Nihon Falcom is a 38-year-old studio. It's a role-playing game focused studio, making it one of the oldest that's in existence. Its games have niche but hardcore followings, from the plucky red-haired Adol's adventures in the long-running Ys series, to the Trails of Cold Steel and Trails in the Sky games which have found new life thanks in part to releasing on Steam in recent years.
This September, Nihon Falcom's Trails of Cold Steel 3 will finally make its way overseas, as it originally launched back in 2017 in Japan. The subseries has drawn widespread comparisons to Atlus' Persona series, due to its heavy emphasis on forging relationships with characters within a school. (A military school, sure, but a school nonetheless.) Trails of Cold Steel 3 is the thirteenth entry in The Legend of Heroes series overall, and a direct sequel to the previous Cold Steel games.
Unlike most game company presidents, Nihon Falcom's Toshihiro Kondo has always seemed more relatable and personable than others. He started at Nihon Falcom in the late 1990s on its web services team, before working his way up over the years. His passion was seen immediately by the company, as he was reportedly noticed for a fan site he made for Falcom games before he was even hired. In 2007 when founder Masayuki Kato stepped down, Kato's successor was obvious: it had to be Kondo. Because who else loves Falcom's games more?
Recently, we talked to current president Kondo via a translator from NIS America about the past few years and bright future for Nihon Falcom. From interest in series revivals, a refreshed focus on bringing RPGs to PC, to Ys 9's darker-looking tone (and when we can expect news on its stateside reveal), the fan-to-president tells us all.
USG: Trails of Cold Steel and Ys have become niche hits in the West. So how has their success impacted the western reach for Falcom's games?
Toshihiro Kondo, president of Nihon Falcom: For Ys, we kind of always expected that it would be relatively easy to be liked by fans over here, it being an action game. But the one that really has surprised the company has been the reception for the Kiseki series—the Trails series—particularly because it's a very story focused, text heavy game and there was never really indication that gamers over here really appreciated that. So the fact that it has been so well received has become a really big motivation to the development team, and they're really gratified by the fact that it's been so well received over here.
Nihon Falcom's one of the oldest RPG developers still in existence. I was wondering if I could take a temperature on what has it been like over the decades, or at least under Kondo-san's leadership, in adapting to modern times and also just in keeping with these series and sticking with them in the long-term.
So one of the big things is that originally Nihon Falcom started as a PC maker. And when I took over several years back we realized that the PC market in Japan was shrinking pretty drastically. So one of the biggest things that we did to remain relevant and to continue on was to start developing games for consoles. That, I think, that's had the biggest impact on our longevity.
Another thing too is that when I was a fan of the company myself before I even joined, one thing that always kind of bugged me was that these games were so good, but other gamers around me didn't know about them. And I think that's kind of directly related again to the fact that they developed solely for PC at that point. So once we began to shift to console I saw it as an opportunity and as a chance to re-evaluate how the games were made, particularly because console market is different. So specifically in regards to maybe character design, the worlds, and the settings for the games, as well as just general usability and UI, making our games more appealing to a broader audience was something that I really, that we focused really heavily on. And I think again that's another reason that you see us still continuing to this day.
Of course, there are still many areas that we can improve upon and we will going forward. But we definitely want to continue heading in that direction and getting our games out to a broader audience.
And in recent years there have been a bunch of Falcom game releases on Steam, and that seems to be going back to its roots. What led to those ports and the decision to turn back to PC? Did it have to do with the western market?
So it's kind of a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B. We are, as you mentioned, originally a PC developer and it was kind of a homecoming in that regard. And also the hurdle to put games on PC isn't necessarily that high. I mean, aside from putting things like achievements into the games, we're able to do that relatively simply. So that's one reason.
The other thing is, like you said, kind of about the market over here. In terms of being a Japanese company, we were fairly early in getting our games onto Steam and we've actually seen over the years that in certain situations the sales figures for those games actually end up exceeding what was sold in the package version and the console version. And so that's something that obviously we're really happy to do. And then, more recently, a lot of our publishing partners have actually said, well not only releasing the console games which will allow us to come to the Steam version, release a Steam version, and naturally that's a great thing for us. So of course we say yes. That's kind of why you see our games on Steam.
In the past five years, what would you say have been the biggest challenges and changes that Falcom has faced in the changing industry?
Actually it's practically five years to the day almost in that we released the first Trails of Cold Steel game from five years ago. And the big problem, or the issue that we faced back then was, that was the first time we'd actually put our games in a 3D world. And so we had a lot of learning to do when it came to 3D modeling, animation for 3D, and things like that. So that's something that we've really been challenged with over these last few years and we've driven to really improve in those areas.
And on the flip of that, what have been the biggest successes and surprises for the company?
One thing in particular, and it feels kind of weird saying this because I'm so directly involved with the development of it specifically, but it has to do with Ys 8. In terms of PC, Ys has always done much better than the Trails series. However, on the other hand when it comes to retail sales, Ys usually gets totally destroyed by Trails. [laughs] And so, you know, having a 30 year history like Ys does, it can be hard for people who have never played any of them before to kind of approach.
I think that's one of the reasons that we didn't see quite as much success, but with Ys 8 for the first time, it was a game that appealed to kind of all swaths of people and it ended up being really really successful. We obviously put a lot of effort into making that happen. But the fact that we were finally able to get Ys up there and to have it do really really well is something that I'm really proud of and I'm happy that we did.
