We're nearly three months away from the launch of Final Fantasy XV, which means there's a whole lot of pressure on director Hajime Tabata. This winter, Tabata and his large crew at Square Enix will spend their waking hours optimising and polishing the 15th Final Fantasy in hopes of getting everything as stable as possible before September 30. They have got a lot to do. Both Final Fantasy XV demos released so far have had framerate drops and camera glitches.
Still, Tabata was smiling when I sat down with him for a wide-ranging interview at E3 in Los Angeles last week. He asked how Kotaku was doing and he shared insights about optimisation, airships and the Niflheim invasion. We also talked about what it really means to be a Final Fantasy game. You can read the whole Q&A below.
Schreier: We're very close to launch... how are you feeling?
Tabata: I do feel like it's in front of us now. The release is coming up soon. We still have so much left to do on making the game itself, so until the actual day when we've got it out and there's nothing left to do but wait for the release, I'm not gonna feel that it's really done until that point.
Schreier: How much development is left? What stage are you at now?
Tabata: We're really at the stage where we're polishing up the final content and optimising it for different consoles, and also the debugging phase is what we're into now. One other thing there is that we're doing a little bit of changing, switching up the UI to make it even better. That's what we're doing at the moment.
Schreier: Yeah, I keep noticing — in the Platinum demo, the UI is a little different than it is in the Trial of Titan.
Tabata: We're gonna do one final round of brushing up to improve the usability, playability of the UI. We're doing a little bit of brushing up of the NPCs too. We felt there was a lack of reality in some of the NPCs — they were still mockups a lot of them — so we're brushing them up too.
Schreier: How has the optimisation been going? There's so much going on and there are so many graphical effects that it must be tough to get a stable framerate on consoles.
Tabata: I'm not gonna lie, that is a very difficult thing. It's hard work. It's troubling us doing that. If we just said, "We're gonna cut this off to make it better," that could be quite easy, but we really don't want to do that. We've been keeping some people waiting about 10 years for this game now, so we really don't want to cut anything. For example, we could take away the number of enemies who appear at once or cut down the number of effects on screen — it would be very easy to optimise it then, but we don't want to do that.
Schreier: Now that Sony and Microsoft are both announcing new consoles, the Scorpio and the Neo, have you guys been working with that stuff at all?
Tabata: No, we haven't started anything... I first learned about Scorpio at the [Microsoft] conference. I was there waiting in the green room and I go, "Ooh wow, what's that?"
Schreier: That's pretty funny. Do you think it's cool? What do you think?
Tabata: Until I actually see something moving on it, I'm not gonna get a real feeling of what it can do and grasp it, but certainly listening to the specs being reeled off, I think that did sound like something that's got quite a lot of potential. It'd be really great though if we could have Final Fantasy XV something we can play on the current-generation Xbox One and PS4, also give them that choice that when the new, stronger-generation hardware comes out, to have them play at that level as well. I'd really like to be able give them that... I think you've probably got a 4K TV in your house, haven't you?
Schreier: (laughing) No, I don't!
Tabata: It'd be really great if we could give people the option, so the people who have hardcore 4K TVs, they could play on those. Just like you I don't have a 4K TV, so we should play on the current generation.
Schreier: (laughing) Yeah, let's focus on that.
Tabata: (laughing) Let's all focus on the current generation.
Schreier: One hundred per cent. So you're talking about optimisation right now — what happens if you get a month or a few weeks away from release and you find that you can't get it totally optimised, would you decide to cut things? What would you do then?
Tabata: The decision I would have to make would very much vary depending on that situation. Though certainly by managing to get the PS4 and the Xbox One demos out on the show floor, and complete those versions to the level they're at, it's looking really positive now to get both of those done in the way we want them, so I think we'll be OK.
One thing we definitely won't do is change in any great way the game experience we're providing. I think at the very last resort if we have to change something we may lower the resolution. They're both moving at about 30 frames per second. The Xbox One version is about 900p, and the PlayStation 4 version is pretty much full power. We want to keep that level as much as we can.
Schreier: So that airship, I just saw that this morning, it looks incredible.
Tabata: You can fly around freely in the world, and if you really wanna explore in a lot more ways, you can fly around with the airship, it's really great.
Schreier: You can fly anywhere?
