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Developer Interview

Huzzah and well met, milords and miladies! 'Tis we, the wordsmiths at 8-4, Ltd., come to deliver unto thee a prize so grand it will ring out in song for-- Wait, wait. *Ahem* Okay, sorry, that was Owain talking, I think... It's just, when you've spent the better part of the last twelve months working with Nintendo of America to translate and edit and polish pages and pages of text for the English version of Fire Emblem Awakening, it's easy to slip back into character...

We had the chance to interview the game's developers from Intelligent Systems and Nintendo, including a rare glimpse inside the Intelligent Systems office in Kyoto, Japan. As huge fans of the series ourselves we had burning questions about how exactly this latest entry into the Fire Emblem series was made.

We got answers plus an exclusive look at early concept art and never-before-seen details on the game's creation. So read on, and enjoy...OR BY BLOOD AND THUNDER WE SHALL FEAST UPON YOUR SOUL! (Oops! Noire that time, sorry!)

--@markmacd, @johntv, and @hiroko84 of 8-4, Ltd.

8-4:

Why don't we start by having everyone introduce themselves, including your history with the Fire Emblem series.

Higuchi:

My name is Masahiro Higuchi, and I was the project manager for Awakening, in charge of handling the overall progress of the project. The first Fire Emblem title I worked on was Seisen no Keifu for the Super Nintendo, and I've been involved with all of the Fire Emblem games in one way or another since. Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu: The fourth game in the Fire Emblem series. It was released in Japan only for the Super NES system in May 1996.

8-4:

Wow... Have you worked on any other games over the years, or just Fire Emblem?

Higuchi:

Well, I've been involved with the [Advance] Wars games at times as well, since our team focuses on strategy games, but as a part of Intelligent Systems, we've also been involved with Fire Emblem the whole time. Advance Wars: A series of turn-based strategy games developed by Intelligent Systems for various Nintendo systems dating back to the NES.

8-4:

Ah, Advance Wars! We'll have some questions about that later you probably can't answer... (laughs)

Higuchi:

(Laughs) Yes, certainly.

Yokota:

I'm Genki Yokota, the director on the Nintendo side. I helped keep things organized alongside Maeda-san, and we worked together to help conceive and drive the overall direction of the project. This was my first time being directly involved with the Fire Emblem series. I've played the previous games as part of the company's internal playtesting efforts, but I was never an actual team member until now.

8-4:

And what other games have you worked on?

Yokota:

Before Awakening, I was a director on Xenoblade Chronicles. The original planning for Awakening started around 2010, right when the Japanese version of Xenoblade was wrapping up, so the timing worked out great. Overall I've worked on role-playing games. The first one was...what was it? (laughs) Well, it only came out in Japan, but it was a game called ASH: Archaic Sealed Heat, which we worked on with Hironobu Sakaguchi. Then after that came The Last Story, which was also with Sakaguchi-san. I also worked as a director on Fossil Fighters. Xenoblade Chronicles: An RPG developed by Monolith Soft for the Wii system that was released in 2012.
ASH: Archaic Sealed Heat: An RPG developed by Mistwalker and Racjin for the Nintendo DS system that was released in Japan in 2007.
Hironobu Sakaguchi: Creator of the Final Fantasy series and founder of the Mistwalker development studio.
Disaster: Day of Crisis: A survival game developed by Monolith Soft for the Wii system that was released in Japan in 2008.
The Last Story: An RPG developed by Mistwalker for the Wii system that was released in 2012.
Fossil Fighters: An RPG developed by Nintendo SPD, Red Entertainment and Artdink for the Nintendo DS system that was released in 2009.

8-4:

Indeed -- so how did you become the RPG guy? Was it personal interest, or more to fill a role that the company needed?

Yokota:

Basically, when I first joined Nintendo, my boss asked me what I wanted to do, and I said "work on RPGs." I like how RPGs put a strong emphasis on characters and character development, like how you build your guys up from scratch.

So the first RPG I really worked on was Fossil Fighters, but it was Xenoblade that was the big catalyst to me taking on this role. I was asked if I wanted to work on it, and of course I said yes -- it was such a good fit that I started to get involved in other RPGs in a bunch of different areas. Also Nintendo typically doesn't make that many (RPGs), so whenever there's a chance to work on one I always want to take it.

