Project Phoenix Interview with Hiroaki Yura

Originally Posted on  August 15, 2013: Link.

I had a chance to discuss all things Project Phoenix with the game’s lead director and producer, Hiroaki Yura. We talked about design influences, the challenges of collaborating with world-spanning talent, and advice he had received along the way. Also, fair warning: there are some really nerdy moments below

Alternatively, you can listen to the interview in the Youtube embed above or download the audio recording through this link.

RPG Site: Joining us today is a very special guest. Hiroaki Yura, director and producer for Project Phoenix, a newly-Kickstarted project promising to both bring back the parts that made JRPGs great while also reinventing the wheel so to speak. Before we start the interview, I just wanted to congratulate you and your team on already reaching four times the original goal.

Yura: Oh, thank you very much. We are very excited!

RPG Site: I’m sure it’s a very big deal. The original goal was $100,000 and you still have more than a few weeks to go.

Yura: Right. We have 27 days to go.

RPG Site: Yes. You had already met your goal within 9 hours. I’m sure this has been pretty overwhelming for you. I had a few questions I wanted to ask. From the video, you clearly are not that happy with the way the state of the JRPG has been lately, saying that they have lost the essence of what a JRPG is about. What is your opinion on the direction that the Final Fantasy series has been going?

Yura: Oh, right. [laughs] You do know I am good friends with Mr. Sakaguchi? (Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy).

Final Fantasy is a great series. I have been a big fan of that series since I was very young. But it’s just not the way that I wished it would have taken off. For me, my favorite Final Fantasy was Final Fantasy IX. This all comes down to what JRPG means to me. I have had a bit of a confidence problem two to three weeks back and I asked Sakaguchi-san if he was happy to see me. He’s like, “What do you need to see me for?” and I said I wanted to study a bit with you. He said alright and he invited me to his place and we had a talk about what is JRPG.

He told me JRPG is about character. It was the exact same answer that the composer and the game designer Mr. Hiroki Kikuta who did Secret of Mana, and is also a good friend of mine, and who I also asked what JRPG was about. So character is good, but I realized they were the people that were there right at the beginning of Squaresoft and I have to really get the 2013 answer of what JRPG is about. More importantly, what my answer of what JRPGs are about. I really feel that JRPGs, although they say it is about character, to me it’s about the story and how moving and how important and how profoundly it affects the players.

RPG Site: And also the dynamic between the characters and their relationship and how it affected the overall story. To me, the overall story wasn’t that important; it was about what are these people inside this story. What are they doing, how they are speaking to each other, and how they are reacting to what is going on. Is that sort of approach something you also think is important from that time?

Yura: It’s important, but these games have taken a different approach. Sakaguchi-san was telling me about that for Chrono Cross or Chrono Trigger, it’s not like it’s about how much they have been speaking and how much the main character speaks, which is not a hell of a lot. It’s not like a Western RPG where they kind of talk but it was a unique thing. I realy like Western RPGs, but I don’t really find the appeal with them as I do Japanese RPGs. I am not saying that combat shouldn’t be important, but the biggest sell for a JRPG is story.

Now, this JRPG project, Project Phoenix, is not really about a JRPG for Japanese fans. This project is a JRPG for the world.

RPG Site: You talked about that, that you wanted to bring in the West and the East and obviously your team is made up of that type of talent. Do you think of any games nowadays that are successful at that or what are you pulling from when creating that type of image?

Yura: I get asked that question a lot. I lived in Sydney for 22 years and I have been living there since I was 6 and I took my Nintendo along thinking that was the only Nintendo that should be. Then I found the American version and said, “That’s not Nintendo! That’s not it! That’s not the Famicom!”

RPG Site: No, you don’t get to play half the games that were half as good on there in the West as you did in the East!

Yura: Yeah, it’s been fun and frustrating! My influences on games are both from the West and the East. This is my approach to JRPG. To be exact, Sakaguchi-san told me that your character has to fit in to the Shonen Jump character. Jump is like Dragonball or Naruto or stuff like that. I think it’s funny because I don’t think Cloud is really a Shonen Jump character. He said that because he was actually good friends with the Editor at Shonen Jump since Final Fantasy IV.

