Feature

Xenoblade's Director Talks Witcher 3, Zelda Wii U, And His Favorite RPGs

by Ben Hanson on Jun 24, 2015 at 08:14 AM

Nintendo has been releasing more and more information on Xenoblade Chronicles X, the next gigantic RPG from Monolith Soft due out on December 4. We recently got a chance to sit down with the game's director Tetsuya Takahashi (also the director of Xenogears and Xenosaga) and Genki Yokota, the director from Nintendo's Software Planning and Development group. You can read our discussion below to learn more about the setting of Xenoblade Chronicles X, how the team's knowledge can inform the Zelda Wii U team, and Takahashi's favorite RPGs of all time.

It seemed as though this project was announced by Iwata as a completely new game series, so why did you retroactively make this part of the Xenoblade line?
Tetsuya Takahashi: So as it turns out, the idea of it being part of “Xeno” was always there. I have to clarify a little bit because not in the sense that it’s a sequel to the previous game but rather it is a new series that is still “Xeno”. That's how I was thinking of it.

Does Xenoblade Chronicles X have the same level of connection to Xenoblade Chronicles as say between a Xenogears and a Xenosaga?
Takahashi: It's maybe even a little more loosely connected than that, but yes there are a few links that you might be able to pick up on.

So, as you see it, what is it about Xenoblade Chronicles X that makes it appealing internationally? What are the key elements that help it cross oceans?
Genki Yokota: I think one of the most attractive elements for people all over the world will be this chance to interact with this large, seamless experience on this brand new planet where you can run from one end of the world to another either on foot or hop into a Skell and either drive along in vehicle form or fly along and fight with enemies. That brings a lot of versatility to the game experience. 

Takahashi: Within the JRPG context, you haven't really seen in the past the freedom to go absolutely anywhere in a game like this.

Do you ever find inspiration from your own work in the past? Do you ever go back and play those games. Are other RPGs that you go back and draw inspiration from?
Takahashi: So I do have the opportunity once in a while to play some games that were developed in North America or Europe. I guess it's maybe not the best way to say that “I'm inspired by them”, as I “take the time to inspect them”. [Laughs] 

It's a very clinical eye?
Takahashi: That's exactly right. I try to get my hands on as many titles as I can, but I often only play them for about 8 hours or so each just to get a sense of what the game systems are all about.

Do you emphasize open-world RPGs then to break down the science of why they work?
Takahashi: Certainly. In the last bit of research I've been doing those are mostly the games I'm looking at because I want to make sure I understand what sort of elements are present in each.

Have you had a chance to check out The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt?
Takahashi: Yeah! I'm afraid I've only got to play a little bit of the beginning of the game. I just beat the griffin and went on to the next village.

This might be a strange analogy, but director James Cameron has said that every story he wants to tell in the future can be told through the world of Avatar. I'm wondering if you feel the same way about sci-fi – if everything you have to say about humanity and all the stories you want to tell can be told through that lens of the sci-fi genre?
Takahashi: I guess the short answer is yes. I do think that I can tell all of the stories that I want to in the medium of science fiction. But it's also just that I really like science fiction. Another thing that I should probably mention is that (though I really like the medium) the idea of telling stories in the real world can be quite expensive. Sci-fi gives you certain freedoms that make it much easier.

I'm wondering what you mean by that. Is it because it’s a strange world so players won't be too detail oriented?
Takahashi: Correct. If you do everything photo-realistic, then it has to be exactly faithful to a modern version. You have to match peoples' expectations.

You're never going to say, “Hey! robots don't fly like that!”
Takahashi: Certainly. Any time you have a situation where you have to create something that is not only photo-realistic but faithful to the real world, if you get even one single part of a car in a driving game wrong then someone is going to point it out to you. But there are these freedoms that are allowed you in science fiction.

I'm curious why you chose Los Angeles as the main city in Xenoblade Chronicles X, the “New Los Angeles”. Do you have affection for this city because of E3?
Takahashi: [Laughs] Actually, much of the reason is because I do like Los Angels. There was even a period in development where we thought about maybe using New York as the model for this future city. Then we realized that it was going to be very difficult and costly in development-terms to create all of those tall buildings.

So what do you like about Los Angeles?
Takahashi: What I love most about Los Angeles, and perhaps this is something true about a lot of American cities, is that you find so much diversity. On one block you can have these expensive shops and on the very next block you can find something completely different and folksy. There's a beautiful chaos that comes from all of that.

From Xenoblade Chronicles to Xenoblade Chronicles X, you’re adding some light multiplayer shared-world experiences. Is that a direction you're interested in heading in the future? Would you like to eventually get to an MMO with many players running around the same world?
Takahashi: I feel that, although I really like MMOs, I think that's a completely different kind of beast in terms of developing one of those. So that's not something we're really thinking about at the moment. We still are always thinking about multiplayer for future projects, because we feel like having multiplayer in a really big world tends to work out really well.

Do you feel like having multiplayer detracts from the story? Will it distract people because they'll be more focused on interacting with their friends than listening to the dialogue?
Takahashi: Yes, exactly. It's a very good point. When you're thinking about an MMO-type situation where you have lots of other players on screen with you, you have to take them into account from the very beginning when you’re designing the story and the world to allow for that experience to work.

Are you big on feedback? Do you like reading comments on the internet or Twitter or reading reviews for your games or once they’re done?
Takahashi: I feel the situation for a lot of folks who work on games in Japan is that they probably don’t look at internet comments because people are too concerned about what kind of weird things might be written about them, especially if they're negative or critical. But, personally, I look at everything because I actually derive a certain sense of power from being able to confront criticism in that way. If you see anything negative about you, that drives you to work harder. Whether it’s to disprove those people or just to put it out of our minds.

