If, like me, you've been following Bravely Default: Where the Fairy Flies since its announcement in Japan two years ago, it should come as no surprise that the finished product is par excellence.
While America is still waiting for the game to finally make its way to the U.S., we recently had the chance to speak to producer Tomoyo Asano and assistant producer Masashi Takahashi to explore the origins of the game (soon to be a series).
Please note that while I spoke to both Asano and Takahashi, I did so over the phone through an interpreter, which made it difficult to determine precisely who provided which answers. Our apologies for the lack of clarity (though it did seem as though Asano provided the majority of the responses).
USgamer: I'm sure you're tired of hearing this question, but... Final Fantasy looms so large over this game – there are so many references, so much Final Fantasy spirit – why did you not simply call the game "Final Fantasy"?
Bravely Default/Tomoyo Asano: Bravely Default actually began, in the early planning stages, as a sequel to Four Heroes of Light. But we realized we wanted to challenge ourselves to think about more possibilities and shoot for a different kind of game. That's when we came up with the Brave and Default systems and thought about taking it in a new direction, including a new title that was a departure from the Final Fantasy series.
US: The new name was something motivated by your team? It wasn't inflicted by management? No one higher up said, "You shouldn't call this Final Fantasy"?
BD: As it turns out, it was a decision made more on the development side than on the executive side. A lot of that came out of the direction and energy we had for something that could become a new title.
US: Was it difficult to convince the rest of the company that you should be able to break this game away from the Final Fantasy brand? Gamers can't automatically say, "Oh, this is a Final Fantasy game, I know what this is going to be." Was there resistance to that?
BD: It wasn't especially difficult to convince people to get on board with the project. I think that's because there's so much about the game that's not similar to Final Fantasy, that's very interesting and compelling. That's what we hope people will focus on.
I think that everyone recognized that creating a new title like this, instead of trying to come up with another installment in a series, is something that requires a lot of courage. After seeing what sort of reception it's been getting in all of the different marketplaces it's appeared in, we're really happy we made that decision.
US: How did being separated from the Final Fantasy brand affect the development of the game from a creative perspective?
BD: In terms of what sort of influence the decision had on the development of Bravely Default, I'd say that one of the first big factors was, taking a step away from Final Fantasy was what allowed us to come up with the Brave and Default mechanics that became the name of the game. To go to a bit more of a micro level, we had to consider a different direction and form when we were thinking about what kind of summons we could use in the game. Obviously we wouldn't be using the exact same summons from the Final Fantasy series.
US: There are still a lot of mechanics that feel familiar from Final Fantasy. The job system and the specific job classes. A lot of the enemies come from Four Heroes of Light. The spell names are still the same. What was it about the summons that you thought deserves that special separation and individualism?
BD: It wasn't really that we had to depart from the Final Fantasy in terms of what kind of summons we were using, but rather, we saw this as an opportunity and a challenge, to do something different. It happened to be at a point where we hadn't created that element of the game yet, so we had the opportunity to make an interesting departure.
US: About the Brave and Default systems. What was the inspiration behind them? I've seen similar ideas in other RPGs, but nothing exactly like this. It's clearly a big deal for you, because you named your game after it...
BD: Some of this comes from the fact that when we came up with the new title, we were using that as a bit of a theme when developing the scenario. We thought about what sort of interesting game mechanics we could create from the words "brave" and "default." Talking about this being a turn-based game within the battle system, we thought about other games where you have the opportunity to save or spend your resources when you're thinking about how to plan out your abilities in different turns.
There was even one idea that came from the Dragon Quest series, where you may have sometimes felt… When you're fighting a boss, and they use more than one ability in a single turn, it sort of feels like they're cheating. This is our opportunity to let the players have that kind of power.
US: You've pulled influence from a lot of different RPGs and tried to create something original from that, then?
BD: Considering all these classic elements, whether it's turn-based combat or a job system or some of the other things you might notice that hearken back to Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, we wanted to think about taking some of these play systems that have become so standardized in people's minds, and tried to find a way to give them a breath of fresh air and make something that's new, that played very smoothly.
US: Earlier you said you came up with the name before you came up with the Brave and Default systems. Where did the name come from?
BD: Actually, we thought of the Default mechanic first. This is something that there's some precedence for, where you save up part of a turn in order to do something bigger on the next turn. That's something you might find similar to the Charge move in the Dragon Quest series. It was only after that that we hit upon the idea for Brave, which is a bit more of a new invention here, where you're going to spend what hasn't been accumulated and then pay it back later.
