Remember this thing that happened way back in 2008? Since we never got a non-online-translator version of this in 英語, I decided I might as well take a whack at eigo-ifying it.
Whereas Ito talks (at length, same way he talks about everything) about the trials and tribulations of producing Knights from a character design perspective here, he discusses the systematic problems of working on it in this interview. This is also That One Interview where he explains the plans for Episode III, so there's also that.
My feelings about this:
-The more I read about Ito's design methods, the more I respect the guy. DHE is so deep from the narrative side that it just boggles the mind how narrative is always secondary to game mechanics.
-I love how he has so much to say. DORKY ENTHUSIASTIC GAME DESIGNERS ARE THE BEST GAME DESIGNERS, THE END FOREVER.
-but at the same time i can't help but wish he'd shut up a little when i've been translating this for like six hours 'cause seriously dude come on
As usual, feel free to link to this post from everywhere on the planet, but if you claim the translation as your own I will mobilize my secret network of supporters to track you down and make you knock it off etc. etc.
The story of “Knights in the Nightmare”’s development
First, I think I’d like to ask about the game’s development. How far back did you begin working on it?
ITO: About two years ago. We were wondering whether to make the new game for the PSP or the DS, and since around that time we also decided to remake “Yggdra Union” for the PSP, we decided to implement all the PSP-specific things for it. So because of that, we decided Knights would go to the DS (laughs).
But who’d have thought you’d wind up taking advantage of the DS’ tools themselves! (laughs)
ITO: Of course, since we decided to make the game for the DS, we thought that we wanted to make use of the system’s forte, its touch pen and dual screens. And one day when I was fooling around with Picto Chat, I thought “I wonder if we can’t use the touch pen locus for the game too”, and that was the beginning.
So then your ideas revolving around the touch pen started from that point in time?
ITO: Exactly. At that time, I was thinking about the elementary function of the touch pen, manipulating the cursor. However, when you’re operating the system with the touch pen, you might think that it’s just faster to do things with the buttons instead. In that case, enemies that try to attack the cursor might need to be a necessary game component. As a result of using those concepts, it turned into developing something with the feel of avoiding enemy bullets and giving orders to units.
Speaking of enemy bullets, the idea of the enemies’ target being the Wisp (the cursor) is a pretty rare type of thing, right?
ITO: In all the games up until now, I think the enemies have always targeted your ally characters. Not the cursor (laughs). In all honesty, the idea of using the touch pen to select allies and moving it in real-time is a pretty difficult job, isn’t it? We really worried about how to make it work without it becoming too stressful on the player while we were fiddling around with the pen. And we realized that your line of sight moves before the pen does. So then development turned in the direction of “if the enemies are attacking here, how do we make it natural to respond instead of distracting”. Since from the beginning, the bullet hell genre where the player avoids enemy attacks has been around, we decided to make it resemble one of those so that it would be easier for the player to parse.
There’s a “grazing bonus” (getting a high score by just barely avoiding enemy attacks) in Knights, but that comes from bullet hell too, doesn’t it?
ITO: With any game, you’re going to want bonuses if you do a good job, right? Kind of like “I can do this too, not just dodging!!”. If there was something like the “grazing bonus” that’s in bullet hell games, there would probably be people who rise to the challenge, so we put that in.
The touch pen’s usage was adjusted a lot
Since this is a peculiar system, I’m sure there were a lot of development problems, but was there anything that was particularly worrying?
ITO: It’s actually a pretty trivial thing, but how to make the game software judge the usage of the touch pen and accept input was a huge problem. It’s no good for it to be oversensitive. For instance, you activate a character by touching them, but if you accidentally touch a character while dodging bullets and activate them that would be bad. If using the touch pen, which is the basis of the whole game, gets to be stressful, then everything in this project would be meaningless. So we fine-tuned everything frame by frame. It was just repeating trial and error over and over. Since we worked so hard, I have confidence that people will be able to move the Wisp without worrying.
The tutorial is split into “beginner” and “advanced” sections, but why is that?
