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Who is Final Fantasy XVI Director Hiroshi Takai?

Being named director of a mainline Final Fantasy game is a highly coveted position that very few people have been able to hold. With the reveal of Final Fantasy XVI, a new man joined this small group: Hiroshi Takai.

Although he has been at Square for almost thirty years, he is certainly not as well-known as the likes of Yoshinori Kitase or Tetsuya Nomura - not to mention Naoki Yoshida, who happens to be this new game’s producer. Takai is certainly more renowned in Japan, thanks to his contribution to the cult SaGa series and to FFXIV’s successful rebirth. But, unless Yoshida steals the show, Takai will most likely find himself in the spotlight in the coming months.

While we're waiting for new details about FFXVI, now is the right time to learn more about the person helming the project.

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The start of a long SaGa

Hiroshi Takai made his debut in the video games industry as a graphic designer at the very end of the 1980s, during the heyday of pixel art. After contributing to games such as Hellfire S for PC Engine, he was hired by Square in 1991. Joining Akitoshi Kawazu’s development team, he started working on the very first Romancing SaGa for the Super Nintendo, released in January 1992, for which he designed backgrounds for the battle scenes as well as monsters (alongside the late Manabu Daishima). However, his most memorable contribution is probably the opening title movie that, along with Kenji Ito’s music, sets the tone for the story.

And a long story, to be sure! Takai remained in charge of combat graphics on Romancing SaGa 2 (1993) while also contributing another memorable opening scene. He then discovered a new vocation: visual effects, of which he became a specialist on Romancing SaGa 3 (1995) and SaGa Frontier (1997). As the first title in the series to be developed for the PlayStation, the latter introduced the use of 3D graphics during battle scenes. For Takai, this technical evolution was a blessing, as it allowed him to use more complex special effects, with never before seen shapes and colors. He was undeniably in his element: at the time, Square was the undisputed leader in terms of flashy graphics - after all, Final Fantasy VII was released in the same year as SaGa Frontier!

As a key member of the SaGa team, Takai was called back by Kawazu a few years later to work as battle director on Romancing SaGa’s enhanced remake for PlayStation 2 (2005), which was subtitled Minstrel Song in Japan. Going back to his very first project at Square with some amount of nostalgia, he had the battle visual effects recreated while using the console’s superior power to add more nuance. Notably, smooth camera moves accompany the player as they browse the game’s plentiful menus, then elegantly emphasize each character’s attacks.

Incidentally, Takai also has an interest in wrestling, in such a way that some of SaGa’s battle animations are inspired by famous wrestler moves. One of his favorites is called “Rolling Cradle”.

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Square’s first MMORPG

Hiroshi Takai was not entirely bound to the SaGa series, however. In 1992, while Final Fantasy V was well on its way to release, he lent a hand to the battle graphics team - a team that also included a newcomer named Tetsuya Nomura embarking on his very first work at Square. Takai was left mainly handling magic visual effects. Soon after SaGa Frontier was released, he directed Legend of Mana’s visual effects (1999), before working as a game designer on the infamous The Bouncer (2000), one of Square’s early PlayStation 2 titles. But, at the turn of the new millennium, Square suddenly refocused its video game strategy solely on the Final Fantasy brand. Under Hironobu Sakaguchi’s impulse, Square decided to make an MMORPG of the eleventh entry. A rather bold move, as the genre was only just burgeoning.

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To develop such a major project, Square had no other choice but to merge several teams, including the ones behind Chrono Cross and Legend of Mana - a measure that temporarily put on hold the numerous franchises that nurtured the publisher’s line-up during the 1990s. In the process, Hiroshi Takai became one of the three battle effect designers working on FFXI, alongside Chrono Cross veterans Yoshimasa Furukawa and Yuko Hatae. After a number of delays, the game was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2002, then for PC in 2003, and is still ongoing as of today, albeit only on PC.

