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AnimagiC 2014: Our interview with Hideo Baba

Last year we interviewed Hideo Baba, producer of the Tales of series, at AnimagiC in Bonn. This year Baba attended the event again, but the interview took place in a hotel nearby. Considering the noise of the crowd last time, this was probably for the best. For me, Ruben (Blackiris) it was the first time meeting Baba; my colleague Tim (saebaxyz) had already had the chance to interview him last year.

As we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted by the German PR people of Namco Bandai (or Bandai Namco as it is called in Europe now), lead by Michael Röder. He told us that Baba’s primary reason to visit other countries was not PR, but to stay in touch with the western fans. He also told us that the Tales series is doing progressively better in Europe with each new installment – now that is good news!

We were then guided into a separate room. Baba, holding Rollo in his hands, the cat from Tales of Xillia 2, was waiting there for us and greeted us cheerfully upon arrival. He was accompanied by a likable interpreter, a young lady who spoke perfect Japanese and perfect German, and probably also perfect English. We were prepared to hold the interview in English, but this didn’t seem necessary anymore.

We then realized we were one chair short. While someone left the room to fetch one, we had a couple of minutes time for a bit of smalltalk with Baba. He asked where we came from, and when I told him about my four-and-a-half hour train ride, he thanked me for coming all this way to see him. (I’m sure his journey from Japan took much longer, though.). He told us that he really liked the AnimagiC. Events like the Japan Expo in France are great, too, he said, but something about the AnimagiC reminded him of Japanese school and university festivals. And then he congratulated us on Germany’s victory at the Soccer World Championship.

During the entire conversation, Baba seemed lively and cheerful, sometimes humorous, even. He emphasized several times that it was his goal to overcame the distance between him, a Japanese developer, and the western fans, something he had already achieved to some extent. We were pleased to hear that he does not plan to stop visiting other countries anytime soon.

After a while, the required chair was found and our interview began. First of all we want to thank you for coming to Germany, and for all your dedication to promote the Tales series in the west. This really means a lot the fans, and we believe that this effort will eventually pay off.

Baba: Thank you!

Tales of Hearts R (PS Vita)
Tales of Hearts R (PS Vita) We are especially looking forward to Tales of Hearts R which is soon being released outside of Japan which, when announced, surprised many of us. Can you tell us what reasons ultimately lead to the decision to localize the game for the west?

Baba: Around three years ago, we began to promote the Tales series more actively, especially in the US and in Europe. During this time, Tales of Innocence R was released in Japan, followed by Tales of Hearts R. In this time, many fans asked us „Please bring these games to us“. Since Hearts R was the most recent titel, we decided to localize it for the American and European markets. The next questions is related to this. Is a localization of Tales of Innocence R also possible?

Baba: The localization of Tales of Hearts R really was an exception. Because so many fans asked us to bring the game to the west, we wanted to fulfill the fans‘ wishes. Like with Hearts R, Innocence R was not intended to be localized in the first place, and that is still the case now. So presently I cannot answer if Tales of Innocence R will ever be released on European markets. This means you will first wait for the sales figures of Tales of Hearts R?

Baba: (laughs) Let’s phrase it like this: Not only the sales figures matter. The more people play the game the more likely it is [that Tales of Innocence R will be released in the west]. (jokingly) Then I will buy it ten times and play it ten times.

Baba: (laughs) If your friends do the same thing, we’ll have a nice snowball effect. The next questions revolves around a Tales game that was never released outside of Japan: Tales of the Tempest. Is there a chance for a remake?

Baba: In Japan we were discussing a remake of Tales of the Tempest for quite a while. But like with Tales of Innocence R, there are currenly no plans for that. But even in Japan there are many people who want a remake. Most recently an HD version of the Symphonia games was released. Are there plans to remaster any of the other Tales games?

Baba: The HD version of Symphonia was also something like an exception since it was the game’s tenth anniversary and because it is one of the most popular games. There are no plans for any other remasters at the moment. That’s because we have so many games that there are always anniversaries, and if we would do a remaster each title, we would practically do nothing else anymore.

Tales of Xillia 2
Tales of Xillia 2 Our next questions are about Tales of Xillia 2 which is being released here soon. Many people, including ourselves, are looking forward to this game.

Baba: Thank you very much! Tales of Xillia 2 is about the power of choice. The player’s choices seem influence the progress of the story. How strong is this influence?

Baba: As you have said already the story changes according to the choices the player, representing the protagonist Ludger, makes. Depending on what decision was made, different events are triggered. It is not the case, however, that the story changes completely if you make other choices. The general directions stays the same, but there are different endings. Is Tales of Xillia 2 more focused on Elympios than its predecessor?

Baba: As you have said Elympios is the main stage of the game. But there are points when you will return to Rieze Maxia. In Tales of Xillia 2 you will frequently travel back and forth between these places. Ludger, the protagonist, uses different fighting styles. Was it difficult to develop a character who acts so versatile in battle?

Baba: I wouldn’t say it was more difficult, but it was more fun because we had more space to operate. Usually, a protagonist carries a sword and can use some magic. Ludger, on the other hand, can use three types of weapons: Double blades, double guns and a big hammer, and there is also the option to transform. That’s why we had much freedom during the development. Now we have some questions about the upcoming Tales games, Tales of Zestiria and Tales of the World: Reve Unitia. Tales of Zestiria uses a different kind of battle system. Why did you decide to change the battle system?

