Hironobu Sakaguchi On His Lifetime of Achievement and the Future of Terra Battle

Once again, I find myself seated at a table with Hironobu Sakaguchi, the godfather of JRPGs. Today, he and several members of his staff from Mistwalker are gathered in a meeting room in the Moscone convention center, taking interviews. Tomorrow, he will stand on stage at the Game Developers Choice Awards to receive a lifetime achievement award – an honor that rightfully puts him alongside the likes of Gunpei Yokoi, Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto and John Carmack.

Here is a man who truly loves making video games. Who – despite creating one of the single most profitable franchises in history – is as full of the indie spirit as any developer I’ve had the pleasure to meet. He’s clearly very proud of the team he’s brought with him too: Kimihiko Fujisaka, the character designer behind Drakengard, The Last Story, and Terra Battle, Koji Ohno, the programmer who single-handedly built most of the game’s code, and Yuki Nishimura, the game designer responsible for all of Terra Battle’s finger-snapping encounters.

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Hardcore Gamer: Last time I met with you Terra Battle was just taking off, and now it’s one of the biggest games on mobile. You’ve hit 1.7 million downloads – you’re almost at the 2 million mark where we get our console version. How’s it feel to have come this far in just six months?

Sakaguchi: I’m here sporting a smiling and happy face because I’m so excited that we’re here. Yet, our staff next to me are working day and night and having a hard time just keeping up with everything. There’s a bit of a difference of opinion here. Part of the beauty of releasing this game on smartphones is that it’s a never-ending story. In terms of adding characters – Fujisaka always has something new to draw – or adding special levels and dungeons. They don’t really have a moment to pause but I’m very happy to be at where we’re at.

What’s the update schedule looking like? What can we expect in the next few months?

Sakaguchi: What I can say, for the foreseeable future – the current big chunk of the game is thirty chapters long, but we already have planned our next phase of chapters, so that’s forthcoming in the near future, with co-op play, the summoning quests and the dungeons will continue to be updated. Terra battle will be releasing in Taiwan and Hong Kong very soon, which is a big milestone for us in terms of getting this game out in other parts of Asia. We’re looking at pretty big growth in the next couple months.

Will we be able to play with these new players?

Ohno: Right now – I don’t know how much coop you’ve been playing. there’s two ways you can play cooperatively with other players. One is you can exchange room numbers, which means that you can play together with a friend no matter what. Otherwise, it picks up players closest to whatever server is available. Chances are unlikely that you’ll be able to match up with someone from the new regions in North America, but if you do have a friend with your room number in Taiwan, you can play with them.

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A number of japanese social games have been made into anime recently. Are you looking at potentially making a terra battle anime?

Sakaguchi: Ohoh! I think Fujisaka san would be the one to answer that.

Fujisaka: Of course I’d be Interested

Sakaguchi: (dripping with sarcasm) Oh really, you’re interested? You DO want to do an anime? We just found out thanks to your question that Fujisaka san wants to do an anime. (Everyone at the table laughs)

Fujisaka: I’m not aggressively pursuing it, but as a natural extension to the growth of terra battle as a game – if there’s enough interest around us – then I really wouldn’t mind going in that direction as well.

Before that do you see it going into light novels or manga?

Sakaguchi: we’d like to see growth in many other spaces for Terra Battle.

From a purely selfish perspective, will I be able to buy any Terra Battle Nendoroids or Figmas in the future?

Sakaguchi: There is a milestone in the downloadstarter where we did mention we would work on merchandise. The details were not spelled out, but that could potentially be a part of it. At 1.9 the Hiso alien will be available in some form. But really, it’s all up to our merchandising guy.

What else is Mistwalker working on right now?

Sakaguchi: Mistwalker in reality is us here plus three or four other staff members, so the truth is we probably can’t work on anything other than Terra battle at this time. As we mentioned earlier, we’re writing and working on the next big part of the story. Within our group we’re constantly creating new content, and that’s a different dynamic from what we’ve already had as thirty chapters. At the core we’re still working on terra battle.

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You are closing pretty quickly on 2 million downloads. Have you started planning out how you’re gonna translate this to consoles?

Sakaguchi: (in English) Console version? No plan.

Translator: If you say no plan, the ones who are waiting to hit 2 million will say “what? we’re gonna have to wait forever?”

Sakaguchi: Yeah, I need that to happen because we don’t have a plan. Maybe an idea – and this is just an idea, not saying that this gonna happen – but maybe we’ll create a giant table-size touch panel for terra battle. Make it feel like a modernized arcade machine, where multiple people come together, and it’s an expanded version of your smartphone experience. So there could be x amount of people gathered around this giant touch play panel, and that panel is somehow communicating with another one across the ocean.

Ohno: This is becoming Terra Battle speed dating.

