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Now that the dust has settled on Final Fantasy XV and its strong global sales appears to justify hopes for future chapters in the long-running RPG franchise rather than toll its death knell, producer Hajime Tabata can afford to look back and wax philosophical on the project.
Tabata's role with the game is far from over, though; besides several single-player add-on content packs being prepared as downloadable content throughout 2017, the FFXV team also has extensive multiplayer ambitions, and they haven't ruled out the prospect of higher-spec applications (such as an eagerly demanded PC port). Still, the hardest part-simply shipping the game in any form after a decade of developmental ups and downs-is out of the way. So while Tabata and his team can't necessarily afford to enjoy a victory lap just yet, he certainly seemed more relaxed when I spoke to him last month in Tokyo than he had during interviews in the year or two leading up to the launch.
The sheer scope of FFXV project, and its lengthy history, meant we could only touch on a mere sliver of all there is to be said about it-even though Tabata himself only worked on the game for a fraction of its total development time. Square Enix announced the game that would become FFXV under the title Final Fantasy Versus XIII back at E3 2006. At that point, it was to be an action-oriented spin-off of Final Fantasy XIII directed by Kingdom Hearts producer Tetsuya Nomura. But development became mired, stuck in a perpetual stall, and sometime in 2012 Tabata joined the team as its new leader, allowing Nomura to shift his focus over to Kingdom Hearts III (and, eventually, the eagerly anticipated Final Fantasy VII remake).
"I came on during the point at which the project was rebranded from Versus XIII to XV," says Tabata, "and my job was to create the foundation of the dev team in working toward this new product: Looking at the new technology we'd be using, and evaluating the team structure and how they'd be operating and developing prototypes for this new hardware.
"I came on as the project was sort of shifting gears, both directing and producing, in a sense. Originally, I focused specifically on the development team and formulating a plan for how to move forward, but because I was coming on as the new director, I wasn't just evaluating the dev team but also looking at things from a business perspective, which is why it sounds like some of what I was doing was more a producer's job."
FFXV wasn't along in undergoing a transformation, however. Tabata's new role and responsibilities coincided with a massive top-to-bottom restructuring of the entire company.
"It was right around that point in time that the company's internal structure changed as well, so XV was created by Business Division 2. Up until that point, there had been different production divisions. But in the shift to business divisions, where you have teams specifically focused either on a single project or several, I was tasked not only with the project but also with formulating the team. So it was kind of two tasks at once."
In many ways, the troubles that affected Versus XIII's development powerfully embody the issues that plagued Square Enix's internal teams and processes following the transition from PlayStation 2 to high-definition consoles a decade ago. Versus may have been the most visible and dramatic example of the company's struggles, but it was hardly unique. Nor was it alone in being overhauled during the reorganization; besides the structural changes to the company, the shakeup also resulted in the departure of long-time president Yoichi Wada.
"The shift toward business divisions was devised by our current president, Yosuke Matsuda, and the idea he had in mind was that each business division would operate sort of independently of the company itself. They're still parts of the same company, Square Enix, but they operate independently, and they're each responsible for the games they produce."
The massive reinvention of Versus XIII into FFXV inflicted its share of smaller casualties as well, Tabata says with a hint of regret.
"I was actually working on a different console title at the time that I was moved over to rebrand Versus XIII to XV," he says. "Sadly, [that project] is sleeping with the fishes right now. It would be nice if we could resume the project someday, but...."
Tabata surely seemed a logical choice to take the reins for FFXV. Not only had he already successfully shipped the other Final Fantasy XIII spin-off-Final Fantasy Type-0, which began life as Final Fantasy Agito XIII-he also had experience with the realities of jumping platforms midway through development. Square Enix announced both Type-0 along with Tabata's previous project, Parasite Eve sequel The 3rd Birthday, as mobile titles. By the time they reached retail, though, they had jumped from cellphones to to PlayStation Portable.