One of Takai’s most noteworthy contributions to Square’s first MMORPG is one of its battle system’s most popular functions: the skillchains. Inspired by the game’s online nature, these techniques require team members - or even solo players - to string together specific skills so they can trigger additional effects that enhance their damage. As is often the case with good ideas, skillchains were actually thought up very late in development, not long before the beta tests were launched, and Hiroshi Takai was the one responsible for their last-minute implementation.

Immediately afterward, he again worked as a battle effect designer on FFXI’s first expansion pack, Rise of the Zilart (2003), before being summoned to work on Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song-.

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The Last Remnant experiment

The arrival of a new generation of consoles (the Xbox 360 in 2005 and PlayStation 3 in 2006) shook things up at Square Enix, mostly because of the increasing human and technical needs required by HD graphics. Hoping to unify its technological output, the publisher started developing a common framework, Crystal Tools, which was supposed to power its major titles such as FFXIII, Versus XIII, and XIV. Production issues quickly arose, thus delaying all projects by several years; the first of them, FFXIII, would only release in December 2009!

While its internal teams were unable to ship HD games, Square Enix was losing momentum. This forced the company to sign an Unreal Engine 3 license agreement with Epic Games and to assemble a team with its available workforce (people who had worked on FFXII, Dirge of Cerberus: FFVII, Front Mission 5, and Romancing SaGa) in order to start creating its first in-house next-generation game. This would become The Last Remnant (2008), produced by Akitoshi Kawazu and directed, for the first time in his career, by Hiroshi Takai.

It was also the first time Square Enix used a third-party engine to produce a flagship title, which certainly upset the developers’ long-standing habits. True to Square’s handmade corporate culture, they were used to creating and polishing their own tools, and to make the most of each game console by leaving no kilobyte unused - a mindset Takai himself subscribed to. However, some of the Unreal Engine’s features were completely foreign to them. Because the garbage collection system automatically deletes surplus data, Takai and his team were continuously seeing memory amounts fluctuate and couldn’t help but ask themselves how they could take advantage of the freed-up resources. An endless undertaking!

Left to their own devices with an engine that they had to learn by experience, the Last Remnant development team found itself unable to realize its ambitions as well as it did on the previous generation of consoles. This prompted Hiroshi Takai to confess that they had to scale down their game in certain areas -  a rare public confession from a Square Enix developer, made at the 2009 Game Developers Conference. Still, the director also pointed out that working with the Unreal Engine broadened their mindset about game development, and would probably benefit their future endeavors. In a way, this was their trial by fire.

Released for the Xbox 360 and PC, The Last Remnant was also going to receive a PlayStation 3 port, but it was eventually cancelled when the company realized that the process would take far too long, particularly due to the console’s notoriously complex architecture. Despite this troubled birthing, the game achieved some amount of fame, which was renewed when it was finally remastered for PlayStation 4 in 2018 and Nintendo Switch in 2019.

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Lessons from the West

The Last Remnant team was not the only one struggling: FFXIII was also encountering development issues that forced its creators to downsize their ambitions, and the FFXIV disaster was looming on the horizon. A major crisis was at hand if Square Enix did not quickly renew its work methods. Mindful of this issue, CEO Yoichi Wada was convinced that part of the solution would come from Western studios, most of which were thriving at this time. This prompted him to purchase British publisher Eidos in 2009, hoping to bring some of its know-how to Japan. Also, as North America and Europe became the industry’s beating heart, a growing number of Japanese makers were starting to adapt their games to a Western mindset.

In 2009, Wada entrusted producer Ryutaro Ichimura (Dragon Quest IX) with the mission to create a new brand specifically targeted at the Western audience. The project was launched at the end of the year, with Naoki Yoshida (who was then working as a game designer on Dragon Quest X) and Hiroshi Takai at its helm. The latter was most likely chosen due to his experience with The Last Remnant, which was already trying to appeal to the global market. As a result, both were part of a group of developers from Square Enix’s headquarters sent on a business trip to Eidos’ studios (including Hitman’s IO Interactive, Tomb Raider’s Crystal Dynamics, and Just Cause’s Avalanche) to research their engines and working habits. Around the same time, Eidos’ chief technology officer Julien Merceron traveled to Tokyo to meet the group’s in-house teams and discuss their ongoing issues.

