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How one of the PlayStation 2’s best RPGs turned into a dancing game

There aren’t many Japanese RPGs to get excited about nowadays, which is why Persona has become such a cult phenomenon. The third game in the series was a breakout hit on the PlayStation 2, and Persona 4 further cemented the series as a genre standout thanks to its disparate combination of high school life simulator and dungeon crawling RPG. That success has let the series expand in weird new ways: Persona 4 was turned into a traditional 2D fighting game in 2012, and today sees the launch of Persona 4: Dancing All Night on the PS Vita. It’s part rhythm game, part visual novel, and all fan service. With the delay of Persona 5, it's also the only game in the series we'll see this year.

We talked to director Kazuhisa Wada and sound composer Ryota Kozuka to find out more about how this odd spinoff came to be, why it works, and how virtual pop idol Hatsune Miku joined the cast.

Andrew Webster: How did this game first begin? Where did the idea to turn Persona 4 into a rhythm game come from?

Kazuhisa Wada: The Persona series' music has always been highly regarded by the players, and we've had a lot of success with large-scale live concerts, a fairly rare achievement for game music. That's why we had been thinking for quite some time, "It would be nice to make a Persona music game if the timing was right." However, we didn't have the know-how for developing music games specifically, and that was a huge bottleneck in actually getting the project started.

"We didn't have the know-how for developing music games specifically."

Then came the Persona 4 Arena series, in which I was the director. I worked with Arc System Works, an illustrious fighting game developer, and together we were able to make this non-RPG Persona title a success. The experience showed us the potential of co-development with another company, and gave us the confidence to move ahead with the P4D project.

We chose Persona 4 as the focus over the other titles in the series, but not just because of the huge popularity of its characters. Fans would want a new game's story to be an official continuation of the original game's plot, and we thought Persona 4's storyline would give us the best opportunities to do that.

Persona 4: Dancing All Night

Why do you think the setting and characters of Persona 4 work well in so many different genres?

Wada: We've never thought about it that way, but from that perspective ... perhaps it's because the characters are high school students who are still maturing, and they showed the players in Persona 4 that their possibilities are endless. The players watched these characters grow — saw how they confronted their challenges head-on, and overcame them together as friends — and came to love them, so it could be that the players are more inclined to be kind, and more willing to forgive the crazier stuff we come up with.

"None of our other titles had expanded this broadly for this long."

When you made the original game did you expect that these characters would have such lasting appeal, and that players would become so attached to them?

Wada: No, not at all. None of our other titles had expanded this broadly for this long. I don't think any of the staff predicted the game would be so well received back when we were making it. However — and this is something I talked with [character designer Shigenori Soejima] about — despite the extensive amount of time and effort we at Atlus put into making a game and developing its characters, the actual time it takes to play the game is always much shorter. And once the game's promotion ends, so do our opportunities to draw the characters. It's such a shame. I believe Persona 4's protagonist is the character Soejima has drawn the most, to date. It was our dream for a single title to have such a lasting lifespan, and receive so many accolades. We are honored, and are very grateful to all the Persona 4 fans.

The characters are obviously a huge part of the series' appeal. Was it a challenge to make sure that everyone felt natural in this new, very different setting? Was there stuff you had to cut because it didn't feel Persona enough?

Wada: It was a huge challenge. The characters themselves were already well established, so we just put them on stage and let them be themselves, but that stage itself was the hard part. An RPG's setting is based on its story; this time, though, we had to come up with a setting that revolved around the gameplay instead, to better suit a music game. On a side note, working on Persona 4 Arena wasn't as tough even though it was a fighting game, since the concept of battle is a major element in RPGs as well.

In P4D's case, we had to balance the setting and the game system, so we worked on those two elements in sync, being conscious of maintaining the signature Persona feel at all times. There was a lot of going back and forth between the staff members during the planning phase, adding and cutting out things to both the story setting and the game system as they continued their heated discussion. This title was an opportunity to develop the Persona 4 characters further and show new sides of them, so in the end, I think we managed to put a good portion of our creative efforts in the game. I have to admit, though, there were many things we simply had to cut from the final game due to time constraints.

In the entire Persona 4 family, P4D might be where we stepped out of our comfort zone the most, to the point where fans might get worried.

Persona 4: Dancing All Night

Similarly, how does Hatsune Miku fit into the story? And why do you think she was a good fit?

Wada: Like the other DLC characters — Tohru Adachi and Marie — Hatsune Miku isn't involved with the story, so please treat her as a separate character. Setting-wise, the Midnight Channel does show what people wish to see. And now that Atlus has stronger ties with Sega, perhaps the desires of our fans are being reflected on that Midnight Channel.

"We thought the collaboration with Hatsune Miku would have a huge impact."

We thought the collaboration with Hatsune Miku would have a huge impact, and widen the Persona fanbase as we entered the music game scene. We really wanted to make it happen, and somehow adapt her into the world of Persona. It wasn't easy — we had to overcome a lot of hurdles. But when we received the concept approval from the licensor Crypton Future Media at the very last minute, I immediately gave the team the order to start working on the project. Soejima's design of Hatsune Miku has a mature feel to it that is unique among the other Miku styles out there — very charming!

The series is well known for having great music, but how different is it when you're arranging songs that are so integral to the gameplay?

Ryota Kozuka: Working on this title as sound staff, I was able to get my hands on the Persona series' music once more. Doing so really reminded me how each song created by Meguro, the series composer, is so remarkably well polished as a piece of music.

I believe game music in general reaches its full potential when combined with its intended context and sequence in the game. That holds true for Persona's music as well, but on top of that, the songs are powerful enough to be adapted into a dance game, or enjoyed individually as musical work on their own merits. Now that I think about it, we made a full music game out of just a single series' soundtrack, most of which was written by the same composer. Wow, that's actually pretty crazy!

Persona 4: Dancing All Night

What kinds of things are you looking for in a new song or remix?

Kozuka: First, about remixes. Our intention was to incorporate them as a fun, over-the-top element in our rhythm game. Many of the tracks in the game are songs originally from past Persona 4 titles, so the game's core remains traditional Persona music. At the same time, we wanted to the players to experience and enjoy a wide variety of dance tracks as well.

We reached out to many artists to be featured as remixers, but since they were all extremely talented, we simply asked them to create high-quality dance tracks that showed off their individual styles. The resulting songs were excellent, providing a wide and balanced variety of music to the game.

"We did secretly hope to draw in some new players as we developed the game."

On the other hand, the new opening theme "Dance!" had to function as the face of the game, and directly convey the overall message that this was a Persona music game. I tried to express this title's dancing focus as I worked on the piece, while keeping the distinct taste of Persona's music as its basis. The same can be said of the BGMs and other incidental tunes that I made for the game; I mixed the series' traditional musical flavor together with the essence of this game, along with a hint of playfulness.

Are these spinoffs designed primarily for fans of Persona 4, or are you hoping to lure new players to the series as well?

Wada: We were thinking it would be about an 8:2 ratio, with Persona 4 fans as our main target, especially since we already released Persona 4 Golden for the same console. We did secretly hope to draw in some new players as we developed the game, of course, but our number one goal was for longtime Persona fans to enjoy this title. So we designed it as a must-have item for the fans, making sure that the characters look and feel their absolute best, and putting care into subtle choices and directions throughout the game.

Since the game's release in Japan, we've received more positive comments from newcomers to the series than we expected. Reading feedback from music game fans and first-time Persona players, who were drawn to this title by the character graphics and music tracks, makes me very happy.

Read next: Persona 4: Dancing All Night review