What’s Next After A 20-Year-Old RPG Series Ends? Ys And Trails Director Toshihiro Kondo Talks Falcom’s Future

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As a long-time fan of linear, turn-based RPGs, I’ve spent my fair share of time lamenting the fact that the Golden Age of this genre–which I’d define as the ’90s through early 2000s–is well behind us. However, after years of both the genre and the gaming industry as a whole evolving and expanding, time has finally come to admit it: There’s never been a better time to be a fan of JRPGs. Between the influx of remakes, remasters, and spiritual successors, and the plethora of new titles from both indie and larger-scale studios, the hardest part of being a fan nowadays is simply finding the time to play them all.

Toshihiro Kondo, the president of Nihon Falcom and one of the key developers behind the Ys and Trails series, feels similarly. The term JRPGs was previously used somewhat degradingly in Western countries, and those who played them were smaller in number and a bit more isolated from the rest of the gaming community at large. Kondo is one of the developers who is proud of what the genre has come to stand for and now embraces the term–as well as his various peers who he sees as allies in the quest to keep the genre that’s come to define his career alive and thriving.

As Falcom fans are surely well aware, Kondo and his team have been more than doing their part to ensure this is the case. Just this past week, Falcom released The Legend of Heroes: Trails Through Daybreak in Europe and North America to critical acclaim. The studio also announced its sequel–Trails Through Daybreak 2–is already in the process of being translated into English and is headed our way early next year. Additionally, the tenth entry in the Ys series, Ys X: Nordics, is slated for release this October. And yet, this is just a small look at what Falcom is up to.

Kondo sat down with GameSpot for an exclusive interview on what’s next for the studio, particularly as it begins to wrap up the Trails series–which began in 2004–for good. With a team of now-veteran developers full of ideas (and a bit worn down from working on long-running series), the team is ready to showcase new ideas, new IPs, and their new business model, which leverages the studio’s reputation and smaller-scale to create unique projects and expand the JRPG genre. Regardless of if you’re a longtime fan of the studio–or a newcomer who’s been a bit overwhelmed by its vast catalog of games–there’s never been a better time to turn your eyes towards the company.

GameSpot: It was mentioned in the press release that Trails Through Daybreak was a good starting point for newcomers in the series. How, in the midst of a fairly large series, do you ensure that? And what do you think makes that arc so special?

Toshihiro Kondo: Trails is, like you said, incredibly interconnected and features many recurring characters across its various entries. And so the way we handle that is twofold; Firstly, we create ample in-game materials so that players can reference characters or events that came out before to get themselves up to speed. And second, you’ll notice that, in conversations, if a character hasn’t come out in a while they will kind of reintroduce themselves. Either that or other characters will introduce them, talk about them, or reference things that they’ve done in the past, so that players don’t feel too lost in terms of what had come before.

[As for Trails Through Daybreak,] up until now, the main characters have been allies of justice, if you will. But the main character in this game’s a little bit different. I guess you could say he’s in the cracks, between all of these different elements of society.

And you’ve got the government, you’ve got criminal organizations, and you also have these people from the Far East–this is the first time in the series we really see a lot of people from the Far East all in one place. So it’s a really multifaceted game with lots of different factions and parties and things working against each other. It’s interesting finding a way to align yourself with these different things.

Trails Through Daybreak’s Van and Agnes sit together in a cafe.

Do you think Ys X: Nordics is also a good starting place for newcomers?

In the case of Ys, even though it is the same main character, the games are created in a way that every time Adol visits a new location, it’s new to him. And because of that, it’s new to the player as well. So all of the introductions that take place–whether that be for the surroundings or for the characters that come out–all of that’s new. So it’s very easy for players to jump in at any point and so there’s no real strategizing, necessarily, that we have to do behind the scenes to make sure that it’s approachable. Adol and Adol’s travels throughout the world always feel new.

So the player’s able to–not just with the Ys X, but in any of the Ys Games–essentially, jump in right from that and quickly familiarize themselves and acclimate themselves to that world and those characters in that game.

What are some of your favorite things about creating within these continuous worlds?

This is one of few–if not the only–series that’s continued for this long specifically within the same world. There’s a certain joy with being the company that’s been able to do and provide that.

