Final Fantasy 13’s name turned out to be surprisingly prophetic, at least for director Hajime Tabata.
When the final piece of downloadable content for Final Fantasy 15 arrives next summer, it will hit almost exactly 13 years after the game’s original announcement. Square Enix announced it at E3 2006 under the name Final Fantasy Versus 13, along with several other games, and Tabata has devoted most of his time with the company to overseeing various facets of the 13 universe. Initially, he served as director on Final Fantasy Agito 13 (which eventually shipped as Final Fantasy Type-0), then he moved along to take lead on Versus 13 once it became 15.
Finally, though, the end of 13 is in sight. The four upcoming character-focused pieces of DLC for FF15 will tie a bow on the game, and thus the entire Final Fantasy 13-centric Fabula Nova Crystallis project, once and for all. And just in time: Tabata has other responsibilities to occupy himself with now. Earlier this year, Square Enix named him the head of a new studio, Luminous Productions, which will concern itself with developing new properties.
Final Fantasy 15 has been beset by delays, development challenges and drama both within the company and on fan forums alike, yet Tabata never gives the impression of someone who has been worn down by the stress of it all. Instead, he appears more philosophical — analytical, seeing no shortage of lessons in all those ups and downs to apply to future endeavors.
“During the course of the development and release of Final Fantasy 15, it’s not like everything was thoroughly written in stone compared to what we’re going to be doing in the future,” he says. “With a lot of it, we were playing by ear, and there were a lot of things that we learned from there. We also realize there were a lot of shortcomings on our side.” He feels the future looks bright for Luminous Productions precisely because of the difficult course he and his team have already navigated.
But first, there’s all that unfinished business with 15 to take care of.
“Initially, [2017’s DLC] Episode Ignis was supposed to be the finale,” Tabata says. “The end of Final Fantasy 15. However, just because we planned it out that way doesn’t mean that was the right way to do it.
“There’s still this kind of connection between us and the users. So why not try and create something new based on that need? That’s what we want to do with the next DLCs: create an active relationship with the users. We want to thoroughly secure the story in places where people think there are some pieces missing in the puzzle — we want to alleviate those issues.
“At the same time, we want to build something new with the users, create a different sort of possibility with the direction that the story of Final Fantasy 15 could head. That’s something that’s going to be new, and it’s going to be pretty exciting to make. The next DLC will be a brand new story,” he says. “Last year’s DLC was already initially planned from the main game. [Episodes] Ignis, Gladiolus, and all that — that was Season One. This will kind of be like moving into a Season Two.”
15’s decade-long development cycle inflicted a notoriously heavy toll on the game’s narrative. When Tabata took control of the project, he had to wrangle the existing concepts, game assets and story components into a unified work. Plot points shifted. Characters mutated or disappeared. Critical events were pushed into the background or into supplemental projects like the Kingsglaive movie.
In short, the game shipped, but not without compromises, and enthusiasts who had followed every crumb of pre-release information on the Versus 13 project didn’t hold back when it came to expressing their frustration at the radical cuts and changes inflicted on the final work. Even 15’s most diehard supporters generally agree that its story felt incomplete, even after its post-launch updates. Tabata shares their opinion, and he hopes to put things right with everyone who has supported the game.
“I think you’re aware of the aims of why I did it this way,” he muses. “We showed everything through the perspective of Noctis, so that players would become more immersed with his emotions. Things like his hearing the news of the invasion via radio, or learning of other big events through the newspaper — that’s the sort of thing that happens in real life, so it felt believable for the player to actually get this big news from outside sources. Those were, I think, the merits — the advantages — of handling the storytelling in such a way.”
Tabata pauses before continuing. “I guess one thing I realized after the release and listening to the feedback of everybody who played Final Fantasy 15 was that you couldn’t grasp the entire story at times. The previous Final Fantasies were much simpler, in that the player could more easily understand the entire story of each game. This was an approach that I took of my own volition: ‘Let’s try something different and not make the story so compact and understandable. Let’s keep it maybe a little mysterious in some ways.’ Unfortunately, that didn’t work to our advantage. So it’s an area that we have a lot of room for growth with regarding the storytelling — it’s something that we’re definitely going to improve on in the future, without question.”
