Q&A: Mistwalker's Hironobu Sakaguchi

The role-playing game magnate took some time with GameSpot at GDC to share his thoughts on his company's latest games and life as an Xbox 360 developer.

Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi has recently been a key figure in Microsoft's efforts to gain ground in Japan. That market has yet to embrace the Xbox 360, but Sakaguchi's Mistwalker Studios is one of Microsoft's most potent weapons in the battle against Japanese mainstays Sony and Nintendo. Mistwalker's Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey are at the vanguard of Japanese-developed games for the Xbox 360, a crucial area Microsoft must continue to improve in to win more market share in that territory.

Mistwalker's Sakaguchi is at the forefront of Microsoft's development efforts in Japan.
Mistwalker's Sakaguchi is at the forefront of Microsoft's development efforts in Japan.

GameSpot sat down with Sakaguchi-san at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week to talk about his company's two projects, Microsoft's support of Japanese developers, and other development-related topics. On translation duties is Hees Kyung, Microsoft's global product manager for both Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, who also chimed in briefly with specific answers on those products. Sakaguchi answered a number of questions directly in English; those answers are also denoted as such.

GameSpot: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Let's start with Blue Dragon. The game has been out for a little while now in Japan. Are you personally satisfied with how development turned out?

Hironobu Sakaguchi: I was satisfied with the initial goal that we set for Blue Dragon, which was 100,000 units in Japan, but now it's on the road to sell through the 200,000-unit mark. So I'm highly satisfied with the sales, and it has proven to be one of the key platform drivers in the Japanese market. So I feel that our objective has been accomplished.

GS: What was the feedback you got from Japanese players? How was the game received?

HS: There's a big [Japanese] community Web site called 2channel. It's the biggest online messaging board, a huge community, and BD is often talked about. I often check the threads, the message boards, and the responses have been overwhelmingly great.

GS: You're showing the localized English version for the first time here [at GDC]. Aside from the standard voice acting and text changes, are you making any updates to the game for the American market?

HS: There's no change. There are actually two songs out of the total five that we're modifying, localizing into English. So those two songs in the game are the only things that we're making any changes to.

[in English] And we fixed some bugs. [laughs]

Hees Kyung: We also adjusted the difficulty level around the mechat shooting. That was one of the [pieces of] downloadable content in Japan. But we're actually including that as part of the [North American] game.

GS: Speaking of downloadable content, do you have plans to release more content after the game comes out in the US?

HK: There are plans, and I can speak to that on behalf of Sakaguchi-san. Over the course of five to six months, postlaunch there will be more downloadable content: a set of three [pieces of] downloadable content, the last of which is going to be a dungeon with a lot of randomized patterns. By randomized patterns, I mean each time you enter into the dungeon, you encounter a different environment, a set of new characters, and monsters. So there are eight-plus patterns that have actually been set for the dungeon. So it is a completely new experience, in addition to this great game that we have.

Also, when you go to the start screen, you see [a new difficulty level] "impossible." This is for the gamers who have completed the game, know the game backward and forward, and have their character's levels above 50 points. A lot of other bosses and new items appear in this impossible mode.

GS: Will we see a playable demo on Xbox Live Marketplace?

HS: [in English] Yeah, we are making a playable demo--maybe for June or July.

Blue Dragon: Demo this summer, release in August.
Blue Dragon: Demo this summer, release in August.

GS: Moving on to Lost Odyssey, you're showing that game here as well. Can you give us an update on how development is going? What stage are you at? Is it progressing as you'd hoped?

HS: It's going very well. The development process is going quite smoothly. In fact, there is a beta version coming out next month. So we're hopeful that we're going to get the game out at the end of the year. And it boasts the great graphical enhancements that come from Unreal Engine 3.

GS: Can we expect to see a demo for Lost Odyssey as well? If so, will that be available in both territories?

HS: Currently, there is no plan for a demo, which is still to be determined. Our objective is to get the game in the hands of our consumers and really let them see what this game is about. So, in light of that, with that goal, we would like to get trailers out on Marketplace just to enhance the users' understanding of the product.

GS: OK. So you've been working on Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon at the same time. Did you find it difficult to change your mind-set between the two? They're obviously visually, stylistically, very different games.

HS: It keeps me highly saturated. It keeps me busy, and that's really fulfilling. There's no problem there.

GS: What are your thoughts on developing for the Xbox 360? What do you think of the hardware in general? Has it enabled you to do things in terms of game design that you weren't able to do on past consoles?

HS: I think that in general it's great hardware and has a great software development environment. Take, for example, the stunning water effect you see in Blue Dragon. That's the result of a collaboration between Artoon, our developer, and Ensemble Studios, the studio behind the Age of Empires series. So working collaboratively with the talented game developers from the Age of Empires series and from many other Xbox 360 teams, I've been able to benefit a lot from the hardware, as well as software, offerings.

