Sands of Destruction is a new DS RPG from Sega and Image Epoch, titled World Destruction in Japan, where it came out in 2008, and due for North American release in January 2010.
The game is notable primarily for its scenario writer, Masato Kato, who also wrote the scenario for Chrono Trigger, and for composer Yasunori Mitsuda, who wrote most of the music for Chrono Trigger, and Chrono Cross, and has completed a number of other highly-acclaimed scores.
The scenario surrounds a young man with the power to destroy the world, and a girl who's trying to convince him to do so. To this interesting mix, the team added traditional RPG elements and character archetypes, as well as a rather complex battle system.
In this interview, we spoke with Image Epoch president Ryoei Mikage, and Sands of Destruction Sega producer Yoichi Shimosato about creating RPGs in the flooded DS market, the scenario writer's process (which mirrors the collaborative style of film director Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone), and why the game's original scenario was cut and reworked.
What’s it like making a new RPG in Japan these days? There are a lot of RPGs coming out for DS - how did you go about trying to differentiate yourself from the beginning?
Yoichi Shimosato: Actually, there wasn't any specific ambition or big goal for this game, but each person, Sega, Mr. Mikage from Image Epoch, Mr. Kato the scenario writer, and Mr. Mitsuda the composer all got together and said, "We want to make a great RPG."
Each of those particular people have their own ambition and motivation toward what a great RPG would be, so when they got together, they started talking, and that's how Sands of Destruction was formed.
Did Image Epoch feel any pressure to make it a “Sega-like” RPG?
Ryoei Mikage: No. None at all. Because Sega's not necessarily known for RPGs... we were able to create what we wanted to.
With Kato (scenario writer), what was his process for the writing? Did you present him with a specific idea or just say, "Hey, we want an interesting scenario for this"?
RM: Our only request to Kato was that it not be a traditional storyline, something that's different, something that's unique, and something that goes against the standard. Mitsuda, Kato, Image Epoch, and Shimosato from Sega were all geared up to do a great RPG together.
How it turned out was that Mitsuda came up with a composition, with music that he felt would be appropriate for a great RPG. And listening to that music, Kato came back with a storyline, which was per request not the typical, traditional storyline. And then Sega and Image Epoch took that and made that into a game.
I was going to ask if Kato's scenario influenced the game design, but it sounds like it was more that Mitsuda influenced the game design ultimately. Is that the case?
RM: Mitsuda and Kato are actually really, really good friends, and they always work very well together and very near each other. So, for example, Mitsuda would come up with a piece of music, and then Kato would take that and write a scenario. Then he'd say, "Well, actually, my scenario is turning out to be this way, so maybe your music could fit this better." And then they would work together that way.
This may be a difficult question, but the high concept of the game, where you are a character who is being compelled to end the world, is very interesting. But why take that and add some very, very traditional RPG fetch quests and anime characters and things like that?
RM: So this is probably the same in Japan, Europe, and the U.S., but the ratings boards -- for Japan, it would be CERO -- have been cracking down on the game industry. It's been becoming more and more difficult to make games that are kind of out-there.
So, for this game in particular, Kato’s original scenario actually came back saying... In the final game, humanoids are ruled by the ferals, the beast men. The humans were food for the beast men in the original scenario, and there were scenes in there where the beast men would actually eat the humans.
Obviously, that would be rated Z in Japan. But for an RPG on the DS, the board felt that it would be more appropriate for the actual gameplay content to be something that even kids can pick up and play.
That’s unfortunate -- if you had U.S. or Europe as the target market, you would not have had to change that. You would have gotten a Teen rating, maybe, but it certainly would not have been for mature audiences only.
YS: I agree. In my opinion, because this game was made specifically more for the Japanese market, it was appropriate the way we made it. But if it was more geared toward the Western audience, then, as you said, the original idea would have been more fun and compelling.
It seems that in RPGs, battle systems are getting more and more complex, and have more interlocking elements and things players have to think about. Do you all view that as a good thing or a negative thing?
RM: [laughs] For Image Epoch, we’re working on up to four titles a year, and those four RPGs vary from very casual to more in-depth, more difficult RPGs, so it's very difficult for us to say which is better, but both Image Epoch, and Shimosato from Sega believe that it's more about who your target audience is.
So, if the RPG is geared toward a casual gamer with a lighter storyline, then an easier battle system would be more appropriate. But if it's a deeper game, a more complex one, than a more challenging one would be more appropriate.
When you're creating a new RPG, do you begin with core concepts that you want to get across? Or do you start with a feature spreadsheet? Or do you start with a battle system concept? How do you actually start building a new RPG from the ground up?
RM: Because Image Epoch is a young company and the staff is also very young as well, we've changed a fair bit since last year. So, last year, it was more of “let's learn from the big RPG titles that we respect, and learn from them and build from them.” Since then, in a sense, we’ve finished with our studies of the older RPGs.
And this year, for titles that we have yet to announce but that they're working on now, you'll be seeing newer applications of what we learned last year with battle systems that you've probably never seen before. So, in terms of our past titles, you would have to look at each title specifically and see how it was built. But I can say that with the games that we’re building this year, we’ve started from the battle system.