Dragons! We all like the odd dragon now and then. Whether it's behind the bike sheds during lunch break or camped down at the bottom of the garden by torch-light, there's nothing quite like whipping out an eighty foot scaled reptile that breathes fire and showing it off to your mates. No wonder Square-Enix's Drakengard aims to combine our favourite scaly beasts and the developer's noted story-telling skills. In the following Q&A session, producer Takamasa Shiba, movie director Kazuya Sasahara, monster designer Taro Hasegawa, character designers Kimihiko Fujisaka, director Taro Yokoo, line director Takuya Iwasaki, art director Akira Yasui and lead programmer Masatoshi Furubayashi get together to try and establish why Drakengard (due to be published in Europe by Take-Two Interactive later this year) is that much hotter than other dragon related titles, touching on everything from the quality of the PAL conversion to the name change to how it plays. Enjoy, and thanks to Take-Two for providing the transcript...
Question: Drakengard has three very different modes of play. Which would you say is the most prominent and how did you balance the action elements with those more akin to a traditional RPG?
Takamasa Shiba: The strongest mode? In Drakengard, what I believe is that they all balance out. All three modes merge into one very interesting game. So one could argue that the overall effect is like an orchestra, where a cello or a violin don't exist individually, they merge into one harmony. It's about 20 years since videogames first emerged and here we are with PlayStation 2. Videogames are becoming more and more difficult to put into genres so what I thought was that we'd attempt to make a game that was simply fun to play. A game that has lots of different features - not just a different action game or a different RPG game - but something that was ultimately fun.
Question: The game genre of Drakengard is considered to be an action/RPG. Does the game's plot diverge like an RPG creating many different stories within the game?
Takamasa Shiba: It is considered an action RPG, but the emphasis is definitely more on the action side. The player likes to have more storyline and plot so we made it so that the stories diverge to ensure that that RPG element was in there. There are five different endings to the game and there are diverging points throughout the story arc that players can explore. One good point is that because this is an action/RPG the player knows why he is fighting and why he is entering into this battle. There is a strong background to this game.
In a more traditional action game, it's unlikely that the player will know why he has to go after one big mushroom, say, but here with Drakengard, the motivation is explained clearly for the player. Despite the fact that the game is weighted more on the action side, the player is given a plot to lead him through the action.
Question: The game sold well in Japan. Why do you believe this is?
Trao Yokoo: There's this game called Dynasty Warriors that's been selling well over here [general laughter]. It's a game that has a similar cinematic appeal to the Final Fantasy series, which also sells well. So I think that Drakengard benefited from this combination of game styles and also in the fact that there's certain, obvious irony involved in the way Drakengard takes the Dynasty Warriors idea and expands it.
Takamasa Shiba: Yes, there haven't been many games where the central character can become a dragon knight as well as fighting against hordes of enemies on the ground.
Takuya Iwasaki: There are two things which attract Japanese players especially. The dragon's strength and the ability to call upon his ferocious attacks, plus the second reason why we believe the game was so favoured by the Japanese gamers is the fact that we've tried to create a compelling story. There's also the issue of the storyline dealing with taboos. The focus on the sin of killing and how this affects the personality of Caim.
Question: As an individual creator, are there any elements of the game that you're particularly proud about? And also, is there anything you'd like to improve upon.
Taro Hasegawa: One satisfying point was the freedom we had when creating the monster types. We actually ended up with many more monsters than we originally planned to have. I would have loved to place more gigantic monsters on the battlefield, but I wasn't able to do this time round.
Masatoshi Furubayashi: I also enjoyed the challenge of bringing so many monsters to the screen at once as well as making all the battlefields feel really sizable, expansive. It's good that we were able to illustrate the vision that the director, Yokoo-san, had in his mind.
Trao Yokoo: There are a lot of goody-goody heroes in action titles at the moment. I've always found it difficult to believe that these kind of heroes would be comfortable going around and killing people. In the case of Drakengard I think - by having monsters as antagonists - that we've created a convincing foe for Caim to fight against.
One thing that we weren't able to do was have much more sinister central characters. Shiba-san suggested that we not make them as dark, so that's how they ended up.
Kazuya Sasahara: We were able to bring in 3D computer technology from Japanese animation and, as a result, we've ended up with some really high quality movies.
As for disappointments... We weren't able to do the background in the kind of detail that I'd envisaged and the number of soldiers that appear on screen means that I wasn't happy with the way their feet fall onto the ground.
