Dragon Quest XI S: series creator Yuji Horii and producer Hokuto Okamoto talk the definitive Switch release
The Dragon Quest series is role-playing game royalty, and in recent years it's been enjoying a vastly increased worldwide success thanks to the truly the excellent Dragon Quest XI and a range of hugely successful spin-offs. Now the most recent entry in the series heads to Nintendo Switch with Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age Definitive Edition. The name is a mouthful, but it truly is an exciting release - it's aiming to be the best possible version of a game so good that its initial release was a rare RPG Site 10/10.
In the run-up to the release we got time to sit with two of the people most responsible for this release: legendary series creator and industry veteran Yuji Horii and Dragon Quest XI producer Hokuto Okamoto. In this wide-ranging chat we discuss the new content for the Switch version, Horii's extensive history, western success and more.
RPG Site: I guess I want to start high level, in the sense of... it's been quite the journey for the Dragon Quest franchise in the West. Some games came over, some didn't... how do you feel about where the franchise is now? It finally feels like it has the Western acceptance as one of the big, big games, right?
Yuji Horii: Well, I've met many hardcore Dragon Quest fans overseas, and I'm very happy to see that there are fans all over the world. But we also think that we want the series to be acknowledged a bit more - so I think there's still a way to go.
RPG Site: When you think Square Enix, most people think Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. FF is arguably the more western-friendly series, traditionally. Is there ever a temptation... Developing 11, did you dev thinking you'd try to make the game more appealing to the west, or did you do your own thing?
Hokuto Okamoto: So, we always make a lot of effort to make the best of Mr. Toriyama's art - to make it as youthful as possible. For the backgrounds, we try to make it grand and as beautiful as possible. So really, it's all about making the most of the art while making the graphics look very nice overall.
For this game, we tried to strike a nice balance between Mr. Toriyama's very unique style of art and character features, but we also wanted everything to look more real. So in terms of equipment and the kind of clothing they have, we tried to make it as real as possible. We struggled to find a nice balance between those two.
RPG Site: So, coming to the west for the first time in this version is the 2D mode. This fascinated me back when it was announced on 3DS, both personally as a huge fan of that era of RPGs and also professionally in terms of what it meant for development. What was the genesis of the 2D mode?
Yuji Horii: So, when I first started making these Dragon Quest games, it was obviously only 2D - but now after all these years it's completely normal to have 3D games. But I wanted people to experience the history of the Dragon Quest series and I also know that a lot of our fans like playing in 2D - like you! [laughs] So this is why we've included both in this game, so that the fans can enjoy and play in both ways.
RPG Site: So was that always something that was going to be in this version - that right from the start you were going to include both?
Yuji Horii: Yeah, we were already planning to include the 2D mode when we started developing the Switch version.
RPG Site: Do you view 2D mode as perhaps being a little bit more handheld friendly?
Yuji Horii: It's not specifically that we view the 2D mode as the way to play on handheld, but when you think about the hardware - being able to play in handheld but also having TV so you can mix and match - you have a lot of choices, and that's what we were aiming for. Also, you can switch whenever you want - so you can see a city in 3D and then check it out in 2D whenever you like - and I think that's really half the fun.
RPG Site: Were there any interesting challenges in development in terms of ensuring that area design and elements like that work in both modes? Obviously they're very different in terms of how they represent the world...
Hokuto Okamoto: [laughs] Oh, it was hard. As you mentioned, the design of these areas is quite different and the size of the maps is very different between 2D and 3D. We still wanted players to recognize that the cities are the same even if they're really quite different. We had to choose what to leave in and what to leave out in terms of the geography of things, which landmarks to keep in the 2D version and so on... that was difficult, to determiner what we'd leave in and what we'd take out.
