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Interview: Xbox 360's Japanese Saviors Talk  Tales  Series
Interview: Xbox 360's Japanese Saviors Talk Tales Series
August 26, 2008 | By Christian Nutt

August 26, 2008 | By Christian Nutt
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Frequently cited as the third most popular RPG series in Japan -- after Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy -- the Tales series remains a sales champion in the east but something of an enigma in the west. Its sole breakout success was 2004's Tales of Symphonia on the Gamecube.

Good news for the series: the team behind that game releases its first next-gen RPG, Tales of Vesperia, in North America this week -- following its record-breaking sales for an Xbox 360 game in Japan, and a resultant hardware bump that meant Microsoft's console is -- at least briefly -- out of stock in Japan.

In addition, to be released in North America in November is Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, a sequel to the game that is most closely associated with the series in the minds of U.S. fans.

Here, Gamasutra talks with Namco Bandai's Hideo Baba, the Tales brand manager, and Tsutomu Gouda, the producer of both games, about the development process of the series and how the games are conceived and executed within the studio.

Tsutomu Gouda, producer, Symphonia (Wii) and Vesperia (360)

Tales of Vesperia is the first next-generation Tales game running in HD. Engine development must have been difficult. Can you talk about the priorities you had in developing this engine technology?

Tsutomu Gouda: We did consider if we should employ photorealistic direction or toon shading. Once we decided to go for toon shading, the development was rather smooth. I feel we've met our goal of displaying a lot of different objects on screen, keeping the overall quality high and maintaining the speed of our battle sequences.

It seems that the engine for the original Tales of Symphonia was ported to the PS2 and re-used for Tales of the Abyss, but its performance was not as high on that platform. Are you making it a priority to make sure that the TOV engine better supports multiplatform development?

TG: The Vesperia engine was actually created by a lot of the same team members that created the Symphonia engine, so we benefited greatly from their experience. Since we're now aware of the value of having a flexible engine, this new system can easily be applied to a variety of different platforms.

Did you ever consider using middleware when developing this game, or was your intent to develop your own engine and tools?

TG: When we started the project, we didn't have a preference -- we just wanted to the find the solution that would help us best meet our goals. After a lot of research, we decided to take the in-house route.

Can you explain why you did not decide to use middleware?

TG: Most importantly, we chose not to use outside middleware because they were not as effective in helping us meet our development goals. Since we had a very specific look for the game in our minds, it was easier for us to just handle this work on our own.

Additionally, there were concerns with the risks associated with our project potentially being so dependent on an outside service provider.

Several Japanese developers we've spoken to have said that they don't think Western engine technology is well-suited to developing Japanese games. Do you have any thoughts on that issue?

TG: To me, it's more about user preference than the technology. While there are plenty of western engines that are suitable for first person shooters, these games are not as well received in Japan as they are in the west. The same can be said for RPGs.

While MMOs have been well received in the west, Japanese RPGs have not. I suppose that engines designed for first person shooters may not be the best decision for developing a game in Japan, given the territory's tastes.

In the past, Japanese development teams often created technology for each game they made, but that's getting less and less feasible as development costs increase. Have you had to change your philosophy on development at all to account for this?

TG: Initially, our development style was on a per-project basis. As a result, we designed engines and/or tools whenever developing a new game -- which was inefficient. Not only do the costs increase, but the fact that modern engines and tools have versatility have helped us move away from this strategy.

My philosophy has always been to streamline whenever possible and make the rest proprietary, and it hasn't been changed.

Can you talk about the technologies, such as shaders, that help define the visual look of Vesperia? As a high definition anime-style game, the visuals are very distinctive.

TG: Up to Tales of the Abyss, shaders on the character faces were "drawn-shaders," but in Vesperia they are all created with the drawing engine. There was a lot of trial and error until reaching the current visuals, including shaders.

I also remember being unsure of the scope and how much detail could be depicted on a HD console, just because we had so much more processing power to work with than in previous projects.

