Back at Tokyo Game Show, I met with Yasumi Matsuno to learn about his new venture Unsung Story, a mobile RPG being co-developed by Playdek. It sounded promising then, but after speaking with Playdek CEO Joel Goodman about the game's progression since TGS, it may turn out to exceed my already high expectations.
Currently, of course, Unsung Story exists only in potentia as a series of big promises and a few pieces of concept art, so there's as much opportunity for it to go horribly wrong as wonderfully right in the coming months. Yet I'm greatly optimistic about its prospects, because Playdek seems to be neatly sidestepping the potential pitfalls of the project while taking fan feedback into consideration.
For starters, they've cast Matsuno into a strictly creative role rather than shackling him with the burden of directing or producing the game. Matsuno's reputation for creating truly deep, complex, detail-driven game worlds is matched only by his notoriety for getting in over his head and burning out midway through a project. He most infamously left Final Fantasy XII midway through its development and essentially vanished from the industry for several years. Happily, that seems unlikely to happen this time around.
"[Matsuno] doesn’t have to be the director on the game," Goodman says. "With Vagrant Story, he spent 90 hours a week for three years straight working on every aspect of the game. We’ve kind of liberated him from that, to where he gets to be the creator -- encompassing story and mechanics and gameplay -- and we’re coming in and [doing the development work]. We have Chris Bolinger, who will be working on the classes and some of the meat and potato parts of the gameplay mechanics, so some of that heavy lifting will be on him, but it’ll still be a collaborative process with us and with Mr. Matsuno as well."
So while Unsung Story will have Matsuno's talented fingerprints all over it, the project seems less likely to go off the rails than some of his previous ventures.
At TGS, Matsuno and Goodman indicated that Unsung Story probably wouldn't involve Matsuno's usual creative collaborators, such as Akihiko Yoshida and Hiroshi Minagawa. In many ways, those two (along with composer Hitoshi Sakimoto) are as integral a part of Matsuno's creations as the man himself, the former designing the characters who inhabit lands like Ivalice and Xytegenia and the latter defining the rich worlds around them. That, however, seems to have changed in the ensuing months.
"It’s early to say, but we have a high sensitivity – myself in particular – to that point in question," Goodman says. "That was one of the early points of discussion with Mr. Matsuno, knowing about the look and feel his games have had before. There are also different kinds of feel that have emerged, so to speak, from U.S. or North American or western kinds of games. We’ll probably end up somewhere in a balance between the two, but still with our own unique flair. The one thing I want to be careful about is, clearly, if we pull it too far over to a western style of art, that sort of movie concept art style… That’s wonderful. But if we pull too far toward that, it might hurt some of the familiarity players of this genre of games have come to know and understand. We’re going to be careful with that. But we do have opportunities to collaborate with some really wonderful people as well, to make this happen."
Specifically, the game's newly launched Kickstarter campaign could potentially bring "notable" contributors into the picture -- perhaps not Yoshida or Minagawa, but definitely Sakimoto, as well as the Matsuno's traditional localizers, Alexander Smith and Joseph Reeder. I would think Yoshida could potentially enter the picture at some point, as he left Square Enix a few weeks ago, going freelance and thus becoming available to projects like this. The Kickstarter campaign also means that Unsung Story could possibly come to platforms beyond the mobile devices Playdek is known for.
"From our inception, we built our technology to run on multiple platforms, even though at this point, people look at the Playdek name and see something rather iOS-centric," Goodman explains. "We’ve built our technology from the ground up to always be able to support other platforms. We always dreamed of keeping connected communities across our games, so it’s agnostic to whatever platform you’re on as far as how you play the experience online and join in and so on. Also, it’s critical to us that the quality and depth and scope of the game is not compromised in any way because of a platform.
"Now, that said, as far as what platform might be able to do graphically, some aren’t as powerful as others, so you wouldn’t be able to do certain things texture-wise and so on. But that’s not the scope and depth of the game. We planned Unsung, what we’re talking about now, as a tactics game, to be multiplatform upon release."
And what exactly is the scope and depth of Unsung Story? Based on Goodman's remarks, it will play very much in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics -- though given some of the games he's name-dropped (specifically Joan of Arc and Valkyria Chronicles) I suspect it may break away from the chess-grid approach in favor of something looser and more contemporary.
Regardless of how it specifically plays, though, Unsung Story sounds like quintessential Matsuno. At the heart of its plot resides a long-running regional war resulting in balkanization, the militarization of a religious organization, and a heavy focus on the figures (both good and evil) who fight behind the scenes to shape history (hence the "unsung" part of the title). In other words, it's very much in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, and Final Fantasy XII. In Goodman's own words:
"Unsung Story is a sprawling timeline, a section of history that encompasses a 77-year war in Rasfalia. It has two central kingdoms that are the major players, so to speak, but there’s then a myriad of other smaller kingdoms and cultures caught up in the fray. They also have their own stories and their own place, whether in alliances or rebellions or battles for independence, and they get involved in this drawn-out conflict. There’s a religious entity that’s also a major player throughout the story.
"Structurally, the game will unfold through episodes. These episodes will be windows into parts of the story. At the end of the conflict, you find that the powers that be come to a place of peace and an end to conflict with each other, but the player—It’s still shrouded in mystery, in a sense. The player will then be going through points throughout the timeline and unlocking and discovering the backstory and what’s happened in order to come upon a final result. In these episodes, they can span – in a timeline sense – anywhere from as little as a year to as much as a decade, or longer, depending on what their scope is. Each one will have a central character or characters that are part of the story. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all heroes, or it’s about a prince or something, in each one of these. They’re key people that have a great effect on the results of this conflict. The player will experience, in these episodes – which will be broken into multiple stages you’ll play through – a combination of seeing things somewhat through the eyes of these characters and acting on their behalf, and also being apart and controlling the Unsung Ones, the other components, the pawns that are part of the conflict, who are the doers, the ones that carry out other parts of the conflict.
"The intent is, we’re making a spiritual successor to some of the greatest tactics games of all time, with a great creator. All of us want to evolve the genre in a unique way, using everything that’s available to us now as far as current technology and things we can do in gaming. There will be aspects of gameplay that will be familiar on one hand to players of the genre, but hopefully there will be some revolutionary steps to how you play and move the characters and so on. There will be a wealth of classes throughout the game that you’ll use and play and combine and mix and be able to modify and so on. You’ll have weapons and items and all kinds of things for them. We also plan on having multiplayer components. We’ll add a lot of different evolutionary aspects to the things we’ve started to think about."
It's clear that Playdek and Matsuno have their sights set on Final Fantasy Tactics, a fan-favorite game that arguably has never received a proper follow-up (despite the fact that a third sequel is currently in the works). Unsung Story may not bear the Tactics name, but what difference does a name make when the mind behind it has free reign to create the sequel he's aspired to build for year, free of publisher interference and the day-to-day distractions of running a team? Unsung Story is setting a high mark for itself to live up to, and it has much to prove. But the combination of a talented creator and a team that understands his foibles could prove to be the perfect formula for RPG perfection. Here's hoping.