A game studio established within Square Enix Group in March, 2018, Luminous Productions. Eight months have passed since Takeshi Aramaki was appointed as the new studio head in December, 2018. The studio head, Aramaki, talks about the initiatives Luminous Productions is undertaking, and the studio's present and future.
Developing a AAA-scale game title of a brand new IP for the global audience under a new organizational structure. The present state of the internal game development engine, Luminous Engine, and the studio's efforts for the latest graphics generation and AI technology... as well as Aramaki's ambition to "always put the game first."
Aramaki reveals his vision for Luminous Productions.
(Interviewer/Writer: Tomomi Yamamura / Photographer: Daisuke Komori)
The studio's approach from the technology needed to "deliver a new AAA title from Japan to the world" to their working environment - a new creativity-first structure
"Deliver a brand new gaming experience across the world!" A new IP and AAA game title development under the new structure
－－Luminous Productions was launched in March, 2018 and in December of the same year, Mr. Aramaki was appointed the new studio head. It's been eight months since the studio made the transition to the new organizational structure. Please walk us through your experience leading up to now and what the current organizational structure is like.
Aramaki: 2018 was a pretty hectic year for me. I was working on the DLC for FINAL FANTASY XV, and at the same time, we took the whole year to make solid preparations to kick off the new IP game title to be developed at Luminous Productions. And we've started creating that new title since the start of 2019.
－－You were the lead programmer on FINAL FANTASY XV before taking over as the studio head.
Aramaki: That's right. For FINAL FANTASY XV WINDOWS EDITION, I was pretty much acting as the director in addition to being in charge of the development of the game engine, Luminous Engine. I was already managing nearly 70 programmers who were involved in the development of FINAL FANTASY XV back then, and now I'm undertaking a challenge of a much larger magnitude as the studio head - so things can be tough.
－－What is the current size of Luminous Productions and how many employees do you have roughly?
Aramaki: We have about 130 employees. In terms of the number of projects, we have several production lines in motion, including engine development and R&D.
－－Among your ongoing projects, would you say the largest production would be the development of the new AAA-scale game that will be a brand new IP?
Aramaki: Yes. The team with the largest number of staff assigned is the development of the next-generation AAA-scale game title for a brand new IP. As we all know, Square Enix has a number of popular titles under their belt like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest; Luminous Productions' mission is to develop a new title that's on the same playing field as those titles. Our objective is to deliver our audience a completely new IP that is marketable worldwide.
－－An opportunity to develop a AAA game for a global audience, in Japan. Honestly, an opportunity like this doesn't come along that often, does it?
Aramaki: I'd assume there are few opportunities like this in Japan. To launch a new studio to do AAA-scale development for a global audience, and even a brand new IP at that - it's not often that we get to take on a big challenge like this.
－－Tell us about your drive and vision toward the said challenge.
Aramaki: It might sound a bit overboard if I say to "deliver a brand new gaming experience across the world," but that's actually how I feel (laughs). My lifelong dream ever since I joined Square Enix has been to create a game that can stand as an equal with existing titles that are loved around the world like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. So I certainly hope to make that dream come true here at Luminous Productions.
－－Are there many people who share your dream at Luminous Productions, to create a brand new title?
Aramaki: My impression is that most of the Luminous Productions team are the type of people with the desire to create a new title. We, all the employees of the company, are putting a concerted effort into this project.
－－Are there many developers from overseas at Luminous Productions?
Aramaki: Right now, out of the 130 employees we have, 20 or so are foreign nationals, most of whom have experience of working on the development of well-known titles.
－－So, the studio is located in Japan and yet its environment is international and isn't bound by nationalities.
Aramaki: That's right. On top of that, since our work involves constant communication with companies abroad, we have an in-house translator at our studio.
－－You are in the position to manage employees as the head of a studio with a very international environment. It must be a constant challenge, or perhaps I should say, a struggle with no one right answer.
Aramaki: It's tough, but at the same time rewarding. Each country has its own way of creating games and I hope to incorporate the best approaches from each. Our plan is to do solid marketing research and conduct user testing before the launch. We're also aiming to perfect the game with our technologies based on the analysis of user trends.
"Graphics technology that paves the way beyond cutting-edge" incorporated in the Luminous Engine.
－－What do you consider as the strengths of Luminous Productions?
