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WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL
#2 Yosuke Saito Part 4

For our second guest, we invited Yosuke Saito, the original producer of Dragon Quest X Online (DQX) and a fellow adventurer in FFXI. In this fourth and final part, he shares his thoughts and personal style regarding game development.

Yosuke Saito

Square Enix Executive Director involved in various projects, including the NieR series and the virtual idol group Gems Company.
Producer of Dragon Quest X Online from the beginning of development until 2018.
He is currently the Producer of BABYLON’S FALL developed by Platinum Games.

Motivation affects the outcome of a project

  • Mr. Saito, what are your core values as a game developer and producer?

  • Saito

    I’m not sure if this falls under “as a producer,” but as someone involved in the creative industry, I think whether I feel like I’m having fun with a project is rather important. Creating a game takes an extremely long time, and during that period, there are many times where you feel like you just can’t continue, or your motivation is in shambles.

    If that project wasn’t fun, or was something I was forced to do, I think I would give up mid-way. As such, whether or not I enjoy working with a particular person is another thing I look for.

  • Matsui

    Are you talking about a team’s ability to remain highly motivated as they work on a project?

  • Saito

    That’s one way to put it.

    To simplify it further, it’s about whether or not I myself will be able to pull through. If I can’t pull through, the people following me will inevitably also be unable to pull through. Quite frankly, the first thing I think about is whether I can hold myself accountable for the project till the very end.

  • Is that difficult in a game development environment?

  • Saito

    I can’t say for certain, but I presume there are people out there working on something they don’t really want to do.

  • Matsui

    I can’t speak for other workplaces, but I also think the number of people involved in the overall project has quite a large effect. When it comes to huge projects with a big team, the staff members at the bottom of the ladder tend to have few responsibilities, so there may not be that many people who remain highly motivated as they work.

    On the opposite end, I think the people at the top start to rely on past successes and logical theories as their responsibilities increase. They tend to lean towards what the current best-selling games are doing, if you know what I mean.

  • Perhaps their personal feelings towards a project are drowned out by their desire to avoid failure. But it’d be quite understandable for those in supervising roles to feel that way, as they need to produce a profit.

  • Saito

    It’s a business, so of course.

    In fact, if they don’t have that basic understanding, they may not be able to join us on the side that enjoys game development. But focusing on logical reasons why a game is fun or aligning with marketing opinions on what will sell isn’t all that important, compared to a feeling of, “This is going to be fun, let’s do it!” which motivates a team. If there really was a logic for why games sell, every game would be successful.

  • Matsui

    Since games are created by human hands, often that sort of impulse leads to an improvement in the quality of a game.

  • Saito

    There are several milestones during the development process where you just have to hang in there, and whether or not you can keep that initial impulse during those points is crucial.

    If you burn out, you might end up with something that’s like 5 or 10 points, whereas the same team might even achieve something very close to 100 points depending on their emotions. It’s pretty much about having the guts. Things like agile development* are nice and all, but at the end of the day, it comes down to “guts and effort!” After having gone through several rounds in this industry, that’s what I consider to be an absolute necessity.

    * Agile development is a development method that involves short and repetitive cycles of planning -> designing -> implementing -> testing. Positives include being able to flexibly adapt to changes in features and being able to begin programming without planning the whole design first, which can help shorten the period of development.
  • Matsui

    So that’s the answer you came up with.

  • Saito

    There are other developers who succeed in more clever ways, and the role of a producer isn’t really something you can write a manual for, so I don’t know what the correct answer is supposed to be.
    My methods are simply one way of doing things, and just what I prefer. Also, it’s just my way of doing things, and not something I always expect my teams to follow. If the person directing can convey their direction for the team, then that’s what I’ll go with. With that said, the period right before mastering is still “guts and effort!” (laughs)

  • Matsui

    “Director first,” as I’ve often heard you say.

Passing on the role of producer

  • Mr. Saito, you stepped down as DQX Online producer in August 2018. Please tell us about how you felt at the time, and how you currently see DQX Online.

  • Saito

    I was already considering passing the role to someone else starting around two years prior. I may have been at the very top of the DQX Online hierarchy, but from the perspective of the people working under me, I was simply in the way of their prospective career paths. It’s difficult for projects with two or three leaders to succeed, and I believe that projects should have a single leader, so I felt that the career path of DQX Online Producer should be opened up for someone else.

    So little by little, I asked a number of candidates, “Do you want to try being the producer of DQX Online, even if it’s completely different from your current role?” It was then that I told Aoyama (Koji Aoyama, Technical Director turned Producer of DQX Online) that although he may be the main programmer of DQX Online, his next role could be the main programmer of another project, or even the director or a top engineer member within the entire company. I then asked him what sort of career path he had in mind.

