Why the Creator of Final Fantasy is Making a Free-to-Play Mobile Game

The name Hironobu Sakaguchi should be familiar to any fan of Japanese RPGs, but even if you aren't acquainted with him, you've probably heard of his most notable creation: Final Fantasy. In the 1980's, Japanese developer Square was facing hard times after a series of commercial flops and Sakaguchi found himself in a precarious position. Both he and Square needed a commercial hit to survive. After Enix hit the mark with Dragon Quest, Square took a chance and allowed Sakaguchi to produce the game that had been on his mind for years. Thus, Final Fantasy was born.

After twenty years and roughly twice as many games under his belt with Square, Sakaguchi stepped down from his position as Executive Vice President to form his own studio, Mistwalker, where he spearheaded the creation of numerous RPGs during the last console generation, including: Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon for Xbox 360, and most recently The Last Story for Wii. Since then, Sakaguchi's been busy doing the unexpected: developing mobile games. Maybe "unexpected" is the wrong word. The mobile gaming market has exploded over the past few years and it's no longer surprising to see a high-profile studio or developer take a chance on a mobile project. Sakaguchi got his feet wet in the market in 2012 with Party Wave, a cute and serene game that sprang from his love of surfing. Party Wave wasn't met with much fanfare, but that didn't deter Sakaguchi's desire to continue testing the waters.

Now, he's returning to his roots for Terra Battle, a strategy RPG for mobile devices. The free-to-play title utilizes microtransactions, which are necessary if you want to play longer than the game's daily time allotment allows. Unlike most of Sakaguchi's previous RPG work, Terra Battle uses an interface that abstracts the battlefield in the form of a flat grid. This is obviously a concession made for the sake of the interface, but it works well in practice and the tactical battles feel every bit as deep and challenging as any of it's console-sized peers. For anyone who's excited at the prospect of tactical game from Sakaguchi but not interested in the mobile version, there's still a good reason to download it and give it a trial run. As seen in the video below, once two million people download the app, development will begin on a more traditional console game set in Terra Battle's world.

Despite that Sakaguchi's making a mobile game that's paving the way for a larger, traditional RPG, a lot of fans are noticeably upset that he's making a free-to-play game in the first place. Take the comments from our report of Terra Battle's announcement for example. They may sound like extreme reactions, but this attitude towards mobile and free-to-play games isn't rare or out of the ordinary, and may be a hurdle that's difficult for Sakaguchi and Mistwalker to overcome.

Sakaguchi is the greatest RPG creator of all time in my opinion. That said, I wont bother with a free to play mobile RPG.


I want to be excited but the words free-to-play make me cringe. I will still check it out, though, just in case. However, I'd much rather experience it on a dedicated gaming device.


...experimentation is good, but mobile and "free to play" rarely amount to anything worth playing.


After looking through all of the comments in the announcement story, there was only a single positive comment, but even so, it was a reluctant one. People are excited that Sakaguchi is still making games, but they're unhappy that he isn't making the kind of games they want. Armed with these reactions in mind, and my own appreciation for Sakaguchi's prior work, I sat down with the legendary game creator to find out why he's focusing on mobile development and how he plans to win over detractors of mobile and free-to-play games.

GameSpot: What do you like the most about making games these days?

Hironobu Sakaguchi: I started out making Final Fantasy games with a small team and then it grew into a big team, but now I've gone full circle and I'm working with a team of eight people. With a small team I have to wear many hats and that's fun for me because I get to do a lot of the work and we make quick decisions because we don't need to get everything greenlit. The decisions are very quick, but there are a lot of fights now because we're all so close. It's a different type of environment. I'm enjoying the creative aspect of it and the speed of it all.

Why did you start developing mobile games? Was it due to shifts in the market?

Rather than picking console or mobile I made a decision based on my team. There's one programmer that's involved with Terra Battle and we have a team of eight staff, so based on the number of people and the addition of some great artists, the decision was made to create a mobile game. It was more based on the team and the amount of talent that it has than the market.

