Behind the scenes of Final Fantasy XII

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Of all the mainline games released under the Final Fantasy banner, there are none that have been as critically overlooked as this. Join games™ as we explore how Final Fantasy XII became a modern classic of the RPG genre

Final Fantasy is a franchise that has never been comfortable settling. Be it on an idea, on a theme, or even on a set of characters or a world. It’s a series that delights in adapting and evolving to mirror the current state of the wider industry. It is at its strongest when it is resetting the bar, challenging the constructs of RPG design, many of which it helped establish, in ways we never imagined were possible.

But Final Fantasy XII would prove to be one of Square Enix’s biggest challenges, and perhaps the series’ most significant overhaul since it fully embraced 3D graphics for Final Fantasy VII. It set the stage for everything Square would attempt with the series in the decade to follow; introducing a bigger world and more nuanced characters, an action-oriented battle system and aggressively player-driven RPG systems.

Behind the scenes of Final Fantasy XII

It was a testament to everything the studio was capable of at the time, the reason it – and it alone – seemed to single-handedly control the direction and scope of an entire genre. That, as history has taught us, is a challenge that the development team relished, even if it did come at a great cost. “The very nature of the Final Fantasy series is that we try new approaches and that we try new things each time,” says Hiroaki Kato, project manager on Final Fantasy XII, now serving as producer on The Zodiac Age remaster bound for PlayStation 4 in July 2017. “It’s a series that has always been about challenging yourself to try a new direction.”

Final Fantasy XII entered development in December 2000, and an almost six-year cycle would follow. It was, at the time, largely considered to be one of the longest bouts of active game development in the industry – it even earned itself a place in the Guinness World Records book because of it. And while internal shake-ups were a contributing factor to the extended development cycle, the real reason, we’re told, is because of an unwavering vision and ambition from the team to push the PlayStation 2 hardware to its very limits.

“I remember when we first started on development, back in the earliest stages,” says Takashi Katano, lead programmer on Final Fantasy XII and now serving as game director on The Zodiac Age. “When I first saw the proposal document of what the team wanted to do with the game I just went, ‘oh wow, this is for the PS2? This is a very complicated game we are going for.

“You know, I worked on Final Fantasy X as well. I was the lead programmer for both X and for XII, and I remember thinking that there were so many more complicated systems we needed to do for the programming on this one,” he continues, laughing. “I was a bit overwhelmed at the start by what they wanted me to do.”

Behind the scenes of Final Fantasy XII

This wasn’t just going to be Final Fantasy’s swansong on the PlayStation 2, but an opportunity for Square to use its immeasurable knowledge of the system to create something unprecedented. If 2001’s X could be seen as a faithful update of the Final Fantasy formula for a new generation – an extension of what had been achieved on VII, VIII and IX on the PSone – then XII would be the grand reimagining.

This was all set into motion by Final Fantasy Tactics director Yasumi Matsuno and Final Fantasy IX director Hiroyuki Ito. From the beginning the game was given a clear path, centred around an evolved battle system and changes to the way in which enemy encounters functioned. These two elements remained a consistent focus. “The two main things we really wanted to do with XII were, first of all, have the seamless battles,” recalls Kato, noting that having encounters transition from overworld to combat without the ‘break screen’ in the middle was a huge desire for the team. “And then the other was in introducing the Gambit system, our simulated AI system for fighting. They were the two main prongs of our evolution.”

This is surprising, given the internal shake-ups that occurred midway through production. Game director Matsuno was forced to leave the project, citing health concerns, and this led to personnel changes across the project. Ito was joined by Hiroshi Minagawa to partner on directorial duties, while Akitoshi Kawazu became executive producer. It’s still unclear as to what impact this had on the direction of the story and world of XII. While many of the developers games™ has spoken with over the years have been eager to assure us that Matsuno’s vision was left intact – completed in an impressive fashion by the restructured team to the best of its ability – there’s always been a hint that something could have been different. XII was set in the world of Ivalice, the very same locale as Matsuno’s Final Fantasy Tactics, although the link was never made clear in the final release – a shame to this very day. Katano and Kato wouldn’t be drawn on the matter. 

