Pro Story Telling : Hajime Tabata, Director of Final Fantasy XV

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Hajime Tabata has a confession to make: “You know, I don’t really work on handheld games anymore. It’s all consoles now.”

You can hear a tone of apology in his voice that comes through despite the Japanese/English language barrier. But his admission comes as no real surprise. Tabata may have gotten his start at Square Enix working on some of the company’s highest-profile mobile and PlayStation Portable games, but these days he’s all-hands on Final Fantasy 15, arguably Square Enix’s biggest and most demanding project to date. After quietly assuming the directorial role for 15 back in 2012 (when it was “Final Fantasy Versus 13,” a spin-off rather than a mainline title), Tabata not only managed to guide the long-delayed — and, for a while, seemingly doomed — project to release; it also netted positive reviews across the board, a rare accomplishment for a game entangled in a difficult, decade-long birthing process.

Back in 2013, no one outside the company knew of or could have predicted the critical role he would play in wrestling Versus 13 into shape. Instead, he was simply the little-known director for portable projects like Crisis Core: Well-received games, but decidedly mid-ticket and generally overlooked outside Japan due to their platform. I’m sure I struck him as something of an oddity, a Western journalist who specifically sought him out because of his work in a format that generally gets short shrift in the West. Because we first met due to our common interest in handheld games, he’s always seemed a little apologetic when we speak that he’s left that format behind, beginning with Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, a portable game reworked to run on consoles.

Then again, that willingness to leave the past behind is precisely the kind of personality that Final Fantasy 15 required. After six years in development hell, 15 demanded an unflinching willingness to strip the project down to its foundations and start practically fresh, throwing out the parts that didn’t quite work and even changing fan-favorite elements (as in the transformation of feisty heroine Stella to the more demure Lunafreya).

“The FF series as a whole has always been about, you know, trying something new,” Tabata says. “The original Final Fantasy was born as a means of creating [Square’s] take on Dragon Quest. That was the popular game at the time here, so [the creators] wanted to surpass that, if you will. With 7, you have a new generation that was created — 3D RPGs. Then with 11, trying to bring online gaming to the mainstream. I may not be sure how Final Fantasy is going to change in the future, but one thing that’s going to stay the same will be that spirit of really pushing boundaries and breaking limits, if you will.”

That forward-looking attitude continues to guide Tabata’s vision for Final Fantasy 15, as the company considers a new model for the franchise: Life for a single-playing story-based game beyond its initial release. That includes a number of quality-of-life tweaks, such as a promised overhaul to the game’s controversial Chapter XIII, as well as several add-on story DLC packages centered around secondary characters. At the more extreme end, 15 will also eventually cease to be strictly a single-player RPG with the addition of a multiplayer component.

“There are a lot of things I can’t really say about the multiplayer future just yet,” Tabata says, “but it will tie into the game — the main game — at some point in the story. And for the multiplayer feature, we are less focused on playing as the four main characters but rather as an avatar that the user creates themselves. So rather than having you and your friends play as these four guys and experience their journey again together, it’s more about the journey that you and your friends have together with each other in this world.”

Tabata’s description of 15‘s multiplayer mode seems to line up with fan speculation that it will be set during the main story’s 10-year time skip. The popular line of thought is that the multiplayer component seems likely to repurpose the main game’s assets in order to allow players to experience the world of Eos’s descent by way of a cooperative take on the story mode’s combat system — one that replaces AI-controlled companion characters with other players.

“I DON’T WANT [15] TO BE A ONE-OFF EXPERIENCE WHERE YOU PLAY IT, YOU COMPLETE THE STORY, AND THEN YOU’RE DONE WITH IT. I WANT IT TO BE SOMETHING THAT USERS CAN ENJOY FOR YEARS TO COME.”

Rather than fret about the challenges that face the current generation of games, Tabata has already set his sights further out. In addition to building DLC and multiplayer additions for the game, his team has also been using 15 as a proving ground for technology tests — tests that go beyond the recent 60 fps patch for PlayStation Pro — though for the moment, these remain under wraps.

Much of the post-launch tech vision Tabata has for 15 sounds more exploratory than anything else. It certainly makes sense for the company to treat 15 as an experimental test platform; besides being the most expansive single-player game Square Enix has ever produced, 15 also has the distinction of being one of the few games remaining to run on a bespoke engine. While the company has largely shifted to standard, off-the-shelf technology and extensive outsourcing for its projects, 15 remains defiantly traditional in that regard. Square Enix primarily developed the game in-house on the purpose-built Luminous Engine, and there appears to be a strong interest in making further use of the engine beyond this one game, similar to Final Fantasy 13‘s Crystal Tools (which also served as the underpinning for that game’s sequels, as well as Final Fantasy 14 and Dragon Quest 10).