Tales of Zestiria
Tales of Zestiria

Baba: Since Tales of Zestiria has not been released yet, I cannot say much about this – but Zestiria is another anniversary title, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the series, so we want to take the good parts from the old games and combine them with a new kind of game experience. It is also worth mentioning that new elements have been added to the battle systems in each Tales game, and this time will be no different. We’re looking forward to it! Another Zestiria question: Go Shiina, who did the music for Tales of Legendia, returns to the series for Zestiria. I’m very excited for that because I’m a huge fan of his works. Why did you decide to let him work on a Tales game again?

Baba: As I said, Tales of Zestiria is an anniversary game. That’s why character designers [Mutsumi] Inumata, [Kousuke] Fujishima, [Daigo] Okumura and [Minoru] Iwamoto are collaborating. It’s the same with the sound section. That’s why Mr. Sakuraba and Mr. Shiina will write the music together. We are used to hear really good music from Mr. Shiina, so you can look forward to that.

Actually, it’s like this: Mr. Shiina works at our company, and he always wants to show people what he has created and hear the others‘ opinions about his work. This time, I was supposed to prepare for my travel to Germany when Mr. Shiina called me and asked me to come to the studio to listen to his newest creation. So I dropped by and the piece he wrote was really beautiful. It really was a pleasure to listen to. The next question is referring to Tales of the World: Reve Unitia. Why did you decide to make a strategy RPG, and is there a chance that we will be seeing the game in the west?

Tales of the World: Reve Unitia
Tales of the World: Reve Unitia

Baba: I wouldn’t call it a strategy RPG, but rather a simulation RPG. In the other games, battles take place in real time, but in Unitia you move the characters turn by turn, and this way you act, as you said, strategical and simulate the course [of a battle]. Because many characters from different games come together, it was a good opportunity for us to use a new kind of system. A western release, I am sorry to say, is currently not planned. A short remark: The term „strategy RPG“ that is used in the west is identical to what is called „simulation RPG“ Japan. On our website, JPGames, we conducted a survey to see what Japanese developers are the most popular ones, and you were the number one. That’s why we have some personal questions for you.

Baba: (laughs and is obviously very happy about that) Why me? Because you put so much effort into making the Tales games popular in the west. You come to Germany every year, you’re bringing us Tales of Hearts R and things like these are being noticed by the fans. Many people are really happy about that.

Baba: I see. (laughs) So it’s not because of my good looks? Oh, that’s also a reason, obviously.

Baba: (everyone is laughing) I’m just kidding. Of course I’m very happy about this. Because I attended many events in Europe and the US, I’ve had many opportunities to communicate with the fans. Then I’m always hearing things like „I especially liked this about Tales of Xillia“ or „Can you please bring Tales of Hearts R to us?“ That’s why I think it was possible for me to reduce my distance to the fans. We are more close now. I want to continue with that in the future. Of course the different PR and sales people have their own marketing strategies, but personally I want to keep staying in touch with the fans. If our research is correct, you joined Namco in 2001. You mentioned several times that your favorite game is Tales of Phantasia. How did you come in touch with a Tales game for the first time and how did you start working on the series?

Baba: That is correct. In 2001 I started working at Namco. After finishing university, I first worked for a different video game company and then joined Namco. Back then, there were no so called „song RPGs“, that means, it was unusual for RPGs to contain songs. Tales of Phantasia was the first game to do so. That piqued my interest and I started playing the game. Then I realized that I really liked the game’s theme – that it’s not just about experiencing an adventure and that the game has a message to convey. The antagonist, Daos, for example, has his own views, and the protagonists also have their ideals. Judging from their respective points of view, all of them are right, but there are moments when they must fight each other. There are many clashing opinions and ideals which makes the situation very complex. I found this depth of the game really interesting. As the producer of the Tales series, you always have to keep your audience in mind. We all love the Tales games, but if you could develop a game not part of the series, what kind of game would you like to make?

Baba: Personally, I love role-playing games, adventures and fantasy games. I find the material from „The Lord of the Rings“ – there are also some LotR games – really intersting, and I also like the North-European myths and hero tales. That’s why I find games like Skyrim and Dragon’s Dogma really appealing. Tales of Vesperia was the last game that used a cel-shading graphic style. Many players like this style because it closely resembles the style of anime and allowed for many charming comic-y expressions and portrayals. Is it possible that this style is used again in a Tales title?

Ruben, Hideo und Tim
Ruben, Hideo und Tim

Baba: In Tales of Vesperia this style was especially dominant which lead to everything looking somewhat cute. The idea behind the modern Tales games is to make the proportions of the characters and the world look more realistic while using a soft-focus effect on the surfaces to create the impression of a water color painting. That’s our current direction. It’s not that we have abandoned cel-shading completely – we’re still using it actually –, but it’s not so dominant anymore. Is there still time left?

Baba: I’m still fine! Mister Michael? (Michael Röder shakes his head violently; apparently we’ve already taken longer than we were allowed to.) Alright, we were able to ask you all of our most important questions anyway.

Baba: Thank you very much.

After that, Baba signed some games for us and we took a photo together („You are allowed to touch me“). During that time, Baba told us that he always likes to be in contact with the fans, and that his travels are so valuable for him because he has the feeling that his presence is really noticed by the people. He wished us a safe journey home and mentioned that an „everywhere door“ („dokodemo door“), a device from the Japanese children’s anime Doraemon, would be really handy to have.

A big thanks goes to Bandai Namco and Hideo Baba for this interview and, of course, to the fantastic interpreter who made it possible for us to have a smooth and easy-going conversation with Baba.