The Mak­ing Of...

The high-school RPG that shows the ben­e­fits of over­think­ing it


Per­sona 5, Atlus’s lat­est high­school RPG, demon­strates the ben­e­fits of over­think­ing it

Kat­sura Hashino of­fers a sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion for why Per­sona 5 was in de­vel­op­ment for so long. You would think the lat­est in­stal­ment in a long-run­ning, beloved se­ries, built to a fa­mil­iar tem­plate, would not take too long to make. Yet Per­sona 5 ar­rived more than eight years af­ter pre­de­ces­sor

Per­sona 4, miss­ing an en­tire con­sole gen­er­a­tion in the process. What on Earth hap­pened? “We had spent a very long time work­ing on

Per­sona 5 and were sat­is­fied with the di­rec­tion it was go­ing in,” he tells us. “How­ever, as we reached this point, deep in de­vel­op­ment, Sony re­leased PlayS­ta­tion 4. We couldn’t ig­nore the op­por­tu­nity to bring the game out on this new con­sole, with all the ad­vance­ments it of­fered.

“We had to look at how we could adapt what we had al­ready cre­ated for PS3, and re­alised that the 2D graph­ics we’d cre­ated weren’t suit­able for the new sys­tem. We ba­si­cally had to re­draw every­thing. It was the only way we could utilise the power of PS4, and it in­creased the de­vel­op­ment time mas­sively.”

Per­haps. Yet we sus­pect Hashino him­self might have had some­thing to do with it. Our time with him makes clear that this is a man who thinks deeply about every­thing – and per­haps a lit­tle too much. When we ask what made him switch the game’s set­ting from the sleepy ru­ral town of In­aba that played host to Per­sona 4 to bustling cen­tral Tokyo, his an­swer clocks in at a shade over 700 words. A re­quest for clar­i­fi­ca­tion yields a fur­ther 400. His com­ments, while per­haps shed­ding a lit­tle light on the rea­sons for Per­sona 5’ s near-decade in de­vel­op­ment, also re­veal the sheer depth of thought and the­matic plan­ning that goes into a game that, on the face of it, treads a very sim­i­lar path to its pre­de­ces­sors. Hashino had his cen­tral theme for the game: phan­tom thieves, in­spired by Ja­panese folk­lore and its he­roes like Ishikawa Goe­mon, and Mau­rice Le­blanc’s Arsène Lupin. He felt thieves were nat­u­rally at home in big cities, so Per­sona 5 would need to be set in one.

“Ini­tially, I was con­vinced I needed to cre­ate a fic­tional city for the game’s set­ting,” Hashino says. “To dis­tin­guish it from the moun­tain­ous re­gion in which Per­sona 4 took place, I re­searched coastal cities like Hako­date, Na­gasaki and Yoko­hama.” An early test im­age had the Enoshima Elec­tric Rail­way, a two-car train that traces a ten-kilo­me­tre stretch of the Kana­gawa coast, run­ning in the back­ground. But Hashino felt it didn’t quite fit. “I couldn’t fig­ure out why, and I lamented over it for a long while. Then I re­alised that when you think about clas­sic phan­tom thieves – like Lupin, who caused a stir in Paris, or Niju-Menso, the fiend with 20 faces, in Tokyo – they’re as­so­ci­ated not just with cities, but cap­i­tals. Per­sona 5 ab­so­lutely needed the same. I needed a set­ting where an out­law “WE BA­SI­CALLY HAD TO RE­DRAW EVERY­THING. IT WAS THE ONLY WAY WE COULD UTILISE THE POWER OF PS4” could shine in a place over­crowded with peo­ple; where you feel like you’re just an­other cog in the wheel, yet kids from a name­less high school could still make an im­pact.” Tokyo is, of course, a big place, and while

Per­sona 5’ s world was in­tended to be larger than that of its pre­de­ces­sors, it could hardly take in the whole city. Hashino and team even­tu­ally set­tled on San­gen-Jaya, a lesser-known Tokyo district home to trendy bars, hip restau­rants and, as luck might have it, Atlus it­self. “I started draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the scenery around me on my com­mute,” Hashino says. “I looked up at the Shuto Ex­press­way tow­er­ing over me, a road built high in the air to ac­com­mo­date Tokyo’s over­pop­u­la­tion. It made me feel claus­tro­pho­bic, like some­one put a lid over the city to block out the sky. I thought about the more charm­ing sec­tions of the city, lined with old-fash­ioned restau­rants, and how they’re ru­moured to be de­mol­ished sooner or later. The city you know can change just like that.

