Dragon Quest’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on the chal­lenges of ex­port­ing a mon­ster RPG suc­cess

EDGE - - MACHINE - BY SI­MON PARKIN Photography Ho­hhe

To Ja­panese videogame fol­low­ers, Dragon Quest and its cre­ator Yuji Horii are na­tional trea­sures. The launch of a new en­try to the whim­si­cal RPG series, now in its 30th year, is a cul­tural oc­ca­sion of Harry Pot­ter-es­que pro­por­tions. On Fe­bru­ary 10, 1988, for ex­am­ple, 392 Ja­panese school­child­ren were ar­rested for tru­ancy in what a Na­tional Po­lice Agency spokesper­son de­scribed at the time as “a na­tional dis­grace”. Dragon Quest III sold a mil­lion copies that day, a level of suc­cess only ri­valled by

Su­per Mario at the time. The game’s re­lease proved so dis­rup­tive that its pub­lisher, Enix, promised the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment to only re­lease sub­se­quent Dragon Quest games at the week­end or dur­ing na­tional hol­i­days.

That kind of suc­cess has never quite trans­lated over­seas, where the Dragon Quest games have only a mod­est, if ded­i­cated, fol­low­ing. Yu Miyake, an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer who has worked at Enix since the early 1990s, is re­spon­si­ble for chang­ing these for­tunes out­side of Ja­pan, while en­sur­ing its on­go­ing sur­vival at home, where in re­cent years many seem­ingly ev­er­green series have fal­tered. The re­cent, well-re­ceived re­lease of Dragon Quest

Builders, a more struc­tured take on Minecraft, is just part of a broader plan to pre­pare the world for the 11th in­stal­ment in the series. Can it work? How did you come to work at Enix? To be hon­est, I wasn’t a huge fan of videogames at the time. My dream was to be­come a book edi­tor. To join one of the big pub­lish­ing houses in Ja­pan, places like Shueisha and Ko­dan­sha and so on, you have to grad­u­ate from one of the good uni­ver­si­ties here. Even with a top de­gree, places are se­verely lim­ited at the most pres­ti­gious pub­lish­ing houses. At that time Enix had just started pub­lish­ing books – mostly strat­egy guides for Dragon

Quest and so on. So I started work­ing at Enix as a part-time job on the pub­lish­ing side of the op­er­a­tion in the hope that it might of­fer me a route into book pub­lish­ing. I had a lot of pres­sure from a friend who was a huge

Dragon Quest fan at the time. We were look­ing through the lo­cal clas­si­fied job ads. When my friend saw the

Dragon Quest logo on the page, he told me that I had to ap­ply, if only to get him some mer­chan­dise from the game. I’m still friends with him and he’s for­ever telling me that, as I owe him the job, I’m obliged to get his name into the cred­its of the next Dragon Quest ti­tle. Had you played Dragon Quest at that time? It’s the 30th an­niver­sary of the game now and I’m 49 this year. I was just a lit­tle bit old to play the game when it first came out, I think. So, no, I hadn’t. When I was a kid,

Space In­vaders, Galax­ian and so on were the big ti­tles. We played games in the ar­cades, and not so much at home. What was it that kept you in the videogame in­dus­try and stopped you from mov­ing over to books? Just as I en­tered the in­dus­try, the Su­per Fam­i­com launched. Videogames were sud­denly be­com­ing very in­ter­est­ing. The po­ten­tial of what this medium could be was open­ing up. It was that pos­si­bil­ity that held my in­ter­est, I think. Did you ever con­sider writ­ing for games, given the am­bi­tions you once had? My prob­lem is that I give up pretty eas­ily. Yes, I did give it a shot, but it didn’t work out [laughs]. Which Su­per Fam­i­com games in par­tic­u­lar around that time gave you an inkling of how the medium was de­vel­op­ing in ex­cit­ing ways? When I first joined Enix my job was in pub­lish­ing, but we all pitched in with the test­ing and de­bug­ging of new games. One that caught my at­ten­tion at that time was

Ac­tRaiser. It was such a vis­ually strik­ing game. The cam­era would zoom in and out in this dra­matic, cin­e­matic way. The game was too hard for me, ad­mit­tedly, but I per­ceived in it the way in which the medium was evolv­ing at a fast and en­cour­ag­ing rate.

