Interview: Project Phoenix’s Hiroaki Yura Discusses His Vision for the Game, JRPGs, PS4 and More

Project Phoenix made the headlines due to the very successful start of its Kickstarter campaign and due to the stellar cast gathered by Director Hiroaki Yura to create the game, including acclaimed composer Nobuo Uematsu, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about this extremely interesting indie JRPG project.

That’s why I contacted Yura-san and arranged a chat with him, in order to ask more details about his vision for what could very well be a revolution in a genre that hasn’t exactly been explored that deeply by indie developers so far.

Luckily for us, turns out that Yura-san really had a lot to say, so take a seat, grab a cup of coffee and follow me into the world of Project Phoenix.

Giuseppe: First of all, could you introduce yourself, your project and team for our readers?

Hiroaki Yura: My name is Hiroaki Yura, I’m the creator, the director and the producer of the game Project Phoenix. It’s a JRPG with squad-based RTS combat mechanics.  It’s going to be primarily for the PC, it will be ported to iOS and Android, most likely for tablets. If they don’t perform well enough, we’re going to have a different use for them. In other words, we’re not going to change the game’s mechanics to suit the tablets. The tablets will need to live up to the standard of the game.

It may be ported to the PlayStation 4 and the Vita, but this isn’t yet confirmed. Once it’ll be confirmed we’ll send you a press release. Our team is made of many people from different backgrounds, from Asia, Europe and America. I gathered the best people I could find for the job and everyone is mostly working on royalty basis. That means that they won’t get paid until we’ll start selling the game in mid 2015.

The reason why we can do this is that everyone is a respected professional in his own field of work, so we don’t require to be paid, because this is a project born of passion. However we do need funds for modeling and similar tasks for Stephen (Unger)’s team, because he needs to hire a lot of people to create characters and environments.

This is the way we’re working, and that’s why we initially asked only for $100,000 (on Kickstarter). Our game is unlikely to go over budget, because we have been very conservative with the budget, so that we will be able to deliver on our promises. I’d like to say that the schedule will be pretty much on time, but there is a chance we might end up being late, but if that was to happen it will be to make sure that the quality of the game will be up to standard.

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The concept of the game will definitely not change whether we’ll have a hundred thousand dollars or five million. The only difference made by the stretch goals, besides the multiplayer, is the ability to upgrade the concept. We will have to hire a new team to create the multiplayer, because it’ll be a completely different feature compared to what we’re making now.

Besides the multiplayer everything is building up on what we have already. For example if it’s music, we’re starting with synthesized music but if we reach the 1,650,000 dollars stretch goal, we’ll have live recording. The ground work is already done. All we need is just to record. That doesn’t take too much time and all we need is the money to get started.

G: People know you primarily as a musician and orchestra director. Is this your first experience as a game director and producer? Do you feel it’s a large change in role, or it’s actually similar?

HY: Absolutely, but it’s very  similar. I understand the intricacies of video game creation because of my experience as a music director. Also, I’m not a composer, I’m a violinist, and while violinists have no place in video game development, but as a music director, I direct people on what to do and how to do it. It’s not so different. In some cases it’s actually easier, because I deal with 120 musicians, while a game director has only to deal with five key men in order to execute his task. I find it much easier than directing an orchestra.

G: Considering that you’re a musician and the team includes other world class musicians like Uematsu-sensei, will music actually play a role in the story or even in the gameplay? I’m thinking about Macross for instance, or about the memorable opera scene in Final Fantasy VI.

HY: We will have a special place for music, but in the end we all agree that we’re making music for a video game–without the video game we are nothing. It’s the same thing with the illustrators and the artists–our team means nothing without the game. So we’re composing the music and creating the art for the game. They will play a large role, but not the main role.

G: What do you think about the current situation of JRPGs in the Japanese and worldwide markets? Does your decision to create Project Phoenix come from the need to fill some kind of void you perceive in the genre?

