#8 Masato Kato Part 2

“WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL” is a series of conversations between Producer Matsui and special guests who are familiar with FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI).

Our eighth guest is Masato Kato, who worked on the main plot of FFXI up to Rise of the Zilart. In this second part of the conversation, Mr. Kato shared stories from when he joined Square (now known as Square Enix), worked on a variety of games including Chrono Trigger, and finally came to work with the FFXI development team.

Masato Kato

The creative mind behind the planning, lore, scenario, and presentation of numerous games. During his time at Square, he worked on Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Chrono Cross, and later the overall plot of FFXI up to its first expansion, Rise of the Zilart. After his departure from Square, he worked on the three add-on scenarios introduced in 2009: A Crystalline Prophecy, A Moogle Kupo d’Etat, and A Shantotto Ascension. Mr. Kato is currently employed at GREE, where his scenario and direction work on the single player-exclusive RPG, Another Eden: The Cat Beyond Time and Space, has been well received.

Working with his idol, Yuji Horii

  • Matsui

    Was Chrono Trigger* the first game you worked on after joining Square, Mr. Kato?

    * Chrono Trigger is an RPG released for the SNES in 1995, featuring a cast of characters who journey through different time periods. The project gained a lot of attention at the time, as the team consisted of well-known figures such as Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yuji Horii, and Akira Toriyama.
  • Kato

    That's right. When I joined Square, the Chrono Trigger development project was starting up and they were recruiting mid-career hires. Although the recruits all had experience in game development careers, they were unfamiliar with Square’s unique workflow, and I remember feeling a bit apprehensive when we began.

  • Mr. Matsui, do you remember Mr. Kato from when he first joined the company?

  • Matsui

    Around that time, I hadn’t met him yet. As Mr. Kato mentioned, there was a large-scale effort to recruit staff members for Chrono Trigger from all sorts of places, and there were a lot of new hires joining the company. Because of that, the initial development team seemed somewhat self-contained from the rest of the company.

  • What aspects of Chrono Trigger were you working on, Mr. Kato?

  • Kato

    Since I was primarily designated as a member of the scenario team, I held weekly meetings with Mr. Horii, who was working on the original draft for the story. I would then take what we discussed and implement it into the game by the next meeting, then have Mr. Horii look over it. That was the cycle I repeated for about a year.

  • Seeing as how you were drawn to the game industry by DRAGON QUEST II, I’m sure you were happy to be working side-by-side with Mr. Horii.

  • Kato

    Oh, I was absolutely overjoyed. (laughs)

    But on the other hand, I couldn’t tell how the other staff members were doing in terms of progress. Then Mr. Sakaguchi*, having finished working on FFVI, came over to look at the Chrono Trigger development area and roared, “It’s been a whole year and you haven’t made any progress at all!” From there the teams were heavily restructured, and the pace of development improved dramatically.

    * Hironobu Sakaguchi, one of the founders of the FF series.
  • Matsui

    Around that time, I joined the Chrono Trigger team to lend a hand after finishing development on Romancing SaGa 2, but I was taken aback by what I saw. Looking through the game content, I found systems for time traveling, combination techniques, and other challenges that were a daunting endeavor on the SNES, and I thought, “That explains everything, there’s no way they could make progress like this.”

  • Kato

    The combination technique system was adopted from an idea I proposed at the start of development. However, coming up with different techniques for every pair and triad possible between the seven playable characters meant creating an immense number of combination techniques. I really agonized over that predicament for a long while, but after Mr. Sakaguchi recommended narrowing down the character combinations that were capable of using combination techniques, development sped up by leaps and bounds.

  • Matsui

    Another aspect of Chrono Trigger which surprised me were the seamless transitions into battle scenes when a character collides with an enemy. Each of the battle formations were being designed manually, and while it was impressive presentation-wise, I also thought, “Wow, I can’t believe they really made it that way.”

  • Kato

    That was another of my ideas, one where I provided an example and delegated the work to another staff member. To players, the battle formations seem unique and provide a fresh take each time, but there’s actually a pattern in place for each scene.

  • Matsui

    Had I been part of the Chrono Trigger development team from the start, I might’ve said, “That’s not a very smart way to do it, why don’t we come up with a system to automate the process?”

    Having said that, the manually designed battles in Chrono Trigger were very popular. Everything turned out well in the end, but I think that sort of development method was only possible because a lot of the team “had the guts,” so to speak.

  • Kato

    Rather than “guts,” I’d say I have a bad habit of using brute force to overcome obstacles. Meanwhile, Romancing SaGa 2, made by Mr. Matsui and his team, has very sophisticated battle specifications. Someone like Mr. Matsui who can find that sort of beauty in systems might’ve thought, “Gee, the Chrono Trigger team has a really simpleminded way of getting things done…” (laughs)

  • Matsui

    I wouldn’t say so, I think that’s just a fundamental difference we have as developers.

    Many of Chrono Trigger’s staff members were experienced in PC game development. Since PC games tend to have higher specifications than console games, I imagine the team found that the SNES was comparatively lacking in power.

  • Kato

    Hearing you say that makes me feel somewhat relieved. (laughs)

  • Matsui

    Had the battles in Chrono Trigger been made for PCs, perhaps that presentation aspect could’ve been automated too. On the other hand, I’ve only developed for home consoles without having experienced PC game development, so I’m the type of developer that’s always thinking about what’s possible with limited machine power and resources. I suppose that’s where our differences lie.

