October 17, 2010 12:00 PM | Simon Carless
[In these surprisingly honest excerpts from Game Developer magazine, Final Fantasy XIII developers reveal how the game's large scope and internal miscommunication presented major challenges.]
The latest issue of GSW sister publication Game Developer, available for subscribers and for digital purchase now, includes an exclusive, in-depth postmortem of Square-Enix's Final Fantasy XIII, written by Motomu Toriyama and Akihiko Maeda.
Final Fantasy XIII is Square-Enix's most recent single-player entry in its flagship franchise, and is one of several title's in the company's Fabula Nova Crystalis series, which also includes the upcoming Final Fantasy Agito XIII and Final Fantasy Versus XIII.
Announced in 2006, Final Fantasy XIII was developed using Square-Enix's internal Crystal Tools engine, and launched for PS3 and Xbox 360 in North America in March 2010, receiving generally favorable reviews and shipping millions of copies worldwide.
These excerpts, extracted from the October 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine, reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of the game.
Along the way, the creators reveal how Final Fantasy XIII's large scope and internal miscommunication presented significant challenges to the team, and how the game's ultimate design arose from its first playable demo.
Lack Of A Shared Vision
Although the game was announced with an elaborate trailer, the team had little direction beyond this proof of concept, which led to problems as development ramped up:
"Final Fantasy XIII was first introduced through a concept trailer shown alongside the announcement of the Fabula Nova Crystallis project at E3 2006 (Fabula Nova Crystallis represents a suite of games and other entertainment media related to Final Fantasy XIII). The trailer was merely a visual concept, and we had not yet created anything playable at that point.
I felt that this trailer set the bar for the quality we were aiming to achieve, in terms of battle speed and cutscene imagery, and believed that this sentiment was shared by the rest of the team.
However, it became clear that, at the time, there were actually very few members who saw the trailer as a representation of what we wanted to achieve with Final Fantasy XIII. This lack of a shared vision became the root of many conflicts that arose later in development."
The Universal Engine And Narrowing Down The Specs
In addition to developing the game, the team was also working on Square-Enix's multiplatform engine Crystal Tools, which added an extra layer of complexity to an already demanding project.
"Another issue was the universal engine. Because we were so focused on creating an engine for next-gen hardware that could be utilized across all platforms, we made the mistake of trying to accommodate every single project that was in progress at the time.
In hindsight, it should have been obvious that it would be impossible to fully satisfy all of these needs. As a result, we spent a considerable amount of time prioritizing all the different requests and ended up not being able to determine the final spec requirements.
This created a standstill between the engine and game development teams, because if the engine’s specs couldn’t be finalized, neither could the game’s. As the debates continued without resolution, the timetable was also affected."
International Player Tests That Came Too Late
Late international player tests introduced more scheduling constraints on the game as the team tried to ensure the game would appeal to Western audiences:
"Even before the current generation of consoles was introduced, it was obvious that the game market in the West was gaining momentum, and we couldn’t ignore it. The sentiment that stood out the most to us at the time was the increasingly harsh criticism towards JRPGs.
Linearity and command-based battles were two of the features being perceived negatively. This was something that the team was very conscious about, and there were concerns about whether JRPGs would still be accepted in the West. Because Final Fantasy XIII’s mission was to succeed worldwide, we could not ignore this issue, as we felt it could deeply affect the future of the franchise.
Around the same time, we were experimenting with Western development methods, and there were talks within the team of global focus groups, which we had rarely conducted with previous projects. At the same time, Square Enix set up international focus groups for certain titles, including Final Fantasy XIII.
Unfortunately, we were already quite far along in development, and knew it would be too late to implement most of the feedback from the player test sessions. Even so, we still signed up for the opportunity, as this would be our only chance before the game’s release to see how Western players would respond to all that we had been working on.
There were some minor hiccups, as we did not have much time to prepare for the focus group sessions, but we were able to successfully conduct player tests and interviews globally. Even though it was too late to apply the majority of the feedback, most team members felt the tests were worthwhile, as it gave them insight into what players wanted globally.
With the changes that were being considered, because of the lack of a clear communication line, the development team was not receiving clear instructions. This resulted in conflicts within the team on whether it was worth forcing certain changes into an already tight schedule."
Realizing A Shared Vision Through The Demo
Curiously, the game's overall vision did not fully realize itself until the team was tasked with creating a vertical slice to be included in the Blu-ray version of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete.
"Even at a late stage of development, we did not agree on key elements of the game, which stemmed from the lack of a cohesive vision, the lack of finalized specs, and the remaining problems with communication between departments.
What enabled us to conquer this line of seemingly endless conflicts was the development process for the Final Fantasy XIII demo, which was included in the Japan-only Blu-ray version of the animated film Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete. The demo was not in our original plan, so we had to make adjustments to the overall schedule to accommodate it. Whatever effects creating the demo had on the schedule, once it was complete we realized it was just the panacea we needed.
With a tangible version of the game that could actually be played, internal debates transitioned from theoretical discussions based solely on abstract concepts to concrete dialogue. The demo not only unified the vision and understanding of the game’s direction across the entire development team, but it was also the first time that everyone could see exactly how the assets they worked on would function within the game. During the internal postmortem, many team members noted that the demo was what finally allowed them to truly realize and embrace the vision for Final Fantasy XIII.
Although a vertical slice is commonplace in Western development, this was never actually practiced with our teams unless there was a company requirement. In retrospect, the demo acted as our vertical slice, and its effectiveness was felt full force by each and every member of the team. This was an essential key learning point that affected how we approached game development moving forward."
Clarification Of Elements And Processes Through Developing The Demo
Using the demo as a learning experience, the team was better able to manage and plan for the rest of the game's development.
"The demo brought together all data, development of which was previously uncoordinated, clarifying many elements and significantly speeding up the process of determining the remaining specs.
Instead of crafting fully detailed assets that looked good from every angle, the team could gauge how much effort to put into each area of the project by keeping in mind exactly how the asset would be used in the game.
This realization had an increase in the team’s ability to assess priorities, and as a result, productivity increased as well. With a much better understanding of the overall workload, we increased our ability to construct highly efficient schedules; the new scheduling was so effective, we actually did not miss a milestone."
The full postmortem of Final Fantasy XIII explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the October 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine.
The issue also includes a feature revealing Game Developer's 'Companies To Watch' and 'Top 20 Publishers' in the current industry, a piece on Red Faction: Armageddon's shader techniques, an interview with Valve's Erik Johnson on Portal 2, as well as our monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor.
Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of October 2010's magazine as a single issue.]