Moreover, the Trails series has characters who span across multiple games. A good example would be in Sky, you’ve got a character who starts out as a little girl. You meet her when she’s 11 or 12 years old. And when you play the later games, you see she’s now an adult. She’s lived her own life and she’s grown throughout the entirety of each of the arcs. Watching her like that creates almost this parental feeling towards her and the rest of these characters. We get to watch them start at one point and then reach all these other great points later on in the series. There’s definitely a joy within that.

Ys is a very interesting title because of how long it’s been around. It has seen so many versions of action-RPGs and has also contributed a lot of concepts to the genre. I was wondering if, as time has gone on and the genre has gotten bigger, are there certain ideas you see within the genre–in Western games or just even in different Japanese studios–that you want to incorporate into the series?

Yes, and actually Ys X is a great example of what you’re talking about in terms of respecting the past and then putting in new things as well. For example, whereas the past four Ys games have used what’s called the party system, which basically allows players to use three characters at the same time that they can then switch out for other party members–generally there’s about six to ten others–Ys only has two characters.

Yet even though we’ve decreased the number of playable characters, it’s actually allowed us to do more. When you have a six member party, for example, you have to come up with skills, animations, and various things for all six members. But because there’s only two characters in this instance, we are able to add so much more to them in terms of their animations, movements, and more.

And from a story perspective, because this story mostly focuses on these two characters, we are actually able to give deeper focus to the heroine of this game: A young lady named Karja. We’re able to portray her, her struggles, and her story in a much greater depth than any Ys game that’s come before [Nordics].

We constantly want to keep an open mind and add new things to our games. We want to ask, “How can we make it better? What trends and what things are popular?” These are things we always ask. And right now Ys X is the best example of that, but going forward, it’s going to be an even bigger part of how we approach game development.

Adol and Karja brace for combat in Ys X: Nordics.

What else should we look forward to?

More likely than not, fans–when they think of Falcom–they think of our series, like Ys and Trails. However, looking at the past and Falcom’s history, you’ll see that we used to release games in multiple, different-yet-related genres. And you might notice that those have gone down over the years. However–thanks to the fact that so many of the developers at Falcom have been there for a while and there’s a lot of accumulated knowledge and know-how–we can start to make games like we used to, in many different genres that aren’t part of these two main series.

It might take a few years yet, and in the meantime, I’d love for people to keep playing Ys and Trails. But please do look forward to new IPs as they come out slowly. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years time, people will say positively, “Oh, wow. Falcom’s really changed. They’ve really broadened and they’re doing more and more.”

You know, game development costs just get larger and larger. And it’s kind of come to a point where every project has to succeed in order to move forward. But because Falcom is relatively small compared to a lot of other studios, that gives us a lot more flexibility and more ability to challenge ourselves and try many different things.

So that’s exactly what we want to do. We want to use the unique position that we’re in to be able to continue to create JRPGs and to bring them to people, so they always exist and they’re not solely tied to some of the larger companies that have a budget.

Right now in the Trails games, we’re on the fourth arc. Is there a planned number of arcs left? Is there a planned end of the series?

Actually, the series has progressed to the point where its main story is about 80-90% complete. And so while there will be games that come out, and those could be in the form of another arc after this, it won’t continue on too much longer. And you won’t see an arc as big as Cold Steel again. Though we’re currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the series, you won’t see a 30th or 40th anniversary.

With Trails starting to wind down and this emphasis on new IPs, is the studio looking at starting a new major series?

As for a direct successor to the Trail series, there’s nothing specifically planned–we’re just extremely focused on finishing up Trails. However, in terms of new IPs, there are actually several things that are actively being worked on right now.

You see, the Trails series has been going on for 20 years now, and as great a thing as that is, the issue is that that means a lot of folks have been working on that title for many, many years. They want to try new things. They have new ideas. There are new challenges they want to tackle.

Developing a game series like Trails over this great period of time is kind of like developing an online game in that you’re constantly thinking, “What’s the next event or thing that we have to do? What’s the course of the game itself?” And what that causes, a lot of times, is that the younger staff and their development kind of stagnates for a while. But I want them to be able to grow and experience new things that lead to new skills and new ideas.

So, in the background, we allow them to create and work on these new IPs–to talk about the things that they want to do. I believe that that will make them even stronger developers and they’ll have even better ideas that contribute even more to our games.

Is it a bit scary, going away from these established worlds and characters and starting a new adventure?

Yeah. It’s absolutely disconcerting to think about creating something new–to worry if people will like it or not. But the cool thing about development is that when you’re in the midst of it, there usually comes a point when you feel like there’s something there. There’s something that you’re creating and it’s coming together. It’s gelling. And it becomes the thing that you want to take out into the world to show people.