Aramaki: First and foremost, our technology. I'm confident that Luminous Productions' technological capabilities can definitely hold their own against other studios around the world that also possess a high level of technological aptitude. We are one of the very few studios capable of creating a large-scale open-world title, in Japan or in the world.
Another one of our major strengths is the extremely high quality of art. We have experience working with teams capable of producing so-called state of the art pre-rendered cinematics, such as VISUAL WORKS, which plays the main role in creating high-quality cinematics at Square Enix. The know-how we gained from working with such teams is not only visible in the art and design we create, but the technology behind their pre-rendered video production is also reflected in our graphics technology.
－－I assume that is directly linked to the advantage of having your own internal game engine, Luminous Engine.
Aramaki: Yes. While there is a number of game engines out there such as [Unreal Engine] and [Unity], Luminous Engine stands out by being infused with our expertise and skill in pre-rendered cinematics production. And these days, Luminous Engine has a leg up on other engines in terms of optimization for consoles as well as optimization of CPU usage.
We previously released a tech demo titled [WITCH CHAPTER 0[cry]], which was the first in the world to support DirectX 12. Such efforts of "supporting the latest technology from the early stages onward" have been ongoing since then, and now the engine can support and is optimized for the latest graphics technology on a continuous basis.
－－I see. You mentioned that the Luminous Engine is continuing to evolve. In the area of graphics, for instance, for what sort of technology have you added support recently?
Aramaki: To name the most notable, we've been working on adding support for ray tracing (*).
One of our strengths is our use of state-of-the-art pre-rendered cinematics technology and now we're working on incorporating ray tracing, which has mainly been a pre-rendered cinematics technique, into our real-time cinematics.
In addition, normally in the production of a game and the production of 3D CG cinematics, separate workflows are adopted to create separate data. What we are trying to achieve is "the ability to bring over what has been created using a cinematic production workflow, straight to the game" and vice versa.
*Ray tracing is a rendering technique that traces the path of light to compute the color and brightness of the surface of an object. It is capable of producing a more realistic and natural-looking cinematics through representation of the precise physics of light.
－－Which allows you to carry over and use the cinematics data as they are, without needing to create the game-specific data?
Aramaki: That's correct. There are companies in the US and China that excel in creating the state-of-the-art cinematics, and we'll fall behind in terms of technology unless we continue to absorb the know-how from such companies. To ensure that we can keep up, we are striving to actively adopt such cinematics technology, and further, working so that we can carry it over straight into the game graphics.
－－I see. In addition to adopting the latest technology of the cinematics industry in effort to further advance your graphics technology, it's important that you're able to carry that data over straight to the game. So, your main focus remains firmly on the game.
Aramaki: Yes it does. When we changed the organizational structure of Luminous Productions, I was determined to "create a solid game first and then venture out to other initiatives." The ideal order is to create the game, create the game engine, establish our presence with the technology and art, and only then look into various business opportunities.
－－The game comes first.
Aramaki: Yes, I definitely want to firmly focus on the game first and foremost.
－－I'm thrilled to hear those words as a game fan myself. In terms of graphics technology, are you working in collaboration with graphics card manufacturers?
Aramaki: We are working very closely with graphics card manufacturers as well as consumer hardware manufacturers. The nature of our collaboration is more along the lines of creating something together in a joint effort through an exchange of ideas, rather than getting them to teach us about the latest technology.
－－So, instead of simply utilizing their technology, you, as the state-of-the-art studio, are working cooperatively to extend their graphic technology and its application.
Aramaki: For example, not only do we use DirectX, but we also have discussions with the graphics API development team. Similarly, we are in communication with the graphics card manufacturers. These manufacturers involved in the graphics technology, I believe, recognize us as a technologically advanced studio, and the fact that we can work on graphics from such a standpoint is, again, one of our strengths as a studio.
AI-automated and streamlined tasks allow artists to focus more on creative work.
Aramaki: At Luminous Productions, apart from graphics, we are working on AI technology support, particularly the automation of tasks with AI. We're also moving forward with mobile support in parallel.
－－You mentioned the automation of tasks with AI - would that be something in the lines of, for example, getting AI to generate natural-looking tree/grass layouts on a field map?
