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The masterpiece of SRPGs, Tactics Ogre, previously released in 1995, was given a new release in Nov 11th 2011 as "Tactics Ogre: Wheel of Fortune" for the PSP.
In a time when morality plays were commonplace in games, Tactics Ogre came around based in a more somber theme of ethnic conflicts, with an elaborate world view and a painfully good story which captivated many devoted fans. Even after the age of the SNES era ended, the title was still highly regarded as possessing a groundbreaking quality for its time, though one might say there are many different individual reasons for such astonishment among fans. The game never hit the million units sold, but passionate fans always made sure this game deserved the same status as any best-seller.
The man behind the design and scenarios for this masterpiece is none other than the creator of titles like "Vagrant Story" and "Final Fantasy Tactics", game designer Yasumi Matsuno. In the past few years, with the increasing popularity of tools such as Twitter, it has become common to hear words from the game creators themselves, and Matsuno is one of those who adhered to the new tendencies. It might still be fresh in everyone's memory the ruckus he caused among fans when he recently published his original "Tactics Ogre Game Project" via said account.
4Gamer got to talk directly with Mr. Matsuno, and we took the opportunity to pry into how the game came to be. In this interview, you'll find a lot about the game and Mr. Matsuno himself. What was Matsuno, who can boast a nation-wide good fame as a game designer, thinking at the time he created this title, and what are his feelings about it today? Moreover, what are his plans for the future? Such questions were answered in the almost 3 hours long talk with him, which is transcribed below unabridged.
--- ABOUT THE PROJECT RELEASED ON TWITTER ---
4G: Thank you for talking with us today.
YM: Thank you for the invitation.
4G: Recently, you have released on Twitter the original project for "Tactics Ogre". When reading it, we can really feel how passionate you were at the time. It made us want to interview you right away.
YM: I think it shows how young I was. I feel a little ashamed looking at that project now (laughs).
4G: But you did state in Twitter that was the starting point for you.
YM: Indeed. That's because I was very straightforward about what I wanted to make, and what did I find good about it. It's a game that no doubt has a great meaning for me.
4G: How many pages did you write in total?
YM: The initial project was nine pages in total, but the "version 1.1" which I wrote later was 59 pages long. The first sketch was just something to convey the idea to the president, but version 1.1 was meant for the whole staff. Talking about dates, I made that in March 4th 1993, and "Ogre Battle" was released just a few days later, on the 10th. I finished writing 1.1 on April 8th, so it means it took me about three weeks to bulk it up.
"People don't complain because they're weak, they choose to be weak so they can complain" ~ Lans Tartare
4G: It sounds like a very minute text. Do you write all your projects that same way?
YM: It wasn't as big as Tactics Ogre's, but I wrote quite a lot for Ogre Battle as well. I can't say it was a game never seen before, but it's a matter of fact that there weren't any games I could use as a reference at the time. In the initial stages, the project was an invaluable tool to make the whole staff grasp the concept for the game. Looking back now, I had a sense of duty that made me think, "I'm gonna draw everyone into this!".
4G: You mean, as a leader?
YM: I guess so. But the company itself was still unknown, so I guess I should rather say what rang stronger inside me was the feeling of responsibility: if I didn't struggle myself, I wouldn't make it. The development team at that time had only ten people, and that's counting me in, but still I was very confident. "Something must come out of it", "it will work out", that sort of confidence (laughs). Thinking about it now, I believe that's what one would call being young. But it wasn't only me. Minagawa, Yoshida, everybody in the staff had the same sort of feeling.
* Hiroshi Minagawa: art director for Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre.
* Akihiko Yoshida: character designer for Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre.
4G: I think I can relate to that.
YM: For example, I had but a few policies about Minagawa's art, which I supported with my full trust, but save for that it was almost like "do whatever you want", and that's how we both worked. Putting it differently, we had a tacit agreement not to interfere with each other's work save for those few guidelines.
4G: I see.
YM: Likewise, I didn't want him to talk about the game script, because that was something I was in charge of. Of course I would sometimes ask for advice myself, or have other people proofread it for me, but nobody was to touch the overall story for the game, or the direction dialogues would take. Nowadays you can't make games like that, but that's how it was back then.
4G: As you have said yourself, you were the director, game designer and scenario designer for the game. You're often thought of as a multitasker prodigy.
YM: We simply didn't have enough people at that time, so there wasn't any way around it. After I joined Squaresoft, however, I started assigning to others any tasks that didn't have to be done by myself. After all, Squaresoft had a very democratic development process by the time I joined them.
