The Making Of… Panzer Dragoon Saga Part 2
as the nation’s most talented developers competed to produce the most epic, boundary-breaking games that would unlock the full potential of 32 and 64-bit hardware. Between 1997 and 1998, Final Fantasy VII, Panzer Dragoon Saga and Zelda: Ocarina Of Time let PlayStation, Saturn and N64 owners (respectively) in on a secret: games could be produced like Hollywood movies and could thrive for being such ambitious, massive-scale productions.
Even among that elite group, however, Team Andromeda’s Panzer Dragoon Saga stood apart as being at odds with its contemporaries. Its unique qualities included a sparsely populated game world, a non-traditional battle system, an original spoken language, and a refined blend of real-time 3D and FMV cut-scenes. (By contrast, FFVII’s battles were largely by the book and it relied on pre-rendered 3D environments, while Ocarina Of Time maintained the Zelda series’ friendly villager appeal.) An obvious reason for Saga’s diversity was its conception as an outgrowth of Panzer Dragoon and Zwei, the two 3D shooters we looked at last month – but there’s more to it than that, according to Yukio Futatsugi, who was team leader on Andromeda’s Azel RPG project.
“After we’d created the first Panzer Dragoon game, we began to prepare Zwei and Saga side by side,” Yukio recalls. “Ishii, who’s now at AQ Interactive, was our boss at the time, and he instructed us to create a second game in the series that would extend the shooting action of Panzer Dragoon, as well as a third game that would expand the series’ game world. Once that plan had been established, we started work on Zwei and Saga simultaneously. By the end of the first year of development, we’d decided on most of the make-up of Saga’s feature set. During those first 12 months, we settled on all of the important things that would make Saga what it was: the story; the dragon transformation, which we called ‘Dragon Morphing’, and which replaced the [traditional] party play of Japanese RPGs; the battle system, in which you could claim territory through victories, and so on.”
As it approved the development of Panzer Dragoon Saga in April 1995, Sega could be forgiven for not being able to foresee then that the Saturn would struggle to survive the PlayStation or N64. Ultimately, the Dreamcast was a retail reality in Japan by the end of 1998 and Panzer Dragoon Saga became one of the Saturn’s final hurrahs earlier in the same year. Still, Sega’s ebullience (or folly, depending on how you look at it) in 1995 led to the bankrolling of the biggest console game project in the company’s history up to that point. “In the end, we had a team of more than 50 people working on Saga,” Yukio reveals. “I think that was an incredibly large-scale production for the time. It took so many staff and so much time to produce Saga – in total, development lasted about two years and nine months – that it used up what was for the time an extremely large budget. In that sense, you could say that Saga paved the way for the big-budget games of today.”
To be kind to Sega, it appears that no one really had any idea that Saga’s development would become such an overblown, expensive process. Initially Team Andromeda had been split between those who were working on Zwei and those who were producing Saga – eventually, almost everyone was focused on the RPG line: “For the first year or so we were working with a smaller number of people,” Yukio recalls. “Then, once the Zwei team had finished their project, we brought many of them over to work on Saga. The newcomers included people with previous RPG experience, which was helpful, and together we grew into this bigger team of 50-plus.”
(According to Kentaro Yoshida, who was stationed on the Zwei side of Andromeda before being repositioned as a cut-scene director on the Saga project – and whom we met last issue – the team was effectively split in two during this period. However, there was mutual interest in what both halves of Team Andromeda were up to.)
As well as sapping human and financial resources from within Sega, Panzer Dragoon Saga’s story and structure continued to expand after the initial plans had been drawn, leaving the developers responsible with a conundrum over how they were going to fit the game data on to a CD-ROM. Or two. Or three. Or… “I thought Saga was going to be a big game, but I certainly didn’t envisage it stretching to fill four discs,” Yukio exclaims. But it did – and then some, forcing Team Andromeda to scale back its most ambitious plans in order to limit the game to ‘just’ four discs: “I remember how, to some extent, we had to compile all of the game’s content, calculate its capacity and then modify certain scenarios in ways that completely changed some of the game’s most impressive scenes.”
Even the storyboarding work was prone to stop-start intervention. “Basically,” says Yukio, “I wrote the first draft of Panzer Dragoon Saga’s story and then argued about various points with the main members of the team. Then I rewrote the story, taking into consideration the discussions we’d had, and the final draft took shape.” Inevitably, though, the chop-and-change process wasn’t entirely detrimental to the final product: “One of our designers, Yokota, who’s now at [Tetsuya Mizuguchi-headed Lumines developer] Q Entertainment, was convinced of an idea for a visual theme where dragons would have open holes in their abdomens. Compared with that, I think the look of the final game was cute in the extreme,” Yukio laughs.
