During a panel at Game Developers Conference 2017 in San Francisco, that DualShockers attended, Final Fantasy XV Director Hajime Tabata shared quite a lot of information about the development of the game.
Tabata-san mentioned that the organizers of GDC asked him to host a panel to share his development expertise based on the success of Final Fantasy XV. While the team managed to meet people’s expectations business-wise, he doesn’t feel that his is really a “success story.” After all, he doesn’t have much of an expertise to speak of, and he didn’t suddenly become a millionaire either.
So instead of a success story, he has a lot of learnings to share, and he intended to talk about the challenges he faced with his team mates.
First of all, Tabata-san shared a story from his youth, mentioning that he used to ski, taking part in slalom competitions. He was the fastest of his club, so he used to enter a lot of tournaments. Before a local competition, his parents promised to buy for him one of these old Game & Watch video games if he won. They never bought him a game before, so he was very excited, and he spent his time thinking on whether he’d buy Donkey Kong or Mickey & Donald.
When the day came, he did his best, but lost in the first round. Initially he convinced himself that his opponent was really strong, but it turned out that he lost in the finals. Also, the boy who won the local tournament got beaten in the regionals.
Back then he was 11, but he learned the lesson that out there there is always someone better than one is. On top of that, even if you can’t win alone, you can still play to make your team win.
When Tabata-san met with Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy asked him to make the series “a challenger” again. He meant approaching the project like it was the last chance, like there won’t be a next time if this one isn’t successful. That’s where the “Final” in the title comes from.
Right after he was made director of Final Fantasy XV, Tabata-san met the Sales Head at Square Enix, and was given the sales forecast for each region: it was pretty low, under five million units worldwide. He was told by everyone that switching away from turn-based combat was unwise, and that the Final Fantasy brand was diminished and it was in danger.
In response, Tabata-san set the sales goal one million copies higher than the forecast, at six million units. He hoped that knowing that high sales goal would bring the team together and push them to break through any obstacle in their way.
He decided to approach developing the game like the original Final Fantasy, with the mindset that failure would mean that it’s over for the series.
Tabata-san compared his previous games and Final Fantasy XV to mountains. While his previous portable titles were 3000 meters high mountains, Final Fantasy XV was 6,000 meters high.
While he had set a high goal for the game, all he could do was doing the proper preparations, yet that resulted in making a lot of friends among his team mates. Scaling that mountain wasn’t just his goal, it was a goal for the whole team. True friends are people who stick with you through hard times.
The first lesson he learned was to set a goal high, and if that goal is abstract, to make it so that it can be conveyed to others.
The second lesson is about teamwork. The team needed knowledge and technology to scale a 6,000 meters high mountain. The experience they had in scaling mountains half as high wasn’t enough. The team’s concept became “a mass of mastery,” and each member told told Tabata-san about his expertise, and the Director asked them to do what they were able to do best.
He tried to pair strength and personality for each developer, maximizing performance at all times. The image was pretty much that of a football team, with each player playing according to his talents. As a result, the team changed their “formation” to optimize it for each development milestone.
Due to that, the Final Fantasy XV “mass of mastery” had a lot of energy once it started rolling. They managed to overcome the technical hurdle of creating an open world RPG and a game system in which they had no previous experience.
When Square Enix released the Episode Duscae demo, which was a proof of concept for the team, it gave them a clear idea on how much more work it would take to finish the game, also showcasing the day and night cycle.
The reaction of the fans to the demo was as expected, but the development team faced a really serious problem: they realized that they were only at the third station on their way up the mountain. They were halfway done in terms of development progress, but the peak was still far away.
The volume of work left to do was big, with even more challenges looming ahead. There was pressure, fatigue and insecurities, so the team’s performance dropped sharply. This was between summer and autumn of 2015.
Tabata-san found the answer to solve that situation at home: one day, before going to work, his six years old (back then) daughter came up to him and gave him a big hug without saying a word. Then she asked “how much longer will it be?” He did not know how to answer, so he responded “It’s going to be a while.”
His daughter held her tears back and pulled out a big smile, telling him “chin up and keep up the good work, daddy!” Then she went back to her room and brought back a drawing portraying him at work. She put her worry for her father ahead of her own loneliness, and seeing her fight to hold back tears hit Tabata-san very hard as a parent. He realized how much his family put up with.
Immediately after, he had a meeting with his team, and they decided to organize a family day with the objective of achieving a better balance between work and life, and to show appreciation to their family, giving them peace of mind and allowing them to learn about their work and goals.
They spent a lot of time to prepare for the family day, even if they were in a hurry, and worried about development milestones and schedules. Back then, Business Division 2 had 250 staff members, so bringing all of their family members the office was quite a big project.
They actually customized Final Fantasy XV for the kids, and made them play with it on the PCs at the office for the whole day. Tabata-san’s daughter was there as well. Developers were allowed to show their wives, husbands, parents and kids their work desks, and what they do on the job.
By having the family day, the team set their sights on the goal again, and lesson Tabata-san learned is that to have a strong team, it’s necessary that staff members have the support of their families.
Towards the end of the development cycle, as things were winding down, Square Enix organized events all over the world to get the audience excited for the release, but there was amother big crisis awaiting for them.
This wasn’t the two months delay that was announced in August, instead, it was when some stores broke the street date and spoilers started to circulate.
Since this was the first simultaneous worldwide release, the company lacked the expertise to stop copies from leaking. They were ok with early purchasers enjoying the game on their own, but there were people actively trying to ruin the experience for others intentionally with spoilers.
Tabata-san spoke to the relevant parties, and many were actually complaining about it. He discussed this internally, and made it clear that they wouldn’t take this kind of intentional behavior lightly.
After that, the spoilers died down a bit, but Tabata-san had to face criticism for that. Yet, he learned a lot from the experience: if he found himself in the same situation again, rather than relying on enforcement, he would probably come up with a solution, for instance to take advantage of the spoilers and trying to somehow integrate those leaking them in the game’s promotion.
As with the family day, Tabata-san believes that it’s critical to turn crises into opportunities. In any project there are always crises, drama and problems, and turning crises into opportunities is one big takeaway from Tabata-san’s experience in developing Final Fantasy XV.
In the end, the team managed to complete Final Fantasy XV, and in a month they managed to sell about six million copies. While failure would have meant that there wouldn’t be a next time, success means that this probably isn’t the final Final Fantasy, and the series will live on.
Tabata-san continued by mentioning once again that his story developing the game isn’t a success story, but now he knows that the greatest goals can only be achieved by taking big chances. The team knows that there are big chances ahead, so they will keep taking on more challenges for Final Fantasy XV, on top of completely new challenges.
In conclusion, the Final Fantasy XV team is a team of fighters, and he believes that Final Fantasy is now a “challenger” once again.
After the talk, Tabata-san showcased a video with some gorgeous technical experiments the team is conducting for the future, and you can check that out here.
Below you can see all the slides of the presentation. Incidentally if you are a game developer (to which this panel was mainly addressed) but didn’t have a chance to attend, you can send me a mail requesting the full audio recording.
[On-location reporting: Azario Lopez]