Having seen way too many Japanese developers close shop over the years, I’m always thankful for those studios that find a way to stay in business while also retaining the freedom to make the kinds of games that they want to make.
One such developer is Nihon Falcom. Founded in 1981, Falcom has had a huge impact on the gaming industry over the years, from its pioneering work on the RPG genre, to its part in growing the PC gaming market in Japan. From its days programming for the NEC PC-88 and Sharp X1, to its current work on the PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PS Vita, and Windows, Falcom has crafted a long list of games that remain as beloved now as they were 30-plus years ago.
With the Western release of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III now mere weeks away, I had the chance a while back to sit down and talk to the company’s president, Toshihiro Kondo, about the early days of the developer, Trails of Cold Steel III, and his days making Falcom fansites.
EGM: Nihon Falcom has had a very long history as a developer, even before you were at the company. I remember that my first Falcom game was Sorcerian…
Toshihiro Kondo: Wow!
EGM: Yeah, I played it many, many years ago now. [Laughs] And in that, and other games, it always felt to me like Falcom was a Japanese company making Western RPGs. Because, you know, there was always this feeling of a divide in the genre, due to the different gameplay and core concepts used in Japan and in the West. And yet, I always saw your company as existing in a kind of middle position between the two. So, I’m curious, given you have a long history now with the company, where do you think Falcom was as a game developer, and where do the think the company is now at in 2019?
Kondo: I think, actually, it’s exactly as you say. When I entered the company, and before that when the company was first founded, there was a huge Western influence on the games that were being developed, particularly for games like—you’ve probably heard of Wizardry, and other games of that like. So, directly under the influence of those games, a lot of the projects that early Nihon Falcom made were in that style, and with that influence.
From there, you actually had things like Dragon Slayer and Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu where menus themselves were in English, or at least in Western letters. [Laughs] The turning point was kind of Ys. From Ys, we started to make games that were, first of all, actually in Japanese. [Laughs] And then we started to have characters more at the forefront. I think that for us as a company then going forward, we really started to come into our own, and started to make games that were more ours and more Japanese overall.
I heard from our founder that there was a period of time when, as long as you were releasing games, they sold. [Laughs] However, that was also a point at which several people in the company left. So, there was a period where Falcom was mainly focused on remakes. That’s when I entered the company. There weren’t too many new games being produced, but rather many remakes.
Sure enough, my first job for the company was working on the Windows 98 remakes of The Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch [Ed. note: The Legend of Heroes III: Shiroki Majo in Japan] as well as Sorcerian. But myself, and the people that joined the company at the same time as I did, we didn’t join the company to make remakes. [Laughs] We wanted to make games like Ys. We wanted to make new games. So we talked to our bosses, and really fought hard for that. From that, we were able to make Ys VI, and then move on to the Trails series.
So again, all those people that were my age, we all kind of joined under the influence of Ys I and II, and then The Legend of Heroes I through V. From that, we started to make new games, which were definitely in the Japanese taste. I guess you could say from that point on, we became more known as a Japanese RPG maker. [Laughs] There are still people, obviously, in the company who did and do like Western games. So maybe at some point, they’ll be able to make their own as well.
EGM: Then if I asked you, is Falcom a Japanese RPG company, what would your answer to that question be?
Kondo: Well, I mean, given that current Ys and the Trails series are recognized as such, then I guess it follows that yeah, we are. There are still lots of people who love things like Brandish, Sorcerian, and Xanadu. But given that right now, the fanbase in Japan wants specifically kind of this Japanese-focused things, that’s what we’re making. [Laughs]
Actually, this is the first time I’ve ever had someone bring up these kinds of things to me during an interview, so it’s kind of got my heart racing. [Laughs] Because honestly, entering the company, I knew those games like Sorcerian and Xanadu and what they were, and so I think that was kind of what made Falcom great, too. There’s always been a part of me that wants to revisit that past and that history as well. When FromSoftware made Dark Souls, I think it had that kind of feeling, of going back more to your roots. There was many staff members in Falcom who were like, “Oh, they did it. They got to go back to that kind of classic style.” Whereas, we haven’t. [Laughs]
EGM: Well, if you want to make a new Sorcerian, I’ll buy it. So there you go. [Laughs]
Kondo: Oh really? Well then, we’ll do our best. [Laughs]
EGM: I started in Japanese RPGs, and then also began played some Western RPGs later, and one of those big divides that I came to notice was that JRPGs often wiped the slate clean. You’d have a game, and then in the next game, it might be sort of in the same universe, but it would be new characters, 1,000 years later, all these different situations that meant there wasn’t really continuity. One of the interesting parts of the Trails series, including in the Trails of Cold Steel group of games, has been that it’s this one long storyline that keeps going—which feels, at least to me, very anti-JRPG given the trends that have existed.
