RPGamer Feature - Square Enix Mobile E3 Interviews
Square Enix
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Games discussed:
Final Fantasy Brave Exvius (iOS, Android)
King's Knight (iOS, Android)
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Charalampos (Harry) Papadimitriou

Recently at E3, I had the chance to talk with producers at Square Enix Mobile about their current and upcoming offerings, and get a view at how they make decisions about their games.

I first met with Hiroki Fujimoto, Producer of Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. For those who haven't tried the game, it's a free-to-play Final Fantasy in classic 16-bit style, featuring detailed 2D sprite-based graphics and turn-based combat. Like other Final Fantasy games, it is also story-driven, but unique in that the story is episodic, releasing in pieces progressivly as the game updates. Many Final Fantasy characters also make apperances in the game, though they are typically not part of the main story.

The game recently received an update introducing the expedition system, allowing players to send characters on expeditions while away from the game, thereby producing rewards during downtime. The update includes a number of community-requested features, including Esper SP reset, dungeon tiers, and removal of crafting time. The game's one-year anniversary is accompanied by a campaign taking place from June 29, 2017 to July 13, 2017, and includes a number of perks including one free 5-star summon per day for players who log in, and in-game events. There's also a real-life counterpart event, the Final Fantasy Brave Exvius Fan Festa, taking place in a number of cities around the world between July and December.

When talking to Hiroki Fujimoto, I was really interested in how he makes design decisions about the game, especially about community-requested features as well as new systems.

Charalampos (Harry) Papadimitriou, RPGamer: How did the idea for the expedition system come about, and — not including the rewards after expeditions — what about the gameplay mechanics of the system do you think players will find most engaging?
Hiroki Fujimoto, Square Enix: I’m sure everyone has experienced having a character they like in their roster, but that character seemed a bit insufficient to include into their core party. The expedition system gives that “favorite character that you couldn’t include in your party” a chance to shine. This is indeed what I wanted the players to find appealing, outside of the reward element.

CP: What criteria do you use to determine when to accommodate community requests that can impact gameplay mechanics as well as revenue streams? What strategies do you use to make sure community requests represent the broader player base and not just a vocal few, for example with the updates to the crafting system? Can you share a bit about how these considerations were specifically made in the context of the time removal for crafting?
HF: We keep a list of player feedback, regardless of how often or not-so-often we receive it. Within that list, we may see some of the more widely-desired requests being raised in the community more frequently, as well as those elements being brought up directly in conversation by the players at events such as E3 and PAX. In fact, those requests do actually tend to be elements that we as developers feel should be revised. That being said, we are unfortunately unable to accommodate all requests. We consider the actual resources necessary to implement a request, as well as the amount of satisfaction we anticipate our players will get out of said change, and from there consider how we can maximize our development team in order to provide an enjoyable experience to players.

In a free-to-play Final Fantasy which, according to Fujimoto, shares a fanbase with many classic Final Fantasy games, making the right design decisions can be quite difficult. Notably, fans of classic games may be reluctant to jump into a game designed to accomodate in-app purchases and continuous purchasing of content. Many such mobile games appear to be designed to force players to pay in order to overcome insurmountable obstacles. However, Fujimoto described his personal philosophy as "pay for fun, not pay to win." I asked him to elaborate a bit more on his philosophy.

CP: Can you share your thoughts on free-to-play games versus paid games on mobile devices? How do the different monetization models affect how you think about a game's design? Do you let the game design dictate the monetization model, or do you change the game design to accommodate the business model? Do you personally prefer one monetization model versus the other in games you play and in games you design?
HF: One of the major differences between a one-time pay-to-play game and a free-to-play game is that the design of the paid app comes with the assumption of having players reaching an end, while a free-to-play game is designed so that the player can have fun during each time they pick up the game.

A paid game, from start of play to the end, must have a good balance of ups and downs (lit. mountains and valleys). A deeper valley at one point in the game will in contrast create greater exhilaration or emotions for players during those peak moments. However, in order to achieve that, we must have the player get to that climactic moment first. Players understand that in a paid game, the game continues until reaching the end, and will anticipate there to be a buildup and eventual climax after one of these calmer, low points. Even if a player is playing through a portion that might be felt as a very "low point" in the story without a great deal of action or a turning point, they will continue to play with this anticipation that another exciting moment is coming.

Free-to-play is opposite of that, and so as a creator, we want to develop the game in such a way that players will not only be satisfied through the "end" of the game, but also making sure to design the game so that something interesting is happening at all times during play. The reasoning behind this is that with a free-to-play game with consistent updates, there is no guarantee that a player will reach the true end of the title, the player can quit at any time because it’s free.

Then again, whether paid or free-to-play, they are both "games", so the biggest question that needs to be answered from the start is "how will we entertain our players?" With that in mind, we think of the best way to monetize that appropriately fits the game.

Next, I met with Daisuke Motohashi, producer of King's Knight. For those who haven't heard of it, the original King's Knight was created by the fathers of Final Fantasy and released in 1986 for NES before the Final Fantasy series. It's a vertical scrolling shooter set in a fantasy setting, where players use swords rather than guns to shoot, Zelda-style. A new version of the game will be released for mobile devices in 2017, and this will be a modern take on the original game featuring 3D graphics, four-player co-op, and a vast array of characters to choose from and level up. Despite the game being a shooter, there will be a strong story component between each stage. Players can also select from many levels to play in a world-map-like stage selection screen, each with its own story. I asked Motohashi about the story and progression through the game.

