Sakaguchi previews two current projects

Final Fantasy creator teams with former SquareSoft colleague; Conference session gets under skin of Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and art of creativity.

LOS ANGELES--On Thursday, Square Enix's show floor booth was not the only draw for Final Fantasy fans. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the venerated "father" of the series, spoke at the Expo's Conference Program.

Sakaguchi, who left SquareSoft to start his own game development company, Mistwalker, Inc., presented alongside Yoshihiro Maruyama, general manager of Microsoft Japan's Xbox division. During the session, the pair previewed both of Mistwalker's upcoming role-playing games for the Xbox 360, as well as answered questions from panel moderator N'Gai Croal of Newsweek. Sakaguchi, who mostly spoke in his native Japanese, was interpreted by a live translator.

Sakaguchi began by explaining his transition to Mistwalker. Citing "creative differences," he also recounted his need for a break. After spending significant energy on the Final Fantasy movie, Sakaguchi "felt like he was empty inside." "For two years, I enjoyed doing nothing," he described.

But Sakaguchi was not finished making games. He reflected, "There's a feeling I get from making things, and I couldn't forget that feeling." The name "Mistwalker," he explained, references the sense that "You're lost. You don't know where you're going." However, Sakaguchi also pointed to an image of existing above the fog, "taking your bearings" and then descending back into the mist.

Maruyama, who worked with Sakaguchi at SqaureSoft, also left the company four years ago. As he described it, Microsoft recruited him to help boost fledgling Xbox sales in Japan. Maruyama realized that "it was a challenging position" and also cited the "very different experience" of selling both software and hardware. Nonetheless, Maruyama seemed upbeat and claimed that hardware sales can be driven by high-quality, platform-exclusive titles.

Realizing that RPGs are especially important in the Japanese market, Maruyama sought out Sakaguchi's talent. At the time, Sakaguchi and his Mistwalker team had already entered preproduction and were looking for production capital. Sakaguchi explained that he knew he could trust Maruyama's marketing prowess, since he was responsible for the unexpectedly successful sales of Final Fantasy VII in the United States.

Sakaguchi then showed off movie trailers and info slides illuminating his two current projects. Blue Dragon, the first game previewed, "started with the idea of shadows." As evidenced by somewhat cartoonish 3D computer-generated footage, the game centers on five heroes with "phantom shadows" that reflect their personalities. These alter-egos, "inner light manifested in shadows," take on such forms as dragon, tiger, and bat. For example, one character, Kluke, possesses a phoenix shadow, a form that represents the loss of her parents.

Developed with Japan-based game design studio Artoon, Blue Dragon boasts character design by the famed Akira Toriyama, as well as music by superstar Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu. According to Sakaguchi, Uematsu's soundtrack will rely on "rather exotic" piano music. The gameworld, "littered with ancient ruins," will evoke images of "fallen civilizations" and feature "strange games and puzzles everywhere you look." Although Sakaguchi admitted that Blue Dragon will be a "classic turn-based game," he also alluded to "action elements" that will give the game a fresh style. Online elements "are not a main part of the game," but Sakaguchi expressed interested in finding ways to use the Xbox 360's online service.

Sakaguchi then revealed Lost Odyssey, his initial idea under Mistwalker. The game's story, written by Naoki Prize-winning author Kiyoshi Shigematsu, tells the tale of Kaim, a man who has lived for 1,000 years.

Reflecting Sakaguchi's desire to take everyday stories and make them emotional, Kaim has dreams that reflect on key events from his long life, including the many family members and friends that "he's lost along the way." As Sakaguchi described, "He portrays the sadness beyond the listless eyes of the man who has lived 1,000 years."

A montage of CG video clips, which included several dramatic scenes of war, gave the sense that Lost Odyssey, compared to Blue Dragon, deals with more-mature themes. To that end, the game includes character design by Takehiko Inoue, known for his work on the Vagabond and Slamdunk mangas. And as in Blue Dragon, Nobuo Uematsu is slated to compose the soundtrack.

Looking much farther into the future, Sakaguchi expresses his desire to design a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game. A onetime EverQuest fan, Sakaguchi even admitted he used to playing as three high-level characters...sometimes even at the same time. More seriously, he underscored the benefits of strong online community. Finally, Sakaguchi also hinted that he might one day return to filmmaking. Nevertheless, he pointed out that any such project lies considerably far in the future.

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