Why were there no inns in I Am Setsuna? What’s up with the lack of world map? And will the team’s next game have a bit more... variety?

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After finishing Tokyo RPG Factory’s debut game a couple of weeks ago, I contacted Square Enix in hopes of chatting with the folks who made it, and eventually set up a phone interview with the game’s director, Atsushi Hashimoto. Speaking through a translator, Hashimoto answered my burning questions about development challenges, small teams, and what his next game is going to look like. (It probably will be a original new game rather than a sequel to Setsuna.) It was a fun Q&A, so here’s the whole thing.

Interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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Schreier: Now that the game has been out in the wild for a few months, how are you feeling? Are you happy with the reaction so far?

Hashimoto: First I wanted to say thank you for playing the game. For the Western reaction, we created I Am Setsuna based on the thought that there are many RPG fans out in the world. And by releasing the game, we were able to really realize that there are in fact RPG fans in the world as we’d imagined. And so just to know that there are people there who have the same sentiment as me and my team, I’m just happy to know that truth.

Schreier: Was there any reaction you saw that made you think, ‘Oh this is legitimate criticism, this is something we should keep in mind for the next game’? Can you give an example of some good feedback you got?

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Hashimoto: There has been a lot of feedback, not only from the Western audience but the Japanese audience as well. For example, we’ve been told a lot that users wanted to see more of the story, they wanted to dive deeper into it, they wanted to know more about it. So I feel that there may have been some things that we may have been able to improve for this title on that front. The characters right now are likable and I think they are very empathizable already, but I feel that there may have been something more that we could’ve done to make it more satisfactory for the users. And that’s one criticism that I want to utilize for future titles.

Schreier: Gameplay-wise, looking back at I Am Setsuna, is there anything you wish you had done differently, any choices you would like to take back?

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Hashimoto: The tutorials were a little bit weaker [than we would’ve liked]. There weren’t that many things in the game that would direct the users to go from here to there, like if there’s an event happening somewhere, the game didn’t really tell you where to go or what was happening where. That was actually deliberate on our end, because we were trying to have that ‘90s RPG feel in it. But admittedly it was probably a little bit hard to understand or hard to play. And so in the future, we’d like to keep looking into keeping that ‘90s feel but still wanting to make it a little more accessible, user-friendly in the future.

Schreier: I actually think, in my experience, playing the game and reading a lot of feedback on the Western side of things, I think people liked that they weren’t told exactly what to do next, but they had more issues with the lack of tutorials in combat, and the stores, and some of the specific mechanical parts of the game, as opposed to telling you what to do with the story.

Hashimoto: The battle system and the other systems that you mentioned, that was actually a little bit included in the previous answer that I gave. We really wanted to have that added depth of gameplay, and that is why it ended up as it is in I Am Setsuna. But just as you said, there were a lot of comments that said it was a little bit hard to understand, it was a little bit difficult. And that’s something that we need to reflect upon, we need to really try to improve next time. And I do feel that we didn’t have enough of a feel-good element in these battles because of that difficulty, and we really want to improve that moving forward.

Schreier: One of the things I find really interesting about Tokyo RPG Factory is that you’re a really small team. And so it seems like resources are limited and this game’s development was really short compared to a lot of bigger RPGs. Are you happy with that? Do you prefer to work with a smaller team, or do you hope to see Tokyo RPG Factory expand for new games in the future?

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Hashimoto: I do feel that the size of the team fits me very perfectly. It’s also great to have a large team, and to create a large game, but I also feel that there are a lot of those titles out in the world, and with Tokyo RPG Factory, we really want to create an RPG for the fans of Japanese RPGs and I feel that the size of the team where we all have the same sense of value, is very important to have that. And if the team grows, it might be difficult for everyone to have that same kind of perspective, or that same kind of value.

Schreier: That’s interesting. So I’m curious, going back to the process of development of this game, what were some of the biggest challenges that your team faced while actually making the game?

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Hashimoto: The most challenging was actually to create this team we worked with. We have a [certain] way of starting a project where we create a team with people that only agree with our concept. We’ll create a concept and we’ll only have people who agree with that concept. That also entails freelancers and other companies that we’ve worked with.

And so it was a little bit difficult to really combine everyone from different backgrounds. We all had different methods of creating. So it was a little difficult to work with that at first, but once things started rolling, it really went great and everyone was passionate because we were all aiming for that goal to create a game for users around the world that like JRPGs. So that similar vision that we had, we really had an enthusiastic team. We shared the same goals and we had, I think we had the most energy out of any other team because we had those set ideas and goals that we all shared together.

