First, let's get something out of the way. Even though Terra Battle, which launches tomorrow on iOS and Android, comes to us courtesy of long-time Final Fantasy designer and producer Hironobu Sakaguchi, the title has nothing whatsoever to do with Final Fantasy VI protagonist Terra Branford.
In fact, the idea (which I've seen commented about online) is so mind-bogglingly inane that I couldn't even bring myself to make a joke about it when I met Sakaguchi to discuss the development of the project. The guy made some of my all-time favorite games, and I really didn't want to come off as a complete moron the first time I met him. So I don't actually know where the name Terra Battle comes from. But I do know it has nothing much to do with his previous work — besides, I suppose, a spiritual kinship in terms of its fantasy motif and light RPG elements.
Oh, and one other thing: Terra Battle will feature content from a huge number of Sakaguchi's old partners in crime, including composer Nobuo Uematsu and illustrator Yoshitaka Amano. Well, probably. The game is operating on a curious milestone-based system Sakaguchi calls a "download-starter" — like a Kickstarter, except without the exchange of money. As more and more people download the free-to-play title, Sakaguchi's team at Mistwalker will add in more and more contributions from outside talent: New music, new storylines, new characters, new missions, and eventually even a line of merchandise.
"Originally, I liked the idea of Kickstarter, where it's tied to money," said Sakaguchi. "Then I thought, 'Hm, that's not really my style, to get people to pay for my development. By that point, the game was fairly far along, so I thought, 'Why don't I just FaceBook some of my friends I've worked with in the past?' So I jumped on messenger and asked, 'Hey, can you write me some songs, or design some characters?' So that's how this whole thing started.
"It's a very fluid process, and I want people I've collaborated with in the past to come together... kind of like a festival, I suppose, where everyone gets together and adds things. That's one of the best things about mobile development, in my opinion — I can ask my former colleagues to make things for me.
"So for instance, with [manga artist Nakaba] Suzuki-san, he's actually a Final Fantasy fan. He called me and said, 'Hey, can you do an interview for us?' And I said, 'Sure... if you'll create a character for my game.'" He laughed.
Millions of downloads seems like a rather ambitious expectation for a mobile game, but Sakaguchi is hoping that not only his own cachet but that of his collaborators will help provoke interest and inspire players to encourage their friends to play along as well.
"The main reason for the download starter is the feeling that the more people you get playing, the better the game gets," he said. "You know, in terms of someone like Amano-san, I don't actually know what he's planning to make! I'll tweet something when I see the assets come in. This whole process puts me much closer to the fans than the traditional approach to game design.
"And the chart I showed off for download starter goals, that's not really complete. So if there's an artist in the U.S. or Europe that I want to collaborate with, maybe that's a separate branch of the chart we can add on. The chart shows two million downloads as the final goal, but if it really succeeds we could also go 2.5, or 3 million — or go on forever."
Like many other mobile and social games, a big part of the game's appeal will come from its constant churn of events and opportunities. "There are special levels, like the hunting zone and metal zone, where you'll be able to earn different items and experience under a different set of rules," Sakaguchi said. The metal zone, which he demonstrated, features evasive enemies with high defense and a tendency to flee quickly from battle... and, just like the Dragon Quest Metal Slimes they resemble, they offer a massive amount of experience for those able to claim victory.
Sakaguchi said his team has labored over the need to come up with a fair and enjoyable system. Where many free-to-play games have become notorious for stacking the odds against players and imposing incredibly mercenary limitations on play time in order to manipulate them into spending money, he told me Terra Battle has been designed to be player-friendly.
"I'm really concerned about the game balance," he admitted. "For that reason, in the first five missions all you have to do is [outmaneuver] the enemy and you're good to go. But the middle to latter part of the game is actually console-level in terms of difficulty. Because of that, we try to be pretty generous with stamina and gifts.
"In terms of the 'gacha' [random character acquisition] element, the percentages are more lenient than other games. I want to be sure the balance is there so you don't have to use money, while at the same time I want it to be enjoyable enough that fans of my previous work will find a challenge and be drawn into the game world." Similarly, acquiring all 165 (and counting) of the game's potential party members won't be entirely down to luck; many of them show up as an element of the game itself.
Terra Battle represents a change of pace for Sakaguchi, not only in terms of the game format but also in the level to which he's involved in the day-to-day creative process as well.
"Honestly, I only have eight people on my team, so I'm doing a lot of the work myself," he said. "One of the biggest changes here is that for 30 years I was developing games for big screens — whereas on mobile platforms it's more of a portrait orientation. There's less real estate to use, and people are just playing with one hand, but I still have to make sure the gameplay is fun. So it's a new set of rules and challenges we face, and it's all new to me. It's interesting."
"The whole pincer-of-death mechanic is something that I added myself. It's one of the basic concepts of the game. I got that idea from shogi, which is sort of like a Japanese version of chess. I used to get my ass kicked at it by my dad. So I'm not really drawing on my own older work here — it's those memories of playing shogi with my father!"
Terra Battle's pincer mechanic is the one feature it does share in common with Final Fantasy VI, the one entry in the series in which both the player party and enemies could gain an upper hand in battle by surrounding their foes. While Terra Battle doesn't play out with traditional turn-based combat (instead, you're given several seconds to move your characters around a grid and "attack" enemies), that element of surrounding foes to isolate and weaken them is the linchpin of combat. Final Fantasy fans may be reminded of FFVIII's Triple Triad minigame, but it's much more straightforward.
"I wanted to make it easier to understand, and also wanted to build it for phones. And I wanted rules that have never been seen — and looking around, I still haven't found a game that plays exactly like this. My goal wasn't to do what everyone else is doing but rather to make something original."
Sakaguchi's download-starter, if nothing else, seems like a creative approach to viral marketing. Precisely how effective it will prove to be remains to be seen — but we'll probably get a good sense of it tomorrow, when the game goes live.