The Pegasus Dream Tour interview: Hajime Tabata, former director at Square Enix, discusses creating the world's first official Paralympics game

The Pegasus Dream Tour interview: Hajime Tabata, former director at Square Enix, discusses creating the world's first official Paralympics game

Last week, JP Games released The Pegasus Dream Tour, a social mobile game that looks to uphold the diversity and inclusivity values of the Internation Paralympics Committee. The newly created studio was founded by Hajime Tabata, who previously worked as a director for many Square Enix games, including Final Fantasy XV.

We recently had a chance to sit down with Mr Tabata alongside Eri Monta - Assistant Producer, Harumi Ishizaki - Art Director, and Chie Taguchi - Lead Artist to talk about the game. We discussed how the project started, the importance of diversity and what players can expect from The Pegasus Dream Tour once the Paralympics have drawn to a close. Special thanks to Ken Kawashima for translating during the interview.

The Pegasus Dream Tour is the official game of the Paralympics. Can you tell us a bit about how that partnership came about?

Eri Monta:

Basically, the genesis of the Pegasus Dream Tour is a collaboration between JP Games and the International Paralympic Committee. The very first interaction that we had was with the former CEO of the IPC, Xavier Gonzalez. He had some reservations about video games because he didn't have a very positive view of them.

But the other team members inside the IPC understood our sentiment. That we wanted to reach out to the younger generation around the world, and ultimately we did receive his go-ahead. But we have that burden that we have to reach out and spread the message of the Paralympics to young kids all over the world.

One of the reasons why Xavi had reservations about the game is he had grandchildren that were gaming addicts and he couldn't pull them away from their consoles. We took this to heart and thought if we're going to have young kids addicted to these games, we want to infuse it with a powerful message. And that powerful message is the core values of the IPC, which is diversity and inclusivity. If we can get kids hooked on these ideas, we don't think it's a bad thing at all.

At JP Games, the way that we handle our day-to-day operations is that we have two pillars. One is the core pillar that was the genesis of JP Games itself which is our expertise in gaming development. The second part is our reach towards creating new businesses, and it's these two core pillars we want to use as our driving force in our future endeavours.

We want to use the Pegasus Dream Tour to reach out to as many young kids around the world as possible through the power of game technology.

How important was it for you to have real-life Paralympians appears as NPCs instead of having generic characters instead?

Hajime Tabata:

With the Tokyo Paralympics, we have to carry on the legacy since London, where the Paralympics became more and more popular. We want to keep on boosting the image of the games. Also creating the world's first Paralympics video game allows for a new style of video game branding for the younger generation.

The significance of having real Para-athletes inside the game is that otherwise, young gamers, young people from around the world who are not familiar with the Paralympic Games, will not know about these athletes. You could do it textbook style with their history inside the game, but people will just forget it. But people will never forget an experience they have with a real athlete character, and that's what we think is significant about having their avatars inside the game.

Can you tell us a bit about why you chose a futuristic city as the setting for the game and the feelings you hope it will evoke in players?

Hajime Tabata:

I believe that you're aware that the big Paralympic rush started in your home country (England) before Rio. At that time, I was very impressed that there was this great synergy between people and corporations, the new style of marketing and branding for the Paralympics that was very creative and unique.

And during the next Paralympics, which was in Rio, we saw this new branding for the games was becoming a mainstream thing. It wasn't that sub-culture kind of look that we were accustomed to. So we want to look past Tokyo. We want the Paralympics to continue to evolve, continue to grow and take it to the next level, and that's why we set it in the future because the future is somewhere we have opportunities to make a change.

Also, talking about me as a creator, whenever I worked on a new Final Fantasy title, I tried to create the world and the worldview, first off. What kind of environment is it, what kind of setting, what is the backstory, what experiences can gamers engage with. It's that kind of direction I take whenever I start creating a new game.

The city develops the more players collaborate and contribute, can you tell us a little bit about how that plays out?

Eri Monta:

So when players first log into the game, they have to create their own avatars. The names of these avatars are Mines because they aren't just visual representations of the players when they take a selfie. But it also extracts data about them, so you get a realistic reincarnation of yourself inside this virtual world.

So when players around the world collaborate, every person's Mine communications and co-operates with one another and through this, it's kind of conceptual. But we have this thing called “extra power” which enhances the city. And when I say enhances I mean the core values of diversity and inclusivity, that sort of thing that leads to a better future city.

Hajime Tabata: So why is it important for these Mine avatars to communicate with each other inside the city? And why is it important to generate this “extra power”? Well, the generation of if leads to the creation of certain events inside of the city that help it grow. We can't disclose everything right now but, for example, the accumulation of a lot of “extra power” can result in a musical concert taking place. That's the kind of concept we have. The more communication, the more power, events and exciting things that can happen.

One other point of significance is that we are timing certain events inside Pegasus City to interlink with the actual Olympics and Paralympic games. And when they finish, that's when we're going to revamp Pegasus City, but it's going to keep on organically growing because that's the interplay we want to keep on with the virtual and the real.

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Can you give us any examples of events that will be happening in-game during the Paralympics?

