An Audience With...
Final Fantasy XV’s director explains how difficult beginnings helped to strengthen his resolve
Final Fantasy XV director Hajime Tabata on how an unusual career start helped prep him for life
Hajime Tabata was offered a job at Tecmo after he left a memorable impression on the company’s idiosyncratic founder, Yoshihito Kakihara, by giving him a sturdy massage during the final interview. The job proved something of a baptism of fire. During his time as a game designer at Tecmo, Tabata’s responsibilities also included issuing formal apologies and listening to irate customers’ complaints on the phone. These experiences gave the young designer a broad appreciation for the business of making and selling videogames – skills that he must draw from deeply as he steers Final Fantasy XV towards its release next year, after a development process that has been defined by delays and upheavals. This, after all, is a game that started out as Final Fantasy Versus XIII on PS3. How does he cope with the responsibility of making one of Japan’s last remaining blockbuster videogames a grand success?
Let’s begin at the start. Where did you grow up?
I was born in the north of Japan, in a place called Sendai.
Donkey Kong was probably the first game that I played, [and that was] at a friend’s house. But I didn’t become obsessed with games until I was about 13. That’s when I discovered western games such as Wizardry, Wasteland and Civilization. I spent most of my time playing these games on the PCs at my friends’ houses, so my parents never made a fuss.
I was quite single-minded, even from my earliest memories at school. I worked to my own pace and did whatever I wanted. I used to hang around with the sports crowd, rather than the geeky crowd. I wanted to be attractive to girls, so that was the way I tried to present myself. Videogames were something I played at home, with the local kids I’d grown up with. I kept that hidden from my school friends. I thought I was so popular at the time. After high school, I realised the reality of what I needed to do in terms of studying for the future; I was pretty carefree before then.
I left for university in Tokyo, where I studied economics. Not because I was particularly interested in economics, but I just passed the exams I needed to do that. It was at college that I met an art crowd – people who were into cinema. Through talking to them, I started to realise I wanted to work in a creative industry, to produce something. I even looked at the possibility of making robots for a while, until I realised that I didn’t have the necessary talent.
When I was a student, I was living on my own in a small apartment. I wanted to get a job to create something that everybody used. At that time, I had games, films, sweets and ramen. I loved noodles! I wanted to join a company where I could come up with recipes for instant ramen. Those companies were generally based outside of Tokyo, where I was living at the time, so I moved away from that idea. Games were a close second. They were all around me, too.
I wasn’t specifically looking for a career in the game industry. I was interviewing with different companies from different industries. Tecmo was the first to offer me a job. I didn’t have to think too deeply about it; I accepted it.
Since I was a kid, I’ve had a philosophy that there’s always someone who is better than you. You can’t ever be on top. Or even if you do get there, there will always be someone who overtakes you. In Sendai, there’s a lot of snow, and kids ski a lot there. I was always the fastest at school, but then I entered a regional tournament. I soon found out that there were kids there who were quicker than me. Then I saw those kids who had beaten me at regionals would lose in the national competition. Then the national winners would go to the Olympics, where they’d be beaten by people from other countries. It was a tough lesson, but it stayed with me. Individuals are never as strong as a team. In my job, I love creating strong teams, which is something you have to do when you’re making games. I see it as my role here to create the best possible team.
What was your first project at Tecmo?
My first project was Captain Tsubasa, a football game released for the Super Famicom. My first task was to design the special moves for each striker. I put all of the special skills onto a single character and it threw the balance right off. I was told off severely for that. It was a useful early lesson when it came to game design.
Being a game planner at that time wasn’t only about designing the game. In that era, you had to pitch in everywhere. I had to work on smoothing off the jagged edges on the sprites, for example. I’d have to ask senior programmers to implement my ideas. We were rushed and pushed against deadlines, so my ideas would often get dismissed. I’d find that the only way to get people to listen was if my ideas were unique and stood out.
