A German transcript of this interview can be found here.
Thomas Nickel: Mr. Tanaka, you've been with Square more or less since the beginning, haven't you?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Yes, that's correct.
Thomas Nickel: Can you tell us a bit about what you worked on and what your job was on the specific titles?
Hiromichi Tanaka: At first, I was working in PC games. But after a short time, there was the Famicom. There I was involved in Final Fantasy I, II and III. On the Super Famicom, I worked on Seiken Densetsu 2 (Secret of Mana) and 3. Then, on the Playstation, I was the producer of Xenogears and Chrono Cross. After that, I became the producer of Final Fantasy XI.
Thomas Nickel: So, there's a huge gap in your involvement in the Final Fantasy series… After the first three games you didn't return to the series until XI, the online game. Why is that?
Hiromichi Tanaka: I even started working on Final Fantasy IV, but then I had the chance to work on Secret of Mana. I always wanted to make a more interactive game in comparison to the menu and command-based Final Fantasy games.
Thomas Nickel: So, let's talk a little about Secret of Mana. I don't know if you're aware of the fact that this game is quite a cult game in Germany. For many players, this was the first experience with a Square game and role-playing games in general. Tell us a bit about the development.
Hiromichi Tanaka: As I said, after Final Fantasy III, I wanted to work on a game with a more interactive battle system. I wanted to make a seamless game without a complicated battle system or a separate battle screen. However, this didn't really work for Final Fantasy IV. So we decided to make a different title, Seiken Densetsu. I finally managed to implement some of these things in the Final Fantasy series in Final Fantasy XI. Oh, and I also created the design of the Chocobo.
Thomas Nickel: Looking at the commercials and screenshots of the new Seiken game, many of the designs look very similar to Secret of Mana. The developers are really trying hard to capture the feel of the old 16 Bit game. Why do you think this game resonated so strongly with the players?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Secret of Mana is an action-RPG – it's not really an action game. You can play the game even if you're not very good at action-games. You really have to use your brain. I think that's one of the factors that made the game so popular with all sorts of players.
Thomas Nickel: Tell us a bit about the remake of Final Fantasy III. After all, it's almost a sort of reinvention of this classic whereas the other remakes stayed quite faithful to the originals.
Hiromichi Tanaka: Well, this is the first time Final Fantasy III is coming to Europe and the USA, so it's a bit difficult to compare for the western player. But, actually, the content of the remake will stay very much the same as in the original. However, the graphics of the Famicom game are really dated nowadays, so we've been working very hard on upgrading them.
Thomas Nickel: You've even kept the old turn-based battle-system. Did you consider implementing the real time elements of the later games in the series?
Hiromichi Tanaka: The original idea was to have the original Final Fantasy III on a new platform. We specifically said, we didn't want to change the content and the gameplay of the Famicom game. We did this especially with the old fans in mind who played Final Fantasy III many years ago. We didn't want to change the experience for them in order to preserve these nostalgic feelings.
Thomas Nickel: Did you also keep the high difficulty intact? When I played Final Fantasy III on the Famicom, I thought it was a really hard game.
Hiromichi Tanaka: We're trying to keep the challenge intact, but we try to make the game a bit more accessible and user-friendly. We improve the controls and the structure, but we don't want to make the game itself any easier.
Thomas Nickel: So, Final Fantasy III will be more challenging than the current RPGs. After all, most RPGs are really easy nowadays.
Hiromichi Tanaka: Yes, I agree absolutely with that. We want to make Final Fantasy III challenging. By the way, how did you play Final Fantasy III? After all, there is no English version.
Thomas Nickel: Well, a couple of years ago, I managed to find a used copy of the Famicom game and played it using a fan-translation. Speaking of the Famicom game… Is there a possibility you might include it in the DS game as a sort of bonus?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Unfortunately, no, it would be rather difficult to put it in now.
Thomas Nickel: Looking back now many years after developing Final Fantasy III - what do you think about the game after more than ten years?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Final Fantasy III is a really basic game in the Final Fantasy series. I would say it's sort of the basis most of the other games are built upon. The battle system, the magic… Final Fantasy III originated many of the elements of the later games. In fact, Final Fantasy XI is heavily based on Final Fantasy III and is in a way a modern interpretation of these systems.
