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Interview:  Dragon Quest  Creator Horii Talks Evolving Appeal With  DQIX

Interview: Dragon Quest Creator Horii Talks Evolving Appeal With DQIX

July 15, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

July 15, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
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[As Dragon Quest IX debuts in North America, Gamasutra talks to noted franchise creator Yuji Horii about evolving the franchise, the changes that portability and network functions bring, and his hopes for Western success.]

Dragon Quest is one of the longest-running and most venerated franchises not only in Japanese-made games, nor even in the RPG genre, but in gaming in general.

The series, almost a quarter-century old, has always enjoyed explosive popularity in Japan -- and the ninth installment saw a launch weekend there of over two million units, more than its popular predecessor, Dragon Quest VI, sold in its first full week.

And before it had even launched outside Japan, the game was the best-selling title for the entire global third quarter with nearly 4 million units sold. Despite this, the franchise's U.S. fanbase has always been much smaller.

Thanks to graphical and tech advances, the flexible DS platform, and new multiplayer modes, Square Enix and the game's creator, Yuji Horii, hope that Dragon Quest IX -- thus far enjoying a warm critical reception on Western shores -- can make some strides for the franchise outside of its home turf.

The title strongly drove DS sales in Japan, doubling hardware unit sales week over week when it launched, so it makes sense that Nintendo backed the game's Western launch with a big event at its World Store in New York City's Rockefeller Plaza.

Fans attended in costume, getting their photos snapped with a giant inflatable Slime -- and Horii himself was on hand to greet gamers and meet with the press.

Gamasutra sat down with Horii to ask him about evolutions on his approach to the franchise over the years, the unique possibilities portability and network functions bring to Dragon Quest IX, and how he's continued to balance the task of attracting new fans with satisfying the stalwarts.

This is the first game in the Dragon Quest series that debuted on a handheld. Why’d you pick the DS?

For the DS, one of the things that was really great was the multiplayer mode – it allows you to play the multiplayer online mode, and really has a high threshold for online play. Another thing is that because it is portable, two people can just turn it on and connect on multiplayer.

Were you happy with what you were able to accomplish with the DS?

Yes, definitely. With DS you don’t have to be stuck in front of the TV, you might be laying down… it’s very flexible in the time you can spend playing, and how you can play… so I believe it is fitting to this day and age.

Do you think there’s been a permanent shift away from home consoles to portables in Japan?

In Japan, definitely from the home console there’s a shift… to the portable device. One of the things it allows you to do is you can actually meet in person and play the game together. Instead of just typing you can also chat face to face while playing the game. It allows you to experience the game that way.

Another thing is that, let’s say in a Japanese living room there’s a 50” TV right there… that is kind of for the family. Maybe you might feel guilty hogging up the TV by yourself playing games. With the portable device it allows you to enjoy the family space while still playing your own game.

Were you happy with users’ reaction to the network functions?

Yes, definitely I’m happy with it. The first Dragon Quest came about 25 years ago. At the time, the people that were playing were elementary school age. These people are now becoming parents, and these parents are now able to teach their kids how to play. By multiplayer mode they can actually go into each other’s game and teach each other in-game.

It seems that in Japan, the Tag Mode got more attention than the actual multiplayer. Is that true? Why?

It is true. I think people in general enjoy that this Tag Mode is not a lot of commitment... it allows you to experience the game just by passing by other people. Another thing that I would like to mention is that treasure maps, by doing Tag Mode, rare treasure maps can be exchanged. There was one really rare map I distributed through a timed event, at it caused a social phenomenon. People would bring their DS and go on a real-time adventure to get this map. The virtual world and the real world came together into one.

Do you think that’s an increasing part of the future of gaming, where real-world objects and events start to play a role? Portable devices are becoming more prominent, and as you mentioned there’s room for face-to-face multiplayer, games that use a real-world camera…

I wondered about that. I think for any person it’s more interesting when the real world is integrated into the virtual world. There are cases like people that met on online games actually getting married.

How do you keep things fresh when working on such a long-running series?

