When you create one of the most treasured franchises in video game history, what do you do next? When you work on that franchise for 20 years, can you ever really move on?
For Hironobu Sakaguchi, the man who created Final Fantasy back in 1987, these have been easy questions to answer. (1. Move to Hawaii and go surfing a lot; 2. Yes.) But for fans, Sakaguchi's legacy has become a little bit puzzling. In 2004, Sakaguchi left Square Enix, the company he saved from bankruptcy all those years ago, and started his own company, Mistwalker. Since then, the games he's touched have ranged from unexceptional (Blue Dragon) to great (Lost Odyssey) to... well, surfing games for iOS.
Most recently, much to the dismay of people who want more console RPGs, Sakaguchi and Mistwalker have been developing games for iOS and Android. Sakaguchi's next game, Terra Battle, comes out in October for mobile phones. It's a free-to-play strategy game with RPG trappings that uses a microtransaction-based energy system—all poisonous words to many gamers, who have been burned by unethical free-to-play games like, incidentally, Final Fantasy: All The Bravest.
Not exactly what you'd expect from the creator of Final Fantasy.
I sat down with Sakaguchi on Sunday for an extensive interview with the iconic developer, who was jovial and pleasant, frequently laughing and often chiming in with short English responses to my questions. "[Final Fantasy XV] is taking too long," he joked when I asked his thoughts on the state of the series he's left behind. Sakaguchi was also candid about his thoughts on mobile gaming, ports, and Final Fantasy VI. ("When I hear you and other fans saying, 'Yeah, VI was my favorite!' I'm like, 'Hey, so why didn't you buy it back then?'")
You can read the full conversation right here.
Interview edited for clarity and brevity. When not otherwise noted, Sakaguchi spoke through a translator and all pronouns have been switched to first-person.
Schreier: First of all, can you talk a little bit about why you guys have moved from the big, sprawling RPGs for the Wii, Xbox 360 to, well first there was the surfing game, and now this… I'm wondering why you guys have transitioned from console to mobile?
Sakaguchi: Rather than concentrating on which device, it was based on more the team. So to be honest with Terra Battle there's one programmer, and when I met this guy, I said, 'That's guy I want to work with. And then I also have a couple of artists. Right now I have eight people on my team, including myself. Obviously I wear a lot of hats. But I figured with that team, the best device for development would be on smartphones. Also with the surfing game.
Schreier: So when people think of Hironobu Sakaguchi they think of big RPGs. This in many ways feels like an RPG, but the basic gameplay is tile-based strategy… what made you decide to make a game like this instead of a turn-based RPG or something more like what you've done in the past?
Sakaguchi: First and foremost, it was based on a decision with that one programmer that I really wanted to work with. But also, not just RPGs, but the game industry is more like a tree. You start off with Nintendo and PS2 and Xbox. There's a certain tree, an evolution that I've been anticipating. And you've got your open world RPGs. It's just gotten a lot bigger. Where I see Terra Battle and mobile development is more like a branch. It's part of that tree, but it's a different branch. In a good way, I think that branch is untapped—you don't know where it's going, you don't know how thick it's going to be. But I do see that branch. I think we're in the middle of that transition.
In a way I think I've come full circle, because when I was doing stuff on Famicom, when I first saw Dragon Quest, I thought, 'Oh my god, it's really hard to get a whole RPG in that sort of space.' And then with regular mobile phones, when I first thought of mobile games, I thought, 'Oh they're just tapping, that's all they're doing.' But then I started playing Puzzle & Dragons, and I saw the amount of data, the amount of strategy, the gameplay element of it, and thought, 'Wow, you can actually get a decent game in there.' It's something new to me. So I think this new device is gonna give me a new vehicle to get new ideas.
Schreier: That's interesting. Puzzle & Dragons seems to be what's driving the industry in Japan right now. You're in Hawaii, but are you focusing on the Japanese industry, and that's why you're looking this way and playing games like Puzzle & Dragons?
Sakaguchi: When I develop a game, I don't really think about regions or trends or the target audience, really. But I'm not deaf to what's going on in the industry, so I take that as a challenge. I looked at the landscape, and this is what I came up with. So it's not really looking at it, but actually just knowing what's going on.
Schreier: So you describe the video game world as a tree, and you're on the mobile branch. Do you think the mobile branch is taking away from console RPGs in Japan, and harming the growth of the rest of the tree? It seems like more and more Japanese developers are moving to that mobile branch. Do you think they'll all head that way?
Sakaguchi: It's been about ten years since I've been at a big company. So there's probably a lot of reasons other companies do their own decisions. I really don't know too much. But in terms of what I'm doing now, I'm anticipating games on mobile to be completely different three years from now. So as a creator, that's something I'm looking forward to, I really don't know what it's going to turn into, but I'm anticipating something completely different.
Schreier: Got any predictions?
Sakaguchi: If I knew, it wouldn't be that hard. (laughter) I've been making games for horizontal screens for 30 years. And the shock of actually making something for a vertical screen is completely different. You don't have as much real estate, you have to worry about the layout, how it's gonna look. Also, you're playing with a single hand. It has to be easily accessible. You need to worry about people playing in their spare time instead of that 50-60 hour experience that you're gonna get out of console. So I'm working under a different set of rules. In that sense, I feel that I'm under new challenges and new ideas.
Schreier: Have you played Final Fantasy Dimensions for mobile devices?
Sakaguchi: Just a little bit. It was hard to actually control. (laughter) I wish you could use controllers. It was probably made for controllers, and if I'm gonna make a game for mobile, it should be for mobile.
Schreier: It's interesting you say that, and I'm curious to get your thoughts on this—companies like Square Enix are bringing games like Chrono Trigger and the old Final Fantasys to mobile. What're your thoughts on that?
