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Q&A: ‘FFVII Rebirth’ director Naoki Hamaguchi on challenges, inspiring future game creators

Gelo Gonzales

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Q&A: ‘FFVII Rebirth’ director Naoki Hamaguchi on challenges, inspiring future game creators

NAOKI HAMAGUCHI. The Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth director speaks at a mall event in SM North EDSA, Saturday, March 2


Naoki Hamaguchi says defining the size of the world map was one of the toughest challenges, and cites 'Ghost of Tsushima,' and 'The Witcher 3' as inspirations

The director for the biggest game of the moment, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, was in the Philippines on Saturday, March 2, to meet with members of the gaming press to talk about the new title, and to meet fans at a promotional mall event on the same date.

In the roundtable interview, Rappler was joined by gaming and tech sites Ungeek, One More Game, and GadgetMatch to talk about meeting fan expectations, the game being his way of giving back to the series, and the urge to always create something that gives people the “will to live.”

Check out our full interview below!

Note: A translator facilitated the interview between the press and Naoki Hamaguchi.

Rob Yatco, Ungeek: First question is, FFVII Rebirth introduced so many changes from the original. What aspect from the original did you want to keep intact?

Naoki Hamaguchi: Rather than changing the main storyline, I wanted to add details that we were not able to express at the time, so that users today can have new realizations, and find new information by using these kinds of details. 

I wanted to first keep the main storyline, but add details to give more expression, but if it’s only that, then everything’s like, you can expect how the story will go, so there’s no surprise for the users today, so I wanted to add some changes in terms of giving the users more a sense of, how do you say, anxiousness of not being able to read what’s going to happen.

Ungeek: Is there a thing in FFVII that was essential to keep? 

NH: Maybe, like the character settings and the world view that should be kept because I am also a fan of the original game, but it’s pretty hard to nail down which part we wanted to keep. 

It’s really hard to nail down just one section because everything is important, but there are some scenes that are definitely engraved deeper into the user’s memory. For example, Rufus’ ceremony, Cosmo Canyon where Red XIII finds out about his father. And also the scene with Barret and Dyne. 

But if you played Rebirth already, you might have noticed that the detail of the storyline might have changed. But what I wanted to keep is to be able to convey the same emotion with these scenes by adding details, but I didn’t want to change these emotions that the users will feel from these important scenes. So if I were to l pick one aspect, that would be one. 

Chris Garcia, One More Game: First of all, I’d just like to congratulate you on the launch of the game, it’s been a long time coming. How relieved is the team at the critical reception of the game? How much pressure does this add to properly wrap up the trilogy? And might you be able to share any discussions or remarks with Nomura-san and Kitase-san when the review scores were published? 

NH: I have received the reviews, and have received a lot of positive comments and reviews so I’m really thankful! 

On social network services, a lot of people thought that the team set the score goal for the game at 90. I made 90 as my own goal but I didn’t want to put pressure on the team, and so the goal wasn’t something that I was verbalizing to the team. 

FFVII Remake didn’t surpass the 90 score [on aggregated ratings] so I’d imagine that some of the team members might have had some feelings inside that they wanted to do better. But now that Rebirth has received this positive feedback, there might be some pressure for some members but I feel that to work towards the end of the trilogy, this gives everyone more power to push forward to give the final title the conclusion it deserves.

Before the launch, I was in America, and then afterwards I flew to South Korea, and to the Philippines today, so I haven’t talked to the team yet, including Nomura-san or Kitase-san. However, I’ve received a message from Kitase-san saying congratulations on the result. 

Rodneil Quiteles, GadgetMatch: Okay, my question is,you can now switch parties on the fly during exploration. Was that ability, was the ability to do that during combat ever considered? 

NH: I receive this question sometimes. But there are character parameters, and also like materia customization aspect of the battle that really changes the difficulty if you’re able to switch the party during the battle so I didn’t want to do that. 

