Square Enix didn't get to be Japan's powerhouse RPG developer by taking many risks. After the massive success of the big-budget cinematic RPG Final Fantasy VII, says producer Toshiro Tsuchida, the production model for Square Enix games has remained mostly unchanged: Big budgets, huge teams, 2-4 year development cycles, and an emphasis on visual arts.
But Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As A King has flipped all of that on its head. In a Game Developers Conference session on Thursday, Tsuchida and programmer Fumiaki Shiraishi talked about the lessons they learned creating the small game for WiiWare, Nintendo's upcoming downloadable game service.
My Life As A King, which will launch with the WiiWare service on May 12, might look like a traditional Final Fantasy RPG, but it's anything but. It's actually a sim game, in which you play the king of a city, building up the town, ordering your subjects to go out and get resources, and generally managing the place like any adorable childlike monarch would.
The game's producer, Toshiro Tsuchida, kicked off the presentation by saying that My Life As A King was developed in a different manner than Square Enix's usual games. "You can't use high-quality CG as a weapon" on WiiWare, he said, referring to Square Enix's main strength as a game maker. But, he said, "we wanted to maintain our original strengths. That was a huge challenge for us," he said -- maintaining the qualities that players expect from "Square Enix games."
Turning the session over to the English-fluent programmer Fumiaki Shiraishi, Tsuchida left the podium and asked Shirashi to explain his methodology. "I wanted to try to make a game that did not rely on volume," he said, noting that he was interested in making a game with a small data size.
The project kicked off in September 2006, with no concrete information. "We had to assume a lot of stuff," he said. They were targeting a $10 price point and a Summer 2007 launch. Well, he was right about one of those.
They first created a prototype with old assets, for about three months. Then they came up with the story and scenario, then create new assets for the game (another three months).
This was radical for Square Enix, since it usually begins projects by creating art assets -- as anyone who's ever seen the Final Fantasy XIII trailers could tell you. "With Wii Ware, we actually had the excuse" to start with the game concept, rather than with visual assets, he said.
Another thing they did differently was to use a script language called Squirrel, and a middleware library from Nintendo called NintendoWare. "At Square Enix, we don't... use other people's code, but since we were aiming for a Summer 2007 launch, I had to streamline the development process," said Shiraishi.
NintendoWare, he said, was "awesome" -- they had the basic game elements on screen in three months with only one programmer -- Shiraishi himself.
Shiraishi showed a video of gameplay to the GDC crowd. The character is running around an empty city -- this is from very early in the game, he said, before any buildings are built. The characters are constantly going about their daily lives, leaving the city, fighting monsters, finding items, and bringing them back to you, their king. From this, said Shiraishi, you can determine what you need to invest in for your populace.
By the very end of the game, the city is full of buildings and people who walk around town, buying Level 15 Broadswords and such. Little balloon icons appear above their heads to show what they're hoping to do, like a shopping bag that represents a character going to the store.
The game originally had a battle system that the team spent months making, Shiraishi said, but they decided to scrap it because it didn't fit with the simulation aspects of the game -- they'd made it too much like a standard RPG battle system "because we had so much experiencing creating RPG-type games." The team had to revise the battle system four times, he said.
"The Wii has gained a wider audience than we anticipated," said Shiraishi, and so they reworked the game to attract a broader variety of players. To that end, they redesigned the game's tutorial quite a bit. And they also had to make sure the game looks decent compared to other Wii games. And finally, they decided that they had to "pull out all the stops" and make it a full-on Final Fantasy game. That, he said, affected every aspect of the game from graphics to AI.
But Square Enix is still one of the few companies who made the launch of WiiWare, and Shiraishi attributed that to the delay of the WiiWare launch, but also to the fact that they started making the game before things were "official" -- before they had the official specs for WiiWare. They didn't aim to make a Square Enix game, he said, but they ended up making something "unmistakably" Square Enix anyway.
Taking the mic back, Tsuchida said that at first he told Shiraishi that they wouldn't make graphics for his game until they had a working prototype, as they weren't sure his idea would work. So they went to Akitoshi Kawazu, who produced the GameCube version of Crystal Chronicles, and asked if they could use those assets.
Tsuchida named a few ways that they reduced the cost of making the game. First, he said, they decided to "use and augment" an existing franchise to create this game rather than a wholly new idea. Second, they decided to let younger staff members create the game with supervision from the veteran staff.
But conversely, they used veteran graphic artists: Because they were used to working on older game systems within stricter memory limitations. (Clever.)
Moving on, Tsuchida noted that another way the team saved cost was to "control the creation of resources." They made sure to just use their resources to create the city, the characers, and the cinema scenes.
What did they cut out? They didn't have battle scenes. They didn't have a world outside the city. The villagers don't have model variations -- they never hold weapons, for example. There is a world, there are battles, but they're represented with maps, still images, and text. They used words and text, not graphics, to distinguish the characters.
Tsuchida wrapped by pointing out how Square Enix had settled into one single way of game making. After Final Fantasy VII, he said, Square Enix just made all of its games following that pattern and didn't try anything new. This required lots of high-level experts in individualized fields, and 2-4 years of development time.
But with things like WiiWare, you can use a wide range of skills and responsibilities, giving people a chance to have more say in the final product -- leaving you with happier employees, he said.