Nier Automata Interview: Square's niche kings on their trip into a robotic future
Nier Automata is launching in a weird old time - sandwiched between Zelda and Mass Effect and within sight of Nioh and Horizon: Zero Dawn, it's a packed time for fans of RPGs and RPG-like games. It's a credit to the development team behind Nier that this sequel to a cult classic remains on the top of the pile in terms of fan anticipation, but it's fighting the good fight to stay there.
In the wake of its really rather brilliant demo release we had a chance to sit down with three of the people guiding Nier towards a hopefully wider audience: Producer Yosuke Saito, Director Taro Yoko and Platinum Games designer Tasahisa Taura. Together the trio practically make up all of the major components of Nier: Yoko's wild, eccentric ideas, Platinum's action expertise and Square's legendary status as RPG developers. Only missing was music, but we did interview Nier composer Keiichi Okabe last year.
We've had a lot of chats with Japanese game developers over the years, but this is one of the most refreshing we've ever had, chilled out and far less controlled. Nier doesn't have the PR worries of a massive game like Final Fantasy, so the trio play more fast and loose than your average developer. The result is a fun little chat, the best bits of which we've gathered for you below. Enjoy.
RPG Site: Okay, so... we spoke about this before, but Mr. Yoko, you weren't here for that one, so... tell us a little about how Nier Automata came to be? We were really surprised when it was announced.
Yosuke Saito: The truth is that Nier Automata only really exists because PlatinumGames got involved. Originally, Mr. Yoko was proposing, saying he'd love to do something with the world of Nier and Drakengard, and do something perhaps on smartphones, make a game on that scale. Then, at the very same time actually, we were in discussions with PlatinumGames about doing something else with them - a collaboration of some kind.
We found out that a lot of the young development staff in Platinum are really big fans of the original game. They actually proposed to us that they'd like to do a remake of the original Nier on PS Vita! We thought, okay, this is perfect timing... we've got these two, they're both really keen to do something new with Nier, so let's go ahead and make a proper new Nier game.
Taro Yoko: Interestingly enough, as a little extra tidbit, the original plan for the smartphone Nier game that I suggested was basically going to be Nier Farmville. [laughs] That's true, that's what it was!
I really think the real reason that we got a new Nier game was that Mr. Saito here was probably very, very tied and a bit worn down after working on all those Dragon Quest games. His head probably wasn't in the right place - that's why he agreed to do another Nier!
Saito: I love Nier myself. And I love Mr. Yoko, of course.
Taro: Sorry, I don't really love you THAT much. I prefer women, so.
Saito: Now, wait... I'm the same!
Taro: Oh. Well, please... carry on with your questions. [laughs]
RPG Site: Well, that actually brings me on to the next question, which is... about these designs, 2B and 9S. Why are they so pretty? Is there a story reason robots of war look this way?
Taro Yoko: Nah, to be honest, that's just what I liked! The reason why they dress the way they do with the black clothing, the blindfolds, the masks... that has a very deep, significant meaning within the story. That's something I want the players to experience and find out by getting their hands on the game and seeing what that's all about.
RPG Site: What did you make of the fan response to the characters in the wake of the demo? It seemed pretty significant.
Taro Yoko: It was interesting... I think what you're referring to there is perhaps the fact that 2B's bottom became such a big topic of discussion on the internet. It was very interesting, because we didn't really think of the character in that way at all - as a sexy character. The way we designed her and the way we think about her within the story is completely different, so it was quite a surprise to see that's what people took from it.
As a niche game, I think that's fine. Any publicity is good publicity for that! We're really happy that people love the characters so much and want to draw pictures of them - we find that great.
RPG Site: You guys are making what I'd call an A-tier game. Like, you don't have the budget of Triple-A but you're far above indie or lower end stuff too. It felt to me for a while like it was harder for games like this to get made. Is it getting easier to do projects like this thanks to the engine tools now available and so on?
Yosuke Saito: I have a feeling that, certainly, if you talk about the Western market now that's probably still true - like it's just triple A and C, plus indie there. In Japan things are maybe a little bit different, I think. If you talk about the really major games in Japan... they perhaps say they're major games, they have major budgets, but they're not actually that major in the end. There's also a number of A-class games that come out... you're seeing a lot more things in that bracket.
Something like Toriko, for example... that'd probably fall somewhere around an A when you look at the number of people around the beta tests and the market it's aiming for there.
Within the Japanese games industry there are those things that are aiming high and are probably falling in around A, but the budgets aren't quite triple-A - things like Gravity Daze, Danganronpa, Persona, the Yakuza series and those kinds of games. We want to just crawl into the bottom of that category there and cling on for dear life! [laughs]
Taro Yoko: I think certainly back in the 80s and 90s when Japan mostly made really big, long RPGs there was almost a saturation of the market in some ways of them. Then it changed... we could no longer just get away with making RPGs. That time had passed. The next development, obviously, that was when the West started making these really big triple-A blockbusters. Japan tried copying that but kind of failed and didn't really manage to make it to the same level.
I think what you're seeing now is kind of the post-blockbuster copying stage where the Japanese games market isn't really sure what it's supposed to be making any more. You're getting all kinds of weird, out there ideas and new people trying different things. I think that's a really interesting and exciting time to be in; Nier's a part of that, we're really trying out new things, which leads to a lot of creativity.
RPG Site: One thing we've noticed in recent years is games like those you've mentioned - Persona, Yakuza, Danganronpa and so on... they're seeing more success in the West by wearing their niche nature proudly. Are you hoping to tap into that?
