The royal boyband roadtrip adventure that is Final Fantasy XV is almost here. In just under two weeks, Square Enix's ginormous JRPG will finally arrive on PC, a little over a year after it first came out on console. Yes, it gets a little bit bogged down by its wonky story beats, but to dismiss it because of that would be to ignore all the brilliant things it does right, like chronicling your journey with amazing photographs. It also helps that the PC version looks properly brilliant. Yes, you'll need an Iron Giant-sized PC in order to run it, but more thoughts on that are coming separately soon.
Here, I have a talk with the game's technical director and lead programmer Takeshi Aramaki and game design and development manager Kenichi Shida (and their translator) about all things XV on PC. We cover just about everything but if you're after hot mod chat that's over here. There was also a surprise gatecrashing by the game's director, Hajime Tabata, about ten minutes in, so I got to hear what the big boss had to say about the PC version as well. Let the battle music commence.
What prompted you to make a PC version in the first place and why did you decide to make it the ultimate version of Final Fantasy XV instead of just a straight port?
Kenichi Shida: The PC version was planned right from the start of development. The reason that we obviously needed to take a bit more time to work on it and it wasn't released simultaneously with the console version was that we didn't want to leave it just being a basic port. We really wanted to use that time to bring out the extra power you can get from the capabilities of the PC.
The reason we had a PC version on the cards right from the beginning was that we very much had a policy and a vision of getting Final Fantasy XV to as big a player base as possible. Obviously, there are a lot of very large PC markets out there, so in order to satisfy those customers and give it to them we needed to do a PC version.
Takeshi Aramaki: One of the things we really wanted to have was the multiplayer aspect of the gameplay in the PC version, so I think it was a very good thing that we actually managed to get it in and it's one of the big things we like about that.
KS: Everything has really gone to plan. The multiplayer content was very much designed to work with the Windows Edition, but it was actually developed in advance so we could really get it in and working first.
How do you go about making a PC version of something like FFXV? Where do you start?
TA: The first thing we did when we sat down to do the planning was work on the graphic options and the graphic upgrades and said, 'Okay, we really want to have this game support a very wide range of PC specs from the low end, say the 1 teraflops user, right up to the top with maybe a 12 teraflop processor.' So once we'd set down that we were going to have that broad range and cater to every single one of them, we thought about what features, what graphic options, do we need to do that? It all started from there, really.
Was there anything you could use from the console versions, or did you have to start from scratch?
TA: Actually, when we were working on the PC version of the game, we were simultaneously working on the high-end console versions, the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X versions. They were all being developed in parallel. It was quite difficult doing that!
What about the music? Now it supports Dolby Atmos – was it made with that in mind in the first place or did you have to redo it?
TA: Interestingly enough, for Dolby Atmos, the technical programming you use to get the sound for VR is the very same one we used for Monster of the Deep, the FFXV VR content we produced previously to working on the PC version, so we basically just reused the same program after working on that.
[Final Fantasy XV's director, Hajime Tabata, fresh off a plane from Montreal, suddenly knocks on the door and waves through the window]
KS: That's our director. Hi boss!
[Unexpectedly, Tabata then proceeds to open the door and join the interview]
Hajime Tabata: Hello!
Hi! What a nice surprise.
HT: [sits down behind me] Ask me anything you want!
I will! So, traditionally Final Fantasy has always had game pad controls – was that difficult translating that to a mouse and keyboard?
TA: No, I mean, the reason behind putting that in, and the first-person mode as well, was very much aimed at what PC gamers are looking for and we felt that, 'OK, once we've got that first-person camera in the game, then they'll say they want to play with a mouse and keyboard.' So we did a lot of the investigations in how to do that properly and give PC gamers what they want.
[Tabata laughs at the new Final Fantasy XV PC trailer playing onscreen in front of us]
HT: It's really well made, isn't it? This is the best version of XV ever!
It is indeed. On that note, there's been a very strong reaction to the food in the game and Ignis' cooking. Did that surprise you?