Another thing is that the text is different in 3D and 2D - so we have to manage all that at the same time. If we change one, it doesn't mean that the other changes automatically... so we had to change everything one-by-one. That was hard work. I never want to do that again! [laughs]
RPG Site: Let's talk about the Nintendo Switch specific content. What was your approach to this? Was it stuff left on the cutting room floor from the original release, or did you go in and try to figure out what to do afterwards?
Hokuto Okamoto: We were already talking about what kind of additional features we might want when we were during the development of the original Dragon Quest XI. We also decided on what new features to have based on... well, one thing was that the characters and the world of this game were very popular among the fans - so we wanted to add on to that. Also, the other thing is, since you could play both handheld and on the go we wanted it to be easy to play, and so that was also why we added some of the other new features to Dragon Quest XI S.
RPG Site: Usually apart from when you do a remake you don't really revisit an individual game's characters in the way that some other games do - so was it exciting to go back and tell new stories about the same characters?
Yuji Horii: It was really fun, adding new stuff to an already popular game! [laughs] The Draconian Quest that we've added more to in the XI S version - I really enjoyed doing that in particular.
RPG Site: How much were you looking at fan feedback, critics and the like, to figure out where you wanted to go?
Yuji Horii: We did refer to some reviews and fan comments that we had, yes! One of them was that the players wanted to choose their partners more freely. So in the S version, we have the feature to choose whoever you want - that was based directly on fan feedback and comments. We've also heard comments from overseas fans, and one of them is the orchestrated music - overseas fans really wanted that in the game. Another thing is that the first DLC with Dragon Quest 8's costume and music, that was also very much demanded by the overseas fans.
RPG Site: What's the stand-out for you guys out of the new stuff?
Hokuto Okamoto: I really like the feature where you can take snapshots. It really captures the sense of adventure with the party members, and I think it's a really fun feature to add-on to this game.
Yuji Horii: One huge change is the voiceover, I think. I personally really like the Draconian quest that I talked about. I really enjoyed adding those quests. I think those would be my favourite ones. I like playing jokes and pranks on people - so even when the story is super serious, I like to get the funny stuff in there.
RPG Site: What was the most challenging piece of development - either on this or on the original version of Dragon Quest XI?
Hokuto Okamoto: It's a bit technical, but we had some problems with the loading time. We were using Unreal Engine, and with this vast world and big cities we didn't want every single time you go somewhere to have a long loading time. We struggled a lot and we really worked on it for two years to have this balance of showing each new area smoothly - it was a lot of work.
It was our first time on Unreal Engine - and there were also some bugs within the engine that we had to fix to make everything run smoothly - that's why it took two years.
RPG Site: When you built the original game, did you build it knowing you were going to Switch - were you building it with the parameters of that machine in mind?
Yuji Horii: Yeah, we already knew at the start that it was going to be out on Switch, but we didn't have the Switch! [laughs] So we did know that it'd be going to the machine, but we didn't have the hardware, so we didn't know what to expect and couldn't prepare for it. Little by little, we got more information about the Switch from Nintendo, and we made progress through that step-by-step.
RPG Site: The Switch is very unique hardware - so how did you decide what features to use and not to use? Touchscreen inventory, HD rumble, etc
Hokuto Okamoto: Since we already had Dragon Quest XI out, our main thinking was that we want the users to enjoy the game more - so it wasn't really that we were looking at each feature of the hardware and deciding how to use it, it was more like - what would players think? What would they enjoy? So regarding the touchscreen, we thought that playing by touching the screen would be a bit of a hassle, so we didn't include it. I think also from the Nintendo side, they don't really need the game to make use of all of the features of the Switch hardware.
Yuji Horii: I think the best feature of the Switch hardware is just that you can have really beautiful graphics in-game on the go.
RPG Site: Many people view you as the originator of the template for the Japanese RPG - so how do you feel about where the Japanese RPG as a genre is now, and where Dragon Quest fits into that?
