Toshihiro Kondo (Nihon-Falcom) Anime Expo 2019 Interview: Trails of Cold Steel III, and the state of Zemuria in the West
Right before Anime Expo, we had the chance to sit down with Nihon Falcom President Toshihiro Kondo at NIS America's headquarters and ask him some questions about the Trails series, its past, its future, and where Falcom as a whole is headed. Once again - thanks to both NIS America as well as Toshihiro Kondo himself for the oppurtunity.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III will release on PlayStation 4 in the west on September 24th, 2019. Stay tuned as we continue with our coverage, as we approach closer to launch!
RPG Site: I guess the best place to start would be – how would you describe Falcom’s philosophy as a game company?
Toshihiro Kondo: While this hasn’t necessarily been written anywhere, or enshrined anywhere within the company, I believe that we all – first of all, we’re fans of all that we produce, and we join the company because we are fans, but we want to make things that we are proud of. Things that we believe in. I honestly believe that a lot of games that are created nowadays – there are some out there of suspect quality. But I know that all of ours – we don’t release something until we are proud of what we created. This also goes for people on the side of sales. We want them to be confident on the product that they are selling, but even if a game doesn’t sell, we want our developers to know that they put their heart and soul into something, and they did the best that they could.
RPG Site: That reminds me – Kondo-san, even before you became an employee at Falcom, and well before you became president of the company, you were just a fan of the company, right?
Toshihiro Kondo: That’s right.
RPG Site: Talking more specifically about the Trails series, something that has always stood out to me has been how the series has sort of focused more on introspective look at various regions in the series’ world, rather than the conflicts within them alone. Has that always been a series focus?
Toshihiro Kondo: First of all, your characterization is correct – that is something that we particularly focus on when developing the Trails games. To give you some of the background as to why we do that, um, as you know – before we started releasing what’s now known as the Trails series overall, it’s still part of a larger series known as the Legend of Heroes. The trilogy immediately proceeding the Trails in the Sky games, called the Gagharv Trilogy, each one of those games has its own world inside it, even though they’re related. So particularly even in the first two games – Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch and A Tear of Vermillion – there are complete worlds within each of those and tons of towns and characters that come within them.
Now, when we made the jump from 2D to 3D, we ran into pretty hard limitations about how much could actually be shown. Since we still wanted to portray the worlds in that matter, it just became a matter of course – since each game could only hold so much data, we had to – rather than showing everything at once like in the Gagharv Trilogy, we had to pare things down, and focus more on area at a time.
But, we didn’t take this as a negative – that we weren’t able to show off the whole world in one game – rather, we decided to take it as a positive. Just like Gagharv could show off a whole world, we decided to take the opportunity to show off each of these portions of the world in much greater depth.
...So, within the Gagharv Trilogy also, you have different countries within the world, but honestly speaking there’s no real reason to go back to any of the countries that you’ve been to before. Whereas within the Trails series, again, while the focus might be a little bit smaller, throughout the course of the games, you’ll be able to return to certain places that you’ve been before. We think this creates a sort of feeling of familiarity, where you’ll be able to see certain faces again, and it gives the feeling of the series and its world feeling more alive.
As far as I can tell, back in the day, it took people 2 years to create one world. Yet, here we are 15 years later still building upon on the same world.
RPG Site: One other thing that has stood out to me, and sort of building upon what you're talking about here, I love how each country and its inhabitants have their own way of living – I’ve noticed how each set of protagonists almost symbolize the core of each arc in the series. Is this a deliberate design choice? How is the feeling of each arc’s setting decided?
Toshihiro Kondo: This is a very deliberate design choice, yes. The way we go about doing it is – we have location settings and guides internally for each one of these places. For example – they’re not out here – but the Crossbell games, they have, Crossbell is a place that is having some economic issues, as well as issues in terms of governance and things like that. So, it stands to reason, that a place like that is having those sorts of issues, then the main character should be a police officer – hence, Lloyd is a police officer.
On the other hand, we’ve got Erebonia. Here, the society of Erebonia is interesting because it has a class system – you have the nobles, and you have the common people. So we thought that the characters that should appear in Thors Military Academy, would be people that are representative of all walks of life. So you have Rean, who comes from the lower nobility. Jusis, who comes from a larger family. Machias who’s a commoner. These characters are a sort of a microcosm of the world that they live in. When we reference the settings documents that we’ve made for each one of these lands, this allows us to create these characters that inhabit them, that are representative of these areas as a whole.