I stayed work­ing in the pub­lish­ing depart­ment for a num­ber of years. Then, at about the time when the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayS­ta­tion launched, I moved across onto the de­vel­op­ment side and be­gan pro­duc­ing orig­i­nal ti­tles for the com­pany. My first job on a Dragon

Quest ti­tle was in 2000. The team was deep into de­vel­op­ment of Dragon Quest VII when I ar­rived. Al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter that came out we started work on

Dragon Quest VIII on PlayS­ta­tion 2. That was when SquareSoft and Enix, com­pa­nies that had been ri­vals for many years, merged to be­come a sin­gle en­tity. It was funny, be­cause then we had to ar­gue which of the two com­pa­nies’ flag­ship ti­tles we were go­ing to launch first:

Dragon Quest VIII or Fi­nal Fan­tasy XII. It’s way in the past now, but peo­ple would prob­a­bly be in­ter­ested to hear about the at­mos­phere at Enix at the time of the merger with Square. These com­pa­nies had been head-to-head ri­vals for years, and sud­denly they were be­com­ing one. Can you re­mem­ber how the news was taken by the staff? You won’t be­lieve it, but we ac­tu­ally didn’t find out about the merger un­til the day be­fore it hap­pened. As you can imag­ine, it was a huge sur­prise. At the time, Square had about a thou­sand em­ploy­ees. Enix only had a hun­dred. Be­ing such a small stu­dio meant that the staff were prin­ci­pally made up of pro­duc­ers. Ev­ery­thing else was out­sourced. That was our setup. So at the time of our merger it was al­most like we gained this huge raft of re­sources. It wasn’t too jar­ring in that sense.

One thing that in­trigued me was that, at the time, Square was putting out a Fi­nal Fan­tasy game ev­ery sin­gle year. There were never any de­lays. It was like clock­work over there. By com­par­i­son, at Enix we had endless de­lays with our games. So the merger gave us the op­por­tu­nity to see how they were man­ag­ing to pull this off. I was sad to dis­cover that there was no se­cret. They sim­ply worked harder [laughs]. Was there any­thing you learned in those early years fol­low­ing the merger that has stayed with you, that you still take into ac­count to this day? [Pause] Well, I got a raise out of it. That was pretty mem­o­rable [laughs]. In those days, Enix was putting out a va­ri­ety of games. Dragon Quest was al­ways a ma­jor part of the com­pany’s ac­tiv­i­ties, but it seems to have be­come a greater and greater fo­cus over the years, while other, more un­usual games – such as Bust A Groove, for ex­am­ple – have fallen away. How do you feel about that nar­row­ing of fo­cus? At the time, Play Sta­tion had just launched. That sys­tem made it very easy to make games. It was just an easy plat­form to cre­ate games for. Enix was a strange com­pany be­cause in many cases, within a year of a new staff mem­ber join­ing the com­pany, they would be pro­moted to be­ing a pro­ducer. At that point, you’d have a lot of free­dom to be able to make the kinds of projects that in­ter­ested you. It was just a much more straight­for­ward process to get a new game out of the door – you could make a game with about 20 to 30 peo­ple within a year. That would have cost only be­tween 50 and a hun­dred mil­lion yen to pro­duce. With the size of the com­pany we had at the time, we’d be re­leas­ing about two or three games in par­al­lel ev­ery year.