While Tabata accepts responsibility for 15’s more controversial narrative decisions, it also becomes clear in speaking to him that the compromises he made stemmed from the realities of the game industry. Publisher Square Enix couldn’t gestate the game forever, and it fell on Tabata to ship something. Consider that, despite the game being announced back in 2006, the fundamental concept for 15 (or rather, Versus 13) was still fairly fluid even a few short years prior to launch. 15’s original director, Tetsuya Nomura, admitted to toying with the idea of turning the game into a musical after seeing Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables. That movie debuted in December 2012, six and a half years after the world’s first glimpse of Versus 13, which seems remarkably late in the development cycle to be mulling such tremendous reinventions.
The need to pull the project into working order for a 2016 launch resulted in the 15 team abandoning many of the concepts developed under Nomura. That’s not to say all of Tabata’s own ideas made it into 15, though. Among the more intriguing ideas left on the drawing board was his desire to make 15 an online-focused multiplayer experience. “Our initial plan was to get different players to play each of the four buddies that go on a road trip together,” he says. “But if we had executed it with each player controlling a different character, the game would have been endless. They’d have had to work for hours and hours to get through this road trip. Se we had to stick with a single-player game.”
Though that cooperative road trip concept didn’t come together for the main game, the transformation of 15 into a platform allowed Tabata to explore the multiplayer angle anyway, in the form of last year’s Comrades expansion. That mode presented up to four players with cooperative play reminiscent of the Destiny or Monster Hunter series, allowing them to team up to complete objectives in pursuit of a concrete narrative objective. The entirety of Comrades tied into the main game’s story, though it was tidily quarantined into the decade-long time skip that prefaces the single-player mode’s final chapters. It’s not hard to imagine Comrades — a fun but decidedly rough game experience — serving as a test bed for future game concepts. Indeed, Tabata seems to regard much of his work on 15 as a learning experience to take with him to Luminous Productions.
For example, the freedom afforded by turning what would traditionally have been a one-and-done packaged retail product into a long-term platform has already become an integral element of Tabata’s future plans. “All our future businesses and projects are all going to be service-based,” he says. The long-term content expansion format that evolved around 15 — beginning with the Episode Duscae demo that shipped in early 2015 — allowed Square Enix to collect feedback and from fans and tailor its work accordingly.
“We don’t directly respond to every single piece of feedback,” he says. “It’s more that we accumulate all the feedback that comes in and try to determine the best possible solution. It’s rare that the development side and the customer side are kind of on the same page as far as what we want to do next. But as much as possible, we want to ask, ‘How does this sound? How does this kind of activity sound?’ to users based on the general feedback that we receive from them.” Thus, the “second season” of DLC should be the ultimate expression of that approach — at least as far as 15 goes.
“One of the biggest takeaways from the various experiments I did [through 15] actually ties into my vision of why I wanted to create Luminous Productions,” Tabata says. “It’s that there are so many different possibilities with games that have yet to be explored. Through all this, what I think is of utmost importance when it comes to game development is actually creating a solid foundation for the world view, the setting inside the game. That has to be very attractive to the user: thorough, seamless ... and also, I think, it has to make the user want to stay there for a long period of time and not want to leave that world. It has to be that compelling.”
Tabata doesn’t simply see room for single- and multiplayer designs to exist side-by-side in RPGs, though; he sees them building on one another. “My initial idea was having four different people playing the four different characters. [When we dropped that], we had to make the other three characters — Noctis’s buddies — as believable and as real as possible. We had to control these A.I. characters in such a manner that the player believed that there was an emotional exchange happening between themselves and a robot, basically. That’s something that’s going to take a lot more further technological advances on our end, to kind of brush up on and prove in the future. It’s a very important part of the game process and the game experience that we want to provide for the users. That’s how I kind of drive that, my current service based model, to serve the customer with a compelling experience.”
The key to more convincing virtual experiences, Tabata says, can be found in innovations like machine learning. While machine learning is typically associated with things like self-driving cars and search engine optimization, it could certainly enrich games. While creative writers and designers can produce intriguing worlds and mechanics, those virtual spaces won’t truly become immersive until the player feels less like the only real person wandering around. Noctis’s constant companions in 15 made for one of the game’s strongest selling points, fighting intelligently in battle while also sharing emotional bonds in quieter moments. Even so, Tabata recognizes the need for improvement on that front.
