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Final Fantasy XVI Is A Lot Like God Of War, And Its Director Knows It

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We talk with the producer, director, and combat director of Final Fantasy XVI about this radical departure from the classic RPG series.

Final Fantasy XVI is barely recognizable as a Final Fantasy game. After years of merely flirting with a more action-oriented approach, this one fully embraces a new role as a big-budget action game spectacle. The high-fantasy setting of warring kingdoms is accentuated by larger-than-life superpowered beings: Dominants, human hosts for otherworldly summoned creatures. This new take on Final Fantasy is kinetic and hard-hitting, and very little like anything we've seen in the series before.

In fact, in practice it often feels less like a Final Fantasy game, and more like a God of War. The hard-hitting melee action combat is punctuated by huge action set-pieces thanks to the larger-than-life clashes between hulking Eikons. These creatures, recognizable to Final Fantasy fans as classic summons like Ifrit, Ramuh, and Garuda, are essentially weapons of mass destruction kept by the disparate kingdoms as their individual shows of power. In practice, their presence means huge-scale Eikon battles that are individually tailored to be unique experiences.

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The similarity to God of War and its over-the-top action isn't a coincidence, as the game director of FFXVI is a long-time fan of the series from its very first game in 2005. He acknowledges it was an influence on his work, and the mission structure of Final Fantasy XVI follows very closely to the more recent God of War games, thanks to a hub that leads to your main quest objectives and sidequests.

We spoke with three leads behind the upcoming game: producer Naoki Yoshida, director Hiroshi Takai, and combat director Ryota Suzuki. (Answers were provided via translation by localization director Michael-Christopher Koji Fox.) The three had a lot to say about their smart new take on a variable difficulty system, what they hope players will take from this experience, and what they learned from the failure and rebirth of Final Fantasy XIV.

GameSpot: We saw the big kaiju monster battles, but we also saw the Dominants acting as superpowered humans. What are the rules for how hard it is to kill a Dominant, and how do you communicate that to the audience when there are superhuman characters making up the main cast?

Naoki Yoshida: I would say it's very difficult to kill an Eikon. That's why they're the most powerful beings in the world, and that's why when they fight it has to be an Eikon versus another Eikon to keep them in check. There's no way a little guy with a sword is going to be able to defeat an Eikon by himself. But when it comes down to it, the Dominant controls it. And so it's about reducing the life force of that Dominant; that's the only way they're going to be able to destroy that Eikon. That said, if Clive's HP goes down to zero, he's going to be knocked out. It is still a video game in that sense.

But, as I mentioned before, becoming an Eikon, for the Dominants, requires a lot of energy. It takes a lot out of them. That's why they can't do it all the time. If they could do it all the time, one would just become an Eikon all the time and take over the world and become king, and that can't happen. There's that balance there. It takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of effort. And not just physical energy but mental energy as well. And so you need to be on the top of your game both ways to be able to do some of that. And that's very difficult to do and that's why again, you're able to create this balance.

So this demo's focus was mostly on battles, and not the more open RPG type elements. What does that consist of? What's a typical play session?

Hiroshi Takai: So just to give a simple example of what our game cycle is closest to, you could probably say it's closest to God of War. We have our world map and in this world map you'll have the main scenario quests that will unlock. Clive will travel to those areas and proceed with the main quest. And then after that you'll be able to return to a hub area that we have, and from this hub area Clive will have new opportunities for continuing the main quest, unlocking areas, or also side quests and side content as well.

We mentioned how Cid has this organization that's looking to change the world. The hub is Cid's hideaway--we call it The Hideaway in the game--and at this hideaway there are a lot of those RPG elements. You have the shop, where you can buy new items, you have a blacksmith, where you can craft and upgrade items, and then there will be other NPCs that can give you more insight into the world, like a historian that can talk about the history of the world, or a scholar that can talk about the geopolitical going-ons in the world as well.

And of course there are also other NPCs living in this hideaway and through interacting with them you can learn about their stories interacting with them. They unlock quests that can send you off out into the world to learn more about the world, learn more about its people. As you go out into the world, then you'll go to new towns. In those towns you also have characters that have their own stories and they will unlock new quests. And so it all kind of starts from there. It's again a break from the main scenario to learn more about the world.

And other things, such as we have what's called the hunt board, where we have built all of these notorious marks around the world and we'll give you hints about where to find them. And then Clive can go out and hunt these notorious marks and earn materials from them and rewards. Also, there is a special--it's kind of hard to explain, I guess it's like a relic of an ancient area that only Clive can access. And by accessing it he can go into this virtual world where he can do even more side content, such as a fleshed-out training mode to help you learn your combos and get used to the abilities that you've learned. There's also an ability to go back and replay past quests, past stages that you have experienced before, as well as another option where you can replay those stages for scores and put your scores up on the leaderboard to see how you compare with players around the world. So there's lots of extra side content even beyond this story and the world.

