“WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL” is a series of conversations between Producer Matsui and special guests who are familiar with FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI).
For our fourth guest, we invited Minae Matsukawa, the producer of Capcom’s online action RPG Dragon’s Dogma Online (DDON).
In this third part, she shared her experiences from DDON’s launch in 2015, and her views on the significance of the player community in online games.
* The following interview took place remotely.
Producer affiliated with Capcom.
Producer of Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, an expansion to the open-world game featuring the vast expanse of Gransys Island which adds large-scale content for high-level players, and the online action RPG Dragon's Dogma Online.
The most important thing in online games
Following her role as producer of Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, Ms. Matsukawa assumed the role of producer for the online RPG, DDON.
As an online game producer, were there any tips you learned from FFXI?
Based on my experiences in FFXI, I felt that friendship would be the key to longtime players.
DDON had these AI (artificial intelligence) allies called Pawns, and although being able to play with the Pawns was an important part of the game, I also remember telling the team, “Be sure to cultivate a community.”
The concept of “What can you do with friends?” something that was heavily discussed between me and Kinoshita (Kento Kinoshita, director of DDON), who was the director at the time. Together, we brainstormed various ideas, such as the Clan feature (like guilds in other online games).
When I think, “Why makes you log into an online game?” my first answer would be, “Because you have friends in there.” Your friends are looking forward to seeing you in the game, and you’re looking forward to seeing them too. The significance of that kind of in-game world was apparent to me, especially after years of experiencing it firsthand.
I see, so you decided to place emphasis on the community aspect of online games.
As a matter of fact, since I was invited to this conversation, I took the opportunity to return to FFXI. So I was trudging along, collecting Trusts and unlocking Home Points, all the while thinking how nice it would’ve been to have these teleports back when I was playing.
I was wondering if I should complain to Mr. Matsui about that, when I happened to look at my friend list and noticed that an old friend from back then was logged in. I sent them a message saying, “Hey, long time no see,” to which they responded, “Long time no see!! It’s good to have you back!” and that made me really happy. Soon after, they came by to hand me a linkpearl, and I thought to myself, “After all this time, my bonds with friends are still here. What an exceptional game!”
Early on, we emphasized playing as a party because we wanted players to play with others as much as possible. For instance, warriors couldn’t do much without someone healing them, and white mages couldn’t deal a lot of damage and struggled to defeat monsters. FFXI players from that era when party play was heavily emphasized may find it hard to forget the strong bonds they forged with friends, or the difficult challenges they overcame with their team.
On the other hand, in our enthusiasm to show players the joy of party play, I feel we may have been a little late in making accommodations for solo players. After we later decided to make things feasible for players who can’t dedicate as much time, we’ve been making adjustments to remove those sorts of obstacles as much as we can.
That’s wonderful, thank you! I’m one such player who benefited from that.
It hasn’t been long since I returned, but as I go around and unlock those Home Points, I’m sure I’ll be following the path you’ve laid out for returning players and continue playing after that too. Right now, every time I log in, everyone in my linkshell keeps telling me, “At the very least, you have to clear Rhapsodies of Vana’diel!” I reply back, “Come on now, can’t you see I’ve been working on it little by little?” and that’s how our conversations go whenever someone initiates what I refer to as the “Rhapsodies attack.” (laughs)
I’d also like to urge you to clear Rhapsodies of Vana’diel. (laughs)
I didn’t think the Rhapsodies attack would follow me here! But now I have no choice, since even Mr. Matsui is telling me to clear it. I’ll do my best!
Please do. (laughs)
It’s designed to be easy for returning players, and for someone like you who used to play a lot back in the day, I’m sure it’ll be the perfect difficulty for refreshing your memory.
I’ve been told that you can reach level 99 in a single day, and I’ve been saying, “No way, you can’t fool me!” But maybe when I actually start leveling, I’ll be like, “Whoa!”
Well, I think a single day might be exaggerating a little. (laughs)
The emotional link between FFXI players and their characters
Was there anything else you looked to FFXI for inspiration, aside from community-related aspects?
Designing the scenario and story events for an online RPG is different from single-player RPGs.
In single-player RPGs, you obviously want to make the protagonist look cool in a cutscene; that’s a given. But in an MMORPG, some of the player character’s emotions are dictated by the person controlling them. You can’t create a cutscene that doesn’t evoke any emotion at all, but they also have to make sense when considering the events that come afterward, so it’s extremely difficult to evoke an emotion that’s “just right.”