Still, it’s better to appreciate what we did receive rather than that which we did not. The team’s desire to move away from random encounters informed how much of the game functioned. Making enemies physical objects in the world that the player could interact with or avoid entirely had a sweeping impact on the basic framework of Final Fantasy; the transition between battles and exploration had to be seamless, party management needed to be more intuitive and combat had to shift away from turn-based simulation in favour of action that reflected the new-found pace of play.

Behind the scenes of Final Fantasy XII

All of this came to form the Active Dimension Battle system, a way of working combat into Square’s classically sprawling world and claustrophobic dungeon designs. The Gambit System was a way of peeling back the difficulty of the new action-oriented system while still keeping the player engaged; it was, as Katano tells us, a testament to the skill of battle system designer Hiroyuki Ito – and the programming work undertaken by Takashi Isowaki and Katano himself – that this was able to function so successfully.

The Gambit system essentially allowed the player to program each of the characters in their party to perform certain commands and actions in battle. It’s a system that seems simple on the surface but actually allowed for an impressive amount of depth, even affording the opportunity to program responses to specific conditions and outcomes. It was, frankly, ahead of its time. Given that you could control only one character in combat, the rest of your party would move and act autonomously, making it look to any onlookers as if a huge battle was raging around you – but to the player, it was merely a clever implementation of simple, pre-planned parameters: a target, an action and a priority execution for each hero.

“The way in which the Gambit system works – and where the enjoyment from that system is drawn from – is that it allows you to adapt your Gambit selection and the build you have created to fit each situation,” considers Katano. “Taking it into a battle for the first time and seeing if it works or not… when you get it right it feels great.”

The difficulty, he tells us, was getting the balance right. Final Fantasy XII was a huge game, and ensuring that players would be constantly challenged was a huge point of conflict for the team. “The worst possible balance for that system is if you can find one ultimate combination and use it for every single battle,” Katano tells us. “We really had to try and avoid that. We had to make sure that all of the enemies, the bosses – and the bounties and mob hunts – were varied enough, that pushed you to try different combinations.” It’s also worth remembering that this balance would eventually be revisited, first in 2007, for the release of Final Fantasy XII: The International Zodiac Job System edition of the game, and then a decade later, when the core team returned for The Zodiac Age remaster for PS4.

Given how tribal Final Fantasy fans can be, notoriously so, we wondered whether a fear of fan backlash could have played on the studio’s mind throughout the game’s development. As every year passed expectations only continued to grow. Fans’ desperation for another ‘classic’ experience on par with VII and VIII was becoming more broadly recognised – thanks in large part to the increasing reach of the internet and popularity of gaming forums. Kato is quick to assure us that this didn’t play on the minds of the team, they were too focused on the task at hand to worry about anything else. “We were really far more focused on just making sure that the system was as good as it could be and that we were achieving everything that we wanted to do with it.

Behind the scenes of Final Fantasy XII

“We were taking on the challenge of doing something new – and we felt we had to do that – so it was just about making a game that could be played and enjoyed. About getting those systems refined and working as it should do before we even started thinking about whether some people would like it and whether some people wouldn’t.”

Given all of the additions and changes to the core play of Final Fantasy, you’d be right in wondering whether the studio ever stepped back and wondered whether it was going too far. Despite the development period, not everything on the team’s wish list made the cut. The idea of co-operative play was considered but ultimately abandoned – a limitation of the PlayStation 2 hardware being the principle reason. Another – one that spent far too long in gestation – was the idea of recruiting NPC characters to join you on mob hunts, although this was, again, considered too much for the hardware to deal with. But there were also decisions made in service of the player, in an effort to ensure the game was as playable and enjoyable as possible from day one.

“There was actually a discussion about including a job system, or at least a variation of it, in XII right from the start,” says Kato, discussing the system that would later be introduced in the reworked 2007 release. “But what we decided there, from a design perspective, because we already had the Gambit system, was if we added that and a complete job system it might be a bit too much for the player to deal with – that it may have been too many new systems for them to understand.”

