(translated from the original Famitsu interview by @vibratingsheep, all mistakes are Sheep’s)
The significance of taking Granblue to consoles
Famitsu: You just announced Granblue Fantasy Versus and showed off the latest build of Granblue Fantasy Relink. Why did you direct so much energy and effort to making console versions of Granblue Fantasy?
FKHR: On a business level, I want to keep the whole game industry healthy, so that’s one reason. Granblue Fantasy is our company’s biggest IP, and as a fantasy RPG it fits very well in a console setting.
Famitsu: You feel like you already have a strong mobile game, do you think that it will fit nearly as well on consoles?
FKHR: There are some people, especially young ones, who have only ever played games on smartphones and don’t know how fun console games can be. The opposite is true as well, with people who only play on console or who drifted away from gaming and are unaware of how advanced mobile gaming has become. And of course, people who play both platforms are welcome. We hope to bring them all as many new and enjoyable gaming experiences as possible.
Famitsu: Was this part of the plan when you started Granblue Fantasy?
FKHR: This wasn’t part of our initial planning. But as the game got more popular, it became more and more of a realistic option, and with backup from the company we started making moves in that direction.
Famitsu: How much involvement do you have with the development of these two new titles?
FKHR: Both titles are being developed in other studios, but I am overseeing both of them as director. I’m leaving it to each studio to do what they do best when it comes to gameplay, but I’m in charge of making sure that each game feels truly like Granblue. I’m supervising the art, story, characters, music, and world.
A dream come true! Granblue Fantasy Versus
Famitsu: Let’s talk about each game individually, starting with GBF Versus. A lot of fans have been dreaming of a fighting game for years, but even the people who wanted it must have been surprised that it really happened. Why did you want to make a fighting game?
FKHR: The biggest reason was that Cygames wants to continue growing and developing esports. We already hold big Shadowverse tournaments every month, but fighting games are a key genre for esports. By throwing Granblue Fantasy’s hat into the ring, we’ll gain new players, we’ll get a bigger audience that just enjoys watching the game, and increase the general public’s awareness of esports itself.
Famitsu: So this was Cygames’ plan from the beginning?
Famitsu: In a previous Famitsu interview, we remember hearing that Cygames held an internal fighting game tournament. We get the impression that there are a lot of fighting game fans on your staff. Were they the ones who got this project moving?
FKHR: We have tournaments for everything at work, not just fighting games (laughs). We have some who compete on a national professional level, and others who just like watching. Fighting games are one of the genres we love, but we also have famous Magic: the Gathering players (including two Hall of Fame members), an employee who won the national championship for dancing games, and many more players who represent genres outside of fighting games.
Famitsu: It’s pretty surprising that you have such amazing players wandering the office (laughs). What made you choose Arc System Works as the developer?
FKHR: There are so many fighting game makers we could have chosen from in Japan. We chose Arc System Works because Guilty Gear and Blazblue fit the look and feel of Granblue Fantasy so naturally. The choice was made by higher level decision-makers than me, but I used to play a ton of Guilty Gear myself when I was in school. Guilty Gear X sent shockwaves through the scene, and I remember it leaving a lasting impression on me that I can see in my own game development today. It feels like fate that I get to work with ASW now.
Famitsu: How did you feel when you first saw Granblue Fantasy characters in anime-style 3D?
FKHR: When we first designed GBF we didn’t have 3D in mind, so it was very emotional to see them in 3D for the first time. I thought to myself, “we made these way too dense” (laughs). We have a bunch of belts that don’t do anything, costume pieces that would dangle and flap everywhere, all sorts of things that make 3D projects difficult. But because of those, they made for impressive visuals and animations.
Famitsu: You said that you played a lot of Guilty Gear – will Granblue Fantasy Versus be a high-speed, combo-based game like GG?
FKHR: The game will not be combo-based. I enjoy games with extended, technical combos, but they make the barrier to entry high for new players and is one of the biggest reasons that people drop fighting games. We’ll have people playing this game who’ve only played mobile games before, and for them and other players who don’t normally play fighting games, we decided on a system level that special moves will be performed with just one button.
