FFXIII director intends to keep series story-driven

GDC 2010: Director Motomu Toriyama shares his experiences and offers a postmortem on the recently released Final Fantasy XIII.

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Who Was There: Director and scenario writer Motomu Toriyama from Square Enix went over the crystal mythos and shared his thoughts on the direction of Final Fantasy.

Human drama takes priority in FFXIII.
Human drama takes priority in FFXIII.

What They Talked About: Motomu Toriyama began his 2010 Game Developers Conference session by introducing himself and then telling the audience that Final Fantasy XIII, which launched March 9, is selling well across North America and Europe. As a scenario writer for Square Enix, Toriyama joined the company in 1994, around the time when Final Fantasy VI was launched.

Shortly after he began, he remembered meeting with the entire development team of 40 people, including the founding fathers of Final Fantasy: creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, character designer Tetsuya Nomura, and producer Yoshinori Kitase.

Toriyama explained that, at the time, it was a brainstorming session for Final Fantasy VII, and members of the team would present their ideas to everyone. There were no story- or battle-specific job titles to assign to anyone. It boiled down to whoever had the best idea and was able to present it with the most enthusiasm. The basic storyline was determined by Sakaguchi, Nomura, and Kitase, and everyone else would provide their input.

As a new employee with no experience making games, Toriyama was assigned to work on Bahamut Lagoon and was in charge of scenarios and cutscenes. He reflected how things were more flexible back then and that there was a lack of integrity. At that time, Square helped employees learn the skills and techniques that they would need to grow. Once the number of developers reached 200, specific jobs were formed to establish order.

When Square merged with Enix, there were a lot of new employees to train and more platforms to build on when the Nintendo DS and PSP were released. Toriyama put together and directed a team of scenario writers and began to work on a number of projects, which included the Crystal Chronicles series and Dissidia Final Fantasy.

With the introduction of voice acting, Toriyama said that the scripts needed to be more sophisticated, so they hired more professional writers and attempted to improve the overall scenario quality.

Before jumping into the next part of his presentation, Toriyama played the European and North American versions of the Final Fantasy XIII commercial.

The original purpose of the session was to go over the crystal mythos of Final Fantasy XIII, which, he said, began five years ago. He explained the crystal mythos as a story that portrayed the history between gods and humans that is told from a human perspective. Even though the story is original, he compared it to Greek mythology and mentioned that there is a sequel that he can't quite talk about yet.

Fabula Nova Crystallis is the name that is given to the crystal mythos that serves as the backdrop for Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and Final Fantasy Agito XIII. Toriyama stated that the mythology doesn't become an obstacle when working on a new game or sequel because the gameplay, characters, and story will be different each time.

In the next part of his session he went over the specifics of Final Fantasy XIII and the two worlds within, the primitive Gran Pulse and the high-tech Cocoon. The two worlds are governed by gods who are at odds with each other. Toriyama explained that the theme of the game is about going against fate and that he wanted the players to be able to relate to the characters and their struggle.

He went on to explain that Final Fantasy XIII is like the television series Lost, with character flashbacks and unknown factors. This formula is different from a typical Japanese role-playing game in that it's more focused around a group dynamic.

The next part of the presentation was a postmortem, where Toriyama talked about how it took much too long for development because of the emphasis on cutscenes. He explained that the scenarios needed to have the highest quality and were treated like an animated film.

His Power Point presentation listed the level design methodology that he followed, which involved deciding the total number of in-game battles, dividing the battles among game locations, determining spacing between battles, and then finally inserting an event in every three to seven battles.

Priority is set for cutscene locations because the number of people involved with the art makes it difficult to go back and make the necessary changes. The intention was to make Final Fantasy XIII a cutscene-driven game.

Toriyama addressed the criticism on the lack of towns, saying that he wanted to prioritize monsters and main characters so that the extra non-player characters and text were reduced.

He went over some focus-group data that was collected in Japan and the United States, and it seemed that the Japanese audience liked the story and characters more than the American audience. He felt like the team made the right choice by focusing on cutscenes and the battle system, because players in both regions responded well in those categories.

The scenario writer concluded his presentation by discussing the future of Final Fantasy and said that the team intends to use the best technology out there. He also indicated that there may be a shift to interactive cutscenes. As an example, he said that hopping along the backs of a thousand flying dragons would be "great fun."

Toriyama also compared Japanese RPGs to Western RPGs by using screenshots of Hit Man and Tomb Raider as examples. His point was that in Western games, the game is played through the player's perspective, not the character's. In Japanese RPGs, the view is a third-party bird's-eye view. He said that in Japan, people want to see a film and not necessarily identify with the character but observe and enjoy the movement and emotions of the character. The Japanese feel comfortable as third-party bystanders.

As for the question of whether Final Fantasy should be an open-world or story-driven experience, Toriyama said that open world does offer more freedom, but it depends on the balance. In Final Fantasy XIII, the human drama was portrayed through cutscenes, but if it were to be in a free, open world, it would increase the number of cutscenes, which in turn means more scheduling and more resources and could mean a decline in quality. He said that for future games, it will be up to the scenario writers and designers to try to increase the freedom, but Final Fantasy will always focus on the story.

Quote: "It will continue to change for each product, but the ultimate technology will be pursued and it will remain a magnificent global story centered on human drama. This will be applied to every Final Fantasy story. I promise we will protect this trend, but no one can predict the future." --Motomu Toriyama, scenario writer on the future of Final Fantasy.

Takeaway: Cutscenes and story are still the focus for the series, and it doesn't look like Final Fantasy is going to change drastically anytime soon.

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