The day Mario Rizzo found out he was going to meet one of his idols, he wasn’t even slightly prepared.
Rizzo had been the CEO of Kobojo, a small French free-to-play game developer, for about six months, and he was working non-stop the whole time, attempting to change the company’s direction. Previously, Kobojo had made small, simple Facebook games. Under Rizzo’s guidance, the team pursued something new; it wanted to make a Japanese role-playing game.
As Rizzo arrived in Paris on a red-eye flight from a business trip, that idea and the challenges of developing it were on his mind. Kobojo had an incredible team of 2D artists that was already creating a visual style that perfectly mimicked the Eastern RPGs they had always loved. But how were they going to successfully capture the feel of those classics?
Rizzo never could have guessed that his company’s fate was about to be altered forever. In a plot twist right out of Final Fantasy, Kobojo was about to convince the most unexpected of allies to partner with them on this journey.
You could say it was fate that brought Rizzo to Kobojo in the first place.
At the start of 2013, Mario Rizzo was, for all intents and purposes, a made man. He had worked for years as a designer and producer at Sony Online Entertainment, Electronic Arts and various small studios. He had spun those years of experience into his most recent gig as the head of Ubisoft’s free-to-play online gaming division. He was well-paid, creatively stimulated and happy.
When one of his old bosses approached him with a job offer, he scoffed.
"Look, I’m working on some of the biggest games in the world," Rizzo recalls saying. "I’m an executive at Ubisoft. Why would I do this? It’s crazy."
The ex-colleague was adamant that Rizzo at least meet the team he was talking about. After some argument, Rizzo agreed. What he discovered surprised him.
"The uniqueness of Kobojo was in their hand-crafted art," Rizzo says. "All of the artists were 2D artists, basically, which for me was super rare. I’ve worked at EA, at Sony, at Ubisoft. I’ve traveled all over the world. I’ve visited studios from Montreal to Singapore. It’s very rare to find a studio full of traditional 2D artists."
As Rizzo studied this art, he couldn’t help but be reminded of something: the art of classic Square role-playing games he’d spent his whole life playing. Even as a young designer working on a Western massively multiplayer game, Rizzo’s heart always belonged to Japanese RPGs.
"I want a world I can affect. I don’t want to feel like I’m doing one of 100 quests that everybody else is doing."
"The issue that I usually had with MMOs from working on them is that I’m more of a story-driven video game person," Rizzo explains. "I want a directed story. I want a world I can affect. I don’t want to feel like I’m doing one of 100 quests that everybody else is doing. I’d go to work and build some quests in EverQuest or whatever, and then I’d come home and play Final Fantasy 12."
Despite his initial skepticism, Rizzo found himself drawn to this small, scrappy team and the incredible artists on it. He agreed to quit his cushy job at Ubisoft and take up a new role as Kobojo’s CEO under one condition: They had to let him make the game he wanted. They agreed.
"I told them I want to be the first Western studio to make a Japanese RPG," Rizzo says, laughing. "They thought that sounded weird and risky, but they loved JRPGs too. That’s how the Zodiac project was born."
Zodiac is a Japanese-styled RPG developed (at least in part) in France. It’s also a persistent online game. It’s also a free-to-play game that will run on iOS devices and the PlayStation Vita – with more platforms under consideration, including the PlayStation 4. It is all of these things simultaneously, and Rizzo recognized from the start how ambitious that was.
"The idea with Zodiac was to create a full 2D RPG with a story that you could play with your friends in a persistent universe," he says. He mentions lengthy cutscenes, an enormous script, a complex crafting and gathering system. It’s not your traditional mobile free-to-play game.
Above all else, Kobojo’s goal was to capture the feel of classic Japanese role-playing games, particularly Final Fantasy. As such, the game will use a Final Fantasy 5-style job system, with the 12 starting jobs based off the 12 signs of the zodiac. While exploration will take place in 2D side-scrolling levels that best take advantage of the gorgeous, hand-drawn art, the battle system is a more familiar turn-based style.
"It’s been very much simplified from traditional turn-based combat," Rizzo explains. "They all go in order. The abilities are very simple to use. The goal is to keep combat brief, between three and five minutes. It’s quite visually stunning. We don’t want to break up the story too much, and we don’t want to clog up the UI."
Zodiac is walking a difficult balancing act between the simplicity necessary for being open to a large, mobile audience and the depth necessary for a persistent online RPG. Rizzo mentions that jobs can each be leveled up individually, as well as a meta-leveling system beyond that.