“So we held back, deciding to have just that single licence board,” he says, adding, “we thought that was probably an easier way for people to understand the game.” He isn’t wrong, of course, as leaping into XII for the first time can be a dizzying experience, especially today, where many of the systems it introduced have been refined and streamlined by other games released since. Still, making these kinds of decisions isn’t an easy task, Katano tells us, and there wasn’t always a path for making them.

“There isn’t one clear process for doing this,” he says, discussing the difficulties in making cuts or streamlining systems. “It’s more of a feeling. When we are creating the game we play it a lot, assessing it as we continue to develop it. If we come across something that seems a little complicated for the player we would talk to [Hiroyuki Ito] and sometimes he would say, ‘yeah you’re right, this is a little bit over the top,’ but other times he would say, ‘no, this is what I’m trying to do with this system,’ and he will convince us that it really was supposed to be like that. There is no one way of doing it, but it very much is done by feeling it out on a case-by-case basis.”

All of this work was, of course, undertaken with a cloud looming over it. There’s a reason that XII tends to be
the Final Fantasy game that struggles to get attention, and it has nothing to do with quality. Thanks to the extended development cycle, XII launched just ahead of the NA release Final Fantasy XI – the first online-only game in the franchise and the cause for much (unwarranted, as it should happen) excitement between fans – and, of course, the emergence of a new console known as the PlayStation 3.

Behind the scenes of Final Fantasy XII

The game was largely overshadowed by the excitement surrounding the PS3 launch, Sony’s answer to the hugely popular Xbox 360. At this point, XII looked like a technical marvel, but was struggling to hold attention when held up against the dizzying graphical presentation of titles such as Heavenly Sword, Resistance and MotorStorm. But moving XII to the PS3 wasn’t an option for the team, they were simply too far forward in development – the console wasn’t even a known consideration when they had begun work on the project.

“What we tried to do with XII was to really exploit the power of the PS2 hardware and really push it to its limits. Naturally, it was always going to be the timing that it was because of where we were in the development cycle,” says Kato, although Katano is quick to note that a game such as XII simply wouldn’t have been able to exist at the start of either console cycles. “By that stage we had worked out what the PS2 could do, so we planned around that… you couldn’t do it at the beginning of the cycle. In that respect, I think [the release] was the right timing.” It was only possible because of the deep knowledge that the studio had of the system, built up over time and experimentation.

It’s only now, through the prism of the Zodiac Age remaster that the team is really able to appreciate what the technical limitations of the PS2 really were. “When we first started working on the project, the PlayStation 4 remaster, we all sat down and everybody on the team played the original game,” recalls Katano. “A number of the things that came up – the response and the feedback from the team after playing the game – were that the loading times were way too long, and as the lead programmer on the original game that was a very difficult thing for me to hear,” he says, sharing a laugh with Kato. “And certainly the distance between two save crystals was very long; if you saved and you went off and then you died, you would lose a lot of time in the game. So we thought, if you played this as a modern game, people wouldn’t really be as accepting or as forgiving of this now, so we had to change that. Those are the kinds of things that we picked up on.”

The Zodiac Age, much like the original release of XII, feels fresh and fun in a way that no other Final Fantasy game has. For all intents and purposes, this is an HD remaster of The International Zodiac Job System version of the game, touting a better HUD, faster combat, new license boards and a further refined game balance. One of the biggest problems with the original release of XII – an oversight at the time – was that every character essentially becomes an overpowered behemoth by the end of the game, with the license board – an array of regimented abilities and stat boosts you can unlock – diminishing the differences between each of the characters over time so they all end up feeling more or less the same. The addition and expansion of the job system essentially allows for party diversification, and far more autonomy; in many respects, XII is the best Final Fantasy has ever handled the balance between action and tactical play, and this only serves to highlight and enhance that fact. This was the game to set Final Fantasy on a new path and thanks to that it also has a clearer vision than some of the games that followed

“Looking back to XII, the fact that we could even do a remaster of it all is what I’m so proud of,” says Kato, beaming. “Looking back on the game, we can see that we got it to a really high level the first time around. To see all of the effort that the development staff put into it, and how that made the final product what it was, it’s just really great. I’m really proud to see that everybody’s effort paid off.”

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