That was an area we struggled with when designing story events for DDON. When responding to something that happened in the story, whether the player character nods or shakes their head is dictated by the player. Bearing that in mind, responses can’t be too subjective or too forceful, but still need to be relatable for the player controlling the character, which I felt it was a challenge unique to story events in online games. That’s another aspect where I was once again impressed by FFXI.
In this one Windurst mission, there’s a cutscene that simply shows your character walking, but it made me feel empty inside and almost moved me to tears. The way the game speaks to you through your character and convinces you to fight through the hardships ahead is something I admired while watching FFXI’s cutscenes.
It’s certainly impressive how, despite FFXI’s adventurers not uttering a single word, the game still manages to link the player’s emotions with those of the character to progress the story.
Back when I was a member of the Battle team, I would occasionally glance over at the story events being made, and think to myself, “It couldn’t hurt for them to add more cutscenes.” But in fact, their cutscenes are so meticulously designed to a point where they can’t simply be mass produced.
For example, the cameras for Tarutaru and Galkan characters are at different heights, but the cutscenes are properly adjusted so they don’t look strange on characters of any race. Additionally, there’s the fact that if a cutscene is three minutes long, reviewing it will inevitably require at least three minutes. There’s also a version for each race, and each one must be reviewed following any adjustments.
I know what you mean. DDON also had a variety of different character physiques, so we went through all sorts of trial and error when making decisions such as camera angle and how to depict a bird’s-eye view.
Even though FFXI was released almost two decades ago, the cutscenes are designed very neatly, and I always wondered if the cutscenes weren’t just a combination of predesigned patterns. “If each scene is painstakingly produced,” I thought, “What a laborious effort it must be!”
You could say that the cutscenes were accomplished through the sheer willpower of the designers.
That sort of attention to fine detail must be why we can sympathize with our player characters so well during mission and quest cutscenes.
However, considering the staff members who created the cutscenes were also in charge of creating the entire story, perhaps they saw those kinds of adjustments as part of the process and hadn’t really thought of them as troublesome to do.
That sounds very professional. On the topic of races, I remembered how odd it felt when I tried playing my Hume alt character. Once you get used to the perspective of your first character, playing as a different race gives a completely different view of Vana’diel. When I logged back in on my Tarutaru character, I spent some time running around Ru'Lude Gardens with a renewed appreciation for the low camera angle.
It feels like you’re moving faster when you’re viewing things from a lower angle, doesn’t it?
But as a matter of fact, all characters have the same movement speed. (laughs)
Even then, Galkan characters feel really slow, especially with their animations. That sort of camerawork is yet another thing I learned from FFXI.
An unexpected occurrence in DDON
As for you, Mr. Matsui, what was your perspective on DDON?
Although I haven’t played the online version, I’d always thought the Dragon’s Dogma series was highly suitable for an online game adaptation, both in terms of system and lore.
Was there anything you struggled with during development, Ms. Matsukawa?
The biggest struggle was the fact that it was an action game. Although internet technology and network infrastructure had came a long way, the hurdle of making an online version of an action game was quite high.
Most of the development team’s efforts went into reducing lag and making sure the gameplay felt right. Additionally, DDON’s parties were primarily 4-player, but I feel we really struggled with balancing the party play to feel just right.
As Mr. Matsui mentioned before, no matter how strong an enemy is, players will defeat them almost immediately.
About a month after DDON launched, we implemented a powerful enemy. Kinoshita and I are usually at our research and development building in Osaka, but we were at the Tokyo branch for the implementation of this new enemy. We thought it’d take three days for players to defeat it, but when the maintenance ended and the servers went live, 25 minutes later we received the notice: “The first one has been defeated.”
Our faces fell immediately, and on the bullet train ride home, the two of us hung our heads in silence as we ate our bento lunches.
Making balance adjustments for an action game sounds extremely difficult. I’d imagine there’s a huge disparity in DPS* between a really skilled player and the average audience.* Abbreviation of “Damage Per Second,” referring to the amount of damage dealt in one second, or simply damage in general.
It’s hard to determine which audience group should be the basis for estimating DPS. We often debated whether to design separate content for each group or if there was perhaps a better way. However, even as we struggled, we still had our desire to create an action-based online game, so it was fun, and I’m glad that the development team gave it their all in developing the game.