Aramaki: We have that too, but as an example of something different, with regard to the error logs we keep every day, we get the AI to collect information such as where the issues are occurring as well as sending a report of it to the developers.
－－That is something that was done manually by hand in the past.
Aramaki: Exactly. Furthermore, QA (Quality Assurance) was also something that used to be done by sheer manpower, but now, we can get AI to check the collision detection and monitor the status to make sure there are no errors.
－－So you're getting AI to handle the debugging and quality check process as well. How are you integrating the use of AI into the game development side? Some say that a designer's role is on the verge of changing into being in charge of adjusting the parameters required for AI to perform auto-generation.
Aramaki: That's true. The reason being that creating a vast open world from scratch, manually by human hand...is not realistic. That's where AI comes in; the question of how can we maximize the use of AI to create the game world is important.
We utilize AI as much as we can to create the game world as well as the moving objects that exist in it. On top of that, the current trend is that we are using AI for checking the quality of what's been produced.
And the Luminous Engine is capable of doing all of that within the engine.
－－I see, the areas that are most labor-intensive are being handed over to AI.
Aramaki: After all, the artists should dedicate themselves completely to creative work, so my idea is to delegate to AI all tasks that can be left up to the AI to handle.
－－I get the impression that sort of thinking stems from your unique position as an individual with a programming background and from being in charge of the Luminous Engine. In that sense, we could say that it's an ideal development environment where developers can focus on what they really want to achieve with the latest technology.
Aramaki: Yes, I hope so.
－－You mentioned mobile support for the Luminous Engine earlier. Compared to the activities centered on the high-end cutting-edge technologies, having you also embark on mobile support comes as somewhat of a surprise. What is the concept behind your effort in mobile support?
Aramaki: A great many of the younger gamers are in the ever-expanding mobile market. We create high-end games, so the focus of this initiative is to take that high-end game, bring it to mobile and make it playable, all while maintaining its quality.
As for the Luminous Engine itself, while our main focus is using it for the high-end title that is currently being developed at Luminous Productions, I do at the same time have the desire to expand to a wider userbase. And by moving forward with mobile support, we can attract more teams world wide to use the Luminous Engine, which will hopefully result in further increasing its potential. That is how I hope things will flow.
－－I see, the fact that you are able to take on such a flexible initiative in itself is an advantage of developing a proprietary game engine. Are there any other advantages of creating the game engine internally?
Aramaki: It allows us to create game prototypes at a fairly fast pace. A couple of weeks ago I asked my team to come up with new combat concepts, and they managed to develop a game prototype in only about two weeks.
That sort of speed is only possible, I believe, because we are creating the game engine internally, which allows us to optimize and coordinate with the development team smoothly. My belief is that, if you want to produce high-quality work, you should start off by creating the engine.
Game development founded on a meticulous plan, promoting a healthy work style. Providing an environment with an open atmosphere where employees are able to have active discussions and work with enthusiasm.
－－There may be some artists out there who will get inspired to work at Luminous Productions after reading this interview. I'm interested to hear what the atmosphere is like inside the office.
Aramaki: Let's see. Luminous Productions' basic policy since its launch is to work a fixed shift from 9:30am to 6:00pm. Many of our developers are married, so we make sure that they get to spend time with their families, and while at work, they are able to focus on their work with a sense of contentment.
Concentrate fully on work while in the office, have a good rest at home, and get back to work the next day feeling refreshed; our studio is set up so that such a cycle is possible.
－－While the perception of the AAA-scale development studios is generally associated with an intense, heavy workload, you're promoting a wholesome workstyle. I assume you have been through a wide range of situations and as a result of this experience, is it your belief that albeit the focus of the development is to pursue quality, a healthy work structure will yield to better results?
Aramaki: Yes, it is, but in order to make it work, it's essential that we establish a solid plan.
That said, leading up to the game going gold, there may be a period where we just have to crunch in order to further refine the quality of the game. If a time like that comes, we'll just have to push on through until the game is out (laughs).
－－I see. What is the employee ratio like? Do the programmers account for the biggest proportion of employees?
Aramaki: No, programmers account for about 1/3. The same goes for the artists. I think we have a well-balanced team.
－－Does your studio as a whole attach particular importance to dedicating time to technical research?
