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Class of Heroes 2 Interview

Victor Ireland and Takayuki Harakami on the methods and madness behind the RPG bringing up the caboose on the PSP train.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

This week, Sony's PSP received what may well prove to be its final U.S. release: Class of Heroes 2 by developer ZeroDiv and U.S. publishers Gaijinworks and Monkeypaw. The follow-up to a forgettable and unfriendly 2009 dungeon crawler, Heroes 2 aims to rectify many of its predecessor's failings without changing its fundamental design philosophy (namely, treading ground intially forged 25-30 years ago by the Wizardry series). Its localization process has been a rocky endeavor to say the least, up to and including an unsuccessful and heavily criticized Kickstarter venture. Yet the publisher persevered, and the game went live on PSN June 4 with a limited run of UMDs to follow shortly.

While admittedly not the most spectacular dungeon-crawler to date (or even this year -- see our review) Class of Heroes 2 does offer a markedly superior experience to the previous game. Curious about the PSP's ultra-niche swan song, I posed a few questions to ZeroDiv's Takayuki Harakami and Gaijinworks' Victor Ireland about the game and the underlying philosophy behind it.

USgamer: What inspired the original Class of Heroes series?

Takayuki Harakami: Games of the 3D dungeon-crawler genre were considered hardcore even in Japan. I wanted to use adorable characters to dispel the genre's heavy and rigid image, thus making it so that more players are willing to try it out. That was what inspired me initially.

USG: After the lukewarm reception Class of Heroes received, what prompted you to pursue the sequel for localization?

Victor Ireland: If someone says something can’t be done, I have to show them it can. If I get an idea for a way to do something (deluxe packs, hardbound manuals with foil stamping, punching puppets, physical+digital combo packs, etc) that I would like to see as a fan, then rather than wait for someone else to do it, I jump into the snake pit and wrestle with the problems that need to be overcome to make it happen.  

For Class of Heroes, I was shocked that Atlus released the first one. I hated that one. If I were them, I would have started at CoH2 because that’s really where the series proper starts and the game isn’t annoying to play. I also knew that each and every Class of Heroes after 2 rated better than the one before it. That’s something you almost never see...a string of (now four) more games where each is already known and guaranteed to be better than the one before! So I saw it as a sure bet, and I had in my mind how to really give this series a super-deluxe treatment with a deluxe pack to end all deluxe packs. But I forgot that the rest of the English world hadn’t, by and large, played anything except Class of Heroes 1, and they weren’t exactly enthusiastic about revisiting the world based on that initial underwhelming experience. Oops. 

But fan support started growing once we got videos out of the game in action and they could see that the exploration, battle, and dialogue was an upgrade from the first game and seemed more engaging. So at this point I just have to cross my fingers and hope that fan reaction to the battles, characters, and story is as good as I think it will be. The support seems to be growing.  

USG: What sets Class of Heroes II apart from its predecessor? From other games in the genre?

TH: The Class of Heroes series is a mass of imaginations. If only something like this existed... If only classes, students, parties like this... That's what the series is full of. Imagination... That's what I think is a major thing that sets the series apart from all the other games.

USG: The first-person dungeon crawler has been around for more than 30 years and hasn't changed all that much since Wizardry I. What room is there for innovation in such a well-defined genre?

TH: I think there's still much room for innovation. Since the dungeons are likely being challenged by many adventurers, there will probably be times when many are exploring the same floor. I'm thinking it might be nice if there's a dungeon people can take on by working together. After all, there are as many adventurers as there are players of the game!

USG: Because the build-a-party approach to RPGs downplays the personalities of protagonists, what do you think is the best way to work an interesting story into the game?

TH: To be honest, this is the most difficult part. What I do is that I try to create a story while keeping in mind I want to try not to interfere with the player's imagination, that their own party is a set of characters that are a part of the story to the very end.

USG: Isn't publishing on PSP a pretty risky endeavor (in the U.S., anyway) these days? I know it's still going strong in Japan, but over here it's all but forgotten.