Mistwalker is working to get Lost Odyssey out in 2007.
Mistwalker is working to get Lost Odyssey out in 2007.

As soon as I started seeing a lot of beautiful effects with the water, I actually increased the number of ponds and lakes. So there are a lot of watery scenes because it's so graphically stunning. [laughs]

GS: What do you think of Microsoft's support of Japanese developers? Do you think that, in terms of its support or its documentation of the system, there's anything Microsoft could be doing to encourage more Japanese teams to work on 360 games?

HS: It's very good overall. Support has been outstanding. But the problem is, for example, Epic's Unreal Engine 3. It's developed in English, of course. And unless you've got programmers who can understand English or are bilingual...we've got numerous bilingual staff, programmers who are highly capable of speaking and understanding English, so they can understand the updated information and versions with respect to the development of UE3. But unless you've got programmers who can understand English, they actually can't read the materials. And even though translation takes place, there is a lag. Oftentimes when they read [about] a version, the very version that they read is outdated. So those are some of the challenges associated with the language barrier. That's one area that Microsoft is poor in: documentation.

GS: The Xbox 360 is the only console that currently has a really solid integrated online platform. The PlayStation 3 and Wii are certainly less fully featured in that sense. How important do you think the online stuff is for this generation of consoles and also for the games that you want to make?

HS: You know, when working at Square, I tried, or in fact, we tried to set up numerous servers and create live environments, but it was very costly, and the operations were very difficult. But Microsoft has solid ground in the online feature aspect. It has got the solid Live servers that developers, including myself, can rely on. So it makes it really easy for me to create games that cater to the audience that likes online connectivity.

GS: You mentioned that Blue Dragon has been one of the top sellers on the 360 in Japan, but the system's success in Japan still hasn't come close to what it has reached in the United States. What else do you think that Microsoft and developers have to do to bring the 360 up to that level of success in Japan?

HS: [in English] Good marketing. Japanese marketing guys are not so good. Marketing is important, most important.

GS: How do you think they could strengthen their marketing in Japan? What are they doing wrong? Is there a different strategy they should pursue?

Sakaguchi: don't don't don't.
Sakaguchi: don't don't don't.

HS: Just to give you an example...the "jump in" statement, right? Jump in...the tagline. Nobody can understand it or knows what "jump in" means. So it has to be localized to cater to the audience in Japan, to get them to understand what that's about. So paying particular attention to [the marketing]--not just bring everything as is over to Japan--it's not going to do any good. You have to really think about the market, market needs and demands, and then really tailor it to that audience.

HS: [in English] If you say "jump in" in Japanese. Jump in. It's not so cool in Japanese.

GS: It doesn't make sense.

HS: [English] Yeah, makes no sense.

Microsoft PR rep: "Do, do, do." [the recent Xbox 360 slogan in Japan]

HS: [English] "Do, do, do" is not so good either. [laughs]

GS: So they need to try harder then.

HS: [English] Yeah, it's not so cool. [laughs]

GS: With this generation, Sony and Nintendo are doing different things from each other and also from Microsoft. Each has its own strategy this time. What do you think of their individual approaches? Do the things they're doing make you want to develop for either of their systems?

HS: [in English] Ah, Kutaragi-san's architecture...seven DSPs and a low-powered CPU. I don't like the PS3's architecture.

[in Japanese] First off, with Sony, programmers want to do well and want to create good software, but Kutaragi-san makes the final call and [designs] the [hardware and software] environment himself. So that's been really challenging.

Sakaguchi may one day find himself competing against his own former franchise.
Sakaguchi may one day find himself competing against his own former franchise.

And with the Wii, the system is not that powerful, and it's not HD. But the fact is that there are not a lot of homes that have HD TVs. So I feel, for example, at my place, the screen I have is not in HD. So when I play the games, both for the Wii and 360, it's hard to tell the difference. But with the Wii, it's relatively cheaper to make. It's less costly. So that's one of the attractive things about the Wii.

GS: Both of those companies are using motion sensing in some way. Does that seem like an essential feature for future game development?

HS: On the motion-sensor front, I've been intimately involved in creating role-playing games. It's all I've been doing, so when I look at the RPG space, there's not a huge need for motion sensing. So I'm not that interested in that aspect of the technology. But take the 360 controller, for example, which is actually the best one that I've seen, especially the analog. And it's easy to operate, and it's really reactive, unlike the Sixaxis.

GS: What do you think about what Square Enix has been doing with the Final Fantasy series since you've left? Because we're seeing more games go multiplatform these days, if it ever came to pass that the Final Fantasy series came to the Xbox 360, how would you feel about competing against it with your own games?

HS: [in English] Like Dragon Quest going to the DS.

GS: Right.

