"Just as Final Fantasy XV is taking on a new challenge to create that kind of game, I feel Square Enix is moving towards taking on more of that kind of challenge."
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Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, which launched in Japan last month, is the first game in the series we've seen in seven years. Without an opportunity--or time--to work together, publisher Square Enix and developer Tri-Ace have been mum on the franchise. That is, until producer Shuichi Kobayashi stepped in. A marketing veteran, Kobayashi took it upon himself to kick Star Ocean back into gear, revisiting the franchise and rebooting it, as he says, for a new time.
I sat down with Kobayashi recently to talk about Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness--due out in North America on June 28 and Europe July 1--as well as why he sees the game as a series reboot, the recent outcry over visual changes to localized games, and whether or not we'll ever get another Valkyrie Profile.
GameSpot: Let's talk about this new Star Ocean.
Kobayashi: In Japan, I feel that consumer [interest] in console games is dwindling right now. At Square Enix, as a whole, I feel that it's very dangerous for even us. Of course there are big titles like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Kingdom Hearts--we have those--but I feel that all the other IPs Square Enix holds are all falling into the most casual line, like mobile games. I also feel that the Japanese market for consumer titles is getting smaller. I felt that this was very dangerous, so I wanted to reboot Star Ocean. Originally I was thinking of creating the new Star Ocean as a more challenging game, deeper and more core--but I thought we needed to acquire more players to get this reboot started.
This is the fifth installment in the series, but I feel like it's more the first title in a reboot.
I've never heard it described as a reboot before. Can you talk a little more about that?
So the Star Ocean series is numbered in Japan. When we first started creating the series, we felt that Star Oceans 1 through 3 [Star Ocean: Til the End of Time] were complete as a trilogy. For Star Ocean: The Last Hope, that's the fourth game, but the story is more like Star Ocean 0 than a sequel. The users in Japan also felt that the story between 1 and 3 was complete. But we've been getting a lot of feedback from players in Japan that they want more Star Ocean. I felt that the Star Ocean series had more potential to expand, so we discussed with [developer] Tri-Ace and felt we could expand the story. There are more that can be told even after the Star Ocean 3 storyline. This is where the word "reboot" comes in, where I feel we have rebooted the series and started a new line of Star Ocean.
For Star Ocean 5, it's numbered 5 but when you look at it chronologically in the Star Ocean series timeline, it's actually the closest to Star Ocean 3.
You say the console market is dwindling in Japan, and mobile is more popular--I'm curious how you feel about the state of Japanese role-playing games as a genre?
This is my personal thought on JRPGs: As Dragon Quest was the beginning of the breakout of JRPGs in general, I feel that JRPGs are something that anyone can reach the ending of, no matter what kind of skill set they have. As long as they put the time into it, they can always definitely reach the end. That gives a satisfying or fulfilling feeling to a player. I feel that being able to role-play and adventure and journey in a world as the protagonist is what makes a JRPG a JRPG, and what makes it good. The JRPGs out now are grounded in Japanese culture, where you can become a protagonist of something like Japanese anime or manga, and experience being one of them in a scenario-driven game. Once you finish, it stays with you, in your memory--it becomes a part of your experience. I feel that JRPGs won't change as long as that doesn't change.
Because a lot of those type of games and IPs are becoming more mobile, they become more casual. I feel that the Japanese as developers are losing the technology and techniques and skill sets to be able to create those [less casual] kind of games. We do need to start learning from Western games and the technologies they use. Just as Final Fantasy XV is taking on a new challenge to create that kind of game, I feel Square Enix is moving towards taking on more of that kind of challenge. I personally need to take on that challenge with the Star Ocean series, as well.
I feel sad that there aren't that many Japanese games coming to the West anymore. I'm very surprised how much the American culture has changed since the last time I personally oversaw a game release in America, in the West. I really need to learn even more, moving forward.
In the West consoles are still really big, but like you said, not many Japanese games are being localized anymore. Why do you think that is?
