Hiromichi Tanaka is one of the unsung heroes of Japanese game development. Since dropping out of university at the age of 21 along with his friend Hironobu Sakaguchi to join the fledgling game developer Square, Tanaka was a key figure in the creation of the first three Final Fantasy games - and went on to lend his significant talents to critically acclaimed and much-loved titles including Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, Xenogears and Chrono Cross.
With a CV like that, you might expect Tanaka's name to be well-known among fans of Japanese games - but on the contrary, he spent almost two decades in the shadow of his old Yokahama University buddy Sakaguchi, who is recognised internationally as the "father of Final Fantasy" and caused a stir when the first titles to be announced by his new company, Mist Walker, were for the Xbox 360. Indeed, Tanaka's moment in the sun didn't really appear until the appearance of Square's first massively multiplayer game, Final Fantasy XI; a bold move into a new market for a firm whose business was firmly focused on single-player console titles at the time, but one which Tanaka expertly helmed despite both his and Square Enix' lack of experience of online multiplayer, running services or developing for the PC.
Three expansion packs - and over half a million subscribers - later, Final Fantasy XI is a huge success, and Tanaka is now a senior vice president - and consequently, the head of all of Square Enix' online endeavours. With Final Fantasy XI still a healthy cash cow for the firm, and new MMOGs on the way, Tanaka's time for projects outside of the online division is limited - but one development project which he couldn't pass up on turned up two years ago.
Final Fantasy III, which Tanaka had worked on 15 years previously as one of the main designers, was the only game in the epic franchise never to have been released outside Japan. Despite being widely seen at the time as a huge step forward for the role-playing genre - and introducing key elements such as the job system and summoned creatures which would become staples of Final Fantasy games for over a decade - the world at large had yet to see FF3, and even in Japan, the game hadn't seen the light of day on any system since the SNES. Granted the opportunity to remake the game at last, Tanaka jumped at the chance.
The Third Place
Speaking to Eurogamer last week, the veteran game designer explained that many different factors had conspired to keep Final Fantasy III off the shelves for the last 16 years, despite the popularity of the game - starting with the company's own uncertainty about how the console market would develop at the time of the title's original release back in 1990.
"In those days - around the time of the Famicom (NES) and Super Famicom (SNES) - that was the first time that we'd seen a console hardware transition," Tanaka explained. "Nowadays we know that when you've got a platform like PlayStation, you'll have PlayStation 2 and then PlayStation 3, and where you've got Xbox, you move on to Xbox 360 - you can sort of assume what's going to happen in the future. But back then, that was the first time that we'd seen a new generation of consoles, and it was really difficult to predict what was going to happen."
"At that time, then, we were working so hard to catch up on the new technology that we didn't have enough manpower to work on an English version of Final Fantasy III - we were just totally focused on developing FF3 and FF4."
Famously, the game is one of the largest RPGs ever developed for the NES/Famicom platform - and it's this fact, Tanaka claims, which prevented it from being remade for other systems in the intervening years, until a major push was made to bring it up to date in 2005.
"When we developed FF3, the volume of content in the game was so huge that the cartridge was completely full," he says, "and when new platforms emerged, there simply wasn't enough storage space available for an update of FF3, because that would have required new graphics, music and other content. There was also a difficulty with how much manpower it would take to remake all of that content."
"So, although there were several opportunities to redevelop Final Fantasy III, we simply couldn't do it - up until about two years ago, which was about 15 years after the launch of the original game, when it was decided that we would definitely go ahead and re-make the game. At that time we were considering developing it for PlayStation 2, but then we heard from Nintendo about their new handheld platform, the Nintendo DS - and they asked us if we could please make Final Fantasy III on that platform instead. It was good timing, and it was an interesting challenge, so we decided to go ahead with that."
Advancing the Fantasy
One look at Final Fantasy III confirms that this game lives up to Square Enix' reputation for pushing the technological boundaries of the systems they develop for - and despite the fact that this is the team's first game for the DS, there are tons of features in FF3 which haven't been seen in other DS titles to date. The most obvious of those is the use of high quality full-motion video that spans both screens of the console, but in many other respects Final Fantasy III is a leap forward for software on the DS - even if its gameplay harks back to a much earlier time.
Nintendo does give us a lot of libraries and information to help in our development," Tanaka says, confirming that the two companies worked closely on bringing FF3 to the handheld, "but since Final Fantasy III was the first time that we had made a game for the Nintendo DS, we really had to start from scratch. We worked together with a company called Matrix, and it was really an original game engine that we created for this project."
"One interesting part of the development was the Wi-Fi Connection function. In the original libraries which Nintendo gave us, it doesn't include a system for communicating with people who are offline - so we made a new library for the DS which allows you to send a text letter, like an email, which is stored on a server and when the other person gets online, they receive this message. That's a new function, and it's something we made."
The experience of working on the DS, according to Tanaka, was a very interesting one - and while the pressure of running Square Enix' online efforts means that he's not really in a position to commit to more titles for the handheld, he's keen to see the company working on plenty more games for Nintendo's dual-screened wonder.
"I only managed to work on this version of FF3 because of the timing of the project," he says. "Also, because it's a remake of an original game, it's a bit different from working on a totally new DS title... Because the DS has the two-screen system, the touchscreen function and also the Wi-Fi network, it's a very interesting platform - especially if you're making a totally new game for it. I may not have a chance to make another one for a while, but Square Enix has other teams who are concentrating on this platform - so hopefully you'll see another DS game from us soon."