As a re­sult, the mar­ket was a bit flooded, to be hon­est. And be­cause of the lim­i­ta­tions in the graph­i­cal pro­cess­ing, many of the games looked very sim­i­lar. They were aimed at a sim­i­lar mar­ket of play­ers. They cost about the same as each other in the shops. So the only way to re­ally stand out at that time was to have a unique con­cept. Nowa­days we have dif­fer­ent types of au­di­ences, dif­fer­ent plat­forms, dif­fer­ent re­gions and dif­fer­ent pri­ce­points. The num­ber of key de­ci­sions we have to make as cre­ators has in­creased dras­ti­cally. In the old days, all a pro­ducer had to do was to come up with an un­usual idea, and that was that. But now we have to fo­cus on all of these other ar­eas of the de­vel­op­ment process, and it’s drawn the fo­cus away from com­ing up with a novel idea, per­haps. I think that’s had a bear­ing on the lack of di­ver­sity in terms of the kinds of games that are be­ing re­leased to­day. Re­lat­edly, over the years Dragon Quest games have had a knack of ap­pear­ing on the most pop­u­lar hard­ware of the day. Pre­sum­ably de­vel­op­ment on the games of­ten be­gins be­fore you know which con­sole is gong to be dom­i­nant. Have you just been lucky in mak­ing those de­ci­sions? The for­mula is quite sim­ple. It’s about hav­ing that Dragon

Quest feel: hav­ing [Akira] Toriyama-san’s de­signs and [Yuji] Horii-san’s sto­ry­telling in the game. While the videogame mar­ket has ex­panded greatly, it’s also be­come more di­vided in terms of hard­ware and mar­kets in re­cent years. Al­ways the ques­tion for us is: how do we bring the

Dragon Quest for­mula to as many po­ten­tial cus­tomers as pos­si­ble at any given mo­ment in time? It’s very con­sumer-fo­cused in that sense, so when we’re start­ing a main­line Dragon Quest ti­tle we al­ways look at the mar­ket and try to judge which is the most pop­u­lar hard­ware of the time. That said, for the less con­ven­tional Dragon

Quest spinoffs, we take a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach – we pick a plat­form that best suits the me­chan­i­cal traits of the game. With the Fi­nal Fan­tasy series, as the de­sign changes so dra­mat­i­cally from game to game, the risk is al­ways that the changes will alien­ate the fans. With Dragon

Quest, it seems that the risk is the other way around. The games fol­low a much more pre­scribed path, so the chal­lenge is to keep it fresh in or­der that


play­ers don’t be­come over-fa­mil­iar with, as you put it, the for­mula. Is that fair? In­stead of chang­ing the game it­self, we fo­cus on chang­ing the way it’s played in the world. For ex­am­ple, with Dragon

Quest IX we made a hand­held game, be­cause that’s how peo­ple were play­ing games pre­dom­i­nantly at that time.

Dragon Quest X we made into an on­line game. So that’s how we try to keep the series fresh. In fact, we run the risk of alien­at­ing the fans when we moved from pixel-art to 3D with the move to Dragon Quest VIII. And when we made the tenth game, a lot of play­ers com­plained, say­ing that Dragon Quest should never be an on­line game. But it turns out that, in each of these cases, when you start play­ing the game, you find that it still has the same feel. It’s still quintessen­tially Dragon Quest. If feels like there’s an­other key dif­fer­ence be­tween the two series. With Fi­nal Fan­tasy XV the team is mind­ful of the need for the game to ap­peal to western au­di­ences; by con­trast, Dragon Quest X didn’t even come out in the west. Has the team given up on try­ing to make Dragon Quest ap­peal­ing over­seas? We’re still try­ing! [Laughs] It’s a topic we have been think­ing about a lot in­ter­nally: the ques­tion of why Fi­nal

Fan­tasy is so much more pop­u­lar than Dragon Quest in the west. One con­clu­sion that we’ve reached is that it’s a ques­tion of his­tor­i­cal tim­ing. When the Fam­i­com came out, Dragon Quest was the key game every­one was play­ing. But when the Play Sta­tion came out, Fi­nal Fan­tasy VII was the game that every­one was play­ing. So the source of nos­tal­gia is dif­fer­ent for both groups: in Ja­pan it’s Dragon

Quest while over­seas it’s Fi­nal Fan­tasy. The truth is that if we’d put a lot of ef­fort into lo­cal­is­ing Dragon Quest at the time, we prob­a­bly wouldn’t be fac­ing this is­sue to­day. I prob­a­bly shouldn’t be say­ing this, but we kind of messed up in that re­gard.