ITO: Knights has a very original system, so I think remembering every single facet of gameplay would be pretty hard. So the beginner tutorial is comprised of the basic components of the game, but there are also a lot of things that aren’t explained. Practically speaking, the first few stages of both Normal Mode and Easy Mode can be cleared without implementing the small details. And in a way, the second half of Normal Mode and all of Hard Mode require you to both know all those details and be able to implement them efficiently. Thinking that players will be able to remember everything based on their skill level and the game’s circumstances, we split the tutorial into two. We wanted to make use of not just the characters’ growth, but the player’s growth as well, so there are a lot of functions included in this system.
You certainly do wonder if you’d be able to improve your performance on your second playthrough.
ITO: Your second time, you’d probably be able to gain more EXP than on your first, and if you can clear it much faster than the first time, I think you’ll have a definite sense of having improved.
Establishing worldbuilding using the game system
By the way, is there a reason why there’s only one save slot?
ITO: Actually, we’d wanted there to be three or so in the beginning. However, between the Transoul system used to pass abilities from one character to another and item strengthening, there are a lot of factors that change based on how you play, and the save data wound up being huge. There are a lot of details that have to be saved, so the amount of data on a single save file is immense, and it was all the game card could manage. And actually, I wanted to be able to have temporary save files if your game got interrupted, but even that type of save file wound up so massive we couldn’t do it. To be honest, that was really too bad.
I see. Still, I think that the whole idea of “Once you save you can’t turn back!” really fits the worldbuilding.
ITO: There really is an “all you can do is continue with all your might!” kind of feeling. The problem of how much data capacity there is meaning there’s only one save slot helped create the sense that the knights have to move forward even if their own lives become sacrifices.
In that case, aside from the save data, are there other systemic aspects that help to reinforce the construction of the world?
ITO: There are. Of course, the broad setting details are always decided at the start. However, the little details often have the feeling of fitting in with the game system. For instance, at the time we decided “the cursor’s going to be a little ball of light”, we also decided that it would be beautiful in an old castle at night, and that if we were advancing the story by sharing the light of that soul between knights who have had their own taken away, then it’s only natural that you’d call the knights to action by touching them. We were always going for a dark atmosphere, but it wasn’t that we decided to have the setting details be serious—rather, since the cursor being the Wisp and there being only one save file were unchangeable parts of the system, the decision of “Let’s make the contents of the game fit these facts” was what allowed us to build the game world. You can say this for every single game I’ve ever made, but as the game systems are being decided, I fill in the story gaps by thinking “it would be easiest to explain these system conceits by using this kind of setting”. Since the lion’s share of RPGs are constructed story first, the way we make games is probably really weird, but by starting with the system and building outward, it’s easier to create game systems with a strong sense of originality, and that’s personally a huge help to me.
System-first is a way of making games that the fans may be accepting, though.
ITO: I’m really grateful for that.
The penalties of “retry” and “leveling”
In the game, instead of just the “retry” function that’s been in every game so far, there’s also a new “leveling” function. Please tell us why you included these.
ITO: Since there’s only one save slot, there’s always the possibility that you’ll wind up too underleveled to continue the game and be put in “check”, so to speak; in order to counter that possibility, we put these features in. By the way, the name “leveling” comes with the feeling of “this way I won’t be unable to continue if I don’t get enough EXP”. Actually, there were some other, easier-to-understand candidates for that name. But if you were to make the name “training”, for instance, there’d be a sense of “once you get to a certain level you have to move on to the next stage”, so we went for something a little more vague.
Is the way “leveling” can only be selected from the main screen something to keep players from thinking that they have to use it to go on then?
ITO: Yes. For example, say it popped up on the “setup screen” that appears after you clear a stage. That way the players would wind up thinking “Uh-oh, I’d better gain a few levels here while I can”, wouldn’t they? So that’s why “leveling” is on the main screen, so that you’ll only find it when thinking “I can’t clear this” and suspending the game.
In Yggdra Union, if you used Retry there were certain items you couldn’t get, but in this game are there penalties for using “retry” and “leveling” too? I think players working on the game now are curious about this too.