HY: Absolutely. I only make things that are missing. Currently what we are missing is what JRPG should be in the world today. Basically it comes down to the question: “What is a JRPG?” People have different answers. I’m good friend with (Hironobu) Sakaguchi-san, and I spoke to him about two weeks ago in his office. I asked him what is a JRPG to him. And for him JRPGs are about the characters and how they develop. Hiroki Hikuta, who is the composer of Secret of Mana and also a game director says the same thing.

For me it’s not just about the characters, but it’s also about the story of the characters. That’s the most important thing: the story. JRPG for me is like opera. It exists to tell a story and to give emotion, like listening to music or looking at beautiful art. You’re there to enjoy the show, the concept, the performance.

I don’t think the game mechanic is as important. Game mechanics have to be fun and fulfilling. It doesn’t need to conform to one type of gameplay like for instance turn based classic Final Fantasy-like. That’s why I went for RTS. I think it’s a very natural progression. The only reason why they did turn based back in the day was because they could do nothing else. Nowadays we can take things to real time easier.

It’s basically like Final Fantasy Tactics, but in real time, and it kind of feels like the team battles in Warcraft where you don’t make units, you already have a small team that you have to accomplish a mission with.

G: So you actually control all the group members at the same time?

HY: Yes, you control characters in squads, and not individuals. That’s how we are unique. You only control about eight to ten units and you form little squads and skirmish with them. you micromanage your squads, not individuals. Micromanaging individuals feels silly to me. I do like Starcraft and Warcraft, but they don’t feel realistic, because you have to queue many commands to move your army, and professional soldiers or heroes don’t act like that. They act like heroes. They know what to do.

For example in Starcraft marines fire at the zergs only when they’re in range. Let’s say there’s two marines. One is in range and the other is nearby but not in range. The second marine will not fire. That’s stupid because he’s standing right next to another marine firing on the zergs. A marine would not do that in real life.

Our games tries to be very realistic. Even if we’re using chibi (Editor’s note: “chibi” means “small” in Japanese, and indicates super deformed characters with short proportions) characters…it’s three point five heads to a body, not two heads to a body like in Tactics Ogre, so it’s a little bit more realistic, but still chibi and very kawaii  (Editor’s note: “kawaii” means “cute” in Japanese)…we want the combat to feel very real. It’s one hit, one kill.

When Legolas shoots his arrows he kills everyone in one hit, right? It’s the same thing.

G: Does it work the same the other way around? Do the heroes get killed in one hit too, or they’re more resilient?

HY: They’re heroes, so they resist more. They can block, dodge and parry. Some times they can get hit and they don’t loose as much health because they have good armor. They can get into trouble when you fight bosses, because bosses are big and very powerful, so they need to hit the boss many times to kill him, but when fighting normal monsters it’s just a matter of numbers.

The game is going to be like, let’s say…300, the movie. King Leonidas is successful because of the tactical situation and his superior men. Because of that he can slaughter the Persian army. It’s the same thing with our game. The heroes of Project Phoenix can slaughter everybody as long as they’re in a good tactical situation. If they’re caught in the open by a large group of Orcs they can all die.

We’re looking into many kinds of realism, and one of them is basically the fact that one of your heroes is knocked out, another squad member will drag him to safety and bandage him, or bring him to a healer. There are three stances: aggressive, defensive and stealth. If you’re aggressive and want to go forward, somebody goes down, and a tank comes along and protects the wounded character while the healer runs forward and heals him. If you’re defensive you’ll try to get him to a safe place before healing. If you’re in stealth, you’ll try to withdraw until you lose the enemies and then do the healing.

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G: Project Phoenix has been defined a game with no clear good and evil. Does this mean that the player will be prompted to make moral choices? Will there be a branching storyline and multiple endings depending on those choices?

HY: I’ll be very honest. We are a very small team. It’d be great if we could make branching choices, but I think it would be risky for us. It becomes too complex and I don’t think our team is capable of making a sprawling multiple-endings game, as much as we’d like to.

