The idea behind Dragon Quest Builders has intrigued me from the start — combining Japan's most beloved RPG series with the crafting and construction mechanics of Minecraft — and now that I've spent some serious time with the game, it turned out to be even better than I had hoped.
The fundamental balancing act involved in combining two disparate game styles turned out well in Builders, but it could have gone horribly wrong. I had the opportunity not too long ago to speak with producers Noriyoshi Fujimoto and Yuu Miyake about their approach to this unexpected but effective pairing, and what they aspired to create with the upcoming PlayStation 4 and Vita adventure.
Dragon Quest Builders team [Noriyoshi Fujimoto and Yuu Miyake]: As you probably are aware already, because you've played the game a little bit, in this game you create your own weapons and equipment. You can divide the world up, or the whole game, into four different stages, and this is one of those stages.
So, this is a region that was known in the first Dragon Quest as Kol. Right now, in this location, we're very close to the enemy's castle, so a lot of enemies tend to invade this spot. So, obviously, we set up a lot of traps and customize the area so we can control those attacks — setting up some cannons right here, for example. She can break those blocks down, and you can also defeat enemies using cannons. But if you shoot in the wrong direction, you can also destroy the own town that you've built.
So, now, if you can see, enemies are attacking. We use this mine cart to block them from attacking. And then there's also townspeople who can fight alongside you. And so, when you leave the town, your home base, and travel further out, you can also create parties with townspeople and travel with them. That's kind of reminiscent of the parties that we play in the Dragon Quest series. So, your entire party here is made up of bodybuilders. Those are good fighters.
USG: You said the game is broken into four regions. Are all those based on the original Dragon Quest?
DQB: Everything's from the first Dragon Quest. Tentagel, Cantlin, Kol, etc.
USG: In the original Dragon Quest, the world map was kind of divided by bridges. You'd go over a new bridge and enter a new region. Is that how this works? Is the overall map randomized, or is it laid out similar to the original Dragon Quest world?
DQB: No, it's not randomized. The layout of the world is actually the same as in the original Dragon Quest. But, there are no bridges connecting the regions, and actually, each chapter is specific to each region, so you'll be traveling along as the game progresses using portals.
USG: So when you replay it, it's always going to more or less the same?
DQB: These the different regions work as stages, and once you play through you can actually go back to whichever chapter you like and just play that specific one, as opposed to going back in order. There are different challenges that exist within these chapters that you can go back to complete. And after you finish each chapter, the landscape changes a little bit. It's randomized, but there are certain materials that are dormant, and when you go back there are new things for you to discover.
USG: So basically there are certain things that are seeded and fixed and other elements that are randomized to make it more dynamic on each playthrough?
DQB: Yes, exactly. The key pieces are always seeded, because it's important to keep the story progressing the way it should be. Can't randomize everything.
USG: This is a building game, very reminiscent of Minecraft, but you also have Dragon Quest in here. So, philosophically, how do you bring those two together? How do you reconcile those two very different styles of games to make something that works, that feels cohesive?
DQB: What we really wanted to create in Builders was a sandbox-style game where players really had the freedom to create what they wanted to create. But we also noticed that with those types of games, sometimes people feel there's too much freedom. They don't know where to start or what to do, because they're just dumped into this huge world. And so, that's where we really felt that having a storyline and townspeople, incorporating some sort of guidance there which would make it easier for people to get into the world, introducing these Dragon Quest elements into it really work.
One of the really fun aspects of this game, which is a really good example of how the Dragon Quest style and the sandbox merge really well, is that when you create things, for example, buildings, the townspeople actually react to it. It's really fun to watch.
I think this is more so with Japanese players than Americans, but really, to the earlier point... some players don't know quite what to do when the world is too free and open. So, this is where we introduced guidance. "You can take this step next, or that next step. If you make this, the townspeople will cheer you on." And this is what we wanted to create, something that anyone can enjoy.
