of course, like Street Fighter’s wonderfully eccentric Yoshinori Ono, but mostly they remain cool-headed. After our chat at gamescom a few weeks ago, Final Fantasy 15‘s Hajime Tabata has added himself to the exception list.
At one point, mid interview, his expression changes in recognition. “VG247?” he asks as I finish a question. I nod, and he launches into an excited explanation that he’d read my preview of the master build of FF15. “It was long! Awesome,” he says in Japanese. Then “Thank you so much,” in English. He seems entirely cool with the fact that it wasn’t all positive, too.
Halfway through the interview as we indulgently discuss favourite FF games, he playfully teases a colleague. As we finish, he quips that he wishes we could continue our FF nerd discussions over a drink (the concept of which likely horrifies PR).
The long story short, anyway, is that Tabata appears to be a lovely man with an incredible enthusiasm for his project and the FF franchise that hasn’t been dimmed by a turbulent, difficult development. Whatever you think of FF15’s rough journey to store shelves, it’s clear the man at the helm cares deeply, and though this is a whopper of an interview I think we could’ve chatted for a good while longer, which is a rarity. Here’s our chat.
Hajime Tabata, the man with the unenviable task of steering Final Fantasy.
VG247: So, it’d be amiss not to start with the big news – the delay. When was the decision made? It seemed to me like it was a fairly rapid change.
Hajime Tabata: I made the decision myself the week before last… [this interview was conducted on August 17] It was Monday last week when I spoke to all the stakeholders involved and made the decision.
It was two weeks ago when I really started thinking seriously about it. We’d created the disc for mass production, we’d got to that stage… and I then asked people, okay, are we okay to go ahead with this disc? I started thinking… well, am I really satisfied with this? It was Monday last week when I approached everyone, including the people in this room [Square Enix Europe PR / Marketing] and said look, I’m really sorry, but can we extend it a little? I really want to improve the quality.
So, I’m a huge Final Fantasy nerd, and so I’ve been following this project since the Versus 13 days…
I have to ask, what is your favourite Final Fantasy? I only joined FF with 15, but Hasegawa-san (FF15 art director Tomohiro Hasegawa, also present in the room) started with 8.
“We’d created the disc for mass production, we’d got to that stage… and I then people asked, okay, are we okay to go ahead with this disc? I started thinking… well, am I really satisfied with this?”
9. And your favourite is 6, yes?
Ahhh! 6, yes! When you say that you like FF9, I get a strong impression of what you like in Final Fantasy.
[To Hasegawa]: Not yours, 8!
Tomohiro Hasegawa: Hey, I worked on 9 as well! [both laugh]
I like 8 as well! [laughs] So, about that Versus 13 lineage… how do you regard FF15? Do you consider it more a continuation of Versus, or an all-new game that uses elements from it?
Hajime Tabata: Well, the way the game is being made is completely different to what the original plan was, so in that sense it really is a completely different game. The hardware generation is so different that there’s just no way we could’ve carried that over.
I mean, certainly when it came to the switch over when we decided to turn Versus 13 into Final Fantasy 15, we decided that it would really be the best thing to keep as much of the content that had already been announced to the fans as possible… we wanted to try to reuse those ideas and keep those ideas within the design of FF15. We got together and discussed that and decided on that policy to keep as much as we could.
The thinking behind it really was… because we approached this as a new game with new hardware, rather than saying “okay, what can we do to restart the versus project and try to make that using the new structure,” we decided what we wanted to do instead was show the fans what we think is the ultimate FF for now, what we wanted to do with FF for now. So it was that approach rather than saying “okay, we’ll keep Versus and try to recreate that”.
Was it frustrating at all, being partially tied to an older project? Was there anything where you thought that if fans weren’t anticipating it, you would’ve cut or changed it?
There were things like that… I’d always try to take things to a level where I was comfortable with it and could put it into the finished game. There were things where if I couldn’t do that, I cut them.
I really felt that within my own personal preferences and my own priorities that rather than have something that’s been announced in an unfinished state that we cannot get finished, we cannot make a final product – much more important than that is having a finished, enjoyable game that people can play and like. So when it became the choice between that, I had no doubt in my mind that we had to cut things for the purposes of the game.
“Whenever we’ve had to remove something, it’s always been a very vivid, negative reaction. It’s been quite hard for me to tell – is this a reaction from someone who is speaking from the point of view of a FF fan first, or are they just a fan of Versus, or are they just people who just want to say bad things?”
…But every time I do that, people start bashing me! [laughs]
Whenever we’ve had to remove something, it’s always been a very vivid, negative reaction. It’s been quite hard for me to tell – is this a reaction from someone who is speaking from the point of view of a FF fan first, or are they just a fan of Versus, or are they just people who just want to say bad things? It can be really hard to tell. I didn’t take too much heat, but some people around me were quite shocked by that and didn’t like the reaction they got. I feel I did cause some people some problems there – I feel sorry they had to endure that.
I think a lot of them are just overzealous but ultimately love the series and mean well. And a few are crazy.
