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Exclusive: Behind The Scenes Of Atlus'  Persona 4
Exclusive: Behind The Scenes Of Atlus' Persona 4 Exclusive
October 6, 2009 | By Persona 4 Team

October 6, 2009 | By Persona 4 Team
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this Gamasutra-exclusive postmortem, the Atlus team behind Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 -- most of which continued on from Persona 3 -- discusses its experience creating the acclaimed RPG, including a development overview as well as specific "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights.]

Our goal with Persona 4 was to create a title for young adults in a modern day school setting, but with appeal for a wide audience. For players who became fans of the series with the previous game, Persona 3, we retained gameplay basics that had proved successful, while adding an element of suspense. We hoped that a murder mystery plot in which a group of high school students pursued the culprit would connect with the players.

Many of the core members of the Persona 4 project were from the internal development team led by the director, Katsura Hashino. Their previous titles included Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, the Digital Devil Saga series, and Persona 3. The art director, Shigenori Soejima, joined the team during Persona 3. However, the rest of the staff, including composer Shoji Meguro, had been working together for about ten years.

Except for the animation, the game was done entirely in-house by the team. Our primary asset creation tools included 3ds Max 8, Adobe Photoshop, PaintTool SAI, and Adobe After Effects 6.5J, while design and effects were handled with our own internal tools.

(As a side note, the surgical action game Trauma Center: Under the Knife was also designed and produced by Katsura Hashino. A few members of that game's staff were assigned to form a new team, and since then, they have been handling the development of the Trauma Center titles.)

What Went Right

1. Critical acclaim: Persona 4 received high praise from both the media and the consumers. Our primary consideration when deciding what to change and what aspects of development to examine was the commitment to making this game better than the last. The players were generally satisfied with the game, and we feel confident as we move on to our next project.

2. Budget: The development cost was set at about the same level as that of Persona 3. To satisfy the consumers, we spent the majority of our resources on increasing the volume of features that the players liked, improving the game systems, and working on the story and characters (the two key components of an RPG). In the end, we were able to keep the number of omitted features to a minimum, while incorporating many changes and additions to reflect the opinions gathered toward the end of development.

3. Player feedback: We were able to carefully select many of the new features by internally evaluating the previous title and examining player feedback. By doing so, we could concentrate on making adjustments to the areas that were most crucial to the game's quality.

4. Team stability: We didn't make many changes to the roles of the development team members who continued on from the previous title. This gave each person a clear understanding of what issues needed to be addressed, allowing us to operate smoothly during development. It also allowed the various staff members to communicate effectively with the director.

5. New hires: Some of the new staff members who joined the Persona 4 development team were fans of Persona 3. They did a great job gathering feedback on the previous title and evaluating the content of the new game.

What Went Wrong

1. Storytelling challenges: It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to finish the intense, suspenseful story with as many twists as it has, as well as integrating the game's theme of "how one accepts information from the media." While it was fun creating the mystery novel-like scenario, we had no previous experience in working on such a plot, so we were making adjustments to the storyline until the very end.

Also, one of the villain characters changed in the middle of development; since the character design was done before the story change, the design did not reflect the fact that he was a villain.

2. Real-time weather design: Unlike in the previous title, Persona 4's time limit for each dungeon was affected by the in-game weather. We did this with the belief that such a system would create the feeling of urgency, since the player didn't know when damage-causing fog would appear.

However, when we implemented it in the game, players were inclined to make dungeon investigation their first priority. Their mentality was, "If I don’t know when the fog appears, I should finish the dungeon as soon as possible." As a result, dungeon crawling and working on the inter-character Social Links, which are equally important, became completely separate and imbalanced.

We tried to compensate by adjusting the weather, in-game messages and story progression, but that created an unexpected workload. A huge amount of data could not be finalized until the weather was set, but the weather kept changing due to our design adjustments.

3. Urban misconceptions: When we decided that the story took place in a rural town, we found out that each staff member had their own image of a rural town that was completely different from the others’. So we immediately held a meeting to discuss what the most typical rural town was like, and the entire team went out to various places for location hunting. This was the first time the development team conducted such a large-scale location hunt.