KS: I think the reason we had such a concern with getting the graphics for the food to look so realistic was because we really felt that it's something that brings together the real world and the game world – that idea of food is something that resonates with everyone, and everyone can see it and enjoy – so because we spent so much time on it, we feel that what we wanted to do with that got through to the players and we're very happy. Obviously, we weren't quite prepared for how far the reaction went, but we think we really did get across what we wanted to do there.
The way we made it was, we actually made the dishes for real and scanned them and put them into the game. But I think rather than just the visuals, what we really valued in this game and placed the most emphasis on was the experience for the player. And we really felt that this idea of when you're going on a trip - when you're with friends and you sit down at your destination and you talk about your memories of the trip and enjoy it together with food, like the local food - I think that's something that everyone's experienced in some way or another. We thought that would really resonate with the player base, which is why we decided to do it in the first place.
Do any of you have a favourite dish?
KS: As a Japanese person, I like the rice balls, the onigiri. There was a lot of effort and real care taken in making the shape of the onigiri in the game, and our art director and Mr Tabata repeatedly refused to okay the designs. He said, 'No, that's what looks the best, that looks most tasty.'
HT: I've been seeing onigiri for many tens of years now so you can't trick these eyes into knowing what looks good! I remember seeing all the ones that came up and saying, 'Nah, that just doesn't look right. That's not tasty. Make another one!'
TA: I remember the stew, actually. It's a very simple one, but when we first did Episode Duscae, the demo, so many years ago, there was 3D data for it. It was rendered, but it was just a flat image at the time, and so basically after that, we did simulations of how the gravy should flow and how realistic it should look when Ignis puts it down and serves it to people, how it moved and I started to think that the guy who made this was probably a bit mad.
Would you say it's harder to create realistic looking food, especially at 4K, say, something more fantastical like a behemoth's mohawk?
TA: I wouldn't say that the food specifically was that much harder than other areas of the game. You mentioned the hair and how that moves – we actually had people, the characters in their open top car along with the wind billowing through their hair, we had some people go out in an open top car and measure how the hair moved.
KS: One of the big philosophies that we had behind developing this game was a little motto we had in the development team, which was to bring our experiences into the game. So we really want to go out and actually have these real experiences and see what these things felt like, and then try and put them back in and recreate them in the game so the player could have a similar kind of experience.
At what point did Nvidia get involved in the process?
AT: Probably the beginning of 2016. We decided that we wanted to use Nvidia's GameWorks tools to really add in some of the high level graphical enhancements to the game, so we were working with them from quite early on. We also had Intel and AMD help us with a lot of their optimisation, too, but Nvidia was on board from very early on.
Obviously AMD people won't be able to take advantage of all that. If you're playing it with an AMD graphics card, what will the game look like?
TA: I think there's obviously a number of features that Nvidia's suite provides us with that are limited to them and they very much keep them for their own cards, like Ansel and the ShadowPlay Highlights. But some of the other features that they offer, like HairWorks and the Turf Effects we've very much worked on that to make it work efficiently on AMD hardware as well, so they will be able to get a pretty good and enjoyable experience. They're not left out at all.
KS: Also, there are a lot more graphics options and settings available on the main version of the game compared to the benchmark tool we previously put out, so we really don't want to shut out any part of the PC market and we want to be as broad as possible.
HT: My own PC is AMD, so…
Fair enough! When you started working with Nvidia, did you find that their GameWorks tech was very different to your own techniques?
TA: I think when we started talking to them, we approached them saying, 'We really want to do more on this feature and have a higher resolution on this effect, or do this kind of thing,' and then they'd come back to us with a proposal, saying 'Well, we'd like to do it this way and here are the tools we have to do it.'
HT: We really did get together with them, and it was good for both parties to discuss how to approach things. We already had this world we'd created for Final Fantasy XV and how to take it up to that next level and make it even more detailed and even more beautiful, it was really great to have that interaction. If you want to play the game again on PC now, then that means we've succeeded in what we're doing.