US: Yeah, the idea of charging up has even appeared in Final Fantasy, like with Yang from Final Fantasy IV. But you're taking a classic turn-based battle system, adding the Final Fantasy job system, and then adding this new element on top of that, the Brave and the Default. Did you find it difficult to balance the combat so, for example, you can't just steamroll enemies by charging up too much?
BD: We did spend a lot of time balancing those mechanics and gameplay. We even went so far as to create a balance check team. We would have them play the game from beginning to end, over and over again. If someone on the team was good at this type of game, we'd have them play on hard, and if not, we'd have them play on easy, so we also were able to get a lot of different types of players in and think about balance considerations from their perspectives.
Because one of our core concepts for this game was that it was a single-player RPG that you would be playing with all your friends through the Street Pass functionality, we came up with several game mechanics incorporating Street Pass that would allow people to adjust the difficulty of the game in a dynamic way if they wanted to. For example, you can choose friend summon to have one of your Street Pass friends to come in and aid you during a battle, where you can borrow their job level and use an ability you haven't learned yet. Or in the course of rebuilding the village of Norende, you might come upon things that might help you as well. So even for players who aren't necessarily especially proficient at this type of game, there's a way for them to adjust the balance in a direction that's going to be more fun for them.
US: There do seem to be a lot of meta-game elements to Bravely Default. Not only the Street Pass features – you can also use real money and buy items and buy perks and advantages through microtransactions. How did those things affect the way you balanced out combat? The people who use those things could have a big advantage over the people who don't.
BD: We definitely did think about balancing the game according to all of those meta-game elements, including the real money perks. It's something we've been following closely by looking at the player feedback we've seen in Japan. We tried to make sure that we're paying attention to the voices of both casual and expert players.
Another thing we noticed in Japan, when we released the first version there, there were many more Street Passes than we'd anticipated for Bravely Default. Some people reported having more than a hundred Street Passes in an hour in places like Akihabara, which resulted in them rebuilding the town of Norende much faster than we would have anticipated normally. That's something we took into account and adjusted for in what will become the localized version.
US: The visual design of the game reminds me a lot of some of the later PlayStation RPGs from Square, like Legend of Mana and SaGa Frontier 2.
BD: We weren't really thinking about that era of RPGs at Square when we were talking about the art style for the game in the early planning stages. The artist responsible is Akihiko Yoshida, and I think the earliest conversation we would have had when we were coming up with concept art was trying to create some illustrations that we knew we would be able to transfer very faithfully into a game form.
US: So that's why you went with the more classic style of super-deformed characters and hand-drawn artwork?
BD: The reason for pursuing some of that classic art style isn't necessarily because of any technical considerations on the 3DS, but rather what we thought would be most effective for presentation. Certainly we had some interesting new abilities when you talk about the stereoscopic display on the 3DS, but in this particular case I would say that having a deformed character art style was probably based a little more on the fact that we just thought it would be popular that way.
US: That leads me to my next question, which is… why go with the 3DS as the platform for this, rather than a console or a mobile platform?
BD: When we first started the initial planning stages on this game, it was actually before the 3DS was announced. But when we saw the prototype, we definitely knew that we wanted to use it to its full potential, and incorporate game mechanics like Street Pass and make sure we were using the stereoscopic display effectively. We even wanted to have some gameplay elements that used the augmented reality, having all that work together to create a compelling RPG. One other thing I think is especially well-suited to handheld play on the 3DS -- we designed Bravely Default so that you could play it using only your left hand if you wanted to.
US: If you look at the current direction of RPGs, on console you have RPGs moving toward a realistic style – very big worlds, very detailed. On Vita and 3DS, games tend to be smaller and much more focused on niche or otaku players. Bravely Default isn't really either of those things. Where do you feel like this game fits into the RPG genre as it's evolving today?
BD: Hmmm, that's a tough one. I'd say that we're not pursuing a huge world with photorealistic graphics, of course, like you might see in a console RPG. On the other hand, we definitely have the involvement of people who… Anime fans might be very interested, for example, in Naotaka Hayashi, who wrote the story. He's very well-known as the writer of Steins;Gate. There's also music by Revo, who did the opening song for Attack on Titan. So definitely, anime fans might be interested in their involvement.
But that's not something we set out to do deliberately, to target that audience. We just wanted to make a classic-feeling RPG with a lot of interesting new gameplay elements, something that had a difficulty curve that felt just right. Not something that felt so hard toward the end that people started to give up. I think we ended up with something that went in a very interesting new direction.