ITO: The action-genre influence on Knights is strong, so I think that everyone will eventually have times where they have to use one or the other. So for that reason, there aren’t any particular penalties for using them. Oh, but then at the ending, you get shown what scores you got, and stages where you retried don’t get ranked, they just have “retry” written there. That might be a problem for people who are trying to get all S ranks. So there is that.
That definitely might make you feel like you lost (laughs). By the way, what about penalties for “leveling” then?
ITO: There aren’t any for that either. If you use “leveling”, you’ll still be able to recruit all characters, obtain all items, and see all events. By the way, this is written in the manual too, but the same goes for the difficulty level. Just because you’re on Easy Mode doesn’t mean that you’ll miss out on part of the story, so I want you to choose the difficulty that’s right for you and enjoy the game. “Knights in the Nightmare” is a weird game, and I don’t think experiences playing other games can be of much help. So on your first playthrough, try using Easy Mode. And as you get used to the game and start thinking “this is a piece of cake”, advance through the difficulty ranks starting with Normal.
Now this is just me, but I went in thinking “even if the story’s the same maybe there’ll be some characters that don’t show up in Easy Mode” and started on Normal, and now I’m having a hard time. It’s a work in progress (laughs).
ITO: That might well be a suspicion of players familiar with the series (laughs). This time the game system is so unique that I think they’ll be busy worrying about all kinds of other things. So there are no weird restrictions on this one. If you want to recruit a character you need the right item, and players might think “maybe it’s because I’m on the wrong difficulty level” and worry about what difficulty to use, so I think it’s best to answer that beforehand and explain that that’s not the case.
And this is another personal worry, but the timing of starting to use Transoul is really difficult, in a way. It’s like “I might still be able to go without it”.
ITO: The first time you use “Transoul” really is like that. You lose characters by using Transoul, so I think it’s hugely worrying thinking about when it should be used. However, because “the decision to have one character sacrifice himself for the whole is a very serious thing”, this is something that I do want players to worry about.
About the two-month release delay
The release was pushed back two months, but what were the practical reasons for that?
ITO: The truth is that at first we didn’t have the game tutorials. If we went with the initial release date of July, then we wouldn’t have been satisfied with the level of tutorial we could’ve included, and we wanted to buy time for that. Even within the staff, we had a lot of people going “It’s a lot of fun when you get used to it, but until you get used to it this is really hard”. If it were released like that, then maybe people would give up before they got used to the game. And from the judgment of the company, we decided we needed an in-game tutorial. The time it took to complete all of that was two months.
Comparing what the game looks like now to the first things up on the official site, the game screen’s actually pretty different…
ITO: To be perfectly honest, back in July there were still some things on the game screen that were hard for the players to actually see. At the time the postponement was decided on, we also decided that we’d better rearrange things so that they were easier to see. On each game screen, we increased the displays, and that did change the way the game looked a bit. In terms of raising the quality of the whole product, the two months we kept everyone waiting were spent on making it easier to play. The things like getting hints when you get a game over in a boss fight were also put in during those two months.
Come to think of it, there definitely are bosses that you might not be able to beat without those hints. Personally I had a lot of trouble with Ganzer, and the first time I got a game over I didn’t understand what happened.
ITO: I knew it (laughs). We thought people would have trouble on certain bosses, so even in the places we didn’t want to, we added the hint function. We decided to do everything we possibly could, so in those two months of the delay, the testers’ ROMs were pretty much getting updated every single day.
About the Dept. Heaven Episodes series
This is the newest game in the Dept. Heaven series, so are there connections with Riviera and Yggdra Union?
ITO: Certain characters are very much connected, but the basic plotline of each game has a self-contained conclusion, so it’s not like you won’t understand the basic plot if you haven’t played the previous games. Yggdra showing up in the tutorial was just something we did to make our long-standing players smile. Personally I get annoyed with situations where you can’t understand IV if you don’t play I and II, so they’re made so that you can play them in any order you like, and there’s no obligation to play the games you dislike.
