Square Enix Luminous Studio Interview

Square Enix's Agni's Philosophy Final Fantasy tech demo was one of the more pleasant surprises of E3 2012. Essentially Square Enix flexing their muscles for the next generation with an incredible-looking concept example of what their next-generation engine can achieve, it also offered an interesting glimpse at what the future of the Final Fantasy series might hold.

Luminous Studio is a deliberately multi-national technology development team, new to Square Enix. While focused on developming new technology, members of the team still work on regular games including Final Fantasy XIV. Beyond that, Luminous Studio tech will also feature in games such as Final Fantasy Versus XIII - and beyond.

Yoshihisa Hashimoto, Chief Technical Officer at Square Enix and Producer/Director on the demo sat down with some of his team to give us a live demo to prove the demo was indeed in real-time followed by a lengthy chat about what it's like to work on such a project. 


RPG Site: So, first up - the aesthetic of a lot of this, the guys with the guns, all that stuff - it looks very Western, but mashed against all these Final Fantasy elements - Agni looks totally Final Fantasy, for instance. It seems kind of East-meets-West - was that deliberate?
Yoshihisa Hashimoto: Yeah! Yeah - we were very conscious about it. We wanted to make sure that we would appeal to the Western people more with this demo. 

RPG Site: I know you guys have a very large number of Western staff members for a Japanese-based team. Has that helped?
Hashimoto: Yeah, that's true. Especially because one third of our engineers are now non-Japanese. 

The members who are making the story or the look and feel of this are Japanese, but outside people, they have helped us with the plot.

Also, Square Enix Visual Works put together an unreleased CG version of the movie for us to work to. Our goal was to achieve the same quality between CG and the real-time.

[We're then shown the CG and real-time demos running side-by-side. The two are impressively close.]

RPG Site: Do you feel that when this tech starts making it into games there'll still be a place for pre-rendered CGI? This is getting pretty close.
Hashimoto: We think so, yeah. I think there'll be a big technology leap to allow this sort of quality to be used in a real-time game - this is essentially a movie - a cutscene, after all, so CG can still accomplish things we can't. I can express my opinion - but it may be better to ask someone who is responsible for real-time CG that question.

The strength of Square Enix is that we have an excellent team that is very highly capable of creating excellent CG - and also we now have a real-time engine. So using the assets that we already have and combining the two, we are in a very good position to create very interesting games.


RPG Site: So you're saying assets created for CG can be bought straight down into the game and the reverse in this new engine?
Hashimoto: Yeah, that's what we're expecting to do. For the backgrounds used in this - the mountains, the houses - we are using exactly the same assets as are used in the Visual Works CG version.

Of course, it's too massive of a data to use in a game as-is, but I think the look and feel will probably remain. If we had time, we could've compressed the data even smaller. We didn't have time to do that, so we just used the same master data - but it can definitely be reduced.

RPG Site: Do you think that disc space is going to be an issue, then, even on Blu-ray?
Hashimoto: Yeah, that could be a challenge. There's a possibility that just one Blu-ray may not be sufficient.
RPG Site: Back to the PS1 days!
Hashimoto: [laughs] Yeah. We have to really consider the mechanism of compressing the data carefully.

RPG Site: You've mentioned before that Luminous is being used on other games; can you talk about that?
Hashimoto: It's not going to be that this engine is going to be in every single game by Square Enix; it will be a team decision. It's going to be one of the options that the teams can decide depending on the game they want to create. Right now, I can't really talk about what might be using this engine.

East-West collaboration: This dude was the work of Tomb Raider's Brian Horton.

RPG Site: Having come from a more international team, is the vision that we'll see Eidos games - that we'll see something like a new Deus Ex running on this engine?
Hashimoto: I think it will enable us to create movies and games that can be more acceptable to the Western people from lots of different internal studios.

If the creators were only Japanese that may have been difficult to do, but I think that's more possible now.

Akira Iwata, Lead Artist: For example, Brian [Horton], who is the art director of Tomb Raider - he was a part of this project too. He gave us some opinions and comments also.

And the old priest character was created by him - he was the creator of that major character. Also, the background in his scene - that was designed by the Tomb Raider team as well. So probably because of that, it's more adaptive - it can be more widely accepted. [Hashimoto pulls up some of Horton's original sketches, alongside Iwata's, on his laptop and shows us.]

RPG Site: The previous tech demos Square did - they were based on previous games - FF6 for N64 and PS1, FF8 for PS2, FF7 for PS3 - why did you choose to create something entirely original this time?
Hashimoto: Of course we feel that the past Final Fantasy - all those games are excellent, too. However we wanted to see what we can present to the world - especially to the Western world - as something new. We wanted to create something more acceptable; something that appeals more to them.

Also, we can propose to make a new Final Fantasy - something different from before. This is not a game - it's a tech demo - but just like in creating a game we wanted to start with a concept, story and also a look and feel - so we had the same challenges as if we were creating a full game.

This is a three and a half minute demo video, but actually it was the same quality level as a triple-A game - the way we felt about this, the commitment - it felt the same.

RPG Site: Is it kind of hard to then think you're going to walk away from this work on a concept and a universe without releasing an actual game in it?
Hashimoto: Well - that's true, yeah. However, because it's not a game it did give us more freedom - we were kind of liberated. We could think about different things.