It's funny that you mentioned God of War, because I had that same thought while playing it, actually. It feels like a character action game, it's got very satisfying combat, and then there are these big action set pieces. Since you've mentioned the name, I have to ask, was that an influence, and were there other influences on the game?

Takai: First off, personally, I cannot say I've not been influenced by God of War. You may not know, but I've been playing since the first God of War on PlayStation 2. In Japan that didn't come out until a year after the American release came out, but I couldn't wait, so I imported the American version so I could play it. That's how much I like God of War. And so to say that there's no influence of that series on me and on this game would be a lie.

As for other influences, I consume so much other media that there's going to probably be a lot of things that have influenced me, but it's not like I went out of my way to say, "Okay, I really like this from this game and so I'm going to use this in the game." It's more just like I've consumed so much media that those bits that I absorb are going to come out in what I create.

This is probably something we've said for our whole staff. We have a lot of great people on our staff that, again, are really, really into movies and games and anime. They all have the things that they work on in the game, so you're going to see influences from lots of different things, things that they really enjoy, because that's what this kind of game is about. We wanted to make it something that we enjoyed.

The variable difficulty system with the Timely rings is very clever. What led to the development of that system?

Yoshida: For me, the reason of moving in this direction was simple. I'm going to be 50 years old this year. That said, I consider myself a gamer and I have my gamer pride. When playing a game, you always get that part at the beginning where it says, "Select your difficulty: easy, medium, hard." And again, I have my pride as a gamer, so I'm never going to choose easy. I'm always going to choose medium or hard. But then when you die that first time it says, "Do you want to change the difficulty to easy?" I hate that. I have my pride as a gamer and I hate that.

I wanted to have a game where we didn't have those difficulty settings, where we didn't have to put the player in that position. Someone who, again, is trying really hard but then is kind of being dissed in the sense of like, "Oh, you're not good enough, do you want to play it on easy?" We didn't want to have players feel that. So that was my idea, and then I just turned to the director and said, "Okay, this is what I need you to make happen. Think of something."

Takai: When deciding how to do this, we already knew at this time that our game was going to be full action. And so looking at an action game, where does the difficulty come from in a full real-time action game? Does it come from HP? Does it come from how much strength a character has? Those things are easy to fix, but it doesn't really change what the player is doing. We wanted to focus more on the player. What makes this type of action game difficult for the player?

And what we focus on first is, a lot of times players simply don't know when an attack is going to come and they don't know when to evade and when to get out of the way of an attack. And that can be the most difficult thing for a lot of players. So we decided that the first thing we were going to do is figure out a way to make this easier. We started with the idea, okay, maybe having something that's like an auto dodge.

But the next question was how are we going to get this into the game and make it feel natural, make it feel like it fits? That's when [Suzuki] came in, and I made that his job to figure out how to do it.

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Ryota Suzuki: So before making Final Fantasy XVI, my 20-year career was basically making games for hardcore action gamers. And because of that, I pretty much knew exactly what made a game, an action game, difficult, especially for players that are not used to those types of things.

But on the other hand, again, it's not the same for every player. There's a lot of different types of players. And so there's going to be things that are going to be weaknesses for each type of player. And so the first thing I did was take this idea, and I had to split it into groups--what are the things that are going to be challenging for players? Evasion is going to be difficult for some players. For other players it's going to be complex combos and attacks. For other people, for example, some people that are really good at action, have a hard time remembering when to use their potions and their healing items.

And then the idea from there was we're going to create something that's going to cover these weaknesses and fill those gaps that the player might have. That's when we came up with the idea of accessories rather than, again, doing something that is outside the game, like a difficulty setting. Having it inside the game allows the player to, in real time, change up the accessories, putting on the ones that are going to help them in those certain areas that they're the weakest.

The other thing when creating these things, and this is probably the most important, is that the game still had to feel like you were playing the game. We didn't want it to be fully automatic. We wanted to have the players still feel like they're participating in the battles, and not only participating in the battles, but having fun in the battles as well. And so that's again why we always had the option to do something like an auto battle where it just all goes on its own. But that would take away from that experience. We didn't want to do that and that's why we decided to go with these accessories.

