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A 30 Year Fantasy: The Story of Falcom's Resurgence

January 6, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Falcom isn't Japan's most prestigious or most successful development studio. The company's president, Toshihiro Kondo, admits that the Tokyo-based company doesn't have any big name developers. The way in which you are most likely to have heard of Falcom is thanks to the Ys games -- a long-running series of action RPGs, originally released in 1987, which has a passionate enough fan base that the games somehow keep coming out in the West.

The company itself has an interesting story. Originally founded in 1981 as Apple's official Japanese distribution partner for the Apple II computer, the company naturally transitioned into game development soon after. It had a string of early hits on Japanese computers, including Sorcerian, Xanadu and Ys.

Falcom primarily stuck to PC games throughout the 1990s and 2000s, even as the platform crashed in Japan. It finally made the leap to consoles -- specifically, the PSP -- in 2006, with a port of its PC title Sora no Kiseki, which was rechristened Trails in the Sky for its U.S. release last year.

Trails in the Sky was a surprise hit on the PSP in Japan, and lead to the property becoming the company's core franchise -- with follow-ups released directly to the PSP. In the wake of its success, Falcom has gotten serious about the Ys series once again too, with Ys Seven coming to the PSP, and a new game, Celceta no Jukai, slated for the PlayStation Vita.

These latest games were produced and dircted by Toshihiro Kondo, president of Falcom. He's been with the company since 1998, when he worked his way up from the IT department to become a developer and eventually take charge of the company, after being a long-time fan.

In this interview, Kondo shares his thoughts on why he thinks Falcom has enjoyed a resurgence in its popularity on the PSP, how the Western and social game markets are affecting the way he looks at game creation, why Falcom games have a particular aesthetic that's remained almost unchanged since the 1980s, and why the company typically focuses on one platform at a time.

What do you think of the current state of Falcom? What's the company's current philosophy?

Toshihiro Kondo: This is our current philosophy, but it's also a philosophy that we kept over the 30 years of our history: we carefully create our games with a lot of care and details. We're detail-oriented, and we've been doing that throughout the whole 30 years of our company history.

Falcom seems to carry the torch for the way games have been for a long time, and doesn't seem to change with fashions and trends in the industry.

TK: Whenever new people join the company, we don't educate our employees. We don't tell them what to do. However, when I joined the company 13 years ago, it was the same with me, too. Nobody taught me what to do. But I saw the titles that Falcom had developed up to that point -- the legendary games -- and I felt like they're there, and they're watching you. You feel the existence of those strong titles, so I naturally felt that I had to live up to that standard, and that kept me moving forward.

The company has that atmosphere -- strong feeling. People who enter the company will just naturally sense that, and just get on the same track as everybody else. That's probably the reason we've been carrying this torch for such a long time.

Are a lot of the staff at the company still the same people who you were involved in early days, or have they since left the company?

TK: You mean from the '80s?

From the '80s, yeah.

TK: Well, just a few people from those days.

I feel like there is a, Falcom aesthetic that's identifiable, and that has carried all the way till today, so it's kind of interesting to hear that.

TK: The reason for that is probably because people who join the company really like Falcom's games, so when they enter the company they come with full respect towards the games. They love the games, so they want to make them even better. They don't come in with the thoughts of making something totally different; they come in to try to evolve the games that they love. That's probably the reason you see "Falcomism" throughout our games.

There's a word in Japanese called "shinise". It refers to people who've been around the whole time, creating history. The traditionalists. There are rice cracker shops that have been around for 200 years -- the kind of people who have history.

Were you, yourself, a fan of Falcom's games? Is that why you joined the company originally?

TK: Yes, I was a big fan, and as a matter of fact, I had a fan site before I joined the company. I was a very big fan of Falcom and I had a fan site back in the day. Now I'm the president of the company, but some people still remember me from the fan site. So people write on the internet, "Is the president Kondo that Kondo, from the fan site?" People are really surprised and happy for me.

What was your favorite Falcom game from when you were a player, before you joined the company?

TK: Legend of Heroes III: The White Witch. It's my favorite game. I love the scenario and the characters. Actually, I had a fan site for this game. This was my favorite title. [Ed. note: find out more about The White Witch on Hardcore Gaming 101.]

