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The future of Final Fantasy 15

How FF15 director Hajime Tabata is making his game a living platform for embracing the next steps of game design and technology.

Hajime Tabata has a confession to make:

"You know, I don't really work on handheld games anymore. It's all consoles now."

You can hear a tone of apology in his voice that comes through despite the Japanese/English language barrier. But his admission comes as no real surprise. Tabata may have gotten his start at Square Enix working on some of the company's highest-profile mobile and PlayStation Portable games, but these days he's all-hands on Final Fantasy 15, arguably Square Enix's biggest and most demanding project to date. After quietly assuming the directorial role for 15 back in 2012 (when it was "Final Fantasy Versus 13," a spin-off rather than a mainline title), Tabata not only managed to guide the long-delayed — and, for a while, seemingly doomed — project to release; it also netted positive reviews across the board, a rare accomplishment for a game entangled in a difficult, decade-long birthing process.

However, the first time I met Tabata, back in 2013, no one outside the company knew of or could have predicted the critical role he would play in wrestling Versus 13 into shape. Instead, he was simply the little-known director for portable projects like Crisis Core: Well-received games, but decidedly mid-ticket and generally overlooked outside Japan due to their platform. I'm sure I struck him as something of an oddity, a Western journalist who specifically sought him out because of his work in a format that generally gets short shrift in the West. Because we first met due to our common interest in handheld games, he's always seemed a little apologetic when we speak that he's left that format behind, beginning with Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, a portable game reworked to run on consoles.

Then again, that willingness to leave the past behind is precisely the kind of personality that Final Fantasy 15 required. After six years in development hell, 15 demanded an unflinching willingness to strip the project down to its foundations and start practically fresh, throwing out the parts that didn't quite work and even changing fan-favorite elements (as in the transformation of feisty heroine Stella to the more demure Lunafreya).

"The FF series as a whole has always been about, you know, trying something new," Tabata says. "The original Final Fantasy was born as a means of creating [Square's] take on Dragon Quest. That was the popular game at the time here, so [the creators] wanted to surpass that, if you will. With 7, you have a new generation that was created — 3D RPGs. Then with 11, trying to bring online gaming to the mainstream. I may not be sure how Final Fantasy is going to change in the future, but one thing that's going to stay the same will be that spirit of really pushing boundaries and breaking limits, if you will."

Final Fantasy 15 - Noctis in car
Final Fantasy 15
Square Enix

That forward-looking attitude continues to guide Tabata's vision for Final Fantasy 15, as the company considers a new model for the franchise: Life for a single-playing story-based game beyond its initial release. That includes a number of quality-of-life tweaks, such as a promised overhaul to the game's controversial Chapter XIII, as well as several add-on story DLC packages centered around secondary characters. At the more extreme end, 15 will also eventually cease to be strictly a single-player RPG with the addition of a multiplayer component.

"There are a lot of things I can't really say about the multiplayer future just yet," Tabata says, "but it will tie into the game — the main game — at some point in the story. And for the multiplayer feature, we are less focused on playing as the four main characters but rather as an avatar that the user creates themselves. So rather than having you and your friends play as these four guys and experience their journey again together, it's more about the journey that you and your friends have together with each other in this world."

Tabata's description of 15's multiplayer mode seems to line up with fan speculation that it will be set during the main story's 10-year time skip. The popular line of thought is that the multiplayer component seems likely to repurpose the main game's assets in order to allow players to experience the world of Eos's descent by way of a cooperative take on the story mode's combat system — one that replaces AI-controlled companion characters with other players.

It seems an intriguing approach to drawing more value out of the costly art assets that comprise Eos. Perhaps not coincidentally, it also connects back to Tabata's handheld gaming legacy. Though its HD remake ended up dropping the feature, Final Fantasy Type-0 was a multiplayer RPG on PSP; it's not hard to imagine 15's online component amounting to a high-spec rendition of Type-0's drop-in-drop-out cooperative mode.

With Square Enix supporting two MMO Final Fantasy titles, it might be easy to read the addition of a significant multiplayer feature for 15 as signaling an always-online future for the franchise. Tabata, however, prefers not to read too much into it.

"It's kind of hard to say how this will impact future Final Fantasy titles," he says. "Again, the series has always been about taking the next step — challenging and pushing the boundaries of technology and what people are expecting. So I feel that each one is different in that regard.

