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Sometimes it can be hard to imagine Hironobu Sakaguchi as a 'glass half-full' kind of guy. You just need to look at the names of his games: 'Final' Fantasy, The 'Last' Story. He's a man on the cusp of oblivion. In fact, with both games he threatened to retire if they weren't a success.
Thankfully for him - and us - they sold in their millions. In 1987 he birthed Final Fantasy, the only JRPG capable of giving Dragon Quest a run for its money. And now, in 2012, he delivers The Last Story - one of the most revolutionary JRPGs in years. Along with his band of warriors at Mistwalker, the studio he set up with Microsoft's backing in 2001, Sakaguchi is challenging the conventions he himself set in motion in his original RPG series.
Intrigued by his change of heart, we tracked him down to his Honolulu home (nice work if you can get it) to discover how The Last Story came to be, and to ask how one of the forefathers of the RPG hopes to compete with the games he inspired. And as we found out, he's not ready to quit just yet. Maybe that glass isn't as empty as we thought...
The Last Story follows two quite traditional RPGs from Mistwalker (Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey on Xbox 360). Why the sudden change of direction?
It's because I got this idea for the Gathering system. This system is where the player can control the targeting of the enemies by having them focus on the player character and so allow their mages to fight better. This allowed us to create action battles that require the player to think tactically.
There's an obvious correlation between the name The Last Story and Final Fantasy. Was it intentional?
There's no real connection there. And, as my daughter pointed out, Lost Odyssey also sounds a bit similar. I guess I simply like these kinds of names.
This was your first project in the director's chair since Final Fantasy V in 1992. What lured you back to it?
Perhaps the importance of being directly involved myself. Also, I'd like to say that although from Final Fantasy VI onwards my title changed to producer, the actual work I was doing didn't change that much. I thought that it's an important element of RPGs to use the script language to describe the world and battles in detail, and that it's important to work on that myself too.
And how did it feel being back in the director's chair?
I've been working so hard that I've been finding some more grey hairs, perhaps it's my age.
Can you describe how you even start developing a project of this size. It's day one of development, you've got a blank sheet of paper... where do you go next?
When I'm there with a blank sheet of paper, usually I like to go to the sea and watch the waves rolling in, or take a long shower. Somehow ideas just come to me when I'm around water.
After pouring yourself into Final Fantasy for so many years, was it difficult to come up with new and fresh concepts for The Last Story, such as the action elements?
There was a lot of trial and error. With the new action elements we couldn't be certain if everything would work fine until we actually tested them. There were cases where even if at the planning stage it looked like it would be easy enough to keep track of what was going on with your party members, the enemies and your surroundings, when we tested it out the player wasn't able to pay enough attention to everything. So we spent a lot of time working on this, building a system that would allow users to get an overall picture of the situation, while still giving them enough freedom to feel as if they are playing the game well. Including new concepts such as Gathering also increased the time we needed for this.