Dengeki Online Interviews Producer Tomizawa at TalesFest

Dengeki Online Magazine published an interview in the edition of their magazine that released last month on the weekend of Tales of Festival 2019. That interview has just been published on their website. A translation follows after the break.

A Worldwide Simultaneous Marketing Strategy

The long-awaited new Mothership game, Tales of Arise, has finally been announced. I'm sure the fan reaction has been enormous, but please tell us about how you felt on seeing it.

TomizawaWe initially announced the game at E3, but since it was a foreign event, I didn't really see the Japanese reaction. But now that we've begun sharing news through Tales Channel, our blog, and my own Twitter account, fans can get news whenever and wherever we publish it. After the E3 announcement, we were seeing reactions on social media all night long. It seemed like we just looked up and it was 5 AM. The jet lag never ended (laughs).

So that was my main feeling: through social media, we're seeing reactions from everywhere across Japan, Europe, and America at once. As for the PV, it was all about the new graphics. We wanted it to feel like Tales, but also like it was evolving, and in some ways we were a bit relieved.

The PV was to express that we were going to make sure to respect the traditions and evolution of series staples. We've had all kinds of responses - questions like "is this element I love still there?," game mechanics ideas, and art. There is a lot we still can't reveal, so I hope everyone keeps an eye on our news feeds.

Has anyone asked if you making the announcement at E3 means you'll be considering the foreign market more strongly?

Tomizawa: I do think we need to change our communication strategy. Previously, we'd make our announcement at a Japanese event and then make the foreign announcement about a month later, even for games with simultaneous releases. There are reasons for this, including policy, PR concerns, and localization, but it meant the foreign markets couldn't have fun along with the rest of us. We've had very passionate foreign fans ever since Tales of Symphonia.

The PS3 version of Tales of Vesperia wasn't sold abroad at all, which is why we answered them by announcing Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition, a remaster of the PS3 game.

We received so much gratitude and support for that that we decided to do the same for Tales of Arise. We're targeting a worldwide simultaneous release for that game as well. Some information will be released abroad first, and there may be material targeted at Japanese fans which will reach Japan first. We want to balance our PR between all the regions.

We're also collecting information globally via social media. We will assume future interviews will be distributed very quickly, which we hope will allow fans to share information and work as a worldwide community.

We think this PV showed fans of the series our new approach. But we do know that they don't want things to change too suddenly, so we're working on a custom shader built for facial expressions so that the characters still look like Tales Of characters, even though they're in Unreal Engine 4. What we want to communicate is a long process of evolution that will put long term fans at ease.

Do Japanese and foreign fans want nearly the same things?

Tomizawa: As far as characters are concerned, they're the same. I've been to some foreign events, and they showed me that regardless of race or language, people are people. I saw people cosplaying Tales Of characters at Anime Expo, and their love for the characters was the same, the light in their eyes was the same, in that sphere they are the same. That said, they want something a bit different in gameplay.

So you announced the voice actors for the main characters at Tales of Festival 2019 because you thought Japanese fans were waiting for that specifically?

Tomizawa: That's right. This time of the year, it's always E3 and then TalesFest, so we decided from the start to use a two-phase strategy, revealing the setting and game at E3, and then getting deeper into the characters at TalesFest.

We knew Japanese players would be waiting for character details, so we wanted them to get hyped before sharing information here at TalesFest. Whenever a game is released, we have the cast at the next TalesFest; similarly, once we showed the character designs at E3, we wanted the fans to share in the anticipation and uncertainty of whether those characters would become a family when they came to TalesFest.

The whole arena certainly screamed when the characters' names and voice actors were announced. I see that was as you planned. The main character Alphen is voiced by Takuya Sato, and the heroine Shionne is voiced by Shino Shimoji. Can you tell us about any considerations you had when casting?

Tomizawa: We had many candidates audition, as usual. The entire team contributed to the judgment, but in general, I don't think we're doing anything different from choosing someone who can express what we want the character to express. We do consider how they'll perform on the stage at TalesFest. And players want us all to love our characters, including the cast. This is all just as before.

