Hironobu Sakaguchi On The ‘Terra Battle’ Games And The Untapped Potential Of Mobile


Credit: Ollie Barder

Hironobu Sakaguchi at his desk in the Mistwalker studio.

While I already interviewed Hironobu Sakaguchi recently, I didn’t get to talk much about his Terra Battle games or much on the current state of the games industry. So I was grateful that I was able to catch up with him recently to discuss these topics.

With Terra Battle 2 now released, I wanted to know more about how the series had come about, as well as how it fitted in with Sakaguchi’s prior games.

Terra Battle is a project I started around two and a half years ago now, with the first game launching for mobile platforms. It combines a lot of puzzle elements as well as role-playing game type progression. Terra Battle 2 is largely based on the same system, where you sandwich your enemies and attack them on this puzzle board. Like Final Fantasy one through six, the basic system is quite similar. There is a core gameplay mechanic, while each one has its own world, own characters, own story, and different ways you can enjoy it. In that regard, I am taking Terra Battle in a similar direction where you can play Terra Battle 2 without having played the first game. We have also powered the game up a lot, trying to ramp up the story and make a game that transcends mobile. So it has a real console-like role-playing game feel, in the sense that there are world maps that you can move around. There’s more than just the one puzzle screen that you see. In that regard, I think you can really see that balance that this feels more like a console game but you can play it on a mobile platform.

“To clarify on the Final Fantasy comment, I meant that each entry is quite distinct and separate. So you can play one game in the series and not miss out if you haven’t played previous entries.

“Compared to the first game, there really are a lot of areas that have evolved in this new game. I can mention a few right now. One major part is the storytelling aspect. With the nature of the first Terra Battle in regards to the mechanics and systems, you would never really know who was going to be in your party. This is because the characters are by nature a roll of the dice, so that meant you couldn’t really tell an engaging story. Whereas in Terra Battle 2, the system is a little different in that the characters are now fixed but the Guardians are the ones that do the fighting. So that meant I can really drive the narrative element in this new game. Again, in this way, it is more like a console role-playing game than a traditional mobile release.

“Another new element is how the equipment is handled. You can really equip all your characters with weapons, with one weapon in each hand, full armor. Not to mention the raid aspects, so you can play co-operatively online. So online is built into the game, with up to 10 people controlling two characters each, to take down this huge raid-type boss, surrounding it from all angles. So Terra Battle 2 has a lot of elements not in the first game.

“When it comes to working with Silicon Studio on Terra Battle 2, there are a lot of reasons really. Particularly that they develop a lot of middleware for different applications and in doing so I knew they had a lot of technical expertise and some great programming talent. So I felt comfortable developing a game with them, especially knowing that with Terra Battle 2, I wanted to keep the game operating as long as possible – we have plans for new characters and new enemies on a weekly basis. I knew with that kind of ongoing development that I could rely upon Silicon Studio. Again, they are also a fairly big company and established, so I felt comfortable with that as well. The other main point here is that I didn’t want to stop the service on the first Terra Battle. I wanted both games to co-exist. That meant I could not take the team away from the first game to support the second.”

The History Gaming And How It Ties Into Mobile

It was here we moved a bit away from Terra Battle and started to talk about how the situation with mobile games is not too dissimilar to how arcade and console games were back in the day.

“When I first started developing games, it was in an era when arcade games were all the rage. That meant all the good programmers and designers flocked to work on arcade games. By contrast, console games were somewhat of an afterthought – a much cheaper platform and perceived to require less skill to operate within. It was often thought that the developers who could not make arcade games ended up on console titles instead. Eventually, console games overtook the arcades and there was a big paradigm shift. So I think something similar is happening between console games and mobile now. When you go to places like E3 and any game event, everyone is talking about console games with the latest graphics, but I feel there is quietly a trend that – even though people make fun of mobile games (or “they don’t take it as seriously”) now, eventually there will be a shift when the technology catches up, similarly to how it did between the arcade games and console.

“Obviously, you are also working with clear physical restrictions on mobile. Such as a smaller screen and the interface being based on touch rather than buttons, so there are those technical challenges. However, when I take a step back I see it as a similar challenge when I was developing on console compared to the arcade games of that era. In that sense, it feels the same with how mobile works in this console gaming era.


Credit: Mistwalker

‘Terra Battle 2’ has some incredible artwork and character designs.

“That said, I still think all these platforms will continue to co-exist with one another in the future. After all, with role-playing games, I think there will always be a need for an epic type adventure on a large screen, which can be done on consoles. However, the trends you see beneath the surface, even from a business standpoint, you can already tell that there is a large shift underway in how consumers choose how to spend their money and time.

“When it comes to the more recent problem on console with bigger budgets for those games, there are more console games now that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on each title. With Mistwalker, we are a small studio. Trying to compete directly with that kind of expenditure on console and raising those kinds of funds would be nearly impossible. So for us, with mobile, there is certainly a clear budgetary aspect there.

“However, I do want to develop games on console again at some point. We’re even working on Terra Battle 3 right now and maybe console will be the right fit for that. Just because we are developing heavily on mobile right now doesn’t mean we have completely left console behind. After all, the Nintendo Switch is a very good piece of hardware.”

