The plan to make Final Fantasy great again

Why new tech and an old mindset are the keys to Final Fantasy XV

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Hajime Tabata wants to put Final Fantasy back on top.

As the director of Final Fantasy XV, Tabata has a difficult task ahead of him. While the Final Fantasy name is still well known, over the years it has lost much of its luster, and more recent releases haven’t captured the imagination of players the way the series once did on the SNES and original PlayStation. Final Fantasy is no longer a system-seller. But with XV, there’s a sense that that could change. Though the game has been in the works for a decade and doesn’t launch until September, it has garnered a level of attention that harkens back to the franchise’s glory days. People are excited about the series again: and Tabata thinks he knows why.

“It’s actually quite simple,” he says. “What we really wanted to do with XV is return to the roots of the series and to put everything we’ve got into creating what we think is the best ultimate Final Fantasy game we can. And return to that position of being a challenger to the title, and approach it from that perspective. We’ve got to win it.”

For Square Enix, its ambition to make FF XV a big deal again was on full display last night at an event in Los Angeles. Originally pitched as a press conference to share the much-anticipated release date for the game, the event turned into a series of rapid-fire announcements, most of which were huge surprises. FF XV is getting an anime spinoff series called Brotherhood, and a feature length CG movie dubbed Kingsglaive that stars the likes of Lena Headey, Sean Bean, and Aaron Paul. An epic new trailer showcased a vast, strange world, with music by Florence + The Machine. Oh, and if you want to play it, there’s a demo available right now.

The event started with Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the FF series who left Square in 2004, taking the stage. "I am here today as a father of Final Fantasy," he said. "Final Fantasy is like a child to me." He went on to explain that he had felt the series had lost its way over the years, but was reassured about XV after talking with Tabata and realizing his goals and ambitions. "I felt assured by his words," Sakaguchi explained, "because the Final Fantasy I remember was constantly seeking new challenges, and never sitting comfortably in any given place."

FF XV started out its life as a very different game. Work first began on it in 2006, and it was originally called Final Fantasy Versus XIII, a sort of standalone spinoff of FF XIII, part of a planned shared universe called "Fabula Nova Crystallis." It was helmed by Tetsuya Nomura, a designer best known for his character work on FF and Kingdom Hearts, and was being developed for the PS3.

But as development dragged on, and the scope of the game increased, things changed. The game was rebranded as the next main entry in the series, and development shifted to the PS4 and Xbox One. Eventually Tabata was put in charge to right the ship. "We did a pretty thorough, ground-up redesign of the game," he says. "So when I’m asked ‘what’s different?’ in the story, and the game systems, and the combat, between XV and Versus XIII, I’m not really sure where to start because there’s such a big difference." (The pervasive road trip theme is one of the few things that survived the transition.)

Tabata wants the game to bring the series back to its golden era, when titles like FF VII and its ilk were the blockbusters of their day. To do that, he’s focusing on two main things: modernizing the technology behind the game, while also returning to the core principles that made Final Fantasy so beloved in the first place. The first task is especially important, given that the series has historically been on the forefront of new technology, with new releases that served as showcases for what consoles could do at the time. But, like many Japanese developers, Square Enix struggled as games shifted to high definition, unable to keep pace with its Western counterparts. That needed to change for FF XV.

"Final Fantasy Versus XIII was never completed as a project," Tabata says, "but one of the biggest differences between how we were working on that and XV is that Versus XIII was still very much a part of the standard definition-based development process, whereas with XV we’ve moved to a 100 percent high definition-based process, and that really does show, I think, in the results."

One aspect that has helped with this is the globalization of Square Enix. While primarily thought of as a Japanese company, multiple notable Western studios now fall under the Square Enix umbrella, including Deus Ex developer Eidos and Crystal Dynamics, the team behind the most recent Tomb Raider games. And all of those groups talk to one another. "It is a really great environment," says Tabata. "Each of the individual studios and locations have their own technological strengths, and their own unique characteristics for how they make stuff. We are able to talk to each other and exchange information and understand what makes each individual studio’s systems and ideas good, and in that we can stimulate each other’s ideas and create games that I think are much more competitive worldwide."

When it comes to bringing the series back to the core elements, however, things aren’t quite so simple. Each game in the series is very different from the next, and that’s part of what makes it so interesting. New Final Fantasy games can be fresh and exciting largely because you don’t always know what to expect. "Part of the DNA of the series is, we’ve never tried to create something that fits in this box, this is what Final Fantasy has to be, and only repeat that and make the same game with the same themes over and over again," Tabata explains. "It very much is about trying new things and seeing what’s possible with a new generation of gamers."

FF XV features elements that will be familiar to long-time fans — including everything from chocobos to giant swords to phoenix downs to resurrect friends — but there’s also a lot that’s new. The world has a near future vibe, complete with smartwatches and smartphones, and these fantasy and sci-fi elements often clash in interesting ways; guards outside a building may be dressed as knights, but they’re holding machine guns. Meanwhile, if you play the just-released "Platinum" demo, you’ll find an experience that feels refreshingly modern, with fast combat seemingly from a more traditional action game, and a huge, open world to explore. Tabata also notes that the narratives of recent FF games "have maybe become a little too complicated," which is another area the team hopes to improve on, by offering a story that’s a bit more straightforward but with a lot of depth.

But what Tabata really seems to mean when he talks about going back to the series’ roots is more of a mindset. In the past, each new FF game pushed forward in some way, and the series was exceedingly ambitious. New gameplay systems were introduced, new worlds were created, and new technologies were implemented in an attempt to make each game bigger and more impressive than the last. There was a time when you couldn’t talk about role playing games without talking about Final Fantasy. That constant strive to be among the best is something that Tabata is trying to bring back with XV. "The game started out as that," he says, "and it’s always looked to better itself and win the next challenge. I think that’s a very important ethos to us."

That’s also part of the thinking behind the expanded universe of FF XV. The movie, in particular, is being created to not only tell a new story — one that unfolds alongside the events of the game — but also to draw in new fans. "One of the goals we had with Kingsglaive was to expose Final Fantasy XV to a much wider audience of people," notes Takeshi Nozue, the film’s director. While comparisons could be made to the series’ last film, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (which was co-directed by Nozue), the two movies serve different purposes. Advent Children was a follow-up to a hugely popular game, one meant to give fans another taste of that world. Kingsglaive is meant as an introduction to a brand new universe, and it’s releasing some time before the game. "The objective is to get people who know nothing about Final Fantasy XV to get into the story and the characters and the world," says Nozue.

There’s a lot riding on Final Fantasy XV. In many ways, it’s a showcase for not only Japanese RPGs, but Japanese games in general. With the explosive popularity of mobile and portable gaming in the country, more traditional, blockbuster-style releases are becoming few and far between. With Hideo Kojima leaving Metal Gear Solid behind, Final Fantasy is one of just a few AAA console series left standing. Its success or failure could have a profound impact — especially for the future of the series.

"I think certainly the future of Final Fantasy will be influenced by how XV does and what XV is as a game," Tabata says. "But rather than thinking of what goes on there I’ve got to concentrate on getting XV out. That’s the future of Final Fantasy as far as I’m concerned."