Interview: Hironobu Sakaguchi and Kimihiko Fujisaka

by By Dustin Bailey and Zac Bertschy,

Since he's responsible for creating the most well-known JRPG franchise of all time, Final Fantasy's Hironobu Sakaguchi has a vast legacy of game development behind him. But he's also got a wealth of ambitious projects ahead of him at Mistwalker, as he develops two sequels to their tactical mobile game Terra Battle: Terra Battle 2 and Terra Wars. We sat down with Sakaguchi and his longtime partner in character design, Kimihiko Fujisaka, to discuss their proud history of work.

ANN: You're best known as the creator of Final Fantasy, but you've obviously done a lot of work on other games with both Square and Mistwalker. Do you ever feel held back by the public perception of you as the Final Fantasy guy?

Hironobu Sakaguchi: Recently I don't feel that as much as I did when I immediately left Square. While I was developing Blue Dragon, a big theme for myself was "How do I change this? How do I separate it from the Final Fantasy brand?" But it's been over ten years since that happened now, so I don't get that as much. I almost think of the Final Fantasy franchise as kind of a grandchild. I don't know if that analogy works, but in the same way that I have a lot of children now, Final Fantasy is kind of a grandchild, and you know, grandchildren are so cute, so I still love it.

Most of your games are known for being giant epic-scale roleplaying games, but Terra Battle is more limited in scale, and with the sequels in development that seems to be the plan going forward. What prompted that change in approach?

Sakaguchi: I think a big trigger for how that happened was I met a very talented programmer who was also former Square Enix. The way Mistwalker is structured, we have a very small core team. In the case of Last Story, we had to team up with a much bigger company to help co-develop a game of that scale. The reasoning behind Terra Battle was we wanted to make something with just the Mistwalker team, so I had these very talented programmers work hard together. I think I noticed that the app marketplace was evolving at the same time, and it was time for the next evolution of what a mobile game could do. So we wanted to build something forward-facing, and that resulted in Terra Battle 1.

Earlier in your career, you were primarily a console game developer. Moving over to mobile means you have to work with a lot of free-to-play mechanics, so there's a lot of economic stuff that you have to build into the game itself. How do you feel about having to work with these mechanics, making sure that they're inserted into every game? Is that more of a challenge for you or do you relish it?

Sakaguchi: When we first set out to develop Terra Battle, I didn't know much about free-to-play, I'll be honest. I had to do a lot of research on my own. So Puzzle and Dragons kind of helped me. I played the game, and as I was playing it, I tried to analyze how it was working. Of course it was very different from a console game, but what really boggled my mind was the complexity of the timing of monetization, when and how they plant certain elements in the game. It's really a psychological puzzle that I started to unravel as I was playing. I really wanted to take what I've done successfully in the console marketplace and recreate it in the mobile space as well. The big challenge for me in developing Terra Battle was almost to challenge the status quo of this mechanism and change it to merge with what I've developed on previous console games, and create something new. I wanted to redefine how monetization worked in the context of an app-purchase-driven type of game. It was a really fun challenge for me as I was developing, going through the steps and looking at what made a free-to-play game, how it functioned and how they balanced it.

When studying the way free to play games work, did you come across any ethical quandaries? People equate it to gambling a lot, so Did you ever encounter that kind of thinking or grapple with that at all in your design process?

Sakaguchi: I have to respect the ftp model, and I think having personally analyzed some games as I was developing, it's a very well-constructed system. So I don't mean to deny it by any means. But at the same time, I'm trying to swing the pendulum closer to the side of a console game. I think the gatcha system, or the rolling system, where you can roll to win a character is really good, and it's genuinely fun. I think people play those in real life as well, so I wanted to lower the gambling element of that. I think it comes down to the balance, how you set your parameters. I think in Terra Battle I was able to succeed; I don't know if you've had a chance to play it, but you can really get a lot of content and fun for not much money. So to be perfectly honest, I'm not making as much as you might think on that. (laugh)

So Terra Battle was developed fully at Mistwalker, but you're working with external developers on the sequel and Terra Wars. What prompted that changeover to partnered development?

Sakaguchi: When I developed Terra Battle, I wanted to continue its service and support for people as long as possible. In doing so, when I decided it was time to develop a sequel, I couldn't take my team off running and operating Terra Battle 1, so I think a large part of that decision came from the need to separate the resource allocation.

Terra Battle 2 seems like it's built on the battle system of the original, but we don't yet know what to expect from Terra Wars. What makes Terra Wars different enough to not be a numbered sequel?

Sakaguchi: It just seemed right. For the system and design, I can't go into too much detail, but it felt like "wars," it just felt like "wars". It's similar to the difference between Alien and Aliens. It felt like that was about the difference these two games had between themselves, so I think that was an appropriate way to name it.