We put a lot of ef­fort into Dragon Quest VIII. We put a lot of thought on how we could ap­peal out­side of Ja­pan. We used a lot more re­gional voice act­ing, for ex­am­ple. We put a lot of thought into the menu de­sign. But we didn’t want to give up the core el­e­ment that made the game Dragon Quest. The game did have some mod­est sales over­seas, but it wasn’t any­where close to the level of

Fi­nal Fan­tasy sales. One thing that does stand out: in Ja­pan the tar­get au­di­ence for Dragon Quest is vast. It ranges from pri­ma­ryschool stu­dents to peo­ple in their 50s. Now, Akira Toriyama’s art style is car­toon­ish, and in Ja­pan that doesn’t alien­ate any­one; it’s not seen as child­ish. But out­side of Ja­pan, I think there’s of­ten a stigma at­tached to that kind of aes­thetic. Now, when an adult tries the game, they will dis­cover that the sub­ject mat­ter is ac­tu­ally quite ma­ture. Nev­er­the­less, play­ers are still left with this dis­con­nect be­tween how the game looks and how it plays. That’s a ten­sion that just doesn’t ex­ist in Ja­pan. What we’re see­ing now is that the age of peo­ple who are play­ing is ris­ing. In­ter­est is also in­creas­ing. We’re try­ing to put a lot more ef­fort into pro­mot­ing over­seas the spinoff ti­tles we’ve been work­ing on – Dragon Quest Builders and

Dragon Quest He­roes – in or­der to soften up the ground for Dragon Quest XI.

We’ve seen a lot of long-run­ning Ja­panese game series run into dif­fi­cul­ties in re­cent times. Is your cur­rent fo­cus on cre­at­ing di­verse games un­der­neath the um­brella of Dragon Quest – such as Builders, which has been well re­ceived every­where – a plan to help re­duce the pres­sure on the flag­ship re­leases? It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that the root of Dragon

Quest’s suc­cess is un­re­lated to the fact that it’s an RPG. There are other fac­tors that are re­spon­si­ble for its sur­vival. The thing that’s key to its suc­cess is Horii-san’s tal­ent for sto­ry­telling and Toriyama’s recog­nisable art­work. Com­bine that with the game’s idio­syn­cratic sense of ad­ven­ture, and you have a recipe for suc­cess that is not genre-de­pen­dent. Is there ever ten­sion be­tween Yuji Horii and the team in terms of the kind of sto­ries he wants to tell, and the team or the com­pany’s plans for the game? Try­ing to ap­pease Horii-san is part of ev­ery­day life work­ing on the Dragon Quest team. He has a huge amount of re­spect be­cause he has a fan­tas­tic eye for de­tail in terms of en­sur­ing the game is ap­proach­able for new­com­ers while si­mul­ta­ne­ously ap­peal­ing to long-term fans. He might point out that a par­tic­u­lar menu fea­ture will make no sense to a new­comer, and we’ll go away and re­design it, or make it more leg­i­ble. Like­wise, he’ll know which parts of the game are bor­ing or pa­tro­n­is­ing to peo­ple who have been Dragon Quest fans for three decades. We place a lot of stock in his in­put on the game. But of course there are dif­fer­ences of opin­ion. That just comes with the ter­ri­tory of work­ing in videogames.


Miyake’s BustAGroove – and its se­quel, which was never re­leased out­side of Ja­pan – re­mains one of the best rhythm-ac­tion games of the PlayS­ta­tion era, with a char­ac­ter­ful cast, a catchy sound­track and a dance-off bat­tle me­chanic that’s, re­gret­fully, never been re­peated

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