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Schreier: That makes a good segue to my next question: Is that also your goal for the next game? Will the next game from Tokyo RPG Factory also be a game for old-school JRPG fans?

Hashimoto: We’re still considering and discussing many things and many ideas. I personally feel that I really want to create a game that also has that ‘90s feel but a little bit more evolved than I Am Setsuna, but have that same kind of feel. But like I said earlier, we’re still considering, and there’s nothing really that’s discussable at this moment.

Schreier: I know nothing’s official yet, but would you rather make a sequel to I Am Setsuna or a totally new game? Which would you prefer?

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Hashimoto: I feel that I Am Setsuna ended very beautifully. So I personally, and this is more of a personal opinion, I personally don’t think a sequel would be good, or we probably even should have a sequel to I Am Setsuna just because of the way it ended. But I do feel that we want to create something that really inherits that ‘90s RPG game. So in that sense the next title that I would like to create will also have that essence in it.

Schreier: Obviously I Am Setsuna was very much inspired by Chrono Trigger - is there another ‘90s RPG that you’d like to be inspired by?

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Hashimoto: This is just my personal opinion, but I’ve been very heavily influenced by Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, all these titles from Square Enix. In that line, I am interested in maybe something like Xenogears or Vagrant Story that I’ve liked over the years. But that’s just my personal opinion, my personal thoughts—it’s nothing concrete.

Schreier: A couple more questions about I Am Setsuna specifically—first of all, why are there no inns?

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Hashimoto: (laughter) So there’s actually a reason for this. In I Am Setsuna, in the world they’re in, people are having to sacrifice people to prevent themselves from being attacked by monsters. And because it’s a world like that, people can’t really go on adventures or go traveling in that world. The only people that really move around in that world are those that are on that journey to become a sacrifice or, like, merchants. So in and of itself we thought that inns wouldn’t be able to make a living in this kind of world, it wouldn’t be a stable job. At that time I didn’t think that would become such a big question for a lot of players, but we at that moment thought that maybe they could just stay in a tent because of that kind of world that they’re in.

Schreier: That’s a good answer. Makes sense. I’m also curious as to why you didn’t let players see any sort of world map, even when you get the airship? That strikes me as an interesting choice because in those old JRPGs you could usually see a map of some sort on your screen, so why choose not to allow that?

Hashimoto: There’s actually two reasons for this. One is the same as that setting that we mentioned earlier. There’s probably no accurate world map in this world, because no one has the ability to create that kind of map in this world that they live in.

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The second reason also has to do with why we didn’t have a mini-map as well, that’s usually displayed on the screen for other JRPG titles, that’s because we felt that if there’s a mini-map, then players will just play the game while looking at the mini-map. They’ll just be looking at the mini-map, trying to figure out where to go next. That really takes away from that gameplay feel that you get, and the idea we had of a ‘90s RPG was a little bit different than that as well, so we wanted to keep within that ‘90s RPG play-taste that we had in mind. That’s why we did not go with a mini-map or a world map.

Schreier: My last question is, again going back to feedback, one of the biggest criticisms that people had and that I had about the game was that it was all in one snowy setting. I know that’s the theme they were going for, is all snow, but I think one of the things people really enjoyed about those older JRPGs is that they’d take you to a variety of diverse locations and take you through all sorts of different interesting areas. So I wonder, what do you think of that criticism? Is it something you’re considering for future games?

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Hashimoto: For the snowy areas that we had this time, that was because we wanted to tell a story of a journey to become a sacrifice and also there’s this keyword of ‘Setsuna’ which is a word to describe an emotion that’s very unique and distinct to the Japanese language, and to really convey that emotion and idea we felt that a snowy atmosphere would fit what we wanted to get across the most. And that is why we went with a snowy atmosphere.

But after we released the game, we read through all this feedback, got all these comments, and it made us realize how people thought about it. And it also opened our eyes up to what people also think about these different areas in RPGs and so for the next game, that is definitely something that we want to consider. But it also really depends on the concept of the game as well. So it’s not something I could just say yes, we will have different locations, but we did hear everyone’s ideas and comments, and so we understand. And we will like to utilize those comments and feedback for our next title, but that doesn’t really determine what kind of areas would be there next.

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Schreier: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today - I really appreciate it.

Hashimoto: Thank you very much as well. It makes me happy the most when people do become interested in this title, and it also seems you’ve played this game in a lot of depth, and I really appreciate that. We will utilize all the feedback and comments that you also gave us, and maybe use it for future titles.