While we appreciate the strides that take place in interactive entertainment every year, sometimes we long for the simplicity of the past. Muteki Corporation is a small studio that shares a similar sentiment, having dedicated its output to recapturing the magic of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games of old. With its charming 8-bit homage Dragon Fantasy: Book I just days away from deploying on both the PlayStation 3 and Vita, and sequel Dragon Fantasy: Book II also on the horizon, we figured that it was time that we went for a walk with company founder Bryan Sawler to talk about the studio's rocky road to PlayStation, indie development, and the PS4.
Push Square: Dragon Fantasy: Book I started life on PC and smartphones. Can you talk a little bit about how it’s made the transition to the PlayStation 3 and Vita?
Bryan Sawler: All of us at Muteki came from a background working on consoles, so I always had this idea in the back of my head that I wanted to get there again, but as a small studio it was hard to do. Then a few years back we first heard of this thing called Sony's Pub Fund, which actually made it seem possible. So, we started with the idea of making a PSP game. Then our office was broken into and our development kits were stolen and that was pushed back for a while. But then last year I started reaching out to Sony again about the Pub Fund after a talk at GDC, and someone else at Sony happened by our booth at PAX East. Finally, it just all came together.
PS: When you first started work on the Dragon Fantasy: Book I, what were some of your broad aims for the release?
BS: Long, long ago, in a split of Southern California and Montana, Adam [Rippon, creative director] and I wanted to make an RPG. We were overly ambitious high school kids who could barely program and had no clue how to make a game, but we wanted to make an RPG. After over a dozen failures, we decided to shelf the idea. But then years later, Adam's Dad – who was the basis of one of the characters, Ogden – passed away, and Adam wanted to honour him. So, he went back, simplified the game to just Ogden's part of the story, and started work. After years of being afraid of making an RPG again, the second I saw what he had been working on, I just remember saying, "Yes, we have to do this now. It's finally the right time."
We kept it simple, because we needed to actually finish it. So, we made it for us, and for Adam's Dad. And then other people started liking it.
PS: Can you talk a little bit about some of the other games that had an influence on Dragon Fantasy: Book I? Obviously, it looks like Dragon Quest played a part.
BS: This could be a very long list. Yes, Dragon Quest was the first RPG that I ever played, and the series is one of mine and Adam’s favourites, so yes it had a heavy influence. We wanted to make a series that chronicles the evolution of JRPGs over the years, so going back to our first was an obvious choice. I don't think there's a JRPG fan that hasn't been influenced by the Final Fantasy series either. But the game is riddled with influences from other games. The enemies jump down and flip back and forth like Lufia during combat. When you open a treasure chest you "procure" an item just like in Phantasy Star. There are references to just about every RPG – and some non-RPGs – that we've ever played, including Zelda and Soul Blazer.
PS: You’re overhauling the visual style for Dragon Fantasy: Book I for the PS3 and Vita release. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to do that?
BS: The first thing we did when we decided to bring the game to consoles was to revamp the interface. It was clunky and worked ok, but not as good as what we had in Dragon Fantasy: Book II. So, we brought that over, and that started this idea of let's just improve everything. The idea around the office became if we were releasing a special edition of a NES game on a SNES what would that be? It would have all of the same gameplay, but everything would look a little nicer, sound a little better, and just be an overall improved experience.
PS: What other tweaks should we expect in the PS3 and Vita version?
BS: As I just mentioned, the first tweak was replacing the old interface with the newer version from Book II. But then we wanted to look at what else we were unhappy with in the original, and the general consensus was that Chapter 2 still wasn't good enough. It was the first piece of additional content that we released for the game, and so we tried to do things differently. We added a bunch of optional content and made it less linear. The problem was that with Chapter 1 being so linear, people tried to play Chapter 2 the same way, and went straight to the final dungeon. And proceeded to die. A lot. We initially responded to this by adding some adventurers that you can recruit to your party near the beginning of that chapter to help you out, but that was really a band aid.