At the time, Tecmo was owned by one man. If he decided to make a change, be it to a game or to the
working culture, then everyone would copy him. One day he came into work wearing a suit. The next day everybody came in wearing suits too.
I experienced so many weird things in that era. Most of the game companies were still run by their founders at the time; they were sometimes pretty eccentric. It was so different to how it is today.
I was interviewed for the job by the president of Tecmo [Yoshihito Kakihara]. He asked me what I would bring to his company that was unique. I told him that I was pretty good at giving massages. He ordered me to come around the back of his desk to give him a massage on the spot. After a while, he asked me how his back felt. I told him that it felt like he was sick. That didn’t go down well at all and I thought I may have blown it. Then, later in the week, the job offer came in.
Kakihara has passed away now, but he was such a bright and funny character. When I joined Tecmo, I had fairly long hair. I passed Kakihara’s office and he ran out of his door to tell me that my haircut looked like that of a Japanese samurai. He asked me if I knew how to use a sword like a samurai. I pulled a pose and he told me I looked ridiculous and to come into his office for a lesson in katana.
Back then, the process of manufacturing games was pretty convoluted. Our sales team would have to visit retailers, tell them about the idea and actually have them place an order. Then we’d take proof of that order to Nintendo, and they would print the required number of cartridges to fulfil the demand.
When I joined Tecmo to work on Captain Tsubasa, the previous title the company had produced, Rygar, hadn’t been very good. It didn’t have a save system, even though the game is extremely long. People ended up pausing the game and leaving their console on overnight in order to pick it up the following day. It wasn’t user-friendly. Word got out and retailers placed only very few orders.
After this, the president ordered the entire development team to visit our retailers in order to issue a formal apology. The entire team, including me, had to visit the retailer and apologise for making a horrible game. We had to physically get down on our knees and promise that the game we were currently working on was far better, imploring them to place a larger order. That was one of the first things I had to do after I joined the company, even though I hadn’t been involved in Rygar’s development. It was harsh.
One time, I even took a phone call from an irate customer who had been playing Rygar for hours, then had knocked his Famicom and lost all of his progress. He chewed my ear off for about two hours about what had happened, and I just had to sit there and
take it. The company was crazy, but I learned about every area of game development there: design, art, programming, sales and even customer service. Those lessons were so valuable. Now I’m head of a large team like Business Division II, it doesn’t fluster me when things go wrong. I’ve learned to deal well with disaster, to take it in my stride.
How did you come to join Square?
One of my friends at Tecmo moved to the company. He introduced me to Yasumi Matsuno, the creator of Final
Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story. I loved Vagrant Story so much, so when I had the opportunity to meet Matsuno, I asked him all about the game. I was extremely impressed. Matsuno knew everything about his game – every single little detail.
A few years later, I had the chance to move to Square and I jumped at it. But by the time that I arrived there, Matsuno had already left the company. I wrote to him to say I’d come to join him, but that he’d already left! It was a shame that we never had the opportunity to work together.
When I joined Square, I wanted to make a mobile game. Tetsuya Nomura was also interested in mobile games, so we started that project, Before Crisis: Final
Fantasy VII, together.
It seems like a major jump to go from mobile projects to directing the company’s flagship title, especially given that development on the game had already been a complicated process. How did that happen?
Every previous title I’ve worked on, whether at Square Enix or other studios, has been important to the company. But this is on an entirely different level. A numbered Final Fantasy title is a very serious business for the company. There is a great deal of pressure that goes along with such a role. That is certainly different. When you’re working on a project of this scale, you can’t just make the game that you want to make. You have to have a bigger picture, a more ambitious vision, even. I feel strongly about wanting to make the project successful. There are so many people involved across the company. I know the people, all of the details, the number of people who are invested. That’s a huge motivating factor.
With a game of this scale, how to you keep a coherent vision? How do you prevent the game being nothing more than a melting pot of everyone’s ideas?