When you were thinking about the PC version, I know you originally worked very closely with the Kingsglaive film team during development –
[Tabata laughs at the cactuar mod video that's now replaced the trailer from earlier]
It's very good, isn't it?
HT: It went down very well at the event.
Yes, I bet.
HT: Can I ask you one question myself?
HT: What do you think of Final Fantasy XV looking like that?
I think it looks good! Interesting. It would be better if there were some moogles as well…
HT [to KS]: Are there moogles in there?
KS: I mean, starting out we've just got some cactuar reskinned to the characters, but we're going to move on and we've got other plans to maybe have different kinds of characters to be moogles, chocobos… We're all working on all that. To start with, we've just got cactuars.
HT: The whole idea of the Windows Edition is that it's the complete edition in some ways, meaning that it's for people who have played it before who want to love Final Fantasy XV even more and find even more in it and also to bring in people who have never played it before. Those were our two aims. Sorry, your original question…
That's all right! So the team originally worked very closely with the Kingsglaive team during the initial stages of development. Did you ever think about using their expertise for the PC version, or are we still a way off Kingsglaive level graphics on a PC?
HT: I'll show you something here [plays the Nvidia GTC 2017 Kingsglaive demo on his phone]. This is Nvidia's GTC conference in May last year. So we really tried to make the real-time rendering for the CG in the game to be as high as possible, but also this was possible because of the pre-rendered CG as well, so we worked on both simultaneously.
AT: We actually used the same engine to make the [GTC trailer] as we did for the PC version.
HT: The graphics are probably a PlayStation 7 thing, though, I think!
KS: Maybe PS6!
KS: I think that's the big strength of our team within the company though. We've got this technical base that covers such a huge range of different levels and capacities going right down from the smartphone content games through to consoles and PCs, right up to this pre-rendered CG technology we have, and I think this really makes our team very strong.
Touching on the benchmarking tool, what's the feedback been like? Have you found lots of people have the right hardware?
AT: Overall, I think we saw that pretty much the distribution of hardware we expected was there. If anything, we were actually a little surprised that a lot of players in Europe and America actually seemed to have much higher specs than we thought. There was a lot of other technical feedback we got too that was very useful. I mean, certainly with the benchmark tool, I don't think we really had as much preparation time for it as we would have liked, but because the feedback we got from that had so many useful opinions and we'd really like to reflect all of that in the final product.
But there's also the problem that, while lots of people might have the right graphics cards, 4K monitors, especially 4K HDR monitors, are still quite rare. You've put so much hard work into making this game look so lovely, but are you worried at all that people might not be able to appreciate all those details and see it at its best?
TA: I think the thing about PC users is that they've all got their own very special, personal preferences about what they want to see in the specs for a game, and I think what's more important is that, rather than thinking about which group has the most desire for this and there's a lot of people that want this or a few people what that, is to basically have this breadth of options in order to cover everything they could be looking for. For example, there are people who really want to have ultrawide monitor support, there are people who are definitely looking for a first-person mode, people who are really concerned about the frame rate and must have at least 60fps, there are other people who aren't so worried about that and all those kinds of things. So I think providing all those options to cover all bases is the most important thing rather than worry about who's got what.
HT: And I think for PC games, it's most important to give them that choice. I think it's best to have that wide variation for PC gamers, there are some that say they have to have the high-end graphics spec, there are others that aren't maybe so worried about that but must have mouse and keyboard, so it's all about giving them the options to play the way they want. Although I think if there's something that maybe only 20 people in the world have, that would probably be a bit of a waste. We're hoping there's a few more!
KS: As a team, we really love trying to push the envelope technically and going for that top level of graphics technology, so personally that's a thing we really enjoy. That's the kind of guy Mr Aramaki is.
This is the first time Final Fantasy's gone first-person, too. What was it like changing from third to first and taking Noctis out of the picture, as it were?