My personal opinion is that--and I felt this when I was the marketing lead on Star Ocean 4--it was kind of a failure in a way because a lot of the Japanese publishers at the time were trying to make their games more globally appealing, from a graphical point of view as well. They tried to incorporate elements and mimic Western titles over what they thought was actually best for the title, because they wanted to make them global titles. A lot of the publishers felt that [the games] didn't do as well as they hoped they would, and so when they took that experience back to Japan, and they actually began catering more to a Japanese audience and more towards handheld, non-AAA titles. That's lead to the current situation.
After going through that phase, the creators are actually going back to the approach of creating what they think of the best. For example, look at Dark Souls: it's a Japanese creator but it's been selling well globally. It's because they are going back to the idea that they are creating what they think is the best. For Star Ocean, I wanted to go back to those fundamentals again and create a game that I think is good. After this game is released in the states, I want to collect feedback and incorporate it into the next title, if I can release one.
Are you a Dark Souls fan?
Yes, but I haven't had time. When I go back home, I plan to start playing it.
I want to try creating a game that has the same kind of feeling as Dark Souls sometime in the near future, so I want to see how they do it and incorporate it into my game.
You did an interview recently explaining some of the visual changes brought to the Western version of Star Ocean--someone's underwear was made bigger. Localization and the topic of censorship has been really big this year, there was that big cluster with Fire Emblem Fates, Bravely Second, and Xenoblade Chronicles X. I'm curious to know your thoughts on the whole localization and the nature of visual changes from a Japanese release to a Western release. Why does that happen? Why do you think people are so angry about it?
It's fundamentally just a ratings issue. But as for Star Ocean, it's not that different--it's unfortunate that a lot of people took the change in a bigger way than intended and interpreted things in a way that haven't actually happened. But the game hasn't changed, and the size [of the character's underwear] hasn't really changed, it's really not that different than what was originally created. The essence of the game is not that part, and I really want players to not focus on that, but the rest of the gameplay. The Japanese rating system is different from that in the West and that is why these changes have to happen. Rating checks and submissions happen after most of the game is finished, so it's inevitable that changes occur after some things are done. That's why we had to make that kind of change this time, but it's not that different, as much as people want to make it sound that way.
Why do you think it's become such a big issue?
I think that at least for Star Ocean, it was because of what we were depicting. What players were picking up [the larger underwear] was a lot easier to make fun of. At least for Star Ocean, that's why they blew it up the way they did.
It's not that different. The users actually wouldn't know what the original size is [from the game], so they picked it up and made fun of it. Normal users wouldn't even worry about it, or look at it even, so...
Going off the difference in ratings, even gestures and hand signs are really different from culture to culture. For instance, in Star Ocean 5, when you first meet Relia, Miki pats her head to reassure her. In Japan that a reassuring motion, like what you do to little kids. But in some countries it was not taken that way, so that's been changed in the game to fit the different cultures. It was picked up during QA, and we changed it.
Completely switching gears... What did you do in the seven years between this and the last Star Ocean title?
To be very frank, after Star Ocean 4, Square Enix and Tri-Ace didn't have the opportunity to work with each other as much a before, especially because Tri-Ace was developing for other companies and Star Ocean requires its main staff to work on it. It was really hard to get the development team together. The other reasoning was that we've all though the Star Ocean storyline was completed after that--that was another reason we didn't move on. But Tri-Ace's studio head [Yoshiharu] Gotanda, the creator of Star Ocean, had all these ideas for Star Ocean and the expanded universe. He always wanted to do more, but like I mentioned before, there was never that opportunity.
I'm a personal fan of Star Ocean and [other Tri-Ace series] Valkyrie Profile, and I was constantly thinking that more games should come out for these IP. But I wasn't a producer, I was in marketing and never able to start a project. But because console games were dwindling, I felt that danger in the market, and I went to [Square Enix] and asked to change departments, change teams, and start the project.
Would you ever make another Valkyrie Profile?
Do you really love Valkyrie Profile that much?
I really want to. I really like Valkyrie Profile too. It's just that it's a bit difficult to do because a lot of the players like Valkyrie Profile 1 the most. The difference between players for the first game and its sequels is so different that it's difficult to think about what makes the series good.