Shuhei Yoshida on saving The Last Guardian and PS4 in Japan
And "the morning after" that press conference.
It was a night no E3-goer will forget in a hurry. Sony's extraordinary press conference last week opened with the return of The Last Guardian - almost 10 years into development and almost five since its last appearance before the press. The shocking revivals didn't end there as Sony, playing fairy godmother to ageing gamers, continued to grant their deepest and most apparently hopeless wishes with the launch of Yu Suzuki's Shenmue 3 Kickstarter and the announcement that Square Enix would attempt the impossible - or improbable - and remake its classic role-playing game, Final Fantasy 7.
Later that night, Shuhei Yoshida, head of Sony's Worldwide Studios and the man with ultimate responsibility for The Last Guardian's production, went for dinner with Suzuki and Square Enix's Shinji Hashimoto. You can imagine the broad, relieved smiles all round - if only because the three of them wouldn't have to face that question from reporters ever again.
But many other questions remained. A few days later in a quiet hotel suite, I got the chance to put some of them to a relaxed Yoshida, whom I found every bit as affable and enthusiastic as his reputation and Twitter persona would lead you to believe. He laid the blame for The Last Guardian's lengthy delay entirely at his own door, or rather the door of the Sony engineers who couldn't get it running to their satisfaction on PS3 (although it's worth noting that the game's director Fumito Ueda, now working on it as an independent contractor, characterised the delay as "a corporate decision" in a recent Game Informer interview). Yoshida confirmed that PS4 architect and Knack director Mark Cerny had contributed to the game's PS4 retooling, but described rumours that he had been parachuted in to replace Ueda and "save" the project as "totally bogus". He claimed that the game's budget remains relatively modest, despite the epic length of its production, and said that, its tortuous development notwithstanding, he would be keen to work with Ueda again.
I also took the opportunity to ask Yoshida about the Final Fantasy 7 remake and what it means for PS4's fortunes in Japan, where the console lags behind behind the handhelds and even Wii U in sales, and where mobile gaming has drastically undermined the console gaming market. The remake's director Tetsuya Nomura has articulated the hope that the game will "give a boost to people wanting to buy this current generation"; as other Japanese publishers turn their backs on consoles, have Sony and Square Enix joined forces to shore up that market? Yoshida's answers suggest they have. (We've already published his comments on the confusion over Shenmue 3's funding in a separate article.)
But before all that, I couldn't resist a cheeky refrain from every interview we've had with Yoshida over the last five years...
Eurogamer: So normally our first question to you would be...
Shuhei Yoshida: [Laughs] Where is it? Where is it?
It must have felt really good to unveil the game again.
Yeah, I was super happy. Actually, after the show I had dinner with Yu Suzuki-san, and Hashimoto-san, the head of the Final Fantasy franchise, and all three of us were super happy! A great, great evening. But the morning after the reality sets in... because we announce, we have to deliver. So I am feeling pressure!
I saw the game on Tuesday - it looked really impressive, but the demo reminded me quite a lot of the demo the last time I saw it on PS3 four and a half years ago. It feels like there's quite a long way to go on it still.
Yes, that's why 2016.
It's been in development for a very, very long time. It must be a considerable investment... is it one of the most expensive games you've ever developed?
No, no, not at all. The team is much smaller. Teams in Japan are much smaller in general than teams in the US and Europe... Horizon is a much bigger budget title than The Last Guardian! It's not so small, it's much bigger than Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, but it's not a US or European-style budget.
We've heard that Mark Cerny is quite personally involved in the title's development...
Oh yes, he's giving technical advice. It's not like that rumour said, that he took over the project to finish it, that's totally bogus. He's been giving advice and consultation to many first-party projects; we are long-standing partners. He obviously architected PS4, so he works with multiple first-party teams, and The Last Guardian team is one of them. Because it was a technical issue that made the project so long, he and other central tech groups that we have, many smart people, helped Japan Studio to re-engineer and test it. Mark spent lots of time giving advice.
It's obviously been a huge technical challenge, first to try and get it running well on PS3...
And simply, we failed! We decided, no, we cannot make it. The trailer that we showed at E3 2009 was speeded up. It was from the development system but we took it frame by frame and made it run smoothly.
Has the design of the game evolved over the last four years, or has it just been waiting for the tech to catch up?
So, Ueda-san, his style of development is very set out, clear, like a vision, at the beginning of the project. It was the case for Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Because he is an artist, he creates a short video to show to the team members, this is what we make. So the vision is totally the same. Because of the technical difficulty, running the game at the frame-rate required that the team look to compromise some features - the number of characters that Ueda-san wanted to do - if we were to continue on PS3. But because we moved to PS4, now he can make what he wanted. So people say it looks like the same game - there's a reason!
How is the work divided up between Japan Studio and [new independent studio] Gen Design?
Gen Design is a small studio created by [Jinji] Horagai-san, he's the lead programmer of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Ueda-san is independent. So Ueda-san and Gen Design and Japan Studios are three groups working as one team. Gen Designs guys include some lead animators from Shadow of the Colossus and some character designers, so that veteran team creates lots of the creative side of content for the Japan Studio team to implement. Ueda-san does the overall direction of the game design, art direction and animation.
Would you be interested in working with Ueda-san again, after The Last Guardian?
[Nods vigorously] Everyone would! But we have to finish this first!
The other big news of Monday night was the remake of Final Fantasy 7.
Yeah, that was shocking. I had no idea about it until very close to E3. They kept the secret very well, even internally.
I was very interested in that announcement. To be honest, it's something I didn't think would happen...
I didn't think so either, because it's a big game, right? If you use current tech to recreate that game, it's going to be a huge project.
It's lined up alongside a lot of other Square Enix Japan games, all of them coming to PS4. They're making a really big commitment to the platform.
Yeah, it's super interesting to look at each Japanese publisher. Each Japanese game publisher is making different decisions in terms of how to allocate resources. Some companies went really mobile, and upset some great creators... Other publishers said we are staying with consoles, consoles are important. I was talking with Hashimoto-san, and he completely agreed that, you know, developing for the current, most recent tech... once you stop, you cannot come back. You have to keep investing and learning. Square's people totally understand it. They are successful on the mobile side as well, especially in Japan, but they are investing both on mobile and console. Especially this generation, PS4. They announced another game the day after, and of course Kingdom Hearts... it's very exciting.
So I interpreted the Final Fantasy 7 remake as a play to get the Japanese market excited about consoles again, about PS4.
That's fair... I do not know the exact purpose of that project, or the agreement between SCE and Square Enix, but Japanese consumers are very conservative in the kind of games they want. Final Fantasy... is it 15 now? 15. And Dynasty Warriors, Tecmo Koei releases it every year and the people keep buying and buying. I'm not criticising the game, but people in Japan tend to like to stick to their popular franchises. So that's an additional challenge for the games coming from outside Japan. I have many great non-Japanese titles, as you know, but these games do not sell in Japan. SCE Japan is now merged with SCE Asia, so it's now one company marketing games in both markets, but oftentimes our western games sell better in Asia than in Japan because Japanese people's tastes are so different.
Is reclaiming Japanese gamers a focus for you?
Yes, yes... so PS4 has amazing sales, it's selling very well outside Japan because there are amazing games made from outside Japan. It's only this year that, with Dragon Quest Heroes and Bloodborne and Final Fantasy Type 0 and Yakuza, Japanese publishers finally started to make games on PS4 and PS4 is showing some upward swing in Japan. So definitely, Final Fantasy 7 and 15 and Dragon Quest Heroes 2, these games will help.