A departure from Square Enix’s renowned RPG history, Yoshida and Takai’s project was envisioned as an extreme action title that they later described as "Bloodborne before Bloodborne" - not only in terms of intense gameplay, but also in its dark fantasy setting. One of the game’s distinctive features was going to be its 1v4 asymmetrical multiplayer mode, where one player would be given superior powers to try and eliminate the opposing team.

The project progressed normally throughout 2010, although Yoshida and Takai had diverging opinions as to how their workforce should be managed. While the former was interested in training the team’s younger members by giving them more autonomy, the latter feared this would slow down production - which, according to him is exactly what happened. This was not enough to discourage them, though, and the team continued to heavily rely on a number of senior developers, among which were FFXII veterans Kazutoyo Maehiro, Hiroshi Minagawa, and Akihiko Yoshida as scenario writer, graphics lead, and concept artist respectively.

Development on this project continued until fate speared a spoke into its wheels. Following a series of worrying alpha and beta tests, Square Enix’s new MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, was officially launched on September 30, 2010. Mired by numerous technical issues, an outdated player interface, and meager contents, the game was met with a lukewarm welcome from players and reviewers. This marked the beginning of a long-lasting time of crisis for the publisher.

Rebuilding Eorzea at any cost

Hiroshi Takai was among the first observers outside of the development team to understand the severity of the FFXIV situation. Called up to review the game shortly before its launch, he warned that the PC version was defective and that releasing it on PS3 in such a state was unthinkable. This did not prevent Square Enix from pushing forward with their plans - or thus prevent the debacle from happening. Shortly afterward, a task force was assembled to draw up a list of remedies for the broken MMORPG, and Takai and Minagawa were asked to join it, owing to their expertise in the fields of battle design and user interface respectively. For a while, their schedule was split between FFXIV and the new action game.

It gradually became obvious that the evil was too deep-rooted to settle for half measures. Naoki Yoshida, who was involved in the thought process due to his proximity with Takai and Minagawa, eventually convinced Yoichi Wada that the team had to be thoroughly restructured. On December 10, 2010, Wada officially announced that former producer Hiromichi Tanaka would pass on his duties to Yoshida, and that he was tasking him with putting together a group of experts to tackle the issue. Among them was of course Hiroshi Takai, who was appointed lead designer. His role later evolved to assistant director, making him one of Yoshida’s two right-hand men - the other being animation specialist Shintaro Tamai.

This new, long-lasting assignment inevitably marked the end of their other project. Even so, it's possible that it was later transformed into Bloodmasque, a 2013 mobile game running on Unreal Engine 3, that was also planned to receive a console version before it was eventually cancelled. It was produced by none other than Ryutaro Ichimura, to whom Yoshida entrusted his pending projects when he took over FFXIV. It also features a story that was penned by Kazutoyo Maehiro.

Even as FFXIV was being taken care of, it didn’t take long for Square Enix to realize that the current version was too faulty to be turned into a stable service: to get it back on track, it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Announced in October 2011 under the name “FFXIV 2.0”, before it was officially titled A Realm Reborn the following year, this complete overhaul was developed as a matter of urgency by enlisting the help of hundreds of people within the company, thus leading to the cancellation of even more upcoming games. The resurrected MMORPG was launched in August 2013, at last earning well-deserved praise.

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As the assistant director, this time alongside Kazuya Niino (who was in charge of quests), Hiroshi Takai was certainly in the hot seat, but nevertheless played a key role in turning the game into a success. Appearing as a guest during a live letter from the producer stream in early 2014, he described his duties as such: “My job is to work on odds and ends that trouble the developers. I'm directly in charge of effects and I oversee the level team that is in charge of planning the fields and dungeons, but essentially my work is really a bit of everything.”