8-4:

Gotcha. Alright, Mr. Maeda?

Maeda:

I'm Kouhei Maeda, and I served as the director at Intelligent Systems on this project. I first worked on Fire Emblem as a scenario writer for Fuuin no Tsurugi, and I've been involved with the series ever since. I've also worked on Advance Wars games as a designer, scenario writer, and director for the story mode. Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi: The seventh game in the Fire Emblem series. It was released in Japan only for the Game Boy Advance system in March 2002.

Kusakihara:

And I'm Toshiyuki Kusakihara and I was the art director for Intelligent Systems on Awakening. I joined IS in 2008. I've been in the gaming industry since 1998.

8-4:

So it sounds like you all had some kind of working history with Fire Emblem before Awakening -- but I'm curious to hear everyone's first memories of the series as gamers? Did you play the games growing up?

Higuchi:

To be honest, it wasn't until after I joined the company that I first played a Fire Emblem game. I had heard the name before, but never actually played one. When I first got into it, I had all these people around me saying things like "Don't move those guys there!" or "Move him over here!" and "No, you messed it up again!" They were all pushing advice on me. (laughs) It made me realize that everyone plays the game in their own unique way, and there's never only one path to victory. There are very few games like that, where everyone can take their own approach and still succeed -- that's what got me addicted to the series. Of course now I've become one of those guys pushing my approach on others, like "No, no, you have to move that guy over there!" (laughs)

8-4:

What is your approach, by the way?

Higuchi:

Well, I don't focus on magic; I prefer to rely on strength and just plow forward. So I don't bother too much with healers -- instead I use a lot of knights and mercenaries. I like to muscle my way through. (laughs)

Yokota:

My first exposure to the series was in elementary school -- I saw Monsho no Nazo in a video game store, I think. I went through the whole unit introduction and was like "Wow, what's this?!" and bought it on the spot. At the same time, there was a Fire Emblem comic that I was reading; I remember being really drawn in by the artwork... I guess it was the way the game and comics really fleshed out the world that impressed me. That was probably my first encounter with strategy games, too. Fire Emblem: Monsho no Nazo: The third game in the Fire Emblem series. It was released in Japan only for the Super NES system in January 1994.

Maeda:

The first Fire Emblem came out around my first year of middle school. It was super tough... I remember having to press the reset button over and over again. (laughs) I kept losing my party members, so by the time I finished the game, I only had this tiny little team left.

Kusakihara:

I was in middle school, too, I think. I was at my friend's house and I was begging him to let me play something on his NES, so he broke out Fire Emblem. I liked RPGs, so for me, the battle scenes in Fire Emblem were really impressive, like nothing I'd seen before. So I borrowed the game from him and I got totally addicted, but it got really hard about two-thirds of the way in, and I finally gave up.

Then the second game, Fire Emblem Gaiden, came out, and I borrowed that, too. The thing was, my parents still wouldn't let me have my own NES (laughs), so I borrowed the hardware, too, and smuggled this little black-and-white TV into my room and played Gaiden on that. Man, that was tough! Especially with the black-and-white TV -- keeping track of which units were mine and which were the enemy's was a challenge. (laughs) Fire Emblem Gaiden: The second game in the Fire Emblem series. It was released in Japan only for the NES system in March 1992.

8-4:

Did your parents ever catch you playing?

Kusakihara:

Luckily, no. (laughs)

Maeda:

Seriously? (laughs)

Higuchi:

I figured the story would end with you getting caught and your parents throwing away your friend's NES. (laughs)

8-4:

One aspect that made those old Fire Emblem games so tough was "permadeath" -- when a character died, he or she was dead for good (as in Classic mode in Fire Emblem Awakening). Judging by the Iwata Asks Fire Emblem chat, it sounds like there was a lot of debate about whether or not the new Casual mode (that allows dead characters to come back to life after a chapter is complete) was a good idea? Casual Mode: In this mode, when a friendly unit becomes incapacitated, he or she becomes available to use again after the current map is completed.