KS: The desire for a first-person mode was something we really had a lot of people calling for from the PC community. It was very much put in because they wanted it, but at the same time, we also thought about how we could add something to the console version of the game which would give players who already played the game a new experience and let them see everything in a new light. I think the first-person mode really does that.
People who have played it in third-person and explored certain areas of the game, to be able to go back there and see that again from the perspective of the character's eyes will really bring a new light to everything. For the Windows version, it's also really good as it lets you get up close and seeing all the details and graphical enhancements we've made. I think it will also really help add to that feeling of having comrades around you. So rather than feeling the presence of Noctis, you'll feel the presence of his comrades around you.
Now that you've spent the time integrating Nvidia's GameWorks into what's now the Luminous Engine, do you think there will be future Final Fantasy games on PC at the same time as console? Is PC now an important platform for you?
KS: The next one or the one after? [laughs] That will probably be a different team…
TA: I think certainly with this engine, we've also got it supporting Origin and the Microsoft Store as well as Steam and it's really made it much quicker and easier to port things to different platforms on it now, so I think in the future you'll see a really aggressive push to broaden the number of [PC] platforms. I think the rule of the company, the strategy, has very much moved in the direction of trying to get as many of our games out on as many different platforms as possible to reach as many different players as possible, so I think you'll definitely be seeing a lot more platforms and a lot more broader release of games in the future. Our team is definitely doing that. I think certainly the Final Fantasy XV team is perhaps a little more proactive and stronger in doing that, and we definitely try and reduce the timings so there isn't as much of a gap.
KS: One of the things we've really put a lot of importance on is giving the same experience to as many people as possible in as close a time as possible. Unfortunately, we weren't able to realise that with the PC version of Final Fantasy XV, but we'd really like to make it exactly the same in future.
Will PC become the new home of the 'best' version of Final Fantasy?
TA: I think it's always a question of, we obviously want every platform we release on to take the game to the limits of what that platform can do. At the moment, the PC obviously has the higher spec, so that naturally means the PC has the best version at the moment, but that may change.
HT: We really do want to make a showcase of every single platform and take it to its limits. The Xbox One X version is very good as well.
TA: I was in charge of making the Xbox One X version of the game, and getting the technology for that, and the PS4 Pro version and the PC version, so from my own perspective I really want to make each of them the best they can be.
KS: When we look at the development, we really do try and get the best possible experience for people on every platform. We don't try and differentiate between them.
Finally, then, and arguably the most important question – who is Final Fantasy XV's best boy?
KS: I've been working on all four characters – Gladio, Noctis, Ignis and Prompto – and I treat them all as the main character of the game, so I really love them all the same and I can't differentiate between them. That's my answer, anyway. Now we'll get an answer from Mr Aramaki and then Mr Tabata will give you the correct answer.
TA: I've also worked on this game for a long time and I've come to love all of them, but if I had to pick one it would probably be Ignis. He's got a lot of dialogue moments when you feel he's got such a strong love for his comrades and I really like that brotherhood aspect of him.
HT: Every time I'm here in England I always say Ignis, because he speaks in British English. But I personally, looking at them purely from the character sense of things, I've worked so hard and I set out to make Noctis a character that I would like as a character and we really tried to make him such a great character, and everyone on the team got together to do that. Certainly, I'd say I love all of them really, but he's the one we really think we've raised to make the best character. Who is your favourite character?
My favourite character is also Ignis. Gladio's a close second, though.
HT: [laughs] Let's all say Ignis then!
That makes me very happy. But does that mean you have a different answer for different countries?
HT: No, not that much, we think that's probably a bit weird! But we really did try and get the characteristics and the personalities of the characters and try and colour them using different regions of the real world, the way they speak and trying to get different personalities and add different feelings to different regions in the game world as well. It was really great seeing that and how interesting it was seeing Ignis and putting British English on him and how that changed the way people saw the character, so that's definitely something we want to look into more in the future. I have a feeling in future projects, we're very much going to split the voice recording between British English and American English.
Thanks for your time.
Final Fantasy XV: Windows Edition is out March 6th.