In the opening scene of Panzer Dragoon, the protagonist is introduced riding through canyons on an alien steed, hunting a sort of burrowing stingray creature. By the end of the sequence, he has upgraded his mount to the game's iconic blue dragon. Despite the increase in horsepower, the hunter becomes the hunted in the process, spending much of the game outmatched by a larger black dragon.
It's a reversal of fortune that should be familiar to Yukio Futatsugi, who directed the Sega Saturn launch title. At the time, Panzer Dragoon was cutting edge, a key part of Sega's next-gen launch plans and a showpiece effort for the system. Fast forward 18 years, and Futatsugi finds himself working on a spiritual successor to Panzer Dragoon (Crimson Dragon) on vastly more powerful hardware (Xbox One). But just like the original game's protagonist, he's entered a new class of competition, now going up against AAA releases with staggering budgets and massive development teams.
Our challenge with this title is to have it put on a shelf with different AAA titles and not having it look any less than the other titles
"Crimson Dragon's budget is not that big, but our challenge with this title is to have it put on a shelf with different AAA titles and not having it look any less than the other titles," Futatsugi told me during an interview at E3 last month.
While Futatsugi's Japanese studio Grounding Inc. isn't as big or well-funded as some of his previous teams, Futatsugi seems perfectly happy where he is.
"Of course I know and understand how it feels to create a AAA title with a AAA team," Futatsugi said. "I know the fun of it and also the difficulties. But it's impossible to try out a new idea with AAA titles, so I get a lot of enjoyment right now working on stuff to more of a core audience. And maybe it's not going to sell 10 million or 20 million copies, but creating it for and directing it to a core fan feels fun to me."
Saying he's making the game for a core audience sounds a little odd at first. On the one hand, Crimson Dragon is a follow-up to one of Sega's last great franchises from its hardware-making days, and blasting bad guys from atop a dragon doesn't scream "broad appeal." On the other, it began life as a Kinect-exclusive Xbox 360 title, and there's a vocal contingent of core gamers who rank Kinect somewhere between shingles and Chia Pets on the spectrum of desirability. Interestingly, the impetus for the game came not from a desire to return to the Panzer Dragoon formula, but from the idea of making a game for the Kinect camera.
"Originally, I was talking with Microsoft about creating a Kinect game," Futatsugi explained. "I was wondering what would be good with Kinect when I realized rail-shooting would make a good match. With motion controls, how you control your characters becomes a huge issue. Because of that, I thought rail-shooting was a good match, and that's how I came back to the Panzer Dragoon idea. After we decided to convert the game to an Xbox One version, we started thinking if it's going to be on new-gen hardware, what would a dragon game on a new-gen system be like? After thinking about that, we expanded more elements to the game."
First of all, there was the decision to expand control options beyond Kinect, in light of feedback from those gamers saying they preferred a gamepad.
"Microsoft and I felt we couldn't ignore those opinions," Futatsugi said. "Also the Kinect control on Xbox One is very good. It got brushed up a lot compared to the 360. So when you're playing with the gamepad and want to switch to the Kinect, the switch is very seamless so we decided to make a hybrid control scheme where you can use Kinect and the gamepad, or just use only the gamepad."
Motion controls aren't the only trendy new frontier Futatsugi is exploring. The developer is also planning plenty of downloadable content, incorporating asynchronous multiplayer, and expressed an eagerness to make more social games. He even expressed excitement for Microsoft's Xbox One connection policies, which were dropped the week after this interview took place.
"To be able to have a real social experience on a consumer machine, having your machine connected to the Internet is crucial," Futatsugi said. "Because of that, I feel like the Xbox One is very interesting hardware and that's why I felt comfortable exploring the social aspects on consumer hardware."
I work with the given situation. OK, this is what the situation is, so what kind of ideas or game design should I have to be compatible with the situation?
That sentiment may rub some gamers the wrong way, but it is consistent with a can-do attitude Futatsugi weaves through all his answers. When asked what the biggest challenge facing the industry today is, Futatsugi says he's not worried about where it's headed, then articulates his entire mindset in a couple short sentences.
"I work with the given situation," Futatsugi said. "OK, this is what the situation is, so what kind of ideas or game design should I have to be compatible with the situation?"
That circles back to his goal for Crimson Dragon, to withstand the comparison to AAA titles despite being made with significantly fewer resources. It may not be a fair fight, but Futatsugi isn't about to complain about it.
"Even during the Saturn days, there was always a limitation to the things you can do," Futatsugi said. "Back in the Saturn days, technology may have been the limitation, the specs of the hardware. Nowadays the budget is the limitation. But there was always some sort of limitation. So I'm not always thinking because of this limitation in the budget, I can't fulfill my designs or I have to compromise my game designs. I don't feel like that at all."
In Panzer Dragoon, the smaller blue dragon eventually defeats his imposing nemesis and saves the day. Even if Crimson Dragon doesn't best its AAA adversaries, it's a safe bet that Futatsugi will take it in stride, work with the given situation, and find a new way to adapt and thrive.