How Namco keeps its Tales Of RPG series fresh, 17 years later
Namco's Tales Of series has been going on for many years, beginning in 1995 when developer Wolf Team created Tales of Phantasia for the Super Nintendo. While the series doesn't have quite the cultural cache of Final Fantasy in the West or Dragon Quest in Japan, it's still a very popular brand worldwide, with 11 entries so far, and another on the way.
Tales of Xillia is the latest in the series, and it's coming to North America and Europe in 2013 (far behind the series' schedule in Japan, where Tales of Xillia 2 was just released). We spoke with series producer Hideo Baba about maintaining momentum on such a long-running series, and why having a long introductory movie is important for Japanese players.
How do you keep a venerable series like this fresh? How do you determine how much to change for each iteration, and how much to keep familiar?
Hideo Baba: Well, since this is a series, after all, it's important that we retain the base elements across each game -- for example, the basic building blocks behind the battle system, or the core concepts behind the themes we explore in the game story. In a more easy-to-understand way, of course, there are certain very popular aspects like the skit system that we try to retain. The exact methodology behind things may change, but they're still kept largely the same since they've become very identifiable parts of the Tales series.
Do you feel like you absolutely must change a few fundamental things every time? Obviously the story will change, but do you feel the need to tweak the battle system or the way you manage inventory, to make players feel they're playing something significantly different?
HB: Certainly, and I think the way the game is structured plays a role in that. For example, the first part of the game the player's always going to see is the opening movie. That movie is about more than looking nice; it plays a major role in defining the theme of the game and what's fresh and new with it. The battle system is another easy-to-understand way that the game changes. It's where all the really core gameplay takes place, after all. The story has to change, of course, but I think it is important that you're offering some new type of gameplay in each title in the series.
Have you ever had a time where you thought "The battle system's good enough; I don't want to have to change it again, but I have to find a reason to just to make it different?”
HB: To be honest with you, pretty much every time we make a new game, I think the battle system this time around truly is the "perfect" one. For example, when we completed Tales of Graces F with the style-changing system, I thought that was just the ultimate in fighting systems, that there was no place to go after that. I thought to myself, okay, maybe we can change the style a little bit here and there in the future, but it's not really going to get better than this.
But then, of course, once we move on to the next project -- Xillia, in this case -- we always feel a sort of pressure that we've got to outdo ourselves, that we need to do something that outclasses Graces F. So that process pretty much repeats itself every time.
Can you talk about that focus on the opening animated movie? In the U.S. a lot of people tend to skip cutscenes, so they're not always a primary focus.
HB: I think that may be more part of the Japanese game culture, yeah, so it may not make quite as much sense trying to explain it. But, for example, when you watch an anime show on TV, there's the opening that you watch at the start of every episode. After that there's the actual show, and then after that, in every episode, there's the ending movie with the credits. That's the style of Japanese animation on TV. If you have a show at, say, 5 PM that you like, then it's really exciting for you when that opening starts to play at that time.
With Japanese players, that's often the same approach they take with games. They open the package, put in the disc, and watch the opening, and to them, that opening creates excitement and anticipation -- like, "Oooh, I'm finally about to experience this!" I think that's why the opening has taken up the role that it has in the Tales series, not to mention other games.
The Tales intros seem to sometimes try to avoid traditional anime intro tropes. You'll see the same things in a lot of these intros, like wind flowing past a girl in a dress as a tear goes by. Do you make a conscious choice to be different from these common themes?
HB: I think the most important thing we pay attention to speed and tempo, creating this "the adventure's just about to begin" kind of feeling. We're not just playing a video that goes on and on; we're aiming for a tempo that gets players really excited about getting started with the game.
Where do you foresee the Tales series in the next five or ten years, as RPGs in particular seem to move into the social/free-play space? Will it always be a big-name console RPG, or do you see it diversifying into other spaces?
HB: Well, regardless of which way the business goes, if there's a way for us to get more people to become familiar with and play the Tales series, then I see no reason why we can't move more into the social market. However, I think a lot of players are still looking for that really solid kind of console experience, so I don't think our current focus on releasing games mainly on consoles is going to change.