The technology is one thing, of course - but some criticisms of Final Fantasy III DS have hinged on the claim that the gameplay of the title is still a little too rooted in the 1990s, when RPG players were rather more content to put up with tough difficulty curves and endless levelling up than today's audiences are. How does Tanaka feel about the shift away from more hardcore games, we ask - and did he try to change FF3 to accommodate more modern audiences?
"Actually, I'd say that modern games can have really heavy gameplay by comparison with older titles," he says, which knocks our line of questioning for six. "For example, in Final Fantasy XII you have to spend around a hundred hours to complete the whole game, while Final Fantasy III, although it was considered at the time to be a very deep, long game, it's around 30 hours of playtime. These days, perhaps people are looking for very deep, long-time games - but also, because DS is so popular, you can certainly see other people who want more casual games. I think we need to take notice of these different needs from different audiences."
"For Final Fantasy III, we wanted to keep both parties happy - not only the old fans in the Japanese market, who played the game 16 years ago. Those people want it to be kept the same as much as possible - they didn't want to see huge changes made to the original version. For English and western players, though, it's the first time they've seen the game, so we didn't just want it to be like an old-fashioned game - it needed to have some new touches to it. We focused on arranging and adjusting the game to try and keep both sets of people happy."
Turning the conversation briefly away from Final Fantasy III, we ask about Tanaka's main role at Square Enix - overseeing the company's happy band of half a million Final Fantasy XI addicts, and developing the rest of its MMOG business. Actually, we just ask the rather obvious question that kicks off any discussion with an MMOG operator that isn't Blizzard; namely, how does he feel about the change to the market since World of Warcraft turned up and grabbed over 8 million paying subscribers, and does he feel threatened by Blizzard's rumbling behemoth?
"The number of subscribers to Final Fantasy XI didn't really change with the release of World of Warcraft," Tanaka responds. "We think that means that we're targeting a different type of audience. At the moment, MMOs are still relatively new compared to console games, so everyone is trying to poach players from World of Warcraft and get them into their games - but that's because the market is still so small."
Indeed, Tanaka doesn't just claim that World of Warcraft isn't threatening - he actually sees the teeming millions who are adventuring in Azeroth and taking part in the Burning Crusade as almost completely irrelevant to what Square Enix is doing with FFXI.
"We've seen other online games in the last few years also being successful," he says, "so it's not just World of Warcraft, there are other new games which players like as well. That doesn't necessarily mean that those games are taking players from World of Warcraft - they're creating new markets for their own games, and I think Final Fantasy XI will continue to target its own audience and discover new markets, rather than trying to get people from other games."
"Certainly, it would be nice to reach eight million players," he muses, "but we're not really trying to reach World of Warcraft, because we consider it to be a totally different game. As long as our players are happy, that's what we're trying to achieve. So we don't have a clear target of eight million, or of trying to poach players from World of Warcraft - even if we succeeded at that, they would try to get those players back! We don't think that's really efficient - we would prefer to target a new market. We take the wide view, that there is a huge market for games and MMO is still only a small part of it."
Final Fantasy XI, of course, is a five year old game at this stage - and while it's still going strong, Square Enix has acknowledged that it has other MMOGs in development which it hopes to launch in the relatively near future. So what does that future hold for Vana'diel, the fantasy world of FFXI - is there active development still ongoing on content for the game, or was the most recent expansion pack, Treasures of Aht Urhgan, also the last?
Tanaka hands over to Square Enix' cheerful global online producer Sage Sundi for the reply. "We usually make those kind of plans up to a year in advance," Sundi explains to us. "That does change, but we try to have milestones for a year into the future. What we're actually doing is working together with our community and with the users, so we're very flexible. If they all ask for expansion packs, then we might consider more expansion packs - it really depends on how it goes with our users." In other words, nothing is guaranteed, but nothing is ruled out either - and if an expansion pack looks like it'll make money, Square Enix will make one.
While in Japan, Square Enix is noted for other game franchises - most notably Dragon Quest, the largest property which Enix brought to the table in the merger between the two RPG giants - there's a risk that in the west, the firm might be dismissed as "the Final Fantasy company", a perfect example of a publisher whose other products are little more than a snack between meals compared to its headline franchise.
When we ask Tanaka about that, however, one of the fathers of the epic RPG series seems unconcerned that his creation has come to define Square Enix to such an extent. "First of all," he says, "I don't think our games necessarily have to have "Final Fantasy" as part of the title. When you follow the series you can see that each game has a completely different story and even uses a different engine, so it's not necessarily something similar. Only the spells, for example, are sometimes the same, and there are common features to the worlds - but each title in the series is different."
He pauses for a second to consider. "You know, we often get asked the question, 'What is Final Fantasy?'" he says. "And we don't really have a correct answer for that. We just focus on making the best game possible for the time, and that's the only thing in common - the thing we concentrate on when we make a Final Fantasy game."
Back in 1990, Final Fantasy III was the product of such a labour of love - and players in Europe will be able to enjoy that for the first time when the DS version, sporting beautiful new video and lush 3D graphics, but still a nostalgic blast from the past of the genre, lands over here later this Spring.