For over thirty-five years, Nihon Falcom has crafted a steady succession of enjoyable, consistently charming and wonderfully melodious role-playing and action role-playing games. In anticipation of the release of Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, we had the opportunity to speak with Falcom’s president Mr. Toshihiro Kondo on their formula for unblemished success, the tension between creativity and commerce, and of course, the rich legacy cultivated by the company’s titles.
Tech-Gaming: Let’s begin by discussing Nihon-Falcom’s legacy, which began in 1981. Since that time, many studios have closed, dissolved, or at least significantly shifted their focus, yet Nihon Falcom remains robust. What are some of the secrets behind the longevity of your company?
Toshihiro Kondo: Although I’ve been with Falcom for a little less than half of the company’s history, one thing I can say is that no one in the company ever gets tired of making games; they all want to continue creating games. As you know, Ys is a very long running series and every time we make a sequel, we discover something new. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this which helps create the desire to continue and develop even more games.
T-G: Some studios seem to struggle with the balance between tradition and modernization. Yet, many of your role-playing and action role-playing titles seem to do this quite effortlessly. Can you give us some insight into how this feat is accomplished?
Kondo: One thing you can say is that most of the staff grew up playing Falcom games and they love Falcom games. There’s a certain respect for the history, for JRPGs, and for older Falcom games that the staff carries, and that’s how we approach our work. On one hand, you have these members of the company who are very respectful of the past. But there’s also this desire by members to create something new as well- to create a new experience and new games as well. These two elements are what’s led to the company being able to respect the old one while making something new as well.
T-G: I’m sure many readers are curious about your role. You’re been with Nihon Falcom since 1998. Can you walk us through your journey toward leadership of the corporation?
Kondo: Originally, when I was in university, I created a Falcom fansite. There was no hidden agenda, I was just a fan of the games. But with the site I was able to connect with people who were also big fans of the games as well and thought we could potentially reach out to Falcom. Then I began to think that perhaps working for Falcom wasn’t just a dream but something that could become a reality. So, when the time came and I did reach out to Falcom, I was surprised to find out they already knew about me.
However, I had no prior experience in developing games or doing things like that. As a matter of fact, I studied finance in University. Naturally, I applied for a position with the accounting division of the company. But when I entered they didn’t let me do anything involved with accounting or finance, as I was one the only one familiar with the internet. So, they put me in charge of maintaining and handling the company server. And from working on the server, I started making websites for Falcom’s games. But in order to make a quality website you’d have to be familiar with every aspect of the games. By playing the games, I’d come up with ideas of my own and would offer feedback to the dev team about what could potentially be done to improve the games.
Within a year since I started working, I become increasingly involved, and I was speaking to the dev team often. Eventually I had the opportunity to do a little bit of writing. Later, I was approached and asked if I’d like to try my hand at scenario writing. This was while I was still working on the websites and trying to come up with quality content. Balancing the two jobs, I was forced to maintain a tight time management schedule. Eventually, I found myself not only managing my own time but the team’s time as well, which led to an executive position within the company. I had been an exec when the current president [Masayuki Kato] had to leave for health reasons. And so, he called upon me to be the president and the rest is history.
T-G: Since your appointment as president in 2007, what has been some of the difficulties you have faced?
One of the responsibilities I have to oversee revenue. As a game creator, there are many times when you’d like to either improve upon something that’s already developed or spend additional time to do something else. But because a game has to eventually be released, there are difficult decisions about when to say, “Enough is enough. The game is good already. Let’s go ahead and release it”.
So being the president I have to oversee revenue. But for a game creator there are probably many times where they’d like to either improve on something already in a game or spend more time to make something better or even build something else. Deciding exactly when to stop adding and finally releasing the game is difficult.
T-G: Over the years, the studio has created a number of admirable titles and series. Do you have a personal favorite?
Kondo: Looking at the history it’s difficult to choose one game but after thinking about my personal involvement and what went into it, I’d have to say Ys VIII.
T-G: While I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Nihon Falcom’s titles, the Trails in the Sky/Kiseki series is undoubtedly a favorite, as it really elevated character development, making NPCs seem convincing. Many were endowed with aspirations and personalities that were a bit more fleshed out than most role-playing titles. Can you extend some insight into the development of the sub-series?
Kondo: The people who ended up making the Kiseki series entered the company because everyone had loved a game that was called The Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, which was part of the Gagharv Trilogy. This was the first game in Falcom history where every single NPC had a name, and as the story developed, their dialogue would change. So, when the people who made Trails in the Sky came together they decided they wanted to preserve the elements that made Moonlight Witch great while still creating something new.
From these discussions emerged the concept of ornamentation, which is obviously a big part of the Trails world, as well as the Bracers, which was then integrated with the approach toward NPC character development.
T-G: I often think of game development as an on-going conversation between developers and their audiences, with discourse guiding future efforts. How much do you listen to your audience when crafting sequels?