Taro Yoko: I think for Nier's case, that depth of love from the fans... the more people who really get into it, there'll be that sideways expansion too just by word of mouth. Then obviously, again, one other aspect of Nier where we're aiming to take it... because of this great collaboration with Platinum Games, we want to bring in their fans as well, as I'm sure they'll love it too.
Then there's the people who like the original Nier game... it should hopefully all come together and become a catalyst for further expansion. It'd be great if we could see that kind of growth of the fanbase for Nier because of that.
RPG Site: One of the things that's interesting is that this game is a mix between an action game and an RPG. These are two genres that typically have very different play-times. So... where does Nier Automata fall? To be reductive, how long is it?
Tasahisa Taura: Okay, so... to talk about the balance first of all between action and RPG styles of gameplay... Certainly, as it is a Platinum Games game developed by us we felt it really had to stand alone as a good action game in its own right, so we spent at least as much effort on the action as on all the other titles we've done just so it feels like a really good action game.
But then for the RPG elements, we approached that slightly differently. We just came up with so many ideas and brainstormed what we wanted to see in an RPG. What would be cool, what would work fun in an RPG? We just got out loads of different ideas. Rather than thinking of it from the perspective of okay, how do we balance the action stuff and the RPG stuff, we really just tried to make each aspect of that as interesting as possible in its own right, and that all comes together to form a package that is hopefully more than the sum of its parts.
I think the final balance is something that can be enjoyed by people who just like action games or people who just like RPGs - and of course by those who like both too.
Yosuke Saito: You've played the demo so I'm sure you'll understand - you've got the different difficulty settings - Easy, Normal, Hard, Very Hard. What our QA team told us from their test plays is that generally if you work on normal difficulty level and you just concentrate on the main story and don't do too much outside that on the first play-through it should take around 25 hours.
If you go for a completionist playthrough, trying to get all the enhancements, the collection items and all what you'd call... maybe, I don't know, the end content - superbosses that you have to take down first by becoming strong enough to even fight them... if you add all that in, you're probably looking at about 55 hours of play time in total.
It's very interesting... we didn't actually start out thinking we needed to be 50 hours just because we were an RPG and then really force extra stuff in to draw it out. The way we approached it is quite interesting really - we just came up with all these ideas of things we thought would be cool, things that'd go well and work in the game. What we then concentrated on was making sure that each of those elements felt right while you were playing it. We didn't really think about the final balancing and the final content construction or anything like that until quite late in the project.
It was actually quite recently we found out that figure of 55 hours from the QA guys... we just piled everything we had together and it came to 55 hours. In the end, it does seem to... maybe because of that, completely by accident, it's come to be quite a good balance in the end. It really does feel good, and the content there is worthwhile - it was made because it was good content, not because we needed to hit a certain length.
Taro Yoko: The way that Nier is constructed is... we've got multiple different endings in the game, and certainly they take part at different times in the play cycle. So... if you only, say, play for ten hours, you'll reach a certain earlier ending in the game, and that does reach one conclusion to the story, so if you only play for that much you'll still get one complete package of the game - but you're free to keep playing on after that, of course.
RPG Site: In the content we got to play there's fishing, but can you talk at all about the other side activities you'll have available?
Taro Yoko: There's things that we can't tell you about yet, but certainly there are subquests where there are mini-games completely unrelated to the main quest... very interesting little mini games. There's one of them where unfortunately it's not one of the ones we're allowed to talk about, but the person who created that... she was absolutely insistent - this had to be in the game. She was very much... 'I really cannot do without having this in the game' because she loves the genre of game that it's part of, so there was one she absolutely insisted had to be in there.
In the original Nier there were some minigames like the fields where you grew crops and stuff that were in some ways quite separate from any other part of the gameplay, but this time we really tried to incorporate them a bit more so they naturally fit into the flow of the sidequests and the main quest as well. They fit in a lot more of an integrated way with the world.
I also want to encourage people to enhance all of the weapons up to their top level. There are some weapons that unlock completely new abilities and powers when you reach the top level. There are some that will be of great use in combat, but there are others that have some strange, quite far-fetched abilities... like there's one where if you get it up to level 4, when you're carrying it you'll get a discount in stops. I've no idea why you should get a discount - I love that kind of thing, it's meaningless, but why?!
Takahisi Taura: There is an actual, proper reason for that weapon to do that!
Yoko: Really?! As director, I didn't know that! I think that messed-up thinking of it being weird that it does this but it just does is so Nier, it's great.
RPG Site: Okay, to finish off... so, Taura-san, if you could take Platinum and make a game in any other Square Enix franchise - East or West - what would you make?
Taro Yoko: [in a high pitched voice, hand over mouth] Final Fantasy!
Takahisa Taura: [laughs] No... I mean, I could only think of another Nier after this!
RPG Site: I know you guys work at Square, but what about you?
Taro Yoko: Hmmm... Dragon Quest... if I was allowed to do anything, I'd take Dragon Quest and make it a really brutal, really nasty game. You'd see the monsters start eating people, they'd be molesting the female characters too.
Yosuke Saito: There are already places like that in Dragon Quest!
Yoko: Ahh, I don't need to make it then, it's been done already.
Saito: ...but I don't think Dragon Quest has been done overall in that way. [laughs]
Yoko: I'd love to see all the cute little villagers running around screaming and getting torn apart!
Saito: I'd like to do Space Invaders in the arcade... Taito is in the same group as us, after all. I've never made a proper arcade-only game before, after all.
Yoko: If it's a shooting game, I'll make it for you. Call me, call me!