RPG Site: I’ve noticed that as the series has gone on – and I’m not sure if this has been a deliberate decision - in Trails in the Sky, the core of the main parties were duos. In First Chapter/Second Chapter it was Estelle and Joshua. In The 3rd it was Kevin and Ries. Zero and Ao, however, the main focus of each cast started growing. From the start, you had 4 members of the Special Support Section – Lloyd, Tio, Ellie, and Randy - up to 6 at the start of Ao. In Erebonia you have Class VII, with an absolutely enormous main cast. It feels like the scope and size of the “main cast” for each arc has just been growing as time has gone on. Has there been a specific reason for this?
Toshihiro Kondo: So, the short answer to your question is yes. This, again, all directly ties into detailed regional documents that we can refer to explain the setting for each one of them. But to go a little bit more in-depth regarding these arcs – so the thing about Trails in the Sky, we had originally intended for, as you mentioned, for there to be the two main characters – but all the characters that come out, for the most part, are supposed to compare and contrast to each other. Estelle with Joshua, Olivier with Scherazard – now, when it comes to Zin and Agate, I don’t QUITE know how they’d contrast with each other, but by and large, that’s what we going for. The truth of the matter is when it comes to that game, this was the first time our team had worked on an RPG, and so we were still trying to learn the ropes as it were.
Now, when we moved onto Crossbell – we had a police team, and we felt that having only two characters would feel a little lonely, and wouldn’t be sufficient for what we were trying to show, so we ended up with 4. When it comes to Cold Steel, the idea again is – Erebonia is a huge place, with so many types of people. So to portray all of this, from the different social classes to the different regions – we even have Gaius from a different country – it became necessary to have that larger party.
RPG Site: I guess the one last question I have about playable characters is – I loved Estelle’s story and her growth throughout Trails in the Sky. Is there any chance we might see a main female protagonist in the series again?
Toshihiro Kondo: It definitely depends on the regional settings. If we feel that a female main character best represents the place they inhabit, then we’d absolutely consider another female main character.
The interesting thing about Trails in the Sky is that originally – the roles were reversed. Joshua was supposed to the main, and Estelle would be from more of a personality perspective, Joshua’s foil. But we realized that A. There weren’t really many games that showed off a woman’s growth, and a woman’s progression and B. Nor were there any RPGs, jRPGs especially, that did that well either. That was something that we wanted to challenge ourselves with – which is why she eventually ended up becoming the main character.
RPG Site: How difficult has it been, as a small company, to continue building upon a singular story with the Trails series. There’s really no other series like it in the industry as a whole. Sure, you’ll have a few Final Fantasy’s that have had direct sequels – but for the most part, they’ve been entirely separate worlds. They’re easier to market and easier to bring new people in. How has Falcom been dealing with that inherent challenge – that barrier to entry?
Toshihiro Kondo: For us, I guess to start, actually the average age of Trails of Cold Steel 3’s fans are in their early to mid-20s. Now, as for what we’ve done to essentially combat what you’ve said – we’ve realized that if we were to keep the same characters for the entire series, you’re right, what you’d expect to happen would happen – they’d say “I can’t just jump into the series now, that’d be too difficult”, on the other hand, what we came up with, is right after finishing up on Trails in the Sky – the 3rd and starting with the Crossbell arc, we saw it as a good chance to – as we’re moving into a new location, then we thought maybe we can change the playable characters too. Which is why we had someone like Lloyd. And so, because that had become new, it gave people a fresh start – and a place for them to jump in.
Now, because this is a shared world, you do have a character like Estelle come around and people thinking “Now who’s this girl? She’s really funny!” So, obviously, if you like something you do some research about it. So if you do that research you’ll find out that there are more games in the series. It was very common to hear people say “Actually I started with Zero, but I ended up going back and playing Trails in the Sky”. In the exact same way, when you move on to Cold Steel – again, we arranged the world as something popular, or really acceptable at the time. In which case this was shown as a school setting. If anything you could say that this school setting is just a front for what’s really going on, but when Cold Steel was first being developed – that school setting was a very popular thing for people, and again, that kind of shows because all of the people that showed up to play it were younger. Just in the same way that we saw with the Crossbell series, is that those characters that either came out in past games, or just the fact that it became evident throughout the course of playing the game that there was a lot more to this world and things – they’d go back and play Crossbell, or Sky, and they’d keep playing the series. We’ve seen this time and time again, that even if players don’t start the series at the beginning, they can hop in and still feel ok, and maybe end up going back to play the previous ones.
