By Neil West
(Taken from Super Play Magazine, September 1994)
SquareSoft's main man and translator of Secret of Mana, Ted Woo- lsey, talks to Super Play about life, the universe, RPGs, and everything. But mainly he talks about RPGs.
Q: Up until the release by Nintendo UK of the insanely great Secret of Mana, European players will only ever see the won- der of Square games by obtaining gray import cartridges. Is this the start of more officially released Square games to come, or a one-off deal purely for the launch of the Secret of Mana? A: No, there are definitely more Square games planned for rel- ease in Europe. This process of releasing games through other people is pretty much the same strategy that our parent co- mpany in Japan used when first breaking into the American market. They didn't set up a company here straightaway and market our games direct, instead they licensed the first 8-bit Final Fantasy game to Nintendo and eased in to the US market gradually. I'm sure this is the same strategy now but in Europe. Q: So it would seem likely that SquareSoft's presence in Europe will increase, maybe until a SquareSoft Europe is establi- shed? A: Well, that would seem sensible because the European market is very strong, and it looks likely that it will only incr- ease, but I think it's too early to tell if there will be a Square office set up. Either way, the games will keep coming though... Q: Tell us about your relationship with Square of Japan. Do you choose which of their games will be translated into English, or do they tell you? A: It's getting to the point where we do actually have a lot of control. In the early days - about five years ago - titles were selected in Japan for American release, 'localized' [translated and re-jigged for the new audience] and then shipped over for release. But at the end of this month, I'll be going over to Square in Japan to take a look at all the titles in development and hand-pick which games we're going to release in the US and Europe over the next year. So more and more we're having a hand in deciding which games make it out of Japan. Q: And this responsibility will increase, right? A: Absolutely. Q: Things are really on a roll for Square right now. It seems that Final Fantasy is now a serious rival to Dragon Quest for the crown of most popular RPG series in Japan. In America though, Enix still has a loyal following. Do you think the next few releases from Square will consolidate your position as leader in the field? Do you feel you are in a battle with Enix? A: Hmm, not really. It's funny over here in the US because role playing games are such a small slice of the overall video- gaming pie, the following is still very much a minority of gameplayers. Our research has that if someone has a positive experience playing a role playing title, then they want more. So people who like, say, a Dragon Warrior title seem to like Square Soft titles as well. I know that there are big sales battles going on in Japan between Square and Enix, and I think that they actually have some sort of agreement not to go head-to-head with the release of similar titles and to make sure that both Square and Enix have enough space, but over here in the US it's a whole lot more relaxed. Over here I really don't think that it's a negative thing to have two very strong RPG lines. Q: You're saying that yourselves and Enix are actually doing each other favors: making sure that RPG fans have a decent supply of quality titles enabling the genre to grow and gain more support? A: Yeah, absolutely. Q: Do you take much notice of releases from other companies, and follow gaming trends? Or does Square stick to its own guns and try not to be swayed by current trends? A: No, no - in this day and age it's impossible to shut your eyes and ignore what's going on around you. We're very care- ful to look and watch what's coming out and when stuff's being released also. Q: On a scale of one to ten, how tough is it to translate Japa- nese games into English? A: Let me put it this way, It's a lot more difficult than it seems! Our avid following in the US is constantly saying to us, 'look, just what is your problem? Get the games out fas- ter!', they have a real problem with this. But they don't understand that there are severe limitations - as everyone who's played a Square game will realize - with size, it's just so tough squeezing the translated text intothe game. What this means is that you have to rethink an entire plot without actually changing any of the parameters that govern how the plot has implications on the rest of the game. So, inevitably, some depth is lost in the translation from Japa- nese to English. Q: How much is lost? A: Well, as far as simple text is concerned, I would say that you can get twice as much information into the same space when written in Japanese as you can writing in English. But it's the process of making sure that what you're left with still makes complete sense, that's the real time consuming problem, even after you've stretched and pulled all the text windows until they are as big as possible. Also, with some titles - like the Secret of Mana - there's no order to the messages. As a result, it's very difficult keeping all the plot lines and story elements in your head while working out what can be lost and what needs to be changed. Translating Japanese can be a completely frustrating task! Q: Aside from the basic difference in languages, do you exper- ience a lot of problems when you're dealing with distinctly Japanese cultural points or cultural references? A: Oh yes. And a lot of the problem lies with the basic expec- tations of the gameplayer. Japanese RPGs come from a textual background; from short stories, Manga and novels. In Japanese literature, typically, the need for a strong beginning, mid- dle, and end is not that great. The Japanese tend to savor the episodic elements of an adventure; brief jaunts off on sidequests which bear no relation to the main game are wel- comed in Japan, but here in the US - and I guess in Europe too - players tend to react like 'Now what was all that for? What a waste of time!'