Hajime Tabata has a lot on his shoulders at the moment. He's responsible for Final Fantasy XV, one of the most highly-anticipated console games around. It's a game that people have been waiting for since 2006, and at this point, there seems to be just as many skeptics as there are optimists, and they all have their eyes on Tabata.
After a disappointing presentation at Gamescom, the revolt against Final Fantasy XV swelled. People want a release date, or at the least a significant amount of fresh footage. What they got was a handful of insignificant reveals. Some may say any news is good news, but after Final Fantasy XV's nine years in the oven, people are hungry for the main course; enough with the appetizers already.
For a man facing such scrutiny from his fans, and no doubt pressure from his superiors, Tabata wears a convincing smile. It's so persistent and genuine in appearance that you'd swear he knows something we don't. I'll tell you a little secret: he does. We may not like the pace of Square Enix's marketing campaign, and we may even impress years' worth of frustration on Tabata--despite the fact that he was brought in to salvage the game from the mess that was Fantasy Versus XIII--but speaking to him at Gamescom, it was immediately apparent how confident he is in his team, and their ability to meet his prescribed development timeline.
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On the morning following his presentation, I quizzed Tabata about the state of Final Fantasy XV's development, as well as why people should trust his word and apparent confidence. His answers provided clarity to previously vague statements, but more than anything, he gave me a sense of assurance. It's healthy to take everything with a grain of salt, but I also have to trust that Tabata is telling me the truth. Here's what he had to say.
GameSpot: At the Tokyo Game Show last year, you said that Final Fantasy XV was 55 percent done. Yesterday, you said it was 65 percent done. What have you accomplished over the last year?
Tabata: First of all, I would like to point out that when you try to sum up how much a game has progressed in figures, in a numerical value, normally it doesn't represent the actual reality of the game that well. That's a very important predication to my answer. The way we describe it when we think about it internally, is: 'how long have we got until the mastering of the game.' We normally talk about percentages toward that timeline.
Speaking purely from a technical development perspective--including the number of assets we've got ready in the game, the game systems and the programming that needs to go into the game--that's actually pretty far advanced. It's over 70 percent now. We've got those, but that's not everything you need to get a game out. We can't just release the game because it's technically complete. Once we've done that, we obviously need to go through the localization process to get it into different languages for different regions. That's probably the biggest challenge that's left--in that side, really. Technically, it's probably over 70 percent.
...that's actually pretty far advanced. It's over 70 percent now.
When you speak about the percentage representing the amount of progress you've made towards mastering the game, is it safe to assume then that every year is another ten percent, or is that not exactly accurate?
The 50 percent that we said last year was technical assets and programming progress. The 65 percent I'm saying now includes all of the mastering processes. It's a slightly different stat. The actual development work on the game has progressed quite a lot.
This may be something that we are a little bit embarrassed to talk about, but really, this is the first time that we've done a packaged, standalone Final Fantasy game with a simultaneous global launch, so we didn't have the setup to deal with that, really. The first thing we had to do was rearrange our internal structure to create something that could do that. That was the first important work on the project.
What is the biggest challenge the dev team is facing right now?
To give you an idea of the situation the dev team is involved in at the moment, they are very much concentrated on getting the game finished, and just getting everything in there and programming it. Now, we are working towards the final release of the game now, not as we were previously, towards the next information release. It's a slightly different pace with a slightly different tempo and goal in mind. That's the honest position of where we are now.
In that process, what we're doing now, one of the biggest challenges we're facing comes from the feedback from the Episode Duscae demo, and that's really to get the game so that it can appeal to, and cater for, both traditionally, Asian and eastern style gamers, and their play style, and the western style gamers and what they expect from the game, and their play style. That's really what we're looking at now.
Who do you believe knows best about what a game should be? Is it the developers or the fans?
It's definitely developers. The users know what they want, but the developers know what's possible. That's why I say that. Depending on the development team involved, then the decision will be made differently as to whether to bring what you know is possible down to a safe level--that you know you can achieve--or to maybe try to push that further and take a few more risks to try and push the envelope. That's a decision only a development team can see.
Certainly in previous, standalone Final Fantasies, I think there was a bit of a gap between the fans and the developers, and we maybe weren't so aware, or communicative with the fans, to find out what they want and expect. Certainly, with Final Fantasy XV, I think we've finally overcome that with our communication with the fans, and I'm pretty confident that we know what people are looking for in this game, and how to deliver that.
Is it safe to assume that this is the most expensive game ever made, if account for the entire development cycle, before you took over?
No, it's not, even including that. From what I've heard, we're nowhere near what Destiny or Grand Theft Auto V [cost].
But Destiny's budget is projected over a ten-year timeline.
I suppose if you consider it from when we started Versus XIII, we've been at it for ten years as well. The budgets for all of our projects are controlled quite strictly, but on a company level, so it's not been allowed to go that far out.
Should we expect that the release date will be announced this year?
That's a difficult one to answer. At the very least I can tell you that it's not going to be released this year. I think we’ll be able to tell you when we're making the announcement around PAX, later this month.
Honestly, we are regretting it, almost. We're annoyed that we didn't pick up on how important an event like Gamescom actually is.
I think there are a lot of fans who struggle with their excitement for the game and the fact that they aren't able to play it. How can you give them reassurance that Final Fantasy XV will be worth the wait?
I really understand why people are feeling that way after coming to Cologne this week and talking to so many different media people as well. We really get the feeling that there are people who are a bit worried. Certainly, from a European perspective, Gamescom is the big event. There are a lot of fans coming to this event expecting big announcements. I've come to understand that from coming here. Honestly, we are regretting it, almost. We're annoyed that we didn't pick up on how important an event like Gamescom actually is and the expectations people have towards that, and that we couldn't respond to those expectations by bringing along more important information, or a release date announcement.
Certainly, one thing I would like to say to people to reassure them about the game is that we've very much fixed down the release date. We know when it is, and we've pretty much fixed down when we're announcing that. We've got a complete roadmap planned out until launch, and we're proceeding along that as planned. We can certainly say to people, it's not going to be 2017. It's going to be before that. We have got that solid plan laid out of how we want to continue releasing information for the game, and rest assured it is all on track. Certainly, we'd like to be able to tell you when we can make that announcement at PAX Prime at the end of this month.
We want people to have high expectations for the game, because we are very confident in what we're doing. We're confident in our technology and we've got the best technology out there, and the passion of everyone on the dev team is pretty inspirational, because the mantra we have is this is going to be the Final Fantasy. That's what we're trying to make here.
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Why are you the right man for the job?
When I look at and assess what I've done--my personal opinion on this--one of the big things that I think I bring to the project and one of my big strengths is my ability to optimize the teams that I lead and make sure I get the best performance from them. As a leader of the team, because I can do that and get everyone working on all cylinders...to get it up to the standard that is really world class, and to break out of some of the limits that previous Final Fantasy games may have had. I think when people take a look at my work; they'll probably say that that's what I've brought to the table.
Another thing is that my objectives when doing things are very, very simple. The way I view what a numbered Final Fantasy game should be, it should really [use] the best technology available to make the best game experience possible. That's my real simple view of what these games should be.
Do you ever worry that the lust for the best technology makes developing games too expensive and risky?
There is a very obvious risk. I see that risk and I believe it's a real problem, but in order to avoid falling into that trap, discussions like this with fans and the media are very important. Another important thing you do in order to not get carried away with the technology is to set definite, time-based goals for things. The way I've set the project is that we have to have the game finished and done by 'this' time. You can't just keep processing and improving the technology. That's another important way of avoiding that trap by following technology.