In an alternate universe, the star of Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns might not have been Lightning.
Of course, the game also wouldn't have been called "Lightning Returns," and its entire premise would've been different, but the point is that the protagonist for this sequel was decided less by a grand plan put together when the saga of Final Fantasy XIII first began and more by the shifting tastes of the games' fans. During a recent demo of Lightning Returns with the game's producer ,Yoshinori Kitase, and design director, Yuji Abe, I learned how this plan evolved as well as just how far the open-world of Lightning Returns extends.
One of the major forces in driving the revamped combat systems of the Final Fantasy XIII games as well as the decision to put Lightning front and center in Lightning Returns was market research. Abe explains that while testing Final Fantasy XIII-2, "We received a lot of feedback from players that they wanted Lightning back." That doesn't mean Square Enix just ignored fans and players while creating previous Final Fantasy installments, but Final Fantasy XIII was the first time they used focus groups and market research on a scale typically associated with the large western developers.
While some gamers have a negative initial reaction to terms like "market research" and the perception that it leaches creativity from a game's development, both Abe and Kitase stress the importance of the direct player feedback testing gives them. For them, market research doesn't necessarily lead to new features, but it helps refine elements and "find ways to convey ideas in the most effective way possible."
For example, Abe says, "There was a lot of feedback about the battles [in Final Fantasy XIII], so we incorporated that into revisions for subsequent installments." That doesn't mean dumbing down the system or trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Kitase explains. "Using the Paradigm system [in Final Fantasy XIII], players would always set up one healer and two attackers, then not change, and the team took this as a challenge. They wanted to make it so that players would have to change it up and employ different combinations. Because of that feedback, XIII became a game that required strategic thinking to overcome battles." And that system of continual refinement and challenging the player eventually morphed the more action-focused combat in Lightning Returns, which Jeremy Parish covered in depth during the game's last preview.
Time as a major restriction is the other big area that separates Lightning Returns from previous Final Fantasy games. The game's world is a huge, open space with a map where you can freely run from one end to the other right from the beginning. Any cities and landmarks you see in the distance gradually grow closer as you run toward them until they become the place where you're standing, like the more recent The Elder Scrolls titles or Grand Theft Auto V. However, Abe says, "It's not completely all open in that there is a time limit, a deadline until the world will end. If you just go out and use your time up exploring the world, you'll reach a game over."
Pulling up Lightning Returns' in-game map to navigate, the world bears a more immediate resemblance to a Legend of Zelda overworld, with valleys and paths connecting different sections of the map, rather than endless open plains. But those features won't impede your progress; Abe says, "You can travel to any part of the map and explore any of the areas on the map. It's seamless, there's no loading screen. There are some necessary quests that players have to follow to progress the story, to finish the game, but the order in which those quests are completed are not restricted."
Even with a huge world to explore, Abe and Kitase say that the majority of players so far have been able to get to the end without running out of time on their first playthrough. But if that initial attempt ends prematurely, you will get to carry over most items and equipment (as long as they're not related to the progression of the game itself) into subsequent playthroughs. The developers go into more depth about the game's expandable seven-day time limit in this E3 interview. But just like the game's combat, market research played a crucial role in shaping the time element of Lightning Returns as well. "In early stages of development, there was just a countdown clock," Abe says. "But through user testing, we found that people were stressed out. There was too much pressure with that clock ticking away. We incorporated user feedback and we changed the system so that you have a set amount of time at first and you can extend it, rather than constantly ticking down."
For me personally, Final Fantasy XIII was a good game, but Lightning Returns is shaping up to be something even better. But the thanks for that accomplishment can't just go to the developers for making the game, it has to also go to the fans for helping to guide them.