What are your feelings in terms of this being a continual series? Is that kind of a strange thing to do, or does it feel natural? And what are the challenges of not just wiping the slate clean for the next game and starting fresh?
Kondo: Hmm. You’re absolutely right, it is pretty common to see that kind of reset. The truth is that when you do something like that, essentially, as you said, the slate’s been wiped clean. But you also have to start from scratch from a development perspective as well. Maybe this is more based on how we develop games at Falcom, but in some ways, it’s easier to be able to continue off what was already there, because the universe has already been established and things like that.
It also increases productivity. If you look at the Trails series overall, you’ll see there’s nine games in this world in and of itself. In the time frame that we were able to put all these games out, I don’t believe there’s any other company that’s been able to have that level of efficiency to be able to do something like that. So, that’s another positive aspect of doing what we do.
When we were making The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC, we were worried about this, too. Would it sell? I mean, essentially the map is the same. You’re visiting the same places. But we realized that within that, you have a familiarity with the characters, and going back to those same places is kind of a nostalgic experience. You get to meet characters who you’ve met prior, and see how they’ve grown, and what’s going on in their lives. That actually ends up becoming the charm overall of not resetting the story, in that there’s a familiarity there that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Obviously, the fear within doing that too much, though, is that new players can’t just jump in at that point, because the worlds are so established. So, the way we’ve overcome that is, for example, if you look when we started with The Legend of Heroes: Zero no Kiseki, even though we’re set in the same world, you have new characters, it’s a new setting, and it’s a new part of the world. That’s kind of turned into how the series overall has progressed. Periodically, we’ll have a change of location, a change of characters, so that newcomers can also join in and start to experience this world as well.
EGM: Yeah, that’s one of the questions I was going to ask. Even just looking at the Trails of Cold Steel series by itself, if you’re coming into it brand new, I would feel that I had to play Trails of Cold Steel first, and then Trails of Cold Steel II next, before I could even consider playing this latest game. These are RPGs known for being longer and dialogue-heavy, so that’s a heck of a commitment. This isn’t like a franchise such as Call of Duty, where I can just pick it up at any time. So how do you get over that, and how do you make it so that somebody coming in new can have almost as good of an experience as a player who’s been there the entire way?
Kondo: One of the hallmarks of the series in terms of getting new players interested is the fact that you have an overarching story or an overarching world, but then you have smaller pieces within that, which are the Trails in the Sky series, and then Zero no Kiseki/Ao no Kiseki, and then the Trails in Cold Steel series.
The interesting thing is that the player base for each one of these separate series can actually be broken up by age. We’ve noticed that many players who are playing the Trails of Cold Steel series are in their 20s. Players who started with Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki are in their early 30s, and the people who started way back in the day with Trails in the Sky are in their mid- to late-30s. One of the things that we try to do to create these clear divisions with people in terms of where they can begin is to follow along the lines of when new hardware comes out. Trails in the Sky was on PC, the two middle games Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki were on PSP, and then obviously moving into Trails of Cold Steel, you have PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3, but then it goes on to PlayStation 4. So, that usually becomes a good place for people to feel like they can start.
Then a lot of times, the people who have started to play will talk to their friends and say, “Hey, this game is really fun and it’s really cool. You should play it.” And they’ll start where their friends tell them to start. But then, because of how deep the lore is and how interesting the characters are and the story is, it’s not uncommon to hear of people who, even though they might’ve started somewhere in the middle, then go back and start playing the earlier games as well.
When it comes to The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III specifically, yeah, it’s the direct sequel to Trails of Cold Steel II. There’s no excuses I can make about that aspect of it. [Laughs] But, taking it from a graphical perspective, this is the first one natively developed for PlayStation 4, and so it looks different. We’ve also made a lot of innovations and improvements to the game system, so that it plays a lot better. Thus, right off the bat, it looks kind of like a different game. The second, and probably more important thing, is the story aspect. Like you said, this is a game with a big history, and with a big story to follow. In order to make sure people were caught up, and they’re able to understand and really get into the world, we have a very comprehensive in-game library that not only explains what happened in the two previous games, but which then goes as far as to explain characters, locations, terminology, all these things that come up in the worlds. So the player, even if they’re new, can do a deep dive and learn about everything going on, so that they won’t feel completely lost, and will be able to be caught up to a degree as to what’s happened before.