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Would you be able to connect your phone account and bring your characters to the table?

Sakaguchi: That would be ideal.

You are about to accept a lifetime achievement award for your work on final fantasy, terra battle, and everything else. How does that feel?

Sakaguchi: The way I take it is that GDC’s panel wants to send a message that I should retire. So tomorrow when I accept the award on stage I’m going to make it very clear to everyone that I’m not ready to retire.

So you see this as the same signal Miyazaki got when he won the oscar?

Sakaguchi: When you put it that way, maybe I should flip it around and say I am gonna retire, then just never do it.

In light of that, what would you say is your proudest achievement so far?

Sakaguchi: In recent history, obviously Terra Battle is a huge achievement for my team and for me. Then you can go all the way back to the first final fantasy, and that’ll follow me wherever I go. That’s a mark that I can go back to and look at – it’s where we all started, but for Final Fantasy V… In Weekly Jump Comics in japan, there’s an insert that comes with every issue.It’s almost like the happy meal toy at mcdonalds. There’s a mystery of “oh my gosh, what’s in that insert?” You have to buy the comic and tear it open carefully to see what’s inside – you can’t just browse it in stores. I had been pitching to the editorial folks at jump since final fantasy III, but they never actually got my pitch of wanting to feature our games. That goal came true finally with final fantasy V. It was featured, finally, in the special insert, and that was a proud moment for me. Someone finally felt that this was of enough value to be featured in shonen jump – it’s huge.

I think Jump has such cache with consumers not necessarily due to the comics themselves, but the editorial folks who have that eye for what’s going to be a big hit. The team that puts it together – from my point of view their standards were very high in terms of what got featured. So when I was pitching final fantasy III and IV, the reason they turned me down was that in their eyes, maybe it wasn’t good enough. The fact that they said “this is good and interesting enough that we’re going to feature your game” was a proud moment for me. On top of their standards being very high, the fact that we were able to win their hearts over was a big deal.

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So, with Final Fantasy V and III, the job system featured prominently. That’s become one of the most iconic gameplay elements of the series. Where did the idea for that system come from?

Sakaguchi: putting aside how it connects to the game, I think its fun to be able to swap things around and change who you are within any game – unrelated to final fantasy. It’s not so easy to pull that off in a game. At that time we had five characters with eight job changes, which meant forty characters total, and the output of pixel art and animation for each one was a huge amount of work. With Five we were able to overcome that hurdle with more resources and staff who could dedicate themselves entirely to that. It kind of came together into a nice package at that time. From a consumer standpoint you see it as this nicely organized thing, but because we weren’t able to pull that off prior to to that, it became what we always wanted it to be in V.

Did the team you’re working with now come with you from Square Enix, or did you pick them up from other companies?

Sakaguchi: Nishimura san and Ohno san are from Square Enix, and Fujisaka san didn’t work directly on blue dragon, but he was at the studio we worked with on that, and formerly he was with Sony. The rest of the staff is from Square and Sony. Everyone’s worked with me in some way prior to joining Mistwalker.

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The last time that we met, I asked what got you into mobile development, and you said it was a long story. Now that we have a bit more time, I’d love to hear it.

Sakaguchi: There’s a lot of elements that came together at the right time, but I think without the people sitting here around me, it wouldn’t have happened, because individually they’re sort of a standalone unit. I can really trust design to be done by Nishimura san. Ohno san is a one-man programming machine. Obviously I’ve always been a fan of what Fujisaka san has put out for me in the past, and I wanted to continue working with him. There’s a lot of human-to-human connections that came together to make this work.

It allows me to realize something I’ve always wanted to do – and this is a personal thing – when I started working on the first final fantasy there were four of us, and by the end of the project it grew to about ten, but that was the most we had at any given time. Not only does this bring back memories – actually making a game is enjoyable and fun, and I don’t have to worry about managing human resources. That is a loaded amount of work that someone has to do at some point in time. even if we were to grow this team with these guys as leads and make a console version of the game, that’s a whole other side of the equation, and I don’t want to put myself in that position at this point. At the same time, Smartphone games are becoming standard – they have a huge consumer base. I’ve got the human connections, I want to work with these people, and thanks to the current market, we can keep it small and contained. It’s very realistic to make that happen. It’s all of those things. The timing and opportunity of it came together in a nice way.

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It’s interesting you put it that way, because when people talk about your work they often talk about Chrono Trigger as the game where you got a bunch of “rock stars” together. It sounds like this is the same sort of experience for you.

Sakaguchi: Not only are their individual skill sets and talents important, we have very similar sensibilities in terms of what we want to do. Those sensibilities allow us to cultivate all of our skills and hone them into one big project, namely Terra Battle

That’s not to say we don’t have our fair share of arguments and disagreements. Someone at Mistwalker breaks a wine glass about once a week.