But instead to give the spotlight to each character, I put in each character’s story in the main story, so you’re able to switch the characters that way but not inside the actual battle.  

Gelo Gonzales, Rappler: Okay, you said before that Final Fantasy VI was your inspiration for getting into the games industry? You worked on 12, 13, 14 and of course FF7 Remake. But Rebirth is your debut as the lead director (Hamaguchi was co-director for Remake), so how did that feel? How did it feel at the beginning when you first accepted the task? Was it an overwhelmingly exciting feeling?

NH: So obviously, the Final Fantasy franchise was the reason why I came into the game industry as a game creator. With 20 years of experience in this industry, Final Fantasy was what made me grow up as a creator so I feel that being able to work as a director for this title is sort of like fate, and serving as a director for this title would ultimately be like giving back to the Final Fantasy series. I told Kitase-san when I was told that I would be the director, I told him that I wanted to do my best. 

Ungeek: Now that the reviews for the game are out, what was the most surprising praise or feedback or criticism that you saw about the game, and is there anything that you would like to address? 

NH: Okay, so the previous titles mainly focused on story design and the storyline, and that’s what the series was praised for in the past, but for Rebirth, I wanted to give the series more of a challenge, and try to give the users more freedom of choosing what they want to do.

And the user reviews that came out had some comments praising the game system and having more freedom, and not only the storyline and the characters, but also the game system as well, so I think this sort of gives more possibility to the whole Final Fantasy franchise in the future, giving more possibilities, not only like the story and the characters, but also on the game design aspect so that’s originally what I wanted to achieve with this title and I’m happy I was able to know that the users also liked that aspect of the game in the reviews. 

One More Game: In the first chapter of the game, we get to see a very important scene involving Zack; how tough or tricky was it for the team to reintegrate that character into Rebirth, considering that during Crisis Core, we kind of implied his demise? So how tricky was it to navigate through that reintegration of that character into Rebirth

NH: So this sort of overlaps with the first answer to my first question. But when you try to remake a game and make it into an entertaining game, having the exact storyline as the original was sort of lacking like those elements of excitement and surprise. So I was looking for something like an essence to add to the story, and when looking for that, why Zack was chosen as that essence is because in the original version, there wasn’t much story on Zack, but in Crisis Core, he had a huge character development there, and he felt that if there was one essence that the user’s would sort of be convinced that it’s enough, it would be, Zack would be that character. 

So yeah, that’s why I wanted to have him come into Rebirth to give that essence of having like more to look forward to how the story would sort of unveil itself. 

GadgetMatch: Other than synergy abilities, are there more subtle changes to combat that you hoped players would appreciate? 

NH: So some users have already noticed this and have posted on socials, but the basic action and command part hasn’t changed. But I’ve made the action more enjoyable, by changing each character in battle just a little bit, for example, for Cloud, his dodge now has a hit box so it can give damage to the opponent if you look closely, and also another ability that creates a long range attack impact.

And so we tried to incorporate these solid changes for every character in Rebirth to make the action part in the game to expand more possibilities. And we’re really happy that the users have made comments that the battle is actually more enjoyable than Remake. It has evolved from Remake so I’m really happy about that. 

Rappler: So let’s talk about one of the most talked about characters right now, Tifa. How did you want to depict her? 

NH: So one thing that I was really careful about in this game is to depict the same amount of character development for Aerith and Tifa. I felt that depicting one side more would sort of lead to many users’ unhappiness and obviously Rebirth sort of depicts Aerith’s fate, and that’s a heavy part. 

So we also wanted to add some scenes for Tifa as well. In the original title, I felt we didn’t have enough scenes to get to know Tifa, and her emotions, how she felt, and how she developed as a character. So that’s why adding some scenes in the Gongaga area that was not in the original, I wanted to depict Tifa’s character that she is kind to everyone, and everyone respects her but inside she has her own battles, and conflicts and the memories from her childhood that’s affecting her and her emotions. 