Alright, so more action in the second one?

Sakaguchi: A very hard push into action.

In your game Blue Dragon, the visual style was somewhat adjacent to stop motion, with a claymation look and feel. Terra Wars appears to be produced with actual stop motion animation, with puppets. Is that what you've wanted to experiment with for a while?

Sakaguchi: It's interesting that you put Terra Wars and Blue Dragon in the same sentence, because ironically, the name of the company has changed but a lot of the core team members are the same. That might be why you're sensing a similarity between them. That isn't to say that I'm trying to recreate what I tried to do in Blue Dragon in Terra Wars by any means. I think the goal with Blue Dragon was to take Akira Toriyama's art style and create a fusion between the game and his art that wasn't Dragon Quest, which is what he's most known for. Of course, the result is that you have talented Fujisaka here creating a lot of the characters you see in the Terra universe. He said this in his last interview too, but he really likes the deformed cute expression style. We thought "What if we took that deformed cute look and dropped it into a game? What's going to happen?" I could trace a lot of where Terra Wars came from back to that conversation. I think claymation has a very cute sort of motion that you can't recreate in any other medium. The way they walk, the way they feel a little clunky, it feels very handmade, and I think there's something very lovable about that. I think that's where we wanted to land with Terra Wars.

What would you say were your biggest inspirations when it came to character design?

Kimihiko Fujisaka: I think one of the biggest sources of inspiration is Sakaguchi-san's direction. Normally when we create a new character, when we set out to design something, he'll give me a few sentences like "this is kind of what I want," and I use that as a platform to expand upon.

That must be a very special creative working relationship then. Because for just a few sentences to inspire you and be enough to get you to your finished product, that must be a very unique creative relationship.

Sakaguchi: A few sentences is about the limit of what I can write. (laugh) More recently I've deviated from even giving him illustrative direction. Many of the things that I say are almost nonsensical like for example, "this character is good at playing the piano." From there, Fujisaka takes it and expands on "How will this character look? How can we develop it?" More recently, I'll take more extremes. For example, maybe there's a knight but he's good at singing. I don't know what that's going to be like, so I kind of throw a few branches of the tree out there, and it's up to Fujisaka-san to design the roots of what this character's going to be and how they're going to develop. That's kind of our more recent working relationship, where I just throw out some random thoughts that I think should be fused into the character. He's the professional when it comes to illustration, there's really not much direction from me, I don't want to restrict him.

In designing characters for games like this, how much personal creative freedom do you feel you have, and do you find it to be creatively satisfying?

Fujisaka: Actually, this is gonna be a more personal story anecdote, but I prefer designing within a sandbox, when someone helps me create a sandbox and defines the parameters of what I'm allowed to design.

So boundaries.

Fujisaka: Yes, boundaries. Then I love the freedom within that limited space. But if you completely open up the floodgates, say "you can do whatever you want," then I think I'll actually be in trouble because I wouldn't know where to start. So the boundaries definitely help my creative process.

With so many years in the Japanese game industry, you've been part of many evolutions over the years. Do you think the games industry in Japan is in a good place right now? And where do you think it's heading from here?

Sakaguchi: To be perfectly honest, I feel like there's a lot I don't know about the more recent changes in the game industry. Of course, when you look at console games you've got AAA all the way down to indie, and you've got mobile platforms and livestreamers and people who just want to watch people playing games. I think the industry and the space has changed so much that I don't necessarily see it as "this is the Japanese industry and this is the foreign industry", as much as it's kind of the game industry at large with evolutions happening everywhere. I think it's a very fun space to be in right now, but on the flip side, I think I'm not as aware of the situation because of the added complexity and layers of how people interact with games.

You've mentioned before that the original Final Fantasy was inspired by some Western RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima. Do you keep up at all with Western games? And if so, do they continue to inform your work? Have you played anything you liked lately on any platform, mobile or otherwise?

Sakaguchi: To be perfectly honest, I think my game playing is very limited recently. I find myself having more fun actually watching game streaming on the internet. I see a lot of gamers, a lot of different Youtube personalities, who play games and add their own commentary or their own vibe or spin on it. I really like analyzing, "Oh wow, that's why this person's having so much fun and they have such a huge community around them." And I try to trace that back to how a game prompts someone to do that, why is it so much fun for everyone involved? Why do they like streaming it and why do people like watching it? That to me is the bigger puzzle that I enjoy in terms of gaming, how people interface with the game. Of course, I think the story and characters are very crucial to any game, but at the same time you need to develop a game that's worthwhile for people to mess around with and discover new ways to share with the world. A lot of Youtubers find so many creative ways to interact with the game and their audience simultaneously. I think that's what I find most interesting right now, so I try to include that in the games I develop.

Thanks to Anime Expo for this opportunity.

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