Speaking of Ys 8, there was some controversy with the localization of it and it was redone entirely. That's a lot of work obviously. So I was curious, has that affected future vocalizations of Falcom titles, or at least how the studio approaches collaborations on them going forward?
Well, as you know, the localization aspects were handled by NIS America. And once this happened, we obviously received a report and we took a very hard look at this. And what we were promised was that they would you know make sure to oversee [Trails of Cold Steel] 3's localization and all the localizations going forward much more carefully, as well as to actually add people who had worked on previous games in either Ys or Trails series to ensure consistency and to ensure quality. And so through that experience we actually feel that our relationship grew stronger. So overall it turned into a positive.
Ys 9 is in development and releasing later this year in Japan. Can you confirm that it's coming to the west yet?
In terms of how we develop games, we're changing things pretty much up until the last minute when we have to send in the master to first party. So we don't like to talk to licensing partners or publishing partners until the game is actually mastered up and we have a complete product. So what that means is that we won't really begin those conversations for the west until this autumn when the game comes out. But you can probably expect, we will start doing that as soon as the game comes out this year, and then you can expect to hear in some form; from somebody that the game will be coming out later on.
And Ys 9 looks a lot darker in tone, like Adol has a different hair color and everything. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
So as soon as we finished Ys 8, we began talks about what we should do for Ys 9. And one of the things that we talked about was that up until now the action in Ys has been very flat. Like you're performing action in a very flat plane, even if you can jump and things like that. So what we really wanted to explore was vertical combat, and the way Ys development works is that before we work on the scenario we come up with the game system first and then the game system informs the scenario.
So for Ys 9, we have monster people who we are calling Monstrum, which we don't know what that will be localized as, but for now it's Monstrum. And because these Monstrum have these certain powers that Adol can borrow and use himself that allows him access to do more things as well; like up until now he hasn't really done anything like Spider-Man, or have movements like that. But by borrowing the powers for these, using the powers of these Monstrum, it's kind of like a Marvel action hero in his movement. So because the setting, or because we have these Monstrum, that necessarily made it a little bit darker. And so that's why it probably seems a little bit darker than anything up until now in the Ys series.
The Switch has been a big platform in the past few years now. Are there any plans to bring other Falcom games to the platform at all, following Ys 8's release last year?
Switch is an incredible platform we like, but the truth is that we don't have the knowhow to really develop for Switch. Plus we're, fairly convinced that our main user base is actually located on the PlayStation platform. That said, you know, thanks to working with Nippon Ichi Software in Japan and then NIS America over here, we were able to bring one of our games to Switch and obviously we want to grow the brands as much as we can and put it out as much as we can. So in the future, if we have the opportunity to have our games ported by other other companies to Nintendo Switch, it's something we would definitely be happy to pursue.
And as a gamer myself, as an aside, I personally love the Switch. In Japan when this question comes up, it always, we get this weird thing where it's like "Falcom doesn't want to work on Switch," or "Falcom doesn't like Switch," or something. And that's not... The plain and simple truth of it all is that we just don't have the knowhow and the ability to be able to work on Switch games right now.
Now I'm curious: what's your favorite Switch game? Or even just one you've been lately?
I play with my kids often, so it's Smash Brothers.
There's a long history of IPs under Falcom, and some like The Legend of Heroes and Ys have remained, but are there any other plans to bring back or revitalize past properties?
Yeah. The thing about Ys and the Kiseki series, or Trails series, is that they're very character-focused games and the characters stand out very strongly. However, I would love to do something that's a bit more gameplay focused. So two examples from that from our past catalogue would be the Xanadu series and the Sorcerian series. So it'd be great if we could revive those in the future.
And actually within the company we have staff members on the development side who have been there since the days we were developing on PC-88 and PC-98, and so their knowhow is amazing. I would love to give them the opportunity to see what they could do in terms of modern game creation. So I always think it would be really cool to kind of let them have their hand at one of these things at some point.
And there's a new generation of consoles right around the corner, with the new PlayStation and Xbox. What are you looking forward to for the future of consoles?
Actually, we haven't been given much information yet, so we're kind of at the point where we're just waiting to get more information. But there's obviously a lot of positive expectation toward what the new hardware will bring, and we're excited to learn more about it and we're excited to begin working on it working forward.
To circle back on some earlier questions, where do you see Nihon Falcom in the next five years?
So obviously we want to continue expanding and creating games in both the Ys and the Trails series. Beyond that, and I kind of mentioned it earlier, [we want] to make new challenges and maybe bring back other things, like we talked about Xanadu or Sorcerian. I want to gradually begin to increase the number of development staff that we have so we can have another line for development to be able to make projects like that, or even to be able to create a brand new IP. That's what we'd like to challenge going forward.
To wrap things up, is there anything else you want to say about the state of Falcom in 2019?
At the moment, this is actually the 15th anniversary of the Trails series, and with Trails of Cold Steel 4 that was released last year in Japan, that kind of wraps up one saga within the overall saga. So we're really excited to be in the next part of this story, and to be able to share information about what lies in store for the series in the immediate future. And obviously we're right in the thick of it in terms of development for Ys 9, and so we're excited to get that finished up and hopefully bring people out here information about when it will be coming out in the west and things like that. So please look forward to it.
This interview has been edited and condensed through clarity.