When I interviewed the leads on Lighting Returns: Final Fantasy XIII the other day, we spoke primarily about that game and, to a lesser degree, the HD remaster versions of Final Fantasy X and X-2 (along with some general philosophical questions). I was particularly intrigued by Motomu Toriyama's thoughts on revisiting Final Fantasy X-2. Probably best known as the director on all three titles in the XIII/Lightning saga, Toriyama actually made his debut in the director's chair with X-2.
"Looking back on the development environment of the original games, the director would have to code too," he mused. "I’d be building the scripts for the mini-games or menu screens and event scenes as well. I was able to do a lot of things on my own.
"When the original Final Fantasy X and X-2 were released, I was able to see the developers’ personal tastes reflected in the programming. Nowadays, on the PS3, everything has shifted to being tool-based. The role of the director is more about guiding each group or each section, as far as what direction they should go building their tools together. It comes out very polished and very professional, but at the same time, it’s harder to see the flavor of the individual developers in different things. That’s what I’ve noticed over the years."
It's not difficult to draw a line between the troubled development cycle of FFXIII and the poignance of his retrospection. Toriyama takes heat for many of XIII's unpopular elements and for the stories he's penned for these games as well as others (including The 3rd Birthday), and certainly some criticism is fair. Still, I'm increasingly of the opinion that he and the rest of his team have been caught in an impossible place between the Final Fantasy series' legacy of high-spec visuals and Square Enix's slow-to-adapt internal production processes. Their internal developers have a learned a lot of hard lessons since the brash proclamation that FFXIII was going to be so extraordinary it would have to consist of three games back in 2006 (an announcement that has come true, but not in the way they intended).
XIII in particular suffered from a notoriously wasteful development cycle that reportedly focused on creating artwork and graphical assets for most of its gestation period only to have half of those assets thrown out at the end, with the rest of the game being bolted together at the very last minute. In contrast, Lightning Returns looks to have been built beginning primarily with its world and systems first; as a result, it's less visually spectacular than its predecessor, but seems a lot more like the kind of game Final Fantasy enthusiasts will actually want to play. Burdened as he is with the expectation to make games as content-rich as classic Final Fantasies but as visual spectacular as eight-hour linear first-person shooters, I can certainly understand Toriyama's nostalgia for bygone times.
That being said, he was far more reticent when I asked about his thoughts on Sony and Microsoft's next-gen platforms, immediately deflecting the responsibility to answer to his boss, producer Yoshinori Kitase.
"As far as the information that’s been revealed," Kitase answered, "some details have been shared on the PS4 for a while now, with things like the share button. Just yesterday we saw Microsoft and their ability to share gameplay video that you can take by yourself and share it with the world. It’s interesting that, in the past generation change, they’d be boasting about improved graphics quality and processing power. This generation, it seems like they’re more focused on the ability to share and connect with each other.
"Seeing that, with Lightning Returns, we’re trying to get a head start on this trend. We have plans to incorporate options to share. You can take screenshots from the game and share it on your social networks. That’s something we think is interesting and we’d like to take advantage of."
Again, it's not difficult to connect the dots; Kitase and Toriyama appear to have accepted the fact that staying at the cutting edge of graphics is a game for a handful of studios that can sink extraordinary amounts of money into a single project and outsource most of the labor to external teams, something that the Final Fantasy series -- whose installments sell two million copies, not the 10 million necessary to sustain that sort of investment -- can't necessarily afford to do. Clearly, they see (correctly) the next-generation race as one of features and extensibility rather than a race to the next graphical plateau (frankly, the Xbox One and PS4 titles on display here at E3 are barely distinguishable from high-end PC games).
I get the impression that Kitase and Toriyama see an opportunity to put Final Fantasy at the forefront of the industry again, though I don't know that simply adding Twitter support to the game will do the trick. Still, it's a start. As someone who remembers the days when you could pick up a new Final Fantasy and play something you'd never experienced before, I wouldn't mind seeing the series clawing its way back to the cutting edge again -- and given the cheers that greeted the Final Fantasy XV announcement at Sony's press conference, there's are still a lot of people out there who share the sentiment.