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So let's talk about how you actually go about creating a Fire Emblem game. What are the first steps, what all is involved, how long does it take, etc.
Well, with Awakening, it took quite a bit of time between the first design documents and the completed product. Things got more organized later once people like Yokota-san joined the project, but I think it was about a year and a half between the initial proposal and the point where we got approval to move forward.
With this Fire Emblem, one of the goals was to try and tackle new challenges, though of course we try to do that with every game in the series... Anyway, we'd submit new design ideas, and Nintendo would spend some time reworking them [and send them back], and we went back-and-forth like that for awhile.
The project really started to move forward once we settled on the concept of making a definitive kind-of "all-star" Fire Emblem that takes in everything [from previous games] that made the series great. I'm not sure who first brought up that idea -- I think it came from when Maeda-san did an internal survey within the company?
Speaking of the early design ideas, in that Iwata Asks on Awakening, you mention some pretty crazy concepts you had. Like setting the game on planet Mars? Or in a modern-day setting?
Well, there were definitely a lot of proposals. (laughs)
I think [that Mars idea] was near the end of the proposal process.
So after the project is pitched and a direction is finally approved, what happens next?
Once we get the official "go" from Nintendo, we form an internal team [at Intelligent Systems] for the main development work. This team has all the basic building blocks we'll need: designers and programmers, artists and sound guys -- and they all start working together to create the game.
Basically, the director and designers come up with the overall structure, and that gets turned over to the programmers and artists so it can be coded and drawn and such. We work as a team, of course, so over the course of development a programmer or artist might also have suggestions to make the gameplay more fun or engaging... It's all those suggestions along the way that add up to the final game.
This was also going to be the first Fire Emblem game for the [at the time] upcoming 3DS hardware, and so me, Maeda-san and Kusakihara-san all had a ton of ideas on what we wanted to do with the platform. We started experimenting with just a single map in order to see how practical all our different ideas were... We'd work with Nintendo to implement each feature and see if it worked and could get approval, then move on to the next, one after the other. That was the basic workflow.
Did that test map end up in Awakening in any form?
[Yes,] the map we used was actually the first stage from Fire Emblem: Monsho no Nazo. We needed something to experiment with things like different terrain types and geography before the designers started working on the new maps [for Awakening]. It wasn't used in the main story of Fire Emblem Awakening but it was used in the side story.
What other sorts of features were you experimenting with early on?
Well, this was our first time with a lot of things, not least of which was working on a platform with true 3D graphics. And since we started development before the 3DS hardware was finalized, we had only a vague idea of what it would be capable of. So we tried things like building the map and unit icons all in 3D polygons -- seeing how the [system] memory might handle things, trying to determine the benefits of making the units 2D or 3D, that sort of thing. Also, different ways of transitioning in and out of battle scenes -- things like that...
The hardest part was figuring how to make the 2D unit icons look good on a 3D landscape, and not clip through objects. In a 3D space, you can't really cut corners when drawing graphics, or else it just winds up looking strange. For example, if you draw a 2D character near a building, if you aren't careful, part of the building can overlap the character. You can adjust the drawing priority to move the character "layer" up, but then the character can start to look further away from the building than it actually is. Dealing with that was a new challenge for us -- it was really difficult, especially at first...
Yes, actually, these were part of our first experiments. This one was to try different sets of graphics and have the game switch between them depending on if the camera was zoomed in or out. The "16 character" version used a 16 x 16 pixel box for each unit, and so on. In the course of development, though, we decided to use hardware-based scaling instead [of switching between different sets of graphics].
We did that to help the game run faster. We always make an effort with the Fire Emblem games to keep things running as quick and efficiently as possible... Our goal with Awakening was to keep the map sections running at 60 frames per second and the battles at 30, and never even come close to dropping a frame in the middle of gameplay. I think all that effort really paid off -- Awakening feels great.
OK, so once you have the basic technical stuff worked out, what comes next? Does the story define what kind of maps should be made, or do you decide the maps first and then build a story around them?
First we come up with the general outline of the story. Once that's done, we go through every chapter [from the first to the last], and decide what kind of map it will be and what kind of enemies you'll fight there. All the maps go through that process at the same time.
Who exactly comes up with that story outline? And is that set in stone, or is there room for it to evolve as the game comes together?
Mr. Maeda thought of the main story this time and wrote the outline for the main story.
And things changed along the way, yes. (laughs) One thing common to all Fire Emblem games is that gameplay gets first priority -- if something will improve gameplay, we don't hesitate to rearrange other elements like who enters your party when, how each map is arranged, and that sort of thing. This stage of development is basically one long, extensive trial-and-error process.
So who is performing these trials and who is judging the errors?
I played a lot myself -- through the entire game probably a number of times or so... And of course we have playtesters as well. A few people within the team and sometimes a few outsiders -- we had them try out the game on several times (throughout development) and give us their feedback, then we adjusted the game based on that.
You recall any particularly strong feedback you got along the way?
Oh yes. (laughs) There's this one guy in the sales team at IS who was probably our harshest critic. I remember he complained that you were only allowed to marry one person in the game -- that there was no way to divorce or anything. (laughs) Another guy wanted the ability to be married to multiple people at the same time. (everyone laughs)
How about an example of a big change you ended up making in the course of development?
This might overlap with what we discussed in the Iwata Asks, but one big change was how you [the Avatar] are able to marry almost any unit you want. When Maeda-san first suggested it, I was like "Are you nuts?!"
I guess that did end up being a pretty big change. (laughs)
Well since you brought it up, let's talk a bit about the marriage system. Why'd you decide to include it in Awakening?
Well, as we talked about before, one of the guiding principles of this project was to pack in as many great features from previous Fire Emblems as we could into one game. The goal behind this was partly to give current fans access to all this great stuff, but also to serve as an introduction to the series for new players. We wanted to provide this extensive package for them to explore, to serve as a statement, like "This is what the Fire Emblem series is all about."
Also, one thing we haven't really discussed yet is how Fire Emblems always involve a large number of characters interacting with each other -- talking, fighting, experiencing this epic fantasy story filled with love and courage... The bonds that tie characters together are an important aspect of the story, and we wanted to somehow make that deeper than ever before. That's what lead us to the marriage system, as well as the Pair Up system. It's all to encourage those relationships and strengthen that bond between the player and their troops. Marriage System: A feature first included in the Japan-only Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu for the Super NES system.
Pair Up system: A feature in Fire Emblem Awakening by which two characters can occupy the same space in battle to provide stat boosts and get them working in tandem.