    *Career path – the experience and roles an employee has gone through to reach a certain position.
  • So Mr. Aoyama was one of out of several different candidates.

  • Saito

    What I had wanted was for Aoyama to take over a Line Producer sort of position, where he would oversee the efficiency of development workflows, one of his strong suits. Outside-facing tasks such as promotional and community management roles could be handled by a second leader.

    Earlier, I mentioned that I didn’t think it was good to have two leaders, but I thought it might be okay since this was unfamiliar territory for Aoyama and the two roles were separate from each other. However, Aoyama said, “I’ll accept the role if you’ll allow me to take care of the outside-facing tasks as well,” and that worked for me too, so I had him take over as producer. At the time, I actually half considered remaining as DQX Online Producer so I could keep getting paid comfortably until retirement, but since Aoyama said he would do it, I decided to leave things to him and we began preparations.

  • Mr. Saito, some of our readers may be unfamiliar with your humor, so I’d just like to make sure: you’re just joking, right? (laughs)

  • Saito

    No, those were my true feelings at the time. (laughs)

    It’s a weird way for me to say it, but if you have an important position in FF or Dragon Quest, you end up with numerous connections both inside and outside of the industry, and there are many experiences for you to learn from. In some extreme cases, the names “FF” or “DQ” hold more weight to them for certain companies compared to just “Square Enix.” Either way, there are advantages that come with being in an important role in FF or DQ, so it’s worth considering when the opportunity presents itself.

    They certainly come with a lot of pressure, but I still think it’s worth it.

  • Matsui

    At this point, do you view DQX Online as an outsider?

  • Saito

    Yes, nowadays I’m only relevant when I’m invited to anniversary events and the like to liven up the crowd. I’ve distanced myself from the project similar to how you might cheer on a grandchild from the sidelines. Besides, wouldn’t it just be irritating if I were to step in and offer opinions after all this time? (laughs) Also, if I were to play the game, I would inevitably have all sorts of comments to make, and anything I say would have more weight than just a player’s ramblings.

    With that in mind, I’ve refrained from playing the game despite my desire to do so. Well, if I were asked to participate in a tournament or something, I’d probably bawl my eyes out while I practice to death, since I couldn’t go without preparing at all.

  • Matsui

    So your stance is to watch from the sidelines unless you receive an emergency signal.

  • Mr. Matsui, how did you feel when you succeeded in the producer position from Mr. Tanaka (Hiromichi Tanaka, original producer of FFXI)?

  • Matsui

    I’d intended to stick with the development side of things, so when I was approached for the producer role, I was unsure if I was fit for the job. With that said, I also felt it was my job to keep the FFXI team together and ease the concerns of those who are enjoying FFXI, so I decided to accept the offer and do the best I could.

  • That must’ve been what Mr. Tanaka saw in you when he asked you to take over.

  • Matsui

    After taking over as producer, I’ve gained the confidence to speak with the media and boldly say I’ll attend events. I’ve learned from my various experiences, which were largely provided through being permitted to become FFXI Producer. In a past in-company report, I believe Mr. Saito spoke about how he struggled with growing a successor and mentoring newcomers.

  • Saito

    That was probably because when I was younger, I felt that the higher-ups were preventing us from moving up the ladder, and at my current age, I believe the later generations feel the same way. I think the important positions should be given to people who have the ability or the desire to lead.

  • Matsui

    There’s some amount of pressure that comes with the important roles of FF and DQ, but are you saying we should just watch from the sidelines or only give subtle guidance?

  • Saito

    I have no intention of giving unsolicited advice, but if they ask for my opinion, I think I can give some level of advice as someone who’s been around longer. But taking matters into our own hands would deprive them of an opportunity to do things on their own, so that’s probably not what we should do.

  • Matsui

    I think it’s important to let people handle tasks themselves, since they learn the most when they take responsibility and make their own decisions.

  • Saito

    Regardless of who is put in charge of an FF or Dragon Quest game, whether it be a mainline title or spin-off, I don’t think it would turn out too horribly. But if we’re talking about a completely brand-new title, there’s a chance that ten out of ten attempts turn out terrible.

    In my opinion, the people who have experienced the higher positions are the ones who should try new things, so I personally believe people like Naoki Yoshida (Producer and Director of FFXIV, Producer of FFXVI) and Kitase (Yoshinori Kitase, brand manager of the FF series) should immediately step away from the FF series and start a brand-new IP (intellectual property). (laughs)

    Because no matter how you think about it, they’re more likely to succeed, right? They certainly have their reputations as producers, but they’re also quite skilled at handling the issues that arise during development. Putting someone with little experience in charge of making a brand-new best-seller IP seems incredibly unreasonable. Even someone like us would probably have like a 30% chance of making a good brand-new IP.

  • Matsui

    I believe you previously spoke about how many more new games you could develop during your lifetime as a developer.