EGM: Aside from those obvious advancements, what is the biggest improvement that the team has put into Trails of Cold Steel III that most people aren’t asking you about, or wouldn’t think of right away? What’s one of the best advancements you’ve made in this game that may be the most under-appreciated?
Kondo: One thing we often hear from players that they would love to replay the game, because it was fun and interesting. But given that it’s a huge time commitment, it’s kind of a daunting task to do so. So what we’ve added for Trails of Cold Steel III, in the American version only, is a high-speed mode, which allows you to really go through things much more quickly. This was a feature that we first implemented in Trails of Cold Steel IV in Japan, but we realized that it wasn’t a difficult thing to add to the previous game, so we retroactively added it for the Western release. So, I think that’s something that I’d like to shine the spotlight on.
EGM: I was reading an interview with you before, and the statement I believe you made was that because of how Falcom’s games are seen in the West, that the company is at a point where you can’t ignore, from a development angle, that Western side of the fandom. It’s always an interesting question to me for Japanese companies, because, I mean, it’s easy to say, “We know we have Western fans.” But once you actually acknowledge that and appreciate that, does that at all change the way development happens? Are there things where you’re like, “Maybe this is a little too Japanese,” and change it a little to be of broader appeal? Or are there moments where you might think, “Maybe we’ll make the story a bit different so that it has more universal appeal”?
Kondo: It’s a really good point. As companies, we do have a tendency to say, “Oh, there’s this fanbase that we have out there,” and then not really do anything to actually address whatever their concerns might be. [Laughs] Particularly in the case of the Trails series, one of the comments we often get is about player freedom, almost to the degree of wanting a more open world experience. That’s not something we can do, and the staff doesn’t really want to change that aspect of our games. It’s something we just can’t entertain, particularly because these games are so story focused, so there’s a certain order in which events need to be seen that can’t really be accommodated when you do an open world-style game.
On the other hand, though—and again, this is going back to combat—we did receive a lot of feedback from the West about combat being slow. [Laughs] Oftentimes, slower, turn-based combat is seen as kind of a weak point for Japanese RPGs. So, what we’ve done to address this for Trails of Cold Steel III is, given that the DualShock 4 has a lot of buttons, to allow players to assign commands to many different buttons so that you can move much more quickly through battle, and adjusted the tempo and the speed to be better. So, that’s one way we’ve addressed foreign feedback.
EGM: I don’t know that I want to get into the deeper details, because it’s a complex subject, especially for an interview like this. But with both the Trails games as a whole, localization and translation have always been very complicated things, due to how deep story-wise these games are, and how much text there is to translate. There has been endless amounts of conversation about the translation process recently, but even before with previous games and localization companies as well.
We’ve seen some companies be like, “We’re just going to hand our game off to the West and they can do what they want with it.” Meanwhile, we’ve seen situations like Studio Ghibli, where because Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was somewhat butchered when it was brought over as Warriors of the Wind, the studio then said, “We have to sign off on every single change that is made on the Western side.” So, I’m curious where your opinion is in terms of the Falcom side of things. Once the game is finished and a deal made for it to come to the West, do you want to be hands-off and let that company handle it the way it thinks the project should be handled? Or do you want to be more hands-on and have a say in the translation and localization process? What is both the company’s feelings, and your personal feelings?
Kondo: Unfortunately, the truth is at Falcom, not many people in the office speak English. There’s a few speakers, but not really to the level or the degree that we can check everything. So, as kind of a necessity, we have to leave it up to our partners to be able to make the decisions that they think are best, and we hope that they do a good job in doing so. I would imagine that the things that get changed, like character names, are for good reasons. So, changes like those are perfectly okay.
The area that I would take issue with, which was very similar to what you mentioned with Nausicaä—I mean, I don’t know what particularly was changed for Nausicaä, but I completely understand that feeling—is that if they’re going to start changing the actual content, they’d better be contacting us first to get our approval and talk through it. That’s kind of my personal opinion, then, at that point.
The actual story of how Falcom games came to be localized in the West is that there was a person over here who contacted us one day and said, “I would like to localize your games and get them out there, because I love your work.” And we said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on a second. You can’t just do that.” [Laughs] “We don’t have distribution in America. We don’t know how that market works. We don’t know anything. If you really want to do this, then you should find a company and do it.” And he did. He entered a company, and they approached our company, and the rest is kind of history.