YM: During production, programmers and designers as well would always come up with several ideas. In FFXII, for instance, the huge airship in the game wasn't my idea, but one of the designer's, who wanted to give it a sci-fi-esque feeling. It's a completely different methodology if compared to how Ogre Battle was made.
4G: It does sound harder to do things that way. Still, one usually hears about how important it is to consider the opinions of the whole team. In the other hand, as far as creative works are concerned, I feel it's important to insert somewhere your individual touch, or a your own beliefs. Perhaps that's what game creativity is all about in first place?
YM: Looking at things that way, I could say the two Ogre Battle games I've made were fruits of my own beliefs, while the games I made for Squaresoft were certainly fruits of democracy. Ah, save for Vagrant Story, that is (laughs).
"People don't complain because they're weak, they choose to be weak so they can complain" ~ Lans Tartare
YM: At first I created an account just to make sure nobody else took my name, but I decided to say hello to people when MadWorld* was released. I wrote something straightforward such as "It's on the stores, buy it now!". Right around that time people from the industry were starting to create accounts one after another, so I just kept using it, but at first I never thought I would use it for this long.
* Matsuno was the scenario designer for MadWorld.
--- ABOUT DEVELOPING A GAME FOR A NICHE ---
4G: Talking about a more distant past, Ogre Battle's real time system was quite an innovation at its time of release, wasn't it?
YM: You can't quite say it was innovative, no. After all there was already "Hanjuku Hero" for the Famicom. I remember back then the president told me, "design it as a product for sale". So I was trying to think what could be done to make an unknown brand succeed, and I knew I couldn't just rehash something else. That's why I walked down the "real time simulation" road, knowing a niche genre could be a good choice.
4G: Did you use to play simulation games yourself?
YM: Actually, I love action and shooting games, so I don't really play simulation games myself. But one of the programmers from the staff loved such games, so, following his recommendation, at least I played major titles like "Daisenryaku" and "Nobunaga's Ambition". I also played "Master of Monsters", which didn't involve military troops with tanks and the like, but monsters instead, and it made me think that's what you need to do when targeting consumers.
4G: As odd as it sounds, so you really didn't play any simulation games before creating Ogre Battle?
YM: Yep. I only checked a few for reference. Even though I made Ogre Battle as a real time simulation game, I also had in mind that maybe the Japanese market was not exactly used to that sort of genre. When we finally released it then it became clear that was the case. So on Tactics Ogre I switched to the turn-based / board gameplay. You could say I realized up to what level one can add new ideas without losing appeal.
4G: Indeed, players also have a conservative side. By the way, I always meant to ask you this, do you base the world of the Ogre series on anything? I would like to know its roots.
YM: It's not based on anything specifically, all I knew is that I didn't want to make another morality play where you have to "defeat evil". When writing the games I just focused on the concept of a world where it's not so easy to tell the good from the bad, just like the real world. To tell the truth, in the original Ogre Battle I ended up mixing gods and demons in the plot, which took away the feeling of reality from the game, or made it ambiguous. In Tactics Ogre I corrected that: I developed it as a more somber fantasy, keeping in mind that I wanted to make it feel real. Basically, it's a story about people living in a world like the European Middle Ages or the Ancient Roman Empire, adapted to make sure the values of that age would be accepted by people of this age.
4G: Values of an ancient age to people of the current?
YM: In the current society science has developed to a point where the existence of God itself has become ambiguous, but in the past gods, demons and monsters were a fact, exerting a great influence over people's lives. Religion, in particular, didn't mean solely believing in God, but dictated how people should behave, defined their values, to an extent serving as a law code per se. I wanted to make it so that this would be easily understood in the game. In fact, I also meant to include slavery in the story, but you can only make it that much complicated, so I had to give it up along with several other concepts.
"People don't complain because they're weak, they choose to be weak so they can complain" ~ Lans Tartare
4G: The world of Tactics Ogre looks like it came from natural history or stage, but it was created solely by you, right?
YM: That's right.
4G: Do you have a timeline for the Ogre series written in a project proposal or a specification sheet somewhere?
YM: No, I keep that all inside my head. It's something that's not related to development, and I believe even the staff didn't really know what the plot was all about until the game was completed (laughs).
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--- TACTICS OGRE A TYPICAL JAPANESE GAME? ---
4G: So "Tactics Ogre: Wheel of Fortune" was released on November 2010. What was your thought when this project was given a green light? Seeing how TO fans are so passionate about the game, didn't you find it would be a pain to remake it?
