LOS ANGELES — Star Ocean’s creators are hoping for a fresh start with its next release.
Square Enix is working with longtime series developer Tri-Ace on Star Ocean 5, with a release coming to Japan this winter, and to North America in 2016. The long-running role-playing series faltered with the release of Star Ocean 4, but the developers want to assure fans that they’re back on-track with the upcoming PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 release, calling it an evolution of an “old-school RPG.” But the company is also looking to move the franchise forward with some new ideas and philosophies on how studios present role-playing games.
GamesBeat spoke with producer Shuichi Kobayashi (through a translator) at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo immediately following the announcement of a 2016 release date for North America. Here is an edited transcript of our interview, which took place alongside other games journalists.
GamesBeat: What does the subtitle name mean, “Integrity and Faithlessness”?
Shuichi Kobayashi: You may know that the Star Ocean franchise has been produced by Tri-Ace. The CEO, Mr. Yoshiharu Gotanda, has been involved with the scenario-making since the original title. When it comes to No. 5 in particular, he’s been very keyed on it. He wrote the scenario himself and came up with those two ideas. He was very attached to them. They are similar words—they had to be those particular words. They come across with the concept that his storytelling is based upon. I can’t tell you too much about it, but those two words link with how the story ends. It doesn’t explain everything, but that gives you some clues about how the story might end up.
Question: The first thing I noticed in the trailer was that we saw six characters in battle. Can you talk about why you chose to go with six characters? How does that change the feeling from previous Star Ocean games?
Shuichi: Let me correct you. Maybe the scene you looked at had six characters, but in actual gameplay there will be more than six. In more traditional RPGs, as the story unfolds, you get more and more people joining the party. Sometimes, at some point, if you have more than four or six, you have to choose who to form the party with. In this game we don’t have that. We’re going to make all party members featured and physical in the field. They can engage in battle. We can’t reveal the exact number at this stage, but it’ll be more than six. Depending on the situation, the phase of the battle, the numbers will be different. In some parts of the story, sometimes the party members engage in a fight together with some sort of semi-party members who will not completely join the party, but still participate in battles. You mentioned six people. Obviously there can be more or less. What we want to avoid, because there are so many people to choose from, sometimes you drag out more characters and put away other characters. That’s very unnatural. It wouldn’t happen in an actual story. In some event scenes, we’ll bring the characters out in the field, but what we want to do is achieve a seamless transition. As they’ll walk about and explore and engage in battle, it has to be happening really smoothly, without any awkward, jagged moments. In order to do that, sometimes we have to have a lot of people involved in the same battle.
GamesBeat: So the choice to have all these characters in the battle participating at all times, was that part of the same mindset of approaching that seamlessness?
Shuichi: To make it work perfectly we have a lot to do. We have to make sure the balance and the character A.I. is absolutely perfect, to make it truly seamless.
GamesBeat: Breaking away from the notion that JRPGs are only movies is an important thing to get after. I wondered if you could talk about how you’re trying to achieve that, aside from just having the cutscenes take place in real time.
Shuichi: There are going to be lots of movie-like cutscenes, but when it comes to the quantity, there won’t be quite as much as you’ve seen in Star Ocean IV. Our intention, we’d like to introduce what we call dynamic cutscenes. Whatever you do, whatever happens, the story goes on. The characters keep moving. That procession should never be terminated or paused. There will be less of them. Lots of RPGs have lots of cutscenes where you have nothing to do. You’re just watching. We’d like to minimize that. Instead, we want to give them more playability, more control for the player.
Question: In the last Star Ocean, one of the things you did for the American version was change the faces of some of the characters to be more realistic in the localization. Are you planning on any changes like that for Star Ocean V?
Shuichi: In SO3, for example, visually it was quite highly acclaimed. People liked the typical JRPG visual direction. For Star Ocean V, we don’t want to make it halfway toward a game specifically formulated for Western fans. If we wanted to do that, we’d do that all the way. We don’t want to do it halfway. That’s not the right tactic to use. Rather than returning it so that western gamers like it more, we’d like to just pursue what we think is right, pursue our creative concept and express our imagination. We’ll see if that works for western gamers as well as Japanese. You can take a look at the poster. That’s the visual direction we set out to pursue and we want to stick with it. We don’t want to derail that or make changes or explore different possibilities. We want to stick to what we think is the best for this production. To be frank with you, in Star Ocean IV, we did exactly that. We wanted to give the visual element which we believed would be appealing to western gamers, and it didn’t really work for either western or Japanese fans. It was a bit of a muddle, really. We don’t want to repeat that. We just want to establish our image and stick with it.
GamesBeat: You mentioned some new gameplay systems. It looks like the real-time battles are still happening. Maybe that will be scaled up with this expanded party. Can you talk about how any other gameplay systems have changed since the last game?
