My meeting with Hideo Baba in Namco Bandai?s Japanese headquarters was something of a bittersweet moment, in retrospect. The producer behind the Tales series of JRPGs is a humble, deeply thoughtful man who has been the driving force of many incredible and colourful adventures.
But, mere days after my interview, and back safely in the UK, news broke that Namco Bandai is to absorb Baba-san?s studio early next year. I didn?t know it then, but I would likely be the last person to speak with him in this capacity. I don?t know if the publisher will still allow Baba-san to develop Tales
games, but it would seem silly not to - the most recent instalment, Xilla
, has been a smash hit domestically, and there?s a growing cult audience in the West who are eager to snap up the latest localisations.
Indeed, when the producer sat down before the interview began he said that he had a busy day - so at the very least the imminent changes don?t seem to be having an effect at this stage. It seems fitting, then, that our chat covered a whole range of topics on the JRPG series, from the design aspects to localisation and what Baba-san?s most memorable moments have been. Read on...
SPOnG: It must be quite a trip working on an RPG series like Tales where there?s a lot of philosophy and deep meaning behind the games, characters and settings. Is that something you try and implement in every game?
Tales of Vesperia
It?s important to maintain these deep elements when I?m making an RPG game because it?s different from something in the action or fighting genre. The player goes on an adventure with the main character, so that character needs to have a uniqueness and certain way of relating to them so that they feel involved in the story. One needs to connect with the backgrounds of the world and every character in the plot.
For the Tales
series especially, it?s important that players are able to see a part of themselves in the characters that are represented in the game. If there isn?t someone that they can really relate to, then they won?t be able to get any fun out of it.
SPOnG: Is it important to establish different kinds of visual approaches to each Tales game?
game has a different atmosphere, character, background and story, yes. So when we draw up the concept ideas for each project, we decide what kinds of visuals would work with the ideas we have in mind. Because of the different themes in Graces
, they all have a different visual design as a result.
The series in general has a basis in anime, though. For Graces, we used a watercolour art style, but for Xillia
we wanted to attract a broader audience, as it was the 15th Anniversary title for the Tales
series. Historically, the games have been aimed at middle-schoolers or high-schoolers in Japan - so to open that up, we played with darker art styles and focused on a darkness and lightness contrast.
SPOnG: Is it difficult to try and approach a broader audience now, given that you just said the series has been rooted in the middle-school audience up until this point?
Tales of Xillia
It was difficult to attract the older audience in general, largely because of their lifestyle. When you become a college student you don?t really have the time to play many games. You end up going outside more, and gaming tends to feel a little bit more like an activity for younger kids.
There are, of course, games like Call of Duty
which specifically target an adult audience - but if we use anime style graphics for a JRPG it can be seen as a little bit childish. So getting over that was difficult.
SPOnG: That?s really interesting because that seems to be the perception in the West really, whereas I would have thought the Japanese market - with it?s culture rooted in anime - wouldn?t have to worry so much about that. Over the last couple of years Japanese studios have tried to adopt a more mature Western style visual approach - Dead Rising, for example. Do you agree that?s the way forward?
As a game creator I personally think that you should use your own culture?s strengths. Each country in the world has its own culture and specific understanding of doing things, and I believe studios should take into importance the strengths and cultures of where they come from.
Like you said, for instance in Japan we have animation. When you come home and turn on the TV, animation is always there - it?s something very close to our way of living. You?re not considered an otaku - or nerd - if you?re absorbed into an animated series. That in itself is one of our strengths as a Japanese industry, so I believe that we have to push our strength in that way.
SPOnG: I certainly wouldn?t have thought, because of what you said, that the visual appeal of the Tales series would be much of a problem for Japanese adults. So when you say it was difficult to make Xillia and avoid making it look childish, were you talking in relation to the Western market?
Tales of Vesperia
No, I mean in Japan. The broader JRPG genre, you?re right about, but for the Tales
series specifically, it?s seen as a product for a younger audience. Especially when you compare it something like Final Fantasy
. So in that aspect it was difficult to break that and appeal to the older market.
SPOnG: Do you feel that you?ve succeeded in broadening that out in Xillia?
I think Xillia
was a success in broadening the audience, and I feel it captured a number of people who had never played the Tales
series before, so I?m quite happy about how it?s performed.
SPOnG: Is it important for you to reach a Western audience? Does it sadden you that there is this delay between releases in Japan and the West? Tales of Hearts, which is considered a canon entry of the series on DS, has still only been released in Japan, and that came out in 2008. What are the challenges in introducing these games to the West?
Tales of Xillia
I really am thinking about providing my work to the overseas market. But there are two main difficulties. One is that the Tales
series has a userbase and philosophy that is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. There is a word that we use called ?wabi-sabi? which describes something centering on Japanese culture and taking into importance a particular atmosphere.
Something like that is very difficult to translate overseas, but it?s a core element of the series for Japanese people. So in that sense, there?s a weird disconnection there from the start. The second difficulty of course, is the localisation. There?s a lot of text for RPGs, and localising an international version while developing the Japanese original is very time-consuming.
We actually did that for the Xbox 360 version of Vesperia
- the North American version ran parallel to the Japanese one. If we had more of an audience - or even the same size audience - in the West as we do in Japan, it would be easier to work that load.
Ultimately, what I want to do with the Tales
series is target the older market like we?ve done with Xillia
- the 19-year-old or so, older-teenager crowd. There?s always something of an emotional struggle during this stage in your life, and I want to push the concept of working together with friends, and not understanding underlying issues alone to this age group.
Tales of Vesperia
But those themes are why our main characters are usually younger compared to the heroes seen in Western games. Taking that into account, Western audiences always look at JRPGs and say, ?OK, he?s a teenager, there?s no way he?s able to save the world! He doesn?t even look like he can pick up a sword!? I guess on the other hand, when the Japanese audience views a Western game, everyone is a macho man to them - even the women are really macho [laughs]! It doesn?t seem right to the Japanese audience.
But we don?t want to put in a macho character or anything to the Tales
series to try and have it liked by a Western audience! We don?t want to take that kind of approach. What we want to do is still take that Japanese approach, and aim to have overseas audiences take in that atmosphere more.