Kazuhisa Wada Interview
Persona Magazine: Persona 4: Dancing All Night is the first rhythm game the series has ever seen. What have you been most careful about handling in terms of making sure it feels like a proper extension of the original Persona 4?
Wada: Definitely how we maintain each of the main characters’ individual charms in their dance routines. The cast of Persona 4 has attracted a lot of really passionate fans, so it’s important that their support be respected in this new game by maintaining that recognizability. One of the ways we ensure that is by having a different dancer assigned to each character for motion capturing and then having the team look over the choreography to ensure every character’s personality remains intact in the moves that they make.
Is that to say that every character has their own personal flourishes as part of their dance routines?
Wada: Yep, that’s exactly right. So Yosuke, for instance, he takes after male idols with some hip-hop flare to his moves, whereas Chie’s got her usual kung fu mixed with some street dancing sensibilities. And then Yukiko, her movies are derived from ballet while still retaining aspects of her ditziness.
And then there’s Teddie, whose outfit really makes him stand out.
Wada: Most all of the other characters have their outfits rooted in their school uniforms, but we wanted someone that could wear something more gaudy to provide a contrast to that. It’s also important just as a matter of helping to establish Dancing All Night as its own distinct thing separate from other Persona games. Teddie ended up filling that role for us, though his dance moves come from gymnastics, which I feel makes for an interesting combination in tandem with the costume.
As for other characters, Naoto’s dances come from house music, placing a big emphasis on deliberate step routines and all wrapped up in a certain layer of sex appeal. And then Kanji’s style is fundamentally rooted in a type of dance known as “Locking,” but with some modifications to it, as real Locking has some moves that just don’t really jive with his character. The development staff is really fussy about getting those little details right for each character.
I saw in the trailer you put out at Persona Super Live 2015 that the protagonist will smile during his dances, too. What kind of moves do he and Rise employ?
Wada: Well, let’s be honest, with the protagonist, you could make him do most anything and he’d probably still have a dumb grin on his face the whole time. (Laughs.) We actually were a little wary about maintaining that facet of his personality for his dances, but at the end of the day, we agreed that’s ultimately part of his charm and, indeed, it’s worked out really well. His dances are made that much more fun and unique.
With Rise, it’s probably pretty obvious, but her dances are a little mischievous, the sort you often see in the idol world she’s from. Obviously, she’s running around in a pretty revealing outfit while she dances, but what you see underneath in a few places isn’t actual underwear or anything like that; it’s all a part of the getup that’s meant to be seen so as to avoid any potential problems going other routes design-wise. (Laughs.)
It’s interesting how this is the first time the Persona 4 characters have also gotten polygonal models that are proportioned realistically.
Wada: We regard the character models as a major facet of this game. What you’re seeing here is actually our second stab at rendering the cast in this style for Dancing All Night; we did another complete run in this manner previously, but remade them all from scratch. The reason for that is we wanted to make them all more attractive in ways we couldn’t previously achieve with the deformed style we had going with the original Persona 4, so we set out to redo them in such a way as to draw out those new qualities.
Naoto’s a good example of this. She’s not who she used to be during Persona 4 where she was carrying so much weight about her identity, so now she can really start embracing her femininity in how she looks and not have it adversely affect her. But of course you don’t want necessarily everyone in the game to have sex appeal going for them, either. Nanako’s in the game, too, and if she was out being flamboyant and provocative, that’d be completely out of character. Getting her motions down pat was therefore really hard. We had an idol come in for Nanako, rather than an actual child dancer, but no matter what they did, Nanako’s moves still had a certain allure to them that was off, so we had to spend a long time fine-tuning her animation to get it to where we needed it to be.
I have to admit, seeing Nanako in that trailer definitely added a lot to it. It made it an even more fun video to watch.
Wada: Actually, at first, we had people saying that we shouldn’t put Nanako out in our marketing, that it’d be a bad idea, but in the end we said screw it and just got her in anyway. (Laughs.)
What’s your biggest concern gameplay-wise when it comes to making this game, given how different it is in terms of genre compared to everything else Persona has done until now?
Wada: Absolutely how the actual gameplay feels, without question. The biggest task at hand we’ve been focusing on is how to make it feel good and fun to play in time to the music and then tuning things so that players’ reactions to the mechanics are as positive as can be.