The key point, though, is that we want people who love Falcom games and love the brand to be the ones working on them and translating them. I think that’s what’s most important. I feel that if someone’s willing to go that far, then I kind of have to believe in them and trust them and what they want to do.
EGM: It was interesting for me to learn that you made a fansite for The Legend of Heroes III: Shiroki Majo in your younger days, because in my younger days, before the Persona series was released in America, I made the first English-language Persona fansite.
EGM: So I know how it feels to exist in that part of fandom that leads you to putting together something like that. I’m assuming that you made your site for the same reason I made mine, which was because there wasn’t much information out there in those early days of the internet, and you wanted to share that passion you had for a game with other people. But, to hear it from you, what was your motivation to do something like that back in those days, and how do you see gaming fandom today versus what it was back then?
Kondo: Yeah, I think it’s like you said. There’s that dearth of information that was a reality back then, and so I wanted to kind of fill that void. Particularly because, for Shiroki Majo, there was never an official strategy guide released for it. Then it was also the kind of game where, because the story was so good, you wanted to relive certain parts. But in order to do so, you would essentially have to replay the entire game. Furthermore, it was on PC only, and back then particularly, but even as it is today in Japan, PC gaming was a very niche market. It was kind of made of the hardcore of the hardcore. [Laughs]
So, wanting to provide all those things to people is kind of what motivated me to put that site together. I loved the sense of community, and from the site, the people who would visit it would then have fan gatherings. Those visitors would also research enemy stats on their own, and then would bring me their results so I could incorporate them and put them into the site. I loved that. That’s one aspect of community. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s lacking today, but I think that the community was so very, very strong back then.
My site eventually was something that, even though I started it, I had people contributing things like fan art, cool little CGI things for me to display on the site, and so on. [Laughs] People would help me out with the coding so that we could have things like character rankings and other ranking systems. So what originally started as a project that I made became something that was not just mine, but which also belonged to the community as well.
One thing that I remember specifically is that even though a lot of this communication was done through the internet, in a way, you knew who people were. There was this sense of not as much anonymity as you would have today. Whereas now, even though things have become much more convenient, easier, and obviously the amount of information out there is much greater than there was before, we’ve kind of lost that sense of at-homeness that you had back in the older days of the internet. As well, the sense of community that once existed, and knowing who people were specifically. It could just be because the number of users of the internet has increased, so it’s hard to have that, but that’s something that I definitely feel has changed.
Those people that helped on the website back then, I’m still in touch with some of them, and I still occasionally sees them from time to time. But when I ask if they want to help out at Falcom, they say no thanks, and that it looks like it’d be hard work. [Laughs] Because they’re all at certain levels in their own careers and things like that, they don’t want to come help us. For example, there’s somebody who now works at IBM and has a PhD, so. [Laughs]
EGM: It’s funny to hear you say all that, because I went through the same kind of things. There were the certain people that you knew in the community that were like, “Oh, this is also the Persona person,” and so they would help out with the site. Everything you said, the fan art, the character rankings, all that kind of stuff, I remember all of that. And then you knew other people out there who specialized in other specific games or franchises. You knew you could go to them, and they would have their own little site or FAQ they’d written or at least be able to answer your question.
What’s interesting was that we didn’t have pictures of ourselves out there. We didn’t have YouTube videos. We didn’t have Twitter. But there was more connection between people, because there were so few out there that you knew who had their specialties. I knew I could go to that one guy, because he knew that one game back and forth, or other people knew they could come to me. So it’s interesting how that has changed over time, and that it’s more—you definitely have well-known people out there now, but it’s often more about the personality or the “brand,” and less about specializing in this particular game or this particular series.
Kondo: At least back then, I feel like a lot of people actually were interested in the internet itself, and worked hard to learn more about it. Now, it is what it is, right? It’s the internet. Everybody uses it. So that’s another big difference from the way it used to be.
Back then, people would literally make something called a “home page,” with their picture, their address, their phone number. And I said, “That’s kind of boring. Let me do something else.” [Laughs] But there was a sense of fun that only existed then, and I guess I can say that that era of the internet was more enjoyable for me.
EGM: The biggest thing at that point was, of course, what nickname you picked on the internet. That was huge, because that was the way people knew you. Not by face, not by anything else, but your nickname. So I have to ask, what was your nickname?
Kondo: I just used my normal family name, Kondo, and then “ya.” Ah, and for some reason, I would often write “Limited Company” too. So I was often asked, “Are you guys actually a company?” But I have no clue now why I did that. [Laughs]
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III launches on PlayStation 4 on October 22nd, 2019 published by NIS America.
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.