YM: It's true, it's a title with many passionate fans, as you say, so when I was first offered to do this my immediate reaction, honestly, was like "Are we making this for real?". I thought it could be done if we opted for a straight port, but Minagawa said "No, no straight ports". We then wondered how could we remake the game, and we were very strict about how far we should go. In the end, we decided to avoid a conversion to 3D and keep it in 2D.
4G: I bet it was quite hard to make that sort of decision?
YM: It really was. Among the several limits we set for ourselves, so it wouldn't be a direct port, we wanted to make it look like a new product, all the while keeping it as close as possible to the original - in the end, I was at a loss as to what our final goal should be. To be honest, at one point I wondered if it was actually worth the trouble.
4G: What made you reach the decision, "Let's do it!"?
YM: It was Director Minagawa, the project leader. He wanted to make a new Tactics Ogre at all costs, and I guess I lost to his passion (laughs). I told Minagawa, "If we are to remake it, then I want to have this and this done, alright?", and, since he agreed to commit to the changes I wanted, the project finally started.
4G: Despite the popularity of the title, didn't you feel worried about trying to release a Simulation RPG?
YM: We can't say it's bound to be a best seller, but there's a good fan base already for this genre, so that we can always count with selling at least 400k to 500k copies. If you consider there's also a regular public for the game overseas if you put some effort into marketing the game elsewhere, you can't fail as far as business is concerned. That's why I thought, as a member of SquareEnix, it was a safe title to develop.
4G: Now that you mention the foreign market, I want to ask you about the thematics of Tactics Ogre, involving topics such as ethnic wars and religion, which aren't that familiar to the Japanese player, but are quite a common matter over there. How do you think this affects the reception of the game overseas?
YM: I do get quite a few comments and impressions from foreign players, and they think "The game's takes on religion and world view have no problem at all, but it tastes pretty much Japanese".
4G: I believe this can be said about all our games - don't we hear a lot of that overseas, about games being "Japanese-like"? However, what is that actually supposed to mean?
YM: Isn't that because the protagonist is a teenager, and the story always progresses opportunistically? (laughs)
4G: Well, I agree that might be the most immediate reason. Tactics Ogre doesn't escape the standard, but I think there's a bigger difference... there must be a trait that makes a game look intrinsically Japanese. For example, there's that game called "Demon's Souls", and even it is being regarded as "Japanese" by players overseas.
YM: Ah, I love that game, but at first glance it sure looks like a Western game.
4G: True. It looks Western at first glance, but overseas it's still regarded as a game with a Japanese feel. At the time I interviewed Mr. Miyazaki, the director of the game, I asked him what did he think made the game Japanese, and he told me "I'm not sure". If forced to an opinion, he would risk say it's something to do with the logic behind the motion and action in the game. For example, in Oblivion, when the character swings a sword it really looks like he's swinging a sword; but in Japanese fighting games for example, the motion is built from the start with the game in mind, with the sword being a form of attack. "Isn't that the Japanese feel everyone talks about?", he told me. They even label games as JRPGs - it makes me think, what's this essence that makes Japanese game designers develop alike? Then, nowadays, when it's hard to make a profit in the domestic market alone, we often hear about the need to make games that also have an appeal overseas, right?
4G: But, even if we fight with foreign companies in equal grounds, we can never win, because the Western companies are the ones that can understand what Western gamers like. Right now we can't even compete in terms of capital. Then we think about what can we do to gain the foreign market as well, and the answer comes down to offering games with a Japanese feel. When you look at Western games, what do you think Japanese creators can deliver that they can't?
YM: Hm, that's a hard question. But, well, isn't it that "Japanese feel", after all? If a Japanese tries to make a Hollywood movie, he will never succeed. However, at one point there was a "Japanese horror" fever, right? That was because we delivered horror with a "Japanese feel". I think that's the only way for Japan to fight for the market overseas. Japan itself is viewed as a niche country around the world. That's why I think this niche quality is our key to success.
4G: So what Western gamers expect from Japanese games in the end is that same "Japanese feel"?
YM: Yes. I think it's exactly like that. I always hear from fans Japanese and foreign alike, "there's no need make a game that feels American". In the other hand, I feel myself a game like "Assassin's Creed" is pretty much Japanese.
4G: What gave you that impression?
YM: It's the architecture of its world view, and the gameplay that progresses with a minute tutorial and goes on to unveil more and more things to the player. I believe they made good use of what the Japanese game industry itself built in the '90s.
4G: I see. Thinking like that, you could say even current FPS/TPS games, though remarkable in themselves, also give the impression that they can be traced back to standards created quite a while ago by, say, Ocarina of Time. I believe that detailed concern about gameplay we find in Zelda was originally a Japanese trait in games, but was well absorbed by Western designers, to a point that nowadays it became harder for us to distinguish ourselves from them.