On a tangential, but not unrelated note, in Dancing All Night, you can use both of the analog sticks on the Vita to do what’s basically like DJ scratching with the music. There’ll be icons that show up on the screen that suggest good points in time to take advantage of that, but you’ll also be able to do it mid-dance or even when the notes cut out and by moving the analog sticks however you like, you’ll be able to rearrange the music and make it your own style to an extent. We had DJ Waka, who we’ve worked with a lot in the past for Persona concerts, draft up a lot of different scratch sounds for this purpose, so different people will be able to put their own distinct spins on the music.
I think you can’t talk about a rhythm game without also discussing the place of difficulty levels in them, too, though.
Wada: We want a wide swath of players to be able to enjoy themselves, so we’re trying to keep the barrier to entry low. This is especially true with the story mode, which we intend to make so that most anyone can beat it, so hopefully that’ll help some people overcome their apprehensions that as a rhythm game, it’ll be too hard for them. Nevertheless, we haven’t forgotten about advanced players either who are existing genre fans and for them, we plan to include not only a wide swath of difficulty levels to let them engage the game at their skill level, but also additional gameplay elements for them to strive for so they can get the most out of the game. The story mode itself has a lot of content going for it and since it takes place after the events of Persona 4 proper and Persona 4 Arena/Ultimax, we want to ensure people don’t miss out on that narrative content one way or another.
Speaking of the game’s storyline, what’s Kanami’s place in it as a new character?
Wada: Kanami is the main star of an idol unit by the name of “Kanamin Kitchen.” Everyone else but her in the unit has disappeared, though, with the plot as a result revolving around rescue efforts to go out and save them. Kanami herself is key to the proceedings, so on that end, she’ll have her own songs and dances specially made for her. She’s got a lot of interesting quirks going for her, both inside and out, that make her a really charming character in her own right. Truth be told, at first, I wasn’t particularly keen on her, but as time’s gone on while making the game, I’ve come around on her and now she’s one of my personal favorites.
You brought up Persona 4 Arena earlier, so I wonder: would you say that you’ve gained any special insight into developing games that aren’t RPGs thanks to your work on the fighting games and Dancing All Night?
Wada: Well, I’d say that music games and fighting games don’t particularly share a whole lot in common, much like how they’re both wildly different from RPGs in general, but obviously at their core, both the Arena games and Dancing All Night share that common background of being new and interesting challenges for us. In that respect, my time with the Arena games helped me learn how to be more flexible and accommodating of new ideas when branching out. If nothing else, it’s been fun and refreshing to think and work outside of the usual box for all of these games.
Knowing that, what would say has been the thing you’ve struggled most on while making the game?
Wada: I’d say it’s been striking the right balance between keeping things flashy on the screen while retaining overall playability. There’s a school of thought within rhythm game design that contends that using on-screen flashiness as a means of deliberately obscuring music notes during gameplay is one valid way to ratchet up the difficulty, but personally, I’m of the mind that it’s best to maintain some semblance of balance between those two things, so we’ve really worked hard to ensure the game doesn’t cross the line and become inadvertently obtuse to decipher.
Beyond that, I’d definitely say that we’ve spent a lot of time on the difficulty levels, too. Back when we were making Catherine, we got really good really quickly at playing our own game. That put us down a dark rabbit hole eventually in terms of balancing where parts of the game ended up being really hard to beat, suffice it to say. (Laughs.) This time with Dancing All Night, we’re going out of our way to keep outside players’ first impressions in mind and make it a more fair game to play overall. We’ve got monitoring systems and whatnot in place internally, so rest assured, the game shouldn’t turn out to be quite as brutal as what we’ve made in the past. (Laughs.)
Any parting words for your fans looking forward to playing Dancing All Night?
Wada: I know a lot of time has passed since we initially announced the game and we’ve had to make people wait longer to get the game into their hands, for which I deeply apologize. From here on out, we’re going to be able to release new information on the game at a steady clip, so keep your eyes peeled out for that. Beyond that, at some point, we’re also hoping to get things like demo stations out into [Japanese] stores so people can get a more concrete idea of what the game is about, so if you’re interested, hopefully you’ll take the time to come and check it out! More broadly speaking, all of us on the development team have been paying attention to the feedback we’ve gotten from everyone since the concert and are using that support to fuel the rest of our development, so look forward to the final product soon!