Having said that, in the beginning of creating a concept, we started to discuss and really consider "What is Final Fantasy"? The theme of the demo was Final Fantasy, we wanted to have a Final Fantasy demo - we wanted to share an idea of what it is first of all. We took some time doing that.

Assets from the visual works CG team were used directly without compression for elements of the background of this scene.

RPG Site: From a technical standpoint this is, as you say, getting very close to a CG movie. How do you think the visuals are going to hold up once you pile AI and gameplay systems on top of it?
Hashimoto: This time, a lot of power was expended on graphics because we wanted to show something really visually impressive. To be clear, it hasn't been optimized yet. So we should be able to optimize AI, graphics, the animation, audio - all those things - to slot together.

Of course we, the team, created this engine - but definitely we are going to raise the bar for AI, animation, audio and physics - everything. Utilizing all of that, Square Enix will be in a position to create and present really interesting and exciting games, I think.

RPG Site: Obviously you have it running in real time here, and I can see the PC right there - can you talk about what hardware you're using and how you feel it'll slot into what Sony and Microsoft are doing?
Hashimoto: We've always got an eye on the future, and so we're trying to get ready for the next console generation always. This is our goal - if we can create games to this level, I think we'll be in a very good position. That's what we're really working on always - preparing for the future.

What we were using today for this demonstration - it's of course high specification, but all the parts are also things readily available in the PC market right now. The graphics board you could probably buy without driving too far from here. It's very realistic that in the near future people can play a game with visuals of this quality.

RPG Site: Can you say what the board is?
Hashimoto: Er... Well, I have to be careful about it! [Laughs] What I can say is that what we're using is about the equivalent as what is being used by any other companies for their tech demos. That's the extent of what I can say. I'm sorry!

RPG Site: How long did it take the team to create this tech demo?
Hashimoto: Well, it took us about half a year to come up with the plot, the story and also how it's going to be deployed and so on. Also, we were doing some other duties too - some other work. It took us about half a year to come up with the plot.

To then create assets took about another half a year or so. Probably you'll be surprised, but just for this three-and-a-half minute demo - half a year!

The density of this is enormously different to a game. If you really pay attention to this closely, there's so many different scenes - it's not just that it's three-and-a-half minutes, but that it has a lot of scope in that time.

This gave us a really good experience. That's why we decided to have this density - by trying out different things we were able to see how we create, how we generate and also what kind of machine performance is necessary - we could identify those.

RPG Site: A big thing that was a problem with Final Fantasy XIV that's currently being fixed was scalability. How scalable is this - will it run on lower-end hardware like the Wii U?
Hashimoto: So, first of all I have to let you know that I'm also working with Mr. Yoshida trying to fix the problems, the scalability problems on Final Fantasy XIV. I'm the technical director on the new version.

For Final Fantasy XIV, because of the time pressure we're using a different game engine - not Luminous - but we're trying to make sure it'll run very smoothly on both PlayStation 3 and PC.

In the case of the Luminous Studio, we're probably not going to be bound to any particular platform. PC already - probably PlayStation 3, Mobile, iPad - tablets - also browser and cloud as well. Not just next gen, we can scale.

Square Enix has been keen to gather feedback on what players think of heroine Agni.

RPG Site: You guys have a nice little logo, shirts with the studio name on it... that seems pretty big for a tech development team. Is this a team we may see develop actual product later down the line?
Hashimoto: Well, the team will remain a research and development team that will be able to offer and propose a game engine and technology to internal people and studios.

We probably won't create a game - we'll continue to work on R&D that will give a better capability to our company.

But even doing this it's important to remain an engine team that is capable of creating a triple-A product - a game.

We even have a flag! [Pulls out a 'Luminous Studio' flag] It's not just limited to a t-shirt! We want to make sure to work on the branding as well so our technology is known.

RPG Site: You guys are tech experts - what is it you want from the next generation of console hardware? Better graphics, better input, 60 frames per second locked? What's your vision of the future?
Hashimoto: Of course enabling 60 frames per second - that is somewhere we'd like to aim, definitely. The sort of high speed processing required for that is definitely inevitable eventually. To make games at this quality level it's also the minimum.

Another thing is that the AI, animations, physics - all that - in all levels, encapsulating that - we want to continue to raise the bar so that the quality will be even better. I think this vision can be achieved on any hardware, any platforms - just to varying degrees - so that's where we're aiming.

Hashimoto: Let me ask you the last question! If we had a game like this, would you like to play it?
RPG Site: [laughs] For me, I've liked less, perhaps, the direction the Final Fantasy series has gone in over the past few years. Artistically, I think this looks better than XIII did. Visually it's stunning, too. Obviously we don't know how this would play, but based on how it looks, yeah, I would.
Hashimoto: When we discussed the concept of 'What is Final Fantasy', we tried to narrow down what has to be there to be Final Fantasy. We filtered some of the things that we felt not necessary to remain - we just excluded them, and kept only the core, essential things needed to be Final Fantasy. We also added some things that were not there before, and this was the end result.

You can drop Square Enix and Hashimoto's team your feedback on Agni's Philosophy via their Official Website.