Having that feeling, that’s kind of what gives you the ability to carry on. Even though you might be scared because it’s a game that no one’s ever heard of before in terms of IP and characters, the fact that you created something–that you know there’s something there and that you want to show it to other people–is what allows us to bring out these new games and it’s why we want to.

Elaine from Trails Through Daybreak.

As time has gone on, I feel like making the crossover from Japan to the States–in terms of both distribution and finding a dedicated audience–seems to have gotten simpler. And we’ve seen studios, like Atlus for example, have these sudden booms in Western countries that set forth these resurgences. But do you think that it’s now easier to make that transition? Or do you feel like maybe it’s more competitive now?

Rather than a feeling of competitiveness, it’s more a feeling of cooperation. We’ve been making games for a very long time–since the 1980s–and back then JRPGs didn’t have a lot of success or popularity. And so a big contributor to our genre’s growing success is these companies like Atlus who have these great games that come out regularly.

And as the Western market has finally started to accept, appreciate, and be hungry for these Japanese RPGs, ultimately it feels like less studios are making them. We are probably the smallest makers, but companies like Capcom and Konami, who used to have strong JRPG series, have largely backed away from them.

So it’s a very limited market which is a shame because if the market’s hungry for something, you have to have a constant supply to satisfy those people and maintain it. So, rather than seeing Atlas, for example, as a rival–although I can’t speak to Mr. Hajime–I see when their games come out as a good thing. It means the market’s being satisfied and more and more people are learning about what makes JRPGs great.

Do you think that the company will ever reach a place in which the Japanese and the English versions of the games are released simultaneously? Is that a goal that the company has?

Yes, we would love for the games to come out at the same time. That is actually one of the things that we’re working with with NIS America to do–to decrease that time as we go forward in the future. We understand the necessity to have the games come out as soon as possible.

I hear it occasionally from the Western fanbase that they would love if games could come out sooner. We know that fans want to play the game as soon as possible–it is something we really want to do and will work on going forward.

You will notice though that we have been trying to decrease the amount of time. Daybreak, for example, came to the United States much sooner than titles in the past. And Ys X will, comparatively, be coming out not long after its release date in Japan.

But it’s important to say that we have a standard of quality that we need to maintain as well. Our priority is to bring a high quality game for [English-speaking] fans so that they experience the same thing as our Japanese fans do. We will never sacrifice that quality in order to get a game out quickly. So it’s been about finding that balance.

You mentioned the term “JRPG” a moment ago and I’m curious, because there has been some debate on if “JRPG” pigeonholes games made in Japan, is that label one you embrace? Would you prefer that people say, “turn-based RPG” or “action RPG?”

Originally, JRPG was kind of used as a pejorative and, obviously, we didn’t like it. There was this initial reaction against it. But gradually, it feels like it’s almost begun to mean the opposite. I mean, take something like Miyazaki-san’s Elden Ring. I’ve asked myself “Is that a JRPG?” Well, maybe not quite. But at the same time, one of the things you can kind of identify in JRPGs are these influences from anime and manga. Knowing how to incorporate those elements and themes into games gives them that distinct Japanese flavor, which is not only a good thing, but creates a sort of cultural bond too. Japanese people can kind of come together and rally around this specific thing and make it our own.

So while in the past I might have kind of shied away from that terminology or kind of cringed at it, it’s now something I embrace. There is a thing that only the Japanese creators can create by using these elements that we discussed. And by doing so, it creates something worthy of celebration. Rather than solely make RPGs, we make JRPGs–we’re proud to say it.

I love that you mentioned Elden Ring and that sort of “well, is it a JRPG?” feeling because it does feel like a hard genre to define. How would you describe it?

That’s difficult. Obviously the easy answer is, “Well, if it’s made in Japan…” But when you look at what is made in Japan, it’s trickier. There’s action RPGs–can those be JRPGs? Are only turn-based games JRPGs? Well, no, not necessarily. There’s kind of an ineffable thing that makes games in Japan, specifically JRPGs, what they are. It can’t really be described. But it’s the core and the essence of what a JRPG is. It’s why I loved them from the time I was a child and why all of the people at Falcom feel it necessary to share that love for the next generation. So that people can continue to love them and to get involved with them.

Disclaimer: The above interview was conducted via interpreter. Text has been edited for clarity, brevity, and readability.