The Final Fantasy XV team structure is flat. There’s none of the traditional hierarchy that you find in large-scale game development. If there are lots of report lines, I find that important information stops at the top, and people on the ground don’t know what the issues are, or what
“ON A PROJECT OF THIS SCALE, YOU CAN’T JUST MAKE THE GAME YOU WANT. YOU HAVE TO HAVE A BIGGER PICTURE”
“LOYAL FINAL FANTASY FANS ARE VOCAL AND HAVE SPECIFIC REQUESTS. THERE IS PRESSURE THERE, FOR SURE”
key decisions have been made. I dislike that approach. Instead, everybody has the right to pitch in with the decision-making and to help resolve the issues. We have some meeting rooms on the floor, but generally I encourage the team to meet in the open space so that everyone else can hear what’s going on.
One of the policies I’ve created for the team is that, even though each individual has different opinions, I want everyone to report to me about issues. I try to fix things immediately, rather than leaving them to fester for a couple of weeks. Everybody is free to report everything, and then fix it straight away.
Development milestones have different objectives for what needs to be achieved. For each development phase, I move the teams around. One specific structure doesn’t stay from the beginning to the end. I run it like a series of football teams. Who is going to play alongside whom for any particular match?
Each team has its own responsibilities and objectives. By mixing these up, I find that it keeps motivation high. We’ve found that we’re able to move quickly, and people don’t lose their sense of direction. Our motto is: no borders; shared responsibility.
Final Fantasy is now nearly 30 years old. You have fans who have been playing for decades, but also new fans who have to be taken into account. Who do you have in mind as your player when you’re designing the game and making important decisions?
It’s very important to keep our fans, especially those who have been around for 30 years. But there’s always pressure to be attracting new players, of course. I don’t think we have to make a choice to appeal to one group or the other. In many cases, what works for one will hopefully work for the other.
How do you deal with the immense pressure of helming this project?
I don’t feel much pressure on a day-by-day basis. That said, I’ve been surprised at the challenge involved in keeping fans happy, and to attract new customers. In terms of appealing to fans, we’ve trialled many new things that we haven’t done before with a numbered Final
Fantasy game to involve them in the process in certain ways. Loyal Final Fantasy fans are vocal and have specific requests. If we don’t deliver on those requests, or give them the information that they want, then they can get very frustrated. There is pressure there, for sure. We’ve found it difficult to know how to communicate with that group effectively. But it’s a challenge that, right now at least, we’re enjoying.
I think the two pillars that both fans and newcomers expect of a Final Fantasy game is a combination of powerful technology and a strong story. Those are the two [main elements] that fans have always expected from the series, and that’s what we’ve focused on. The most recent two Final Fantasy games maybe haven’t delivered on the technological aspect. So that has become a real focus for us with this project.
Do you believe that there’s a future for these kind of large-scale games in Japan, especially in the light of the closure of Kojima Productions?
Well, in this team, we believe that we can survive until the company decides to close us down! We just don’t know what actually happened to Kojima Productions, so it’s difficult to comment on that situation, or how much that relates to the wider Japanese market. It’s a rare case of a highly successful studio being closed down so, obviously, everyone is in a state of shock about it, I think.
Now that I have been involved in the development of HD games [for modern consoles], I’ve realised that the development style we used for PlayStation 2 games is outdated. Lots of Japanese companies that had been at the forefront of development in that era struggled to adapt, I think. So during the PS3 and 360 generation, the Japanese studios were trailing behind their western counterparts. But I believe that gap has closed significantly with the current crop of consoles. I think Japanese studios are in a much stronger position to fight against western studios, and to produce good work in the next few years.
The team listened carefully to player feedback from a demo of FFXV released early this year. Episode
Duscae received a 2.0 update to address fans’ thoughts just a few months later
After Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, who left Square Enix in 2002, played Episode Duscae, he contacted Tabata to offer detailed feedback on the team’s work