Takai: This being a Final Fantasy, we understand that a large portion of our audience likes the turn-based systems because they're not good at action games. And so we wanted to create something that was accessible to those players, but also not only was accessible to them, but showed that action games could be fun, [they could] use this as a gateway into the action genre. If by having a completely automated battle system, they would go into that and say, "Okay, I can see what you're doing here, but it's still not fun, so maybe action games are not for me." By creating something that still gives you that sense of playing and shows that action can be fun is how you're going to get people to come back to the genre. And that's what we wanted to do.

Suzuki: There was an option to have someone equip all of the accessories. The reason that we limit that is because we want players to find the combination that works best for them. We still want to have that sense of playing. And so by limiting it, it makes the player have to decide, "Okay, which things am I going to take?" And then you get that sense of customization. It's creating something that matches you.

One thing that I think is so cool about the system is that it also has an opportunity cost aspect. That's pushing players to maybe try turning one off for a while so you can use another accessory. Did you want to gently guide players into turning them off completely?

Takai: Exactly. At the beginning we're going to help you out, but once you've gotten used to the controls and you have confidence in your abilities, then you start taking away those hand-holding ones and start putting in the ones that power up the ones that you have and start focusing more on your abilities.

So I want to talk a little bit about the setting and the themes. You're taking it back to a high-fantasy setting, as opposed to what you might call techno-fantasy of Final Fantasy 10-13 or so. What inspired that change to go back in this high-fantasy direction?

Yoshida: A simple answer to that is that we just like high fantasy better.

And this is just a personal opinion, but when you have a highly advanced civilization, a lot of times technology becomes much stronger than an individual person's power. And so you get to situations where it's like, why is this individual trying to fight technology? Why don't we just use more technology to battle the technology and just remove the person from that? And so, in a game where you're having these individual characters being the main focal points, having a fight against something like technology doesn't feel very real because in the real world, there's no way a person's going to be able to stand up to a tank with a sword. And so we always thought, if you're going to fight technology, why doesn't everybody just get laser guns and fight technology with technology?

That said, though, this being a Final Fantasy, we're not completely avoiding that type of advanced technology from a past civilization. There is actually a little bit of that in the game. It's just that we haven't introduced it yet in our promotion. And so we're going to talk a little bit more about that.

So in the world of Final Fantasy XVI, there actually has happened to be a highly advanced civilization that existed 1,500 years ago. They had their civilization in the sky, and they're so advanced, they had everything up there. But that civilization ended 1,500 years ago, and that civilization is now called by the remaining people, The Fall.

When you mention Final Fantasy and a civilization in the sky, you think, oh, maybe airships that traverse the sky. But something happened to this civilization 1,500 years ago, something happened that caused them to fall, and the civilization literally fell from the sky to the ground. And now the remnants of that civilization are scattered across the realm. As Clive goes through his journey, he will be able to encounter these remnants of the fallen civilization.

But these remnants are not just landmarks. These are things that are tied directly to the story that Clive is experiencing himself. As he goes through his journey and he visits these ruins and these remnants, he'll slowly learn why the civilization fell and what happened to them, and the story behind Valisthea's history.

Another reason that we decided to go back to high fantasy is just because the series had been in this technological fantasy zone for such a long time. By going back to high fantasy and creating a Final Fantasy that is high fantasy, it shows the next team--whoever works on Final Fantasy XVII and XVIII--that you don't have to stick with the advanced technology, this high-tech fantasy, that it's okay to go back to the high fantasy. It basically shows the developers that come next that there is potential in the Final Fantasy series to do whatever you want.

One thing Final Fantasy does really well is it has these strong themes that relate to the real world. Final Fantasy VII was famously very environmentalist, for example. What would you say is the theme of Final Fantasy XVI?

Yoshida: One, this is a very difficult question, but I would say that one thing that has become very central is basically just an understanding of your fellow man, your fellow woman, and having your own opinions and your own what you think is right and what you think is wrong. But having that compared with the people around you and coming to an understanding with people have differing belief systems than you do.

It's kind of a difficult subject because everyone does have what they believe is true, their own values and their own belief systems, and those are going to clash sometimes. But finding a way to understand each other in this world and use that as a means to move towards hope is a theme that we hope that a lot of people can really relate with and they pick up on by the end of the game.

You have this world and we've created this world with many different types of people, many different types of values. You have the oppressors and you have the oppressed. You have those in-between in this kind of limbo type of area, and everyone's pointing in a different direction, and everyone has what they believe is right and wrong, but in the end, they all have to point in the same direction to get to tomorrow. And bringing everyone together to see what is important in life and what you need to strive for to have a tomorrow and actually even exists.

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Shifting gears completely, let's talk about combat. [To Suzuki] Your background is in Devil May Cry. What was it like coming to Final Fantasy from that background, from a character action perspective, into this series that has certain mainstays and the RPG mechanics that need to be in the underlying DNA, while you also want to take it in more of an action-focused direction?

