It’s nearly midnight in Tokyo, and virtuoso violinist Hiroaki Yura is tired. His son is pottering about in the background, and every now and again during our conversation, Yura breaks off to stop him from doing whatever it is that toddlers like to do but really shouldn’t.
He’s still at work though. Yura’s the creator, director and producer of Project Phoenix, an astonishingly ambitious new RPG (roleplaying game) which hit a high score on Kickstarter this summer, scooping up more than a million dollars from fans on the crowdfunding site, one of just handful of game projects ever to do so.
The game is a mashup of East and West on multiple levels. It’s a strategy RPG with hints of Final Fantasy Tactics - a game as Japanese as they come - and elements of StarCraft thrown in for good measure. It’s set in Azuregard, a realm Yura describes as “Middle Earth except with a twist, a Japanese nation called Akitsu,” and filled with humans, dwarves, elves and oh, giant, bipedal samurai cats as well.
“Our concept of design is Japanese aesthetics and Western functionality. So your hair’s not going to stand up without seven cans of hairspray,” he jokes, making fun of the Japanese anime tropes he loves. “We’re going to try and make it real as possible.”
It’s also being developed by a team of all-stars from both hemispheres. Yura himself has worked on games including Soul Calibur IV and Skyrim as a musician. Also on the team: Vaughan Smith, a designer on crime adventure LA Noire; art director Kiyoshi Arai, who has worked on Final Fantasy XII and XIV; lead 3D modeler Steffan Unger (Halo 4 and Crysis 3) and Yumiko Sugihara, a designer with roles on both Final Fantasy VIII and IX to her name. Last but not least: Nobuo Uematsu, the legendary composer behind some of the Final Fantasy’s most memorable soundtracks is on board for music duties.
A million dollars from 15,802 backers is a vote of confidence for Yura’s company, Creative Arts Intelligence, but it’s not revolutionary as crowdfunding goes, and nor is it a huge amount to work with. Yura’s plan to get from here to completion, however, really is groundbreaking - or at least untested.
Let’s do the math. The game’s scheduled for release in 2015, and a million (Plus $61,000 raised since on PayPal) split at least a dozen ways over two years, is, well, optimistic. After all, the game is set to hit multiple platforms including PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, PS Vita and even iPhone and Android smartphones, with a map Yura hopes will measure 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles) across. How exactly has Yura managed to cajole so many big names into working on such a big project on no pay?
Save the 3D modellers, “everybody’s working on a royalty basis,” he explains. “Nobody gets paid until we’ve released the game. The only thing we needed was our assistants to be paid, because they need to feed their family where as we can work whilst doing other work as well.”
If it works, it could open the door for other all-star casts of developers to collaborate on triple A grade games together while keeping the day job. Imagine if Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima and Fable’s Peter Molyneux got together, or Half-Life’s developers bumped heads with the crew at Irrational Games, the studio behind the seminal BioShock Infinite. What could they dream up? The world’s best first person shooter wouldn’t be a bad bet.
Yura admits he “can’t think of any” other examples where the model, more commonly associated with low budget, bootstrap financed movies has been used in game development. But working for nothing except the thrill of it is also how the best passion projects are born. Is Project Phoenix a labour of love for everyone involved? “I would say so yes, very much so.”
Yura knows all about these: he doesn’t do things by halves. Raised in Australia, he took up at the violin at the age of six and never put it down. He toured across Asia, Europe and America throughout his twenties, picking up awards along the way. Then one day he decided to branch out into video game music.
“I guess I got really tired of playing to just old people,” he jokes. “I think it’s more just the fact that we were not getting any young people involved at all and that was really disappointing for me. We decided to play video game music and it was really successful.”
He began recording music for Japanese game composers including Final Fantasy Tactics’ Hitoshi Sakimoto and then TV shows. “I started complaining about how the music wasn’t done right, mistakes in the scores, stuff like that.” One thing led to another and he was composing as well with his own orchestra, the Eminence Symphony Orchestra.