“Creating autonomous characters within this fictional game setting is something I’ve had in mind since Final Fantasy 15,” he says. “Through new technologies regarding A.I. and machine learning, we want to create living, breathing entities, so to speak — autonomous within a believable world setting. I think one day, game characters will have their own soul. At least, I’d like to make it that way.”
This enthusiasm for technological innovation drives Tabata’s approach to game development in general. Square Enix as a company has prioritized technical advancement since Final Fantasy 7 brought its cinematic vision of the RPG to the world, but it hasn’t always done so at that same scale. “We have to keep up with the latest cutting edge technology,” he says. “That goes for 4K. It goes for experiments in virtual reality. We have to keep abreast of what’s happening at the forefront of technology right now in order to create rich and abundant experiences for the user, and that’s something I want to still continue focusing on.”
Despite his keen interest in exploring new ideas, Tabata takes care to stress that content — not platforms or tech — defines games. That may come as a relief to long-time Final Fantasy fans who felt 15 strayed too far from the franchise’s roots and into the open-world real-time concepts that typically define American and European games. Tabata wants to keep an eye on what’s happening in the rest of the world, but he also recognizes that Final Fantasy has always been a product of Japan and needs to retain a certain essential Japanese quality. The challenge, he says, is to balance Square Enix’s heritage with the drive to innovate and the need to keep pace with the competitions.
“There is a lot to explore in the western way of thinking about RPGs as well as with Final Fantasy-type RPGs,” he says. “In the future, to create a triple-A game that is will be compelling to the user, you’ll have to create a rich and fundamentally different level of believable game for the user. During the course of the production and release of Final Fantasy 15, we got a lot of direct feedback from the core users of Final Fantasy 15, and it made me realize that I have to go back to my roots.
“It’s a huge responsibility to provide a game to a user. That responsibility, that burden that I have to deliver toward my fans, is even more extreme now than it was before. Is there any concern that we might stray too far from the concept of what an ‘RPG’ should be? Personally, I’m not concerned. I think every game is entitled to be different, and it’s more interesting if there’s variety in that aspect. So for 15, I think what we want to build into these DLCs is a good story — an experience that players don’t want to move away from. They’ll want to stay inside that experience for as long as possible, and to create interesting user-to-user communications. All that has to be secured with a very solid story from beginning to the end.”
Tabata says what interests him most now is the idea of taking his games beyond the confines of consoles and computers. “We want to take Final Fantasy 15 outside the screen,” he says. “We want to liberate the game from the confines of the screen and try to somehow make it playable inside the real world, if that makes sense.” While that might suggest an augmented reality an experience along the lines of Pokémon Go, Tabata says that’s not the case, even if he thinks highly of Niantic and Nintendo’s creation. “One thing I’ve learned from Pokémon Go is that it’s so simple, yet it shows what a simple game can do — all that buzz, all those users. I tried it myself because of this fever!”
But if 15’s next evolution isn’t an AR-based experience, what precisely does Tabata have in mind? He won’t say precisely, but he is willing to offer some hints. Surprisingly, those hints point in the exact opposite direction of his avowed love of cutting-edge tech.
“We have physical collaborations with Square Enix Café where the whole café becomes decorated with Final Fantasy 15 paraphernalia and goods and figures and stuff,” he muses, “but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s more like: how can you enjoy the game in real world, not on the screen? That’s the direction I’m thinking.
“I personally have an interest in what’s called live-action role-playing. When you see the general user base of live-action RPGs increasing, it’s kind of exciting. There’s a lot of settings with these as well, not just fantasy but all these other themes. So there’s a lot of room for exploration there, I think. I’ve never heard of anyone playing a live-action RPG version of Final Fantasy 15, so maybe that’s a cause for concern. Or the entire Final Fantasy franchise, for that matter.”
LARPing would certainly be an unexpected direction for Final Fantasy. But then, the series has never been reluctant to embrace change, so it will be interesting to see where Tabata’s vision takes the series. Even if that turns out to be “in a field somewhere, hitting other people with Gunblade replicas.”
Special thanks to Bob Mackey for his help with this feature.