“I re­dis­cov­ered Tokyo all over again – a lively, but shady city in which you can leave work on a Fri­day night and come across drunks get­ting on in years, ram­bling non­sense. The same peo­ple who used to bris­tle with en­ergy and talk of free­dom in their youth. I wanted the pro­tag­o­nist to live in a place just like that, board­ing with a re­tired shop owner grum­bling about the way things used to be. That’s what ul­ti­mately made me choose San­gen-Jaya. Of course, it helped that the en­tire staff was very fa­mil­iar with the lo­ca­tion! And it made it very easy to scout.”

So – fi­nally – the lo­ca­tion was cho­sen, and com­pared to that you’d ex­pect the char­ac­ter­de­sign job to run a lit­tle more smoothly by com­par­i­son. Af­ter all, the Per­sona games fol­low a cer­tain path when it comes to their cen­tral cast. The pro­tag­o­nist must be a new ar­rival in an un­known place, in or­der to im­me­di­ately po­si­tion him as an out­cast of sorts. Adults must be stern, aloof and prob­a­bly up to some­thing; your group of friends will be kids strug­gling to come to terms with what so­ci­ety – their fam­i­lies, teach­ers or peer groups – ex­pect from them.

Yet by chang­ing lo­ca­tion to a big city, Hashino and team had to re­think con­ven­tions a lit­tle. How does any one per­son stand out in a city of 13 mil­lion peo­ple? “Un­like pre­vi­ous games, we didn’t de­sign the main characters to stick out among their NPC peers,” Hashino says. “While it might be in­ter­est­ing within the school that Ann [Taka­maki, of mixed race and one of the first friends the pro­tag­o­nist makes in the game] has lived abroad, once the school day ends, she goes back home just like ev­ery­one else. Pulled back from the school set­ting, Ann is an in­signif­i­cant part of the big city. That’s why we re­lied on NPC stu­dents to com­mu­ni­cate the dry, ur­ban at­mos­phere – the feel­ing that school is just a way­point in life.”

That sen­ti­ment is re­in­forced by the sheer size of the world – which is bro­ken up, as ever, into small, dis­crete sec­tions that serve to mir­ror our re­la­tion­ships with the cities we live in. Per­sona 5 has you spend plenty of time in Shibuya, but you’ll barely see the iconic scram­ble cross­walk or the fa­mous 109 build­ing. To the cast of kids, Shibuya is a metro sta­tion where you change trains on the way to school. It’s the

un­der­ground mall where you meet up with pals or work a part-time job. It’s a side street with a diner, a cin­ema, a con­ve­nience store and an ar­cade. For many play­ers, these places are where

Per­sona works its magic. They are where a young pro­tag­o­nist be­comes kinder, smarter and more con­fi­dent; where he builds re­la­tion­ships with those around him; where the dun­geon-crawl­ing RPG gives way to a teen com­edy, a re­la­tion­ship drama, a mus­ing on the strug­gles of the young. Yet all these el­e­ments are, ul­ti­mately, in ser­vice to the com­bat sys­tem. Spend enough time with a girl to max out the so­cial link be­tween you and she’ll even­tu­ally fall for you, sure – but ev­ery step on the way to rank ten lets you fuse more pow­er­ful per­sonas for use in bat­tle. The Per­sona se­ries may do a bet­ter job than most at hid­ing it, but Hashino ad­mits that com­bat is the true heart of them all.

“It’s at the core of all role­play­ing games,” he says. “All other fea­tures – fa­cil­i­ties, equip­ment, cus­tomi­sa­tion op­tions, col­lect­ing per­sonas, the characters, even the com­mu­nity sys­tem – all come to­gether to serve a sin­gle pur­pose: to make win­ning bat­tles feel sat­is­fy­ing. This doesn’t ap­ply to all RPGs, of course, but on the ti­tles I work on, it’s my chief pri­or­ity.”

The end re­sult is a fa­mil­iar one to se­ries fans, a game of iden­ti­fy­ing, then tar­get­ing, an enemy’s el­e­men­tal weak spot, knock­ing them to the floor so your en­tire group can pile on top of them. Some tweaks to the formula were made – each char­ac­ter was given a gun or sim­i­lar pro­jec­tile weapon, for in­stance, while the phan­tom-thief con­ceit led Atlus to de­sign a sys­tem whereby you could en­ter a ne­go­ti­a­tion with a downed foe, rather than sim­ply de­stroy­ing them. Dun­geon de­sign was over­hauled too, dis­card­ing Per­sona

4’ s ran­domised bat­tle­grounds and re­plac­ing them with hand-crafted, puz­zle-heavy, stealth-fo­cused palaces. Still, those who had played a Per­sona game be­fore would find them­selves on fa­mil­iar ground as soon as the fists started fly­ing.