Suzuki: When getting the order to create this battle system for Final Fantasy XVI, my main order from the director was to create something that had that Final Fantasy feel to it. And not only feel like it is from a Final Fantasy game, but also focus directly on the Eikons. Because the Eikons are such a focal point of our story, we want them to be a focal point of our battle as well.

But we look at Clive. On his own, Clive is just a master of the sword. He's a swordsman and he's skilled with sword abilities. But as he progresses through the story and encounters with Eikons, he's able to gain the abilities of these Eikons.

So when designing these abilities that he has obtained from the Eikons, it would've been easy just to say, "Okay, it's the Phoenix, let's just give him something with flames and fire. Oh, it's Garuda, let's just give him something with wind and leave it at that." But that wouldn't really give it that feel of the Eikon, that would just give it the feel of the element. So we wanted to go one step further and have those abilities that Clive obtained from the Eikons actually feel, not only of the element, but also the feel that you're actually controlling the Eikon that you absorbed it from. So you could take one look at it and know exactly which Eikon abilities you were using.

If you take a look at these abilities, you're going to get this sense, not only visually but also the feeling and their link to the story. You look at the Phoenix and you're going to get that wing strike motion, so you're going to see all of a sudden that it is the Phoenix that you're using, and it's going to have that light feel that you would expect from a beast that flies.

With Garuda, you're going to get those talons and that grabbing sense. With Titan, you're going to get that fist and the blocking and the punching. In the trial, you just saw three different types, and hopefully they all felt very unique and felt like the icon that they represent. But as Clive progresses in the game, he's going to get even more. And each one of these are going to be unique. None of them are going to feel like the others. And that means not only how they feel, but how they look and also how they play. They're all going to be fully unique and they're all going to feel very, very different.

On a personal level, you [Yoshida] have been here a long time and you're pulling double duty. What's it like, day-to-day, juggling those different responsibilities?

Yoshida: Just very, very tiring. More than what I've gained from doing both, I've lost more. [Laughing] I've lost my time to sleep, I've lost my youth. Maybe that's not just because I'm doing [Final Fantasy] XIV and XVI at the same time. That would've happened anyway. But it's faster. And also the space on my hard drive, I'm losing space on my hard drive very quick because I have mails coming in from both projects.

On Final Fantasy XIV, I'm both producer and director. So there are a lot of different tasks we need to handle, especially with game design and making all of these decisions. On Final Fantasy XVI, I'm only the producer, and while there's a lot of pressure to be a producer on a Final Fantasy game, when it comes to actually work, all I have to do is basically say: I want this, this, and this. And then I have him [Takai] make it happen.

In the West, [Final Fantasy] XIV is seen as this turnaround success story. How did that help you define what Final Fantasy XVI means?

Yoshida: This is probably different for each member of the team. Each team member drew something unique from their experience on Final Fantasy XIV. But for me it was that, with Final Fantasy XIV, because the project had failed and we had failed our audience, we lost the trust of that audience. We lost the trust of the media, and the first thing we had to do was regain that trust before we could rebuild the game. We learned that the best way to rebuild that trust is by being honest and straightforward with what we can do, what we can't do, why we can't do it, why we can do it. It's all about that communication, being open and being honest and showing the player and the fanbase and the media that we can be trusted.

Learning how important that was in Final Fantasy XIV, we're able to bring that over into Final Fantasy XVI. We're trying to be honest with what we're creating with Final Fantasy XVI, for example, right out of the gate. We could've just said, yeah, this game is great, it's everything you imagined, and try to promote it that way. But we came out and said, "Okay, we're not an open world." That's one of the first things we said, knowing that a lot of players would be like, "What? It's not an open world?" But by explaining why we're not an open world, why we made these decisions and what they bring to the game, hopefully that shows the player that we're being honest with them and so that they can go into the experience knowing what we are aiming for. So when they do get in the game and they try it for themselves, they won't be surprised. They'll know exactly what they're getting.

Creating a game, it's a very serious thing to do. You can't take it lightly. Creating a game is a very difficult thing to do, and you have to take it seriously. That's one thing that I've been able to draw on from all my experiences is taking game development seriously.

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Steve Watts

Steve Watts has loved video games since that magical day he first saw Super Mario Bros. at his cousin's house. He's been writing about games as a passion project since creating his own GeoCities page, and has been reporting, reviewing, and interviewing in a professional capacity for 14 years. He is GameSpot's preeminent expert on Hearthstone, a title no one is particularly fighting him for, but he'll claim it anyway.

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