We’re going to keep it simple and fun. It’s going to be linear, but players will be able to experience many, many side stories, and I think this way is better for us because it’s simple, and it’s effective. It also allows you to explore the lore deeper. You will see the characters make moral choices of course. There are some very heavy questions to be explored. It won’t be like a teenage JRPG like Pokémon. 

G: You actually anticipated my next question. I was going to ask if it’ll be a light-hearted game like a Dragon Quest, or a deeper, darker-themed one like for instance Xenogears…

HY: We will have humor, but it’ll be like Final Fantasy IX, that had the perfect balance between humor and very heavy issues that each character has to deal with. One thing I can tell you about, which is announced…well, partially announced…is about Marcus Stern, our main character. His mother was the queen of the kingdom of Stern and she was signing a peace treaty with the orcs, but she was assassinated by an orc.

After that everything changed for the country and Marcus. The country became more xenophobic and created units of the army to hunt other races. Marcus goes against his mother wishes and basically joins an organization of xenophobic templars, killing a lot of orcs.

His real question is not about vengeance though. It’s about why his mother’s murder happened. You’ll be able to discover why as the story progresses.

G: So Racism will be a big topic for the game.  

HY: Yes, it will be a big issue, and this is an issue that we wanted to explore, because racism is a serious issue in the real world today and it was even worse a a hundred or two hundred years ago. We should all be friends, internationally, and this is something people should reflect on. Misunderstanding is the biggest issue in racism.

It’s high fantasy, and the world is very similar to the novels by Tolkien, but the difference is that Tolkien wrote in an era in which racism was even more rampant and people during Tolkien’s time didn’t really understand racism because it was the norm. If you read his novels the orcs don’t have feelings, they’re always terrible, goblins eat people, trolls kill people, and they don’t have any morals at all.

I don’t think that writing a story like that isn’t sophisticated enough for us. Our world will be much more complex. Orcs will have reasons why they do what they do, and the reasons that lead to war will be much more sophisticated than those that are normally part of normal JRPG settings.

Project Phoenix (2)G: So orcs aren’t going to be purely evil…

HY: I’m not going to tell you anything about that yet. You’ll have to find out yourself.

G: Is Project Phoenix going to feature romance between characters? How important is it going to be to the story?

HY: We are thinking to feature romance in our JRPG, but it’s not going to be the main theme. There are more important issues than romance, and our characters won’t have too much time for it.

The problem with JRPGs, or with Japanese games in general these days is that they try to satisfy the otaku, and that’s not satisfactory at all for most people. Just look at the Japanese “Moe” culture. It’s a representation of the otaku’s desires. Otaku demand their desires to be translated into games, like big breasts, big eyes or revealing clothes, but they didn’t use to be like that. It used to be more balanced.

It’s like art. When you listen to music or watch a painting, you need to use your imagination. Imagination is a key theme in Project Phoenix and is much stronger than what you can actually show. Having great and flashy graphics like Final Fantasy nowadays is not working because you lose the biggest weapon you have, which is imagination. This is why it’s failing.

In terms of our game we’re going to make sure that imagination plays a key part in the adventure by, one, making in game characters super deformed, and two, we don’t want to explain everything. So if we’ll have romance in our game, we don’t want to exactly show what happens. We won’t show characters kissing that much. We’ll just show that a little so the players can imagine what the relationship is like. I think this way is more delicate.

G: You’re negotiating with Sony a release of the game on PS4 and PS Vita, what are the reasons behind choosing those consoles instead of others like Nintendo’s or Microsoft’s platforms?

HY: The problem with Nintendo… You know, I like Nintendo and everything…but not a lot of people buy it. I know a lot of fans buy it, but there are so many restrictions with Nintendo, and also the fact that Nintendo in Japan does not accept indie games.

We think Nintendo is taking a wrong approach towards games like ours. I think maybe it has to do with the Kyoto culture…very old companies. Nintendo itself in Kyoto is not that old, because in Kyoto there are companies that survived for hundreds of years, and compared to them they’re relatively young, but in terms of video game industry they are very old. They have a set of rules that does not fit with the core values of our game, basically.

They have interesting hardware, but it ends at “interesting.” It’s not “exciting.”