HS: I feel that the Final Fantasy series should come to Xbox 360 as well. This is wise. It makes so much sense to me...it has so much potential in North America and in Europe. So there's a great chance for the series to succeed on 360 as well.

[in English] And I heard they made the White Engine open platform as well. [Final Fantasy XIII is being developed on the White Engine; if the engine is indeed cross-platform, an Xbox 360 port would be a simple matter. -ed.]

GS: So you wouldn't have any problems competing against a series that you helped create so many years ago?

HS: I'm willing to break them into pieces, crush them at my feet. [laughs]

GS: Good answer. You've been working on RPGs for so many years. Do you ever get tired of it? Are there other genres that you'd like to explore? What are those genres?

HS: I like simulation games. And I wasn't a great fan of first-person shooters...didn't think they were that good. But after playing Gears of War, I loved it and felt really good about playing it. So I'm actually interested in creating something like Gears of War.

GS: That's interesting because we've seen the Japanese version of Gears of War with its localized Japanese voice acting and everything. How well do you feel Microsoft brought that game to the Japanese market? America obviously has a great appetite for Japanese games, but perhaps that's not so much the case in the other direction. Do you feel that Microsoft did a good job of localizing and marketing Gears of War for the Japanese market?

HS: [in English] Yeah, the localization is good, but the marketing is too bad...too bad. [laughs]

GS: Still no good?

HS: [English] Nobody knows about Gears of War.

Next from Mistwalker: a third-person shooter?
Next from Mistwalker: a third-person shooter?

GS: [to Microsoft PR] You should be taking notes here. [to Sakaguchi] So they just need to raise awareness then? Do you think the games would sell themselves if people knew about them? If they were better informed?

HS: [in English] Yeah, sure, sure.

GS: Lastly, what's something in the game industry that has inspired you recently? One thing you saw in game design or development that really made you say "wow" or really impressed you?

HS: Gears of War. [laughs]

GS: Any others?

HS: [English] I like Zelda. I don't like Wii Sports. [laughs] But I do like Zelda.

GS: What don't you like about Wii Sports? Is it too simple?

HS: The characters are bad. They look like dolls.

GS: Fair enough. Thanks again for your time.

GS: What are your thoughts on developing for the Xbox 360? What do you think of the hardware in general? Has it enabled you to do things in terms of game design that you weren't able to do on past consoles?

HS: I think that in general it's great hardware and has a great software development environment. Take, for example, the stunning water effect you see in Blue Dragon. That's the result of a collaboration between Artoon, our developer, and Ensemble Studios, the studio behind the Age of Empires series. So working collaboratively with the talented game developers from the Age of Empires series and from many other Xbox 360 teams, I've been able to benefit a lot from the hardware, as well as software, offerings.

Mistwalker is working to get Lost Odyssey out in 2007.
Mistwalker is working to get Lost Odyssey out in 2007.

As soon as I started seeing a lot of beautiful effects with the water, I actually increased the number of ponds and lakes. So there are a lot of watery scenes because it's so graphically stunning. [laughs]

GS: What do you think of Microsoft's support of Japanese developers? Do you think that, in terms of its support or its documentation of the system, there's anything Microsoft could be doing to encourage more Japanese teams to work on 360 games?

HS: It's very good overall. Support has been outstanding. But the problem is, for example, Epic's Unreal Engine 3. It's developed in English, of course. And unless you've got programmers who can understand English or are bilingual...we've got numerous bilingual staff, programmers who are highly capable of speaking and understanding English, so they can understand the updated information and versions with respect to the development of UE3. But unless you've got programmers who can understand English, they actually can't read the materials. And even though translation takes place, there is a lag. Oftentimes when they read [about] a version, the very version that they read is outdated. So those are some of the challenges associated with the language barrier. That's one area that Microsoft is poor in: documentation.

GS: The Xbox 360 is the only console that currently has a really solid integrated online platform. The PlayStation 3 and Wii are certainly less fully featured in that sense. How important do you think the online stuff is for this generation of consoles and also for the games that you want to make?

HS: You know, when working at Square, I tried, or in fact, we tried to set up numerous servers and create live environments, but it was very costly, and the operations were very difficult. But Microsoft has solid ground in the online feature aspect. It has got the solid Live servers that developers, including myself, can rely on. So it makes it really easy for me to create games that cater to the audience that likes online connectivity.

GS: You mentioned that Blue Dragon has been one of the top sellers on the 360 in Japan, but the system's success in Japan still hasn't come close to what it has reached in the United States. What else do you think that Microsoft and developers have to do to bring the 360 up to that level of success in Japan?

HS: [in English] Good marketing. Japanese marketing guys are not so good. Marketing is important, most important.

GS: How do you think they could strengthen their marketing in Japan? What are they doing wrong? Is there a different strategy they should pursue?