Kusakihara:

Ooh, that's a tricky subject. (laughs)

Higuchi:

Tricky indeed. (laughs) I was on the side that said we shouldn't include Casual mode to the end.

Yokota:

Even after Awakening?

Higuchi:

Well...I still think about it. It's that nuance... If someone dies, you can't just go and resurrect them like in other games. You need to think more carefully about the value of the lives you're controlling in the game. It connects with the difficulty level, too -- it makes you work your way through the game very carefully, which I think makes each victory all the more exhilarating. It's one of the charms of Fire Emblem, which is probably why adding Casual mode generated a fair amount of controversy [within the team]...

Yokota:

Oh, yeah. (laughs)

Higuchi:

But while permadeath is a part of the series, it's also something that I think kept a lot of people from trying the game. That's not good for us, if people don't even pick it up to see what kind of other things we've put into the game. And in the end we did get a lot of feedback from people who tried [Awakening] because of Casual mode, so in that respect I'm glad it's there. But I still play in Classic mode myself.

8-4:

We've been hearing that feedback in the West as well -- a lot of first-time players are saying they'll give the game a try now with Casual mode because it's less intimidating.

Yokota:

Personally, the first time I heard about [the idea of Casual mode], I was like "no way." My boss brought up the idea, and just like Higuchi-san, I was angry at the thought of going too casual. But in the end, we figured giving players a choice would help expand the appeal of the game. Plus, with Awakening, there are a lot of good characters -- you can see how some people would want a mode where they could keep all of them alive and not have to worry about death all the time. Believe it or not, now I play exclusively in Casual mode. (laughs) But like Higuchi-san said, some of the fun of Fire Emblem does lie in the possibility that you can lose a member permanently at any time. Both approaches have their advantages, so it's hard to say what direction we'll take next time.

8-4:

Really? In a future game you'd consider not including the Casual mode option?

Yokota:

I suppose it depends on the sort of play style we decide to go with in the next game... Well, I'm pretty sure we'll have Casual mode in there, actually. (laughs) In the end, you have people who really love the characters, and they don't want to lose them permanently when they save their progress. So that's why we added it, and I don't mind it being there. But on the other hand -- and this is just a hypothetical example -- let's say we wanted to depict a really big and serious war scene. In a situation like that, having permadeath would help lend weight to everything; it'd be much more tense and meaningful to players if their characters' lives were truly on the line, just like in a real war. So it really depends.

Maeda:

I use both [Casual and Classic] modes when I play. I think there's value in each -- having a more pick-up-and-play mode in addition to the normal one. It brings two different tastes to the game... I don't think it's so much a question of one play style being better than the other -- they both have their good points. Fire Emblem's always had this core tenet of permadeath, so doing away with that was never really something we considered in the past. But whenever we'd have new hires entering the company playing the game for their first time, they'd lose a bunch of units and get completely stuck -- and thinking back, the same thing used to happen to me back when I started. So yeah, I think Casual mode was a good idea.

8-4:

So you were all for Casual mode from the start?

Maeda:

Well, the first time I heard about it... Hmm... (laughs) It definitely threw me. I didn't know whether I should be for or against it -- if it was the right thing to do for gamers or not...I thought I would figure it out.

Yokota:

Me and Higuchi-san had been making a big stink about it, like, "No, no -- don't do it!" And then Maeda-san comes in and is all casual about it, like "Oh, let's just try it. What's the big deal?" (laughs) He was the one calm guy.

Kusakihara:

Casual mode was first introduced in the Japan-only game Shin Monsho no Nazo, right? At the time, my desk was right next to Higuchi-san, and he was arguing every day with people at Nintendo about it. (laughs) That went on for months... Finally, one day he asks me [out of the blue] "What do you think about removing permadeath?" My response? "That's not Fire Emblem!" (laughs) Fire Emblem: Shin Monsho no Nazo: Hikari to Kage no Eiyuu: The thirteenth game in the Fire Emblem series. It was released in Japan only for the Nintendo DS system in July 2010.