With Vesperia, you've said that you set the age target for the game a bit higher than the series typical range. Why did you do that? And, for that matter, how do you do that?

TG: The first thing was the main character's age, along with storyline themes and settings. Speaking of the characters, most protagonists in the previous
Tales series were still coming of age.

By starting with a clean slate, the audiences could see character's growth. On the other hand, in Vesperia, our main character Yuri has an established personality and his own pre-existing beliefs.

Was the success of [Gamecube title] Tales of Symphonia in the U.S. a reason you decided to develop its follow-up?

TG: We decided to develop a follow up to Tales of Symphonia because of its popularity in both the U.S. and Japan markets.

Did the reaction of US audiences to Tales of Symphonia have any influence on the development of the Tales series moving forward? Was there something U.S. users liked about the games that surprised you?

TG: We were very pleased with the success of Symphonia as the first 3D Tales game, and it resulted in the release of Tales of the Abyss and Tales of Vesperia. I was actually very surprised that a Japanese RPG sold so well in the west.

There are certainly many factors that contributed to such sales, but we have yet to find all the elements. We just know that there are a certain collection of elements that made it tremendously appealing to a wide range of consumers.

This game doesn't seem to follow closely in the footsteps of the last one in some ways -- for example, the fact that you can have monsters in your party. Why change things, particularly when Symphonia was one of the most popular games in the series so far?

TG: From a gameplay standpoint, there were a lot of new elements that we really wanted to try and implements, such as the monster recruitment mechanic you mentioned. While these would be seen as a radical shift of focus in a traditional Tales game, approaching the title as a spin-off gives us the confidence to freely attempt these new systems.

What sort of challenges has bringing the Tales series to the Wii offered?

TG: Because there was no such existing game on the market, we put emphasis on being a true Tales RPG rather than following the trend and making it a casual game. We made the game based on the strategy that it would eventually stand out and be differentiated by throwing it to the category with few existing titles in the market.

Do you feel that a Wii game has to have a strong element of motion control to be a creative success on the system?

TG: I don't think it's an essential factor. For some cases, the game could be more interesting by using the motion control, but for other cases, it's not.

Actually, an RPG game that I am currently producing called Fragile: Sayonara Tsuki no Haikyo in Japan has motion control that does help the unique experience that only Wii can provide, but it's not essential for all titles.

Do you plan to add in motion control features into Symphonia? If so, how important are they?

TG: Motion control is used for the special attack short cuts, moving characters, and moving the cursor. For Symphonia, the overall importance is relatively limited.

Why did you decide to use motion capture for the characters in Wii Symphonia? The rest of the series is hand-animated.

TG: The Tales series is a long-running franchise, so we wanted to challenge ourselves by trying something new with motion capture. So far we have been pleased with the realistic sense of expressiveness it brings to our story sequences.

Hideo Baba, Tales brand manager

The Tales series is about to hit its tenth anniversary in the US, but the series hasn't been nearly as popular as it has been in Japan. What do you think about that?

Hideo Baba: We consider the North American 10th anniversary as a major milestone in the west and have already started anew to establish the franchise. We are aware that the series does not have the same degree of popularity gained in Japan, but we hope you look forward to the future Tales games.

Have you changed your development tactics to try and increase the series' popularity in the west?

HB: There have been no drastic changes for development actually. Regarding Tales of Vesperia, we have been able to improve the classic Tales visuals and gameplay from past iterations because of the power in Xbox 360. Tales' hand-drawn animated direction will probably always be the basic direction the series follows.

However, with the advancement of technology, we are able to reach the fidelity of animation seen on television and movies, making it more appealing for a western audience. Of course there is always the possibility of new development tactics you've never seen before in the near future.

Have you considered download platforms such as Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, or WiiWare as a place for the Tales series to expand? These services are popular in the West.

HB: We are frequently asked this question by the press outside of Japan. We have studied the potential of download services, but in order to expand to those areas we'd have to plan and adjust from the concept stage at the beginning to see how well DLC can fit with the game.

The reason for this is because RPGs rely so much on their storyline as a crucial part of gameplay.