"Even though it may not be an MMO, or similar to an MMO, we want players to enjoy the time that they spend in the world of Eos for as long as possible. We have a year of downloadable content lined up, and we think that we'll be able to provide players with a really satisfying experience and allow them to create even more memories in this world."

While we can't necessarily divine the shape (or even the existence) of a Final Fantasy 16 from Tabata's plans for FF15, he sees the game's ongoing evolution as the next step in the franchise's drive to push console role-playing games in new directions — an experience closer in nature to the likes of Grand Theft Auto Online than a traditional Final Fantasy. "It's a bit of a new business model," he muses. "Again, even though this is a packaged title, I don't want [15] to be a one-off experience where you play it, you complete the story, and then you're done with it. I want it to be something that users can enjoy for years to come, something they can continue enjoying even after they complete the main storyline.

Final Fantasy 15
Final Fantasy 15
Square Enix

"As you see in games like The Witcher 3 or the GTA series, you have periodic updates, right? That helps satisfy the user base. It gives them new content to enjoy, and that's one of the goals for us — not only the main game development, having this big, open world, but also the downloadable content that they have planned for this current year. In a way, because we're putting everything out simultaneously worldwide, it will become kind of a collective experience."

Tabata's admiration of recent Western hits probably shouldn't come as too big a surprise, given the soft sales of consoles and console games in Japan; big console games need international appeal now. Even PlayStation 4 has struggled there, and 15 was the first mainline Final Fantasy game in decades that failed to sell more than a million units in its home territory during week one of its release. For Japanese gamers, the same mobile devices that more than halved the sales of the handhelds Tabata once called home have now largely replaced consoles as well.

"The idea that the Japanese market has shifted toward mobile games has definitely crossed my mind," Tabata admits. Rather than perceive mobile gaming as threat, though, he says he sees it as an opportunity.

"If people are playing on their smartphones, then a lot of them are also using social media, right? So one of my goals in creating 15 was to craft a game that could have a big impact on social media. That's what you've seen with the photographs and all the videos the players are sharing, and that's a way of sort of reaching this audience. I think we did a pretty good job of it."

Rather than fret about the challenges that face the current generation of games, Tabata has already set his sights further out. In addition to building DLC and multiplayer additions for the game, his team has also been using 15 as a proving ground for technology tests — tests that go beyond the recent 60 fps patch for PlayStation Pro — though for the moment, these remain under wraps.

Much of the post-launch tech vision Tabata has for 15 sounds more exploratory than anything else. It certainly makes sense for the company to treat 15 as an experimental test platform; besides being the most expansive single-player game Square Enix has ever produced, 15 also has the distinction of being one of the few games remaining to run on a bespoke engine. While the company has largely shifted to standard, off-the-shelf technology and extensive outsourcing for its projects, 15 remains defiantly traditional in that regard. Square Enix primarily developed the game in-house on the purpose-built Luminous Engine, and there appears to be a strong interest in making further use of the engine beyond this one game, similar to Final Fantasy 13's Crystal Tools (which also served as the underpinning for that game's sequels, as well as Final Fantasy 14 and Dragon Quest 10).

The next logical step for the Luminous Engine would seem to be 4K systems such as Microsoft's Scorpio and personal computers — though Tabata says the team has no firm plans in place for either at the moment, despite the growing fan demand for 15 on PC. "I don't have anything to announce about a PC version of the game," he says cautiously, "but we have been experimenting with different ideas for new applications of tech. If we find something we like, well, maybe we'll have news to announce.

Final Fantasy 15
Final Fantasy 15
Square Enix

"We're trying our hand with VR development for the first time as well, and it's certainly a learning experience," Tabata adds, acknowledging ambitions beyond the limited Final Fantasy 15 VR Experience Square Enix showed off at last year's E3.

"I can't really say much about what we're doing, or what we're developing currently, but one thing that we have realized is that ... we have the episodic content featuring [protagonist Noctis's] three buddies coming out, right? So if we were to use this VR technology to create a similar type of gameplay, it really wouldn't be a new experience. It's sort of just rehashing that same style with different technology, not truly new. Sure, you could sort use the technology and apply VR to stuff you've already seen in the game with minigames or other aspects of the game to make it a more realistic, more simulated experience. But we've realized that's not really what we want to do — we want to take things in a newer direction. We want to take our time and really figure out what direction we want to take it in before just throwing something out there."