Terra Wars And Its Unique Art Style

The next big project Sakaguchi and his team at Mistwalker are working on is that of Terra Wars and it has an unusual and interesting approach to its art style.

Terra Wars really came from a point where I wanted to develop something with a very different art style. You see many games developed using CG or some other form of art but with Terra Wars I did a lot of research and found that nobody had really explored claymation. That means the characters for Terra Wars physically exist as clay and we animate them via taken photos of them in various states.

“The systems and mechanics for Terra Wars are still under development and we are still figuring out the best way for these characters to interact. That being said I wanted to combine that very cute super deformed character element with “war.” This goes back to the title, as Terra Wars sums up what the game will be about. Despite the cute and warring elements, the story is going to be quite a serious science-fiction themed narrative.

Terra Wars will have a very different set of mechanics, but it comes out next year, so we don’t really have a solid lock on the game design. However, if someone fires off an attack, that will be done in CG but at the same time, we wanted to make it feel intentionally very claymation-like. A lot of the movement is quite jerky but that is part of the charm, really. In any case, Terra Wars is out sometime next year, so we have time to investigate further.”

“In terms of what else Mistwalker is working on, the priority right now is trying to get Terra Battle 2 done, but at any given point it needs to be maintained and operated, which Silicon Studios is going to be a large part of. However, once Terra Battle 2 is out I will start shifting my focus onto Terra Battle 3, and have two parallel development lines within the studio.”

Breaking Down Storytelling In Games

Considering all the narrative driven games Sakaguchi has worked on over the years, I was curious to find out more behind his process of storytelling when it comes to games.

“With storytelling in games, the key is to weave the story carefully into the gameplay. So as people are consuming the story, you have to scatter it just enough to progress the narrative while at the same time intersperse it with gameplay. That means if someone plays the game and there is a small segment of story tucked away within that, they get an emotional attachment to what happened to the characters and then that means they feel responsible for the next step in their story. So that’s how the player can relate to what is happening to the in-game characters. You might ask then, “What is the right balance for this kind of narrative scattering?” but there are many different ways and techniques to do that, so if we went down this path we would be talking about this all day long. Similar to flower arranging, or ikebana, there are many ways to arrange flowers. So you could have two very large flowers in the front, accompanied by lots of smaller ones behind them, or even a varied collage of different flowers. So in the same way, there are many different approaches to take.

“One of my favorite Western games in terms of storytelling is definitely the first Half-Life on PC. That was amazing. Mainly because I was very surprised to find out that it was a story about aliens. First, you think it is a regular shooter, a little bit of a thriller and then you progress through it. The way they lead you into the story of bringing in aliens into it and turning it into a more science-fiction-type story really kind of blew my mind.

“As for why I thought Half Life’s story was so good, I think a lot of it was the surprise factor and having worked on games and played lots of games over the years, you almost trained to expect a certain flow. So Half-Life really did something I didn’t foresee and that was great.


Credit: Mistwalker

The world of ‘Terra Battle 2’.

“When it comes to Japanese games, I don’t want to bundle everything together but one example I can think of in terms of Japanese storytelling is that I think there is a lot more abstraction. I feel that even back in the Famicom era, we were working with pixels and very basic sprites. However, with the current state of mobile platforms, you are still working with a lot of tiles or different interfaces. So that means there is still a lot of abstraction and less emphasis on photorealism. Due to this, you can almost rely on the player’s imagination, so you can write in a very crazy story and say that the world is falling apart but you don’t have to express or show all of that. So I think that is probably of the biggest differences in terms of the storytelling methods between Japan and the West.

“Whether this is down to the influence of Hollywood in the West, compared to toys in Japan, I mean we’ve all clashed chogokin together as kids here. While that is just plastic and metal bumping against one another, in our minds, there is this epic outer space battle going on.

“When it comes to my favorite Dragon Quest game, it would probably be Dragon Quest III. This is because of how the ending brings it back to the first game in the series. It was really impressive how they tied those three games together.”

What The Future Of Gaming On Mobile Holds

Eventually, we got onto what the future holds for mobile games and Sakaguchi definitely thinks there is untapped potential here. However, before that we talked briefly about VR gaming and the logistics of making games between Japan and Hawaii.

“In terms of new games I want to play, both Fujisaka and I want to check out the current state of virtual reality (or VR). A while ago I had a go with the Oculus but I want to see how it has developed since then. But due to work, I have been unable to do so.”

“I am most interested in the PC approach to VR, as it has that indie-type feel to it, where anything goes. On the PS4 or even mobile, the content will get curated but you can really see people’s creativity on PC.”

“I tend to spend half my time in Hawaii and half my time in Japan. Now that we are finishing off Terra Battle 2, I am here in Japan. In terms of how it fits into our development style, I think it’s more that I just like Hawaii.

“As to the logistics of managing two locations, I am sure you know that most development is done by people in cubicles often communicating via inter-office chat applications. There are also ways to track tasks too. It just happens that my cubicle is in Hawaii, though that does mean there is a 5-hour time difference.