Sakaguchi: don't don't don't.
Sakaguchi: don't don't don't.

HS: Just to give you an example...the "jump in" statement, right? Jump in...the tagline. Nobody can understand it or knows what "jump in" means. So it has to be localized to cater to the audience in Japan, to get them to understand what that's about. So paying particular attention to [the marketing]--not just bring everything as is over to Japan--it's not going to do any good. You have to really think about the market, market needs and demands, and then really tailor it to that audience.

HS: [in English] If you say "jump in" in Japanese. Jump in. It's not so cool in Japanese.

GS: It doesn't make sense.

HS: [English] Yeah, makes no sense.

Microsoft PR rep: "Do, do, do." [the recent Xbox 360 slogan in Japan]

HS: [English] "Do, do, do" is not so good either. [laughs]

GS: So they need to try harder then.

HS: [English] Yeah, it's not so cool. [laughs]

GS: With this generation, Sony and Nintendo are doing different things from each other and also from Microsoft. Each has its own strategy this time. What do you think of their individual approaches? Do the things they're doing make you want to develop for either of their systems?

HS: [in English] Ah, Kutaragi-san's architecture...seven DSPs and a low-powered CPU. I don't like the PS3's architecture.

[in Japanese] First off, with Sony, programmers want to do well and want to create good software, but Kutaragi-san makes the final call and [designs] the [hardware and software] environment himself. So that's been really challenging.

Sakaguchi may one day find himself competing against his own former franchise.
Sakaguchi may one day find himself competing against his own former franchise.

And with the Wii, the system is not that powerful, and it's not HD. But the fact is that there are not a lot of homes that have HD TVs. So I feel, for example, at my place, the screen I have is not in HD. So when I play the games, both for the Wii and 360, it's hard to tell the difference. But with the Wii, it's relatively cheaper to make. It's less costly. So that's one of the attractive things about the Wii.

GS: Both of those companies are using motion sensing in some way. Does that seem like an essential feature for future game development?

HS: On the motion-sensor front, I've been intimately involved in creating role-playing games. It's all I've been doing, so when I look at the RPG space, there's not a huge need for motion sensing. So I'm not that interested in that aspect of the technology. But take the 360 controller, for example, which is actually the best one that I've seen, especially the analog. And it's easy to operate, and it's really reactive, unlike the Sixaxis.

GS: What do you think about what Square Enix has been doing with the Final Fantasy series since you've left? Because we're seeing more games go multiplatform these days, if it ever came to pass that the Final Fantasy series came to the Xbox 360, how would you feel about competing against it with your own games?

HS: [in English] Like Dragon Quest going to the DS.

GS: Right.

HS: I feel that the Final Fantasy series should come to Xbox 360 as well. This is wise. It makes so much sense to me...it has so much potential in North America and in Europe. So there's a great chance for the series to succeed on 360 as well.

[in English] And I heard they made the White Engine open platform as well. [Final Fantasy XIII is being developed on the White Engine; if the engine is indeed cross-platform, an Xbox 360 port would be a simple matter. -ed.]

GS: So you wouldn't have any problems competing against a series that you helped create so many years ago?

HS: I'm willing to break them into pieces, crush them at my feet. [laughs]

GS: Good answer. You've been working on RPGs for so many years. Do you ever get tired of it? Are there other genres that you'd like to explore? What are those genres?

HS: I like simulation games. And I wasn't a great fan of first-person shooters...didn't think they were that good. But after playing Gears of War, I loved it and felt really good about playing it. So I'm actually interested in creating something like Gears of War.

GS: That's interesting because we've seen the Japanese version of Gears of War with its localized Japanese voice acting and everything. How well do you feel Microsoft brought that game to the Japanese market? America obviously has a great appetite for Japanese games, but perhaps that's not so much the case in the other direction. Do you feel that Microsoft did a good job of localizing and marketing Gears of War for the Japanese market?

HS: [in English] Yeah, the localization is good, but the marketing is too bad...too bad. [laughs]

GS: Still no good?

HS: [English] Nobody knows about Gears of War.

Next from Mistwalker: a third-person shooter?
Next from Mistwalker: a third-person shooter?

GS: [to Microsoft PR] You should be taking notes here. [to Sakaguchi] So they just need to raise awareness then? Do you think the games would sell themselves if people knew about them? If they were better informed?

HS: [in English] Yeah, sure, sure.

GS: Lastly, what's something in the game industry that has inspired you recently? One thing you saw in game design or development that really made you say "wow" or really impressed you?

HS: Gears of War. [laughs]

GS: Any others?

HS: [English] I like Zelda. I don't like Wii Sports. [laughs] But I do like Zelda.

GS: What don't you like about Wii Sports? Is it too simple?

HS: The characters are bad. They look like dolls.

GS: Fair enough. Thanks again for your time.

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