The adage goes that you should never meet your heroes. That often goes for working for them, too - dream jobs often turn out to be a nightmare. That rule is not firm, however, and in the world of video games there is seldom a better example than Nihon Falcom's Toshihiro Kondo, a fan site owner who decades later became the company president.
If you don't know of Kondo and his work, it's understandable. Falcom is a niche company with under one hundred employees, but that status shouldn't be taken lightly. Falcom is a wise old giant among its peers with 38 years of success and a range of beloved properties including two role-playing franchises with a particularly shining reputation, Ys and The Legend of Heroes, with the latest entry in the latter series, Trails of Cold Steel 3, releasing in the west this week.
For many years Falcom games didn't release in the west at all, but recently under Kondo's leadership the company has built an impressive fanbase outside of Japan. To some Japanese RPG devotees, Kondo and Falcom are as sacred as Sakaguchi and Square or Horii and Enix. But it wasn't always that way. In fact, Toshihiro Kondo's parents wanted him to become a government worker.
"I remember having tears streaming down my face because I was so moved by what was happening in the game"
"I was certain that my parents were going to be heavily against me doing this," Kondo says of his choice of career with a laugh. "But one thing I remember was up until that point in Japan, basically it was life employment. Once you went to a company, you were set until you retired. But around that time it became evident that system was no longer sustainable. So I figured that rather than try to join up with a company that I can work for for life... if I was going to have to quit anyway, if that's the way things were going, why not do what I wanted to do?"
What Kondo wanted to do was simple: video games. His love affair with games began en route to swimming lessons; between his parents' house and the pool was an arcade that was home to a number of Space Invaders cabinets. The seven-year-old Kondo would play daily, waiting for stray credits and walk-aways in order to play the cabinets for free. Back at school, he wrote an essay saying he wanted to run an arcade when he grew up, something which he has previously said his family still playfully teases him for.
Many years later, Kondo's love of games hadn't dulled. He attended Doshisha University in Kyoto to study finance, but while crunching numbers on a serious degree, he discovered another video game love as potent as the Space Invaders obsession that had gripped him as a child. That game was 1994's The Legend of Heroes III: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch - a game now widely considered a Falcom classic.
"I was just so amazed by the story and the world. It's a beautiful story, and it's just such an appealing world that draws you into it," Kondo says, clearly thrilled to be asked about this game, one seminal in his personal and Falcom company history alike. "As the title suggests, there's a White Witch in the game, and towards the end of the game there's a scene that you meet her, and I remember just being so emotionally moved by this scene. Really, having tears streaming down my face because I was so moved by what was happening in the game."
After being turned into a lifelong fan, there was only one thing to do next at that point in the nineties: set up a fan site on the internet. This I know as well as Kondo - I ended up working in and around games in exactly the same way.
"When I was originally making the site the internet was in its infancy in Japan," Kondo explains. "There really was no example of what a game or fan website should look like. So originally it was just an introduction to the game. Pretty soon after I upped the site message board systems came out, so I was able to implement that into the site. By doing so, I began to see a lot of people giving up information in terms of how to play the game. Hints and tips and tricks and things like that. After that we had some people who uploaded art, some people who uploaded music data. And from those things I built the next stage of the site, which was like a strategy guide for the game.
"The really cool thing about the message board is that it really brought together all people of different stripes. Obviously there were students like me, there were professionals, and there were actually people from the games industry. One person was the director of the PlayStation version of the game. It actually came down to... we rented a small little cottage out in Nagano prefecture. We all met up out there, had a barbecue and talked late into the night about the game and stuff. It was really cool."
The site was hosted on the university servers and at one point was so popular that it was getting more hits than the official college website. Kondo got in trouble for that, but he had built a website and a community, and it had sparked thoughts about how he wanted to spend his future as graduation neared. Having first introduced himself to Falcom with a cursory phone call to check that it was alright that he had so many copyrighted images of Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch uploaded to his site, he picked up the phone once again, this time to ask about employment opportunities.
"They didn't really give me any information other than to come to the office. I thought I was in trouble," Kondo laughs.
What Kondo was actually attending was a job interview that was uncharacteristically informal for Japan. It was the nineties, so the modern layers of security didn't yet exist; no PR and marketing executives following influential fans with terror in their eyes. Instead, Falcom freely showed off an upcoming project and had Kondo provide feedback on it - and then they had another young employee take the graduate for lunch.
"At the time, going into the games industry wasn't something that a lot of parents were really okay with. It was kind of chaotic. It wasn't the typical career path of you go to college, you do a bunch of interviews, you join a company and you stay there. It was a lot different. The person I went to lunch with said to me, y'know, if I had the opportunity to work there that I should, that it's a great opportunity. That's when I decided that I was really going to do it."
The Falcom employee who took Kondo to lunch on that day was Shinkai Makoto, now a lauded filmmaker best known for directing Your Name, an award-winning animated feature that is the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time in Japan. This is something Kondo points out about Falcom repeatedly: while it is a niche company, it is a breeding ground for incredible talent.
The rest, as they say, is history. Toshihiro Kondo joined Falcom off the back of his fan site experience and would go on to become its president - though his first tasks focused on leveraging his fan site knowledge. His first job was to set up a Linux server, then to use his self-taught HTML knowledge to make a company webpage. Years of writing on his site came into practice creating official game manuals. The biggest break of all would soon arrive, however: a new port of his beloved Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, which he knew he had to work on at any cost.
