Looking back on 10 years of Final Fantasy XIII with Yoshinori Kitase

Over seven years after her E3 2006 debut and nearly a decade since development began on Final Fantasy XIII, Producer Yoshinori Kitase is preparing to say goodbye to Lightning. After a stint out of the spotlight in the time-bending Final Fantasy XIII-2, Lightning and the world she inhabits are set to reunite for Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, their curtain call. 

Love it or hate it and love her or hate her, FF13 and the adventures of Lightning won't leave you indifferent. We caught up with Kitase, one of the key figures in the development of the entire FF13 series, to chat about successes, failures, lessons learned and letting go. 

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is out in Japan next week and will arrive in the West in February 2014. If you can't wait for that, both the Xbox 360 and region-free PS3 versions are available for import with free shipping. 

One proud parent.

RPG Site: You've been with Lightning and the world of Final Fantasy XIII for some time now, but it's finally coming to an end. What has been your personal, stand-out highlight from your years on these projects?

Yoshinori Kitase: I have to mention the launch event for the original FF13. I did the one in Paris but I also did the one in London. Both took part in a really huge shop, and I autographed lots of covers and copies of the game and everything. There were huge queues, people waiting their turn... it was quite amazing.

Also the FF13-2 event that took place in Paris - in a theatre, I think... the capacity was around 500, 600 people - there was so much hype and so much excitement. It was a great, great buzz... and that's my favourite memory.

RPG Site: How has it been experiencing the extremes of development? The original FF13 took quite a long time to come out, but then you had much shorter development on the sequels. 

Kitase: The main reason that we managed to make FF13-2 and Lightning Returns in a much shorter space of time is basically that when we made FF13 we had to set up the engine from scratch, basically - we had to tailor the engine to work well on the PlayStation 3 and then also the Xbox 360. That's what we call Crystal Tools.

Afterwards, though, for FF13-2 and Lightning Returns, all we had to do was just upgrade the engine and tools, which was great. We could minimize the amount of time we had to spend making things. Actual game making itself took around the same amount of time - but because we had a more sophisticated development environment set up we could save a lot of time at the top. The process wasn't much different, we felt, in making those games.

RPG Site: After your expeiences here on top of your time with FF10's sequel and even FF7 spin-offs, do you feel the process of building sequels different to making numbered FF titles? 

Kitase: I think... when we're talking about the FF13 series, I think we should separate the argument - separate the experience of making numbered Final Fantasy games and not.

When you're making a new numbered Final Fantasy title, everything has to be created from zero, from scratch. The characters, the universe, the story - it all has to be completely new. The kind of flow you find yourself in is getting prepared for making the game and kind of... accumulating whatever you can come up with, making that world bigger and bigger and bigger, up to the point where it's ready to be released. That cycle is right for making new, numbered Final Fantasy games.

While divisive, FF13 birthed an icon in Lightning. She won't leave you indifferent!

A game like this, or FF13-2 - it's basically making sequels. The story is there. As such, a different cycle is applied. You release a game and quickly gather feedback from the users, take it on board, and reflect those changes in the new game.

You also have to make it as quickly as possible and quickly send it on to the market.

With the sequels, you should never let the old game go completely cold... you should work on it while it's still warm. That cycle is the best choice for this game - and on this game I feel my team worked perfectly in that kind of flow.

However, this second flow I mentioned... you have to gather feedback as soon as possible and reflect your response to that in a release as soon as possible... it's not necessary now for sequels. What the user wants and what they're looking for can change quite quickly these days.

The danger is that the longer you spend making a new game, the more you risk it being less in line with what the users may be wanting at the time of release. In future, when we produce further numbered Final Fantasy titles, it may be a good idea to apply this short turn-around method into the game making.

RPG Site: You mention taking on feedback, which leads us naturally to a topic I'm quite interested in - Focus Groups. They're hugely useful to development, of course, but other game developers have suggested to me that they also consider them dangerous - that they can take something away from a game, or make matters worse. What's your stance on this viewpoint, and focus groups in general?

Kitase: Yes, I think we're aware of that... [laughs] Some time ago when the network was not all that advanced, the source for us to collect feedback was the letters we recieved from our fans, and also the kind of response we got off people like yourself in articles and so on.

I think at some point we started to take them too seriously, and we changed direction in our next game because of it - and that was a mistake, sometimes.

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FF13's sequels are heavily influenced by user-feedback & focus groups.

So we definitely know that they can be dangerous! [laughs] I think what's important is trying to keep a balance between freedom and the story. Freedom in gameplay and the story are not always necessarily compatible -- when you place too much focus too much on one thing, the other is diminished and the balance isn't right.

When we released FF13 it was very much story-driven, or led, if you like. The freedom was not as much as people would've wanted. From that, in FF13-2 and Lightning Returns we've geared more towards freedom and open play.

I think even though we take the feedback from the fans fully on-board, we always have to find the right balance between that and what we want to implement in game design.

As a result of that, we don't just aimlessly gather feedback from anonymous fans, faceless people. That might suggest something that isn't quite right. It's vitally important for us to carry out lots of test play opportunities where we round up groups of trustworthy gamers whose voices will be more hands-on and on-point.

RPG Site: During your time with FF13 you've also been working on FF10's remaster. How does it feel to see your two big projects, separated by so many years, side by side? Does looking at FF10 make you cringe a bit now, or do you still see it as strong as it was originally? 

Kitase: When it comes to gameplay and story, we believe that the original versions work. They're complete. They don't need to change, they don't need to improve, so we just took it, ported it as it is. When it comes to the graphics and visual elements graphics and technology have improved a little bit in the space of ten years. There's room for improvement - so that has been introduced.

What we wanted to keep in mind is that we didn't want to squash the kind of sweet memories that players had of playing the original versions ten years ago. We didn't want to change too much even visually to make sure we maintained the charm that the original games had ten years ago. We cherish that original charm. We wanted to protect that feeling that FF10 has, and whatever happens in the future we'll always protect that feeling around the FF13 series as well.

Lightning's saga wraps up in Japan this week - and in the West early next year.

RPG Site: What's next for you? Something familiar and safe, or something crazy?

Kitase: Crazy?! [laughs] Crazy... maybe. When I first studied to begin creating FF13 it was originally for PS2 and on FF10 technology, as you may know - we moved to PS3 later on.

In the past, after the most recent game, as Japanese developers we really only had one choice of platform. After FF10, that was PS3. Even the idea of Xbox 360 came a little later. There was a level of limitation there.

Things are a little bit different now - there's PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, there's Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, but also there's iOS and other types of platforms available if I chose to work on those systems.

So, if I wanted to and had the right idea, it's all there. I'd be able to create something crazy or really different. No holds barred! It's really quite exciting now.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII is out in Japan next week and will arrive in the West in February 2014. If you can't wait for that, both the Xbox 360 and region-free PS3 versions plus the soundtrack are available for import with free shipping.