Kondo: We definitely take a lot of fan feedback into consideration. Because the Trails series gives all of the NPCs their own personalities and backstories, there are times one of them will become quite popular and throughout the course of the series they might have even been elevated to main characters. And when looking at Ys, Adol originally didn’t have much of a backstory. But fans had a lot of questions and even some theories. After reading a lot of that, perhaps some of those have unintentionally been incorporated into successive Ys games.
One thing, for example, is this idea that fans have said that essentially Adol has a girl in every port. Falcom realized this and before they we knew it, there was a new heroine in every game. And now it’s something we jokingly talk about in the office.
T-G: Has there even been any changes or alterations to your titles based on focus testing?
Kondo: Not every time but one thing I do remember is that for Trails of Cold Steel we had an event at Sony’s offices. We had users come and play and we did end up incorporating some of the user feedback we received at the time. We even had some people who came of the event that ended up allying to Falcom.
T-G: Currently, Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is on the verge of release here in the U.S. Hopefully, you could provide an insider’s look into the design process, and describe some of the things the team wanted to accomplish with the game.
Kondo: On the one hand, you’ve got the Trails series, which is very story driven. And actually, the story kind of dictates what happens in the game and what you can do in terms of gameplay. In contrast, Ys is more focused on gameplay and what do in the game affects what happens in the story. This is the first time that this was really clear during the development process.
Specially, we’ve always been trying to come up with new and fun gameplay elements in past installments in the Ys series. With Ys VIII, I really feel this is a culmination of all these things, and a really good example of what we set out to accomplish in terms of gameplay. For example, there’s what is called the Castaway Village, where you’re building up a village. It’s comprised of people who are shipwrecked with you. As you rescue your fellow passengers you’re building up the village and then the village ends up getting periodically attacked. These are things that are crucial from a gameplay perspective but they were also made to be very important to a story as well. So that integration of the gameplay in the story has been done, I feel, really well.
T-G: Falcom Sound Team jdk once again composed the soundtrack for Lacrimosa of Dana, a revolving group known for the quality of their work. Despite this distinction, information about the group remains elusive. What you can tell us about this talented team?
Kondo: Something kind of interesting about this game is that I supervised every aspect of the game including the music. This is the first time that our founder, really wasn’t directly involved with anything. But Mr. Kato gave me, along with several other people, a directive: this had to be the best sounding Ys game ever. So, I had a meeting with the sound team and while there are many rules with the jdk team, this one was very specific: you had to make a melody that you can hear only once and thereafter be able to whistle or hum.
There are many famous songs in the Ys universe, one of those, in particular, is ‘Feena’, named after the heroine of the first game. This time out, the heroine is Donna and we wanted to make a theme song more memorable and even better than Feena’s. Another thing we paid attention to is the melody, you probably know in Ys history we have a number of popular songs, many with a memorable melody. But the current trend in modern gaming is a song with a strong melody; sometimes it’s not easy to follow. So even if it’s embarrassingly simple, we wanted to create songs with a very strong melody. When we were making these songs, there’s still the obvious feel that this is a Ys soundtrack. As we were making them, I began to feel confidence in how the game sounds.
T-G: One of the notable attributes of your firm is that even early on, music has been a big part in the Falcom experience. What was the reason why the studio focused on this so early on?
Kondo: The idea that music is important came from our founder, Mr. Kato. Generally speaking, early game music was seen as kind of very secondary to the music heard in movies and anime. But Mr. Kato didn’t necessarily think that had to be the case. So from the very beginning it was decided to put a lot of work into the in-game music to make so that it could be recognized for its quality. During that time period, a lot of games barely had more than sound effects. But it was a conscious decision of the company to make the music a very important part of the game as well. That thought process and approach toward music has stayed and remains to this day within Falcom.
Then there’s the idea of quality sound extending beyond just the music and into the sound effects as well. For example, when Adol strikes down the enemy with a sword you have that really satisfying sound of a sword going through something solid. Likely we borrowed a bit from Kurosawa’s movies, when you hear the district sound of a sword really cutting through something. We also try to make the sound effects recognizable, as well.
T-G: Can you tell us a bit more about the company behind the games that many of us have played since childhood? I know you’re located in Tachikawa, but can you tell us how big the teams are, and where do you and the team find sources of inspiration?
Kondo: Right now, the entire company has a bit more than 50 people, with about 40 people dealing directly with development. Within these 40 you have teams spready out across areas like graphics, sound, scenario writing which is quite small for a company that makes RPGs. But because it’s a small number of people, we’re able to carefully look at every aspect of the game. And that attention to detail hopefully comes through in the final product.
For inspiration, I can’t speak for everyone in the company but definitely movies, manga, anime- these are things that have influenced development. And another big thing is past Falcom games because those are textbooks on how to make RPGs. In many ways, we refer to the games we have made before and those help to inspire and inform the games we are going now.
T-G: Is there a mission statement or mantra that guides development at Nihon Falcom?
Kondo: In Japan, Falcom is known as a company that has not missed. I’m often asked, “how is this possible?”, “how do you continue to make games that are all essentially good?” I don’t have an answer to that. But what I do know that we create products that we are not ashamed of and we make games that we believe in and that those are the games that we put out.