I was really amazed and interested in what happened with the stories, but I also felt that this was not the right approach if I want to make a story for the audience of the world.

RPG Site: You are of course a very talented composer who has worked for and orchestrated a lot of different soundtracks like Diablo III and Soulcalibur V. To put it another way, you are unproven in the world of lead game director and producer, and also you have a lead game designer (Vaughan Smith) that worked as a QA analyst on L.A. Noire. Leading this group of talented people, are you going around to different friends in the business to learn more and how do you think you can convince people that you are the right person to lead this charge? Not to make this sound like a job interview.

Yura: That’s a very fair question. Look: let me answer the question before I get to that. The answer is that because I have been influenced by the West and by the East, I feel that it’s very important that I design this video game in a way that satisfies my upbringing.

I’m Japanese, I was brought up in Sydney which is basically the West. The thing is, what makes Japan, Japan, and what makes the West, the West, is basically what comes down to functionality for the West and reasoning and crazy but awesome design in Japan. In Japan, they don’t really care about the reasoning or the functionality. As long as it’s cool, it’s like, let’s do that!

It’s like how Sakaguchi-san said that you have to have an awesome character that really draws you in and the world drops everywhere around him. Everything gets made from the character. It’s not really about the world, and to me, that sounds weird because – I’m not criticizing the way it should be made. If I’m making a game, I want to have a proper world that’s believable and that people can relate to and then have a character that’s created from the world, who lives and thrives in that world, which makes it more believable.

That’s really important to me. Unless I can achieve that, I think I have failed, so we’re really working hard to make that work and making an awesome story as some of the Final Fantasy games have been.

RPG Site: There were games where players remember the characters. They remember Lavos and what he was doing to the world, and also the faith of Crono and his team. It was the same with Final Fantasy VI. It was Kefka who is the most craziest, most evil person that has ever existed in video games. It sounds like you are trying to really hone in on that?

Yura: Yeah. I don’t really want to talk about the bad guy in our game, but that’s part of my function [on the team] is that it would really ruin the story so I don’t want to talk about it. But this is the type of stuff I do want to talk about – the person who seems to be the bad guy but not really being the bad guy. At the same time, I want to take the Studio Ghibli approach and the difference between theirs and Disney’s. In Ghibli, what may seem is not what it really is, whereas with Disney it’s very clear-cut. If you see a bad guy, he’s probably the bad guy.

RPG Site: With Final Fantasy VII where Cloud started off as the normal hero but then later on becomes way more than that. Is that the type of games you’re drawing from?

Yura: Kind of, but I’m also drawn in from the story from Warcraft as well.

RPG Site: It seems like some of the game design comes from Warcraft where it is an RPG but it has strategy elements in it. Are you looking at those games too?

Yura: Yes, I am. Absolutely. Not just in gameplay, but also the story aspects of it. I really don’t like the Tolkien-esque approach. I love the world of Tolkien. However, the story was made in an era where the East was so exotic, and people weren’t too concerned with being, oh, let’s call it racist. They didn’t really or weren’t really friends. They can’t just call up Japan and say, what’s up, let’s Skype. We have had some differences. Now, it’s really international and we understand that we are all the same and we’re humans.

The Lord of the Rings hinged on a lot of racism and not really understanding how the world really works. I really don’t like the fact that goblins and orcs are just nasty creatures and they don’t have any concept aside from wanting to eat you. I think it needs to be much more sophisticated. Again, I am a big fan of Tolkien, but it terms of the modern day approach, I don’t think that really cuts it. It needs to have much clearer intentions about what their goals and aims are and that’s a hint of what’s to come with Project Phoenix in terms of story.

Okay, I haven’t dodged your job interview question. I understand both sides of the game development process. I have been to places like Blizzard and they have shown me pre-release work. It’s not like I have made it or anything but I have experienced a lot of the backend stuff. I have talked to and sat down with the Producer from Valkyria Chronicles and really talk about stuff.

I am not a lot different from the guys that have made these games. It really comes down to passion. Valkyria Chronicles was in development for years before they were greenlit by the company, so it’s all about the passion that really drives us. The team I have, they have my full respect, and I trust them in what they need to do and what they are doing.