So getting to know about Tifa’s naive part would sort of become equal with what’s depicted about Aerith. I’m really happy that a lot of users love Tifa in Rebirth, and not only Aerith. 

Q&A: ‘FFVII Rebirth’ director Naoki Hamaguchi on challenges, inspiring future game creators

Ungeek: So what were the main learning points from Remake that affected the way the team approached developing FFVII Rebirth. Are there already any learning points from Rebirth that would be brought to the third title? 

NH: So in Remake the main driving point was the storyline, and I feel a lot of the users praised that point about the story. But there was some feedback that they wanted to sort of get to explore Midgar more. 

So that’s one part I wanted to work on for Rebirth. For Rebirth, the story goes into the world map, and I wanted to make the game design in the world map to give more freedom to the users. And that sort of matched his aspirations of what he wanted to change with the Final Fantasy series. 

So for Rebirth, he was sure that this was the right game design, and it took 4 years to create this volume and everyone really did their best. But I feel that we were able to achieve this because there were no doubts on the game design. The objective was to create a game that provides more freedom of choice to the users in the world map. 

So first of all for now, we want everyone to focus just on Rebirth, and get to get to play in the game. And in previous interviews, when I was asked the same question, I would answer that I sort of have the image of the next title in my head.

But since you’ve asked, I would answer a little more in-depth. We’re already onto the next stage, and I’ve already shared our plans with my team. And I feel that the next game will be another different experience from Rebirth. But for now, let’s just enjoy Rebirth

One More Game: So next question, you mentioned before that, apart from some key members like Kitase-san and Nomura-san, most of the team members working on the Remake trilogy are “new” in the sense that they weren’t there during the OG FF7 release.  Was this an advantage because the team was looking at this trilogy with fresh eyes? Did the new members turn out to be an advantage? 

NH: The entertainment industry has changed a lot, and there are a lot of young developers, young new ideas that are very important to sort of give the entertainment part in the game today. And in that sense, he feels that including himself, the new staff members did a good job in giving that aspect to the game. 

But I also feel that, for example, like Toriyama-san, Nojima-san, Nomura-san, they’re also in the development team. And I feel that that really helped the team sort of go in the right way instead of creating something like a fan-made remake. 

We wanted to keep the important essence, like the important messages that the original members wanted to convey with the game. Some parts are not written in the script, but only in their head so having them in the development team sort of allowed the team to go in the right way to create a game that respects the original but adds the new entertainment aspect to the game. 

He feels that the balance between getting the ideas from the original creators, and having the new creators sort of bring that into life to this new game had a very good balance. That’s why he believes that the original fans are also very happy with how this game turned out to be. 

GadgetMatch: So the transmutation mechanic hasn’t been talked about much. It’s basically Full Metal Alchemist. So was that an inspiration, and how did you decide on that mechanic, and was there a worry that it would feel off or disjointed from the game? 

NH: So the world map is very big, and we needed a lot of contents, and sort of preparing each content like individually that was not the point, I wanted to make everything relate to the character’s development, the bond between the characters, and the parameters of the characters. 

And that’s sort of the game design that he was looking for. And I think the reason why all the media, and the users sort of like that part of the game is that because everything sort of intertwines together, and everything affects each other. And that sort of created this sense of excitement to the users, and transmutation is one of the parts that I think sort of added to the game design. 

And right now, the game industry trend is you sort of get all these materials to create sort of like your equipment and everything, right? 

And I felt that adding this into the Final Fantasy worldview wouldn’t be too unnatural.

And I sort of knew that users would like this in the game so there wasn’t much anxiousness. And that having this to serve as something that would depict character development would be a good addition to the game. 

Rappler: What was the most challenging aspect in developing FFVII Rebirth

NH: So, the most difficult challenging aspect was to define how big the world map will be. One thing that’s difficult about creating an open world map is if it’s only about moving to one place and another, this would be a negative thing in the game. 