The staff and I, we’ve all talked about this but, now that it’s a series with such a long history – it’s gotten to the point that the series is pretty well known, people have heard of it. So they become interested in it. We know that it’s very important to give them a foothold, or a place to jump in, so that’s why when we change locations, that’s what allows people to get that foothold in this world, and start with it.
RPG Site: That reminds me, and avoiding spoilers since this game hasn’t come out in English – is the inclusion of a certain little purple-haired girl in Zero no Kiseki, and her story, almost like a hook to get players interested in the Trails in the Sky trilogy?
Toshihiro Kondo: Yes, absolutely. That was one of the hooks that we use – in the same way, when you’re playing Crossbell, there would be references to events that happened in Sky, and although missing it wouldn’t be detrimental to your understanding of what’s happening currently, it does pique your interest with “hey, something happened before this, I’m really interested in finding out more” and so we absolutely put things in the games that we hope people get interested in the older titles and go back to experience them.
RPG Site: Adding upon that – it’s all well and good that the series has those callbacks to get players interested in the previous entries, but that’s a bit of a problem in the west - we can’t play Crossbell, and we won’t be able to play Cold Steel III on PC, with every other release in the west available on PC. Is that something that’s been considered as a problem moving forward?
Toshihiro Kondo: I absolutely hear you. We would all at Falcom would love for people to play these games, and the door is always open for publishers to come and talk with us, but that said - the reality is that the games came out for handheld consoles, and they’re no longer viable. We’ve also come to this problem in Japan, too, where people who want to play these games either don’t have a PSP, or aren’t about to go out and buy one in order to play them. So, we’re kind of facing the same problem in both regions – where people that want to play the games, but can’t. The handheld market is in an unfortunate decline in Japan. Switch is doing fairly well, but, obviously in terms of PlayStation that market no longer really exists. So what we want to do – is we want to get these games, that originally only released on a handheld, to come out for console as well.
Although there’s nothing that I can talk about too concretely here, we’ve already started some things to be able to bring these games – and not only games in the Trails series, but other games that are past Falcom titles as well – to bring them up to modern consoles, and to get them ready. Once that’s happened, we absolutely invite people to come talk to us so that we can get them out to people.
RPG Site: During an interview in 2017, you mentioned that Falcom as a company would like all of your titles to release on Steam. Is that still a goal for the company, with titles like Cold Steel III – and maybe others as well?
Toshihiro Kondo: Our stance has not changed – we’d still love for people to be able to play these games on PC, but the truth of the matter is that we are a small company, and we can only develop for one main platform at a time, and we cannot divert our resources for ports and things like that would get in the way of our work developing new games. That’s why we have partnerships with companies like NIS America in order to help us do those things – and that’s the situation we’re in right now, relying on other companies to do those things. I am sorry that we aren’t able to get these games out for everyone at the same time, but that’s just the situation we’re in.
RPG Site: You mentioned that Falcom wants to bring titles from their back catalog further – is that just limited to the Trails and Ys series, or does that include other series like Xanadu, Zwei, and so on?
Toshihiro Kondo: The older they get, the harder that gets, but those titles that seem promising in today’s market we definitely want to consider. Unfortunately, I can’t say more than that, but we are paying attention to these things.
RPG Site: So, Falcom’s a small company – you’ve said so, and it’s pretty self-evident – but one thing I’ve been curious about, particularly recently, is that the company has started to use more and more outsourcing recently. Can you go into how that started, and what the reason for that might be?
Toshihiro Kondo: So, upon until very recently, we used to do pretty much everything completely in-house. From the scenario to the music, to the graphics, to the package design, and everything else. We reached a point where the limit of what a company with 50 or so people, give or take, was kind of at its max. So what we’ve begun to do recently is, certain elements of graphics, we have begun outsourcing. Now, these are areas that we believe are things that don’t absolutely have to be done by Falcom to be done well, and still meet our quality standards. What this has allowed us to do is to free up our hands in order to work on other projects, and other things. So far, it's been good – in the sense that it gives us more freedom to do what we want to do. So, in the future, this is something we’ll continue to carefully look into.
RPG Site: As the series moves forward, is there anything else specifically that you want to explore within Zemuria – that maybe isn’t quite obvious. We know we’re going to Calvard, for example. Is there anything else – anywhere else – that you want to explore moving forward before it’s done?
Toshihiro Kondo: Yes, there are other places that we’d like to explore, that have already been mentioned before in the games. To say any more would be spoilers – but yes, we will be exploring more places.
RPG Site: Thank you again for your time!