Regardless of any wished-for physiological abnormalities, deliberately curtailing the Saga experience, while managing to tell the game’s story to completion was just one of many challenges that faced Team Andromeda. It’s fair to say that most of the team’s difficulties were borne out of a charming combination of inexperience and boundless ambition. “Making Saga was a really difficult job,” Yukio says, “because for many of us this was our first RPG project. To make matters worse, our aim was to make a completely 3D RPG – which was quite unusual at the time.” Freedom of movement in Panzer Dragoon Saga was a crucial factor in its odd sense of realism – whether on dragonback, flying through canyons and across open plains, or walking around towns, bases and camps, the player would always feel like an integral part of a living (but sleepy) universe and be free to explore at will. Pre-rendered environments wouldn’t have sufficed to convey this sensation: Yukio remains convinced that real-time 3D graphics were the way to go, in spite of the Saturn hardware’s limitations. “One of my favourite areas of Saga was the game’s towns and how they were fully drawn in real-time 3D,” he says. “Those locations were original and I think the way they were constructed was, at the time, quite novel. It certainly wasn’t easy to make such a good-looking game using the Saturn hardware. The fact that it looks beautiful even today is really down to the strong sense [of style] and the vision of the designers who worked on Saga. In particular, I remember Sakai, who now works on the Phantasy Star Online series, as being a magnificent designer…”
On top of the graphical depiction of Saga’s universe – which (when appropriate) spliced what were arguably the best Saturn FMV cut-scenes with Team Andromeda’s dourly portrayed real-time 3D environments and mysterious characters – Yukio took it upon himself to create an original language that would remain constant throughout the Panzer Dragoon games. “I based the Panzer Dragoon language on Latin wording,” he says, “but I deliberately made the enunciation of words sound very clear and distinct. It really wasn’t that difficult – actually, I found it thoroughly enjoyable to construct a fictional language… Probably because I’m a bit of a maniac!”
The effect of Saga’s otherworldly language was a great international leveller, really: even players from Japan had to rely on subtitles to get the gist of voiced characters’ dialogues. It also added yet another layer of impenetrability to Saga’s detached, bleak ambience. In turn, players who persisted with the adventure would feel as though they were being granted privileged access to a peculiar world hidden away from our own (and the game’s ultimate lack of commercial success, along with the scarcity of copies available worldwide, accidentally accentuated that sensation further still).
We ask Yukio how he felt at the culmination of Team Andromeda’s work: “Our template for Panzer Dragoon Saga was unprecedented, really: to take the model of a shooting game and turn it into an RPG, and at the same time push it some way beyond the [original Panzer Dragoon] experience. We were working blind the whole time. I can look back on that period with happy memories now, but at the time it was terrible! [Laughs] I remember thinking, ‘Even if we can make this, I can’t see how or where it will end.’ But on the day the post-production work was completed, I remember having dinner at a restaurant in the basement of a train station [near Sega HQ] with Kusunoki, and we were saying ‘At last, it’s done!’ and ‘The end is in sight!’ I’ll never forget the taste of the pint of beer I drank in there…”
Besides winding up somewhere in the heavenly place where underplayed forgotten (and expensive) masterpieces idle in the sky, Panzer Dragoon Saga also had an earthly afterlife via its influences on subsequent follies. For one, Yukio notes: “Some of the Saga staff assigned to work on the game’s camera system went on to develop Shenmue, which explains why Shenmue’s camera system is similar to Saga’s… Panzer Dragoon Saga was released deep into the closing stages of the Saturn’s life, so it didn’t sell very well, and because of that it wasn’t regarded very highly within Sega. And as a result of that, the Panzer team broke up. There was absolutely no suggestion or encouragement of a Dreamcast sequel. Many of Team Andromeda’s members were dispersed here and there among Sega’s other departments – but later they went on to make other good Dreamcast and Xbox games, so I think everything worked out quite well really.”
In that sense, everything did work out well. In other ways, though, Saga’s development was fraught with incident and difficulty, including the (apparently stress-related) suicide of a Team Andromeda member midway through the project. In spite of that tragedy, and even though Saga’s production and release coincided with one of Sega’s most humiliating periods as a console format holder, Yukio Futatsugi and team managed to create a game of such haunting resonance that it remains topical and prized (among those who are lucky enough to own a copy) more than a decade on. Timeless.