That wasn’t al­ways go­ing to be the case: dur­ing early de­vel­op­ment Atlus ex­per­i­mented with a freeform, re­al­time com­bat sys­tem. “When we tried it, it tempted us to do more than we should,” Hashino says. “We wanted com­bat to be the cul­mi­na­tion of all your pre-bat­tle prepa­ra­tion, but once you gained con­trol of the characters, there was an urge to work solely within the bat­tles, in­stead of re­ly­ing on prepa­ra­tion and plan­ning.

“If we changed the bat­tle sys­tem to be ac­tionori­ented, pro­vid­ing in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, we’d have to re­think the game around that no­tion. So, in the end, we mod­i­fied the bat­tle sys­tem with the goal of en­hanc­ing fea­tures, while in­cor­po­rat­ing thief-like el­e­ments to make dun­geon ex­plo­ration feel more dy­namic. We sped up the pac­ing to let play­ers stylishly show off. I’m sure some might see the bat­tle com­mands and think they’re old, but the bat­tle sys­tem is an im­por­tant com­po­nent – one that ties the whole game to­gether.”

We can’t talk about the cre­ation of Per­sona 5 without dis­cussing an­other vi­tal el­e­ment in ty­ing all those dis­parate me­chan­i­cal strands to­gether: the user in­ter­face. Per­sona 5’ s is one of the best in the busi­ness, maybe the best of them all; ab­surdly stylish, yet al­ways leg­i­ble, it’s a rare game that man­ages to make even the mun­dane – a post­bat­tle re­sults screen, a line of dia­logue, a smart­phone screen – look im­pos­si­bly cool. From very early in de­vel­op­ment, Hashino and his team recog­nised that the Per­sona games were known for their stylish UIs, and that Per­sona 5’ s would have to do the same.

“To el­e­vate Per­sona 5’ s UI from its pre­de­ces­sors, we needed a con­crete con­cept – like how a story needs a theme,” he says. “Without that, it would just end up a variation on the ex­ist­ing UI. The de­sign staff was stuck on this, ini­tially, so I pitched what would be­come the ba­sis of our ‘pop punk’ art style. Per­sona 5 em­u­lates pi­caresque nov­els, and the game’s vis­ual de­sign re­flects this through dark, en­closed at­mos­pheres. To con­trast this, the UI that over­laps it moves vig­or­ously, as if rag­ing to break things down. Our goal was to have the UI stir the player to ac­tion, even dur­ing bit­ter, dark scenes.

“Although, at some point, we over­did it. There was so much in­for­ma­tion on the screen, the UI was in­co­her­ent and im­pos­si­ble to fol­low. We wound up form­ing a UI test team to dis­cern the hard-to-see parts, then fixed them as much as pos­si­ble. It cost quite a bit, but was well worth it.”

The whole project must have cost a lot, in fair­ness, but the re­sults show it was money well spent. De­vel­op­ment may have lasted a lot longer than orig­i­nally in­tended, but al­most 350,000 copies were sold in Per­sona 5’ s first three days on sale in Ja­pan. Within a month, it had be­come the big­gest seller in Atlus’ 30 years in busi­ness. It’s even per­formed well in the west, top­ping the UK re­tail charts in its first week on sale de­spite a con­ser­va­tive print run.

It’s quite the send off for Hashino who, af­ter 12 years as the direc­tor of the Per­sona se­ries, is leav­ing it be­hind, and head­ing up the cre­ation of a new RPG se­ries for Atlus. As we’ve learned, he has a ten­dency to over­think things. But he’s at a loss to ex­plain why Per­sona, of all JRPGs, has found such a fol­low­ing in the west.

“I wish some­one could tell me why,” he says. “What I can tell you, though, is that while the se­ries takes place in Ja­pan, we don’t de­velop it with the in­ten­tion of cater­ing to a Ja­panese au­di­ence. Nor do we fac­tor in our over­seas fans. Whether it’s plan­ning, de­sign, or music, we sim­ply strive to do our best. We se­lect a theme, then work our brains out.”

While the bat­tle sys­tem is true to the se­ries formula, the pace is faster. It’s an es­sen­tial con­trast to the game’s slower, more stealth-fo­cused ap­proach to dun­geon ex­plo­ration

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