Sakaguchi: When I was at Square Enix, the rule was, you can't do any ports. [In English] I don't like. [In Japanese] So I have the same mentality right now, where if I'm gonna work on a port, I'd rather work on something new. So it's really hard to knock Square Enix for what they're doing, but in my mind, I'd rather work on something else, and do new challenges.
Schreier: I do remember a couple of ports back in the day, like Final Fantasy Anthology… I remember a couple of ports when you were still at Square. There was Final Fantasy Chronicles?
Sakaguchi: [English] Just once. (laughter) [Speaking in Japanese for a while, untranslated.]
Translator: Company direction, is what he's talking about.
Sakaguchi: [in English] From U.S. side. (laughter)
Schreier: I wanted to ask about Terra Battle. Here in the U.S., there are a lot of negative connotations to the idea of energy, and having to pay more to keep playing a game. Did you anticipate negative reactions at all? I know you've said you don't want people to have to worry about buying energy, but it's still something that a lot of hardcore gamers aren't big fans of. Did you anticipate that at all? What would you say to someone who likes RPGs but won't play games with energy systems at all?
Sakaguchi: I always have both types of fans in mind, so obviously there is that system of energy and how it depletes, but also there's that rich experience. You're never gonna feel like you're forced to actually use those energies or buy energy. It's always a balance. And there's always a business side, always a creative side; you can't really just ignore one or the other. But I feel like hardcore gamers are not gonna feel slighted with the structure.
Schreier: So it's been a few years since we've seen you work on one of those big RPG projects like The Last Story or Lost Odyssey. I saw your panel on Friday, and I know the moderator was asking a lot of questions about all those games. Clearly people are interested. Do you have a desire to start another one of those projects? Is it a financial thing, or are you personally more interested in doing smaller games like Terra Battle now?
Sakaguchi: In terms of sequels and stuff, it's not that I don't have interest in it, but there are a lot of obstacles that would have to line up. So the door's never really closed on that stuff. But it goes back to the previous conversation of this one programmer that's there in Japan, and I really wanted to work with him. And compared to the past, the technology is just there where in terms of the game engine, the server, we can work very efficiently and very concisely. So I feel like there's a new genre: the tech's there, the guy I trust is there, everything's kind of in line to make something good. That's one of the reasons why I'm there.
Schreier: Well I wasn't actually wondering about sequels as much as if you want to make another big RPG — do you have the desire to make something totally new, something original that's another big console RPG as opposed to something that's on mobile?
Sakaguchi: What I think of the console world is reflected in the end-goal of our download-starter, where we start a game based on Terra Battle.
[Note: The Terra Battle "download-starter" offers rewards to players based on how many total people download the game. At two million downloads, Sakaguchi and crew say they will create an MMO based on the world of Terra Battle.]
Obviously it's not gonna be a port. It's gonna be 3D. Nothing's really set in terms of game design, but obviously it's gonna be 3D, it's gonna have that rich experience. We're gonna have the core of what Terra Battle is. Right now we have 165 characters, it's gonna be a lot of characters. And the whole lining up your characters for attacking, it's gonna be a different way where you actually line your guys in a formation, and maybe if they're off from the formation, the attack's not gonna activate or something. You have your core values from Terra Battle, from the mobile, and you'll be able to tell where they've got it from, but it's gonna be console-based.
Schreier: I wanted to ask about the MMO — why an MMO instead of a single-player RPG?
Sakaguchi: Nothing is really set. I don't really mind if it's single-player or MMO. But where you're lining up your characters, I was thinking MMO kind of fits better.
Schreier: Well, an MMO has different rules and connotations as opposed to a single-player game—with an MMO you think am I gonna have to pay monthly for this, am I only gonna be able to play it on the internet? As opposed to a single-player RPG, where maybe people can get different experiences out of it. So I'm wondering why you decided on an MMO—is the only reason because of line-ups?
Sakaguchi: As a creator, that's probably the latter part of what I worry about. The most important part is how to make it fun, how to make a rich experience for players. There's different ways of getting around the whole monthly payment thing, you can release it and then have something that revolves around the server—there are different ways of going about it. The game is more important than the business model.
Schreier: I'm a little bit confused about one thing: the MMO, that's a big project, so… have you guys already started on that, working under the assumption that you'll hit 2 million downloads?
Schreier: So won't that be a long time from now before the game actually gets made? Won't that take a few years?
Sakaguchi: (laughter) It should be good. I'm not too worried about the timing.
Schreier: I wanted to ask, after seeing your panel on Friday, a lot of people were very interested in you mentioning that you were fighting for a sequel to Chrono Trigger. I was curious if you could share more details—
Sakaguchi: The person at that time has actually quit, so I was thinking the statute of limitations was probably good, but I'm not sure if I can go into details about it. (laughter) I don't know if they're gonna call us and complain. But I'm thinking, that guy probably forgot about this. I'm never gonna forget about it, but he might have forgotten about it.
Schreier: So if he forgot about it, maybe you can say more...
Sakaguchi: (laughter) We used a lot of creative, famous people: developers, and Toriyama as well. Once you stop, it's really hard to say, 'Hey let's do it again.' It's not that easy. There has to be a lot of momentum. And a lot of things have to go right to actually do it.
Schreier: What do you think of the current state of Final Fantasy?
Sakaguchi: (laughter) 15 is taking too long.
Schreier: That's what everybody thinks.
Sakaguchi: [In English] Congratulations, ten years! (laughter)
Schreier: (laughter) Almost. I was talking to Tabata at Square Enix about XV, and he mentioned some of their struggles.