Before this point we did make Riviera and Yggdra Union, but basically speaking they’re not sequels, and the system of every game is new. I do think that you’ll want to play games connected to previous games you enjoyed, so it might have been better if we’d called Yggdra Union and Knights “Riviera 2” and “Riviera 3” instead, but even though this might be my selfishness as a creator, as long as they’re being created in original circumstances, I want to take them on as separate entities. “I want to propose new worldviews and play styles!” is how I do things.
If you had called them “Riviera 2 and 3”, then people would have thought they had to play “1” first, but with the setup that this series has now, you can get interested in a game on its own and think “since the game I had fun with was Episode IV, next I want to try playing Episode I” too.
ITO: That’s definitely something we’re aiming for. You don’t have to play them in order; in fact, you can go in reverse and have fun making theories like “I wonder if this character is connected to this story” and so on. Personally, even though the series name and connections have been announced, I think the game systems for everything will still be completely different. If you like weird game systems, then please try this series out. Because if the system just uses orthodox factors, it’s not going to get connected to Dept. Heaven (laughs).
By the way, “III” is kind of a missing number right now, but do you have plans to work on that next?
ITO: The numbering of the Dept. Heaven series has nothing to do with chronology, it’s just the order we set the plans in, so there’s no real meaning in III not being done yet. It’s just that when the users are going “I wonder if there’s some special meaning behind it?”, that gets harder to explain (laughs). By the way, Episode III is currently planned to be a PC online game. We just haven’t had the time to work on it yet, so it’s on hiatus right now.
If this is the first time it’s officially being mentioned, that’s kind of amazing (laughs). Is III going to be an MMORPG?
ITO: Let’s see. It was an MMO (in the sense that a lot of people can link up and play it at the same time). But given the contents, it’s kind of like “we could probably just call it a normal RPG too” (laughs). It’s a weird game, and I personally want to work on it myself, so for now it’s a missing number of sorts. Until there’s actually time to develop it, I want to think about it. If by that time MMO-type online games become something like ordinary household board games and such, we might put it out based on that type of theme.
Pulling things together for hardware, not the market
When considering that the market for the DS mainly caters to casual gamers, was it ever a worry that something like Knights that targets serious gamers might not sell well?
ITO: There was never any pressure or drive that “we have to make this accessible to casual gamers”. And above and beyond that, since the main market for the DS is driven by casual games, there’s the chance that the hardcore fans are put off by that market in general, and if the casual gamers don’t like it then there’s the fear that no buyers will be left at all. So that that wouldn’t happen, we just approached Knights with how to make it a good game, period. Instead of trying to make it conform to the market, we started with “how do we make it interesting as a game”, moved on to thinking that using the touch pen would be interesting, and thought about other propositions using the DS’s gimmicks to make sure the end production would be good. For that reason, rather than the market, we wanted the game to fit the hardware. For instance, after this point, if we were to make a Wii game, we’d be more worried about how to use the controller than about how to market the game itself (laughs).
So in the end, from here on out, do you have more plans to create unique games?
ITO: That’s right. I want to make games that people who want to play innovative things will enjoy. Even for Knights in the Nightmare, there’s information posted about the demo version, and if you play it and like it, then you can buy it and fully enjoy it. I don’t think it’s a good game for people who think “I don’t want to try out weird things”, but if you’ve thought “I want to play something different” or “that looks interesting”, there are lots of things that might be able to fulfill those wishes.
How about one last comment for the readers?
ITO: Up until the game got released, I’ve been explaining it with intros and videos, but I think there’s still a lot that hasn’t been communicated too well (laughs). If you’re thinking “I want to try out a game that’s different from everything I’ve experienced before, but if I don’t know what kind of game this is I don’t want to risk it”, you can download the demo version, and at Tokyo Gameshow 2008 that’s going from October 9th, we’ve got preparations to let people test-play the game, so if you’re curious then I think you should come and give it a try firsthand. We’ve given it our all so that it’ll live up to the money you spent on it. Personally I don’t care if you borrow it from your friends instead; just try playing it at least once. We worked really hard on the touch pen functions, so we’re confident about that. It’s not a game that can just be dismissed as its functions; it grows with you, so I’d be really happy if you can sense that. Especially if you really strongly want to play games, then I hope you get the chance to try it.