Our main goal is not to publish on all consoles. Our main goal is to make the best game possible on the best platforms. The reason why we’re going to work on PlayStation 4 is because we’ve been asked by a very small publisher who wants to publish for PlayStation 4, and they’re passionate, and don’t want to influence our creative side. I agreed to that because they understood the intricacies of indie games’ development. That’s how it came to be with the PlayStation 4 and the Vita.

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G: So there will be a publisher involved for the console version, correct?

HY: Yes, that’s correct, but this is not finalized.

G: You previously told that there’s a 90% chance, right?

HY: Yes, that’s correct.

G: What are your plans for localization?

HY: I want to be very honest. I kind of want to apologize but also explain why I chose just Japanese and English as languages in the first place. Many European people can read English and I think it’s better to make the basic aspects of the game as well as possible before we include other languages like Italian, French, German and Spanish, but we are looking into it.

After upgrading the basic elements we’re looking into having a stretch goal to add those languages. I’d love to see more support from Europe, as the majority of the pledges are now from the United States and Japan. I want to ask the European fans not to loose faith in us…I’m going to tell you a new announcement exclusive to your website. The localization in Italian, French, German and Spanish will be in the $2.175.000 stretch goal, which is the next stretch goal we’ll add.

Some people think better cinematics or better animations or a new storyline are more important, but I think these are extras that we don’t necessarily need before localization in these languages. So I’d really like to ask people  from these countries to help us push the Kickstarter campaign so that we can localize the game in their languages.

After the stretch goal about more languages we’ll upgrade the cinematics, the in-game animations and there’s actually another storyline that we call the “13th Legion” storyline, that is going to be a totally separate story about a completely different character that happens at the same time during the game. I can’t tell you the amount of that stretch goal…but it’ll be very expensive (laughs).

We have a core group that works only with royalties, but to make this storyline I’ll have to hire more designers. I can’t expect the people we have now to do it by themselves.

G: You should bring Sakaguchi-san on board!

HY: Sakaguchi-san (laughs)?

G: That would be great no? You have Uematsu-sensei already after all. 

HY: Yeah but Skaguchi-san is a system creator, so he’d want to change the whole system, so we probably won’t have that (laughs). We can’t ask him to just do level design…that would be rude (laugh). Maybe I’ll ask him to join us for dinner instead.

G: With expensive wine like Uematsu-sensei says?

HY: Yes, Uematsu-san likes any kind of alcohol. Be it yellow, red, or white…he likes everything (laughs).

G: Will additional localization have voice acting?

HY: No, there won’t be voice acting. There isn’t just translation, but also bug testing to do for every language, and it’s very difficult. Unfortunately my French is only preliminary and my Italian is limited to my music education, so I can’t really listen to voice acting in those languages and decide if it’s good or bad. In terms of English and Japanese I can, of course.

Talking about the English and Japanese voice acting, the English one will be directed by Donna Burke, but we’re not going for anime approach to localization. English anime voice acting is…

G: Horrible…

HY: Yeah, I don’t like it. We’re going for a very serious approach, like films.

G: Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer to my questions. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers to conclude this interview?

HY: I don’t know if I can answer all the questions, but it would be great if everybody could talk to us. There’s a lot of room for misunderstanding because there’s so much hope in people that want a good JRPG, and I used to be in the same shoes, and now I’m developing a game that hopefully everybody will like and delivering on everybody’s hopes.

We hope we can deliver, but we need feedback, because this should be everybody’s game. It’s not just for Japan, but for the whole world. We’re going to listen to feedback as much as possible, and to everything that is going to make our game better, because we want to make the best JRPG possible.

We’ll have a forum ready by the end of the Kickstarter campaign. It will have a section for backers only, but there will also be one open to everyone. You’ll also be able to become a backer even after the Kickstarter campaign, since we’ll have a Paypal option open for quite some time, so please give us as much feedback and advice as you can.

If you still haven’t backed Project Phoenix and would like to pledge your support, you can do so on the official Kickstarter page. Every little bit helps!

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