4. The QA time sink: We end up having this issue every development cycle, but doing QA for an RPG takes a significant amount of time. For example, it takes more than a month for the director to go through the entire game once, checking the content and giving feedback to the team.

We kept playing the game over and over again, as many times as possible, until the game went gold. The more time we spent on debugging, the harder it became for us to put ourselves in the mindset of how gamers would feel when playing the game for the first time. In the end, we all wish for our next project to be an action game.

5. Horizontal feedback process: About two months before finalizing the code, we had the entire team post comments and criticisms about the game on our internal development website. For Persona 4, the new staff members (most of whom were Persona 3 fans) made the biggest contributions to this process, and we ended up with close to 2,000 posts -- anything from fundamental problems to personal tastes.

We addressed more than 1,500 of those concerns in some way or another, but the staff kept making comments like "This should be changed like this," or "This part is no good." The design director who decided how to fix the issues and the staff members who implemented the fixes were on the verge of a nervous breakdown, begging, "Please... No more..."

Nevertheless, the game's quality increased and the consumer satisfaction was high, partially as a result of that internal feedback process, so we're glad that we did it -- but the thought of having to do it again for another project gives us chills.

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Aiden Eades
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I've just got to say, Persona 4 was an amazing game. Its a shame that they had no japanese voices with english subs in the english version because honestly, i cannot stand the english voice acting that they have for these games.

But all of that effort in to making the game really shone through, it was truely an amazing game, possibly one of the best rpg's i've ever played (even pushing its way past ff7) and right now i'm anxiously awaiting the announcement of persona 5, although i'm sure i can wait a little longer if that wait will provide time for another amazing title like persona 4.

Bruno Bulhoes
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I agree, Persona 4 was an amazing game that completely hooked me up for a month. Nice to see a postmortem (even if brief) like this.

It's interesting to know something that I previously suspected in while I played the game about story changes and tampered character roles. I can affirm though that the end result was pretty good, even if it was a problematic process.

Tom Newman
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Can't wait for a new SMT game - hopefully on PS3 or 360! P4 was one of the best yet!

Matt Marquez
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Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither urban areas in video games, too, apparently!

They want to focus more on action on the next game? I thought the story layout was interesting and hope to see Atlus really focus on that, as well.

Anddy Archer
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I'd like to chime in with praise for the english voice acting: Persona 4, to me, has some of the best quality english voice acting in the industry (localized or not). The shear amount of it and usage still astounds me and is the first thing new players notice when I show them the game. Sure, there are improvements to be had, but the story and how it is told really touches the player and makes the player wish there was more to play even after 99:59 hours of play time.

erica capers
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Persona 4 was an amazing game, a rare RPG with an engrossing story and fresh characters; with special applause for Kanji as a potentially gay tough guy. The English dubbing was excellent. The voices really fit the characters and added depth to their personalities. While I would also love the option of Japanese voices with subtitles, I think it's a little prejudice to insist that Japanese voice acting is always better. In some cases it is; in other cases, not so much. Fortunately in this game, the English dub is just as good, if not better.

brandon bales
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Barring understandably daunting QA quagmires, it's safe to say that we haven't seen the last of the SMT: PERSONA series, and the world is much the better for it. In eschewing the typical spiky hair, big sword frenzy set in motion by FFVII, etc., this series gives players a lot to experience, as well as ponder. I haven't played a game this lovingly crafted in ages. Thank you, Gamasutra for the piece, and thank you PERSONA team for the thousands of man-hours that really produced a game that goes beyond JRPG expectations. The leaps taken in this game from the third were incredible, and I can only assume that the next in the series will push the core dungeon crawling / social networking dynamic into even more rewarding and natural realms. Give us more PERSONA!

Ed Alexander
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I love you, Persona Team! <3

I really hope the rumblings about the 360/PS3 development are true. I would absolutely love to play Persona 5.

Also, I would have to agree with a few sentiments expressed here, please let us choose whether to use Japanese or English voice acting. It may eat some disc space, but it's something I find great and utilize any chance I get. Small as it is, it's one of my favorite little things about Disgaea 3.

jack mark
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Exclusive: Behind The Scenes Of Atlus' Persona 4 is a nice post.

Thank you