Higuchi:

Yeah, there was a lot of complaining. But then Maeda-san would come in and smooth it all over. (laughs)

Kusakihara:

The funny thing is, when I play now, I play in Casual mode!

At its core, Fire Emblem can be a pretty difficult game: Your units all have these well-defined weaknesses -- for example, if you're not being super careful, one wrong move with a Pegasus unit and they're killed by an arrow. Players who've been with the series a long time are used to permadeath and watch out for those sorts of things, but for novices, or even people like me who come back to the series and are still adjusting to all the new rules and features, these kinds of easy mistakes can easily cost you a character or two...

So I think it's good that we offer the choice between Casual and Classic... In online forums and such, you'll see veteran players and people who probably had their first Fire Emblem experience with Awakening still debating which is better.

8-4:

Speaking of veteran players, we know a lot of hardcore fans who go so far as to replay a battle if they lose even one unit...

Yokota:

That's how I played before Awakening. (laughs)

Higuchi:

That's how I play, yeah.

Maeda:

In Classic Mode, definitely, I reset if lose someone.

Yokota:

I even reset if I don't like how my [randomly generated] level-up stat gains go. (laughs)

8-4:

So, be honest -- don't you secretly look down on people who play in Casual mode? (laughs) Maybe feel a little ashamed of yourself when you play that way?

Higuchi:

(Everyone laughs) I don't, actually. I play the way I enjoy the most, and if a lot of other people play it differently, then that just tells me there's a big, wide audience playing it out there. Personally, when I watch other players, it's less looking down on them because of Casual mode and more like, "Whoa, what -- you're putting that character over there?!" (laughs)

8-4:

C'mon, Higuchi-san -- don't you pity them even a little? I said "be honest." (laughs)

Higuchi:

No, no, I don't! I'm very Zen about it. (laughs) Although I admit, I did start playing Lunatic in Casual mode, but partway through, I started to feel like I was betraying my beliefs, so I started over in Classic mode. (laughs)

Yokota:

I wouldn't say I look down on Casual mode players... (sarcastically) I know you do, Maeda!

Maeda:

No, not at all! (laughs) As a guy who plays in both modes, I have the opposite attitude -- I'm impressed when people play Classic. It's like, "Wow, you're really into the game!" I've actually played through the game in Classic mode, too -- on Lunatic+ difficulty, even -- but I'd never chide anyone for going Casual...

Yokota:

Basically, one of our goals was to get people who never played Fire Emblem to give it a try, and we succeeded at that, so honestly, either play style really is fine.

8-4:

I think previously if you asked what sets the Fire Emblem series apart from other games, a lot of fans would have said permadeath. But the popularity of Awakening and Casual mode seems to say there's more to it than that...

Maeda:

I think a big part of the appeal is the love you develop for the characters. You're basically playing a strategy game with pawns here, but the game is set up so that players see their units as more than just pawns -- they see them as living things. They get attached to them.

Yokota:

That's what I was going to say. (laughs)

Kusakihara:

I think a big key to that is how the games portray the lives and emotions of all the characters -- even the standard enemy units. We've gotten feedback that we should give all the units names, even the unimportant [grunt soldiers]. I think that's all part of the unique feeling Fire Emblem creates -- we work to make it seem like each unit has their own life, so when somebody dies, their presence stays with you in a way. That's why all the enemies in this game have full artwork as well as the main characters -- you can see their faces on-screen when comparing battle stats and such.

8-4:

What other methods do you use to achieve that -- making players care about their troops?

Yokota:

Well, we work really hard to make all the characters unique -- not just how they look, but their stats, too. For example, there might be a character whose Speed parameter starts off high or levels up really quickly, and you start to use them in all these different ways in battle... You can develop this feeling toward them, like they're the backbone of your army [and a key part of the game], even if they aren't very involved in the main story... The unique parameters definitely help players bond with their team.

And there's also the ending in each game that goes over what happened to everyone involved... There are lines like "This character disappeared, and nobody knows what happened to them..." That kind of stuff encourages players to imagine what might have happened. Obviously we give players a sense of the characters through all the conversations that happen in the game, but at the same time we also try to leave some freedom for people to create their own stories...

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