WE GREW VANA’DIEL is a series of interviews with those who were involved in the development of FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI), as well as guests from other companies. In this installment, we interviewed Koichi Ishii, the original Director of FFXI who breathed life into the fantasy world of Vana’diel. In this first part, Mr. Ishii told us of his experiences before joining Square (now Square Enix).
* To differentiate between the FINAL FANTASY series and its first title of the same name, in this article, we will be referring to the first title in the series as “FFI.”
CEO of Grezzo Co, Ltd. In the early days of Square, he planned FFI and was in charge of game design until the third game in the series. After that, he worked on the direction of the Mana series and other projects before returning to the FF series to work on FFXI. In addition to creating the foundation for the world of Vana'diel, he was also the director leading up to the Rise of the Zilart expansion.
A game designer at heart since elementary school
In interviews, you don’t often talk about your initial experience with games; would you share that with us?
When you say “games,” is that limited to video games? My initial experience with games goes all the way back to my pastimes as a child, like playing kick the can outdoors, frolicking by the riverbank or at construction sites, and gathering at a someone’s house to play cards or Othello. My original experiences with games were those sorts of activities, which were common among children before the NES was released. I also played board games very frequently.
Nowadays in Japan, people often refer to board games as “analog games” to distinguish them from video games, don’t they?
It was fun to partake in those kinds of activities with my friends; that environment by itself was a game for me.
In other words, the very nature of playing with others was a game in itself.
That's right. Games play out differently depending on who you play with and understanding that led me to perceive games as animate beings. There weren’t as many varieties of card games and board games back then, but they were still well-made and fun to play.
That said, they can eventually start to feel stale or unfulfilling for whatever reason. (laughs) When that happens, tweaking the rules or coming up with something new can instantly add more enjoyment. Now that I think about it, practicing that sort of innovation was probably where I started down the path of a game designer.
So those kinds of games weren’t just your initial experience with playing games but creating them too.
For instance, playing cards served as my reference when creating a card game that involved more than numbers and symbols. I also converted The Game of Life* into an adventure game by replacing the board text with my own and enhancing the immersion by substituting the game pieces with miniature figures and the little prizes that came with candy. Other times, I merged existing games, such as GAME OF BILLIONAIRE*, with my original cards to create a completely different game.* The Game of Life is a board game originally created in 1860 by the Milton Bradley Company (now Hasbro). A modernized version was published in 1960 and also released in Japan by Takara (now Tomy Company, Ltd.) in 1968.
My friends were amused by my suggestions for new games. We’d actually play them and see if anything was missing, or plan for further upgrades if everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. (laughs) I kept note of my friends’ reactions as we tested the games, which gave me ideas to make the games more and more entertaining.
* GAME OF BILLIONAIRE is a board game released in Japan by Takara (now Tomy Company, Ltd.) in 1973.
Sounds like you were surrounded by friends who really craved entertainment. (laughs)
I was an only child and a latchkey kid, so my house was often where my friends and I hung out. In that sense, it was kind of like an arcade. Whenever it rained and we couldn’t play outdoors, everyone would come over.
After my friends had gone home, I’d get engrossed with working on my games and lose track of time until my parents came home late at night. I’d cut cards from white construction paper, draw my sketches on them with pencil, finalize the lines with permanent ink, then finally color them in with markers. It was a fun process despite its tediousness. I liked to imagine my friends’ reactions while I considered various ways to tweak a game.
That doesn’t sound all that far off from what you do now. Which board games did you play the most?
In terms of board games, I liked The Game of Life. Whereas GAME OF BILLIONAIRE, Bankers*, and Monopoly* had boards that were almost entirely flat, I really liked how The Game of Life had three-dimensional mountains and buildings, almost like a diorama. They aren’t strictly necessary to play the game since you can just fill in the blanks with your imagination, but I’d argue that having those miniatures really adds to the imagery.* Bankers is a board game similar to Monopoly released by Hanayama in 1953.
Come to think of it, I also made my own original board games by pasting pieces of paper with text on the squares of a foldable shogi* board. I think the idea was to make the game portable.
Another one I made was a pop-up book board game. Thinking about how to fold the pop-up sections was like solving a puzzle. Parts of the track were sloped away from the board or even suspended in midair, and the squares had slits in them to hold the paper tokens in place. When everything was all folded up, the board game could be stowed away as a neat little book. (laughs)
* Monopoly is an economics-themed board game that originated in the United States. A Japanese version was released by Hanayama in 1965.
* Shogi is a traditional Japanese strategy board game often referred to as “Japanese chess” for its similarities to its Western counterpart.
Those were the kinds of embellishments that often stood out to us as children.
I also liked Corinth game*. The store-bought ones felt lackluster to me, so I made my own from scratch using materials I bought from a wood shop. I remember that the wooden board I used was really long.* “Corinth game” refers to a pinball-like table game that was popular in Japan between 1933 and 1935.