T-G: Obviously, the goal of any business is profit and sustainability for their family of employees. How do you balance this with creative and artistic pursuits?
Kondo: Falcom is a company that probably places more of an emphasis on the creative side of things than other companies. We know from the history of our company that if we create a game and it doesn’t sell a ton at the beginning, it will have a following and it will continue to grow over time, find its footing and eventually find its fanbase. Basically, it’s a commitment to creating a good quality game and then continuing to support it well into the future.
As you may know there are many Falcom titles on Steam. They are all highly rated and well received. And if you look at these games, for the most part, most are five years old or older. But they all still have people who praise them, are playing them and are enjoying them. The graphics are old, the resolution might be low, but the games, at their core, are fun. People like them because we set out to make a quality game, that’s essentially why they are well received and enjoyed.
This method of making games is perhaps not something that I could take to a large company and give a how-to presentation. They probably won’t say “yeah, that’s how we should do things too.” But at the very least, that method of thinking about how to create games is alive at Falcom. And that’s what we strive for when we make games.
T-G: The release of Tokyo Xanadu is a departure from the usual fantasy settings you have become known for? What was the impetus for a change to a contemporary context?
Kondo: So Falcom developed the Legend of Heroes and from that you have the Trails series, and Ys. So it’s kind of easy to see that Falcom enjoy making games that are part of a larger series. And when we are creating games that fit into a franchise, it’s not uncommon for idea to emerge that don’t quite fit within the series. These ideas that don’t quite fit is where the inspiration for Tokyo Xanadu came about.
For over thirty years our games have mainly centered on the fantasy genre, we’ve never really tried to make one set in modern times. So I was thinking about these things while we were having a meeting. One keyword that came up is ‘Tokyo”, but given that we deal mainly with fantasy, which is a place or concept that would never emerge in a game we would normally make. After having this first concept of Tokyo, the conversation shifted to the myriad of games and anime that use Tokyo as a backdrop. So I asked, “How do we make this a Falcom game- what can we do there?” One of the words that came up next was Xanadu from our old series of the same name. These two keywords of Tokyo and Xanadu were originally just concept words but become the title and theme of the game. It was something new that we did, it was a challenge, and I hope people will give the game a chance.
T-G: Back in 2009, Brandish: Dark Revenant added another entry to the long-running series. Can we expect to see more Brandish games in the future?
Kondo: There’s many fans of Brandish within the company and Brandish as game was before its time- it was quite cutting edge. At the moment, there are currently no plan to make another, but because there are fans there and because of how special and unique the game is, It’s definitely something we want to consider in the future.
T-G: Nihon Falcom has been very deliberate with their platform selections. You first started with the PC-88, PC-98, and X1 computers, before moving to Windows long before Steam grew in popularity. Since then you’ve also supported Vita and now PlayStation 4. How does the team assess potential platform choice?
Kondo: As you mentioned, originally we made a lot of games for various types of PCs. Part of the reason for that is the high level of freedom for the platforms. But suddenly, the PC market got a lot smaller and it was no longer as viable. So internally we asked, “where are all of these fans going?” The answer to that question was PlayStation platforms. All of our games might not have mass appeal. But one thing we do know is that some people like Falcom games more than say Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games. The idea is to find out where these fans are that love their games and what platform they are on. And we are constantly paying attention to that. So that’s kind of why we’ve decided to focus on PlayStation platforms for the time being.
There’s also the logistical point of view; Falcom is not a very big company. And so we have to carefully choose our focus, and work with partners. But ultimately, the goal is always to release the game and begin work on the next one.
T-G: As you know Sony no longer markets the Vita in the US, but the system has a loyal following, especially with gamers who appreciate Japanese games. Can we expect any future development from Falcom on the system?
Kondo: Actually, the Vita market in Japan is getting more and more difficult as well. But one thing we have to look at is the global market. Not just Japan, North America, but the rest of Asia as well. It’s really important to look at where our fans are, and that for example, that a lot to do with the decision to put Trails of Cold Steel III on the PlayStation 4, So definitely, the Vita is something we are shifting our focus away from at the moment.
T-G: One last question: If you could resurrect a dormant property from your company past, say Popful Mail or Zwei!! Which would be a candidate for restoration?
Kondo: Personally, I’m always saying that the series or the game I’d like to resurrect is Sorcerian. System-wise, the game gave a lot of freedom to the player and the scenario followed from the sense of freedom. In the contemporary world of online games and things like that, it’s something that could be realized really well. Personally, I’m a bit unhappy they we haven’t been able to create a new Sorcerian.
One of my personal hobbies is to figure out what’s possible today with games and think how that could shape a new Sorcerian. As soon as I gather enough staff that share my enthusiasm, we’ll start working on it.
Tech-Gaming would like to thank Mr. Toshihiro Kondo, Mr. Alan Costa,
and the team at NIS America for making this interview possible.