An Au­di­ence With...

Fi­nal Fan­tasy XV’s di­rec­tor ex­plains how dif­fi­cult beginnings helped to strengthen his re­solve

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY SI­MON PARKIN

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

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