So I know the foreign sales are as much or maybe even more than domestic. Foreign treatment of some subjects, for example LGBT, is a bit different from in Japan. Are you changing your own treatment of any subjects to account for worldwide sales?

Tomizawa: It is an era where we have to be mindful of things like cultural differences. Not only Tales, but any game has to be aware of and respond to audiences from anywhere in the world. Still, we won't change so many things so quickly that we'll lose what makes Tales beloved.

A Game To Revitalize The Brand

Apart from the way you announced it, the most surprising thing about Tales of Arise was the reuse of the initial letter.

Tomizawa: Very true. We do know that the A has already been used. With the series going on for 24 years, and other letters being used even outside the Mothership games, we're running out of letters (laughs). We did consider a number of titles that didn't reuse a letter.

The truth is, "Arise" was the game's working title in development. Of course, the name is relevant to the story, but also, it was a project that had to "arise" to the job of making the series able to continue forward, and that was part of the codename.

We have a marketing team distributed all over the world, and we received hundreds of proposals. In the end, we believed that "Arise" best expressed what we wanted to do and our determination to revitalize the franchise. We really did think very hard about this (laughs).

The thing is, we aren't making riddles here. We discussed very seriously whether sticking to the letter system was more important than expressing our feelings. Some in the development team felt so strongly about it that it was worth breaking a rule for. For myself, the discussion strengthened my own feelings on the matter.

The question did come up: "Will we stop making games when we run out of letters?" (laughs) I'm in charge of the brand from this release, the 25th anniversary is coming up, and the 30th and 35th will come after. I don't want to spend that time counting down the games we have left.  If we're going to reuse a letter sooner or later, I'd rather make the reuse itself have meaning, to express something in the act of doing it. This doesn't mean we won't consider the letters in the future. But this decision was made with the game's meaning in mind.

Then what's the official abbreviation for this game's title? TOA is already used by Tales of the Abyss.

Tomizawa: I've already said this on my blog and my hashtags, but we're not abbreviating the keyword, so we're using "TOARISE." We want to get the attention of not only series fans, but RPG fans across the world, so we want to emphasize the word "Arise."

TO still means Tales Of, but "TOA" and "TOAR" don't really tell new players what the game is. So TOARISE expresses my feelings and my intentions as producer. Feel free to tell me it's not much of an abbreviation (laughs).

Are you actively asking fans to use "TOARISE"?

Tomizawa: I am. I want them to deliberately use that abbreviation. I'm not saying they absolutely must. But it does embody what we are trying to communicate to whom.

Developing With Tradition and Evolution In Mind

You feel very strongly about TOARISE. Is there anything you can tell us about the concepts you've shared in development?

Tomizawa: It's not that we're making Tales into something completely different overnight. This is a marketing perspective, but the brand has been around for 25 years and will be around for many more, with the players and culture changing the whole time. The children of our original players may be enjoying this game now. That's why I think we need to update the way we communicate.

We need to open a gate for new users into this IP. That is the origin of my entire drive and my starting point. We have shown that TOARISE has a different aesthetic and the combat looks very different, to give a sense of change. But we have discussed a great deal on what and how much should change. Neither tradition nor evolution works on its own. We decided that from the start.

It seems bold enough to change as much as you have. Was that your own decision?

Tomizawa: It was more that people wanted it than that I personally did. When you're creating something, there are times for one person to make a call and times to balance all perspectives. Sometimes you change one thing, and then something else needs to be changed, so you have to consider multiple angles when you make a decision.

Our game is made of many complex parts, and there were some things that simply could not be changed. We had to look at each component and how it fit into and developed from Tales history. We had to look at what users wanted and whether they would reject something if it was changed, or if there was something we could change. The development team is working out all of these things in detail.

By the way, is Arise new because it has all new staff, or are you having old staff make a new product?