Kondo took on a number of different tasks for the Windows version of the game, but most taxing was the challenge of making an addition to the story - a job that came with a strict one-week deadline from then-president Masayuki Kato.
"I talked to someone older than me in the company, and they said it'd take me a week to learn even the basics of how to script. But I learned the basics, I also figured out how I could write a scenario in three days. I had to figure our where to put it, and I figured that the most logical place given the time limitations would be the very, very beginning of the story. That's what I ended up doing, and I ended up doing it in a week. I figured that Mr. Kato gave me this deadline for a reason, and so I did my best to make sure that I did it.
"I had no skills related to game design. But the fact is, here in front of me is an opportunity to work on game design. I figured this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I have to take it. Even if it didn't end up working out, I just have to make the best of this chance. That's what really drove me to be able to do this, to complete this task. And I honestly think that was kind of Mr. Kato's aim overall. I think he figured that this was possible, that I could do it, and he wanted to. So he gave me a high hurdle to clear.
"When I was younger I often thought that if we had the kind of budget that a game by a company like Square Enix had, we'd be unstoppable"
"That's kind of the thing about Falcom. When it comes to Shinkai Makoto, at one point Mr. Kato told him... 'Let's put a movie in this game - make it'. He didn't have any skills at that point. Everything he learned he did on his own, and he did by himself. He didn't have a teacher or anything. Obviously that worked out well for him, as he got so good that he now has a successful career elsewhere. So it's that kind of company."
Many years later, that environment still reigns supreme within Falcom, in large part because a man who thrived under it has risen to become the company president. Falcom takes its name from Star Wars' Millennium Falcon, the final letter changed to reflect the company working with computers, and in many ways it's a little like Han Solo's famed bucket of bolts. It might not be the biggest or the flashiest, but it's got it where it counts.
The company mantra isn't just about challenging and enabling its employees, however. Kondo's personal perfectionist streak is now baked into the company process - which is what he believes set the company apart and contributed to its rising success in the west in a decade when Japanese RPGs in particular have been struggling.
"There was a period in Japanese game development where I feel like a lot of makers were compromising," Kondo muses. "They were releasing things that they actually didn't believe in and couldn't be proud of. Whereas with us, we've never done that. Even though we might have a time restraint in terms of when we release a game and there might be severe circumstances, we refuse to compromise. We'll do whatever we can in order to make sure that the game comes out, and that it's a game that we can hold our heads high with and be proud of. I think that resonates not only with users in Japan, but also users in the west as well.
"Obviously our games aren't, you know, hugely graphically impressive, but in terms of the systems, in terms of the care that goes into how they're developed, into how they're created and all of the parts within them... these, again, are all things we can be incredibly proud of, and I think people appreciate that."
This leads us to The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3, the latest Falcom title to make its way out of Japan to the west's most dedicated JRPG fanatics. Trails of Cold Steel 3 is all of these things - creative, intricately made and brilliantly detailed, with a twisting and astonishingly long narrative that holds one's attention nevertheless. It also has its constraints. As Kondo admits, it isn't a graphical powerhouse, but that's okay: in many ways these games exist as an enhanced, expanded version of a particularly adored strand of JRPGs of the past, and at that they are supremely successful. Even in Japan these games are serving a very specific audience, but what's exciting is that those people are now being served further afield, too - and that's contributing to the success Falcom is now having.
"You know, when I was younger I often thought that if we did have the kind of budget that a game by a company like Square Enix has, we'd be, like, unstoppable," Kondo laughs when asked if he'd prefer to have a bigger budget.
"But I've also come to realize that making a game like that requires a lot of manpower. Adding that much manpower necessarily means that a lot of your time no longer goes towards making the game, but towards managing people. I like the situation now, where I and the rest of the team can give 120 percent of ourselves to the game development. Now, this isn't to say that if someday the opportunity presented itself to be able to do something big that I wouldn't like to try - that'd be really cool - but by the same token I've also come to realise finally that what we have going is good too."
Continuing to shepherd the increasingly successful Falcom is now Kondo's mission, and he's very aware of what he must do. He talks about expansion both in Japan and the west, including looking to the future with new and different projects that push the boundaries of what Falcom has done before. "I think it's high time that we do look to other sources and other things to kind of evolve what a JRPG can be," Kondo says. "I hope we can do that. I believe that there's still a lot of room for JRPGs to evolve."
Beyond that, Kondo talks of working with external partners to remaster and re-release classic Falcom titles, especially those that have never received a proper western release. Third party partnerships are necessary, he explains, because Falcom's small staff is key to the nature of the company and he'd prefer those small, nimble teams continue to work on new stories first. Most important of all, he adds, is that Falcom must not forget what makes it unique.
In the year 2019, level-headedness is not necessarily what one first associates with the leaders of online video game fandom communities. But Kondo is perhaps from a different era, and he chalks much of his leadership style up to Falcom's culture, as well as sitting in a university dormitory creating an online tribute to a game from the company he now leads. Dreams do come true after all.
"I learned about myself there," he says of the fan site. "I think I use that knowledge as somebody who is now in a position to lead the company."
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3 is out now for PlayStation 4.