Soon, Yura was living in Tokyo, and thinking beyond the score with the developers he was working alongside. “We’d talk about ‘What if there’s this type of game or that type of game’,” he says. “A lot of people liked my ideas and I said ‘You guys figure it out’. Then they said ‘You figure it out Hiro, you’ve got all the ideas!’ So yeah, I guess that’s what happened.”
It’s not hard to see where Yura’s gripes come from. Japanese roleplaying games have lost their commanding influence in recent years. Sales have dropped, they’re in a critical malaise and fans in the West have lost interest. Square-Enix’ Final Fantasy series particularly is suffering under the rule of diminishing returns. Is the JRPG, as it’s affectionately known, broken? Will Project Phoenix and its Harlem Globetrotters team of developers fix the genre for fans?
“I dont like the word ‘Fix’ because it wasn’t really broken in the first place,” Yura says. “Video games are very hard to make and I appreciate the effort that everyone puts in to make a game. [But] truth be told I have been continually disappointed since Final Fantasy X-2. I think they’ve lost the plot and by that I mean they’ve lost the point of what Final Fantasy was about: it was really about fantasy, not about graphics and people with weird hair.”
Yura describes the game as “realtime Final Fantasy Tactics”, a blend of RPG and strategy, with the character development of the former and the unit command of the latter. “It’s going to be like Warcraft or StarCraft, you point and click and then you click to the place you want to move to.”
Right now, the game is nearing the end of preproduction. “We’re trying to set up lines so we know what to do when we start mass production, so we’re making the basic, the framework, all our characters, the basic style of our trees, all the buildings,” says Yura. “This will set the standard for the assistants takeover with the mass production of other characters and environments and stuff like that.”
Right now, the team is still deciding on a final game name and animation style - Yura says they’re leaning towards cel-shading, Windwaker style - but they’re already set on platforms. The PS4 and PS Vita versions will launch alongside the PC, and allow for crossplay between both Sony devices, so you can play at home and on the go.
The team will only get to work on the mobile port after the desktop versions have been released however. Yura admits “it’s the best fit for an iPad”, but says they want to be sure they don’t need to remove or adapt any content on less powerful smartphones and tablets.
“The thing is the iPhone is already much more powerful than the PS Vita so I don’t think there’s going to be a huge problem with transferring the mobile versions. Two years from now everything will be so much more advanced again.”
But back to that business model. There’s a reason it hasn’t worked before. If everyone is working for free, what’s to stop them from wandering off when they find something more lucrative?
High profile crowdsourced game projects have failed before. Just last month, Neal Stephenson’s ambitious swordfighting game Clang, which raised $526,000 from fans last year, was put on hold - and its developers were getting paid. If Project Phoenix fails, it might just burst the Kickstarter bubble altogether.
Yura says it’s too big to fail, even if critics will point out that people once said that about the banks too.
“If [we] do fail everybody’s watching, and the calibre of people that are involved is too public. I would say that it’s going to be harder to fail because it’s a matter of trust, and also about public relations with other clients as well. If they’re seen being one of the key responsibilities that failed in this project, then they’re likely not to get any jobs afterwards, so yeah, I don’t think anyone’s going to fail.”
Yura promises weekly updates on the site, and so far his team has delivered on these, but with release at least two years off however, continuing to do so will take some commitment - and Yura already has his next game underway too.
“We already have two projects running at the same time,” he says. Project Pegasus is the name of a superhero prison in the Marvel universe, but it’s also the codename for his next project, he tells Red Bull exclusively - so watch out for that on Kickstarter very soon.
“It’s very similar” in that he’s pooled together his contacts to work on a royalties-only basis, Yura confirms.
“But it’s a much more complicated game. I can only tell you that another developer team in a totally different field of genre of games is working on this, and we’re trying to put together the might of the anime world and game development from Japan and the West together to make this happen.”
We ask if he’s planning on reinventing the beat’em up, another staple of the Japanese gaming industry that’s lost its mainstream status in recent years.
Yura only laughs. “We’ll let you know when the time comes for us to announce it.”
Project Phoenix is a gamble, but if it doesn’t fail, if it doesn’t implode, if it isn’t just a pipedream, it might just change how we think about game development for ever. Here’s hoping.