YM: I think you're right.
--- I DIDN'T WANT A GAME ABOUT "WHICH SIDE IS RIGHT?" ---
4G: I don't know if this has anything to do with the Japanese feel of the game, but what struck me again when I played Wheel of Fortune is how impressive are the different choices in Tactics Ogre. I mean, it doesn't matter how carefully you read the script for each choice you must make, you can't tell which answer is right. And the scenario that develops after you make the choice doesn't help you decide if it was the right thing to do either, isn't it?
[Since when the f was genocide a "right choice"? >_>]
YM: I didn't want a game about "which side is right". Whatever the player chooses is okay, and I just kept in mind that the choices should have an effect on the story.
4G: Usually in games, it's made easier to understand what will happen if you take a certain decision. If you pick choice A you'll be the good guy, if you pick choice B you'll be the bad guy, and if you do play the villain, you usually remain the villain for the whole story.
YN: When I came up with the project for Tactics Ogre, we had reached a point were everybody was tired already of stories that developed in a single thread, so you could say we also made it as an antithesis to those other games, making it a point to create a branched story.
4G: And that was another of its distinguishing factors at the time.
YM: It was. Well, when I wrote the project, we already had "Otogirisou" and "Kamaitachi no Yoru" [Text Adventure games for the SNES], so what I did was try to get the concept behind those games and apply into an SRPG.
4G: It's true, that sort of choice-making was how text adventure games progressed.
YM: Gamebooks used that technique since a long time ago, but it was the text-adventure games that proved for us the market was ready to accept the concept. That's why I could incorporate it in the game's story with ease. Making it work, though, was a completely different deal (laughs). While Tactics Ogre is also a simulation RPG, I developed it with a broader image in mind. It would be after all a product for sale, so I made it while taking some definite decisions, judging what was good or bad in order for it to succeed.
4G: So it means the branched story that made it an antitheses was incorporated as a means to distinguish from all the other games that were in the market.
YM: That's right. If you look at it that way, however, Tactics Ogre can be seen as an original game for its time, but felt as a game with a run-of-the-mill concept nowadays. Even if you consider the world view, dark fantasy stories now are not that uncommon either.
4G: True, now that you say it.
YM: That's why I wasn't sure myself if we were to remake it in Wheel of Fortune we would still be able to stand from the crowd. I thought I needed to meddle with it a little more, add a new spice, but if we did that, we'd end up disappointing the expectations from the fans of the series. That troubled me a lot.
4G: Indeed, that's the problem when remaking a game with a big fan base.
YM: I believe when Tactics Ogre was first released it managed to cause an impact exactly because there were no other games around that looked like it, and that's why it amassed so many passionate fans.
4G: Be it in games or movies, I guess people's personal experiences are shifting. That's why someone who already played it once, when they see a new version made for a new generation, they end up feeling like it's just a rehash from the past. If you think of it like a business, I believe you can't achieve that interesting feel of freshness as long as you worry about the old fans and don't aim in a new direction. In the other hand, you can't betray the fan base either. This difficulty, this dilemma comes with any genre, isn't it?
YM: I'm always at a loss as to how far should I abide by the fans expectations, and how far am I allowed to betray them. It would be so much easier to make a game of a complete different genre... For example, if I were to make a bishoujo game, everybody would just think "Oh, he's gonna make a mushy gal game".
4G: That might be true (laughs).
YM: Be it fan psychology or whatever you call it, it's hard to understand what exactly is it they expect from me.
4G: Mr. Matsuno, it looks like you'd be happy with something more light-hearted like a gal game, huh?
YM: I don't know if it would be light-hearted, but I would like to try it (laughs). I was quite drawn by "Love Plus", to tell the truth.
4G: Oh, Love Plus? What did you find interesting about it?
YM: I had fun seducing girls. I know in games like this it's all about what comes after you seduce someone, but for me it was kind of a pain after that, so... (laughs)
4G: Just for the record, which girl did you seduce?
YM: Well, I actually used three different save slots which I played simultaneously.
4G: Oh, I see, like a true maniac?
YM: Is that so? I did that just because I thought people who like those games they all go for three different branches (laughs).
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--- YASUMI MATSUNO, THE GAMER ---
4G: By the way, what was it that made you want to enter the game industry?
YM: What was it now... I wonder (laughs). Looking back now, before I started thinking I could actually do something, I had a very naive, or foolish, way of thought, because I used to believe I wasn't good for nothing.
