For nearly forty 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 The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III, we had the opportunity to speak with Falcom’s president, Mr. Toshihiro Kondo on listening to audiences, the success of their works overseas, and the difficulties of a simultaneous launch across different territories. What follows is the second half (the first can be found here), of an interview conducted before Anime Expo
Tech-Gaming: When a game is released, critics and consumers typically have a lot of say. How much of that is heeded and used for Falcom’s future designs, especially with sequels?
TK: We generally look at feedback for things that we ourselves may have noticed. Let me give you two examples, which are both from the Trails series. One is that things like movement had a tendency to be a little bit slow, so we implemented a “high speed mode” which is something that’s exactly like it sounds, you press a button, and everything moves much quicker, speeding up the pace of things.
The second was that combat was also kind of criticized for not being active enough. So, we took that into consideration as well, which you’ll see soon with Cold Steel 3. Battle is much more dynamic and speeder. On the other hand, we also receive feedback like, “Well, I don’t really care for this character”. We look at those things too, but honestly speaking, that ends up being a matter of personal preference to the player and we can’t really make a game dictated on what some people may or may not like. With things like that, we look at it, we consider it, but at the end of the day, especially when it comes to story or character, we going to make the kind games that we want to make.
T-G: Currently, many role-playing games sell just as well in the West as they do in Japan. Has this had any influence on your output?
TK: Well, we are Japanese developers and we develop from a Japanese perspective and a Japanese point of view. Honestly, sometimes we don’t quite understand the feedback we receive from Western fans. Let me give you an example from the Trails series. We often get requests to turn the series into an open-world style game. That’s something we can’t wrap our minds around because these games are so story focused. Events need to be seen in a certain order to get that emotional payoff that we want people to have. You wouldn’t be able to do this with those kind of things with an open-world style. With things like that we really just shrug our shoulders because we don’t know how to handle it.
On the other hand, when we received feedback on combat being slow, that was quite helpful. When feedback is related to the system it’s much easier to understand and ultimately to address. And that’s what we have actually done.
Another thing is character ages. This is actually something that we hear from quite a lot. Generally speaking, the ages of Japanese characters tend to skew a bit younger whereas people in the West kind of prefer older characters. It could be because I am getting older, but that’s something I am beginning to understand more. And since our games are well received in Japan, why don’t we consider making characters that are a bit older now? It’s exactly like you said, sales figures are increasing in the West. And honestly not just in the West but also across Asia. Our fanbase is growing to the point that you can’t ignore those voices. And who’s to say what will happen in 5 or 10 years from now, particularly with the way the Japanese market is trending. Maybe in 5 or 10 years, we’ll be making games predominantly for the West rather than now, where they’re made predominantly for Japan.
T-G: Often it takes months and sometimes years to localize a game for different territories? Has Falcom taken any steps to help reduce this interval?
TK: These are things that we are considering as we go forward in game development. To give you a little bit of background to why this is, well most of our games have an absolutely huge amount of text. I also think that in general, we develop games on a pretty quick turnaround time. The amount of time we actually have for development is on the shorter side, and therefore it’s not uncommon for us to be changing numerous things, as we get into the later stages of development. For those reasons we actually have a policy of not talking about localization or project partners, until the game is completed. Things are in such flux during development, so we don’t want to offer something that might end up changing later on.
In the past for Cold Steel I and II, we actually had a simultaneous release with Asia. But the truth is that the ones who localized it were Sony, actually. We had a ton of changes right up until the very end. It put a lot of pressure and stress on their localization teams, at least the people they were using for localization. If anybody knows anybody who can handle that, and wants to do publishing, we’d love to meet them. But by and large, we don’t like to put people through that. (laughs). After that, Sony never approached us for a simultaneous release. So that was something we need to work on.
To give you another example, with Tokyo Xanadu, the development time was only about a year. Within that, the first two and a half months or so was devoted to creating the scenario. But sure enough, as we developed the game, as we implemented different systems, we had to change a lot in regard to the [game’s] scenario. And that’s just not really tenable when working with a partner. So again, it is something that we need to address in the future but that’s the reality of how we develop games right now.
T-G: Let’s talk about role-playing games, a genre that that the team understands quite well. Naturally, they’re a synthesis of different elements, combining things like story, characterization, and battle mechanics. But if you had to choose the most important component what would it be?
TK: You know the thing about RPGs, even within these sub-genre of RPGs you can compartmentalize that even further into different types of role-playing games. I’d have to say that every game needs something different. So, I can’t point to one specific element that’s going to apply in every case when making a game. For example, I can tell you within our two flagship series, looking at the Trails series, it’s obviously the story. We believe that the players are there for the characters and the story. As such, we focus on those most of all to make a really good story with great characters. And actually, that story does come first and then informs different elements of the gameplay, in terms of combat, and the setting, and things like that.
Now on the other hand you take a series like Ys and it’s actually the exact opposite. The most important things for Ys is the responsiveness of combat; how combat feels, movement, and things like that. Therefore, we take that opposite approach. We think about the systems that we want to incorporate in a new Ys title, particularly, asking what kinds of things Adol will be doing from a gameplay perspective. And that informs what we’ll be doing for the setting and the location in the story.
But if I had to choose a single element, I’d say it’s more from a game design perspective. You know we are making players do lots of things, and often, overcome difficulties in that pursuit. Whether there’s a story payoff for some kind of gameplay path or something else, the thing is you need to give players a goal. Internally we call them, “treats”. For example, let’s say you have a large city in a Trails game. You’ve got a big map and you’ve got say, a distant back alley that’s part of the map. You have to give the player some kind of reward or a payoff for going back there, whether that be a treasure box or maybe some NPC standing there with an interesting story to tell. What we always tell our game designers is that you need to give the player a sense of reward. So, creating the game, thinking about how the player might respond in a given situation or where they might go on a map and having a payoff for every part of that is a very important element of game design. That doesn’t matter whether it’s the Trails or whether that’s Ys, it’s something for all our games.
T-G: While the game industry and its output are gradually maturing, it often seems that games might not have the respect given to other mediums, like literature or film. Yet, the quality and quantity of dialogue across the Kiseki series is excellent, rivaling the best works in other mediums in both quantity and quality. How can games garner more respect?
T-K: What I’d like to think is that when someone comes to the end of their life and they’re looking back on things, being able to say we made a really great game is what the goal would be. Every creator is going to have a different approach for how to reach that goal, but the truth of the matter is that so many games come out. When you look at something like smartphone games, I mean I doubt that anyone at the end of their life is going to say, “that was a great smartphone game”.
In order to get that respect, perhaps creators need to make something that will stand the test of time. That someone, at the end of their days, when they’re looking back at the cool things that they experienced, might be able to say, “that was gratifying”. Of course, it kind of depends on the game and everyone might think separately. And again, for say, the Trails series, it might be a story that resonated within you. For the Ys series, it might be the recollection of “that game was great. I remember how I felt when I played it”.
Tech-Gaming would like to thank Kondo-san, Mr. Alan Costa, and Erin Kim for their time
and assistance in conducting this interview, as well as Emi Nakamura for translation assistance.