Of course, making the move from Java phones to PSP isn't nearly the massive undertaking that converting Versus XIII to PlayStation 4 would prove to be. Nevertheless, as Tabata says, "It wasn't exactly my first time at the rodeo." On the contrary, he welcomed the challenge, as he had aspired to make a similar jump himself, from portables to consoles.
"I moved over from handheld games to console games in the first place because it was something I wanted to do. It's not because I was disappointed in the handheld market or handheld games in general, but rather because at the time, it was becoming difficult for those games to reach a wide audience. Console titles ensure a much larger market, which means the games I create for them can reach a greater number of people on consoles.
"And in that sense, I'm glad that we were able to pull off a global launch for FFXV-we reached a much greater audience than any game I've done before, at the exact same time. Up until XV, we would produce a game in Japan, have it released, localized, and then we'd slowly roll it out to players in other regions. So there was a disconnect between how Japanese players feel and how overseas players feel. Awareness was different, and it's hard to keep track of that. So this time, because we aimed for a global launch, we were able to produce things and then, in real time, hear feedback-not only from Japanese users, but from overseas users as well. It was a really good experience for us."
The Transformation from Final Fantasy Versus XIII
But what about Versus XIII actually changed in the course of its transformation into FFXV, besides its name and platform? (A key selling point throughout Versus XIII's slow roll of pre-launch publicity was the tag line "Exclusively for PlayStation 3.") As Tabata tells it, practically everything-or at least, everything the team deemed practical, anyway.
"Because the game itself was incomplete, there really wasn't a whole lot brought over, if I'm speaking honestly," he admits. "It's pretty difficult to compare apples and oranges in this case. You have something that was incomplete and never really fully formed. [Versus] was more an idea that an actual game, whereas what we've created here is a complete, finished product.
"However, because the game had already been presented via trailers and other forms of media to the users, one of my goals in developing XV was to preserve the elements that users were aware of and excited about. Once something like that is out in the open, you can't really ignore it. People are expecting it. They're excited about it, so it's something that they have to take into account and, yeah, it sort of serves as inspiration in a way. When you're tying together the start and the end, you know, there are going to be some elements in there that don't quite fit this new conception. To the team's credit, they did as much as they could to include what could fit into this new idea, but there were some aspects, of course, that just didn't work."
To Tabata's point, early trailers for Versus XIII definitely bear some resemblance to the finished game, but many elements give a distinct impression of having been sort of reverse-engineered to fit early concepts into a completely different story. For example, protagonist Noctis' ability to conjure magical weapons was one of the most striking images of the game's debut trailer, and they serve as the subject of a major fetch quest... but all the same, they feel somewhat shoehorned-in; the Royal Arms really could have been any kind of MacGuffin. Early trailers also centered around the city of Insomnia; in the final game, however, the Insomnia sequences have a linear, constrictive feel that puts them at odds with the enormous open world that comprises the bulk of the quest. That, Tabata explains, has everything to do with the expectations that came hand-in-hand with Versus XIII's ascension from side story to standalone title.
"Versus XIII originally began as a spinoff of the Fabula Nova Crystallis world, the mythos of XIII," he says. "So when it was rebranded to become a numbered title, it changed the game's positioning. In that sense, we had to make adjustments in terms of the scale, what we were creating. We had to reevaluate what was really crucial for this, a different type of game.
"XV was rebranded around the summer of 2012, and at that point in time we said, 'OK, this is going to be XV," and we also decided, 'Well, we're not going to continue with PlayStation 3 hardware.' We're going to go for whatever is next, whatever is new, the latest technology. So at that point, it was decided that PlayStation 4 and Xbox One would be the goals. We were also developing the Luminous engine at the same time, so including the engine and the game itself... the specs were finalized by the year before the game was released."
Tabata says his team specifically chose not to prioritize this generation's incremental hardware upgrades, like PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One S. FFXV easily could have fallen into the Duke Nukem Forever trap-endlessly chasing the next hardware iteration, the next game design trend-but instead, the team prioritized the basic feats of locking down and shipping the game. And even then, the move from PS3 to PS4 demanded some major changes.