Kimihiko Fujisaka: I'm pretty much satisfied with what we achieved. It's the first title that I had a chance to explore character design within. I think it's good that we ended up with such a high number of sales in Japan. I makes me hopeful as far as overseas sales are concerned.
Question: What other titles have the creative team been involved with?
Masatoshi Furubayashi: Ridge Racer numbers one to four.
Akira Yasui: Moto GP.
Takuya Iwasaki: I was involved with the Ace Combat series.
Trao Yokoo: Um... Alpine Racer 2 in the arcades.
Kimihiko Fujisaka: Just Drakengard so far. [laughs]
Taro Hasegawa: A Namco title called Seven.
Kazuya Sasahara: The Biohazard [Resident Evil] series and Dino Crisis 2.
Takamasa Shiba: Valkyrie Profile, a previous Square-Enix game.
Question: Any messages for gamers in Europe?
Trao Yokoo: Because I'm a Japanese creator, I'm not sure how the game will be received in Europe. I feel that the European market has more culture and, as such, is very different from the United States. More historic background if you see what I mean. So I think that the game will suit a European market.
Akira Yasui: I'm looking forward to the fact that we've used medieval Europe as a motif for Drakengard and how the European market reacts to this.
Masatoshi Furubayashi: I'm really happy we've managed to debug the game a lot before it reaches Europe. We're hoping this will be the final version of the game and I hope that sells well.
Taro Hasegawa: I'm personally a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons and other table-top games and we've used these as an influence for the environments and monsters within Drakengard. So I'm looking forward to seeing what the reaction will be from European gamers.
Kimihiko Fujisaka: We've been creating the game with the overseas market in mind right from the beginning. I think, as well as the obvious motif of medieval Europe, you pick up on the Japanese colours that are also in there and enjoy the way the game looks and plays.
Kazuya Sasahara: I have created lots of brutal movie scenes, so I hope people will enjoy them.
Takuya Iwasaki: We have launched the developmental company Cavia for the creation of Drakengard. Each member of staff has interesting characteristics and we hope some of that individuality has appeared in the game. I think the move to Cavia has allowed all of them to become more free creatively putting out more of their individual colours and causing a greater appeal to Japanese otaku culture. We're hoping that this cult-driven aspect will also find fans in the European market.
Question: Are there many differences between the European, Japanese and American version of Drakengard?
Masatoshi Furubayashi: [General laughter] The camera angles are different between the previous versions and the PAL version. The camera hangs back further from Caim so that the player can easily manoeuvre the player through the world. Also, there are less bugs in the European version.
Takamasa Shiba: Compared with the US and Japanese version this shift in camera angle has resulted in what we consider a better quality perspective on the action rather than just a 'different' view point.
Question: Was the story or the style of graphics adapted in anyway for the European market?
Takamasa Shiba: I think the game inherently possesses a European taste because of the D&D influence and the use of medieval culture as a motif within it.
Question: Do you think that you'll make any more Drakengards, and how do they see the series progressing?
Takamasa Shiba: The game sold well in the Japanese market, it went to number one over here. So if the US and European versions sell well we always hoped that there would be an opportunity to create a sequel to the game. If we were to create a sequel, we would also like to surprise the player and create something unexpected.
Question: Will Drakengard include a 50Hz/60Hz option
Takamasa Shiba: This time the game will support a full PAL conversion. So there'll be no problem there.
Question: How does the central character, Caim, interact with the other playable characters?
Kimihiko Fujisaka: Besides Caim there are three other characters that the player can fight with. There's Seree - a young boy, Leonard - a blind warrior, Arioch - a widow. You don't actually have to play all these characters, they're just support characters. Using them, though, gives a further strategic level to the way the game unfolds. Do this, and you'll find it much easier to complete the game.
Question: Do these support characters have their own summonable creatures?
Takuya Iwasaki: Only Caim can ride the dragon. The other three characters have also made a pact with other mythical creatures which they can use as a form of magic to support them.
Question: Was it mechanically difficult to create Drakengard on the PS2?
Masatoshi Furubayashi: It was extremely difficult to get the program running on PS2. As we've said previously, the multiple view points of the battlefield were very difficult to perfect. Switching between the two perspectives on a single map was the hardest hurdle we had to face in development.
Question: Has any member of the team travelled to Europe to research Drakengard?
Takamasa Shiba: For reference materials, we used the web - the wonderful web. Personally, I lived for several months in Europe - France, Germany, Switzerland, Greece and Italy. I wasn't developing games at the time, I was just a student [general laughter]. One of the most powerful influences on the way the game looks is my love for Europe and especially European rock music - Queen, Halloween and Deep Purple.
