An Interview With Nihon Falcom President Toshihiro Kondo

If there’s one thing I’ve made abundantly clear in my tenure at Hardcore Gamer, it’s that I think Nihon Falcom is the bee’s knees. The Japanese studio has put out 20 RPGs in the last decade, and every one of them has been excellent. Toshihiro Kondo, the company’s current president, has played a huge role in that success.

At one point Falcom’s biggest fan, Kondo joined up and swiftly rose through the ranks, lending his voice to Trails in the Sky and penning the scenario for Gurumin along the way. Recently I was lucky enough to have a chat with him, one Nihon Falcom superfan to another.

Hardcore Gamer: You went from running a top Nihon Falcom fan site to running the company itself. Can you elaborate on how you followed that career trajectory?

Toshihiro Kondo: Running the fansite in college is what got me seriously thinking about joining (Nihon Falcom).

When I joined, my first job was mainly managing the website and handling other internet stuff.  As part of that job I was looking at our products and giving my opinions. That led me to the Product Development department.

In product development I joined the game design team as a scriptwriter, but gradually got responsibility for project management and game quality. And from that Project Manager position I moved to my current job, which is still really all about managing the design and all other aspects of our projects.

You wrote the scenario for Gurumin when you were still rising through the ranks. What were your biggest influences in crafting the game’s world?

I was probably influenced by a variety of things, but nothing really stands out in my mind.

The staff working on Gurumin had a lot of really strong characters in it, and I remember vividly using their ideas and artwork to gradually create a concrete world. I took to heart their determination that Gurumin would not be just another cliché game.

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What’s your personal favorite of the games Nihon Falcom has developed since you joined the company?

I really like Gurumin, but have about the same degree of attachment to Trails In The Sky. It was the first RPG I was involved with from the earliest planning stages so I have a pretty strong emotional attachment to it.

For a long time Nihon Falcom was one of the only PC-exclusive developers in Japan. What’s it like running a large company in a market dominated by doujin circles?

We were definitely not the only PC exclusive developer. Lots of famous Japanese gaming companies used to release games on PC. We were just fortunate in that we had a large and enthusiastic fan base, and even now lots of people want to play games on the PC. We want to continue delivering to that fanbase for as long as possible.

In the last few years you’ve focused more development resources on Sony handhelds. Very recently you hinted at moving to home consoles. What motivated the change?

In fact it’s been seven or eight years since we started participating in the console (non PC) market in Japan. We moved to consoles due to the accelerating shrinkage of the Japanese domestic market for packaged PC games. There were still fans who look forward to packaged PC games, but retailers and distributors don’t really take these games, and unlike now, download distribution was not very major. We thought about it from every angle and decided to step into the world of consoles.

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Nihon Falcom is a bastion of old-school design philosophy; Ys has had the same classic feel for over two decades, and the new Legend of Heroes games feel like throwbacks to the best 32-bit era RPGs. What are the benefits and challenges of designing games that way?

Falcom is not really a large company, so we needed to develop a niche. Something that other companies would not be able to emulate, even with more manpower and financial resources. Graphic quality can be improved with money, but a carefully thought out game design like The Legend of Heroes or the kind of action that makes the game player feel good like Ys, those things are only possible with passion. We are doing what projects with more resources can not do. The only drawback is that it takes a long while for new development staff to become comfortable with the quality the team expects.

Gurumin is a different sort of old-school game. It feels more like a return to PS1 classics like Croc and MegaMan Legends than any old PC game. Was the design process different from a typical Nihon Falcom game as well?

The development team for Gurumin was made entirely of young people, it really stood out from all our other teams, which were made up almost entirely of veterans. Anyway, it was a group of people who passionately wanted to do something different from what everyone else was doing. It was also the very first 3D game Falcom had ever done, so just for that reason alone it was really different from our other games.

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Is your company interested in creating more games like Gurumin in the future?

Gurumin is a game we look at internally as being especially creative, one that has really influenced us. We’d love to challenge (something like that) again.

Your games are also known for their stories – in particular the expansive, detailed worlds and fleshed-out characters. How does your writing and worldbuilding process work?

We’re not doing anything particularly special. We like to be thorough and leave an impression on players. There is a set development period and within that we rack our brains, asking ourselves continually, from start to finish, “what else can we do to make this a better game?”

Cinema – particularly classic anime – seems like a huge inspiration for many of your games. The homage to Laputa in Trails in the Sky is an obvious example. What directors and movies most inspire you personally?

There was no one particular person who influenced me, but since I was little I’ve watched a ton of animation and movies so there is no doubt I was influenced by them.

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What black magic do you have to perform to make all of Nihon Falcom’s music so catchy?

Since the company was started we’ve only had one rule for the music team: make melodies that can be hummed.

More and more western gamers are falling in love with Nihon Falcom’s work. Is there anything you want to say to your American fans?

We’re very happy that over these last few years that through consoles and Steam we have opportunities to deliver our games to American users. While our games have always had lots so support in Asia, we didn’t think they’d turn out to be so popular in Europe and America. Over the last two or three years we’ve received encouraging responses to our releases and will do our best to release a number of Falcom titles in the US. We hope you’ll enjoy them! Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you!