. So in some ways it's difficult to translate a game that was designed for the Japanese market because the gameplayers themselves are very different - it's not just that they speak a different language. Q: So how do you deal with this kind of problem? Do you have the facilities in the US to restructure a game to suit tastes outside of Japan? A: Well we have the know-how - that's not a problem - but we're really up against tough time constraints. In a perfect world, we would take the beautiful graphics we get from Japan and completely dump all of the code that stipulates when an event has to happen and how it occurs. We would go back in and tailor it to the audience here. But back in the real world, we simply don't have the time or resources to do this. We have to take it exactly as it comes and simply dump the Eng- lish translation into the original game. Q: So you'd still keep the graphics? A: Oh yes! While the actual game code may be in no way superior to stuff generated in America or Europe, the Japanese do have a beautiful sense of style and I think the games (esspecially Final Fantasy III, which is FFVI in Japan) are absolutely beautiful with scanned images overlaid on built-up graphics. Q: So how do you go about actually translating a game? What process is involved? A: I was given just 30 days to translate the Secret of Mana text. This meant that I had to fly out to Japan for a month with my wife and kids and just get on with translating the original scripts practically just as soon as they were comp- leted. There's really no time to do justice to these games. Q: So do you normally wait until a game is finished before star- ting on the translation or work side-by-side with the people writing the original storyline? A: No, I usually wait for a finished product and that's because if I jump in and start taking on text before the game is fin- ished, there will inevitably be so many countless revisions and rewrites of the original, that my translation becomes out of date practically as soon as I've completed it. The people who write these games work right until the last minute to hone the text to perfection, and as the text changes then so does the graphics, the timing of animated sequences and, indeed, the storyline. So it really does pay to wait until the game is done and then jump in and get on with it. Q: How do you coordinate dialouge with hundreds of different characters? A: I play the finished Japanese version about three times then, having videotaped all the appearances of characters, I'll sit down and work out a translation that seems to work in English but will also work with all the original Japanese source code. Then, if there's time, I can start adapting the game to more non-Japanese tastes. Q: Secret of Mana's wide appeal might be put down to its action- based combat, players don't have to worry too much about weapon stats and the like if they don't want to. Many older gamers prefer turn-based combat, however, and the slower, more involved plots. Which do you favor? Are there more act- ion RPGs on the way from Square? A: Well, Secret of Mana 2 will be an action/adventure title as will our first US-developed game; both of which are currentl in development. This US game is being done by Americans, for Americans, so it would seem logical that it will follow the more popular action/adventure format. In regards to which is the better system... Well, there are maniacal players of the command-driven RPGs and these people will dabble in action games, such as Zelda, but they always actually prefer the slower-paced, more strategic traditional games. We receive telephone calls from strange people many years after a game was released, calling to find out if the game hero ever got married! Now those are real maniacal players. The action/ad- venture players, however, are larger in numbers and the demo- graphic is different. They tend to be younger and like the idea of jumping straight into the action with a sword in their hands; it's an empowerment issue - you get to go out there, start whacking things and it feels good! With the more traditional RPGs, it takes a good 15 or 20 hours of playing before you're finally hooked. Q: So I guess there's always a compromise to be faced when put- ting a game interface together or designing a combat system. Do you appease the diehard fans who like to 'go deep,' or make the game more accessible to a larger audience? A: Exactly. It's definately a trade-off and it's a tough one. But I think that Secret of Mana went a long way into bringing more RPGs into the mix than perhaps, say, Zelda, which is more predominantly a straightforward action game. Q: You must be very pleased with the reception of Secret of Mana. This game has