It seems like recently the company's been concentrating very much on the Legend of Heroes games, in the form of the "Kiseki" series. Is that connected to the fact that you like them a lot?

TK: If I say it's my personal preference that would be a problem, so I don't want to comment on that. But Falcom has been creating our games on the PC for 30 years, and with Trails of the Sky, we ported the series to the PSP, and we gained a big fan base on the PSP. Because of that, that's the reason we are concentrating on the Kiseki series -- because we wanted to satisfy our fan base in the PSP market. That led us to publishing the recent game in the series, Zero no Kiseki, as an original PSP game.

That was one of your most successful games in recent years.

TK: When we first released Trails in the Sky, the PSP market wasn't as big as what it is right now, so it didn't sell too well. But after that, we put a lot of effort in selling the title, and also there were some elements of luck, like the PSP market growing. Because of that, when we released Zero no Kiseki, we were able to sell a lot of copies. The series got acknowledged more by fans. The latest title, Ao no Kiseki, came out in September.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Todd Boyd
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Couldn't find a blurrier picture? xD Anyhow... neat article! I remember playing Ys III: Wanderers from Ys back in the day. Fantastic RPG.

Christian Nutt
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Haha, unfortunately I had only my phone. But it's a cool pic! XD

E Zachary Knight
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"We are starting to realize that Ys is a popular series in the West. Up to this point, we were concentrating on the Japanese market, but now we're starting to understand the West a little bit. We are really happy that we are able to get the Ys series out in America, because by doing that, to be honest, we've begun to realize what parts of the games are lacking in effort. It was a good opportunity for us to notice that. "

One of the main reasons why I would think Western RPG fans love the Ys series so much is because they focus on the Japanese audience. Too many games are become Americanized and real fans would rather play the games the designers want to make, not what some marketing person thinks gamers want to play.

So continue on the design path you currently follow and don't waiver from it.

Robert Boyd
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Loved the interview. Also loved the comment that basically confirms Ys Vita for Western release. :)

Christian Nutt
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Bryson Whiteman
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This interview got my Friday off to a good start. Awesome stuff Christian!

Fox English
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I like the little jab at moe-themed PSP games in Japan. Devs realize thay have a terrible game design? No problem, just work on making the characters cute and/or sexy to cover up the fact!

It's nice to see a confirmation that they're working hard on getting Ys Celceta over here, even if it hasn't been officially announced yet. Aside from that, this was one of my favorite and most motivational interviews to read in years here.

Shawn Covington
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Thanks for this, this was an awesome read! I'll go ahead and echo a "whoohoo! We're getting an official Y's 4 in english finally!" at the Ys Celceta comment.

I think little things like Ys Celceta, and other classical style games are going to make the handheld race, well, a race, this time around. It's exciting news.

Leon T
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Doubt it as these games are not system sellers or even high sellers last time I checked.

Damien Garcia
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When did you last check Leon?

Mark Kilborn
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I've been an Ys fan for years, glad to see they're still kicking and getting the games out in the states. Great interview! Thanks for sharing!

Damien Garcia
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This is a fantastic interview.. Great story too. A guy who ran a fansite of Falcom, managed to get an I.T. gig at the company and worked his way up to president from there? That's amazing. Putting a face on this company helps, even if it's blurry.

Peter Hasselstrom
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I've been a big Falcom fan for probably 15+ years now. Their games have always had a unique feel compared to all other Japanese games as if they really didn't care about what other developers were doing and just did their own thing. The Ys series always had fast and skill based gameplay and the sci-fi nerd in me always appreciated how the last dungeon in all their series tend to be some sci-fi environment no matter what the theme of the game was.

Dave Endresak
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Great job, Christian!

I have always told people that Falcom is the "Rolls Royce" of RPG makers with their original Ys games from the 1980s. Ys 1&2 was the reason people spent $300 on a CDROM addon for the PCEngine (TurboGrafx-16 in America). Likewise, the original Phantasy Star was the reason people bought a Sega Master System even though the game cost $70 due to being the first game cartridge with a battery for saves. These games sold their systems. I hope that Kondo-san remembers all of us longtime supporters and promoters of Falcom. Love of Falcom in Western markets isn't a new thing. ^_^

I agree with Mr. Knight's reply above. Falcom needs to keep doing what they are doing because that's what the Western fans want. Some Japanese companies have made the mistake of thinking they need to adopt Western styles, but this approach ignores the fact that many Western gamers do not like Western styles (and vice versa for some East Asian gamers, of course). Diversity means supporting different styles rather than everyone trying to do the same thing.

