Skies of Arcadia released in 2000 for the Sega Dreamcast and while it wasn’t a huge hit, its cheerful tale of air pirates inspired countless players, including me. Nineteen years later, I finally got a chance to ask the game’s producer about what went into making this role-playing gem.
My personal history with Skies of Arcadia has been well-documented on Kotaku. It is my favorite game of all time, a bright blast of optimistic heroism released during a time when most roleplaying games were edgy. In spite of its Saturday morning cartoon cheerfulness, Skies of Arcadia was not a simple game. In reconstructing RPG hallmarks, it focused on them in earnest. This is a game about swashbuckling air pirates and an evil empire. It is also a game interested in colonialism, social structure, and much more. To pack these ideas into a game, while keeping the tone optimistic and sincere was a huge task.
Skies of Arcadia is now a cult classic with an enthusiastic fanbase, many of whom were enthralled by the game’s lead characters. Vyse is the main character, a young Sky Pirate destined for greatness and world-redefining discoveries. But his pirate friend Aika and the mysterious mage Fina are treated with equal care. Their core relationship as equal partners in their adventures remains one of the most infectious dynamics I’ve encountered in a game. These heroes and their brave deeds inspire me in ways I cannot explain. And believe me, I’ve tried.
Despite all the articles I’ve written about the Dreamcast, despite all the times I’ve streamed Skies, and despite that fact that I even got one of Fina’s tattoos, I’ve never been able to sufficiently convey why I love the game so much. As a writer, that’s frustrating. Here is this game, this glorious and positive thing, that I have powerful and raw feelings for. It is a piece of art that helped me understand what it means to be a good person. And for all of my writing, my words have never felt good enough. I have never put to page the reality of what I feel for this silly little thing. There is a feeling inside me that defies words. We all have art that is more than just something we like. We all have art that makes us. Talking about it is hard, and I can say after years of trying, it has never gotten easier
Through it all I wondered if I would ever get the chance to speak with the people who made Skies of Arcadia and thank them. I wondered if there was a chance to learn more about the thing that made me. Luckily, I happen to work at one of the largest video game websites in the world. When I asked Sega for help, they enthusiastically obliged and put me in touch with Rieko Kodama, one of the most successful women in the industry, who worked on Skies of Arcadia as a producer.
Kodama’s career has been well documented and led to a Pioneer Award at this year’s Game Developers Conference. In high school, she considered learning about advertising before focusing on graphic design and archaeology in college. After flunking out of school, she started work in graphic design that brought her to Sega in 1984. Kodama has worked on countless classic games, first doing sprite work for Sonic the Hedgehog and Phantasy Star before moving into directions and project management. She directed Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium and worked as one of Skies of Arcadia’s producers.
I wrote to Kodama through email, as she was unable to attend this year’s Game Developers Conference. Email interviews are tricky, as questions and answers are translated between languages. It’s even trickier when you’re talking to someone whose work affected you. Though the exchange was brief, I appreciated the insights, including the fact that Skies was originally a game about trains and not airships, how staff interest in other cultures shaped the game’s focus on exploration, and how Aika and Fina ended up being so great. Here is the interview in its entirety.
Heather Alexandra, Kotaku: What was the original idea for Skies of Arcadia? Was it always meant to involve pirates in the sky? Iʼm curious about what ideas you and the team did not use. What drew you to sky pirates?
Rieko Kodama: At the beginning of the project, Skies of Arcadia was originally planned to be on the Sega Saturn console, but production eventually was set in motion for the Dreamcast. This is when we started considering the concept of a world filled with airships flying around its skies. This contrasts with a previous concept where the story would have revolved around battling on top of trains and on land in general.
Once the “travelling the skies” concept was set, subsequent ideas fell in place. These ideas were inspired by the Age of Discovery when pirates roamed the vast seas. Back then, people wondered what lie beyond the vast expanse of ocean, and they took to their ships in search of answers. That frontier spirit permeates the game’s narrative.
Alexandra: Skies of Arcadia was designed at a time when many roleplaying games were getting darker in their presentation. Was there a conscious effort to make Skies of Arcadia lighter and more carefree, or did it just happen to turn out that way?
Kodama: Portrayal of dark worlds was certainly what was trending in Japan at the time, but our team preferred to create an optimistic protagonist who explored the world, which gave birth to Skies of Arcadia’s scenario and characters.
Alexandra: You have said that Skies of Arcadia was one of your favorite games to work on. I know it was the first game you worked on as a producer, but are there other reasons why you enjoyed it so much?
