Over the years, my fond memories of playing 7th Dragon III Code: VFD (7D3) haven't faded one bit. It's a classic Japanese Role-Playing Game that makes the turn-based format so free of waiting times, that the combat almost feels real-time. I dare say it didn't receieve a lot of attention at the time of release. This release is an odd story. All you have to do is look at the title. Why only release the fourth game in the series (There were two PSP titles, respectively 7th Dragon 2020 and 7th Dragon 2020-II (7D2, 7D2II))? How come the original games were made by Imageepoch, while 7D3 was made by Sega?
Fortunately Twitter exists for a little while longer and so I asked Oscar Rodriguez a series of questions. I've taken the time to rephrase the message exchange as an actual interview, both so that it's easier to read, and so that it isn't lost in the swirling void of social media.
Oscar Rodriguez is a Japanese engineer that has worked at Sega, Google, and currently AMD. On 7D3 he worked as a graphics programmer. He was kind enough to answer all of my questions, and in a rather detailed sense.
As he himself notes, he was not a designer on the game, nor is he affiliated with Sega anymore, so take these answers as representing his personal views, and enjoy.
Can I ask a you a few 7D3 questions? Maybe you can't answer these questions, but since it was a smaller team, maybe you have an idea.
OSCAR RODRIGUEZ (O)
Hi, and sorry for the delayed response. New year vacation and everything.
I'll try to answer your questions, but please understand that I was on the programming team, so I had little visibility over these issues.
Was it a Sega game, or was it started by Imageepoch and then finished by Sega?
When I received the source code, there had been a non trivial amount of work already done, about 20%~30%. We were tasked with finishing the game. I don't know who made the original initial work, but they weren't involved in finishing it. For some of the game building tools, we didn't even get the source code, so I assume that the break with the previous development company wasn't really clean for whatever reason. Unfortunately I don't know much more than this, and this is merely my hypothesis.
It's really interesting to get this perspective about the work that had been done before your team started working. The structure of corporate Japanese game development is a bit of a mystery to me, and it becomes no less puzzling when comparing the names of who worked on 7D1, 7D2, and 7D2II compared to 7D3. Of what I've played from 7D2, they look a lot like 7D3, but with a little more super diminutive art style. Was part of the development also in porting PSP-targeted code to the 3DS?
No. I only worked on VFD. I first played the PSP games because of the Hatsune Miku collabs, and I quite enjoyed the series. I was certainly thrilled when I learned I could work on VFD.
[NOTE: Hatsune Miku appears as a guest character in the two PSP titles]
- How did the design change when becoming a Sega game?
I wasn't involved in the game design, so I don't know much about this. However, all four 7th Dragon games were directed by the late Rieko Kodama, and as far as I know she was quite hands on with the game design, so I reckon not much might have changed with the devteam change.
I wasn't aware that Rieko Kodama worked on the previous titles as well. I'd only noticed her name in association with 7D3. I must admit it saddens me a little that 7D3 didn't get more attention, considering the love that Skies of Arcadia still receives. I'm getting the impression that the game's development was split between a design team, that remained the same, and a programming team, that was switched. How does that description sound?
[NOTE: Rieko Kodama (1963-2022) was a Japanese game developer. Over her long career she famously worked as a producer on Skies of Arcadia, and as a director on Phantasy Star IV amongst many other games.]
To be completely honest, I'm not even completely sure if she was involved with the older games. She was quite knowledgeable about the game world, and VFD felt like it was "her game", so I assumed she came up with the whole series, but it's possible that she didn't... Not sure... As for how games are made, it depends on many factors, but usually you have the "developer", who makes the game, and the "publisher" who funds it and sells it.
Sometimes the developer and publisher are the same company, but for most games this is not the case. Publishers like Sega have many more games that they want to make than games that they can make internally, so for most games they hire an external company to make it for them.
When doing so, Sega often puts a producer and a director to make sure the game turns out how they want. I reckon that for VFD, Kodama-san and maybe Watari-san were involved with the first company, and for some reason they stopped working with that company and brought the game source code and everything else that they had so we could then finish making the game internally. But once again, these are all my educated guesses. I was not involved in these decisions, so I can't say for sure.