Tabata: You can fly anywhere you'd like, but you need to find a road to land on. It's not 100 per cent land anywhere, take off anywhere, fly everywhere, but we really wanted within the system we've created to give the player the freedom to fly as freely as possible, anywhere they could. There's a great level of freedom they can get from that.
Schreier: Was this developed with [Just Cause developer] Avalanche?
Tabata: The actual development work wasn't done as a collaboration with their guys, but we had a big meeting with them. We sat down and discussed their LOD development methods they use for that, and certainly the way that the LOD system handles textures was something we really learned from. We used the information we got out of that meeting to develop the system ourselves. But obviously the way our game's created, and structured, and all the rich parts and systems, the way they interact with each other, it's completely different to their game. So we can't take their technology straight away and just block it in, there's no way we can do that. But it really was a great reference for us, we learned a lot.
Schreier: Have you watched people playing the demo? Have you seen any reactions?
Tabata: I really haven't had any time to do that. Have you played it? I want to hear what you thought.
Schreier: I thought it was really interesting, and there were a lot of cool things in it. The combat feels very different than it did when I played Platinum and when I played Duscae.
Tabata: You feel it's been improved?
Schreier: I think so, yeah. So I wanted to ask — in the Trial of Titan, at a certain point you get a message saying "Strategy: use Blizzara" and that's how you break his arm. I'm wondering: Are bosses gonna fall along that same style, where it tells you what to do and you have to do it a certain way for these big boss fights? Sort of like the behemoth in Duscae, where you could beat it one certain way? Or will there be multiple ways to defeat big bosses like that?
Tabata: There's both styles really in there. You've got those where you're pretty much free to beat the boss any way you'd like, and you've got lots of different options to choose from. And then there's others where you're more guided to a certain way to do it and it will tell you this is the best way to defeat the enemy. Actually this is a cut-away part of the game, it's a 10-minute demo, we had to make it complete in 10 minutes, in a short period of time. The original design for Titan has a number of different strategy options that you can choose from, but we wanted to make sure to lead people through it in an easy way so it can be completed quickly.
And I'm not sure if you saw the Titan demo showed at the Microsoft conference, but if you take a look at the product out there, which you can play, I think you'll be able to see it's actually advanced further than that — it's a lot more of a modern version than that one. We've fixed up the bugs in the version you saw at Microsoft. It really has improved the freedom for the player during the battle scene.
Schreier: Can you talk about how the combat system has evolved over the years? It's almost like fans have been part of the development, because we saw Duscae and then Platinum and now the final product. Can you talk about why you made some of the changes you've made?
Tabata: I think the fact that we had people play Episode Duscae first and got the feedback was a very important step. In theory, the Episode Duscae demo when we released it was very much just about an alpha state in the development. We'd created the alpha build of the game, and we put that out there and had people really engage with it in depth, got their feedback on it. And certainly, the first thing it did was get it out to the fans and get them to understand that yes, we really are making this game, and get that sense of "we're working on it". But also we got so much feedback from people all around the world as well, and that global level of feedback was something we really didn't have any idea what kind of responses people from all around the world would give. It was a really useful thing, an important step both for the fans and for us.
It was really a great thing to get that feedback from people. And we weren't really just taking feedback and putting that straight into the game and just doing exactly what people told us to do, but that communication with fans was such a useful experience, an experience we wouldn't swap for anything else really. It was such a useful thing. I think through that process, refining it, and making the final form of the game something which convinces the fans it's slowly coming together on the development side, and the fan side, what we're expecting and our hopes for the game come together. It was a very useful way to get the final product the way it should have been.
(laughing) And you wrote that "10 years" article but you've been supporting all those 10 years, so that's good. Because of that, it gives us our energy and our strength, it really does motivate the team to see that.
Schreier: (laughing) I enjoyed that [Famitsu] interview with Sakaguchi, watching you guys talk about that.
Tabata: (laughing) I remember something to do with the conversation at PAX Prime, about 10 years…
Schreier: (laughing) He made that joke…
Tabata: He felt sorry for that. (laughing) He apologised to me after.
Schreier: Has Sakaguchi played the game?
Tabata: He played Episode Duscae. I think that's what caused him to come around on our side and support us — it convinced him. He told me that he really felt like Final Fantasy has moved on to the next generation.
Schreier: It feels like you guys have been talking about the game a lot and showing a lot of footage, and you guys do the Active Time Reports. It's really good to see that kind of transparency, but there's also a worry that there are no more surprises left. Is that something you guys are concerned about? Are there still going to be surprises for people when they play the game?