The games so far have featured very typical story and gameplay progression for Japanese RPGs. The skits are a bit of an innovation, however. Have you considered other ways of telling a story in an RPG, or are you happy to continue with the traditional path you've been working with so far?

HB: As long as we are making games under the overall Tales brand, we'll continue to follow the existing direction while introducing new mechanics like we have in the past with cooking and our battle system.

I'm sure there are a lot of gamers in the U.S. and Europe that think that Japanese RPGs are all the same, probably because they did not grow up surrounded by our culture of anime. However, we actually see an incredible amount of variety in the genre, and are proud of how we have continued to improve Tales over time.

One thing creators of sequels often say is that creating a game that will appeal to the fans of previous games is crucial. But keeping a series from getting stagnant is also a major consideration. How do you balance that, particularly as your series seems to have a very passionate fan base?

HB: Exactly -- when gamers have a great and memorable experience with your game, it is natural to crave something similar the next time. It's a lot like visiting a restaurant you really like -- perhaps you tried the steak once and really enjoyed it, so the next time you go there, you'll try the fish.

Can you talk about the structure of Namco Tales Studio? We're generally aware that there is Team Destiny and Team Symphonia, but nobody really seems to understand more than that.

HB: Namco Tales Studio is an affiliate subsidiary of Namco Bandai Games, Incorporated, and a primary developer of the Tales series with some exceptions. Talking specifically about the team, we have two main internal groups. Team Destiny is a 2D based development team that created Destiny and Destiny 2, etc.

Team Symphonia is the 3D based development team and they have worked on Symphonia and Abyss and is now working on Vesperia. We don't precisely draw a sharp contrast between them except for the core members since certain positions vary as needed depending on the development status.

Some Tales games are developed externally. Can you talk about how you work with developers to keep the feel of the series consistent across all titles?

HB: The most important element for an external developer should be affection towards the series. They should also be familiar with the series' characters, prominent themes and gameplay systems very well. We can always count on Alfa System to keep the series' consistency. With these elements in mind, development should run smooth with constructive discussion and new ideas.

[Ed. note: Alfa System is the external studio which handles the development of the majority of the portable Tales series games.]

The Tales series has a mix of games that follow directly (Destiny and Destiny 2, or Symphonia and Symphonia Wii) and games that stand alone (Vesperia, Legendia, Abyss). How do you make the decision on whether you're going to make a sequel that stands by itself or continues a prior story?

HB: That decision is usually based on consumer feedback. The continuation of themes, settings and characters from previous titles is not always easy since we don't normally prepare our scenarios for sequels.

The LMB battle system seems to be something that is incrementally upgraded throughout the series. Have you ever hit on a formula where you feel like "this is it" and it's perfected, or is there always room for improvement?

HB: Each title reaches a point where we have thoroughly worked on its ideas and balancing so that we feel there is no room for improvement in our given schedule. Since battle scenes dominate RPG playtime, we must build a system that users don't grow tired from. The completion rate of real time battles in the game must also be high. This is a more difficult task than you might initially think! Even if we believe the battle system is perfected, different ideas occur whenever we start creating a new game, which leads to further refinements.

Fantasy RPGs like the Tales series have a certain worldview that's very different from many of the popular games in the west like shooters and crime games. Do you think that makes them more refreshing to players, or is it a challenge to overcome?

HB: Hmmm, that's a tough question. Maybe neither of them I suppose. What I find it important is that the entire gaming industry is stimulated by having many different genres with their own fans. So RPGs like the Tales series are not out there to overcome other genres and vice-versa.

Finally, who writes the scenario for the Tales RPGs? How is that process handled -- is there someone who oversees scenario writing, or are writers contracted to work on a specific game?

HB: We ask different writers on a per-project basis. While planning the new title's concept, we talk to a writer we feel to be the most suitable for the title's basic themes. We do have in-house writers, and there are times we ask for freelancers. Mr. Miyajima has frequently worked for us on Symphonia, Abyss, and so on.


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