Which games continue what made 7D3 special? Like, the super responsive combat or the interesting character type mechanics.
"Special" is subjective.
I enjoyed working on this game because we had a small team, freedom to do things the way we wanted, and we worked very closely with the other teams. This is a dream case scenario in game development. One thing I can say is that, being the graphics programmer, I worked very closely with the art director and the art team, all of which were very talented, and we did some really cool things graphically that we had originally thought the 3DS wasn't able to do. The team itself, at least on the programming side, was built ad-hoc. Some of us had worked on other projects together, but it's not like it was an existing team that made lots of games. This is also the case for basically every game I worked on at Sega.
"Cool things [...] originally thought the 3DS wasn't able to do." You've GOTTA elaborate on that.
Showing all 9 characters on the screen at the same time was something that we initially thought wasn't possible with the 3DS hardware. When I first got the code, at most we could show 4. I'm glad we were eventually able to get all 9 at 30fps. Also, what we were able to do with the hair dynamics was pretty cool for the 3DS. You have to look very closely to notice it though, but that was also a cool addition. Also, the full screen effects were far from trivial. These can really kill performance, but we found ways to do all the effects that the art team wanted to make and still hit 30fps.
I particularly liked the color aberration effect. That required some cool tricks on the 3DS hardware.
I'd describe 7D3 as a fast-paced JRPG. I get the impression that I'M hitting the enemies, and like the game never makes me wait for combat. Are you a fan of Japanese role-playing games yourself? Is there an older title that made you go "Yes! This is how it's done", and a newer title that makes you go "They've still got it!"?
I enjoy the genre, and I think the 7D games came out pretty well. I've played a few others. I particularly enjoyed the Mother series and the Mario RPGs.
I'm not really the best person to answer what makes a game good, since once again, I'm a programmer, not a game designer.
Attributing auteurship to games is a common practice that might not make sense. Who were the people that made this game special, and how can we follow that special sauce get made elsewhere?
I think that games with small teams with lots of autonomy get made with love, and tend to earn the hearts of many players.
That's why I like indie/doujin games and make my own.
7D3 really did seem to have a lot of autonomy. Something like the dating mechanic requires a lot of work to add, but gives the game a very personal aspect. It also impressed me that it wasn't removed in the western release. From social media it looks like you aren't working in games professionally anymore, but now that mention you make your own games, what are those? With your experience I imagine they are both very technically and design-wise competent. And made with a lot of love, hahah.
Yes, I make my own games, and I have a few on Steam and PlayStation Store. I hope I will be able to make millions out of it in the future :)
[NOTE: Oscar mentions that he likes to keep his professional and indie work separate, so I've omitted that part.]
Thank you for answering all my questions!
[END NOTE: Oscar and I continued talking through private messages after this, and he told me more about how teams and game development was organized at Sega. As a software developer myself I found this immensely interesting, but it doesn't quite fit in the interview. It came from our talk about how Rieko Kodama actually was producer on all four 7th Dragon titles and I needed to understand more about what it means to be a producer in a Japanese game development context. Finally, he told me about his coolest experience at Sega: he had convinced the director (Kawabata-san (Kawabata-kantoku?)) to let Oscar sit in when the voice acting was done, and he got to hear Toyosaki Aki work. This was apparently an unforgettable experience, and I just thought it was a delightful little detail in this game's production. Toyosaki-san is a profilific voice actress, with roles too numerous to count. I know for her role as Hirasawa Yui in K-On! especially. In 7D3 she voiced the dangerously young Nagumo Mio, one of the main characters. Once again, thank you to Oscar Rodriguez for answering all my questions and my follow-up questions, and continuing to talk to me even afterwards. His professional online presence can be found at https://twitter.com/rapapaing in case you want to talk to him yourself, or perhaps ask him about his indie games. I think they're pretty cool, so let's hope he achieves success there as well.]