Tabata: The big prerequisite for that is that, regardless of whether we've got surprises left in store, it's that game experience that's the important thing. Because what we've released has just been points throughout the game, you don't get the feeling, and you don't get the same idea of what it actually feels like to play the game, the open-world experience and the emotional resonance of that. That's something that people can't get unless they play the game. Having said that, we are very much working with all the marketing guys to keep back stuff so that we don't give people impressions like, "I've seen it all."
On the other hand, as you said yourself, because it's been 10 years, there are so many people who have been waiting for this for a long time. They really want a lot of information about it. There are those people who are just, "Don't hold it back, just give me everything, let me know about the game." And obviously we want to please those people as well. It's a very difficult balancing act between people with the way we send information, and obviously I'm doing a lot of experimenting and trying things out and struggling my way through. I think in the end we really have got that balance there, we've done the best way possible for that, give both groups what they want.
Schreier: At this point it's become clear that the E3 2013 trailer, where FFXV was first revealed, that was CGI — that was more of an idea than an actual product. But a lot of people are wondering — because it came out that the Niflheim invasion, you won't actually see it now, just hear about it — people are wondering why you decided to make that change?
Tabata: When we first sat down to re-plan the project that's Final Fantasy XV, we really looked at which elements we need and should use and could do to create that kind of unique gameplay experience that we wouldn't really get anywhere else. It was a very in-depth discussion about what elements to keep and what to throw away or change. We felt because the theme we're trying to handle here with the story is such a massive epic tale, we really couldn't fit all of that into the game that we had the time to make. So we wanted to show the essential things to get the best story across, which is where we decided on that — that's reflected in the final form of the game.
It's not that we don't need to show the Niflheim invasion to get the story across, but because that episode is something that would take up so much effort and time that rather than force it into the game, we started up its own separate project independently, and that's the tale we wanted to tell with the film. That's why we moved that to Kingsglaive. From a story perspective we'd have to have both the game and the film, both of these together in one package, but realistically that's not something we could have done in one game, it's too much.
It's very similar to the kind of decision we had to ask ourselves, "OK, do we spend another six years to develop that whole complete package as one game, or do we spend three years to do it in the way that we're doing now?" I think, it really doesn't affect it which one you get to see — from a story perspective whether you see it as part of the game or through the film, and how we tell that story is not such a thing which is affected by that choice. We really are confident that we've made a really great experience with that. We felt the most important thing we needed to depict through the game was that idea of travelling together with these comrades and watching them all grow and develop as people emotionally at the same time. We really have gotten that in there, so from a story perspective I think we've done the best we can.
Schreier: You mentioned before that you took a lot of fan feedback from Duscae, and I know a lot of fans have been requesting things like the airship and rideable chocobos, and that you guys were able to put in a lot of that stuff. Was there anything that fans requested that you guys weren't able to put in?
Tabata: It's not that simplistic relationship really where the fans want it so we put it in the game — it's a bit more complicated than that.
The thing we really felt like we had to do when we switched over from being Versus XIII to XV was to overhaul the technology behind Final Fantasy XV, to make it a new modern up-to-date game technologically. The way we approached making it was very much to have that technological base that we worked in, include the combat system that we feel the game needs, and the world-building the game needs, have that whole technical base. From that perspective when we've got that realised, we're gonna work in all the elements from Final Fantasy, the classic things, which ones of those can we do in this world well, and as a result appeal to people and really feel Final Fantasy and work with the new things. We're really building it up using the old elements as bricks on our technological base.
The one thing perhaps that we didn't manage to get in that a lot of people did say they wanted was the kind of more classic medieval fantasy style of airships, with the vertical take off and go along like ships in the sky. That was one thing we didn't get in. (laughing) That would have been impossible. That would have been hard to do.
Schreier: I think people are OK as long as there's some sort of airship. That's what's important.
Tabata: If that's it, then I'm very happy.
Schreier: So there's a lot of focus on little details in Final Fantasy XV. Like I noticed when I was playing the Trial of Titan, when you use Blizzara there's snow everywhere, little ice particles. Do you ever worry that you're spending too much time on little details and sacrificing framerate, optimisation and bigger-picture stuff?
