Ambitious art: How Mistwalker fulfilled their magnificent vision for FANTASIAN

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Ambitious art: How Mistwalker fulfilled their magnificent vision for FANTASIAN
May 16, 2022 in Games | 12 min. read
Fantasian game character in an action pose over a pixelated black and purple background
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Mistwalker founder Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the iconic Final Fantasy series, had an ambitious vision for his latest production FANTASIAN. By importing photos of over 150 miniature handcrafted dioramas and innovating photogrammetry techniques, his team set out to create stunning sets and character effects for mobile.

We sat down with Sakaguchi and Takuto Nakamura, the director and main programmer of FANTASIAN, to peek behind the curtain at Mistwalker. In this blog, they share insight on how the team brought such a behemoth of an artistic vision to mobile. Check out our recent case study to delve even deeper into Mistwalker’s incredible achievement.

FANTASIAN sounds like a true passion project. Where did the ideas for the story and visual style originate?

Mr. Sakaguchi: It all started when I wanted to use dioramas to make stop-motion characters for the Terra Wars project. At that time, I also created the background using dioramas, and had the actual dioramas on hand. I was looking and imagining what it would be like if CG characters were adventuring, and playing RPGs on them.

The story is a different expression of the cycle of life and the stars, which I have cherished since the days of Final Fantasy. I came up with a theme that overlaps with the contradictions of modern society, such as the fact that the most chaotic things are born out of the most orderly living things. I also focused on multiple worlds, and knowing that emotion equals energy, sought to fill the player’s heart with a warm feeling.

Though often seen in film, the use of dioramas has not been as common in game creation. Seeing how well it worked for FANTASIAN, what did you learn by combining these approaches?

Mr. Sakaguchi: Visuals are one of the most critical elements of a game. It’s not easy to innovate, and ever since the introduction of CG in Final Fantasy VII, I hadn’t been able to come up with a fresh idea. Then I was reminded of the handmade detail of dioramas, and I chose the novelty of this visual expression, even though it might not be so compatible with game creation.

As a result, we feel that the effect was even better than expected. It made me realize, once again, that the idea of a new visual expression, no matter how big or small, is an essential one.

What were some of the unexpected differences you encountered developing for mobile platforms compared to the previous games your team worked on? 

Nakamura: Many of our members have experience in both console and mobile, so we didn’t really have any difficulties with mobile devices. However, it was challenging to make controller and touch controls coexist, especially in the menu area. Some bugs occurred with the controller; this area was more costly than expected.

From menus to exploration to combat, tell us about the design process for user interaction and user interface for mobile. How was it different from the approach you would have taken for a PC or console game?

Nakamura: With FANTASIAN, we didn’t think of it as a mobile game. We designed the interface as if we were making a console game. We then made several minor adjustments to the design to accommodate screen resolutions for mobile devices.

The most challenging part of the game in terms of user interaction was the combat. In combat, you have to curve your magic trajectory to aim at multiple enemies. We had to go through a lot of trial and error to find the best angle for the camera to aim at, adjust the trajectory of the curve so that it engulfs the enemies quickly, and achieve a pleasing player experience by defeating many different enemies.

Were there any unexpected aspects of developing for mobile that required a change to the creative vision for FANTASIAN?

Nakamura: We never gave up on the game, mainly because it was mobile. The game’s characteristic diorama method was designed to work well with mobile processing power. 

Its backgrounds are essentially photographs, which means that the background model is a 10,000 to 30,000 polygon model used for depth and photo projection. There’s no lighting, so the cost of drawing the background was relatively low. This allowed us to spend more money on the characters and post-effects, which resulted in a stronger overall picture.

Thaumatech Factory. Tanks were blown by glass workers.
Bar in the frontier town of En. Handmade with a trick that lights up.
Uzra. Assembled from a skeleton like a real ship.
Southern Forest. A large number of generic tree parts were used for models.
Handmade model of a bar
Bar in the city of water, Vence. Some parts are made of paper.

Tell us about the Dimengeon system and how you worked on the design. At first glance, it seems to be a great innovation for random encounters. But after looking more closely, it appears specifically useful for mobile players, who wouldn’t typically be able to engage in long or complex battles.

Nakamura: This was Sakaguchi’s idea. In FANTASIAN, if you touch a treasure chest in the distance where you can’t see the route, NavMesh will automatically take you there. We talked about how new and exciting this was, but the problem was that it became stressful when interrupted by encounters along the way. So we came up with the idea of a dimension system, where encounters are stored.

This system was initially created for field exploration. Still, it led to the exhilaration of defeating many enemies at once by curving magic trajectories in battle. It also made the humble task of leveling up more efficient. I think it’s a very unique and innovative system.

How did you ensure that the visual effects, lighting, and shadows would work with the data captured from the dioramas to maintain your artistic style?

Nakamura: The most effective way to achieve harmony centers on the texture of the characters and the atmosphere.

First of all, for the characters, we tried to create a figure-like texture that’s not entirely realistic. I adjusted this until the end to fit with the miniature, handmade feel of the diorama. The lighting was also handled with a stronger ambient to bring out this figure-like feel.

We added a customized vignette post-effect to create a natural atmosphere. Vignetting is an effect that darkens the corners of the picture, but in FANTASIAN we used it to add color to the image’s corners, as if it were a fog. It’s easier to add color in 2D than in a fog that depends on the diorama’s depth.

As FANTASIAN uses photographs, the depth of information is not perfect. That’s why we aren’t as good at depth-based post-effects like fog or depth of field (DOF).

Do you have any tips to share with Unity developers looking to create their own JRPG-style games?

Nakamura: JRPGs are simple in structure, but they tend to be significant in volume. We needed many assets, so the most important thing was to manage them effectively.

For FANTASIAN, we set up rules for naming and folder structure and then used import scripts to automate the process to a certain extent. This helped us manage the assets.

Debugging is also essential. The simplicity of the structure means that crash bugs are unlikely to occur, but bugs such as flagging errors that prevent the story from progressing are more likely. It’s a good idea to have debugging tools in place to detect and reproduce such bugs.

Lastly, we would love to know if there are any fun facts or secrets behind the game to share with fans and other developers?

Nakamura: Sakaguchi is quite flexible and open to individual ideas. Many of the storylines and characters have been changed based on the opinions of our team members. For example, we didn’t have a female character named Valrika at first, but the artist wanted to create a mature female character, so we added her in. He also agreed to make one character a triplet at the end of the game to make the battle more exciting, and even made Tan a cat lover. However, Sakaguchi was less open when it came to Ribbidon because he designed the character himself, and was very keen to keep his vision for the 3D model. Ribbidon, despite his appearance, can speak in a philosophical way. The artists and game designers had a lot of trouble with this, but it turned out great.

Sakaguchi’s production style is to play first, then make requests and adjustments. In other words, we needed to implement and then have people play. This provided us with detailed recommendations on the user experience to improve the quality of the game.

On the other hand, if the game wasn’t interesting enough, it would have needed to be redesigned and revised in a significant way. Ultimately, we chose to prioritize speed. The faster we could get the implementation done, the better we could determine what we needed to focus on for the project. 

At the same time, we didn’t make it too flexible. If you build to be flexible, you’re likely to end up with more recklessness and changes than you can handle. We always look for easier ways to achieve a similar experience.

Thank you both so much for your time and behind-the-scenes insight. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

Mr. Sakaguchi and Nakamura: Thank you very much.

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