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GDC 2007 Event Coverage

March 8, 2007

GDC: Square Enix Gives Rare Technical Glimpse At Final Fantasy XII

A postmortem discussion on Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XII was held early this afternoon, led by the game’s programming supervisor Taku Murata. Also present was co-director and real-time graphics director Hiroshi Minagawa, along with lead realtime rendering programmer Yoshinori Tsuchida.

It should be noted that this was a postmortem on the technical aspects about the game, and not a reflection on the inner politics of Square Enix that eventually led to original game designer Yasumi Matsuno’s departure.

Before getting to the main content of the talk, Murata announced that Final Fantasy XII has sold more than 5 million units worldwide, and that it has garnered many awards from various publications.

With that in mind he wished to discuss what he felt helped the game achieve this success. The first thing “the team” tried to consider was what they consider the core ingredients of Final Fantasy. The narrowed down the key ideas to innovation, quality and volume.

Considering each area individually, Murata said that it was decided the innovation for Final Fantasy XII would be a seamless battle system. “We decided that was the core. In other game genres this is normal, so you may think that is not innovation at all.”

He pointed out, however, that traditional command based RPGs were very friendly to gamers who were not good at action games, and that they didn’t want to make a battle system that would totally alienate those players, saying, “It has to be easy for anyone to play.”

For the quality side of his triumvirate, Murata said that graphics were the main focus, and that the difficulty in that arena was that, being the third game in the series on the PlayStation 2, the expected standards would be very high.

He showed a slide of two of the main characters from the game, Ashe and Vaan, which indicated how many polygons they could devote to each – approximately 1479 for Ashe, and 1487 for Vaan – both close to their limit of 1500 polygons, though still relatively low by most game standards.

Discussing volume, he referred to the many unique in game assets produced for the game. Some numbers he gave out included 250 monsters, 30 bosses and 1000 NPCs. As a comparison, he pointed out that Final Fantasy X had just over 200 NPCs.

Murata cautiously added that the risk of aiming for high volume was that it would invariably lead to a long production period, and by the time of release the game would be out of date graphically, and indeed Final Fantasy XII was released nearly two years after its initial release date.

Murata indicated that the balance between these three ideals was difficult to achieve between the severe memory restrictions of the PlayStation 2, and the heavy processing load that resulted from the seamless battle system. Breaking down this philosophy into actual staff deployment, Murata showed a diagram that estimated about 70 percent of the workload was artwork, 15 percent game design and 10 percent engineering.

The microphone was then handed over to Hiroshi Minagawa to discuss more specifically some of the tools used to create the game. Commercial software used included Maya, Softimage, Photoshop, OTPiX and iMageStudio. In addition to this, however, a number of in-house tools were created to assist in using these commercial programs.

The issues and questions that led to the designing of these tools was the desire to be able to see what the image quality would be when displayed on a TV using the PlayStation hardware - “Is the resolution of the texture correct? Is it used too little or too much?”

Many of these programs' functions were, for instance, the ability to modify and update game assets such as textures and lighting directly to a PlayStation 2 development kit running the game engine.

To go into more detail, Yoshinori Tsuchida discussed the programs created. The first one discussed was Model-San, a tool for model vfx that allowed the team to dynamically add textures to the game engine. They also created ZEEK3, a 2d animation pattern editing tool, used for such things as the 2d material in particle effects. It was specifically designed to account for frame fate and texture limits of the PlayStation 2.

For what Tsuchida described as “time effects,” there was Effect-Chan. He described it as a particle editor for time based effects such as hitting an enemy, magic effects, or the dust that appears when someone is walking. In addition, it was also used for camera control, sound and controller vibrations.

Continuing in the 'Chan' series was Motion-Chan, their in-house tool for characters. Its most important feature, according to Tsuchida, was motion compression which could be switched between automated or user controlled.

Summarizing what they felt was their great achievement in the technical development of the game was “the ability to preview [assets] on the hardware that the game will be running on."

Murata finished the talk by saying that though he felt the tools allowed each team to focus and work well on their own tasks, there were problems with coordination between the teams, which is something they will keep in mind for the future.

Though the lack of juicy gossip concerning Yasumi Matsuno’s departure from Square-Enix was disappointing, the talk was interesting for the fact that Japanese game developers rarely openly discuss design tools or methodology. And with their announcement of their in-house White Engine being used in addition to the Unreal 3 engine for future projects, we can only hope that more Japanese developers will follow suit in sharing information that can help others design better games.

POSTED: 03.36PM PST, 03/08/07 - Chris Woodard - LINK