USG: I tend to have that problem with Minecraft too, so the idea of having that structure is really appealing. One thing that has always defined Dragon Quest is that each game has an openness to it, and advances with vignettes, little self-contained stories. You go to one town, and there's a drama around a single character, and that's a great strength. Were you able to translate that element into this game as well?
DQB: Dragon Quest Builders is based mostly on Dragon Quest I, but an alternate reality version of it. So, the Dragon Quest I elements are strongest, in terms of story, which I hope answers your questions. But the independent dramas that happen also exist in Dragon Quest Builders.
In each chapter, there are separate little stories that happen surrounding different characters and situations. And they're independent if you take them on one by one, but they also connect to the bigger picture story in the end as well, so it's really a great balance of an RPG game as well. A little like Dragon Quest IV, in terms of the feeling you get...
USG: Why did you go back to Dragon Quest I for the story of this? Can you talk about the decision and the idea of making an alternate reality where the premise is that the hero says, "OK, sure, I'll team up with the Dragon Lord at the end of the game"?
DQB: We decided to go with Dragon Quest I because having both sandbox and RPG elements together... both can get very dense. There's so much you can do in the sandbox style, and then with the very heavy story with the RPG element, there'd be too much to do. So, we wanted something that was relatively simple where you could still enjoy the RPG elements and get the best of both worlds, essentially. By creating a sort of parallel world of Dragon Quest I, we thought that it would be really easy for players to get into the world, which is the simplest in the series.
And also, because it's the game's 30th anniversary.
USG: So you've made a game based on a 30-year-old RPG. Do you think that's a big creative risk, assuming that people are familiar with history? Or do you think that it doesn't really matter, that people can enjoy this game on their own?
DQB: We felt that you didn't have to know that first game at all, you didn't need to know the Japanese games at all, to be able to fully enjoy this game. It's a contained story of its own, and anybody who's new to the series can enjoy it as-is. But people who really know the series in depth will see familiar elements and really enjoy that aspect.
USG: So, as you say, this game is sort of a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the series, and of Dragon Quest I, specifically. How the game reflects not just that one entry in the series but how Dragon Quest has evolved through the years?
DQB: The one key aspect of Dragon Quest is that the player becomes the protagonist of the story, and so, that's definitely a thing that's still alive and well in Dragon Quest Builders — the player is the one that's going to save the world.
The original Dragon Quest was really created at a time when there were users who could enjoy RPGs, but there wasn't something that general users, as someone who never played games like that could enjoy. And Dragon Quest kind of introduced everything that was great about RPGs to those players.
That's what we wanted to do with this game as well. Core gamers already enjoy games like Minecraft and sandbox-type games, and this takes it to a level where anyone can really jump into it.
USG: So, where Dragon Quest was giving people an introduction to RPGs, you want this to be an introduction to sandbox games.
DQB: That's exactly, yes. That's something that we really felt resonated with fans after the release in Japan. People are responding quite well to it.
USG: There are quite a few building type games on the market at this point. Not just Minecraft, but things like Terraria, etc. Besides the story structure, what do you think helps Dragon Quest Builders stand out from all those others — it's a pretty wide field that has become a pretty big segment of the market?
DQB: So, the main goal was that anyone can pick up this game and play it. We really wanted to make sure in development that people wouldn't get lost in this world and always have something to do. So, if there are some players who don't enjoy the freedom as much, there are a lot of quests and a lot of directions you can follow to progress the story that way. But for people who don't really want to bother with those things and just want to build freely, there's that option available as well. So, that balance of availability of different play styles.
Another thing is that, for players who are familiar with Dragon Quest I, they're thrown into this world where that familiar world is broken and destroyed. So their mission a lot of the time is to rebuild that world in Dragon Quest I that they knew and loved, so that's one way to enjoy this game.
USG: I noticed that the text in the game, the names of cities and everything, reflects the original localization for Dragon Quest, when it was Dragon Warrior on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Can you talk about that choice, keeping consistent with what people know, versus the way Final Fantasy has kind of rewritten everything? This is keeping the original American flavor.