I'd like to offer a comment about moe characters. I think that Kondo-san's response might be a bit indirect. After all, Falcom has always had moe characters, including the twin goddesses of Ys (Leah and Feena) and Lilia, one of the greatest heroines as a supporting character in all of gaming. Not to mention that moe can encompass other characters and is not limited to females, plus it is only one of many styles and many of the most popular moe character designers are women. According to Tadashi Ozawa, author of "How to Draw Anime & Game Characters: Bishoujo Game Characters," this last fact is why the characters have such a broad appeal across many demographics. Unlike what Fox English implies with his response, moe characters sell because they create an empathy with the audience. This is exactly what Western designers like Bethesda fail at with their character aesthetics. This is what East Asian game modder EomanV points out with the reason why s/he created the Shojo Race mod for Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas. I agree with Kondo-san that you do not adopt moe style simply to sell a game. However, the same is true for any style, not just moe. For example, you should not adopt a so-called "realistic" style simply to try to sell your game. Personally, I find the moe characters more realistic because I empathize with them, but I cannot empathize with the perceived "realistic" style so common in Western games. My sister is five years older than me and is the same; she won't even touch Western games. I think that any company needs to keep this perspective in mind when considering why their products appeal (or do not appeal) to their fans, especially if they are interested in expanding their market.

Shawn Covington
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The jab is not "Moe is bad", the jab is "Moe to cover up for lack of quality is bad".

Dave Endresak
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As I stated, the problem with the original post claiming that "moe to cover for lack of quality is bad" is that it singles out moe style as though that is the common culprit used to cover for lack of quality when the fact is that it is not, or at least not any more than choosing "realistic" to cover for lack of quality or any other style.

In other words, it is not true that using moe style to cover for lack of quality is bad. In fact, using moe may make up for lack of quality because at least moe allows for empathy with characters whereas so-called "realistic" (whatever that mean since such a view is subjective to each individual) not only covers lack of quality but also removes any potential for empathic connection with and caring about characters. In addition, the entire concept of "quality" is very subjective, anyway, aside perhaps from technical sophistication in animation or other technical aspects. However, technical quality does not mean that the overall work is actually any good aside from said technical elements. I'm sure that everyone can think of many films, novels, plays, music, and games where the technical elements are top notch but the entire work fails miserably.

I always find it interesting that people will point at moe as a problem but ignore Western art styles such as Pixar or Disney works where the exact same problem exists except using a different style. I am pointing out the need to be as unbiased as possible when pointing out a problem. The problem isn't moe style specifically, but lack of an entire work having all its elements come together as a whole and having overall quality. Gears of War might be a good example where the technical quality is a great tech demo, but the entire game is quite boring and I couldn't connect emotionally with any character or the events taking place.

Raun Tweedy
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You hit the nail right on the head about the Rolls analogy. Back in the day, Ys Book I & II for the TGCD was this really cool-looking, interesting, and mysterious game with a entry point way out of reach for me or any of my friends. I forgot all about the elusive game until a couple years back when I heard the Retronauts podcast on Ys/Falcom, and it put the name back in my head. Fast forward to earlier last year and I picked up Ys I & II Chronicles on the PSP sort of on a whim. I instantly loved it, and subsequently picked up The Ark of Napishtim and Oath in Felghana, with plans of picking up Seven in the near future.

I wonder if some kind of meta-nostalgia for a game I never got a chance to play as a kid is making me less objective, but I think from the love I've seen across the internets, I'm not alone.

Kudos to Mr. Nutt for this great article!

Alexander Brandon
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Awesome, awesome interview. I've been a fan of Falcom since the first Ys. Thanks for a great read!

Matt Hackett
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Makes me want to hook up my Turbo Duo and play Ys Books I & II… and to try the newer Ys games! I heard VII was great.

Yeong-Hao Han
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I'd love to hear more about his transition from developer to President of Falcom. That seems like an incredible story in this day and age. There must have been people who were at the company longer than he was. In the future, any insight into that would be great.