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Talking Dungeon Encounters with Square Enix's Hiroyuki Ito and Hiroaki Kato

by Neal Ronaghan - November 9, 2021, 10:01 am EST
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We delve into the floors of the dungeon and discuss RPG difficulty, Ito's design theory (and how it's like sports), and just how Ito landed in the director's chair again after 15 years.

In late September, Square Enix revealed Dungeon Encounters, a new RPG from Final Fantasy developer Hiroyuki Ito, best known for his work creating the series trademark Active Time Battle (ATB) system as well as directing Final Fantasy VI, IX, and XII. Now, for the first time in 15 years, Ito is directing Dungeon Encounters, which came out on Switch in October. We had the opportunity to ask Ito and the game's producer Hiroaki Kato a few questions about the development and thought process that went into making Dungeon Encounters.

Nintendo World Report (NWR): You both worked on Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age together before Dungeon Encounters. How did the battle system and design of Zodiac Age inspire what you created in Dungeon Encounters?

Hiroyuki Ito: The basic design for battles is something that allows a player to do the following, repeatedly: “information (information is seen on the screen)” → prediction (‘if I do that, maybe I’ll be able to clear it’) → execution (the player tests the strategy they came up with) → results (if all goes well, things turn out OK, and if not, they can rethink the strategy).” Both titles were created based on this, so they don’t have a causal relationship where one inspired the other.

Hiroaki Kato: The gambit system in FINAL FANTASY XII THE ZODIAC AGE incorporated the fun of thinking about how efficiently you could build gambits, in order to fight as advantageously as possible in a given battle situation. It wasn’t so much that we were inspired by THE ZODIAC AGE; rather, we wanted to capture the fun of thinking, which is a core element of games, through a different approach (compared to THE ZODIAC AGE) in DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS. That desire drove us to start developing this game.

NWR:Tabletop games seem to be a big inspiration for Dungeon Encounters. Are there any specific tabletop games that inspired it?

Ito: I don’t have knowledge about tabletop games, so there was no influence from them. However, if tracing the history of RPGs ultimately leads back to tabletop games, then I suppose that would mean a universal way to play lies here as well.

Kato: As Ito-san commented, it wasn’t inspired by tabletop games. However, during playtests, there were times I felt that the gameplay style of “thinking is fun,” which is also what is so appealing about DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS, has similarities to the universal fun that lies at the core of tabletop games, which are the forefathers of RPGs.

NWR: You've often compared your battle systems to sports (like ATB drawing inspiration from Formula One). Was there any sport influence on the design of Dungeon Encounters and what was it?

Ito: The “information → prediction → execution → results” flow that I mentioned earlier is applicable to all sports. Among them, I use the NFL as reference while coming up with plans.

As a side note, ATB wasn’t actually inspired from F1. Rather, taking players who were used to turn-based battles and suddenly throwing them into real-time battles would have been difficult. So, as a way to make it more accessible for them, I drew hints from the F1 semi-automatic transmission system at the time. Being in between turn-based and real-time would make it easier to play, and I thought it could allow players to experience something that was in the style of real-time.

NWR: With so much of your past experience being with Final Fantasy, why is Dungeon Encounters part of its own world and not part of Final Fantasy?

Ito: I think that since we created this game while prioritizing the game system, the resulting world ended up being based on that.

Kato: The FINAL FANTASY series has an element in which gameplay is moved forward in order to enjoy the story or the world and its lore. DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS doesn’t have a set story that’s followed; how a player proceeds in order to survive is entirely up to them, and the game is designed so that players can enjoy the game system itself. It takes an approach that’s different from the FINAL FANTASY series, and accordingly, it constructs a new world.

NWR: Dungeon Encounters is your first director credit in 15 years. Why step into that role again for Dungeon Encounters and are there more director roles in your future?

Ito: The producer kindly picked it up, and by sheer luck, we were allowed to create this game. I had the idea for this type of game from long ago, so I brought it up. There are many more ideas that I would love to make happen, but I’m a company employee and I’m approaching retirement age.

Kato: Several years ago, when Hiroyuki Ito showed me a proposal for “an RPG that has an overall simple design in everything from story to effects, where the fun lies in the system mechanics itself,” my feedback was, “if the system is what’s fun, then maybe the game would sell better if we were to design it elaborately?” (laughs).

From there, we spent time discussing on several occasions, and in the process, our thoughts shifted towards the idea that “this looks like it’ll be a gameplay experience that’s never quite existed, where the process of thinking is what’s fun.” It could be a game in which the simplicity of the design is what makes it easier to see the situation you’re in, and players can use information in the game as hints while going through trial and error to figure out how to progress.

Thus, under Ito-san’s direction, we completed DUNGEON ENCOUNTERS. The foundation of a game system in which thinking is fun was completed in this title, so we are also considering providing more gameplay experiences that flesh out the story and visuals, implementing new ideas while preserving the existing appeal.

NWR: The difficulty in Dungeon Encounters is high. Was there ever a thought to adding in difficulty options? Why or why not?

Ito: I’ve never once thought about difficulty options until now. If we were to create that option, I think it might be good to release it as its own title, similar to FINAL FANTASY IV.

Kato: After the SNES version of FINAL FANTASY IV was released, FINAL FANTASY IV EASY TYPE was released with a lower difficulty level. This is what Ito-san is referencing in his comment.

Ito: I think that maybe players want to play a game fully, without missing anything.

Kato: When players play this game for the first time, I think there are times when they might feel bewildered at the traps that have been set and the encounters they have with overwhelmingly strong monsters, but the game is designed so that players can gather their own experience points and skills for survival as they continue playing. In particular, the difficulty of getting through a dungeon changes vastly through the usage of abilities as well, so players are bound to make various discoveries as they continue to think about how to survive and how to proceed as efficiently as possible. Having players enjoy this sort of gameplay experience was in our minds, so we did not include options to select difficulty levels.

NWR: It's possible to have so much gold stolen from you that you go into debt. What was the thinking behind this mechanic?

Ito: In this game, some abilities are able to prevent a predicament before it happens. To increase the value of those abilities, we need to have a situation arise that is commensurate to them. We set the amount for the enemy attack “Remittance (debt)” based on that. Additionally, this game is set up so that no matter how difficult a situation may be, it can still be broken through and cleared. If a player goes into debt, it’s perfectly fine if they pay it back, and it’s also perfectly fine if they proceed deeper without paying any mind to it; I think it’s fine as long as the story that unfolds is the player’s very own.

Thanks to Square Enix for the interview!

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