Well, ever since we made the decision to take FF15 in that direction, we’ve been travelling around the world and talking to all sorts of different people, to FF fan groups from around the world. From that, it really has become quite clear what fans around the world value in the games.
That was a decision I made – rather than relying on people on the internet where you’re not really sure who’s writing these comments in the first place, if you’re talking to an actual fan who’s in front of you… you can tell they’re fans, and you can work out what those people value. I made a promise to always value what real fans say to me personally.
You made some comments where you referred to the ‘FF Disease’ – the idea that the series can never fail and has to be certain things being toxic. How important do you think it is to kick back against those attitudes?
It’s not so much about kicking back or resisting people – I just really wanted to make the Final Fantasy that I felt would be the ultimate idea of FF in my mind. I think that’s what FF is – it’s about trying to do that each time, rather than relying on the past. Every challenge I can take on to make 15 what it needs to be, I’m going to do it.
“One other aspect that I’ve really been learning about from Western-developed games is this idea of really appealing to a wider audience; in having a game where even if people have never heard of the game or even the franchise before can pick up the controller and play it and immediately get into it.”
You’ve name-checked some Western RPGs in the past. How much of an inspiration and influence have these games been?
Well first of all I think the technical challenges of this are very important. It all comes down to trying to get the top level of technology and the best technical abilities that we have – then, we try to create the game around those technical abilities. I feel that originally FF was all about that.
That’s part of our challenge this time – it’s taking on that idea, and learning from other people and other technologies where we can and where we need to. My aim has been to base Final Fantasy on that again.
One other aspect that I’ve really been learning about from Western-developed games is this idea of really appealing to a wider audience; in having a game where even if people have never heard of the game or even the franchise before can pick up the controller and play it and immediately get into it. Creating those entrances into a franchise, that’s a key point I really have tried to learn from.
It’s something I really am taking a lot of care over – the idea that the core gameplay experience really can be something for the hardcore and for the core fans to enjoy… but you shouldn’t make the way into it, the entrance, the contact point for the game into something that only appeals to core people.
We really want to get as many people in as we can, and then they can enjoy the rest of the game for what it is. And keep that FF essence in there, as well – that’s really important.
Let’s talk about the semi-open nature of the game. I find the restrictions on driving interesting, for instance. How do you decide where to draw the line?
The basic philosophy is that because this is a FF game the story experience is one of the most important factors. The story has to progress towards a set conclusion and give you that decent story experience on that set path. That wasn’t going to change. The idea was that the journeys that you go on along the way towards that conclusion should really be as free and as reflective of the player’s intent as possible. That was the overall philosophy of where we draw the line and how we approached it.
“The story has to progress towards a set conclusion and give you that decent story experience on that set path. That wasn’t going to change. The idea was that the journeys that you go on along the way towards that conclusion should really be as free and as reflective of the player’s intent as possible.”
Compared to something like GTA for example where you’re completely free to do absolutely anything you want, any kind of bad, terrible crimes or whatever you’re free to do in that game.
For Final Fantasy that really wouldn’t work. There’s that balance there between going in new directions and keeping that essence of Final Fantasy. Making it something where you can, again, play in the living room with your family and still have that kind of experience that many players had with the older games.
The big themes we want to show in the story are things like the bond between father and son and comrades and friends… if you’re trying to tell a story with those big themes and at the same time you have Noctis driving around, running people over and laughing… it wouldn’t fit, would it?!
I have to admit, I tried in the demo.
Everyone tries! We understand people’s instinctual need to do that… even I have tried! But FF15 isn’t a game that’s made that way. That’s why we’ve tried to inject freedom in other areas.
In the past FF has featured very broad customisation – with something like the job system, the same character can be twisted in a lot of ways. How deep does your customisation go? I noticed in the build I played Noctis had 29 abilities he could eventually unlock, I think?
29, yes. This is actually one of the areas we really are focusing on hard in our last push and our fine tuning. We really want to make it so that the differences in the player’s styles in terms of how they play and control the game can have that differentiation there. We’re putting a lot of time and work into finishing that so it can be really satisfying.
To give a basic outline for how you can change it, there’s basically two broad choices there: you’ve got people who want to play the game in a more action-based style, and so you can develop your characters along those lines. Then there’s people who want to play in a more logistical, tactical and traditional way, so you can also develop your characters along those lines as well.
“Every challenge I can take on to make 15 what it needs to be, I’m going to do it.”
That’s actually a very difficult balance to get right, in fact! [laughs]
It’s a big, difficult balance to get right, but also maybe because of that and also because I think that kind of system can appeal to both groups… the people who want to play it as an action game and as a tactical game… to appeal to both of those groups is something I think we can only do with a game like FF15.
There’s such a value to doing that, I really think it’s worthwhile to do that. It’s a big challenge.
For what it’s worth, I disagree with the people who feel FF should be enshrined as only turn-based forever.
That gives me confidence, to hear somebody who says they’re a long-time FF fan say that – it really does. I really feel that it’s not what FF should be, to be a series that just brings back nostalgic memories to people. It shouldn’t be that.
Originally slated for release on September 30, Final Fantasy 15 will now arrive on PS4 and Xbox One November 29.