We're in the midst of a strategy renaissance thanks to games like XCOM 2 and Fire Emblem; but to this point, Tomohiko Deguchi's work has mostly flown under the radar. Grand Kingdom will hopefully fix that.
While it's not a direct sequel to the PSP's Grand Knights History, it nevertheless has much in common with Deguchi's previous work, most notably its distinctive art and strong online component. Alas, Grand Knights History was canceled before it could make it to North America, so most westerners are totally unaware of Grand Kingdom's predecessor. With NIS picking up Grand Kingdom for North America, though, we finally have a chance to see a bit of what we missed.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Deguchi to talk about his work as director of Grand Kingdom, and the person I found was a consummate gamer with a strong passion for strategy and some interesting insights into Japanese gaming tastes versus western tastes. Here's the full interview.
USgamer: So, it's nice to meet you. My understanding is you used to work at Vanillaware. What did you learn working under George Kamitani?
Deguchi: He taught me the mindset of, when creating a game, to keep that concept throughout the whole process of creating the game. Mr. Kamitani is a splendid creator because of the fact that he pays close attention to games until the very end of the process.
USG: When it comes to Grand Knights History, I know that it came out in Japan. It seems similar to Grand Kingdom. What are the relationships between the two? Is there a relationship?
Deguchi: The concept of Grand Knights History is similar to Grand Kingdom. Both Grand Knights History and Grand Kingdom was inspired by all the games I played during my time in college.
USG: Oh, what kind of games did you play in college?
Deguchi: Oh, there’s a whole ton of games that I played during college, so it’s really hard to say one, but I can say that I did play Disgaea. I also played a lot of board games and tabletop games. Anything by [Titus Software].
USG: I played Grand Knights History. I thought it was beautiful. I remember that it had a strong online component... more online than solo. Is that the case with Grand Kingdom?
Deguchi: Back when Grand Knights History was released in Japan, a lot of the users did mention that they wanted a lot more offline aspects as well. So we especially considered that input when creating the Grand Kingdom versions. It definitely incorporates a lot of offline and online.
USG: Could you tell me about the offline component? Is there a full campaign?
Deguchi: There is a full campaign. There’s a main campaign that’s basically the main story, but after you clear the main story, there’s also nine chapters from each nation’s perspective. So it’s like four different versions of the campaign.
USG: Tell me about the design of these four factions and how they came about.
Deguchi: When we were creating the concept of the game, we did think of the four different types of kingdoms. For one kingdom, we wanted to think of a country of war-lovers, like mainly male soldiers and whatnot. So, we had a general mindset when we were creating these four kingdoms, along with the colors. During the actual, the initial concept, the four kingdoms were already made with their backstories. Grand Knights History revolved around three kingdoms, so that’s why for Grand Kingdom we decided to go with four. The reason behind that was, they thought that it would widen the story.
"This is my own perspective for my own games, but I want to create games that incorporate everybody; like, an infinite number of people to play the same game and to share the same topic."
USG: Can you tell me about Grand Kingdoms’ online component?
Deguchi: In online wars, it’s kind of like building your own mercenary squad, but not really. So, you can have your squad go into war and fight against the other peoples’ AI. And through online, it connects all the players throughout the world. The difference between Grand Knights History and Grand Kingdom is that you don’t have to stay in the same contract as one kingdom. So, in Grand Knights History, you can only make a contract in one country; but in Grand Kingdom you can easily choose your own side, like, depending on every time period of the contract. And not only that, if you send off your troops or your squad to war, you can bring them back whenever you want them to. Aside from that, another change is the fact that you can also place objects, like big towers, objects that can help incorporate the tactical aspect of the game.
USG: As a player, what’s my reward for playing online?
Deguchi: There are two different kinds of money that you can use in the game; and when you participate online, you get this money that you can only get from online. Through that, you can purchase items and weapons that can only be purchased with that money. Also, by participating in the war and the country that you reside in at that time, you can receive extra rewards as well. However, for the online aspect, a lot of the people participate in it more when their levels are much higher. So I recommend users to actually play the main story first, and then participate in the wars afterwards.
USG: With Grand Knights History, and now Grand Kingdom, you seem to really like having an online component. This is kind of rare in Japanese RPGs. Why do you like online so much?
Deguchi: In this generation, I feel that any games in general should have an online and can have an online aspect to them. So any technology that has been created for that purpose, I believe they need to be used.
USG: What’s your philosophy when it comes to building an online component? What’s your main goal?
Deguchi: This is my own perspective for my own games, but I want to create games that incorporate everybody; like, an infinite number of people to play the same game and to share the same topic. A lot of games nowadays incorporate your friends’ online ID. It’s usually one versus one. I would prefer games where you can fight against multiple people throughout the world. So, back when we were first creating it, we wanted to create something similar to a stock chart. By looking at the stock chart, when it’s going up and down, we all wanted to share that excitement together. Like, your kingdom is winning! Oh no, it lost!
