Interview: Hiroaki Yura on Project Phoenix

Creative Intelligence Arts' Kickstarter-funded JRPG.

We’re always on the lookout for new and interesting things in the world of video games, and one thing that recently caught our eye was the fiery ascent of Project Phoenix, a Kickstarter-funded Japanese RPG from Creative Intelligence Arts. Raising nearly $600,000 in funding in just half a month, Project Phoenix has brought together a list of seasoned creators from around the world. We sat down with Hiroaki Yura, director on the project, to find out more about it.

— Before we begin, could you briefly introduce the setting, characters, and gameplay of Project Phoenix for those who aren’t yet familiar with it?

Yura: Sure! Project Phoenix is a Japanese RPG that blends in [real-time strategy] elements into its battle system, taking the best that Eastern and Western game development has to offer. The game takes place on a world called Azuregard, which is a high-fantasy realm and is home to various human kingdoms as well as elves, dwarves, orcs, and other races which include those not native to the Western high fantasy.

When players experience the game, they will do so through the eyes of Marcus Stern, a Templar who encounters Ruffles, an angel who has amnesia, and doesn’t quite know who she is or why she was sent to Azuregard. Later on, the two meet Sylrianah, an elven princess, and Zarum the Lost, a Battlemage, and together, with other characters not yet announced, they’ll seek to put a stop to a conflict that threatens to engulf the land.

— Project Phoenix isn’t being developed in a typical fashion. Even discounting the crowd funding, you’ve pulled together a lot of talented people from all over the world to work on this project, and nobody’s getting paid the normal way. How did you manage to get so many people to take up a project like this?

Yura: Well, it certainly helps that many of the people working on Project Phoenix are personal friends of mine or are friends of friends who are enthusiastic and came highly recommended as people who are passionate about games and can get things done! For example, I’ve worked with Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu for the first time 10 years ago and when we started this project, his name was the first that came to mind because of how well his music fits the story we’re trying to tell.

In terms of motivating our talented staff, you can definitely call this a passion project. They’re looking to constantly prove themselves, especially in a game genre they really love and adore, and are putting their reputations on the line as they venture outside of their comfort zone to do something truly great. Opportunities like this don’t come very often, and after seeing how well our Kickstarter campaign is doing, the staff and I have even more pressure to ensure that what we ultimately deliver really is truly great!

— On the same subject, what about the language barrier? It’s one thing to have a degree of competency for business purposes, but it can be difficult to explain some ideas (especially creative ones) across language gaps unless the speaker and/or listener are particularly capable. What’s your plan for dealing with these sorts of issues?

Yura: I believe that this language issue is one that I can deal with because I have lived and worked in both Australia and Japan and can communicate seamlessly in both languages. As the Director, my job requires me to communicate with all of the staff and making sure everyone understands each other. So if the Japanese staff presents me with information relevant to our English-speaking staff or vice-versa, then I’ll make sure that the staffer’s point comes across and that the listener understands so that we’re all on the same page.

We also have several bilingual artists and creators and of course, that only helps the whole process.

— On your website, you mentioned that the exploration phase of the game will include a variety of culturally distinct locations. Video games often break immersion slightly when characters from wildly different areas all share the exact same powers and abilities (especially if they’re the same class), so are you planning on doing anything for playable characters to make them feel like they’re unique units?

Yura: Different classes are usually recruited from different places and they definitely will not share the same powers and abilities… well besides basic abilities like movement or mounting! It’s as you said, we definitely want each area to carry its own cultural flavor.

As far as unique characters go, we don’t need to do anything extra to make them feel that they are unique, simply because they are. Each class will have it’s own special abilities.

Of course, we are still in the pre-production phase of our development, so we may decide to go wild on some things like tiered classes (upgradable classes) etc., but for now, we’d like to keep our game simple and fun!

— It’s also been mentioned that players will be able to advance through the game primarily at their own pace, without the need for excessive grinding. However, many players who go for strategy RPGs do so because they enjoy a challenge – are you including anything like various difficulty levels as a way of ensuring that people can play at a comfortable level?

Yura: Yes, currently there are three difficulty levels and an unlockable New Game+ type difficulty mode. We haven’t named them or figured out minute details in that regard, but you can sure bet that the difficulties will allow us to cater to casual players all the way to the hardcore gamers!

— Your estimated release of the game is Q1 2015, though most people familiar with crowd funding projects know that schedules can slip a bit… especially if you’re very over-funded and have promised a lot of additional content. Anyway, how often do you see yourselves sending updates to backers about the status of the game, and will you be including things like concept art or music samples when you do so?

Yura: We will send many updates, as often as we can so that people will know what’s going on and are confident that they can trust us. Not only will we share art and music concepts, our devs will be happy to talk to the public and show bits of gameplay so everyone can be excited about how the game is coming along. The only thing we can’t disclose is the story, as we’d hate to spoil things.

The game is set to be released mid-2015 and if we feel that we are not ready to release, then we will definitely notify everyone as soon as we know. If we feel the game is not ready, it’s better to consult with everyone and let them know that we intend to extend our own deadline. The key really is about being honest and making sure that we release as good a game as possible.
That been said, when we make an official announcement publicly on a specific release date, you can expect us to keep that promise.

— As of this writing, about half of your backers have gone for the basic download of the game (with or without early beta access), while the others are at various levels of bonus goodies. Was this about the distribution you expected, or have you been surprised at some of the things that backers have gone for?

Yura: Well, we were definitely surprised at how quickly the Artisan and Composer levels sold out! Even in this age of digital distribution, physical goods like a physical copy of the game, soundtrack, and art book are things that people still love and cherish. And we had no idea that the demand for a bound physical copy of the musical score would be so high, but we hope that our backers will get a lot of mileage out of that item and that we’ll see some YouTube performance of Uematsu’s compositions for the game!

— One of the biggest concerns of the community has been the personalities of the characters – specifically, there’s a bit of worry that the protagonists of Project Phoenix will be either too childlike or too dark and brooding. What sort of personalities do you really envision the characters of the game having, and how do you plan to show this throughout the game?

Yura: I have the utmost confidence in Yoko Enoki, our scenario writer, and our team of editors in being able to deliver a story that will strike the right balance that we seek for Project Phoenix. That being said, I personally don’t believe that “normal” characters would really stand out in an exceptional and extraordinary story.

— A lot of technical details can change over the course of a development cycle, so we won’t hold you to anything, but can you give us a rough idea of the system specifications that you think computers will need to be able to play Project Phoenix?

Yura: Our belief is that anyone with a decent low-end PC should be able to play the game. So we will implement performance scaling for the game so that most people should be able to play it. It’d really suck if you buy the game and can’t play it.

— Can you tell us anything about who you’d be working with to publish the game to PlayStation 4?

Yura: While we have plans, that’s something that would be announced sometime in September.

— Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say to the gaming community as a whole about Project Phoenix?

Yura: Thank you for reading this interview, being a gamer myself, I always longed to play many awesome games as possible. Now that I am standing on the other side, I hope I can really satisfy and perhaps exceed everyone’s expectations.

Please feel free to speak with us, voice opinions and ask questions!

Thanks again.

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