But if it’s too small, you wouldn’t be able to feel the “open-worldness” so I needed to have enough space, enough area, but also give the right amount of content so that it’s not too vast and empty but like still have the freedom to have the adventure and that was the very first challenge that the development team had in the process.

And in the first year of developing the game, they dedicated the time to sort of define, how big the world map will be, which continent will be placed where. And it was very difficult but  because they had that fixed in the very beginning, they were able to move forward with the game development fairly smoothly because they already had the like, how big an area will be, where it will be. They could decide, “okay, we will have 40 [pieces of] content in this continent and such.” So having been able to do that in the early stages of the development was pretty good. 

Rappler: Were there other open-world games that felt like an inspiration? 

NH: So there are a few games that inspire the open world aspect of Rebirth. Although there are open world aspects in Rebirth, the areas will sort of be unlocked as the story proceeds, unlike Legend of Zelda, where everything is available in the very start. 

We sort of had Ghost of Tsushima as an inspiration. Because in that game, there are 2 sections, the top part and the bottom part. And the top part becomes available once you proceed with the storyline. That sort of gave him an idea of how to define the space, like how big the world map will be.

And then, the content to put inside the map… Witcher 3 does a very good job with this. Having the side content in those areas to sort of serve as a way to depict character development, and get to know each character in that area, I sort of had Witcher 3 as an inspiration for Rebirth.

So side content, and those parts, Witcher 3 was a big inspiration. 

Face, Head, Person
REBIRTH DIRECTOR. Naoki Hamaguchi met with members of the Philippine gaming press on Saturday, March 2, 2024

Ungeek: Given the limitations that the original game faced, what were one or two things that you really wanted to remake/flesh out from the original? 

NH: So this sort of connects with the first question that you asked. There are many parts that we sort of try to flesh out. One part is Rufus’s ceremony. That’s one of my personal favorites. But in Rebirth, what I wanted everyone to experience the most is Barret’s part.

From remake, Marin [gets a more fleshed-out depiction] than the original game, and if you’ve already played the game, you would know that she is not Barret’s actual daughter. 

And that sort of a background story, there’s a very dramatic story between Dyne and Barret behind that story. Compared to the original version, the Corel Prison part, it’s a part where users will have more empathy towards the characters. And I feel that a lot of the players might sort of feel very emotional in that scene. 

And also some of the mini-games that are available in that area, it adds more to depict Barret’s inner conflict and his emotions. I feel that I was able to add a lot of aspects that adds to depicting the character’s emotions. And that’s what we want players to experience in this game.

One More Game: Considering that players might treat Rebirth as their jumping point into the world of Final Fantasy 7, how much of a challenge is it for the team to portray the many characters they use throughout the game? 

NH: The main storyline of this game is to chase after Sephiroth, and explore the world map while doing that. So I feel that having Sephiroth come out in the beginning, or in the demo version, and have players be more familiar with the character itself adds to the whole game experience. You know who you’re chasing after. That’s why I put in the Nibelheim episode in the very beginning.

This might be a different answer to your question, but while speaking to a lot of media and journalists, I did have feed back that Sephiroth is their favorite character. So they wanted to get to play Sephiroth more, not only in the first part.

In one of Chadley’s VR content – it’s more like end-game content – there is a part where you can play Cloud and Sephiroth in a battle, but the difficulty setting is very high. I wanted to talk about this today because the game’s already released. 

GadgetMatch: There’s a lot of discussion about graphics mode vs. performance, even in the demo. During the development, was it geared more towards graphics mode? What would your recommendation be? 

NH: So the answer to your first question, there wasn’t really a focus for the development team. It wasn’t like a preference. It was just like “performance mode, we have to get 60 frames per second” so it would be a question of to what level we would drop the graphics to in order to achieve 60 fps. And graphics mode needs only 30 frames, it would just be about brushing up the graphics. 

So there wasn’t a focus on which one we would prefer during the development process. 

Personally, I like to play other games in graphics mode as well, because I simply want to see better graphics. 