  • Saito

    I personally enjoy pioneering new directions over walking down the beaten path. Considering that, I think I’ve got maybe 2 or 3 more titles in me, aside from what I’m currently in charge of.

“DQX Offline” was announced! What about FFXI?

  • On a different topic, Dragon Quest X Offline (DQX Offline) was announced the other day. What are your thoughts on making an offline version of an online game?

  • Saito

    From what I understand, the scenario of DQX Online has been very popular, so I’d often thought that an offline version should be released. With DQXII also on the horizon, I thought it was amazing that they announced DQX Offline after so much time has passed since DQX Online’s launch.

    We knew that no matter how popular DQX Online became, there would always be a group that can’t play online games, so I thought it was interesting that they’re addressing that, though it may have been the obvious choice if they wanted more people to play DQX. With that said, it’s interesting how they went out of their way to add “Offline” to the title.

  • Matsui

    I imagine they put it there to emphasize that it’s an offline version of an online product.

  • Saito

    Additionally, I think the characters’ appearances are based on preference, so I think they have the choice to continue with the same appearances of characters from DQX Online or change it up a little more, but I guess that comes down to what they decide to do.

  • With this topic, it’s rather inevitable to ask, “What about an offline version of FFXI?”

  • Matsui

    If we were to make an offline version of FFXI, we couldn’t just make an offline version of FFXI as-is. Taking that into consideration, if I were to make an offline version, I’d take what I personally believe to be the exciting elements of FFXI, then make a game that retains those elements but also has its own charm as an offline game.

    In that sense, I don’t think it would be the offline game that FFXI players are asking for. Even if we were talking about remaking FFXI, I think I would remake a lot of the game.

  • Saito

    I’m sure a lot of elements will need to change when you turn an online game into an offline game. That seems especially difficult in the case of FFXI.

  • Matsui

    Each person has their own concept of what “FFXI” is, and the elements I considered “FFXI” are probably largely different from what players enjoyed about the game. If we were to set aside what players thought of FFXI, and I was tasked with making what I envision as “FFXI,” that might be fun... That’s basically my current take on it.

  • Saito

    FFXI’s story is also quite popular, isn’t it?

  • Matsui

    Yes. I do want to keep FFXI’s world alive in some shape or form, but that’s not my area of expertise, so I’d like to leave that up to an expert.

  • In the current FFXI, you can level up on your own if you use Trusts, and you can progress the story, so in that sense, it’s pretty close to an offline game.

  • Matsui

    The current FFXI can be enjoyed even as a solo player, so I hope people will continue to experience the game’s story. However, even if it’s relatively similar to an offline game, I still think that the presence of other players is a big part of the gameplay.

  • You often mention that the world of FFXI is only complete thanks to the presence of players.

  • Matsui

    Yes. I think that goes for any MMORPG, so I think even DQX Offline won’t be able to fully encompass all the experiences of DQX Online. My guess is that they’ll focus on some other aspect, whether it be the story or the world’s atmosphere.

  • Saito

    I’m not in any position of power regarding DQX Offline and I’m just speaking for myself here, but I think there are things they can do because it’s an offline title, just as there are things unique to online titles. So I think they’re going to capitalize on that in some way. If not, I think it wouldn’t be enough for the players who currently enjoy DQX Online, and it’d be a waste of creating a new game.

  • Are you completely hands-off for DQX Offline, Mr. Saito?

  • Saito

    My position in the company means that I’m looking at all the titles that are released, so I’m looking at it as just another title.

Currently working on a hack-and-slash title

  • Is there anything you can tell us about the new title you’re currently (2021) working on, Mr. Saito?

  • Saito

    I’m currently overseeing a couple of titles, but one that I can talk about is BABYLON’S FALL, a MO* title.

    *Abbreviation of “multiplayer online.” Where MMORPGs are intended for a vast population of players, MOs are online games shared between small groups of players.
  • Is it something that matches your personal tastes?

  • Saito

    As I previously mentioned, I was an avid fan of Diablo, which was one of the reasons I became a game developer, so I’ve always wanted to make a hack-and-slash title. I wanted to make a quarter-view hack-and-slash game like Diablo, but we formed a connection with Platinum Games through NieR: Automata and started talking about a new game together.

    When it comes to making the ultimate hack-and-slash game that feels good to play, I think it would be better to capitalize on the action capabilities of Platinum Games. We have to be careful the game doesn’t turn out to be too difficult, because if we let ourselves go, we’ll end up with something incredibly tough. (laughs)

  • My impression of Platinum Games is that they make flashy and satisfying action games.

  • Saito

    When we made NieR Gestalt and NieR Replicant, we had fans who said, “We want to enjoy the game, but it’s too difficult for us to progress,” so we asked them to tone down the difficulty for NieR: Automata.

