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FFXV director Hajime Tabata talks leaving Square Enix to make the first Paralympic game【Interview】

Jun 24, 2021

Tabata and JP Games hope to make the world a brighter place, one game at a time.

JP Games is a new studio founded by Hajime Tabata, whom you may know as the director of Final Fantasy XV, the latest installment of the long-running RPG franchise. Being able to direct a Final Fantasy game is rarified air, and as such Tabata was approached with numerous offers to direct other big-budget games.

However, instead he went a totally different way and opted to create an official video game for the Paralympic Games. We were able to sit down with Tabata and his team at JP Games to learn more about this unexpected career turn.

▼ Hajime Tabata

Tabata was born in Iwate Prefecture in the northeast of Japan’s main island in 1971. Like a lot of Japanese kids his age, he was especially into simulation games such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Civilization.

– I could never stand those types of games. It felt like a never-ending struggle to build up money and stuff.

Tabata: “Haha, yes there is a lot of that and sometimes I had to stop playing because it became too much of a rut. But I really liked the immersiveness of those games. I could feel like I was walking around in that period of time. And when games became 3-D that feeling expanded to other genre’s too, like first-person shooters and adventure games.”

– Are there any games you just stayed away from?

Tabata: “When you’re young you have lots of time, so you can try lots of different things and even tackle really hard games. But now that I’m older I can’t spend as much time playing, so I stay away from games that are too difficult. It was around the time that EverQuest was popular that I had to step away because I saw myself getting too drawn into it.”

Tabata knew he wanted to work in video games, but living in a rural part of Japan, entry was difficult. He got a job interning at Tecmo but was constantly passed over for regular positions and spent about two years there and was on the verge of giving up before finally getting put on the staff of Captain Tsubasa V.

Captain Tsubasa V

He stayed with Tecmo for about a decade before doing some freelance work, then joining Square Enix. He was very involved in handheld and smartphone adaptations of Final Fantasy games. It was during this time that Tabata, like many people in Japan, had a life-changing moment because of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake.

– Where did the seed for JP Games and its mission to make games that contribute to social good come from?

Tabata: “My hometown was in the area affected by the disaster and many people I knew lost their lives there. There were many people who lost a lot, and I started to wonder if there was a way to use video games to contribute more to society.
One way is through entertainment. Giving people an escape for some time each day, whether it’s listening to BTS or playing games, is good but I thought more could be done.
Later on, when I took over directing Final Fantasy XV I had to travel a lot for production and promotion and I learned more about concepts like ‘sustainable development goals’ and ‘inclusiveness’ that weren’t talked about much in Japan at that time, but seemed to be common in other countries.”

When Final Fantasy XV was finished, it had already been decided that Tabata was set to leave. It would have been no problem for him to join with another major game studio, but instead he went his own way.

– You spent many years in the game industry working your way up from an intern, and your major achievements, such as FFXV and founding JP Games, came later in your life. Do you have any advice for other people entering the game industry, like maybe the benefits of perseverance?

Tabata: “I don’t really dwell on my past, so I’m not sure I can offer advice on how to succeed in the gaming business. But I think the most important thing in general is to be able to shift with technology and not resist change.
Creating JP Games gave me the freedom to grow and evolve with society and technology. When I started I got several offers to make AAA games, and they were very good, but that would be doing more or less the same thing. First, I wanted to try something new and really explore making a game for the social good, before investing time into making more conventional high-end games.”

One way of evolving was to bring a talented staff of young women on board, such as Assistant Producer Eri Monta and Art Director Harumi Ishizaki. In addition to veteran game designers working at JP Games, these new recruits, some from industries outside of gaming, can bring original ideas and energy to the art.

▼ Assistant Producer Eri Monta (left), and Art Director Harumi Ishizaki (right)

Around this time, Tabata had also met with then-International-Paralympic-Committee CEO Xavier Gonzales, and proposed the idea of making the first-ever Paralympic video game. Gonzales hated the idea initially, thinking that video games went against the spirit of an athletic competition, but after some convincing by Tabata, he eventually came around.

And so, Pegasus Dream Tour was born.

– Making a socially responsible game is all well and good, and speaking as a big fan of the Paralympics, I think making a video game of it is great. But how to you balance these things with making money?

Tabata: “Haha! You’ve put a lot of thought into this. When I was thinking about Pegasus Dream Tour I checked the official Paralympic videos on YouTube and they all had only a few hundred views, so I knew there was no way I could simply port the events into a video game and expect people to play it.
We had to think of making good content but also good business strategies to make Pegasus Dream Tour sustainable. One way is with the Pegasus World Kit, which is like Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, but instead of creating games it allows businesses to create open world platforms. Since we already created Pegasus City, we can also provide this framework for others to use however they want to make their own virtual worlds.”

– Kind of like that thing JTB did before?

Tabata: “JTB did something like that?”

– Don’t worry it doesn’t look very good.

Tabata: “Oh? Well, our kit is very good.”

In fact, JP Games is partnering with Epic Games on the release of the Pegasus World Kit and some major companies such as ANA are currently working with it to create the Sky Whale virtual tourism platform allow people to visit places like the streets of Kyoto from home with some other exciting surprise tie-ins planned.

▼ ANA’s upcoming Sky Whale, built from the Pegasus World Kit


Image: ©ANA

It’s a business plan that already sounds like it’s working, but still only half the battle. JP Games’ other challenge will be to somehow make an attractive and compelling game based on the Paralympics. To do that, they’ve decided to basically re-invent the genre of Olympic-style video games into something completely different.

We’ll be able to find out if it works when Pegasus Dream Tour is released on 24 June on iOS and Android devices, and will also hold events in parallel with the actual 2020 Paralympic Games such as sporting events. Also be sure to check out our article explaining all about the mechanics of Pegasus Dream Tour coming very soon!

Related: Pegasus Dream Tour, ANA
Images: ©JP Games (Unless otherwise noted)
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