"There are very few things in life that are truly impossible." Nihon Falcom President Toshihiro Kondo reflects on three decades of RPG development.
Nihon Falcom has been in operation for more than 35 years. The small, passionate team has produced some of the most beloved adventures out of the Japanese development industry. The first entry in the quietly renowned Ys series launched in 1987, and now — three decades later — Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is set to launch September 12 on PS4 and PS Vita.
We had the great pleasure and honor of corresponding with Nihon Falcom President Toshihiro Kondo-san about the company’s rich history, dedication to RPG development, and how the team rises above the challenges those projects entail.
PlayStation.Blog: Nihon Falcom has a long history of developing role-playing games. What drew the studio and the original team to this genre in the first place?
Toshihiro Kondo: Honestly, because we like RPGs. Many of us grew up playing RPGs and we have memories of being emotionally moved by them and enjoying the feeling of expectation they created. We want to give those feelings to players today.
RPGs have story, music, gameplay, and graphics — in other words, they contain every element you can have in a game. It’s a genre that offers a lot for creators. Other genres, of course, have their own draws, but RPGs are special to us.
PlayStation.Blog: What separates Nihon Falcom from other Japanese developers working on role-playing games?
Toshihiro Kondo: I’m not certain how other developers approach their work, but when we design games we have the freedom to do what we want.
We’ve always emphasized making something that we can be proud of, and this approach has been consistent since the beginning of the company. We’re invested in this approach so much that we will not release a game that we don’t believe in.
Of course, games are developed under various restrictions and deadlines. But within these limitations we always make games that we’re proud of. We can do this thanks to the relatively small size of the company, and the fact that we do nearly everything in-house.
This philosophy was, of course, laid down by the people in the company that came before us. You could call it our “secret sauce,” which allows us to create games with that “Falcom Flavor.”
PlayStation.Blog: The Ys series has a passionate following of fans. What qualities make Ys unique? And how does Lacrimosa of Dana differ from previous entries in the series?
Toshihiro Kondo: The main characteristic of the Ys games is that the action is simple and the controls feel great. Originally it was Adol by himself and he would just bump into enemies. Of course now we have the party battle system; this might seem like the game has evolved into something different, but the Ys games have consistently made fighting even the most normal enemies fun and exhilarating.
We will continue to focus on this aspect in the future. Some of the details, like the party system or the setting, might change according to the times, but so long as we follow this rule of fun combat, the game will always be an Ys game.
What we focused on with Ys VIII, more than the story, was the gameplay. This is in contrast to the Trails series where the story is the main focus. At the core of Ys, as I mentioned earlier, is the fun gameplay, so we build the story elements around that.
For example, in Ys VIII, you have to develop a village and defend it throughout the course of the story. This allows even the narrative elements to bring the main focus back to the action and gameplay, and this further feeds back into the story. This creates a nice cycle that I think hasn’t been seen before in the series to this degree.
PlayStation.Blog: What do you think is the most important thing an RPG needs to get right?
Toshihiro Kondo: Playing an RPG means that you take on the role of the main character and it’s extremely important to make sure that the player is invested in the world, setting, and story. In the case of Ys and Trails, even though the approach might be a bit different, they both offer fascinating worlds for the players to get lost in.
PlayStation.Blog: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned during your time at Nihon Falcom?
Toshihiro Kondo:You encounter many roadblocks during game development. Despite this, it’s extremely important to keep at the issues you face. With anything in life, people succeed when they think carefully about their problems and tackle them from several different angles. For any trouble you face there are various ways to approach it, and even things that seem insurmountable can be overcome if you keep at it diligently.
People who understand this will grow in life, whereas those who give up and stop thinking carefully about the issues they face will not. A person’s growth or lack of growth doesn’t have as much to do with his or her natural abilities or talents, but rather how willing he or she is to keep thinking about the problems ahead. This is something that I always tell staff and this is probably the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my time at Falcom.
PlayStation.Blog: How do you stay motivated through challenging times and keep your team’s energy high?
Toshihiro Kondo: There are very few things in life that are truly impossible. Whenever we reach a challenging moment, I remind myself and the team about what I said above, and encourage them to keep at it.
It’s very important that we come together and not just spin around in circles in the same thought patterns by ourselves. Japanese people have a habit of not saying that something is impossible, so we hold those thoughts back when we discuss problems with one another and one person’s potential solution can be the key for solving another person’s problem.
PlayStation.Blog: Why do you think the Ys series has found such a devoted community in the United States, and other western countries?
Toshihiro Kondo: I’m not American, so I’d actually like to turn that question around on you. (Laughs) Recently, more people in the West seem to have the same reaction to our games as Japanese fans. When it comes to Ys, a big positive reaction is to Adol, who is a very appealing main character. Another thing is the simple but exhilarating action that I mentioned before.
PlayStation.Blog: Who is your favorite hero in Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana?
Toshihiro Kondo: My favorite character is Dana, and that is perhaps because of the amount of difficulty I had in creating her. Compared with previous installments, Ys VIII essentially has two scenarios. In the case of Memories of Celceta, players felt that the heroine was weak, so we tried to make Dana a good enough character to beat even the fan-favorite Feena from Ys I.
To do this, we allowed players to control her as well as focused a lot of energy on her scenario, so I have a deeper appreciation for Dana compared to past heroines.
PlayStation.Blog: What makes a great story? Are the rules of storytelling different in role-playing games compared to books and movies?
Toshihiro Kondo: The feeling of wanting to know what happens next all the way up to the end of the game is the hallmark of a good story. If you can easily guess what’s going to happen next, you lose motivation. Games require a lot of time, so it’s important that they keep players motivated by keeping them invested in the story and wanting to know what happens next. For the Ys and Trails series, problems that come up throughout the course of the story are solved, but at the same time the solutions lead to deeper mysteries and this is the best way for a story to proceed.
And yes, [the mediums are] different. Novels and movies, compared to games, are passively received by the reader. Games, on other hand, reflect a lot of the player’s will. Understanding this difference is the basic rule of how to make different types of stories. With games, you can’t explain everything. To a degree, you have to leave things up to the player to decipher.
You can’t say a lot of things directly like you can in novels and movies, because the main character is an avatar of the player thinking what they are thinking. Therefore, you have to write in a way that anticipates how the player will think and that, in turn, changes the rules of storytelling.
Translated answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.