Kodama: When I was young, I was interested in historical architecture like the pyramids and the ancient civilizations that conceived them such as the Mayans. Similarly, Skies of Arcadia has elements of discovering ancient ruins and species long thought extinct, which is an adventure that I dreamt of as a child. I believe it was one of our team members, Shuntaro Tanaka, who came up with this concept. He majored in history at university, so I presume that was the inspiration for the “discovery” aspect of the game. I remember being very excited about that; it was like my childhood dream had come true.
Alexandra: Do you have a favorite section of the game? A moment that you remember fondly or enjoyed helping to create? If so, can you recall what went into making that moment?
Kodama: I think scenes like the airships being engulfed in the airstream were impactful. Also, watching event sequences play out with in-game polygon models was impressive too. The staff members put a lot of care into fine tuning each of those scenes.
Flying airship battles are another aspect of the game that I am glad we were able to implement. Although creating two different battle systems was very demanding, those scenes are emblematic of Skies of Arcadia, so it was something we couldn’t give up on.
Alexandra: Although the world is fictional, Skies of Arcadia often feels like a celebration of different cultures. When designing the gameʼs world, how did the team ensure that things felt like places we knew while also making them feel like fantasy? What was that process like?
Kodama: As I mentioned, Shuntaro Tanaka, who was responsible for conceptualizing the game’s world and scenario, studied history at university and was knowledgeable on the rise and fall of various civilizations throughout history. I imagine that Arcadia’s expansive world came about as a result of his erudition on this subject combined with elements from film, manga, and anime.
Alexandra: I think about characters like Fina and Aika, and how they are treated with a great deal of care. They are kind women but also given many chances to be as adventurous as any other character in the game. Do you feel it important for games to have characters like this? Fina, for instance, made an important impression on me when I was younger.
Kodama: These female characters were designed to be on the same footing as the male protagonist—not to be saved by him. The stories of the other characters who cross paths with Vyse, Fina, and Aika were written around these three characters.
Alexandra: Was there ever anything that you, as producer, made the decision to cut from the game but wished could remain?
Kodama: Nothing comes to mind, so I don’t think there was anything.
Alexandra: I do not know if the story is true but I heard that Tanaka-san was very touched when he first saw the Skies of Arcadia level in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Do you recall your reaction at all?
Kodama: It was very beautiful, and I was equally touched. I really felt the love and care of the staff toward Skies of Arcadia.
Alexandra: When designing an RPG like Skies of Arcadia, what are the goals you have in mind? Is it simply to make something fun and enjoyable, or do you also have certain things you want to see games do?
Kodama: I do not decide the game’s message at the onset of the project. Rather this takes shape over the course of the production as conversations between staff build on each other, and in the end, we are able to remove elements that deviate from that nascent vision. I think it is best to have players discover this themselves, as opposed to forcing them to take notice.
Alexandra: Many fans are eager to see Skies of Arcadia also be playable again on the PC or even console like the Nintendo Switch. Would you like to see that happen? Why do you think fans hold this game so tightly in their hearts after so many years?
Kodama: I am very grateful that this game has a special place in the hearts of many fans, and that they are voicing their wishes. Responding to each fan’s experiences and stories may be difficult, but the universal fact that they all cherish Skies of Arcadia is proof that it was all worth the effort.
Alexandra: It almost feels like too much time has passed for there to be a sequel to Skies of Arcadia. Still series like Yu Suzukiʼs Shenmue are getting sequels. Would you want to return to the world of Skies of Arcadia or are you content to have already made such a wonderful game and leave it in the past?
Kodama: I personally feel that [the GameCube’s] Skies of Arcadia Legends completed the “director’s cut” of the title. But I am honored when fans of the game who have become game developers themselves express interest in creating a sequel. It makes me happy to think of its legacy being passed on in this way.
I still have a lot of questions I want to ask, and perhaps I’ll have a chance to ask Kodama even more about Skies of Arcadia but also about her impressive career. If anything else, this is a bucket list moment for me. A chance to speak across the world to someone who helped change my life and set me on the course I am today. That’s stunning, and I’ll always be grateful for it.
For now, hearing a little more about how Skies of Arcadia was made is heartening. Having a grasp of gaming history, even more obscure games, is important. Maybe we get Skies of Arcadia on the Switch one day. Maybe gamers will be stuck playing it on slowly dying Dreamcasts and surreptitious emulators. But we’ll keep on enjoying it, and for those of us who played, we’ll carry it with us.