Yuji Horii: When I first started making these games, these RPGs, I think players had this problem of not quite knowing what to do in this kind of game. So I created a scenario, a story, that the players can follow that acts as like a rail for them to follow. I also made the battles turn-based - and I think this is what people now call a 'traditional' JRPG game. I think that approach is why the Dragon Quest games are easy to play for everyone, and that's the strength that we have.
RPG Site: Was it always video games for you? Or did you want to do something else first? A storyteller? Or a comedian, since you mention liking jokes and pranks?
Yuji Horii: I originally wanted to become a manga artist, actually. But then I discovered computers, and I found the fun and the excitement in interacting with computers. I started making adventure games, and that was the start of this whole journey.
Hokuto Okamoto: I'm actually the same age as the Dragon Quest series! Since I was small, I've really enjoyed playing games, and when it came to the time when I had to find a job I didn't want to do something boring...! I really wanted to do something that enjoyed. At one point I looked at my game console, and I thought 'that's the way for me!' That's the reason why.
RPG Site: Mr. Okamoto, is that surreal, playing these games on the Famicom and Super Famicom growing up, to now be working on them, with Mr. Horii?
Hokuto Okamoto: At first I was... yeah, it was surreal! I was trying to figure out what I could do to work on the series, to work out how I could contribute to the series. I would throw out some ideas and Mr. Horii would always deny. [laughs] He'd give follow-up ideas or make some comments... so really, it's thanks to Mr. Horii I'm sitting here today!
RPG Site: And how do you feel, Mr. Horii, about now working alongside people who played - people who worship at the altar of your previous games?
Yuji Horii: So, I get a bit too tired when people see me as like a god! [laughs] I try to come down to earth myself to direct my people! Really, I have to be on the same level as the staff to create the game. I think you notice as you keep talking to me that I'm a bit of a joker...! People shouldn't be nervous.
RPG Site: Are you looking at other games when working on a title like this? Do you just look at Dragon Quest's past, or do you look at what other RPGs are doing?
Yuji Horii: I don't really refer to other games, but I do play a lot of games in general. I've been playing a lot of Zelda recently.
Hokuto Okamoto: Of course I play various games to keep myself updated on the market. When we know the direction of the next game we're making we always look at the market and look at similar games and just use it as an example of what we might be thinking of four our next project.
RPG Site: A lot of series' as old as this feel like they're in a rush to evolve, a rush to change and be something new, but it feels like Dragon Quest has been extremely loyal to its past self. Has it ever been tempting to strike out and go crazy - y'know, to not be a turn-based game or something?
Yuji Horii: We do think of many ideas, but in the end, I think we can do a lot within the Dragon Quest series - in fact we have already. So for example, we've added the fun-sized forge, which is new and adds a new element to the game. We also have added thriller event scenes - and I think we still have a lot of room to add new features to the Dragon Quest series.
We don't only have the main Dragon Quest series, too - we have spin-offs like Heroes and Builders, so we have lots of places to try new things.
RPG Site: What is it you think is special about video games as a form of storytelling, given you enjoy telling stories so much?
Yuji Horii: It's simply really fun for me! [laughs] I think it's special that there's that level of interaction - it's not just one way. That also means there are many ways to surprise the users, and that's why I really enjoy doing storytelling on computers; I really like surprising users.
RPG Site: I'd love to know your side of the inclusion of Hero in Smash - how it came about, your reaction to it...
Yuji Horii: I'm very happy that the Hero has been added to Smash! I'm also so happy that they included things like the commands, the MP... and also the character is really strong! [laughs] I'm really happy about that.
Regarding the process of having the Hero in Smash, Mr. Sakurai really wanted to have the Hero in Smash and they'd been proposing it for quite a long time. Also, since Dragon Quest XI was coming out, we felt it was the perfect time for him to join Smash. It's all thanks to Mr. Sakurai.
Dragon Quest XI S is set to release worldwide for Nintendo Switch on September 27. Check back soon for the RPG Site review.