  • Kato

    The Chrono Trigger team had a lot of members who were willing to follow through with that sort of forceful approach, which I found very reliable.

    However, because the results received such high praise, everyone came to think of that approach as the norm. So there was something like a sense of rivalry in subsequent projects, where one of the staff members would use brute force to overcome an obstacle and the others felt like they had to follow suit, myself included.

  • Matsui

    Sounds like a situation where no one feels like they can back down, and everyone ends up exhausting themselves…

  • Kato

    Typically, the producer or director ought to intervene before things turn into that sort of situation. Because of that bitter experience, when I became the director of Chrono Cross, I had a system created to automatically generate party messages. Through that development project, I finally felt that I was able to do satisfactory work at Square.

Does an MMORPG need a story?

  • After Chrono Cross’s completion, development on FFXI finally began. But before we talk about that, there’s something I’d like to confirm. According to some internet sources, you were in charge of the scenario for Harukanaru Toki no Naka de 2 before working on FFXI.

  • Kato

    Oh, that’s another scriptwriter with the same first and last name. I get mistaken for them sometimes, so please keep that in mind. (laughs)

  • I hope that sets the record straight. (laughs) Returning to the topic at hand, what led to your involvement in FFXI after the Chrono Cross project was completed?

  • Kato

    Mr. Tanaka* was the head of the Chrono Cross development team, and when he ended up working on FFXI, those of us working under him were naturally pulled into the project as well. At the time, Square was fervently focused on making its first MMORPG a success, and staff members were being recruited from wherever possible.

    * Hiromichi Tanaka, original Producer of FFXI.
  • Matsui

    In my case too, I was preparing for a new game in the Mana series back then, but Mr. Sakaguchi told me, "We're going to start developing an MMORPG, so familiarize yourself with online games while you still can!” So I ended up playing EverQuest* whenever I could, until the Mana team, Chrono Cross team, as well as the teams from Osaka (who worked on Parasite Eve 2 and Brave Fencer Musashi) all came together and started the FFXI project in earnest.

    * EverQuest is an MMORPG released in North America in 1999.
  • Mr. Kato, what were your initial impressions of MMORPGs, as a player?

  • Kato

    Personally, I’m kind of a lone wolf when it comes to playing or making games, so I didn’t get too into MMORPGs as a player. However, I was extremely interested in the MMORPG that Square was going to create, namely FFXI.

  • Which aspects drew your interest?

  • Kato

    Back then, mainstream MMORPGs such as EverQuest and Ultima Online* came with a setting, lore, and a sort of “sandbox” to play in, but it was up to the players to find their own ways of enjoying the game. In other words, the storytelling aspect was being neglected. Even within Square, there was a general air of “We don’t need a story for FFXI, do we?” which had me terribly displeased, and I couldn’t help but interject, “Stories are essential to games, and that’s no different for MMORPGs!”

    * Ultima Online is a game released in 1997 widely considered to be a pioneer of the MMORPG genre.

  • Considering your experiences in game development until then, I can see why it didn’t sit right with you when others said, “MMORPGs don’t need stories.”

  • Kato

    Despite my vigorous attitude, I wasn’t sure how to incorporate a storyline in an MMORPG, a game to be played by many people simultaneously. After much deliberation, I came up with the idea of imitating amusement park attractions, where players could experience the story with their friends, which would allow them to share their excitement or discuss their opinions among each other. That was how the concept of FFXI’s story, known as “missions,” came to be.

The reason behind splitting the starting areas across three nations

  • Mr. Kato, you were in charge of the overall story of FFXI. On the other hand, from what I understand, Mr. Ishii* created the lore of Vana’diel. What was the actual division of labor like?

    * Koichi Ishii, original Director of FFXI.
  • Kato

    First, Mr. Ishii designed the world of Vana’diel and its deities based on his previous works in the FF and Mana series. When I later joined the FFXI development team, Mr. Ishii told me, “I’ll leave the story entirely up to you.” From there, I created a world map of Vana’diel and went about naming the various regions and coming up with the history of the world.

  • * The initial map was created by Mr. Koichi Ishii (original Director of FFXI), which was then updated into this version for drafting the scenario. Mr. Ishii's map served as the prototype for the world map illustration by Mr. Yoshitaka Amano, and the overall silhouette was also designed by Mr. Ishii. Furthermore, the regions and other initial names were also by Mr. Ishii, with names such as "Vandole" and "Bastok" being borrowed from the Mana series.
  • Was this image like a blueprint for Vana'diel? By the time you created this, the three nations were already in existence: San d’Oria (initially Sandrino*), Bastok, and Windurst (initially Windam*). What ideas led to having three starting nations in the first place?

    * These are examples of how the names may have been pronounced in English.
  • Kato

    For Square, it was our first foray into the MMORPG genre, and there were many things we didn’t know. For example, narrowband was the norm for internet infrastructure at the time, and we had no idea how many players would gather in one area once we actually started service. With that in mind, we wanted to spread out the players at the very beginning to avoid as much risk as possible. The result of that was three different starting points for the game, each with a different adventure of their own.

* To the third part

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