At first it was difficult, because RPG wasn’t really understood. so it wasn’t that popular when the game first came out. Before, I was a writer at Jump.. at the time it had 6 million circulation – and so I kind of used that medium to explain what RPG is about. From there, I really wanted to achieve… if they understood what the game is about then they can find it fun and interesting. From there, I could work on its shape. By DQIII it really became a huge hit.

I myself do not read manuals. I wanted to create a game where you don’t have to read the manual, but as you play you understand the game and the attractiveness of the game. I kept that format all through the series, but new features – for DQIX, the multiplayer mode, Tag Mode, and the ability to expand it with additional quests -- and in that sense there are new features that are added to it.

The Dragon Quest games must enjoy some audience overlap with the Final Fantasy games, but the latter series releases installments and spinoffs far more often. Why do you take so much time between installments?

For one thing, I work slower! But importantly, in the case of Final Fantasy, there are multiple teams that can be working on the games. There are multiple things that can be progressing at the same time. For Dragon Quest, Mr. Sugiyama, Mr. Toriyama and myself are really working with one team. So that is another reason.

Since the Dragon Quest series generally doesn’t carry over its setting or characters from title to title, how do you approach creating the story for each title?

Each title, there is a lot of thought process that gets put in, and each time we do use a different type of theme. For example, in Dragon Quest V generations of family went to battle against the monsters. For Dragon Quest VI, what I really wanted to do was create a never-ending story, so that you can clear the story but continue to play… and also for the character, I approached the angel character because I thought that people can associate themselves easily that way.

Is there a single theme that unites installments of the franchise? For example, I feel that all Final Fantasy franchise titles prize dealing with the complexities of global war and the balance of the powerful versus the small by illustrating the relationships between people.

Yes, somewhat. I believe there is some type of universal message, like love for humanity, or the importance of keeping on trying. But I don’t really like to come out and push that, or shove it down anyone’s throat. But there is that type of message there. For DQIX, the theme was more [about] growth. So your main character grows, and there are different little stories, and the addition other characters that show the character’s growth and independence.

Rather than realistic graphics, the DQ series usually tries to approach realism through its characters and writing – can you talk about that creative approach? For example, very minor characters in towns often are written with an eye to their relationships or backgrounds. That’s very different from the usual approach in the U.S.

Yes, it’s for realism. One of the things about the DQ series is that even the conversations and what people say… there is a detail to it and it’s really important in the game, too. I put a lot of energy into those creations.

DQ has a very established audience. How much do you have to keep the audience in mind when working on new installments?

This is a difficult thing to achieve. It is true that there are some people who might grow out of the series, and that what we like to focus on also is to create more of a younger audience too, and on appealing to younger, new audiences.

So of course a fan grows up too in age… if you continue to try to get on the same level as the growing fans, then it will be difficult for newer player to come in and play it. So I really strive to make a game where new people can come in and hop into the new game and pick up and play.

Early in your career you had other titles such as the Port Pier Serial Murder Case or, later, Chrono Trigger, but it’s been just Dragon Quest for years now. Are you ever interested in working on other games?

For the Dragon Quest series, there’s so many titles, so there’s quite a lot of work to be done. Moving forward I can’t really say. There are board games and adventure games that are being made for DQ too. If there’s time… and energy, then I would like to look into other opportunities. But there is a lot of work to do.

The Dragon Quest series has never been as popular in the U.S. as in Japan. Why, do you think?

One thing initially was the language barrier. Because Dragon Quest, when it first came out, graphically it was more symbols, so the attractiveness of the game was more to do with the wording and the dialogue. There was a lot of wordplay that was difficult to convey. Now the mechanics have changed, and there are better graphics, and I really hope that DQIX will change that for the Western market.

Does it matter?

For me it’s not the matter of the sales… but because I create it I want more and more people to be able to enjoy it and play and have fun with it.

What would you say is the biggest factor in the gap between Eastern and Western audiences?

I don’t think there’s really that much difference. Rather, the difference between the U.S. and Japan is that the culture is different. In Japan, everyone plays games. In the U.S., there’s a bigger gap between gamers and non-gamers. If the U.S. non-gamers can enjoy a game, I think the fun and attractive parts of a game are universal.


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