I set the position of the pins based on my predictions of where the ball would go and also transplanted some parts from a toy pinball machine. It was also fun to contemplate whether to use a pachinko ball, marble, or a plastic ball, since each of them bounced in distinct ways and had their own unique feel and sounds. Even in terms of launching the ball, the feel of the game changes depending on if you flicked the ball with your finger and or used a wooden cue with a rubber band, and it was interesting to see how the subtle variations in applied force were reflected in the results. Like that, I enjoyed how the game’s various aspects could be experienced through sight, hearing, and touch.
I find it rather remarkable how you didn’t settle for the ones that were store-bought.
Aside from the aspects of scoring points, I also incorporated rules similar to those seen in baseball and soccer. I worked very hard to come up with ideas to distinguish my game from others as much as possible. I was the type of person who wasn’t quite satisfied with the given rules and would try to rearrange them.
Sounds like you were already meddling with game design back then.
I took factors like player psychology into consideration when making the game, so I’d say what I was doing was indeed game design.
When would you say you started working on things like that?
I’d say I’ve been doing it since I was in third grade.
Then you’ve been quite the idea man from a very young age.
That's true. I used to doodle or make games when I was alone, so I may have had a richer imagination than others. Even at school, for whatever reason, my art and music teachers found me amusing. They put my drawings on display in the principal’s office, and the dolls I made of trumpet-blowing soldiers were displayed in the music room. Perhaps those kinds of childhood experiences allowed me to understand the joy of being appreciated from an early age.
Sounds like the teachers took notice of you.
When I was in fifth grade, my homeroom teacher assigned me to lead the school newspaper committee. Making things was something I’d always done alone, and that opportunity granted me the chance to work with a team. That was also a good memory.
What led up to you becoming the leader of the newspaper committee?
I was really unruly and inattentive in elementary school, and my homeroom teacher was always telling me off. When I misbehaved and was urged to reflect on my actions, I refused to stand in the hallway and went to play in the gymnasium instead. My teacher would come looking for me and yell, “Ishii, get back to class!” and I’d retort, “Shouldn’t you be teaching the class right now?” (laughs) Of course, I’m not like that anymore.
You must’ve been quite the little rascal. (laughs)
My teacher must’ve thought something had to be done about my unruliness. They put me in charge of the school newspaper committee, which I reluctantly agreed to, even though I thought it would be a hassle. The committee’s job was to go around the school and collect stories from each grade level, which I combined into a single composition and printed using a mimeograph, which was then published every month as the school newspaper.
Was being the leader sort of like the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper?
That's right. I selected which articles to publish, proofread them, and designed layouts for easy reading. I also drew characters in the margins and drew four-panel comic strips as part of the newspaper.
There was this one time when a kid I didn’t recognize from third grade or so stopped me to say, “You’re Ishii, aren’t you! I always enjoy reading your comic strips in the paper!” I was a bit stunned by the sudden compliment, but I remember being very happy to receive such positive feedback.
Sounds like the kind of story you’d hear from a best-selling author. (laughs)
Later, I indirectly heard that the school newspaper was well-received among teachers. It was a gratifying experience which taught me the joys of creating something and receiving a reaction. My homeroom teacher, who had been a bit antagonistic towards me before, also praised the newspaper, and I grew to appreciate them. The whole experience strengthened my desire to make creations to be appreciated by people I didn't know.
I suppose an experience like that would pretty much decide what your goals for the future were going to be, wouldn’t it?
My experiences in elementary school proved to be an immense benefit. With drawing, I also liked to draw in elementary school and I wanted to be a manga artist at some point, but I gave up on that dream when Akira Toriyama* debuted.* Akira Toriyama is a manga artist who debuted in “Weekly Shonen Jump” magazine in 1978. His notable works include the series "Dr. Slump" and "Dragon Ball.”
Was it because the impact of his work was just that intense?
His illustrations had the world building, art style, and direction I would’ve aimed for. I was already blown away by his debut work, “Wonder Island,” but I was convinced of his brilliance when “Dr. Slump” was serialized. I could sense Mr. Toriyama’s mastery whenever I saw his work, and I came to realize I could never reach his level. That was when I stopped drawing illustrations, and my artistic skills haven’t improved since.
The question of what to express with video games
And in the midst of all that, video games finally emerged.
There weren’t any game arcades at first, so game machines were often found in places like bowling alleys or rooftops of department stores, and that’s where I usually played them. The store that my parents owned had Space Invaders* so I played it quite often. Although Space Invaders was fun, I wouldn’t say I had the desire to create something like it at the time.* Space Invaders is a shooting game released by TAITO in 1978.
I was a little intrigued by Pac-Man* and Digger*, but I didn't have the image of what I was looking for in those games. I think it was when I saw Donkey Kong* that I first felt the desire to make video games.
* Pac-Man is an arcade game released by Namco (now Bandai Namco Entertainment) in 1980.
