Saturday, August 30, 2014

PAX Prime 2014 Day 1: Hironobu Sakaguchi

PAX Prime. The name suggests that this is the first, the main, the alpha Penny Arcade Expo, and despite it technically being a little smaller than PAX East, it really does feel like the biggest when you're in the thick of things.

In years past, the convention covered just the Washington Convention Center. Since then, it has grown to a behemoth of an event that spans four days across seven venues, this year including both the Paramount Theatre AND the Benaroya Concert Hall for the first time ever.

The convention itself is in many different places in downtown Seattle.
My Friday plans were pretty low-key. I always do a quick run-around the Expo hall to get my bearings, and there were some repeats from PAX East, and some neat games that I hadn't seen before.

Spirit Siege

One such game is called Spirit Siege. That link will bring you to their Kickstarter, but they had a fully playable demo on the Expo Hall floor. A mobile strategy game, the premise is pretty simple: both sides have orbs on the battlefield, and you need to summon creatures from your hand to the battlefield to attack the other team's creatures and orbs using a monotonically increasing resource. The orbs can defend themselves, but not very well.

The game has some pretty neat UI elements that I like, such as the pillars underneath characters representing their health. It seemed like a neat little 5-minute strategy game with a cool art style. I rather liked it.

Hironobu Sakaguchi

I wanted to go to a couple panels, but when I saw that the legendary Hironobu Sakaguchi was going to have a panel at PAX Prime about the history of RPGs and a game he was creating called Terra Battle, I had to go.

Benaroya Hall is quite posh. They had a string quartet playing video game music, including Final Fantasy.
For those unfamiliar with the man, Sakaguchi-sensei was the progenitor of the Final Fantasy series. He called it Final Fantasy because if it had flopped, he would have had to quit the industry and go back to school. Clearly, it succeeded. He's also contributed to Chrono Trigger, Front Mission, and every Final Fantasy in some capacity up to and including Final Fantasy IX. He was even the president of Squaresoft before it merged with Enix. He left the company to create Mistwalker Studios, which produced Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and The Last Story, all extremely good JRPGs.

The interview responses were primarily in Japanese, with the interviewer speaking English and a translator working for both interviewer and interviewee, which was handy for note taking because it let me keep up.

The panel was sooooo full. So full.
Most of the early question were on the subject of Sakaguchi-sensei's prior works. Final Fantasy IV and VI were both mentioned as fan-favourites, and Sakaguchi-sensei mentioned that they had learned the importance of building a character and a story, and how they coexist to make it all come alive. IV was the first time they had the technical know-how to really realize it, and VI was the final title before going to 3D, so they were at the height of their technical knowledge for the SNES, so really could make the game shine.

They discussed Final Fantasy VII, and he talked about it being their first foray into 3D on an unknown technology (the PlayStation). They really didn't have enough expertise in-house to be able to pull 3D off, so they scouted a lot of talented folks in the film CG side of the business. However, they didn't know how to make video games, so it was a merge of the two groups to make the game. The influencing of each other and the atmosphere of the team was heightened to its maximum, and from that sense the game still lives up to today's standards; you can feel the passion that went into the game.

Sakaguchi-sensei taking a picture of the full theatre. I think he was taken aback at how many people came to hear him speak.
Moving on to Final Fantasy IX, which Sakaguchi-sensei really loved, if you look at IV, V, and VI and see how that went character and story-wise, not saying they went off track, but there was definitely more focus on tech for VII and VIII. What would it look like if they went back to the growth of the world and characters they had in the past? And that created the nostalgia factor for IX. Also, he mentioned, Vivi.

Interesting to note that on Final Fantasy IX, Tetsuya Nomura was replaced as the art director. While Sakaguchi-sensei really likes Tetsuya Nomura, they needed someone who could bring the game back to its roots. For those unfamiliar with Nomura-sama's work, his character designs tended to be heavy on the tech-future look, with lots of belts, zippers, angles, and the like. You can see his influences quite strongly in Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts, for example. Sakaguchi-sensei mentioned that bringing the art leads from IV to VI back for IX was the right decision.

Our interviewer on the left, Sakaguchi-sensei in the middle, and his translator on the right.
Also, front and center seats, yeah!
He also worked on Chrono Trigger, a much-beloved game. While he wanted to make it a series and let it evolve, but he and management at the time didn't see eye-to-eye on that, and he lost the battle to have it become a series like Final Fantasy.

But once he left to create Mistwalker Studios, he got the Chrono Trigger band back together to create Blue Dragon. Akira Toriyama created the character designs for that game, like for Chrono Trigger. You could tell Sakaguchi-sensei had a lot of respect for him because he referred to him as Toriyama-sensei the entire time.

Apparently Sakaguchi-sensei grew up on the creations of Toriyama-sensei, and it was a dream and a huge honour to be able to work with him. He always had such great ideas, but the small downside was on his Mac, the Photoshop version loaded is always version 1 or 2. New tech doesn't seem to suit him, so you had to deal with that.

While Sakaguchi-sensei would like to have created more Blue Dragon, his first script had been rejected by Toriyama-sensei. Even if they had a second one, it might be difficult to get him on board.

Overall, Sakaguchi-sensei talked a lot about how wonderful changes to RPGs have been over the years. Open worlds are beyond his imagination, and he doesn't know if it would be possible for him to create that. As a consumer, it's exciting to know the genre has evolved in multiple directions. Challenging genres by bringing something new to the table is really important to keep the genre alive, and we should not be restricted by some formula.

Terra Battle

He also talked about his new iOS/Android game, Terra Battle. A tactical/almost-puzzle RPG for mobile. You field multiple characters and drag them around the battlefield, moving your own units when you pass over them not unlike how gems work in Puzzles and Dragons. Once you let go, if units are flanking an enemy or in a formation, they perform special attacks. You'll be able to customize your characters and get more over time.

The other interesting thing about it isn't the game itself, but the approach they're taking to new content. Something they call a "download starter". It's like Kickstarter, except instead of promising more content with more money, they release more content with more downloads. And not just any content; big names like Nobuo Uematsu adding music tracks at 100,000 downloads, or Hideo Minaba and Yoshitako Amano creating new characters for the game at 200,000 and 1.5 million downloads respectively. No money spent required (though I imagine it's a F2P game, so people will spend money somehow).

It's a neat concept, and the game looks neat enough. It'll be interesting to see how it pans out.

So that was Day 1 for me. Tomorrow I plan on taking a look at more expo hall, attending a panel on game industry statistics, and checking out more of the Diversity Lounge to get a handle on it. Been fun so far!


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