The common thread running throughout Tabata's thoughts on 15's future speaks to a desire to do something more with advanced tech than simply give fans a prettier version of an experience they've already enjoyed. In that light, his recent admission that the 15 is unlikely to make its way to Nintendo's Switch may come as something of a surprise. While, technologically speaking, a conversion to Switch would represent a step in the opposite direction from possible post-launch 4K and VR ambitions, the portability and flexibility of the console could potentially effect a meaningful change in the relationship between players and the game.

But Tabata, true to his confession, currently doesn't have any handheld projects in the works — even for a system that's only portable some of the time. Still, he admits he personally finds Switch intriguing.

"Given my track record," he muses. "... I've worked on handheld titles, but I've also worked on console games. So the fact that Switch is both at the same time is really fascinating to me. I'm really interested in coming up with ideas and how to capitalize on that technology and how to create the best experience possible on the technology. But I'm not quite sure that I have it yet.

"You have your Switch sitting in front of the television and you're playing on the big screen and then you take it out, put it down on the table. It becomes a monitor. You take out the two Joy-Cons, and you play with a friend ... it doesn't stop there, because in my mind, it would be really perfect if you could then take this new monitor and use it like a tablet, for example, and play different apps on it like you would on your iPhone or your Android. So basically, it's accomplishing three tasks in one machine. It's kind of like the dream machine."

"While I may not be working on anything for it at this point in time, a lot of people on the staff are really interested in the Switch," he says. "Myself included! Many of the people on the dev team are older; they're married; they have kids. One of the things they'd like to do is create something they could also play with their children, or that their children could play on their own, for example."

Final Fantasy 15
Final Fantasy 15
Square Enix

Like many game enthusiasts, Tabata seems unconvinced by Nintendo's statements that Switch is meant to be a traditional console rather than a handheld crossover device to replace both the Wii U and 3DS. If anything, he says, it's more of a transitional device that speaks to what is perhaps an inevitable transformation for portable gaming. "You have the Switch, and you have smartphones. I'm not really sure if handheld gaming will still run on dedicated systems, or whether they'll be on machines or devices that will allow you to game and also do other things. It's hard to say.

"It could be like cloud gaming. Something that, for a long time, people have said, 'Oh, this is the future.' Maybe the future is cloud gaming, but it hasn't taken off as much as people had anticipated. Maybe once it becomes a little bit more mainstream, when things are a little bit more clear on what happens on the client side and what happens on the server side ... then things will really start to take off.

"If cloud gaming then becomes mainstream, I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility for you to be able to pick up a game on your phone, start playing for a little bit, and say, 'Oh, you know what? I want to play on the big screen,' and put it down and play the exact same thing — pick up where you left off — on the television."

So no, Tabata doesn't work on handheld games anymore, but perhaps that's because in his mind it's all the same in the end. As gaming technology matures and platforms converge in capabilities and potential the barriers may eventually break down. Mobile, handheld, portable, PC: Ultimately, he says, there may be no real distinction; in that sense, Switch is an evolutionary forerunner of gaming's inevitable direction.

"There's definitely a need, or a desire, among players for a game, a cloud-based gaming device that would allow you to have the option to play on your own, but also to let you play on a big screen." He pauses for a moment and jumps to a personal anecdote. "My daughter — she actually doesn't play games with a controller. She's just too used to playing on a touch screen. I had her play 15, and because she's so used to playing on the touch screen, she picked up the controller and said, 'You play it with this?' She was able to figure it out, more or less, after a couple of tries but ultimately, she's still just more used to playing on a touch screen.

"Once her generation then steps up and starts, you know, creating new things, that might become the standard then. Touch screens might overtake consoles."

However games are delivered, Tabata finds the most important consideration to be the interplay of technology and invention. And he clearly takes great pride in how these factors came together in 15, and how his team continues to use the game as a platform for further innovation.

"We focused on implementing two major technologies in 15," he says. "First was the artificial intelligence, as in the party members. We also looked at the procedural display of elements like the sky, such as how you can track the changes from day to night over a 24-hour cycle. By implementing those features, we were also able to change the way players experience this world and the game as a whole. It's this living, breathing environment — it's fluid; it's moving; it's ever-changing. So ultimately, I think you'll be able to see games in the future capitalize on that and even take it a step further, with environments that you can truly change in real time, and things like that."