One cannot underestimate the importance of battle effects in an MMORPG. Players engaged in a dungeon or a trial must be able to identify any visual hint at first glance—a fact that Takai, as an avid FFXIV player himself, is all the more aware of. One story tells that he took the liberty of widening some area-of-effect cues during the battle against Twintania without Yoshida knowing, because he was troubled by their small size while playing the game outside office hours. In such a case, it certainly helps to be part of the development team!

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Naoki Yoshida, Kazutoyo Maehiro, Hiroshi Takai and Takeo Suzuki (L-R) during the FFXIV August 2015 Anniversary live stream.

Hiroshi Takai’s rising fame

Besides his everyday duties, Hiroshi Takai also happens to have a hidden talent for video editing, which he started demonstrating during FFXIV’s promotional campaign. In the months leading up to the release, he notably produced the “A Tour of Eorzea” and “Dungeon Crawl” series of videos, showcasing the towns and landscapes of the game at length. His skills were first put on display with the “Limit Break” trailer in September 2012, and after release, he was in charge of each new patch trailer up until Stormblood. Instead of simply capturing gameplay footage from the player’s point of view, he depicted battle sequences with unique camera angles, such as slow tracking shots in the midst of the action.

This touch was soon nicknamed the “Takai Camera” by his colleagues—a term that Japanese fans took on, some of them even pointing out how reminiscent it was of SaGa’s battle scenes. Takai, however, doesn’t consider his work to be out of the ordinary. “I feel like this is a bit overexaggerated,” he said during the 2014 live letter from the producer. On another occasion, he even mentioned that, for lack of time, he never actually prepares any storyboard for his videos, and simply starts editing by instinct.

Another funny anecdote involving Takai is related to the “default” Hyuran Warrior who appears in A Realm Reborn’s opening movie, before returning with a new job in each new expansion. While English-speaking players know him as “poster boy” or “Derplander”, that character is nicknamed “Hiroshi” by the Japanese community. This dates back to the time Takai revealed he was playing the game as a Warrior himself, and featured that job prominently in his patch trailers with a 3D character model that closely resembled the CG version. This was enough for players to connect the two and start calling him Hiroshi. The FFXIV team, however, almost never refers to him as such, while his official name appears to be “Meteor Survivor”. How plain!

In Japan again, Hiroshi Takai is often nicknamed “NQ Hiroshi” by players and his colleagues, where “NQ” stands for “normal quality”. This mysterious alias comes from the fact that there were two Hiroshi among the key staff at work on FFXIV: Takai, indeed, but also Minagawa. The latter is actually nicknamed “HQ Hiroshi” by his coworkers, apparently thanks to his good-humored character and high reputation—which is why he is a “high quality” person, just like superior items in MMORPGs. With self-mockery, and because he considers himself rough around the edges, Takai decided to call himself the “NQ” one. But, of course, this doesn’t say anything about his skills as a developer!

Finally, the FFXIV community’s familiarity with Takai comes from his immovable presence at the game’s yearly 14-hour anniversary broadcasts, where he is tasked with completing backbreaking in-game challenges for the duration of the event. In 2014, his mission was to try to collect as many Atma stones as possible by taking part in FATEs (the game’s localized battle events) in each of the game’s regions - a painful memory for XIV players to be sure, as the item drop rates were then extremely low. Each new Atma earned Takai a reward, one of which was a rodeo machine, that he was required to ride while going on with the challenge. At the end of the day, he had gone through 300 FATEs and collected... 11 of the 12 Atma stones.

This was later alluded to in 2015’s “The Rising” event, where the player could visit the developer’s room and meet the man himself, riding the Nightmare mount (the wrong way around) and begging for the Atma of the Scales to drop.