Vaughan Smith, I will be very honest, he was a classmate of mine. We knew each other since Year 7. He is a game writer for a local magazine, a novelist, he writes reviews for games online, he makes indie games, and he had a job doing QA at L.A. Noire. He is a big fan of Japanese RPGs, and he understands where we think where it fails in driving the goodness of JRPGs, and also what’s so good about the West as well. We want to put those two together, and he really comes from the same place as I do. He really plays a lot of JRPGs.

As for me, I play a lot of video games. Some people think I don’t know what video games are about because I am a musician. I am not a composer, by the way.

RPG Site: Oh, right. Yes!

Yura: I participated in the music side of video games, and I…

RPG Site: You sat on the director’s chair.

Yura: I sat on the director’s chair and when my people do all the jobs I play Starcraft. I am serious, when I have nothing else to do, and I have to hit the Escape key when my engineer asks how something is and I ask them to play it again.
All jokes aside, I understand the intricacies of both sides of development. I am a gamer myself. I used to be in a very high-end guild for World of Warcraft. My DPS was within the Top 10 ranking on not just that group or our server but also the world ranking.

RPG Site: People are going to look that up now. They’re going to find out.

Yura: As a Retribution Paladin, I am pretty proud of myself. I was an avid PVPer not just in Warcraft but I also play a lot of First-Person Shooters and a lot of Gears of War. I love video games. That’s where I am coming from. What I am trying to impress upon you guys is that I am a hardcore type of gamer. I go to the extent of dissecting game mechanics and design. For example, you have to do that for World of Warcraft when you are in a high-end guild. We usually down bosses really fast. That’s a lot to do with raid leaders who are very diligent in their work, and so I understand how the mechanics work and what makes everything fun. Which brings me to my next point – why an RTS?

RPG Site: That was actually what I was going to lead into, that Project Phoenix serves as more of a hybrid. What led you to implement RTS elements into a JRPG?

Yura: Okay, I want to warn you about JRPG. JRPG doesn’t really have a fixed mechanic. Of course, a turn-based system inside of Dragon Quest has been very popular, but there’s many types of JRPGs, and I really believe that JRPGs hinges on the story and the storytelling aspects. JRPGs are kind of like a musical or an opera, so to speak. They are trying to tell you a story. You get to see it, but you also control the characters a bit. That’s what JRPGs are about. We need to make sure that the controlling the characters bit is really, really fun, and I had the most fun when I was playing Warcraft and Starcraft with those small team missions where you don’t have to be at your barracks. I love that. I hate clicking so much.

RPG Site: Wow. You’re playing Starcraft and you’re not a fan of clicking.

Yura: Yeah. I mean, I love Starcraft, but I hate micromanagement. I hate being Project Manager. I don’t want to be in charge of collecting crystals. I am a bloody Commander. I want to talk like Tychus (from Starcraft). Headbutt slugs in the face.

The thing about Starcraft is that when you get in with a bunch of Zerg charging your Marines and your Marines start firing on them, they only fire on them when they get in range. You’re next to a Marine who is firing on them but you’re doing nothing because they’re out of range. In real life, would that happen? No way! If your buddy starts firing, you would start firing too. You would do something.

This is what Project Phoenix is about. We don’t want to put too much micromanagement in it. I don’t want to have to issue a chain of command issue. I don’t want to be clicking so much because you are just one person. You are just the Commander. These guys are supposed to be pros. Even better than pros, they’re supposed to be heroes.

This what I wanted to come to with an RTS. You are leading a bunch of heroes that knows what to do and when. You are just want to tell them how you want it done. Right now, there are three modes of play: Aggressive, Defensive, and Stealth. They each have special, individual skills as well. They are all auto-casted. You need heroes that need to know how they need to use it when they want to use it. But all the non-essential or the non-important stuff, you don’t want to have to work with. They know better than you on where they should be standing or how they should be attacking.

RPG Site: It’s the problem I had with Final Fantasy XIII. It was the illusion of control. You’re telling them to get over here and they won’t do it.

