Dragon Quest’s executive producer on the challenges of exporting a monster RPG success
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
“IN THE OLD DAYS, ALL A PRODUCER HAD TO DO WAS TO COME UP WITH AN UNUSUAL IDEA, AND THAT WAS 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.
“AKIRA TORIYAMA’S ART STYLE IS CARTOONISH, AND IN JAPAN THAT DOESN’T ALIENATE ANYONE; IT’S NOT SEEN AS CHILDISH”
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