Tomizawa: We have old and new staff working together. As far as who is working on what, we've only revealed Mr. Iwamoto, but we have staff from Tales of Berseria, as well as actually legendary staff members who have been with us since Tales of Phantasia.

With so many perspectives from all over Tales, we also get many suggestions of things that can or should be changed. Sometimes these perspectives are in conflict. The staff has different levels of experience, so they have different ideas of what is series tradition and series evolution, and discuss it a lot. Through that, they make their experience into something real.

You produced ToV: Definitive Edition. Has that experience helped you here?

Tomizawa: My own first Tales game I played was Vesperia, and when I saw the fan reaction as a creator, to series traditions like animated scenes, to how they received the game design and enjoyed it even after all this time, it gave me confidence in my ability to create. But I do know that it was a remaster, and TOARISE is an entirely new product. So I'm working on two opposing rails, trying to predict the fans' reactions.

Evolution, But Still Recognizable

Tales of Berseria was released on PS3 and PS4. This game is on PS4, Xbox One, and computers running Steam. I'm sure you thought a lot about how far you could push the graphics, but what was that like?

Tomizawa: There is a gap between the PS3's and PS4's specs, which led us to decide to use Unreal Engine 4. Previously we used in-house engines, so it was a decision between what we'd built up and what UE4 was capable of. What ultimately tipped the scales was UE4's advantages in producing atmosphere and rendering things like light.

But out of the box, UE4 renders a realistic aesthetic you can find anywhere, so you won't get that Tales feeling and we won't stick out from the crowd. So like I said, we're using UE4, but implementing a custom shader. For instance, we scale down the background and add detail to the foreground, making the video look more natural.

So when you can see the characters, you get a sense of depth of field. What's in front of you is vivid, and the background fades away like a painting. It took a long time to reach that point.

At first we tried a hand-drawn style shader, but it made the characters look dumb (laughs). The staff said it looked low-detail and like gamers would mistake it for low-res, and that's not what we were going for. We tried to strike a balance between showing the characters and the environments.

When we added motion in, we continued tuning. Mr. Iwamoto, the graphics developers and the visual design team worked very hard together, and now have a unique style they're proud of.

Mr. Iwamoto is now the sole character designer on the game. Why was that?

Tomizawa: Mainly for a consistent sense of world. That's why we had all the characters designed together with the world. The characters and world match, and we can achieve a higher level of immersion.

Also, Mr. Iwamoto is not only the character designer but the art director. There's always something you can tweak in the game. That's a good reason to produce in-house, and we wanted to see how far that could go.

This is very different from our previous approach of making adjustments to completed illustrations. If something looks wrong in the game, it's easy to change the colors and so on. By having one point of decision for the work, those opportunities have increased.

So you're saying the illustration you've already released could still be updated until it's complete.

Tomizawa: Correct. Or, if we've completed a 3D model, but once it's rendered in the game and we want something changed, we can do it. For instance, often, when exploring, you'll be looking at the character's back. When we rendered Alphen's sword, it gleamed in the light, and we thought it was a better look. We could change how it lay on his back to fit.

There are parts of the character design that only come to life when the model is in the game. We get to see and reevaluate on a daily basis. And in the extreme case, since Mr. Iwamoto handles both sides, he can carry out that process in his mind (laughs).

I'm curious, how was the reaction when you informed Mr. Iwamoto that he was the sole character designer?

Tomizawa: I think he felt a lot of pressure. And being the art director as well, he has to have the entire world as a whole in his mind. Despite that pressure, he's working hard at leadership every day. It may be odd to say I'm glad he's here, but I definitely feel he's a good helper.

Digging Into Arise's Revealed Systems

The story summary talks about changing the fate of two planets. Are those two planets the ones shown in the sky in this image?

Tomizawa: No. This image shows Rena as seen from Dahna's surface.

In the story, the planets are quite opposed. Is this reflected in the environmental design?