* Digger (known as Heiankyo Alien in Japan) is a maze video game developed by University of Tokyo students in 1979. The arcade version was released by Denki Onkyo Corporation in 1980.
* Donkey Kong is an arcade game released by Nintendo in 1981. Incidentally, the player character was referred to as “Mario” beginning with the sequel released in 1982, Donkey Kong Junior.
Which aspects of Donkey Kong did you feel there was potential?
Even though Donkey Kong is a 2D game, Mario turns his butt towards the player when he’s climbing a ladder. That was when I could perceive “depth” in the game. I was hit with the realization that the character’s pose can convey space in a game, and that’s why I liked Mario’s butt. When he finishes climbing up a ladder, his pixel art butt jiggles, which I think is the best.
In other words, the game conveyed a sense of three-dimensional space within a flat display.
After realizing that games can express virtual worlds, I wanted to make games as well. Donkey Kong had a nice bass sound of “thump, thump, thump” for the barrels, and the character appeared to actually have his feet on the ground; elements like that helped me to feel immersed in the gameplay. Video games seemed to have the same techniques and tools that I used in the board games and Corinth game I made when I was younger.
Which is quite different from making a video game version of a board game or Corinth game.
Indeed. I wanted players to get the sensation that they were actually in the world. Game elements like sound effects and reactions are important, and games that didn’t really pay attention to those aspects were lacking in character and didn’t feel like they were in a “real” world, even if the game itself was fun.
So it seems that for you, it’s important that games are a source of entertainment that provide experiences and sensations.
It was around then that video games were also included in my ideas of what I wanted to make or how I would do things myself. I used to fill my notebook with doodles of game screens, in which the little characters I’d been drawing since elementary school came in handy for.
The commuter pass that decided destiny
From there, I assume you immediately joined a game development company.
No, that’s not how it went. To be honest, video games themselves weren’t really recognized by society. In fact, even after I joined Square, my relatives would tell me, “I’ll introduce you to a proper company,” so I didn’t really think of video games as a career that I could do for the rest of my life. Imagining video game projects in my mind was more of a hobby; with that said, it was still plenty of fun.
I suppose that means you chose a completely different job at first.
Yes, I did. When I was in university, I worked in the evenings as part-timer in a private members’ club in Ginza*.* Ginza is a district in Tokyo, Japan known for fashion and Western luxury.
That really is a completely different world.
When I graduated from university and was looking for a job, my friends were looking to join any company that had any prestige to its name. Meanwhile, I strongly believed in working somewhere I could find fulfillment in what I did, and in order to find such a workplace, I felt it was necessary to train my perception. I also felt that a company is only as good as the person in charge, so perhaps I was trying to get a closer perspective of people who were successful.
I see. Making your way into the Ginza night life was an interesting choice.
After thinking about where the elites of the business world convened, the conclusions I reached were high-class private clubs and Ginza. I figured that private club staff probably had one of the strictest customer service jobs. Making a mistake would mean embarrassing the club, so even part-timers had to be highly professional. Perhaps I was self-aware of my own unruly nature and felt that I’d have to learn from the elite in order to blend in with society. (laughs)
Sounds like you honed your people skills in Ginza. (laughs)
Interacting with various business leaders proved to be a really good experience, though it didn’t cure my unruliness. (laughs) Our clients were all successful individuals, but actually interacting with them revealed all sorts of people skills ranging from good to bad. It was a valuable real-world experience to closely observe the language and mannerisms of those in executive positions. I also learned about working smoothly as a team, maintaining awareness of our premises, and anticipating clients’ emotions.
As a result of improving in those areas, the proprietress and manager considered me reliable, which made me happy. After working there for about a year, they handed me the keys and asked if I could get the store ready on the days I could come in early. (laughs)
It sounds like you were doing very well and feeling fulfilled, so why did you end up moving to the game industry?
I worked at the club for a little under two years and they were expecting me to eventually manage a branch store, but working at night was starting to take a toll on my body. While the job was a great way to learn about society, it was also physically and mentally taxing, and I started to consider getting a desk job instead. With video games growing more popular, I wanted to find a company that would let me work on games even if it was a part-time position, so I applied to Namco (now BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment) and Square.
Ah, so that’s where Square comes up! How did the interviews with the two companies go?
It seemed like both interviews went well, but Namco’s development team was about to move to a new office far from where I lived, so I decided that wasn’t an option.
I ended up choosing Square because I felt a bond with East Ginza, but also because I still had half a month’s worth of commutes to Ginza remaining on my transit pass. (laughs) For the interview with Square, I brought three proposals visualizing the overall flow of the games in comic form. I remember Mr. Sakaguchi liked the characters I drew in my proposals. At the end of the interview, he said, “I’ll have a desk ready for you by next Monday.” and looking back, that was what got me started in video game development.
* Mr. Ishii shared his experiences after joining Square and eventually creating FFI in this previous article.
WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL Special Edition - Koichi Ishii & Yoshitaka Amano Part 1