Question: So what can we expect from Cavia in the future?
Takamasa Shiba: We'll leave that up to you guys.
Question: The battle sequences are very reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings film. Was this a direct influence?
Kazuya Sasahara: Yep. Lots. [General laughter.] But the were also influences from The Mummy and The Scorpion King. Anything with large epic battle scenes.
Takamasa Shiba: When we started out the team were enclosed in one section of the office were we sat down and watched a pile of DVDs. So there were also influences from Gladiator, Dragonheart and many other epic Asian films.
Question: Why the change of name for the US and UK markets?
Takamasa Shiba: We only chose the Japanese title - Drag-on Dragoon - for its sound. There's no actual meaning buried within the change for the US/UK market, it was just a better sounding title.
Question: There are 64 weapons in total. How far does each level up?
Takamasa Shiba: Each weapon will level up to level four. As they increase in power their physical appearance also alters as does the range and power of their magical attacks.
Question: How many levels are there in the game? And am I right in thinking that there are areas where the game's plot diverges? How do these alterations in the storyline come about?
Trao Yokoo: Despite the fact that there 90 missions to play through, you do not have to play every single one. The are two modes in the game; Free Expedition and Story. As for the diversion points, they are not driven by moral choices. It's more a result of how well you've done previously. How many missions you have completed or the time it has taken you to complete these missions.
Takuya Iwasaki: I would like to add that the divergences in plot come about as a result of moral decisions that the central character Caim has to face. In total there are five different endings to the game. To see all five the player will have to satisfy a lot of different criteria, like meeting all three support characters, levelling up and acquiring all the weapons in the game.
Takamasa Shiba: We don't want to give too much away but the final ending is one of our favourites. To give you a hint, the player who has experienced the medieval era will then experience something beyond his imagination. That's all that we can say.
Question: Can you tell us how the balance between all-out action and tactical thinking was achieved?
Takamasa Shiba: When you're playing an RPG, there are times when a player has to do something over and over again in order to achieve a goal - like the levelling up of weapons. We think we've balanced this repetition with a constantly evolving action portion of the game that should keep things stimulating. Sometimes, in RPGs, defeating a boss is a weapon-specific event. In Drakengard, this isn't the case. Some weapons may help you more than others, but you can kill any boss with any weapon. It's all part of our idea that we weren't out to create an Action/RPG, just a game that is fun to play.
Masatoshi Furubayashi: It was very hard to make any precise decisions about the way the game came together. The way we achieved this was to utilise a vast bank of testers. If they thought one element was too difficult, we'd lower the difficulty in one area but then increase it in another.
Takamasa Shiba: I think that Furubayashi-san's work on the Ridge Racer series resulted in the balance you get between difficulty and ease of play. We actually did a survey once the game launched in Japan and the results were 70 per cent thought it was well balanced, 29 per cent too difficult and just 1 per cent too easy.
Question: How did this desire for balance work within the constraints of producing a convincing script?
Trao Yokoo: When developing any action game there's always conflict between the plot and the forces of action. Basically, we always started with the plot, but weren't afraid to alter it at any point if it was felt the action side of the game required such a change.
Question: How were the storyboards for the cinematic sequences achieved?
Takamasa Shiba: Everyone would come together and we'd throw ideas about. The best would get worked up into storyboards.
Question: The character design has a very medieval and yet very modern feel. How did you come to create this?
Kimihiko Fujisaka: We wanted to keep that ancient motif running throughout the game, but we also wanted to create something truly fantastical. As such, I imagined that I was working within that period as modern Japanese stylist sent back in time.
Takamasa Shiba: For example, Caim's armour is almost the result of giving an ancient piece of armour to a modern Japanese designer and seeing what they would come up with.
Question: Why do you think the game was so popular over here in Japan?
Takamasa Shiba: The team is made up of an unusual selection of strong characters. When you get otaku-minded people making a game the result is something that appeals to the sub-culture parts of ourselves and otaku culture as well as having the power to draw in a mainstream audience.
Question: Did the team have any nightmares concerning dragons while working on the game?
Trao Yokoo: No dragons, just nightmares about people continually asking me to work in more RPG elements. [General laughter.]
Question: Any plans for the future?
Takamasa Shiba: To get married [laughs]. If Drakengard is successful worldwide then, of course, we'd like to launch more titles in this genre - if genre is the right term to use. It always seems as though genre is a categorisation that other people create to pigeonhole something that naturally resists this. I don't think that our game easily fits into any genre. But, yes, the general feeling is that Drakengard could well develop into a series.