"Talking about the things that had to be held over, of course, one would be the characters, right? People were familiar with them. Fans had grown attached to them after the trailers and whatnot. So they were a must-have when moving over to XV. But we also had to adjust the designs to really match the new hardware, which was a matter of polishing.
"You know, it would have been a lot easier to simply change the designs themselves," he muses, "but again, people were familiar with them. They're excited to play as these characters, so rather than completely creating new characters - for the main characters, I should say - it became a matter of tweaking the designs to better fit the new technology.
"Take Stella: In that case, the role of heroine for Versus XIII was different than the heroine that we conceived for Final Fantasy XV. But again, because so many players who had seen these trailers were looking forward to playing as this character, if her role in XV was different, then it would be sort of be betraying their expectations, right? So, rather than disappoint users by including a Stella that didn't match what they expected, we went with a different character altogether, Luna. It's easier for both parties that way. That way, the users aren't disappointed because Stella isn't the Stella of their dreams. And for the developers, it's easier because they can focus on creating a character that's their own.
"Cor would probably be the first example that comes to mind. In Versus XIII, he was originally conceived as a party member that would be with you the entire time. You'd control him and he'd be there throughout the game, whereas with XV, we decided to focus solely on the relationships between the four guys. You know, they're all the same age, and they have their relationships. So while we kept Cor in the game, he takes on a different role than he did before, more of a mentor, if you will. So as a character, he's relatively the same. It's only his position and presentation in the game that changed between Versus XIII and XV."
These changes, Tabata says, went hand-in-hand with other design revisions that set FFXV apart from the game its was originally presented as. One massive difference between the two visions of this RPG involved its combat mechanics, which initially resembled Kingdom Hearts and were rumored to allow players to switch between different party members at will.
Tabata explains: "If rather than only controlling Noctis, users were able to control four or five characters-say, the four guys and then Cor, for example-it would be really hard to bring all five of those characters and the way that they feel to the same level of satisfaction as one character, given the time restrictions, budget limits, and so on. So, because controlling all of those characters was a bit of an impossible goal, we decided that it would be more reasonable to create the party characters with good A.I. and make them feel really realistic in order to push the hardware.
"When we shifted to the new hardware, PS4 and Xbox One, the goal was to create something more realistic. You know, you have the characters from Versus XIII carried over but instead of these caricatures, if you will, these really stylistic characters, the goal was to make them feel human. They became living, breathing people, going on a journey in a realistic world. So rather than focus on a combat system like the very stylized, cartoonish Kingdom Hearts approach, we went with something that feels more realistic. You have characters that feel pain, that respond to the actions of not only the combatants, the enemy combatants, but also your comments, too, right? And again, this just focuses on pushing the limits of the latest technology."
As the combat mechanics changed, so too did the underlying skills systems empowering the characters. One of the most interesting and unconventional details lurking in FFXV's underpinnings has to do with the fact that the bulk of its upgrade options revolve around a single character, Noctis. While you can certainly flesh out the combat capabilities possessed by his three comrades, these options have more of a supplemental feel about them. Ultimately, though, Tabata says his team wasn't out to reinvent the way RPGs work; rather, the Noctis-focused skill tree arrangement simply reflects the cascading impact of other design choices.
"It was less that the game systems themselves were specifically designed for Noct, but that it just kind of happened that way because, again, the concept was to have the party characters controlled by A.I.," he explains. "It sort of fell into place- it's a little hard to explain. In that sense, because we were focusing on creating this really high-level, brilliantly programmed A.I., it just fit better to have you control one character, to strike that balance."
And, ultimately, Tabata seems satisfied with the end result of the game, despite its difficult gestation and the compromises that inevitably meant.
"You know, those sorts of sacrifices are basically in all dev teams, right?" he admits. "There's always going to be something that you have partway through development only to realize, 'We need to make this more efficient,' and you have to sadly let go of them. But as far as XV was concerned, nothing that we had to leave behind was crucial to the FFXV experience.