CP: There was mention that the game had a strong story component. Since players change between heroes, does the story also include character development of the player-controlled characters, and if so, how is that handled in a game where you may purchase and play as different heroes? Is the story designed to be expanded with new updates? For example, is it episodic or seasonal? Are there plans to keep releasing additional game levels and story over time?
Daisuke Motohashi, Square Enix: Main Story: This is the scenario that develops in chapters, and is the game mode we feel players should begin with when beginning the game. We will keep adding updates over the course of our operations. Furthermore, depending on the progress made by the player, they will be able to use a Zell Tree (a tree that periodically generates in-game currency), unlock various functions, and receive in-game items.

Character Episodes: When players obtain any character with a rarity of 3-star or better, quests will unlock in which players can enjoy various episodes involving that character.

Event Scenario: These are scenarios which are tied to events deployed for a limited time, such as those conducted on a monthly basis. There are various types: some enable players to enjoy item collection, and others allow players to compete based on their individual activity points.

CP: In some stages, I noticed you can choose different paths to take. Are there story consequences of such choices, or any other way for players to affect how the story unfolds, or is the story pretty set in stone?
DM: We are thinking of implementing this type of system through updates. That being said, this feature may not be released immediately at launch, as it is important that we make sure our players don't get lost at the onset. We do plan on having additional stories, some of which will not be revealed at the time of launch. We would like to determine whether the content should be changed or adjusted upon reviewing our player's initial response.

The game will be free-to-play, and players will be able to earn in-game currency by spending time in the game or spending real currency. In-game currency will be used to boost drop rates of rare or expensive items, buy new characters, speed character skill development, and used in a random draw system with generated prizes. As a gamer, when I heard this description, I immediately thought of a very boring, grindy skill development process to convince players to pay up to speed it up. I pushed on Motohashi, pointing out that if playing the game and leveling characters is fun, players shouldn't want to pay to speed up getting through it. But Motohashi, passionatly and with a pure excitement about his game, replied that skilling up characters and spending time in the game's other systems IS very fun, but there are just so many characters, with so many customization options, and some players may want to pay to speed up exploration of all those options. If this is indeed true, the free-to-play aspect of the game may indeed be well-done and engaging, rather than grindy, so let's hope that is the case. I asked Motohashi about the game's character progression in detail, as well as his philosophy on free-to-play games in general.

CP: Can you give a bit of information about character progression in terms of skills and equipment? How are skills and equipment obtained or upgraded, and how does the leveling system work?
DM: I will try to explain the general outline in basic terms.

First, characters can get experience points by accepting and completing quests. Characters will level up as they reach certain levels of experience points, and with that their basic stats, such as attack power, will also increase.

Additionally, by using orbs and other materials obtained through quests, players can unlock various character abilities (active skills and passive skills). Weapons used for each job can also be enhanced using Zell — the in-game currency —and level caps can be unlocked and increased by combining Zell with materials, such as orbs.

There are upper limits to the character levels as well as skill levels, which depend on their rarity. However, players can also break the level cap to raise the base [rarity] for each of these by utilizing certain items in the game—"awakening" for characters and "break limit" for weapons.

When players awaken or break the limit of characters or items, visuals for each of these will be flashier, and job attributes and basic abilities also power up.

CP: Can you share your thoughts on free-to-play games versus paid games on mobile devices? How do the different monetization models affect how you think about a game's design? Do you let the game design dictate the monetization model, or do you change the game design to accommodate the business model? Do you personally prefer one monetization model versus the other in games you play and in games you design?
DM: First of all, I think there are good aspects for both paid games and free-to-play games.

In paid games, players can be assured that they will be able to enjoy a solid and high-quality game experience for a given amount of money, whereas free games allow players to choose how much money they'd be willing to spend depending on how much fun they are having. From the standpoint of content on mobile devices, which we interact with quite frequently in our daily lives, I think it's a very good thing that consumers can choose what type of content they’d like to interact to what degree, based on their lifestyle and tastes.

With regards to game design and monetization models, of course I think about whether we can draw in more customers or if the content we're offering is appropriate for its value. At the same time, however, the monetization model certainly isn't what I take into consideration first.

I believe that the game design and content come first, followed by the consideration for the appropriate monetization model. Furthermore, I chose the F2P model for this game because for me, online game operation is all about establishing an ongoing relationship based on trust with the customer; all of my decisions for the title are based on this concept.

Lastly, I am not quite sure if there is a preferred monetization model, but I do think that a game that successfully incorporates PvP gameplay that is fun to play and watch would make a great game.

RPGamer would like to thank Mr. Hiroki Fujimoto, Mr. Daisuke Motohashi, and Square Enix for giving us the opportunity to talk about both Final Fantasy Brave Exvius and King's Knight. Final Fantasy Brave Exvius is available now worldwide for both iOS and Android, with King's Knight currently available in select countries ahead of a full worldwide release later this year

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