For example, we expect that we will get people who’ve never played a PS4 game before to play this game. They’ll ask “which button is the Triangle button?” and look down at their controller while playing. Arc System Works had the same idea, and told us “We want to expand the player base for fighting games and we’d like to have one-button specials,” so we were all in agreement from the beginning.
Famitsu: So you’re aiming to make an easy-to-play game not just for people who don’t play fighting games, but people who’ve never played a console game before. How will you make the game deep enough to satisfy the more entrenched gaming crowd and keep them interested?
FKHR: We’re still keeping the more experienced gamer in mind when it comes to the depth of strategy in the game so they can have fun as well. We’re leveraging Arc System Works’ know-how in that department, and we think you won’t be disappointed. When it comes to esports, one of fighting games’ biggest problems as a spectator sport is that the spectator has a hard time understanding what is going on, so one of our goals is to make Granblue Fantasy Versus easy to understand as a spectator. So, we designed it around “lower speed, simple combos”.
Famitsu: That’s true, fighting games are very reliant on their commentary teams for spectators right now.
FKHR: And technical terms like “pickup” or “aerial” can completely leave the audience or beginning players behind. That’s part of what makes fighting games so hard to get into. What we’re aiming for is a game like Street Fighter II, where even players who come back to the game after 10 years away can still have fun. Compared to Ryu and Ken, Guile and Blanka have very distinct styles but they are still well known, and we’re aiming to get that feeling with our characters.
Famitsu: So this won’t be a game where you launch the opponent in the air and hit them a bunch of times, and instead the kind of game where you have to plan for every range. So, what Granblue Fantasy elements have you inserted into the game?
FKHR: All special moves in Granblue Fantasy Versus are known as Abilities, and abilities and Charge Attacks from the original game are in there. For example, Lancelot’s “Blade Impulse” is one of his special moves, and when you perform his Charge Attack “Weissfleugel,” it will cut to a cinematic super move. There are quite a few heavy GBF players on the Arc System Works payroll, and they put a lot of love and labor into the details and the systems.
Famitsu: In the original game, not all Abilities deal damage – some heal, or buff. Are any of those in this game?
FKHR: Of the currently announced cast, Gran can cast “Rage”, which is a buff ability that can increase his attack. Katalina has “Light Wall” which gives her super armor, and you can use that to aim for counterattacks. Other abilities in the game will buff Triple Attack, heal, provide Elemental Attack Up, and more.
Famitsu: Your fans are really looking forward to the cast reveals, aren’t they?
FKHR: All of the characters we’ve revealed so far have very standard skill sets. From here on, the characters who get released will have more complicated abilities, so our fans can look forward to that. Downloadable characters as additional content have become standard in fighting games, and we would love to be able to add new fighters to the game after release as well.
Famitsu: What’s your plan for Gran in this game? As the main character, he has many jobs and summons, but we’re also curious what you’re going to do with his personality and character.
FKHR: He’s going to talk a LOT in the game, which means we need to give him a more defined personality. We’re going to be using Gran from Granblue Fantasy The Animation as our base. We won’t give him new jobs, but he does have Lyria and Vyrn in tow, so we can put summons in his super moves.
Famitsu: Does that mean there will be a story mode?
FKHR: People have expectations from a Granblue Fantasy game, and we’re putting a lot of development time into that. This will mostly be an all-new story, but we will let our players go through certain events and stories from the original game. There are a lot of gamers out there who like the “there is always one winner and one loser” style of game, so we’re looking into more modes that they will enjoy as well.
Famitsu: That’s exciting. Will there be online versus multiplayer, though?
FKHR: We do plan on having online versus and online ranked versus modes.
Famitsu: Have you thought about an arcade version?
FKHR: We’re looking into it. I don’t know what will happen in the end, but a lot of us at Arc System Works and Cygames have great memories at arcades, so we’d love it.
Famitsu: I didn’t think you would answer that question (laughs). That means that it’s up to the fans, huh? So, how far into development do you think this game is?
FKHR: I would venture to say about 60% done. We’ve built out the base systems, and our planning and source code are all in place. So from here on out, it’s all about making the game higher quality.