"The game has to survive for years online."
"The game has to survive for years online," he says. "Of course, we have to have stuff for people to do for that to work."
While it’s easy to imagine Kobojo struggling to figure out the proper balance between these different elements, Rizzo and his team are serious about trying. He says they see themselves competing with other handheld RPGs like last year’s Bravely Default.
"We’re trying first and foremost to make the highest quality RPG on touch devices," Rizzo says. "That was the goal of the company — to make a game where even Japanese players would say, ‘Whoa, OK, that’s a real RPG.’"
To help accomplish this, the team got a wild idea: What if it actually brought in developers from Japan?
By October 2013, Zodiac’s development was well under way, and Rizzo was busy working on plans to expand the studio where necessary and bring in new people to help build on the team’s foundation of 2D artists. The core team in Paris was in need of a reminder of what it was passionate about in this project, and the answer appeared in an unexpected place: a concert.
Former Square Enix composer Hitoshi Sakimoto was coming to Paris to put on a concert. Sakimoto had worked at Square for five years and in the Japanese industry at large for many more, creating the music for well-loved RPGs such as Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy 12.
Rizzo was out traveling, but a group from Kobojo decided to attend the concert. They purchased the most expensive tickets possible, giving themselves VIP seating and backstage access for a short meet-and-greet with Sakimoto.
When the team realized it would actually get to talk to Sakimoto, it got a crazy idea.
"They bought the expensive tickets, they went and got his autograph, and then they begged him to come to the studio," says Rizzo, who was shocked by his team members’ forthrightness but also pleased. They were as excited about working on a Japanese-style RPG as he was. "I think Sakimoto was taken aback. He’s a polite guy, a nice guy. He probably thought we were crazy people that had no money and had never made video games."
"He probably thought we were crazy people that had no money and had never made video games."
All of this was happening as Rizzo was flying back into Paris. The next morning, jetlagged from travel, he got a phone call he never expected: Sakimoto was coming to visit Kobojo.
"I sent a company-wide e-mail," he recalls. "Everybody ran home to get their Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy 12 discs, because he said he’d sign some autographs. He came in, and we took him to our meeting room and presented him to our board of directors. We did a very formal but passionate presentation about the games we love — why we love Muramasa, why we’re playing Dragon’s Crown, why we thought we could make a great RPG and what our concept was for marrying these Western and Eastern elements to create a super high quality JRPG."
Sakimoto sat through this quickly tossed together presentation with a keen interest. When it was done, he turned to Rizzo and spoke two sentences that changed the course of the company forever:
"I want to participate. I would like to sign up."
For his part, Sakimoto remembers getting "good vibes" from Rizzo and his team immediately.
"The prototype of Zodiac I was shown was really beautiful," Sakimoto says. "I was told it was inspired by Japanese games, but I felt the game showed considerable European inspiration. In any case, I felt they were trying to do something new."
Sakimoto wanted to be part of that new thing, and the team at Kobojo was ecstatic.
"We were freaking out," Rizzo says. "We all got drunk. We went crazy. Everybody went nuts. Nobody believed it. We started working with him two years ago. Over the course of months, we’re going back and forth to Japan, we’re seeing him. I met his wife, and they just had a new baby daughter. We’re bringing clothes from Paris. They’re bringing me stuff back from Japan. I think that’s what happens in Japan. Your work relationships become very personal."
Unexpectedly, Rizzo had become close friends with one of his idols. And as he integrated into the Kobojo team and began working on Zodiac’s soundtrack, Sakimoto wasn’t done changing the studio’s destiny.
"Some of my friends want to meet you."
Sakimoto spoke this mysterious phrase to Rizzo one day out of the blue during a Skype call. Rizzo was planning another trip to Tokyo later that month, and Sakimoto wanted him to set aside some time for what he promised would be a very special dinner.
When Rizzo arrived in Tokyo a month later, he met Sakimoto at a barbeque party. They were joined by two very special guests: Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of the original Final Fantasy, and Kazushige Nojima, the scenario writer for several classic Square games including Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy 10.
Rizzo was floored. He pulled out an iPad to show Uematsu and Nojima a prototype of Zodiac. Uematsu was immediately impressed.
"When you work on your next game, you know, you guys should talk to me," Uematsu told Rizzo, acknowledging that Sakimoto was handling the music for Zodiac already. "We could probably work together and maybe build something here in Japan."
Nojima was interested in the prototypes, but as a writer he really wanted to know about the story, an element that Kobojo had started developing but hadn’t actually implemented in the game yet. Rizzo explained the basic story outline to him but clarified that much of it hadn’t been written.