For Book I's console release we wanted to make it actually better, and not just less bad. We added a new dungeon to this chapter, the Tower of Trials, which is full of some pretty sweet gear. And we changed the story a bit to point out to players that, "Hey, there's more to this chapter than rushing to the Ice Cavern." Overall it plays a lot better, has a little more content, and feels a lot less janky.
PS: You’ve ported the first title while simultaneously working on its sequel, Dragon Fantasy: Book II. How did you find a balance between the two releases?
BS: We're a pretty small team so anything that we do takes away from everything else that we're trying to do, but I think that we did a pretty good job of keeping both going. Book I's console version was developed in a series of steps so we never really had more than one or two people off Book II at a time. The biggest impact it had on Book II is the release schedule. We were initially planning on launching Book II before summer, but now we want people to have a chance to play the first game, which really just buys us more time to make Book II that much more awesome.
PS: Why have you decided to support cross-buy? What benefits does that afford you as a developer?
BS: I've always loved handheld game systems. We actually came from developing for handhelds, going back to the Game Boy Color. So, making the game for the Vita was a no-brainer to me. But we also wanted the biggest audience possible, and there are a lot more PS3 owners out there than Vita owners. So, that convinced us to make it for both. Then once Sony told us about this new program it was launching called cross-buy, it made sense. People who have a Vita probably also have a PS3, so why not let them play the game on both?
Honestly, it's the best possible experience for the people playing the game, and that's why we wanted to support it.
PS: Can you talk a little bit about how Dragon Fantasy: Book II will differ from the first game? Is there anything in particular that we should be looking forward to?
BS: The Dragon Fantasy series is our take on the history of JRPGs. So, with Book I showing the progression in 8-bit RPGs, Book II is bringing the gameplay to the 16-bit era. Gone are the random battles and separate battle screens, and in their place are monsters roaming the world and actual battles taking place on screen. Instead of reading about your attack, you’ll actually see Ogden leap at enemies, weapon drawn.
Another big piece is the multiplayer support. Secret of Mana had this great system where a second player could jump in and take control of the second person in your party. So, we decided to do something similar, only instead of requiring you to be there, let's let you be somewhere else on the Internet. And instead of just taking over their party member, let's have you replace theirs with your own character.
PS: You’re being backed by Sony’s Pub Fund initiative. How involved has the platform holder been?
BS: Sony has been amazing. The platform holder’s been incredibly helpful every step along the way. And even though Book II is the Pub Fund title, it’s still been an enormous help with getting Book I out, and inviting us to take part in its Spring Fever promotion. The company’s filled with just all around awesome people to work with.
PS: Obviously, you represent a part of PlayStation’s indie push at the moment. Why is it important for the brand to branch outside of just blockbuster games?
BS: From a business perspective, focusing on smaller indie studios is a great way for Sony to amass more exclusive content and really build the PlayStation brand. Giant blockbusters aren't going to release exclusively on one platform – unless published by Sony or Microsoft themselves – because when you're spending $100 million on a title, you can't afford to limit your audience. But if you're a small studio like us with very limited resources, and with Sony being as awesome as it has been, if our games are successful enough to let us keep making games, why would we look elsewhere? If we can keep making great games and working with awesome people, then we're happy.
PS: What did you make of the recent PS4 announcement? Are there any features that have you particularly excited as a developer?
BS: I am hands-down the hardware geek at the company, so I love that part of it inherently. But, really, I think the coolest feature is the 'free' – from a developer standpoint – video streaming. Live-streaming and Let's Plays and what-not have gotten bigger and bigger over the past few years, and being able to do that straight from the console, and interact with people watching you play is just cool.
There are also a few other things I'm pretty excited about the potentials of, but, to be completely honest, I'm not sure if they were publicly announced yet, so I'm going to stop myself now.
PS: Does that mean that we can assume that you’re already working on the system? Are there any hints that you can give as to what you’re alluding to?
BS: I think the only thing that we're allowed to confirm is that we're licensed to develop for the system if we want to, but we don't have any development hardware or set plans at this time. There's not too much to hint at, though. I'm just excited at all of the connectivity possibilities.
Thanks to Bryan Sawler for taking the time to have a good old chinwag with us. Are you planning on picking up the Dragon Fantasy games? Let us know in the comments section below.