Yura: Right, and Final Fantasy is notorious for not being able to use terrain as a tactical advantage. Terrain is such a big thing of warfare. King Leonidas, if he didn’t have the cliffs between him, he would have been dead in no time. Instant death at that spot. However, because they were tanks and were able to do all their fancy moves in a small, confined area, they could survive. And it basically comes down to that. You have 7 or 8 people you can control at once in a battlefield and you have hundreds of enemies. These guys are going to be awesome. They are going to carve through them – they are going to kill people by just shield bashing them.

RPG Site: It’s good to hear that you are focusing a lot on the gameplay mechanics. I feel it is something that a lot of JRPGs have been forgetting. It feels a lot like style over substance in today’s RPGs. It can be messy. So do you control each person individually or as a group?

Yura: You control them as squads, basically. You put 8 people into as many squads as you want to, and control them as you want them to behave.

RPG Site: With the success of the Kickstarter, the stretch goals are already providing a look at the scope that the game can develop into. Keeping in mind that this is a passion project for all involved, how are you keeping things under control in regards to quality control and timetables?

Yura: Well, I do run an orchestra. I hope that explains everything. That’s like organizing over 120 people. Not just the orchestra, but there is staff involved, all the aspects of managing music…

I came from doing concerts with video game orchestras, and that’s even worse because that’s also managing people just coming to the concert and the volunteers. It’s huge. Running a 20 man team – this is so easy! Everybody here are pros and they know what to do and they know what to expect from me. It’s really easy [comparatively]. We just need to make sure we stick to a timetable. Yes, sometimes we go over and sometimes we actually finish things earlier, so we just have to adjust accordingly.

It’s also all about honesty. I take the budget very seriously. Our group draws from people were successful already, so we are just going to split the profit at the end. We don’t really require a big fund. Stefen had a 3D modeling team that really needed to get paid, so that’s why we did the Kickstarter. In terms of the stretch goals, we are trying to do what we can. Right now, all of our music is synthesized, but if we get enough money, we really want to record with the Eminence Symphony Orchestra, but that would really cost a lot of money. It’s funny being on the other side of this. You can’t just give us $10,000 and expect us to go full orchestra. We would eat through it in five minutes.

I just want to explain that we are very conservative here atProject Phoenix. We don’t promise easy stretch goals like other Kickstarters. This is the truth. I know how it works. This is very realistic. I never promise anything that is underestimated. After all of the fees, we would end up with a percentage of the amount needing for the game. If we ask for $400,000, we may only get $160,000 after it. We tend not to oversay our abilities, and in money to. This is where the trust lies. We don’t want to say we do this for this much. We want to say maybe we can do this, and overachieve. We don’t want to promise a lot and then fail to get it. Never would I do that. I’m just trying to keep it real.

We are a bunch of no-names, to be honest. People say we did all this and that, but it’s not really like that. We set the goal at $100,000 because we aren’t confident. I am very flattered with the confidence that people have in us. I am very sure we are capable of doing what we promise, but we are just a bunch of guys who kind of know what we are doing but we are more passionate about what we are doing. We only ask for the bare minimum because we just want to prove to the world that our concept is going to work.

Kickstarter has been about teams asking for money to make this huge game and then afterwards, they have to say they can only deliver half of the game now and do everything later. To me, I think it’s okay to be late. People may be upset about it being late, but we want to achieve what the goal of the game is about. I don’t want to release it until we are very proud of what we have made. Everyone is putting in their time. We are going to make something fantastic. We want to deliver the whole story of Marcus and his adventure, and to be able to exceed what people expect from us by giving a lot of content.

We just want to make a good game, and we want to live up to our reputation and our standard. That’s why you can trust us. We are not about making money. We are protecting or exceeding our reputation, and doing something that no one has ever done. That’s all there is about it.

RPG Site:  It’s very refreshing that you are owning up to the expectations that people normally have, and the questions and concerns people have.

I would like to thank our special guest, Hiroaki Yura, for the great interview. We here at RPG Site look forward to seeing and hearing a lot more from Project Phoenix in the coming weeks and months, and we wish you all the best with the game.

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