"I’m sick of writing about these 13-year-old kids!"
"I basically said, ‘Look, we don’t really have a full scenario yet. We need help. We’d love to work with you on it,’" Rizzo remembers. "But the story of Zodiac is much more of an adult story. It’s not a teenager story like Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts."
Rizzo expected Nojima to be nervous or uncertain about writing a more adult story. His reaction was the exact opposite:
"Yes, please. I’m sick of writing about these 13-year-old kids!"
Suddenly, Kobojo had a second prominent Japanese game developer on its team. Nojima says he’s received many similar offers in the past, but Kobojo’s was the first to actually convince him.
"I joined the project because I was glad to receive an offer from a foreign country," Nojima says. "I thought it would be interesting to work in a different environment that would allow me to do something new."
Nojima says the crutch of focusing on teenage characters in Japanese RPGs has a good reason, even as he was ready to move past it. Younger characters provide an easier point of entry to strange new worlds.
"The doubts of younger characters tend to echo the sentiments of the player," he explains. "Adult characters would tend to react according their greater experience with more distance."
For Zodiac, Nojima is embracing the new challenges of writing adult characters. "When the story features older characters, they immediately receive more realistic criticism and are often considered to have no personality," he says, laughing. "Of course, for this project, I did my best to avoid such issues."
Rizzo has been surprised by the eagerness of Japanese developers who he considers legends jumping onto his project. But the more he talks with them, the more it makes sense.
"Some have straight-out told me that they want to work with Western teams," he says. "When we showed Zodiac at Tokyo Game Show, everyone was super warm. We had the producers of Street Fighter and Dragon Quest coming to our booth, playing the game, giving us feedback. Famitsu and 4Gamer nominated us for game of show. We were the first Western developer ever nominated for best independent game at the Tokyo Game Show."
Rizzo says he’s been told over and over by Japanese developers that they can’t make this type of game anymore because no one wants to invest in it. Japanese studios who may have focused on role-playing games 10 or 15 years ago have largely moved on to cheaper social games or rare big-budget triple-A experiences that don’t really capture the spirit of Square’s old style.
Kobojo, on the other hand, is apparently not only attempting but succeeding at recreating the spirit of classic Square. When Uematsu came to visit the studio in Paris, he looked at the drawings covering the walls and remarked to Rizzo: "It reminds me of Square 30 years ago."
"The reason Japanese developers are leaving these publishers, what they tell me, is they work on a team of 600 people," Rizzo says. "Projects are very impersonal now for them. They’ve been doing it for years, and they want to get back to that feeling they had 30 years ago, where they were like 20 or 30 or a maximum of 100 people sitting in a room all together, working on something that meant something to them."
"To think that the U.K., France and Japan can now be connected at the same time is very exciting."
As Kobojo has expanded into a global operation, not all of its members can hang out in a room together. It has stayed small though; the full development team for Zodiac now consists of 30 people in a new U.K. studio, less than 10 in the original Paris location and about 20 in Japan split between offices in Tokyo and Osaka. But despite the distance, Rizzo has worked hard to create a collaborative atmosphere.
"I don’t really feel like I’m working in an international environment since we communicate directly in Japanese," says Nojima. "It’s allowed me to realize the incredible convenience of using e-mail, Skype, the internet. To think that the U.K., France and Japan can now be connected at the same time is very exciting."
Rizzo hopes that excitement will spread outside the studio and to a fanbase that is skeptical of many mobile and free-to-play projects. Over and over again, he notes that though Kobojo worked on Facebook games previously, many members of the team have a background in triple-A development, from the aforementioned Square superstars to an art director who was previously at Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream.
"At the time that Kobojo started, when Zynga was first taking off, social was kind of a hot thing," Rizzo says. "People were really worried about their jobs. They were thinking that games were really going in this direction. But then, is it really what they wanted to make? I think what they wanted to make was something more like Zodiac."
Rizzo plans to promote Zodiac while building toward a tentative release later this year. This will include a presence at next week’s E3 trade show in Los Angeles and, he says, the reveal of even more veteran Final Fantasy developers joining the team. But if it looks like the studio will need more time to make sure the game is great, he’s also not afraid to take another six months or longer. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he wants to get it right.
"This was kind of the cool thing when I took over Kobojo," he says. "It was like if you walked into Zynga and said, ‘Hey guys: Stop making Farmville. We’re going to make Final Fantasy now.’"