"This was our first time developing a title for this cutting-edge hardware, for the PS4 and Xbox One. And because we are not gods, there were a lot of bugs that came up. We had to deal with those, and the optimization process proved to be pretty difficult. But all things considered, we were still able to release the FFXV that we had envisioned."
The game's long-term downloadable content schedule undoubtedly eases the sting of those cuts. The first major DLC campaign pack-Episode Gladiolus-launches next week, and it brings to the FFXV universe an experience that had to be excised from the basic game: The ability to play as someone other than Noctis.
"As far as the DLC is concerned, we have plans for a full year of content. So that will last us at least through the year," he says. Tabata is quick to clarify that the upcoming DLC packs don't mean that the existing game is somehow unfinished, though: "It's not that users have an incomplete version of the game and that we're filling in the gaps now. Rather, we've already released the complete version of the game, and what we're doing is simply enhancing that experience for people, or providing different styles of play for characters. And again, this comes back to the point of Noct being the main character, the only playable character. We were able to focus on Noct in the main game and really highlight his narrative. With the DLC, now that we have the opportunity, the time, the resources, et cetera, we're able to then turn the spotlight on to his friends - Gladiolus, Ignis, Prompto - and highlight their stories now. I really believe that XV is Noctis's game, though. It's his experience, his life, his story. The DLC is really about his friends."
It's not that users have an incomplete version of the game and that we're filling in the gaps now. Rather, we've already released the complete version of the game, and what we're doing is simply enhancing that experience for people, or providing different styles of play for characters.
Finally, though Tabata balks at making a definitive call on which of Noctis's friends is the internet's much-debated "best boy," he admits that one of them in particular started out at a significant disadvantage to the rest - a popularity setback that ultimately resulted in one of the game's most memorable features.
"When creating this open world game," Tabata muses, "there were several other titles that we knew that featured similar systems. We wanted to make sure that FF XV would be able to, you know, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. We wanted to be seen as one of the big boys as well.
"But the other focus of this open-world title is that it had to be streamable because again, with all of this player freedom, you know, each individual player can do as they please. They can go where they want, so that creates a very different, exciting experience, not only for the player but also for the people who watch this. You know: 'Oh, this person's going to this place first," or, 'This person is doing this side quest.' So everyone will have a different experience and these pictures then become a record of that experience, a physical, or a visual representation rather, of what that player experienced and instead of having it be, you know, a static feature, they came up with the idea to bring you closer to the characters themselves, have one of the characters become the photographer, and be sort of the record keeper of this journey.
"Episode Duscae was actually the impetus behind all of this. When we took user feedback after Episode Duscae was released, we gauged which characters were popular and which were unpopular, and Prompto came in dead last. By a huge margin! As you know, Episode Duscae was in a lot of ways a prototype. When Prompto came in dead last in this popularity contest, we were trying to come up with ways to make him more likable. Eventually we realized that this photography feature, making that a part of his character, could be one way to bring him closer to users, make them feel a little bit more appreciation for him and make him seem more likable.
"And again, you see that in Brotherhood, the anime spinoff, where you see him as a little kid. He's sort of an outcast, and I guess that's also a reflection of his unpopularity in that poll, right? So it really came down to humanizing him and fleshing out his character. Ignis's love of cooking and Gladiolus's love of the outdoors we've carried over from Episode Duscae, but Prompto's love of photography and Noctis's love of fishing... those came afterward."
Did Prompto's new hobby do the trick? Tabata admits he doesn't know yet, but he feels good about the lanky photo fanatic's chances now. "We haven't actually done another survey to determine who is the most popular, who is unpopular, etc., so I don't know how much impact this has had. But you see the photos he takes at camp every night, every time you rest, and a lot of people got really excited about those photos on social media. So I'm pretty sure that Prompto is pretty comfortable in his new position, much more than he was before!"