Thomas Nickel: So, what are your expectations for Final Fantasy III? Of course it will sell like crazy in Japan, but how do you think it will be received in the west?
Hiromichi Tanaka: The Japanese players are looking forward to the nostalgic experience. They know the game and played it many years ago. In the West, however, there are many new fans who will have the opportunity to finally find out how the Final Fantasy series developed. So the experience might be a lot different for them.
Thomas Nickel: Instead of four nameless heroes, we have defined characters in the remake…
Hiromichi Tanaka: Well, we wanted to add a little bit to the story of the original, so we gave the characters names and backstories. But apart from this, we're keeping true to the original game.
Thomas Nickel: I always had a feeling on the Final Fantasy games until part VI that the even numbered games are more story-based and the odd-numbered games more gameplay based. Is that intentional?
Hiromichi Tanaka: I'll tell you how we did it with the first three Final Fantasy-games. When we did the first Final Fantasy, we worked on the basic systems, especially the battle system. The next one was then more story based. After that, we thought again about gameplay details of the first two games that we might improve. Well, and after part IV, it was rather straight forward – the gameplay systems were established, they worked and so the future titles became more similar to each other.
Thomas Nickel: When looking at the current games – Final Fantasy XI Online, Final Fantasy XII or the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII, do you still recognize the origins of the series?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Especially Final Fantasy XI has all the aspects of the first three games. Our approach was to ask ourselves the question, what would we have made back then if we'd had the technology of today. That's why I think that XI is actually pretty similar to I, II and III.
Thomas Nickel: So, Final Fantasy XI has been running for several years now and has some strong contenders – there's World of Warcraft, there are many Korean Online-RPGs… What are you doing to keep the game running and interesting?
Hiromichi Tanaka: It's been about five years that Final Fantasy XI is out in the market and theres a rather constant user-base of 500,000 people. Of course we´d like to get more people to play the game, especially in Europe. I hope that we can achieve this with the new German and French versions of the game.
Thomas Nickel: I put some hours into Final Fantasy XI myself and really like the huge world. Did you ever consider using Vana'diel for another game, maybe an offline-game?
Hiromichi Tanaka: These ideas are constantly floating around in the company. However, Vana'diel, the world of Final Fantasy XI, is almost changing day by day, it's growing. So, it's difficult to use it in an offline-game since that would freeze this world in a certain state. So, I'd like the online-world to stay in the online game. But take a look at Final Fantasy XII – its system is a little similar to Final Fantasy XI's.
Thomas Nickel: Do you still play yourself today?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Of course since I'm the producer, I'm playing Final Fantasy XI. But recently, I've been playing the old Final Fantasy III again. But, of course, this is also part of my work and I don't really have the time to play any other games apart from these.
Thomas Nickel: What does your work today consist of?
Hiromichi Tanaka: In Final Fantasy XI, I created part of the Interface, and I´m actually really working on Final Fantasy III. But, generally, my job consists more of having a global view of my projects.
Thomas Nickel: You really seem to like programming and designing games.
Hiromichi Tanaka: You're right, I really like programming. When I worked on Seiken Densetsu, I really wanted to do everything by myself. However, nowadays, one person can't do all the work. And, besides, I want the young people to have the opportunity to work on these games.
Thomas Nickel: Do you sometimes miss the old times when a couple of talented individuals could develop a great game all on their own?
Hiromichi Tanaka: Of course 3D is really nice today, but back then you could really make a great game with a small number of people and it wasn't that difficult compared to today. Today game development is a lot more challenging and you can't really make games by yourself anymore. There is a lot of corporation work involved. And, besides, it's possible to work on a huge game for several years. Then the platforms are changing and evolving and the users are changing as well, they have quite a good eye for good games. So we have to do everything we can to keep up today.
Thomas Nickel: When developing a game today, how free are you in your decisions?
Hiromichi Tanaka: On a technical side, we have a lot of freedom nowadays – we really can do quite a lot with the current technology. Of course, from the marketing point of view, we also have to make a game that has the potential to sell well. So, you really can't just go ahead and make the game you´d like to make. The game really should have what it takes to sell well.
Thomas Nickel: So, thank you very much for this interview.
Text Copyright Thomas Nickel 2006
Screenshots Copyright Square Enix