Square Enix Reflects On Final Fantasy's Drive For Cutting-Edge Tech
Final Fantasy has been around since the 8-bit era, and the series has adapted to every wave of new hardware the gaming industry has seen since. Not only has the franchise survived these transitions, but it has also used them as opportunities to take new chances in the role-playing genre. With Final Fantasy XV on the horizon – the first entry exclusively on PS4 and Xbox One – we take a look back with some of Final Fantasy’s key figures at what moving to new technology has meant for them, the individual games, and the series as a whole.
After three 8-bit entries (though only one released in North America), Final Fantasy IV was the first time Square faced the prospect of using new technology to update its approach. While the SNES certainly provided additional options, most of the improvements were steps forward on familiar fronts – it’s not like the series was moving to 3D or adding voice acting yet. “Since we were just moving from NES to SNES, it’s not like we were drastically changing,” says Takashi Tokita, Final Fantasy IV’s lead designer. “But where we were limiting ourselves previously in terms of colors or amount of story we could implement, that drastically improved. Rather than challenges, there was much more freedom that enabled us to do more.”
Even with that newfound freedom, the team was still working with a limitation: the maximum capacity of a cartridge. Developing expansive, narrative-driven adventures can be challenging when you only have so much space to work with. “That was something we always struggled with – all the way up through Chrono Trigger,” Tokita says. “I was writing the scenario [for FF IV], but I had to cut down one-fourth of what I had written to make it fit. Also, if we create everything in full color, we just don’t have enough memory to work with. So, airships, bosses, and main characters – we would create those in full color. But all the supplementary aspects, we would cut down the colors by half to fit everything in.”
The move to disc-based games on the original PlayStation opened up new frontiers in terms of storage space, but moving RPGs into 3D presented bigger problems to solve. Hiroki Chiba was an event planner for Final Fantasy VII (and is currently directing the upcoming World of Final Fantasy), and he can’t remember a lone aspect of development that was the most challenging, because almost all elements were uncharted territory. “[Final Fantasy VII] was our first 3D title, so to be completely honest, everything was difficult and challenging,” Chiba says. “It was testing things to see what would work, having discussions, and trying things.” However, the technical solutions aren’t necessarily the hardest part of developing a new Final Fantasy; just creating a new entry in such a significant and long-running series adds pressure.
“Creating a mainline Final Fantasy was always a new challenge,” Chiba says. “At that time, [Final Fantasy creator Hironobu] Sakaguchi was still heavily involved in the development of these titles, and his motto was essentially, ‘It doesn’t make sense to create the same thing. We always need to create new surprises.’ That was always the challenge, and the sentiment that all of us shared. It wasn’t that because we were creating for new hardware or a 3D game – it was because we were creating a new, mainline, numbered Final Fantasy title.”
Chiba also worked as an event planner for Final Fantasy X, and echoes the same sentiments with regards to moving to the PS2 hardware. That title added voices and broader exploration, but despite working with new technology, the hardest part was creating new surprises for fans. Regardless of the specific installment, the technology plays an undeniably large role in facilitating those surprises.
“Personally, creating titles at that transition the change in hardware is a big driving force – a wheel that turns to create something new,” says Yoshinori Kitase, who is currently the producer on Final Fantasy VII Remake. However, Kitase has been involved with the Final Fantasy franchise since the early ‘90s, serving in leadership roles on hardware-transition titles like Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X, and Final Fantasy XIII. “Whenever we’re releasing a Final Fantasy title on new hardware, there’s always the desire to create a new RPG style that would hopefully become the standard of that generation,” Kitase says. “That’s the sentiment we uphold when we’re creating and developing the titles.”
That may be the goal, but some fans would debate whether the Final Fantasy series has completely delivered those industry-leading experiences in recent entries. Good graphics and impressive feats of technology don’t make a great game by themselves, but help impart a sense that players are participating in something new and exciting. Unfortunately, with long dry spells between installments, the ability to stay ahead of technological advances and deliver that sensation gets more difficult.
“My personal opinion is, up until Final Fantasy VIII, the games were always on the cutting edge of technology,” says Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn director and producer Naoki Yoshida. “As a fan, it does leave you a bit disappointed when you expect that and it’s just not there. But a way to get that back – and our company should try to get that back – is to not fear failure. To get back to the cutting edge, you have to keep creating and keep trying. You can’t just do this with one project, though; to regain that spirit of challenge, you have to keep trying.”
Square Enix knows what fans think about the current state of the Final Fantasy franchise, and Final Fantasy XV is a major part of moving forward in the right direction. The project may have begun as a PS3 exclusive called Final Fantasy Versus XIII, but today the game is positioned to take advantage of what the PS4 and Xbox One offer. Director Hajime Tabata sees technology as one of the three pillars that define a Final Fantasy title (the other two being a willingness to challenge the status quo and provide out-of-the-ordinary experiences), and has made it a focus for Final Fantasy XV.
“Especially when it comes to Final Fantasy, a lot of times our consumers are expecting exceptional graphics,” Tabata says. “In comparison to other titles, open worlds – when you look at the screenshots – their graphical quality won’t be on par. We set out to overcome that barrier, to ensure that we are using the technology that will enable us to overcome that stigma.”
From the jaw-dropping summons to the vast world, Final Fantasy XV is clearly built on an impressive technological backbone, but being at the forefront isn’t necessarily the goal by itself. “It’s hard to define what ‘cutting edge’ is when it comes to games,” Tabata says. “Right now, we say FF XV is developed with the latest cutting-edge technology. But if we move a little forward in time, the latest technology differs. So, from a developer’s standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to define what is the ‘latest.’ The way I approached it was asking what would be important to make consumers feel like this is a modern RPG built with high-end technology, and what needs to be done to make them feel that way?”
Nailing down such a broad and lofty goal is certainly a challenge, but it’s clear that the lessons of the past are influencing the future of the franchise, so fans can still hold on to hope.
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