Eri Monta:

We can give you two examples. One of them is live shows, as we've mentioned. We'll be hosting virtual concerts inside Pegasus City featuring very famous musicians. Another way we're going to do this is by creating virtual corporate pavilions that people can visit and see the official sponsors' exhibits and products and interact with staff members and sponsors.

How important was it to give people a lot of freedom when it came to creating their Mine?

Harumi Ishizaki:

There's a tool that the players use when they create their avatar using this particular device. You use this avatar camera inside the game, you take a selfie, and through that, the game will extract an image that looks like you and attributes a personality to your character, which you can tweak as well.

Hajime Tabata:

We think it's really important that the avatar can become a regeneration of the player inside the game. So we also wanted to give them the freedom to choose their own prosthetic limbs, arms or the wheelchair that they want to use to allow them to express themselves the way they want to.

As an aside from my point, the IPC was very encouraging of this technology because a lot of people who have a wheelchair will want their avatar inside the game to have one. If someone has a prosthetic arm, they will likely want their Mine to have one too. So we think this freedom to choose how you look is very important.

And so Harumi (Ishizaki) and Eri (Monta), represent the younger generation and we really needed their input as females as well. We think that it's time that women be empowered in Japan, and we want their input. There are very few video game companies in Japan that have a lot of female employees at a top tier kind of level, and we think it's an important step.

The Pegasus Dream Tour is a very social game. Why did you take this approach rather than the usual mini-game setup most Olympic video games opt for?

Hajime Tabata:

So the reason we chose this route kind of goes back to my final days at Square Enix, my former company. There was a time towards my last days where I was thinking about how I want the latter part of my career to spin out, and I was thinking about things like “How can I change society for the better?”, “Is there any way I can use game technology to do social good?”. So in establishing JP Games, I was given the opportunity to freely pursue this goal. I had to use game technology to change society for the better, and Pegasus Dream Tour exemplifies all that.

And going back to your question about why I didn't choose to create a bunch of mini Paralympic games. My blunt answer is that if I just did that, I don't think too many people would play it. Therefore, I wanted more people to become aware of the Paralympic movement so the strategy I used was to create a lush fantasy world where people would want to enter and interact with other players. So it's more of a social interaction platform that I want to contribute change for the good, and using this technology is something that we want to market as a tool for corporations who want to create their own virtual city.

What did you decide this would be a mobile game rather than on console or PC? My guess would be accessibility?

Hajime Tabata:

Yeah, exactly. We want as many people to be able to download the game as possible. Unfortunately, not every kid in the world can afford a console, so we thought smartphones was best. So you're spot on when you say accessibility but also accessibility towards people with impairments.

We don't want to create a very difficult manual game that's hard to manoeuvre. Therefore we came up with the solution to make most of the game auto-play so that there isn't going to be a hierarchy between people who are really game-savvy versus people who haven't played a game in their lives. We want most people to have the same experience when they touch the game.

Is there anything you've brought over from your time working at Square Enix, and, similarly, have you learned anything new by working on The Pegasus Dream Tour?

Hajime Tabata:

One of the takeaways from my Square Enix days that I seriously implemented with The Pegasus Dream Tour was that when I was working on a Final Fantasy project, the very first thing I would try to do is to create a very convincing, gorgeous world that people would want to enter and spend lots of time in. So that's basically one of my foundation points when creating The Pegasus Dream Tour as well.

One new experience that I'm undergoing right now is that at Square Enix we always had a Final Fantasy fanbase to work on so I didn't really have to spread the word so much when creating new titles. But with The Pegasus Dream Tour, I need to work out how I collaborate with the right influencers, capture the attention of the artists I want to work with and that together we can create a synergy that creates this message of diversity and inclusivity. That's something I didn't really have to struggle with much before.

One other thing that's very novel to me now is that the main character is something I can manoeuvre myself and move around inside the game. But with The Pegasus Dream Tour having the Mine move with auto-mode, something that was suggested to me by my female staff, and it's this novel kind of experience I think is new and cool.

What would you hope people will take away from the game after spending a little time with it?

Eri Monta:

One of the things that we want to have our players experience is that since your avatar is your virtual representation inside the game and you're going to be watching this avatar grow, develop and train every day so that one day it can become a star Para-athlete and aim for the virtual Paralympic gold.

It's that kind of relationship between you and your Mine that we think is going to inspire a lot of people and also awaken a lot of people to these core principles of the Paralympic games. It might be the first time they've encountered them, and it could be a very significant thing.

Hajime Tabata:

One thing I'd say from myself is the moment you start playing the game, you're going to see your own virtual avatar and start to really train hard, working and become disciplined and focus. So much so that maybe the player themselves will be inspired to lead a healthier lifestyle and engage in sports themselves.

Since Pegasus City represents this kind of healthy place where people train, work hard and go for their dreams, it's my desire that players around the world will be inspired to change their own surroundings, their cities so that it can be a nice place to live.

The final point I want to make is we're really trying to interweave the virtual Pegasus City and the Paralympic experience with the real event. So when the actual Paralympic Games are over, it will signify a new chapter in the game, so I think the players are going to have this feeling of something big like the Euros or the World Cup. And we really think the player will fall in love with their own virtual avatars.

The Pegasus Dream Tour is available now over on the App Store and Google Play. It's a free-to-play game with in-app purchases.

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