DQB: We've taken essentially the same stance as in Japan. When we originally released the game, names of monsters, spells, and items were really recognizable, so people became familiar very quickly. So, we've stuck with all the naming conventions for that through the years, and that's just kind of the philosophy that we've had. For long-time fans, that's kind of what makes it familiar to them and really easy for them to get back into the game.
That said, we didn't actually use the entire localization that from Dragon Warrior. We've updated some things, but, the reason that they left in some of the original terminology is just because, it was funny, and players of the original will recognize it and go, oh, I know that word, or kind of get a kick out of it. The bulk of this localized version is taken from what was localized in Dragon Quest VIII, so a lot of the dialogue and the different accents that appear, are all in this game as well.
USG: The world in this game has that very blocky feel that you associate with building games, but characters and monsters... instead of being blocky and pixelated, they're more rounded and cartoon-like. Which, I think is a very distinct visual style.
DQB: First, about the background scenery, about the block part of it. We actually spent about a year of trial and error for what would really look like for the Dragon Quest series. Something that has the same forms that the other Dragon Quest titles have, something that's just as inviting. We really tried out so many different styles and finally arrived at this. It kind of looks like clay art and has a stop-motion quality to it.
The 2D maps in the original 8-bit Dragon Quest games — this world is created and crafted out of that same layout, the block blocks. So, it was really easy to associate the world of Dragon Quest itself with blocks. Even though the original Dragon Quest wasn't animated, we kept in mind its characters and monsters as we designed them and their animations. So, that balance is something that we kept intact.
And also, the original NES version, like I said earlier, people were totally familiar with this block pixel style of the map. We also had the art style of character designer Akira Toriyama in mind, and we tried to make the characters here true to what players imagined as they played the original game. This is the culmination of that — it's fully realized, that animation. So, the simplest reason for having this block-style animation style is it just felt right for the Japanese audience. It's a good fit.
USG: The rail tracks and the cannons you've set up for your defenses reminds me of the Rocket Slime games. Is that a deliberate connection...?
DQB: [Laughs] It wasn't a conscious decision, but when creating anything Dragon Quest, it's just something that ends up being incorporated. You're right though, now that you mention it. But you'd have to climb into the cannon to make it really work!
USG: Right. Maybe toss a slime in there. Finally, for people who have never played Dragon Quest but maybe know Minecraft, how would you describe this game to get them interested? And, vice versa, for people who have played Dragon Quest and not Minecraft, what is it about this game that they should know that would make them want to play it?
DQB: First, for those who are familiar with Minecraft but not Dragon Quest, I really feel that people who love Minecraft really love to craft and build things, and that's definitely an element that exists in Dragon Quest Builders. You can build to your heart's content here. But what sets it apart from simple building is that, what you build and what you create in this world has a direct impact on the story, as well as the other townspeople, other characters. So, for example, you could create your own town, fortify it to defend it from enemy attacks and customize it that way. You can create a room and townspeople will just come in and start using it. So, that's really something that sets it apart from other Minecraft town building games. He wants to ask you a question. People who play Minecraft, what do you think their reaction will be when they play or see this game?
USG: I don't know. I expect to find out. I have a nephew who's six, and he loves Minecraft but doesn't know what Dragon Quest is, so I'm really looking forward to see what he thinks of it and to see if he prefers the more structured story-based approach.
DQB: In one team member's household, his older daughter loves Dragon Quest Builders, but younger son loves Minecraft. It's kind of split.
So, for the opposite, for people who are familiar with Dragon Quest but not so much with Minecraft, what we like to tell them is that this game has everything they love about Dragon Quest in it. That's intact. The storyline and the characters and the charm is all there. It's something they can jump into and not worry about being in a completely foreign Dragon Quest world.
But, basically, the way I like to explain it is that, instead of buying a Cypress Stick with gold pieces, you would be making it on your own by collecting materials — that's the type of game this is. Everything there is intact for that. Something that we really felt after releasing this game in Japan is that people who weren't quite able to enjoy Minecraft were able to really experience how fun it is, these types of sandbox building games, through Dragon Quest Builders. So, that's something we're really happy about.