Shuichi: Most of the old game mechanics are being returned and renewed. What we call private action, the scenarios between different characters, and also item creation and so on, will be more player-friendly. We wanted to improve the feel of. As you mentioned, there will be more characters involved in everything. The most noticeable change will be the battles. Traditionally, in Star Ocean, you can see the characters, you can see the enemy, and the player is looking at all of that from the right distance. But if there are more characters, that’s going to be more complex. We’ll have to work out the best way to convey the same feel in the action with more people. We know what we should do. We’re just getting the final touches on it. We know it’s going to work, but it will just take a little more work. For example, with so many more characters on the field, the AI is going to be very complex. In Star Ocean V, you can customize some of the AI. You have to control five, six, or more characters, but it’s not going to be so cumbersome or complicated to make them perform the right actions on the battlefield.
Question: I’ve read that Star Ocean V is set between the second and third games. Star Ocean 3 had the big plot twist, that you were inside a video game, an MMO. Is that part of the story here? Can you talk about the context of the game’s story.
Shuichi: All the stories from Star Ocean 1 through 5 are set in the same universe. That hasn’t changed. In terms of timeline, the story of number five is between two and three. That’s correct. You mentioned MMOs. I think that quite recently, a British philosopher said something in relation to that. He said that he believes the world we live in is a world in beta, created by some godly figure somewhere. Looking at your universe in that particular way is nothing new. We have explored it early, but the way we communicated that and other ideas was not—it had a little too much twist in it. People couldn’t really fathom it. They were struggling to see what was actually going on. In number five’s story, we’d like to address that issue, so that people can see how we look at the universe in the game. It’s going to be easier to take in.
GamesBeat: Is Motoi Sakuraba still working on the soundtrack for this game?
Shuichi: Yes. There’s one tune for the battle scenes that’s great. That’s my favorite song in the game.
GamesBeat: Given that he’s so tied to the series and its history, was he given any early look to get going with his work, given that music is usually taken care of late in the development process?
Shuichi: As you say, he’s been working on the entire series. He knows everything about the franchise. We don’t really need to give him a heads-up that early. He knows what should go into it. He has a very good relationship with Mr. Gotanda as well. Both of them know exactly what people want from the Star Ocean franchise, and what Square Enix would like to see in the game as well. So we don’t give him a heads-up a very long time before. When the story is more or less locked, then we ask him, can you start composing? We don’t actually give him information about specific scenes from the game. He gets the feel of it anyway. What he comes up with is normally spot-on with the scenes we have in mind. If it’s not, we can obviously ask him to make small adjustments to the flavor. Sakuraba obviously composed for Valkyrie Profile as well. In that project, what he wrote didn’t really—it was not what tri-Ace had expected for particular scenes. They changed the tunes he wrote a bit — this was meant for the battle scenes, but we can use it for the field or dungeon or whatever instead. It all worked out in the end. A lot of people liked it. Eventually we manage to find all the necessary pieces to put the jigsaw puzzle together. We have a very good relationship between Tri-Ace and Sakuraba.
Question: You were very frank before about Star Ocean IV, and I wanted to ask more about that. Is there anything else you learned from Star Ocean IV that you want to change this time around, lessons learned that you’d like to apply?
Shuichi: As you may know, Star Oceans 1, 2, and 3 were a kind of trilogy, if you like. That was over. When they started making 4, they didn’t continue to take on the same attitude about development. The feel of the game was slightly different, and the way they produced the story was different as well. I was the producer for four, and looking at it, there was something not really right. Something didn’t really click. I knew some things weren’t in the right places. When we were making Star Ocean IV, when it comes to the visual aspect, it was part of Square Enix’s business strategy at that time. In those years, the company was really keen to expand their business in the west. There was a general idea that we should make sure our games had global appeal, not just Japanese appeal. That made things very complicated, really. We used outsourcing companies to establish the story, not just Tri-Ace. Our mission back then was to expand the universe, rather than sticking to what we’d already created. We derailed a bit from the main plot, which was another issue we had. We learned a lesson from that experience. In Star Ocean V, we’d like to bring back the attitude we had in the first three games. Our priority is going to be to push out a very tri-Ace creative direction. That’s our main pillar and we’ll stick with it. Story-wise and visual-wise, number five is going to have the feel of a direct sequel to Star Oceans one, two, and three. It’ll be very different from Star Ocean IV.
GamesBeat: It seemed like you made a point of talking about the framerate being at 30 versus 60. I was curious about why that was important.
Shuichi: I wanted to underline that because in this development environment, 30 was the best that we could do. But eventually — we wanted to assure our users that it will be very smooth. Tri-Ace was very keen to achieve 60 frames per second. That’s very important to us.
Question: Right now you’ve just announced for PS4. Are you planning to bring the game to other platforms, Xbox or PC?
Shuichi: That’s not in our plans at the moment. In Japan the game is for PS3 and PS4. Xbox and PC aren’t in our plans at the moment. That’s for two reasons. As you may know, technically speaking, it’s a challenge to create the same game for PS3 and Xbox One. Also, when we did a survey about the PS4 release, there are more PlayStation gamers enjoying these kinds of games. We wanted to make this game primarily for the people who are eagerly awaiting a sequel.