caused jaded reviewers to blub with joy, with it's sumptuous graphics and perhaps the greatest musical score of any Super NES game ever. Did you know it was going to be such a success? A: Well, no - there's an interesting story here in that Secret of Mana was originally scheduled as a CD game for the Sony CD-ROM SNES add-on that never appeared. So it probably would have been much longer, and I think that when you play it you can get a sense of areas where it seems that something might be missing... But the team working on it turned it back into a cartridge game and I think they did a wonderful job; cert- ainly the graphics speak for themselves. But as to whether we knew it was going to be a success, well, no. In Japan the game certainly didn't sell very well up against the Final Fantasy Series (which was in its sixth iteration, whereas Secret of Mana was starting off with no momentum) so no one was expecting the runaway hit that it's turned out to be. Q: Is there anything missing from the English version? A: No, just some things have been altered for sake of space. Q: Final Fantasy VI is going to be released as FFIII in the US, with FFV being held over 'till 1995 to be released as a sep- erate game. Could you explain this decision, and tell us about the games themselves? A: The Final Fantasy series basically has two seperate tracks: the odd series (FFI, FFIII, and FFV) are controller command drive games, whereas the even series are more story line driven games. As for FFV though, well although we're sure it's a great title it hasn't been a hit with too many people in out-focus groups, although the more experienced gamers loved the complex character building - it's just not acc- essible enough to the average gamer. But we're determined we want to release it so we're going to wait and introduce it once there's a larger audience for it's particular style. Hence the wait. Q: Is there a finalized name for FFV yet? A: The tentative, working title at the moment is 'Final Fantasy Extreme'. But this could always change... Q: FFII also had some changes (we've heard rumors about dancers stripping off in the original!). Tell us about those, go on. A: Well, there's a level of playfulness and - dare I say - sexu- ality in Japanese games that just doesn't exist here [in the USA], basically because of Nintendo of America's rules and guidelines. And this includes little characters that take their clothes off, or show their bottoms or chests - that Nintendo won't allow over here. I guess the aesthetic in Japan is perhaps similar to that found in say France or Ger- many, where you might see more people nude sunbathing or - in magazines perhaps - see more 'anatomical' shots. I mean, in the original there was nothing shocking - there was no sex or anything - but what there was Nintendo didn't like so we had to remove it. Q: Maybe the new, more lenient Nintendo would now allow this... A: Yes, it's certainly possible that in the future there will be a completely uncut version released. Q: Square has picked up Capcom's Breath of Fire for translation and a US release is planned for August of this year. What prompted you to make this move? A: Actually, Capcom approached us. They had a very busy schedule (that included at least two RPGs) so they simply didn't have room for it. And we loved it, and knew it to be something our audience was dying for... Q: What about Romancing SaGa 2? Have you any plans to translate this? It did remarkably well in Japan, and its simalarities to the FF series would make it extremely popular with fans of those games... A: Oh yeah, I'm sure it would be great but unfortunately it all comes down to a manpower issue and we really don't have the resources to do it. For every person put onto the job of restructuring a game for an English translation it means one taken off the development of FFVII or Secret of Mana 2. So no, unfortuneately, I can't see the Romancing SaGa series making it over here. Q: A new 16 meg RPG called Live A Live is shortly to be released in Japan. Have you any plans to bring this over too? We un- derstand that it contains a little strategy game called Cap- tain Square, and few strategy games have made it to the West. A: Oh, yes, this is a great game. It's been designed by one of the teams behind Hanjuku Hero from a couple years ago and it's basically seven games crammed onto one 16 Meg cart - so each are graphically quite simple, but great games. The tro- uble is that up against Mortal Kombat, for example, gamers really demand more visual sophistication - so it's fairly doubtful that we could ever sell enough to get our money back. Q: That's a shame. Maybe one day the audience will be big ebough to make it worth while. Just one last thing: the faces that appear in the backgrounds of a lot of your games - what are they all about, is there a hidden message here? A: Everyone seems curious about the faces! But no, there's no hidden meaning, satanic messages or anything - I guess it's just our artists' sense of bizarre humor coming to the fore. Actually, in one of the deep dungeons in FFII there was a room that contained the entire programming team. Unfortunat- ely that was one thing that just didn't make it across to the US version. Nintendo didn't seem to appreciate it.
Spoilsports. Well, here's wishing you the best of luck with your future titles Ted, and pick out some good ones for us when you visit Japan. Thanks very much for your time.