Tomizawa: The technological levels of the planets are literally worlds apart. Dahna has a Middle Ages tech level and no magic, while Rena is highly developed in both science and magic. You'll find that in the game, they appear completely different.

In the PV, there was a volcanic area and a grassy area. Are those both Dahna?

Tomizawa: It's difficult to say much about what planet those two areas are on at this stage (strained laugh). What I can tell you is that Dahna has been enslaved to Rena for 300 years, and parts of its culture have been influenced in that time. So there may be architecture on Dahna that comes from Rena, for instance. You can imagine for yourself what in this art came from where.

It looks like you can go pretty far into the distance there. Some are wondering if that means this game is open world. What is the game's structure like?

Tomizawa: It's not open world. You explore each map and sometimes enter dungeons, like a traditional RPG. We do want it to feel like an open world, and we've made the environments so that you feel like the world is huge and built it into the design.

We did try making large maps at one point during development. In the game, there are vistas that make you wonder when you'll reach something you see in the distance. The other thing in this game is that we've tried to have differences in elevation in our environments.

I remember climbing up to reach a treasure chest.

Tomizawa: It's not going to be like that kind of one-trick design. There are also fields that look like the illustration.

So you look up and feel how large the world is?

Tomizawa: That, and also, there's a castle in the background, can you get there? We think that kind of discovery and wonder made possible by fields is very important. Tales has always held that as important, but now that we can make richer, more immersive fields, we can give players that sense like never before. We're putting a lot of effort into that this time.

Some have taken that to mean that battles in this game aren't encounter-based. Is that true?

Tomizawa: They are extremely encounter-based (laughs). The PV probably gave people some doubts, but the game has encounters. We tried various approaches, but between designing the fields to work well and making Tales' party combat fun, they didn't really mesh well. Ultimately, players wanted to enjoy both, so we used encounters.

We're preserving the traditional Tales quality while creating a unique sense of freshness and mastery. Tales' selling point is its action-based combat, so we're taking a page from action games.

We're designing the battle system for players to really feel like they're making decisions in real time based on their situation and choosing their own responses. The enemies are more intimidating and the effects are flashier, but the traditional quality is still there. Players on auto can enjoy auto, and players who want to master the system can feel like they're adapting in real time. I think it looks great.

The conversations between characters as you see the battle results are popular. Can we assume they're still in?

Tomizawa: We're still talking about how control should flow between field exploration and battle, generally. I can't say how it'll shake out, but there's a little bit of tension between wanting to learn and enjoy the characters and wanting to move on to the next goal. We're trying different approaches.

You were the producer of action games like God Eater and Code Vein. Are you applying that experience to combat here?

Tomizawa: Like I said before, it's mostly about that responsive battle idea. For instance, we don't want it to be the kind of combat where a gauge goes up based on events in combat, so you fight while watching the gauge. We want players to look at what the enemy is and what they're doing, how they're attacking, and choose how they respond out of all their options. And that results in landing a satisfying combo. Responding to the situation as I see it is a major part of action games, and fundamental to a satisfying feel.

I've worked closely with the battle designer on that. I can't say a lot about the details yet, but I think it feels plenty like an action game. But that doesn't mean the battles will be harder (laughs). I just want the people who want to master the system to feel in control and satisfied.

But the battles are party-based, right?

Tomizawa: Yes. You saw Alphen and Shionne in the PV, but there are more characters.

You can't have Tales without animated cutscenes, an opening song, and skits. Will we see those?

Tomizawa: We've been talking about when and how to use animated cutscenes since the start. ufotable is doing the animation for the game, and I think you'll get what you want from them.

On the other hand, we hope that from the PV, you saw just how far our 3D rendering has advanced. We're expecting the quality and expressiveness of the 3D to change the game's relationship with animation a bit. We've been talking about what's the most appropriate place to use which type of cutscene from the beginning of development, wondering if this is a place for evolution or change. But we will not remove animation altogether. That's a tradition we're keeping.

One of the series mainstays fans love is Motoi Sakuraba's soundtrack. Are you bringing in new blood there as well?