[On the feedback about the graphics], we have had a lot of feedback on whether the graphics in the performance mode will be improved or not, and we are hearing this. And right now, we’re working on creating on an updated patch to be able to improve that aspect of the game, and I don’t think that [update] will be so far away.

Ungeek: To build on that, what exactly is being addressed with that upcoming patch? 

NH: I’m not able to answer all, but one thing we’re working on is, we’ve heard feedback from the players that in certain situations or character positions that the facial lighting or the shadow, they look very scary. That’s one thing we’re working on, we’re working to mediate. 

Rappler: I’ve only started playing the game, and I can say it feels more challenging than Remake, and especially more than FF XVI. One of the earlier bosses, the big snake boss Midgardsormr, is giving me a really tough time. What went about setting the difficulty level of Rebirth

NH: So if you play the whole game, then you might not feel that the difficulty level is much higher than Remake. But actually the part where you’re playing right now, Midgarsormr, we made that part deliberately difficult. For people that are used to the game system, it might be easy for them to clear the game. 

Some people might be able to move straightforward. For people that are not very familiar, the point is to allow them to go back, and explore the world map, and have them explore the transmutation part, giving them the sense that the exploration adds to character development and allowing them to level up. [We wanted to convey] that these are important in moving the story forward, so the difficulty of that boss battle, Midgarsormr, was deliberately ramped up. 

Rappler: So that was your way of encouraging the players. 

NH: So that’s exactly it. And when you’re able to overcome that boss battle, then you’ll know how to overcome the following boss battles. You’ll know that exploring the world map would allow you to level up, and become stronger, and make the boss battles easier. So yes, that was exactly the point. 

And also to add-on we’re also hearing that the Junon area in the demo version has a high difficulty as well. This was also deliberately changed from the actual game. This is to allow the users playing the demo version to have more freedom in creating their strategies, and having more freedom in setting up their combat style.

So that was also something we did deliberately, and we hope that this sort gives inspiration to players on how they would proceed with their own combat style. 

Rappler: Games that are known for being difficult, like the Souls games, are very popular now. Were they an influence in you deciding, “Okay, we want to make this game more challenging too,” because some gamers like more challenging games nowadays? 

NH: So to answer your question, we didn’t really take those titles into consideration because Demon’s Souls, or Elden Ring, are a 100% action game. And between the few frames need to make the reaction, it’s solely about the player’s skill. But in Rebirth, we do have the action but we also have the command aspect, and you need to know what resources you have. You have to make your choices based on information about your opponent like their HP and what resources you have, the leveling and the parameters. So we have this excel sheet with all the numbers inside to sort of define the difficulty depending on your stances. 

So we didn’t take these 100% action games into account, in that sense.

Ungeek: How does it feel to have such a great effect on gamers especially during this day, and do you have a message for those waiting for this kind of game? 

NH: To answer your first question, I myself respect the original game very much. After almost 30 years, and remaking this game, having the responsibility of remaking this game is, the feeling that comes straight away is, I don’t want to let the title, let this game down, let the fans down. 

So this is a message to people that are aspiring to join the industry, having played this game. There are many [forms] of entertainment today, not only gaming but movies, streaming, Youtube. But the base is the same – it’s to give the people the will to live, today and tomorrow.

And if the title you created allows people to have this feeling, then that’s a great feeling. If you don’t forget this, then I’m sure you’ll also be able to create a game that has this effect on people. 

Rappler: Lastly, what’s your message to Filipino fans? 

NH: So this is my first time in the Philippines, and yesterday I got to walk around the city just a bit, look inside malls. But I saw that there are a lot of Japanese stores, and feel that many people in the Philippines, like Japan and being able to have, the people play the games that I created, have people in the Philippines play the game that I’ve created, I feel very happy about that.

And also because this game has evolved a lot from the Remake, I’m very satisfied with what I was able to create, so I hope a lot of fans in the Philippines are able to clear the game, and look at what happens in the very end of the game. – 

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.