4G: Good for nothing?
YM: For example, the movie, television or publishing industries are always moving frenetically. I used to be a writer for a publisher, but at that point I found it would be almost impossible for me to grow in that field.
4G: Yes, I guess that sort of feeling might occur more often than not.
YM: Now I think I could have done it if I had only persevered a little more, but at that time, as soon as I hit a wall or met an obstacle, I would think how good it would be if I could put my effort into something less troublesome. Back then the game industry was more easily accessible to everyone, and it was possible to succeed as long as you created something fun.
4G: Did you felt like you wanted to do something that required your creativity?
YM: I certainly did.
4G: And you preferred videogames over movies or anime?
4G: Which games influenced you to aspire a position in game development?
YM: Back then we all played NES, but I also liked Amiga and PC titles that came from the West, so maybe my creations were also largely influenced by foreign games. In Western games they had a more freer way of thought and, whether they were good or bad in content, there was a constant search for new things. That's the point that I liked.
4G: Oh, you played Amiga? Mr. Matsuno, what was your history as a gamer?
YM: Nah, I don't think you can call me a gamer, I don't really play that much (laughs).
4G: But if you used to play computer games way back then, I think anybody would call you a gamer (laughs).
YM: Hm, you have a point. My gaming history, well, the NES was released in 1982, but I was still a high school student and it was too expensive for me to afford. So my first experience with games was playing "Pac-Man" or "Xevious" in an arcade while I waited for the train. After I went to Tokyo, I would go to the arcades whenever I had time, and played "Gradius" a lot. My first time playing on the NES was after I got into college and started playing mahjong.
4G: What's the connection between the NES and mahjong?
YM: We played mahjong in a group of five, so one of us was always left out. The guy who was waiting around would play on the NES (laughs).
4G: Ah, I see.
YM: At that time I was addicted to Legend of Zelda. I even bought a Famicom Disc System with the money I got from my part-time job. That was the first time I thought about buying a game myself. After that I was drawn by Dragon Warrior... In time I had completed several RPGs, but I never got the same impact as the first time I played Zelda or DW, so, on my quest for a different experience, I ended up switching my interest to PC games.
4G: That's why you bought an Amiga?
YM: No, no, I didn't have the money to buy a computer then, so I used to play through the night on the company's computers after I joined Quest (laughs).
4G: True, computers were still quite unaffordable. Which computer games did you play?
YM: We had machines like a PC-88 and an Amiga in the office, and I only played Western games on them. The first time I played "Populous" was on the Amiga, and I also played "Sim City" on a Macintosh Plus.
4G: I see. I also heard that you are quite an online player.
YM: Not really. I did play a lot of Ultima Online though. I also had Final Fantasy XI in the office so I also played that.
4G: We always heard stories about how people from the game industry would neglect work to play games like Ultima Online or EverQuest.
YM: It's true I did, even now I still have a house in Ultima Online (laughs).
4G: You're kidding! I forgot that game a long time ago.
YM: I still log in about once a year. I have fun just by seeing it, "Great, it's still there"!
4G: Besides online games, have you been playing more recent titles?
YM: Lately I finished Red Dead Redemption. It was a lot of fun.
4G: What did you like about it?
YM: I liked how you can wander freely around an open world, and do pretty much anything you like. It also has a solid story, so you can ride aboard it whenever you get tired of exploring. I liked how it felt as an "online game you play by yourself".
4G: I see, it really can be felt as online game for a single player.
YM: The pain about online games is that, though you can do anything you want, just as in the real world you must consider the other people who are playing. For example, when you want to sleep but other people urge you to keep playing, in the end you can't help it but stay.
4G: Sometimes we just can't go to sleep, huh?
YM: You bet! But that's because we want to be liked by the other players, so we always have to play the nice guy (laughs).
4G: I-I see.
YM: But that's a real pain, so I like to play online games which you can play by yourself. Ultima Online is a game like that. When you get fed up of dealing with other people, you can do things like getting on your boat and go fishing. Then when you start missing people again, you can gather a party and go exploring.
4G: The first Ultima Online was very idyllic, wasn't it?
YM: On the other hand, Final Fantasy XI had a system based on Mr. Tanaka's * concept of "bond" and "friendship", and it's hard to get experience in the beginning if you don't play with others. Now I think this was an online game well-thought out, where you had to make friends to play together, creating a link between "Friendship - Effort - Victory".
* Hiromichi Tanaka: executive producer for SquareEnix. Worked on the Final Fantasy and Mana series. His recent successes include Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV Online.