VI: Forgotten seems like a warm blanket to me by now. I’ve lived more than half of my video game career on the lost, forgotten, or underappreciated systems. Turbografx, Saturn, SEGA CD, none of them were what would be considered “popular” to the mainstream, but I did some really cool things on all of them. PSP is like all those systems bundled together and multiplied by four or five when it comes to the possibilities for great RPGs. Now that we’ve done the physical+digital thing and proven it can work, and we have some fans from two camps, Vita and PSP, who know what we’re doing, we just have to get the word out and get more orphaned games over here. There is no shortage of great games to choose from for PSP – Japan is bursting with them. As long as we keep our costs in check and our goals very realistic, we can continue to grow with a steady rise of fan support.

USG: Dungeon crawlers like this tend to be slow and difficult at the very beginning. Certainly the original Class of Heroes was. How do you balance this tradition with the need to hook new players from the start?

TH: This is a task of never-ending proportions. Still, I try to achieve a balance by letting the players experience short dungeons first at the beginning to learn the ropes, before getting them to challenge the longer and tougher dungeons in the latter half of the game.

USG: Despite originating in America (specifically, Canada), the Wizardry series that created this genre seems to have found its second wind in Japan, inspiring works like Class of Heroes and Etrian Odyssey. In the West, the popular first-person RPGs are the ones that break away from dungeons, such as The Elder Scrolls. What do you think accounts for this difference in taste?

TH: Once again, I think it all boils down to the imagination.

Right now, games that are popular in the West are those that pursue realism and depictions that may be possible in reality despite being in a fantasy world setting. For 3D dungeon crawlers that are popular in Japan like the "Class of Heroes" series, however, the depictions found therein are seldom graphically expressive. Instead they draw out the player's imagination by creating a situation where it's easy for each player to imagine things in their heads. I think that's one of the factors as to why the genre is so well-received in Japan.

Giving out too much visual information leaves the player with no room for imagination.

USG: On that note, could you ever see Class of Heroes taking a more Western-style, free-roaming approach? Or do you think turn-based dungeon-crawling is where it's at?

TH: If that's what the players really want, we'll look into doing something like that too. However, the more we advance into realism, the less time we'll have for imagination...

I personally feel that maybe it's important for us to create a game where players can let their imaginations run wild as they wait in between turns as well, but what do all of you think?

That said, I hope that you'll continue supporting the "Class of Heroes" series from now on too!

USG: The process of getting Class of Heroes into English has been a pretty rocky endeavor. What have you learned from its ups and downs for future projects?

VI: Pretty much same old, same old. If you’re trying to do something different, it will always take 10 times longer than you imagine. Getting others onboard with your vision is the hardest part, especially when some of the ideas I have are considered pretty out-there by guardians of the status quo. I learned a lot about holograms this time out. Didn’t expect that in the beginning, but it came into play toward the end. I also learned that the rights management and clearance for Japanese songs has gotten more byzantine since the turn of the century. We had a snafu with the opening for Class of Heroes 2 that we’re still working on, in fact, so we can patch it back into the game once we get it cleared.

USG: The "retail" version of the game comes with a download code, something we take for granted with movies on Blu-ray now but which you never see in video games. Why is the games industry so stingy, do you think? And did you have to jump through special hoops to make this happen?

VI: It was kind of a special circumstance for the PSP because we want PSP owners to play it, but we also want Vita owners, who have a super sexy OLED screen that makes anime-based games look amazing, to play it as well. Since the PSP games on Vita are only through digital media I decided to offer something that I, as a fan, would want – a physical version with a digital code. That way everyone’s happy, PSP owners who have a choice of playing with the UMD or the digital version, Vita owners who can collect the physical version and play the digital on their Vita, or hardcore get-your-greasy-fingers-off-my-stuff collectors on both who don’t want to open the physical package but still want to play the game. It’s a plan full of win.

Fortunately, the crew at Sony understood what we were trying to do, and how it could help the Vita get even more RPGs for the fans to play. So our account manager, and gaming veteran from all three sides of the industry (press, publisher, and now console manufacturer), Shane Bettenhausen, really got in there and sold the plan internally at Sony with what I imagine was an impressive dog and pony show with sweet-talking, alcohol, and magic tricks. It seemed like it took a long time, but it was probably done over 4-5 months or so? But now that we’ve done it, I sincerely hope other publishers try it, too. As a gamer and a fan of gaming myself, it’s what I want to see, and I think other fans do, too.

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