Tabata: We are very much aware of that danger of going too much into detail, so we very much do concentrate on controlling that and working so we don't fall into that trap. It really is decisions at different points in the game — does this section require that level of detail, does it not need that level of detail? It has to be done on a case by case basis. We really made sure not to make the wrong decisions in each of those individual cases.
Certainly in the case of the magic, we felt it was really important for the magic and why we needed that level of detail for it was because it has to be convincing as a phenomenon and as a fantasy element within this believable world. So that's why we really want to concentrate on having all these physical effects for it and really make it feel realistic and like it's integrated in the world.
Schreier: I don't want to ask you too many specific questions about the story or anything like that because I want to be surprised, but I do want to ask: What do you think makes Final Fantasy XV feel like a true Final Fantasy game?
Tabata: (pauses a few seconds) I don't want to try to dodge the question or anything, but I really feel like depending on players, everyone's idea of "this is what Final Fantasy is, this is what makes Final Fantasy" really depends on which numbered Final Fantasy they like the best.
Schreier: Sure, sure.
Tabata: I do think very much that when the players play XV, they will quite naturally compare XV to their favourite Final Fantasys of the past, and say, "Oh yeah, this is the kind of Final Fantasy I really want, this is what I like." In a very broad sense, the biggest sense really of what makes Final Fantasy for people — and obviously I really do think it prerequisites on that idea of what everyone different likes — is the idea that this is a cutting-edge Final Fantasy, it's a AAA truly large-scale great quality game, and that's what makes it Final Fantasy is that scale.
I really think people's impressions and interpretations of what that scale is and what it means can vary. So there'll be people saying it has to be an epic story and that's what makes Final Fantasy, or that cutting-edge top-level RPG, that it's the latest evolution in RPGs, the different things they take. You take it all together in one overall form now — I think that's what makes it Final Fantasy, that's the best thing you have playing for you is that scale, to challenge yourself to take it to the next level.
Schreier: For a while now I've had a theory that people became really attached to the older Final Fantasy games because there was no voice acting and there wasn't a lot of detail so players' heads kind of filled in the blanks. Do you think that's true? Is it more challenging to do something that's more realistic and has very specific voices and characters and personalities, where people can't create it as much in their heads anymore?
Tabata: That's a really interesting thing... I completely agree with you. I think certainly that bit that you fill in with your imagination, you do really think back to it. That is something that whatever spec of hardware you've got, you just can't recreate that in people's heads. So yeah I think that's a very difficult thing — I think people do remember the old games in that way.
Having said that, Final Fantasy is about taking that challenge and trying to improve on that, give people those great memories that they can look back on so fondly. (laughing) So it really gets me fired up to do that.
Schreier: Well I hope we have a chance to talk after the game comes out so we can see how well you did!
Tabata: What I really want to see the most of all is the people who have been waiting 10 years for this game to buy this game, on the release date even, play it and then come back and say, "Yeah it was a good thing, I'm glad I bought that game, I'm glad I played Final Fantasy XV." I've got my own images of what I think Final Fantasy should be, but that's the goal I really want to achieve.
Schreier: So I have to ask - I know you've talked about this a little before, but my readers would kill me if I didn't ask: Is it gonna come to PC? Everyone wants to know.
Tabata: (laughing) We are thinking about a PC version. But until we've got the console versions finished, we really aren't gonna think anymore about that. That really is our top priority and one thing we're not gonna bend on is getting those console versions finished on time. You saw we released the PlayStation VR demo at E3 — that is something that was very much designed to be completed in a very short period of time by a team so it didn't affect the main console development cycle. That's the will of the whole team — they want to get it done. We don't want to be making excuses. We don't want to be having regrets. We want to get these out and done in time.
Schreier: For Kotaku readers, tell me something that you've never told anyone else about Final Fantasy XV.
Tabata: (thinking) You've got loads of readers reading it, what can I say? We got wait mode in the game!
Schreier: (laughing) We know that already! I already wrote an article about it.
Tabata: OK, so have you seen the option mode yet? Where you can turn wait mode on and off? You've got an option there to turn UI off as well. There'll be an option to turn everything off. Like if you were taking a screenshot. You can also turn them off individually. That's new information! (laughing) I'll be angry at you if you don't get user comments on that.
Schreier: I don't know, I feel like people might have seen the menus.
Tabata: What about the stamina gauge? That's actually only a temporary small thing. There's mixed opinions — some people don't like it, some people like it. We're gonna make it much better for the final version.