March 25, 2015 – A collaborative effort between Square Enix and mobile game developer DeNA (pronounced "D-N-A"), Final Fantasy: Record Keeper was released in Japan on September 24, 2014. With the game finally launching in North America soon, we spent some time with not only the game, but some of the people who have worked to make Record Keeper a success, topping 5 million downloads in Japan.
Sitting down in a (comfortable, by the way) meeting room at Square Enix HQ in Tokyo, I spoke with Ichiro Hazama, Producer at Square Enix, as well as Shonosuke Tokumaru and Yu Sasaki, both Producers at DeNA for Final Fantasy: Record Keeper. We talked about the burning question of "why free to play," how new content comes into the game, the importance of nostalgia, and more.
I had to get the free to play (F2P) question out of the way first, since I know many of you reading this are already skeptical about that model, because of how easily it can be abused. Mr. Hazama responded first, and explained that he's aware F2P games aren't exactly favored by many "core" gamers, but he's still confident about the quality of Record Keeper. Enough so that he feels it can overcome the stigmas that might be associated with the F2P model. Mr. Tokumaru echoed his sentiment, and both commented that the nice thing about the game being free is that it's easy for people to give it a try. There's no barrier to entry, so if you're a fan of the Final Fantasy series, it's easy to download and see if the game is for you or not. Furthermore, the developers are always open to player feedback as well.
Knowing the game has been downloaded over 5 million times, I asked what kind of player feedback the two companies have received so far. They seemed pleased with the reception — average review scores on both the iOS App Store and Google Play are 4-4.5 stars, which I'd be content with too. Record Keeper is largely about nostalgia, and they say players have enjoyed reliving the moments they loved years ago, here again in Record Keeper. All three men are hoping the game is well-received in the West as well, given the large Final Fantasy fan base. Despite the fact that it seems to be a very different game, they reaffirm that FFRK is still set within the world(s) that we know and love, which should appeal to longtime fans.
Since the game launched in Japan, Record Keeper has had regular events. These are special scenarios available for a limited time, offering new scenes complete with unlockable characters and equipment as rewards. Given that new events are still being released for the Japanese version, I asked how they plan to handle the Western version, and if there will ever be a time where we catch up with the Japanese version. While they couldn't confirm the latter, they did explain that it's the plan to have parity one day. In the meantime, the English version of FFRK is scheduled to have new events weekly. Given that there's a large pool of events to pull from the Japanese version, it sounds like there's no risk of us running out of new content any time soon. It's also likely that we'll see a different release schedule for events out here, so the order the events were introduced in Japan may not necessarily be representative of how they release in English versions.
The different markets will also influence the characters that we'll see in the West... or at least, the order in which we'll see them. Both the Western and Japanese markets have different favorite characters, so the developers consider this when deciding which characters to introduce and when. That said, our version of the game will release with close to ten characters, and the debut event should be available early on (though we don't yet know which game/character it will focus on). While they want to appeal to the fans and choose characters that will be popular, the balance of the game is also considered. So, for example, we likely won't see the likes of Cloud followed by Squall, Auron, etc, since those are all similar physical-centric characters. So the developers need to introduce a mix of other roles in as well — healers, casters, and so on. All told, the Japanese version currently has 20+ characters so far, so there's no shortage of characters to look forward to.
Currently, Record Keeper includes scenarios from every numbered, offline Final Fantasy. As a massive fan of Final Fantasy XIV, I had to ask if we may see characters from those two missing games one day: Final Fantasy XI and XIV. Without committing to when, they say that these are indeed planned. Recalling Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, I asked if we may see even more games represented beyond these two, such as spin-off titles like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, and future releases like Final Fantasy XV. Given Record Keeper's similar "melting pot" concept, it sounds like there's a good chance we'll see these and more, even though there are no current concrete plans. I'll be happy as long as Surfin' Layle from The Crystal Bearers makes an appearance.
Just for fun, I asked if we might even see some non-standard characters in Record Keeper. As an example, I mentioned that All the Bravest has characters such as a chocobo, pig, and so on. This wasn't met with a straight-up "no," although the producers explained that All the Bravest, while entertaining, isn't exactly a "game," so it's a different kind of experience. Take that however you want.
The only FF title that eclipses my love for FFXIV is Final Fantasy VI. If you've spent time looking at Record Keeper's art style, you'll likely recognize that FFVI was used as the basis for the character sprites. While I wholly support the decision, I asked why they chose VI in particular. Mr. Hazama was impressed that I picked up on the fact it was FFVI (he clearly underestimates my obsession), and explained that they initially narrowed it down to FFI-VI. In the end, they went with VI's style, since they were concerned that using the older, smaller sprites of previous games might look too old, or appeal to players less than the "newer" tall sprites seen in VI.
Not everything is straight out of FFVI, though: every enemy sprite matches this style, but many enemies, particularly bosses, now feature animated sprites. This was no small feat (especially if you consider how intricate some of the bosses are from the SNES FF titles), but they wanted to make them more lively and modern. As a result, these animations, and all other UI and animation specific to Record Keeper was given special attention. Spells and special effects in particular are very polished, as a result.
One aspect that wasn't modified at all was the music. Every track I have heard so far in FFRK comes directly out of the original titles. No arrangements, no remixes. Before you get the wrong idea, I'm 100% in support of that, though I did inquire if this was the case for the entire game. Hazama and co. explained that using only the original music is a core concept to Record Keeper. Since the entire basis of the game is reliving cherished FF scenes from the past, and music is so vital to those feelings of nostalgia, they insisted on remaining faithful to the original music. The goal is to bring people back to those moments, and to the feelings they had when they originally played them, whether it was FFIX in 2000 or FFIV in 1991.
Speaking of Final Fantasy IX, I had read that the final PSone FF title didn't have quite as much content in the Japanese version of the game compared to some other titles, and I heard our RPGFan Music Managing Editor's voice in my head, encouraging me to ask if there will be more FFIX. As it happens, the event running in Japan at that very moment was FFIX-centric, so it looks like there's no need for concern.
Speaking to all three of these gentlemen for close to an hour, their passion for Record Keeper is clear. I can tell this is a game they all believe in, and it isn't just something the two companies are throwing on the market to make a quick buck. Knowing that they're familiar with, and respect the heritage of Final Fantasy, I asked each of their favorite titles in the series; Square Enix's Ichiro Hazama made me giddy like a schoolgirl (but just, you know, on the inside, because I'm a professional) by stating his favorite is Final Fantasy VI. DeNA's Shonosuke Tokumaru had a more complex answer, in explaining that VI has his favorite story and setting, but FFVII had the most overall impact on him. Finally, DeNA's Yu Sasaki holds FFX in the highest regard.
I saved arguably the best question for late in the interview: one of the key characters, specific to Final Fantasy: Record Keeper, is the adorable Dr. Mog:
In speaking with folks from the other media outlets attending the event earlier in the day, we felt that Dr. Mog was a prime candidate to be released as an adorable plushie, for all you plushie collectors out there. Just for fun, I floated this idea by the group, and they were all equally amused and surprised that they hadn't done it yet, and will get right on it! Now, realistically, they could have just been having fun with the idea, but if you see a Dr. Mog appear on the Square Enix Store in the future, remember that you heard it here first!
RPGFan would like to sincerely thank Ichiro Hazama, Shonosuke Tokumaru, and Yu Sasaki for their time and generosity. Special thanks also goes to DeNA's Simon Currie for his awesome translating skills and making this interview possible. And further thanks to the many, many people at Square Enix and DeNA that contributed to the week's events as well.