Tomizawa: I can't reveal who's in charge of sound at this point. But the PV we showed at TalesFest used a different soundtrack from the one at E3. Since the production quality of the game in general has increased, we're using an entirely new method of sound design, and we think the effect is clear from that.

I think there is such a thing as a Tales sound. Sound can make the world feel more epic and enhance the feel of combat. As we listen to the soundtracks and think about where we can improve them and how they're good, we're working to push the quality upward.

About the story, I was struck by a Twitter exchange from earlier where you said you wanted the story to leave a good impression.

Tomizawa: I'm not interested in which game did what. Some have a very clean ending, and some don't. I don't personally mind either way. There are people who will take the most depressing ending at face value (laughs).

I don't think it's that bad endings are bad, so much as you need to write an ending that users can accept. If you can't, good or bad, your ending won't fly.

I think a game's impression is less about the story itself and more about making players feel like the journey they've taken leads to the ending. We're not making something for someone to watch and feel moved, but a total experience people feel value in, and not just in this game alone.

Katsuhiro Harada is now General Manager for Bandai-Namco's original games. Did he give you any advice?

Tomizawa: He gave me a lot of strong advice about handling foreign markets. Not only about how the game should be, but how to communicate it, and that the channels are totally different. He also advised me on how to communicate on social media. It's not just receiving, either; we talk a lot about how to get feedback from users, how to write and how fast to update, and so on.

You announced the game with a release date of 2020. How do you plan to release updates going forward?

Tomizawa: I can't give you exact data right now. Things might change based on user feedback, and we're always considering how fast to reveal. We'll do our best to respond to fan reaction, and we'll develop based on ongoing dev discussions.

Please be patient until 2020.

Next year is the series' 25th anniversary, too. Is that part of your consideration?

Tomizawa: It is close to the 25th anniversary, and we are keenly aware that this would be an anniversary title. It's also to the brand's benefit to do something big for the 25th anniversary, and if this game is part of that, we have a responsibility to live up to that position.

You've already stressed the importance of communicating with players. Are you thinking of other ways to get in contact with with fans that Tales hasn't done before, including your Twitter updates?

Tomizawa: Of course. We may take measures Tales has not done before. We may respond to user wishes. We started a dev blog on the official site because it was requested. We're working on various ways to open conversations with players on the internet, and nothing is off the table because we haven't done it before. I want to engage as a user.

The recent entries in the series have all been in shared continuities, like Xillia and Xillia 2 or Zestiria and Berseria. Is this one fully standalone?

Tomizawa: As of now, we are not planning on a followup title, nor is this in continuity with any previous title. We want new players to be able to enjoy this fully.

Any final words for the fans waiting for release?

Tomizawa: I'm new to Tales, a brand that has continued for over 20 years. I'm trying to create TOARISE  to bring the brand to its 25th anniversary and beyond. The changes to the game are part of a movement for the sake of creating a better future, together.

Many of you may be worried about so much changing in a short time, but that's why it's important that we explain each element clearly, as well as increase our opportunities to answer your concerns. We're prepared to have that conversation constantly, even if we haven't revealed anything new, and we want that conversation to be valuable. We hope you'll continue supporting us.

Tales of Arise is now available at the following shops (Note: Please keep in mind that we may receive a commission when you click on our links and make a purchase. This, however, has no bearing on our reviews and comparisons.):

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Tales of Arise
Tales of AriseTales of Arise is the latest mothership title (new classification: original title) of the Tales of Series which was first announced during Microsoft’s Press Conference in E3 2019. The game was released for the PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One and PC Digital via Steam on September 9, 2021 for Asia and Japan and September 10, 2021 for the rest of the world. The game features use of the Unreal Engine 4 and works on the theme of tradition versus evolution of the series.

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About Caphi 13 Articles
Caphi is an old nerd who has loved Tales from Phantasia to Berseria, and loves sharing love! Other than that, he programs, translates, writes, and puns.