A future tale: Granblue Fantasy Relink
Famitsu: The story takes place in a skydom barely mentioned in the main story: Zegagrande. What made you use that as the setting?
FKHR: Just like Granblue Fantasy Versus, we wanted to make it so that people with no knowledge of the back story could get into the game. As long as you know the basic premise of “Granblue Fantasy is an adventure that takes place in the sky”, then you’re fine. It’s considered a continuation of the current story, but it takes place a bit in the future from where we are now as of December 2018. You can see Lyria protect herself with a barrier in the gameplay videos; you’ll see that some day in the main story.
Famitsu: So people who’ve played the original will be surprised?
FKHR: I think they will. “We haven’t been to this skydom yet!” they’ll say (laughs).
Famitsu: What’s that thing hanging from Vyrn’s neck in the official art?
FKHR: It’s a voice communication device like the ones the Society use, but the technology isn’t as advanced, so it’s larger than the one Eustace has. Characters outside of the active party can use this to communicate through Vyrn.
Famitsu: Will new Primal Beasts and characters appear in this game?
FKHR: All of the primal beasts in this game are new. Some will be friendly, others will be hostile. Since this is set in a new skydom, there will be plenty of new faces. We’ve made a lot of memorable new characters for this one (laughs).
Famitsu: Will it work the other way, where characters introduced in Relink will show up in Granblue Fantasy?
FKHR: We’re looking into it. It’d be a good cross-promotion to be able to play some of Relink’s story within the original smartphone game, and we’re thinking of different ways to enjoy the same story.
Famitsu: Would it be fair to sum up Relink as a game where you move through set stages and work your way toward a boss?
FKHR: Hmm. In the main story, the plot will advance with your progress through certain areas. We kept the demo area small to keep it from being too complicated, but the full game will have sweeping fields, snowy mountain ranges, and other locations like that. Subquests will also add an element of exploration to the game.
Famitsu: We know a bit more about the playable cast now, but how many characters will be playable in total?
FKHR: We aren’t allowed to say that yet. But you can look at how a game like Platinum Games’ Bayonetta has different weapons that vary your play styles and movesets. If you think of our characters as if they were weapons with distinct movesets, we think this game will be on the upper end of the spectrum for play variety.
Famitsu: You announced multiplayer – what kind of characters will you be able to use in multiplayer mode?
FKHR: We plan on making characters unlockable through story progress. In multiplayer, you’ll be able to use any of those unlocked characters, but since players will naturally have very different progress levels when they play multiplayer, we decided to let our players use the same character as each other. You’ll be able to play with 4 Katalinas if you want to. We thought long and hard about not allowing duplicate characters, but we chose gameplay over immersion.
Famitsu: That’s good. Will multiplayer be its own separate mode?
FKHR: Our target for multiplayer will be a mode for people who have finished the story and are looking for more challenging quests, so they’ll team up and take on harder and harder fights. Of course, we’ll still allow players who haven’t cleared the game to play multiplayer, with less difficult quests available.
Famitsu: It’s been a while since you first announced Relink – how complete do you think the game is?
FKHR: I would put it at about the same completion level as Granblue Fantasy Versus (60%). However, Relink is a much bigger game content-wise than Versus is, so based on production speed, it’s very likely that Versus will come out before Relink, which used to feel unbelievable.
Mobile and console game development principles… are the same
Famitsu: You announced both Relink and Versus for the PS4. Is there any plan to release them on other consoles?
FKHR: We would like to release them on Steam. Cygames already has Project Awakening (title tentative) being developed internally, and we as a company are definitely going to add more emphasis to the consumer games market in the future.
Famitsu: Why did that project come to be – developing an entirely new console game in-house instead of working on porting your mobile games to console?
FKHR: Social games [like Granblue Fantasy] have a lot of design elements meant for the mobile experience, and it’s hard to translate that same kind of enjoyment to console games even if the system is the same. Mobile games and console games each have unique traits that make them fun, and to understand how to make each kind of game better, we decided to work on a new game designed entirely for home consoles.
Famitsu: Do you have plans for more new IPs designed entirely for consoles?