“Obviously, when you are towards the end of production you need to be all onsite, as you have to constantly talk with everyone directly.”

“With the current state of mobile gaming in Japan, I think that if we stay on the current path then it won’t be long until players get bored. So we have this formula where you have this gatcha, as in a random dice rolling system, the gameplay itself is extremely simple and quick. So with Terra Battle 2, we have this large world map and all these equippables that make it feel more like a console game. It was funny actually, while we were in our closed beta test some of the feedback we got was that players didn’t really know if this was a game meant for mobile or console. At the very least, what I want to do is try to challenge that status-quo myself, so that we aren’t churning out the same kind of games as everyone else.

“A lot of the interesting aspects about the mobile platform itself is how the interface and all the sensors work. I still think the touchscreen interface is something that has not been fully explored. If anything, we are still at the starting point in gaming terms. We are still learning about what can be done with these devices and how people interact with them. Obviously, you cannot really play console games like Super Mario all that well but this will inevitably lead to something new and different. Even the Pokémon GO craze, with the augmented reality setup, is something that could not have been done on regular gaming devices. So I think there will be some completely revolutionary forms of games that we will see on mobile that could not have been achieved on other hardware.

“One advancement I am personally looking forward to is having small holographic displays, with images that hover above the device.

“As for what I think might come next in terms of mobile interfaces, if I had that I wouldn’t tell anyone. I would make it first!”


Credit: Ollie Barder

Kimihiko Fujisaka is a big fan of “isekai” type stories.

Mystery Illustrations And The Allure Of Isekai

Towards the end of the discussion with Sakaguchi, I started to talk with the artist Kimihiko Fujisaka, who pens Mistwalker’s stunning artwork. However, before that Sakaguchi explained where a certain mystery image originated from and what its usage actually meant.

“That is an interesting illustration because it is not specifically tied to any particular property or game but whenever I start a new project or want to say something is happening, I use that image to promote that. In that sense, it is more a generic illustration we use to say we have some news (shown below).

“To give some background on that illustration, it was originally part of a presentation we had with Sega. At one point before the first Terra Battle we were working on a collaboration with Sega and that never really happened. However, the illustration Fujisaka did for that presentation, I continued to use after that for our various announcements.”

“In terms of illustrations and just more traditional 2D style art, as well as how that is being incorporated into games nowadays – I think at one point there was a phase where it was either CG or nothing. However, these days I feel that illustrations that used to be just the blueprint for a game have become the in-game art directly. These illustrations are the visual star of each game and people are demanding higher and higher quality illustrations.”

It was here where Kimihiko Fusjisaka talked about his illustration work at Mistwalker and it seemed we both shared a mutual love for isekai anime, especially that of Aura Battler Dunbine as written and directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino.

“So I have been working since the first Terra Battle together with Sakaguchi on bringing these types of illustrations to the game. My main involvement is primarily with the character designs in these games. So everything you see in the Terra Battle and Terra Wars games is my work. This means coming up with the images of everything in the game, so that we can use that as a baseline.

“One of the first steps in Terra Wars was to figure out the chibi or super deformed art style of how these characters would be shown. So creating that imagery and concepts fell to me and my team artists.

“In terms of artists I like, that comes from manga and anime. So people like Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and his work on the original Mobile Suit Gundam as well as things like Arion. However, I especially like the artwork in Aura Battler Dunbine.


Credit: Mistwalker

Kimihiko Fujisaka’s mysterious illustration that originated on a separate game.

“With Dunbine, I think a lot of why I like it is the world setting and the two worlds co-existing in parallel. I really felt at the time it was the first anime to really tackle that set up properly, to really explore that more Western type approach to fantasy. Whereas before it was very hardcore science-fiction or some other kind of unique fantasy, there wasn’t anything quite so Western in approach.

“Nowadays there are plenty of fantasy type anime series, more Lord of the Rings style, very epic world settings. However, at the time, Dunbine felt like the first to really to do that in a convincing way. All the elements and details of the world too, like the mecha design. As the aura battlers weren’t so robotic, there was more of a knight in armor kind of feel to them. Even the costume design as well.

“In terms of how it influences me, I grew up surrounded by the artwork of people like Tomonori Kogawa and Kazutaka Miyatake, so that definitely had an impact on my work. Not to mention anime like Panzer World Galient.

“Naturally, with newer series such as The Vision of Escaflowne, these too have a big influence on me, as it has a similar line and evolution in my mind.

“When it comes to my work in the games I have been working on at Mistwalker, I really want the players to feel this attachment to the characters that will make them want to play the game. For them to want to collect each character, to help grow as well as nurture them. Of course, with CG it is a completely different approach but visually seeing this one character and then wanting to grow with them as you play the game is something I want people to feel.”

Talking with both Sakaguchi and Fujisaka was fascinating; especially in regards to how mobile gaming currently echoes the state console games did against arcade titles back in the day. In any case, I look forward to whatever untapped potential Sakaguchi and Fujisaka manage to unleash from mobile in the near future.

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