Aramaki: The same can be said about the game development team as well, but the team that is developing the Luminous Engine, in particular, has been continuing to take on aggressive initiatives. They conduct advanced research on technologies, including those that are so new that we don't know if they'll be widely adopted in the future, and incorporating them into the engine.
－－How are the internal discussions on such technological efforts held?
Aramaki: There are study sessions and presentations hosted on a rotating basis. In addition, we implemented a fairly unique initiative starting from this year, in which we held an internal call for new proposals and ideas. Just the other day, we called for ideas on "which part of this game needs enhancing?" and ended up with presentations of around 80 ideas (laughs).
－－Does that mean anyone is welcome to express their opinion, regardless of their position or age?
Aramaki: Absolutely. And because we wanted to make it an open environment where anyone and everyone is able to give presentations, we even live-streamed the presentations internally.
－－Through such effort, are you trying to create an open and frank atmosphere where all individuals feel free to contribute their opinions in their daily work?
Aramaki: Yes, I consider all of the employees at Luminous Productions first-class professionals and, as such, I want to cherish their talents above all else. I believe that having each individual demonstrating their potential will allow us to produce the highest-quality work, and it's necessary for the studio to promote the growth of employees through various initiatives.
－－That's really inspiring. What would you say about the people who have become interested in Luminous Productions? While I assume it would be ideal that new hires can be an immediate asset to the team, what is your view on hiring aspiring developers with potential to grow?
Aramaki: The ratio of programmer's recruitment at Luminous Productions is 50% people who are ready for action and 50% people who want to kick off their quest for challenges and growth. Regardless of what their past experiences are, anyone with high energy and drive will impact our company in a positive way, so I value the potential of such individuals.
They can take on tasks and responsibilities that are appropriate for their skill set, on which they can further build and grow based on that experience. And I'm sure the presence of such aspiring people will inspire and promote growth of those around them too. Luminous Productions is a company with an environment where people from various career backgrounds can take on challenges.
－－As you mentioned earlier, you are open to hearing ideas from those who are still on their path of development - you value an open and frank atmosphere like that.
Aramaki: Yes, I don't consider myself much of an ideas man myself, so while setting forth with our vision as a company, I also want to bring out the ideas that each artist has and make sure they lead to a successful outcome.
－－I imagine that receiving too many good ideas adds to your already busy life?
Aramaki: No, it's the opposite. I'm actually happier because I can just sit back and relax while they come up with good ideas (laughs).
Aspiring to be a studio that is always striving towards what it can bring to the world
－－I understand that, for FINAL FANTASY XV, the team was successful in developing relations with the fans and communities overseas. Are you planning on engaging the game community as Luminous Productions as well?
Aramaki: With FINAL FANTASY XV, we gained a great number of fans who have been truly supportive. Similarly as Luminous Productions, we'll continue to make efforts so that we can excite people to become the fans of our studio. Perhaps they will choose to be our fans because of our technological approach or fall in love with our game design, or maybe the artwork.
For FINAL FANTASY XV, many young generations played our game - younger than our initial marketing forecast. I was also pleasantly surprised that there were so many female players as well. So, we hope to leverage that experience to fully engage with the community to win over and cherish our new fans.
－－Interesting! How about core game fans?
Aramaki: To tell you the truth, for FINAL FANTASY XV WINDOWS EDITION, I was the one checking the Steam forums pretty much every day, thinking to myself "what sort of features should we add to the game...?" (laugh). I hope to engage with the community and mature gamers as we craft our game.
－－Understood. Lastly, to wrap up, please tell us about the direction Luminous Productions is aiming for in the game industry that is becoming increasingly diverse.
Aramaki: FINAL FANTASY XV did well sales-wise overseas, and to my delight, players in countries like Brazil and Russia were really enjoying our game. In addition, the data also indicated that many younger generations have been playing our game as well.
I believe it's important that we engage younger generations through a solid market research and deliver our title to RPG fans around the world. I hope that we'll become a studio capable of exploring and conceiving new ways to further develop our identity and deliver a new gaming experience to the world.
Takeshi Aramaki: Joined Square Co., Ltd. (current Square Enix Co., Ltd.) in 2001. Aramaki was the lead programmer on both FINAL FANTASY XV and the game engine, Luminous Engine, and was in charge of the FINAL FANTASY XV WINDOWS EDITION as director. He was appointed as the studio head of Luminous Productions in December, 2018.