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Moving on to Final Fantasy XVI

Hiroshi Takai kept his position as assistant director for FFXIV’s first expansion, Heavensward, released in the summer of 2015 and welcomed with much enthusiasm by players. The doomed entry was now an essential work, with engaging MMORPG mechanics coupled with lore and storyline worthy of Final Fantasy’s glorious heritage. This fruitful endeavor made Naoki Yoshida one of Square Enix’s most influential executives, and it is probably the main motive for the decision to entrust his department (once called Business Division 5, but renamed to Creative Business Unit III in 2019) with the next major installment in the series.

The Final Fantasy XVI project probably started in the months following the release of Heavensward, somewhere in the second half of 2015. Hiroshi Takai was part of a small team of experts removed from FFXIV to start working on the new game under Yoshida’s watchful eye. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Yoshida entrusted Takai with the director’s seat, as the two have sailed through the FFXIV storm together and must have felt the urge to move to the next step—that is, creating their own Final Fantasy game, this time from start to finish. Seeing how FFXVI is trying to appeal to Western players through its dark fantasy approach and action-infused gameplay, one can only remember their aborted experiment from ten years ago and feel that we have come full circle.

This promotion obviously led Takai to distance himself from the MMORPG: he was credited as development supervisor for the next expansion, 2017’s Stormblood, and only featured in Shadowbringers’ special thanks two years later. As an aside, the same logic can be applied to deduce that FFXVI’s scenario writer is most likely Kazutoyo Maehiro, who followed the exact same path.

This, however, didn’t prevent Takai from appearing again alongside the FFXIV team during its anniversary broadcasts. In 2018, for example, he managed to earn more than one million gil by spending hours in the Lost Canals of Uznair. Who could guess that the man working his fingers to the bone while enduring his colleagues’ teasing (Maehiro included, seen here in a yellow t-shirt) is also the one carrying on his shoulders the burden of making Final Fantasy XVI a successful title? To that, one would probably answer: his career speaks for itself.

It is equally amazing to think that five years have passed without Square Enix feeling the urge to prematurely lift the curtain on the game, although they probably came close to doing it on a number of occasions. Now, presumably after many twists and turns, changes in shape and format, and a (likely recent) move to PlayStation 5, Final Fantasy XVI was finally revealed on September 16, 2020. We can only wish Takai and his team best of luck with such a massive undertaking.

Article author Jérémie Kermarrec is a video game translator. He is also the author of French book 'The Legend of Final Fantasy XV', and the co-author of 'Smile Please: The Biography of Nobuo Uematsu'. He has been a Final Fantasy community stalwart for decades, and owns the French fansite Final Fantasy World.

Hiroshi Takai's Resume in Full:

  • Final Fantasy IV (1991): Special Thanks
  • Romancing SaGa (1992): Monster & Battle Design
  • Final Fantasy V (1992): Battle Graphics
    • Also credited on FF Anthology (2006) and FFV Advance (2006) for the same role.
  • Romancing SaGa 2 (1993): Battle Effects, Battle Backgrounds & Monsters
  • Romancing SaGa 3 (1995): Map Graphics Supervisor, Battle Effects
  • SaGa Frontier (1997): Combat Visuals Effects & Art Director
  • Legend of Mana (1999): Battle Effect & Design Chief
  • The Bouncer (2000): Game Planner
  • Final Fantasy XI (2002): Visual Effects Designer
  • Final Fantasy XI - Rise of the Zilart (2003): Visual Effects Designer
  • Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song- (2005): Combat Director
  • The Last Remnant (2008): Director
  • Final Fantasy XIV - A Realm Reborn (2013): Assistant Director
  • Final Fantasy XIV - Heavensward (2015): Assistant Director
  • Final Fantasy XIV - Stormblood (2017): Development Supervisor
  • Final Fantasy XIV - Shadowbringers (2019): Special Thanks
  • Final Fantasy XVI (202X): Director
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