Probably the biggest thing I did this year at GDC was attend the “Technology of Final Fantasy” panel — though it wasn’t the panel itself that was so involving. About 1500 people lined up and packed a lecture hall to hear this talk, many hoping to get an exclusive look at Final Fantasy XIII (of which, to date, alarmingly little has been seen). I think it may have been a general disappointment — most media probably found it far too technical while nothing new was seen of the game, whereas the programmers and producers in the audience likely didn’t gain much insight since the talk largely focused on how Square Enix (well, really just Square) is playing catch-up with western development philosophies. The Crystal Tools project (formerly the White Engine — you know, the thing they used to build the Final Fantasy VII on PS3 tech demo) is a big step for Square and shows that they realize their rigid, culturally-mandated approach to development has to adapt, but I suspect a lot of western devs were thinking, “Huh, we’ve been doing this for years.”
But for me the panel was just a warm-up for the main event, an hour-long interview with the man behind the project, Taku Murata. You can read the interview (and my panel summary) now — although, again, if you’re looking for new gameplay details, you can forget it. I’ve done enough of these interviews to know the unspoken ground rules: anything about FFXIII’s gameplay, characters, story, budget or release date would be sniped on the launch pad. Ports to other systems? Info on that next-gen MMO? What the hell genre is Versus XIII? All of that would be instantly stonewalled.
So rather than waste my time asking questions I knew he wouldn’t answer, I tried and find some interesting angles on the very dry and matter-of-fact topic of a companywide programming tool that just happens to be behind the company’s three biggest games. (Well, three of the four — Dragon Quest IX is potentially as big as all three of those put together.) And even then, there was some disappointing evasion at times; it doesn’t come through in the text, but I could tell his response to the question about Crystal Tools’ Yasumi Matsuno connection was incredibly circular — apparently they still don’t talk about him, even when you’re not asking about him directly. So please keep this in mind when you read the interview… it’s more about technology and development philosophy. But hopefully you can read between the lines in a few places… I think he gave some interesting answers in his cautious, talking-around-the-obvious way. The confirmation that Crystal Tools-developed games are incredibly port-friendly should raise some eyebrows, and for my part I was happy to have my suspicions confirmed regarding the inherent cultural divide between Square Enix’s two corporate components.
Meanwhile, looking at this screenshot of FFXIII yesterday I realized that its battle system is going to be incredibly similar to Crisis Core‘s. This is not a bad thing at all, because in playing through Crisis Core (my review’s in the EGM that should be hitting subscribers any day now) I discovered its battle system is much actually more substantial than it initially seems. How that’ll work for a party-based game should be an interesting conundrum, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they use an AI scripting system similar to Final Fantasy XII‘s. There you go: I’ve just given you more concrete information on FFXIII’s gameplay than Square has.
Bonus content! Exclusive to the gamespite.net port of this post!: Murata noticed the Cactuar pin my sister made me for Christmas (which is permanently affixed to my laptop satchel) and said it was great. My sister’s response to the news that the lead programmer of Final Fantasy XII admires her work? “I rock.” And indeed she does.