    If I suggested how to accomplish that, it’d be upheld as infallible, so instead, I simply asked them to add something to help players that aren’t familiar with action games. Their solution was the auto-battle feature, which they cast aside their pride as an action game developer for, so I know I can trust them and am very grateful for what they did.

    BABYLON’S FALL may have more players who are unfamiliar with action games but were able to enjoy NieR: Automata, so I’m looking forward to a game that can be played by those unfamiliar with the genre but can still be enjoyed deeply by action game fans.

  • Something that caught my attention is that Mr. Iwao (Kenichi Iwao, former game planner involved with FFXI’s lore) is working on the scenario of BABYLON’S FALL. Was that your suggestion?

  • Saito

    No, that was proposed by Platinum Games. My answer was basically, “What? I’m down for that!” (laughs)

  • Matsui

    That’s an interesting turn of events.

  • Saito

    I was basically like, “Hey, I’m pretty familiar with Vana’diel.” (laughs)

  • Mr. Iwao is often credited with the lore of Vana’diel, but Mr. Kato (Masato Kato, in charge of the plot until Rise of the Zilart) was also deeply involved in world design. How did they actually split the work?

  • Matsui

    We generally proceeded with Mr. Ishii (Koichi Ishii, original director of FFXI) primarily taking the lead.

    For example, where I was involved, Mr. Ishii created the original base for the monsters, which the Battle team took and implemented. For story elements such as world design, Mr. Ishii and Mr. Kato worked together to pick and choose from everyone’s opinions during meetings. Mr. Iwao provided a lot of advice from the beginning regarding the design of equipment and map details.

    The world was gradually shaped as development moved forward, and it wasn’t as though the lore existed in the same form as its current form. Mr. Iwao’s suggestions gave realism and historical background to the world of Vana’diel, which became a necessity with every expansion pack we released.

  • So Mr. Iwao’s work was to add details to the world.

  • Matsui

    In the early days of development, we only knew Mr. Iwao as one of the Event team members who wrote the script and story, so we didn’t have any tasks that went through him specifically. Later on, we learned about his lore-related capabilities and began to request him more for tasks of that nature.

  • Saito

    In a similar vein, Platinum Games’s designers came up with lore and world design for BABYLON’S FALL, which Mr. Iwao is sprinkling with realism, so I’m glad to hear our workflow is almost like what you just described.

  • Do you want to make more online games in the future, Mr. Saito?

  • Saito

    Making online games is just so difficult, when I finish a project I think to myself, “I think that’s enough for me,” but I’m dumb so I forget. (laughs)

  • Matsui

    Do you mean you put all of your effort into each project and burn out, but the enjoyment comes back after a time?

  • Saito

    I like standalone games as well, but I think in my personal gaming experience, I enjoy playing with other people. In other words, there may be a part of me that doesn’t want to let go of that. Playing together with other people in itself is fun, so if I can create something that’s fun to play, I think I can guarantee at least a minimum level of entertainment.

  • Matsui

    Do you like non-digital games, such as board games and card games?

  • Saito

    I like those too. I liked TRPGs* and played those quite a bit, and nowadays I like “immersive theaters” and escape games, basically games that are played in a theme park setting.

    In the end, I think I like playing with other people. Having said that, I think it might be hard for people to believe me, but because I talk with people so much during weekdays, I don’t want to talk with people on weekends. At my core, I’m an introverted recluse. But on Monday I force myself to press a switch on my back and do my best until the battery runs out on Friday. And sometimes when there are events on the weekend, during the last thirty minutes of Sunday, right up until it becomes Monday, I sit down holding my knees staring at the ceiling and reflecting on the week. (laughs)

    * Abbreviation for “tabletop role-playing game,” a role-playing game that progresses based on a rulebook and spoken events. In Japan, these are often referred to as “table-talk role playing games” instead.
  • I can understand that on some level. You need energy to communicate with other people, and those of us who are socially active turn out to be quite shy or delicate. ...Now that we’ve talked about Mr. Saito’s inner monologue, we’ve ran out of time. Do you have any final words for FFXI players?

  • Saito

    I have no clue what sort of activities current FFXI players enjoy, but as far as I know, FFXI is at the peak of the world’s MMORPGs, so please continue to play. Please continue to support Vana’diel and tell Mr. Matsui, “You should do this, you should do that.” (laughs)

    Running on that path that runs through Sarutabaruta and leads to Mhaura is something I still remember, and I have a desire to meet with the people I adventured with back then and run around the world again, so should I have an opportunity, I would like to return to Vana’diel. I look forward to returning to Vana’diel again someday.

  • Matsui

    We’ll continue preserving the world, so please come and visit us.

  • Saito

    I’d like to see if I still have the muscle memory from back when I climbed Parradamo Tor and slid down Uleguerand Range every week. (laughs)

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