Did you learn any lessons from your first mobile game, Party Wave, that you're applying to the development of Terra Battle?

I've been making games for TV for 30 years and designing for a horizontal screen. Party Wave was also horizontal. I realized that horizontal is not the way to go when creating mobile games. One of the major rules that I have right now is that it's vertical and easy to play with one hand. As a developer, with the layout, it's really different when you have a horizontal or vertical screen, in terms of how much you can display, so it's really important to be concise.

Are you enjoying mobile game development in general?

It's a completely new challenge and even the marketing side is completely different from what I've done in the past. I see more of an evolution of RPGs and the game industry in general where you have more powerful machines and hardware...but all of a sudden, I see mobile phone development. It's like there's a tree of game development, and I feel that mobile development is like a branch; a very thick branch. To be honest, two to three years from now there might be another branch that comes as a total surprise, but I feel like I'm in the middle of that change. Obviously, the mobile branch can evolve into something completely different, but I see that as a different challenge.

The Last Story, Sakaguchi's last console game before shifting to mobile development, released in Japan at the start of 2011.

You talk about different branches and being interested in new possibilities. How do you feel about virtual reality?

I do have interest in VR, I know about it, but I'm going in a direction right now with smart phones where it's really easy to get into. I feel like VR, that takes it to the extreme, where the experience is like an amusement park; you're in that world. I think that's going in a different direction than what I'm doing, but I have interest and knowledge in VR.

What would you say to skeptics of mobile games to convince them that Terra Battle is worth playing despite being a mobile product?

Like I said previously, I made that decision to go mobile based on my team rather than because of the industry, and one of our goals is to go to console based on the concept of this game, so I don't feel like I'm picking or choosing. I don't think the fans have to choose since there is an end goal to go to console. I think that even if though Terra Battle is on a different kind of device, there are characteristics in it that I'm taking from console game design. So for right now, it's very easy to play in the beginning, but from the middle of the game onward, the game is very in-depth. You need to build your characters, you need to change jobs, and do a lot of things. It gets complex, and I think that's a concept of console games.

It's like there's a tree of game development, and I feel that mobile development is like a branch; a very thick branch.

How do you feel about Final Fantasy now that you've been away from it for over a decade?

As a fan, I play stuff, but I don't have too much of an opinion in terms of how it's going.

If you didn't need to make money, would you still be making games the same way that you are today?

With the Terra Battle download starter, I see it as a vehicle that's reconnected me with the people that I previously worked with, so there's no money that's involved. It was thirty people that went out drinking and without this idea for Terra Battle we wouldn't have got together. I'm cherishing the moment, being able to reconnect with people that I worked with in the past. There's a whole relationship component that's beyond the rest. Everyone is drunk and drawing. Good times!

Artists Yoshitaka Amano and Hideo Minaba face off in jest as Nobuo Uematsu and others photobomb.

It must feel good to continue working with those people. There are so many companies in the west that grow their ranks, take risks, and then the team is ultimately disbanded once the game ships. How do those types of situations make you feel?

I've been through that, and I've done a lot of that. That's probably the trigger to the reaction I'm having to my current reality, where I'm enjoying the company of my team. I think that a few years ago, there's no way a team of eight could get this kind of recognition. It would have been impossible to say, "this is our game," and have everybody on the team get it. So, I feel that the mobile business has given opportunity to reach people without a large team, and that's I think a good opportunity.

What do you miss about the old way of making games? What can't you do today that you used to be able to?

You know, I don't really look too much into the past. Because of the download starter, I do really feel like the game will be rich in terms of the experience and the content. We're going to keep on adding content as long as the downloads grow. We talk about the number of people on the team, but looking at the number of people that might get involved thanks to the downloadstarter, we are doing something different. I'm really interested and excited about this new opportunity.

I feel that in the [past], when you ship a game, you're done. You have an end product. With [modern development] you have so many layers that you can add into it and I'm very excited about that.

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