And what did you set out to prove with Xenoblade Chronicles X?
Takahashi: After Xenoblade Chronicles was released, there weren’t all that many negative opinions that I encountered online. And, to be honest, I wanted more. I wanted more negativity that I could confront and use as a personal driver. One thing that I did take away is that people talked about the importance of creating characters that were very appealing. That’s something that I kept in my head and also dogs my process as I was working on Xenoblade Chronicles X as well.

And what do you mean by appealing?
Takahashi: I think that the challenge of creating appealing characters is finding something that is going to stand up to the online reaction, where people are so quick to judge something. Saying it's either cool or it's not cute enough, there's a very quick judgment there. So I feel like we spent a lot of time in the beginning of the development of Xenoblade Chronicles X thinking about character design in those terms… We don't actually have designated character-designers at Monolith soft. We have a couple of very talented illustrators that we work with, but sometimes it’s about finding the partnership that works and doing a bit of trial and error every single time.

Read on to learn more about Monolith Soft's relationship with Nintendo and the chances of the studio supporting Zelda Wii U's development.

Can you describe Monolith’s relationship with Nintendo?  How often do you assist with Nintendo’s first party games versus working on your own stuff? 
Takahashi: There’s both kind of work that we do.  Whenever we’re working on one of our own titles like Xenoblade Chronicles X, we’ll have weekly development meetings with Nintendo where we discuss our progress with the game. Whenever we’re not busy with our own projects, we have the opportunity to help out with some of the projects that are being developed at Nintendo.  A recent example of this is Splatoon.

With the scale of this game, was it tough to know when to limit production? Because you could keep making this game forever and just keep adding more content, correct?
Yokota: So there was a time in development where we actually considered creating many different planets that you would be able to explore one after the other. Then we realized how limited the experience would be if we tried to spread out the content, so we decided to just focus on one planet. The question then became how many continents we were gong to make. Once we mapped it out and realized how much content we wanted to be available to play on each continent, the number that we came up with was five.

Has learning how much to bite off, how much of a project you can tackle, been a tough lesson to learn throughout your history of game development?
Takahashi: [Laughs] Rather than say it’s a lesson I've learned over time, I think I have to relearn it every single time. Honestly, this is a very difficult task and this time around is the first title we're developing in HD. That really changes how you’re planning has to work because your understanding of the development time in terms of cost is completely different.

I remember hearing from Nintendo about the difficulty of developing Pikmin 3 in HD, what are some of the lessons that Nintendo brought to Monolith on that front?
Yokota: So when we were first talking to Monolith about the technology, we spent about six months discussing how we were going to pull off creating a game that's going to be in HD and that's going to be an open world. We knew this was a really monumental task, but through the good cooperation with them we were able to succeed in finally making it.

So with the team's experience now in the open-world genre, I'm curious if you can offer any tips to the Zelda Wii U team? Is there some knowledge that can be transferred there? I know Monolith helped work on Skyward Sword.
Yokota: So as it turns out, in the development of this game we had a lot of opportunities to prepare reports and feedback on the technology and the different kinds of problems that we encountered. When we're able to share those documents internally, they're going to go to all the other teams so they’ll be able to draw from them and I hope that those guys working on that game will be able to benefit as well.

Is there any chance that you'll be supporting that team once again after this project is fully done?
Takahashi: I mean I suppose it's possible, but we haven’t heard anything. I would want to say that Monolith Soft is always available and we would love to help anytime people ask us.

It must be refreshing for the team to work on something from Nintendo to cleanse the Xenoblade out of your system every once a while.
Takahashi: Sure, absolutely. It would be nice.

Click to the next page to learn Takahashi's and Yokota's favorite RPGs of all time.

What would you both consider some of the greatest RPGs of all time?
Yokota: I guess if I'm thinking about games that have been released in the United States as well, that would probably be games in the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series. I really have spent a lot of time playing Dragon Quest X in particular. 

Takahashi: Probably my all-time favorite is Dragon Quest III, but I've spent maybe the most time with Final Fantasy XI.

Yokota: Yeah, I've spent a lot of time with that one too.

Did you get into Final Fantasy XIV?
Takahashi: Yeah, I've had a little time to play it. Maybe about 20 hours or so.

Yokota: I really enjoyed the Reborn version and the story in it, but I didn’t have time to get to the extra disc yet.

Do you think all of the time you spent with Final Fantasy XI helped inform the combat for the first Xenoblade Chronicles?
Takahashi: Maybe not so much on Xenoblade Chronicles X, but perhaps in previous games I did have the notion of having that separation of roles where there's someone who is an attacker, and someone who is buffing, and another person who might play a support role.

Are you nostalgic at all for turn-based RPGs or do you think that real-time combat systems are just the way of the future?
Takahashi: So I actually really like both. I still play turn-based games like Shin Megami Tensei and I can see the benefits of each system. With turn-based you can think out your strategy and decide what you’re going to do, but then real-time you have the excitement of having to react quickly to each situation. So I think it really comes down to the preference of the player, even in a particular moment, of what sort of experience they want.

With your career, is there a particular moment or accomplishment that you’re the most proud of? Maybe one that doesn’t get enough credit for how difficult it was?
Takahashi: It’s an interesting question because I don’t know that I’ve ever allowed myself the luxury of feeling satisfied. In the course of my career, I’ll finish working on a title and it will go gold and all of a sudden I find myself consumed with the next project. So I never really have the time to stop long enough to think about what I’ve been able to accomplish in a personal sense of satisfaction like that, rather I feel a great sense of satisfaction about how our company has leveled up each time over the course my career.

So you like to think of Monolith Soft as a company like a character from an RPG that’s leveling up and getting more powerful?
Takahashi: [Laughs] Yeah, that's right. As a company we're still maybe level 10 or 11, somewhere around there. And 99 is level cap.