Tetsuya Takahashi is a role-playing game legend, so picking his brain is a huge treat.
I had just that chance during last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, where I got to talk to the man behind the Monolith Soft studio about his upcoming Wii U role-playing game, Xenoblade Chronicles X.
During our interview via a translator, I asked Takahashi about expectations, building a game for two audiences, and the legacy of the Xeno series.
GamesBeat: Xenoblade Chronicles X is already out in Japan. Are you anxious to get it out in North America?
Takahashi: Yeah, although there’s still quite a lot left for us to do. We’ve announced a release date and everything, but all we can see is a looming deadline.
GamesBeat: This is more of a spiritual successor to the last game. Is that deliberate? Xenoblade Chronicles was more of a fantasy, whereas this one is about refugees from Earth specifically. Did you deliberately want to ground the story closer to reality?
Takahashi: The simplest answer, probably, is that I felt like, after working on a fantasy setting, it might be nice to try something new. Science fiction is a great change of pace. It’s a really interesting flavor.
GamesBeat: What’s the biggest challenge in bringing an RPG franchise to high-definition for the first time?
Takahashi: Probably the biggest challenge for us comes in the planning stage, where we have to think about how we’re going to use these limited resources — I’m talking mostly about time on the schedule — to create all the assets in such a huge world. What order do we need to take tasks in to accomplish them all in the most efficient way? There’s a lot of tech that goes into expressing the open world concept as well, making sure that it’s a seamless experience from one end to the other. That’s probably the biggest challenge.
GamesBeat: With Xenoblade Chronicles, it took a lot of time and petitioning from fans to get that game to North America. How does it feel to see Xenoblade Chronicles X be pushed by Nintendo right away as a big title?
Takahashi: We’re happy that we’re having the releases so close together between the Japanese, European, and American version. It makes it all a much simpler process for us.
GamesBeat: For a time it seemed like Japanese RPGs were making a lot of breaks with tradition. Now we have games like Xenoblade and others that are going back in a traditional direction. Do you think the future of Japanese RPGs is more tied to the past, or are you looking more toward the future?
Takahashi: I do have to say that you don’t always want to do the same thing every time. People get tired of playing the exact same experience. You should treat every new development project as a new challenge. But to answer your question more specifically, I do enjoy many of the elements you find in this Japanese style of game-making, but I want to make sure that it’s accessible to a wider audience as well.
GamesBeat: With Zelda moving into next year, it seems like Xenoblade Chronicles X is a tentpole release for the Wii U this holiday. Does that add any more pressure for you?
Takahashi: To be honest, I don’t feel much pressure in this situation. Maybe it’s just one of my idiosyncrasies, but as soon as I’ve finished a development project, all I can think about is the next one.
GamesBeat: Are you already working on your next game?
Takahashi: Yes, that’s always the case, every time.
GamesBeat: A lot of the Xeno games aren’t tied to each other directly, but do they have an overarching theme, going back to Xenosaga and Xenogears?
Takahashi: The theme is actually a little bit different every time. I don’t think there’s necessarily a thematic link between each game. Rather, I think of what sort of game I want to make, what sort of challenge I want to take on. There are links between each game, but they’re not quite that clear.
GamesBeat: Is it almost more like a director’s signature? All your RPGs have a “Xeno” on them.
Takahashi: Yes, that’s right.
GamesBeat: We’ve had Shulk in Smash Bros. That must be a neat thing to see. Now we know Nintendo is doing downloadable content for Smash Bros. Would you like to see Xenoblade Chronicles X characters in Smash as well?
Takahashi: I’m not entirely sure, but you could always ask Mr. Sakurai about that. [laughs]
GamesBeat: It must be a daunting task to make an RPG. You have so many elements together — combat, story, interface. Is there any one aspect that’s particularly challenging, the hardest part of making an RPG?
Takahashi: There’s a couple of ways to look at it. In a practical sense, maybe the hardest challenge is coming up with a combat system that feels right. But from an aesthetic point of view, menus present a lot of challenges. When it comes to the challenges in creating the story, those tend to be challenges of cost.
GamesBeat: Talking about combat, is the system in Xenoblade Chronicles X similar to the one in Xenoblade Chronicles?
Takahashi: When you see both games side by side, they may look similar at first glance, but one thing you’ll notice is that the combat in Xenoblade Chronicles X is a little bit faster in tempo. Also there’s more variety. You can have characters in combat, as well as Skells in combat, which mixes things up a bit.
GamesBeat: Are the Skells an intentional callback to Xenogears?
Takahashi: Yes, there is a little bit of a reference there. Although I want to point out that in Xenogears, we had to separate dungeons that were meant to be cleared by characters on foot from the dungeons that were meant to be cleared by the characters inside their Gears. We had to do that because of tech and cost limitations. But now we’re able to do those together, where you can have the ability to choose whether you want to fight in the Skell or fight on foot.
GamesBeat: Do you worry that being in the giant robot suit is so cool and powerful that people will feel it just isn’t as fun to fight as a normal person?
Takahashi: It’s a bit of a balance. We had to think about the Japanese market, where people have different reactions to giant mechs in games. If we’d gone with a situation where you were only ever in the mech, this would have been a very polarizing game in Japan. We feel like having both options is a little bit better as far as getting to a broader audience. For the record, though, I’m the sort of person who’s okay with only mechs in a game.
GamesBeat: Is that something you think about a lot when you’re making a game — how to make it appeal to both a Japanese and a western audience?
Takahashi: Yes, we have to constantly think about appealing to both.
GamesBeat: What do you think is the biggest difference between those audiences, especially in terms of what they want from a role-playing game?
Takahashi: What you’ll find quite often is that a lot of the markets outside of Japan are interested in games where you can do anything you want. They put a high priority on a great degree of freedom. In the Japanese market, it’s more common that people will demand a certain flow to the events in a game. We find that they’re more comfortable with a linear framework. We have our own theories about why this might be. For example, in the Japanese tea ceremony, there’s a very specific order of events. People feel comfortable with that. They even seek out that kind of framework. But I feel like the west is a bit different.
GamesBeat: We’re more interested in all-you-can-eat.
Takahashi: [laughs] I guess so.
GamesBeat: One thing you have with the Wii U is the second-screen experience. Did that open up a lot of options to you, or was it more of an outlet for ideas you already had in the 3DS port of Xenoblade Chronicles?
Takahashi: As you may know, in Xenoblade Chronicles X, the way we use the GamePad is putting the map, subdivided into hexagonal segments, on that second screen. There’s quite a bit of gameplay there when it comes to changing different views, looking for objectives, and setting up probes. That also makes it easier to play it on the TV when you turn your attention back to the big screen. When we’re talking about the 3DS version of Xenoblade Chronicles, this is originally a game that was played on one big screen, and now we’re making one of those screens smaller. The UI was a little bit harder to see. The way we used the touch screen in the 3DS version of Xenoblade Chronicles, we moved a lot of UI elements there, so you could use the stylus. That’s quite different from the applications you’ll find in Xenoblade Chronicles X.
GamesBeat: When you make an open world for an RPG like this, is it just about making it as big as you can, or do you have a set goal as far as how big you want it to be from the beginning?
Takahashi: Monolith Soft isn’t a very big company. There are limits to the resources we can use to make a game. In this case, we tried to find our capacity — how big a world can we possibly make? — and use all of that capacity the best we could. That’s the size of the world we ended up with.
GamesBeat: Do you wish your company could be bigger, or do you like having a smaller team?
Takahashi: Personally, I do have some ideas about us growing a bit in the future