FKHR: We’d like to focus on the two Granblue console titles first. For other new games and spinoffs that are in the works… we’d like to base it on what kind of fun we can offer, or what kind of game our players want. If we think it works better as a mobile game, we’ll develop a mobile game. If we think it works better as a console game, we’ll develop a console game.
Famitsu: Does that mean that there could be a Granblue-related title coming to mobile some day?
FKHR: It’s a possibility. But we wouldn’t want to kill a game we’re still working on, so I feel like it would be something small. Like an endless runner, for example.
Famitsu: Bringing the conversation back a bit, could you tell us about some of the challenges you’re facing with the two console games you’re currently developing due to differences between mobile and console development?
FKHR: I don’t think the two development styles are that different at all. If I had to name anything, it would probably be the graphics. Relink and Versus are both 3D games, and that makes the process between design and implementation much longer, requiring more specialized skills and more people. In 2D you can build a scene with a single image, but when you move to 3D you need to factor in characters, backdrops, models for each object, lighting, effects, shaders, all the parameters that impact each of those elements, and so much more before you get a single scene done. The speed of graphic development is much different between the two platforms. This is not to say that 2D is easy at all; it takes a lot of knowledge and skill to be happy with that scene I mentioned.
Famitsu: It seems like you’re saying that 3D games take a whole lot of time and money.
FKHR: Quite the opposite, actually. For an ongoing service game like Granblue Fantasy, there are a lot of challenges that you don’t get in the console space. It’s very tough to create new stories and events each month. In fact, the staff of GBF is larger than that of Relink or Versus.
When it comes to a game that’s been around as long as GBF, the app grows to such a great size that adding anything to the game requires a rigorous vetting process to see how it affects everything else already in the system. This runs alongside the development process for new content and the development process for monthly events. Each month, we add stories with new sets of characters and very different genres; as an example of how hard this monthly process can be: if the writer of an event tears up their script, then the burden on the rest of the team becomes incredible. That’s why I still take the time every month to plot out the events, but even then the staff has to work hard to keep things going.
Famitsu: Because you can’t ever stand still, the decisions you make become more impactful and speed is critical. Since playing it safe and only releasing the easy stuff would make the player base angry, it seems like it takes a constant amount of passion and energy from the development side to keep up with player expectations.
FKHR: When it comes to GBF updates and events, we get so much feedback from our users. And honestly, I think a situation where making a product, releasing it, and getting no feedback at all from the audience is my idea of hell. GBF is very rewarding, and we have a lot of passion and energy on the team. It’s amazing.
Famitsu: You always hear about how cheaply made social games are, or how they’re designed to gouge their players, but when you talk about games as an ongoing service, a social game’s greatest strength is its ability to stay fun and current over the years. That’s something that console game services have a hard time doing.
FKHR: I always hear this from voices in the industry: “When a social game service shuts down, it leaves nothing behind. Boxed games are great.” I want to be the voice that says “That’s not true!” I want to tell them all to stop dumping cold water on the passion of the players and of the developers working hard on the front lines.
Boxed games don’t exactly last forever, either. There are countless games that have become unplayable just one generation of hardware later. Yes, it’s true that when a social game closes down, you won’t be able to play it anymore. But the enjoyment you felt up until that point, the times you were brought to tears or laughed out loud, the exciting moments you and your friends shared – those stay with you. That’s the exact same thing you get from a packaged console game. Certain popular games get remastered or digitally rereleased, but countless more of them live on as fond memories for their players. And I think that’s beautiful.
Famitsu: You often hear stories about how people who met over a game that is now dead still communicate with each other on social media, or plan meetups at events.
FKHR: That’s my point, games don’t just vanish into the void. The end of a game’s life cycle is a tragedy, and just talking about it is considered negative. But when a game is about to end, its former players will talk about their memories or their parting regrets on social media, or send them to the official account, and that’s the greatest blessing possible for the creators. On the other side, the packaged games industry is built to forget and erase the games that don’t sell, and just thinking about that process makes me shudder.
In the end, both social games and packaged games are games. Their foundations and their legacies are the same. Developing and supporting both mobile and console games has strengthened this belief, and I am going to spend my career making sure I never forget it.