USG: What do you like to see in a strategy RPG in general?
Deguchi: I wants to make sure that player or users can place units beforehand in little grids, and then have them sent into battle. The reason why we wanted to use that kind of positioning for Grand Kingdom is that sometimes there’s a friendly fire when you’re actually playing a game, like a board game. So, for just RPGs in general, it’s just a user versus the enemy; but for Grand Kingdom, we can see the whole thing, so depending on the area that you are in, you might be affected by friendly fire or something like that.
USG: It seems like there’s a greater focus on actual combat versus moving your characters on a map. Is that fair to say?
Deguchi: Yeah, mainly focused on the battle.
USG: Why’s that?
Deguchi: Because it’s a place where players can directly participate, and where they can do the action. Battles are something that users have to do many times, so we’ve got to make sure that it’s really fun to do.
USG: How about the character customization? Like, leveling up your characters? What’s your approach to that?
Deguchi: We especially focused on the wide range, like, customizing your own skill based on what the player wants to do. Of course, the actual customization of the appearance of the unit, we also tried to focus on that as well. In a way the appearance customization is something that needs to be focused on as well.
USG: This is your first time working on the PS4. Has it been challenging?
Deguchi: Developing the PlayStation 4 was, I don’t want to say easy, but easier than creating with the Vita.
USG: Why’s that?
Deguchi: The specs are much more lower for the Vita, so PS4 was easier to handle. At first glance it might look like 2D is much more easier in processing the data; however, because of the fact that we want to show animation as smooth as possible, we use much more data to create this. Nowadays, there are a lot of development tools that create this 2D element. So we’re trying our best to not lose against them, and we’re creating our own.
USG: It’s pretty common for Japanese games these days to come out on both the PS4 and PlayStation Vita. It can’t be that hard to translate between the two, right?
Deguchi: It’s not hard to port over. However, there are some issues, like the loading time.
USG: I’m sort of curious: when you were designing the game, were you thinking of western players at all, or were you only thinking of Japanese players, and maybe it will be picked up later.
Deguchi: We focused on the whole world.
USG: How does the whole world, in your opinion, differ from the domestic Japanese market?
Deguchi: A lot of the Japanese users, they prefer games that have more of a purpose. However, western players prefer more freedom. Like, freedom, where they get to go anywhere they want. So, they’re really curious to see how much of the freedom the users throughout the world will be looking for.
USG: Grand Kingdom came out last year in Japan. What have you learned watching Japanese players play it?
Deguchi: What I learned from the release was some users did mention that the game was a little bit too complicated. But at the same time, there are a lot of users that believe that the fact that there are many aspects to the game is what makes... So, currently, we are actually thinking about how we can handle the difficulty level.
USG: Having watched Japanese players play Grand Kingdom, what is the aspect that you’re the happiest with, or you feel like has worked the best? Translator: Can you repeat that again?
Deguchi: The battle system was especially well-received in Japan. It was a new type of battle that nobody had experienced before, so they were really surprised to discover it. It’s like, "Oh, I guess I can play it this way. I didn’t know RPGs could be played like that."
USG: Somebody described it to me as a 2D Valkyria Chronicles, so I was like, "Oh, that’s exciting."
Deguchi: It’s true that there are some similar aspects to it. But because of the fact that one’s 2D and one’s 3D, the way that players play it, those aspects and elements are certainly different to the two games. However, I do think that people who enjoy playing the Valkyria series, they would certainly enjoy Grand Kingdoms as well.
USG: Have you considered putting Grand Kingdom on the PC? Because, obviously, PC games have become very popular here, and lots of Japanese RPGs are going over there. I suppose that’s a question for Spike Chunsoft.
Spike Chunsoft: There are no plans to release on the PC, or Steam, because of the fact that the online server really relies on the Sony server. Sony protects a lot of the server aspect of Grand Kingdom, so unless that’s figured out we feel that it’s going to cause problems when it’s released in Steam or PC. If there was no online whatsoever, we’d think about it.
USG: So, my final question is, what have you learned from developing Grand Kingdom, and how do you want to put that into your next game?
Deguchi: Through the release of the game, we definitely realized that there are some far too complicated aspects of Grand Kingdoms, so, through the users’ comments, we’re thinking of a way to make it much more understandable, maybe break it into parts and have a way to explain to the players so that they can finally get to understand the whole.
USG: What part in particular is too complicated?
Deguchi: This is probably in the perception of Japanese users in particular, but because of the fact that they weren’t used to this kind of RPG, that’s why they probably thought it was much more complicated. Japanese users still prefer nowadays the command RPGs. Japanese users had a little difficult time playing [Valkyria Chronicles] as well. Personally, when the game came out, I thought it was the best game ever.
USG: Thank you very much for your time.