Persona Series Director Discusses Appeal of Turn-Based Gameplay, Process Behind Main Character Creation


Denfamicogamer recently conducted an interview between the HoyoVerse producer behind Honkai Star Rail (released last week on April 26th), David Jiang, and Persona series director Katsura Hashino.

Focusing on the Persona relevant parts, Hashino (who is currently the director behind Project Re Fantasy) talks about various development processes behind Persona 5. He discusses how he thinks turn-based RPGs can advance compared to action-based ones, the process behind creating characters and stories, as well as the positives and dangers of implementing AI technology in development.

The Sense of Immersion in Turn-Based Combat

David discussed his team’s inspiration taken from Persona 5 for Honkai Star Rail. One of these points concerns P5’s sense of immersion. Hashino shared his thoughts regarding Japanese RPG battle systems and a sense of immersion:

Hashino: I’m very honored that Persona 5 was used as a point of reference from the planning stage [of Honkai Star Rail], but I think that turn-based battle systems are an element that break the continuous flow of a game rather than give it an immersive feeling.

After David explains their reasons for making Honkai Star Rail a turn-based RPG after Hashino asks why they decided to go that route, Hashino elaborates on his thoughts for turn-based battle systems for RPGs in the future:

Hashino: In the history of RPGs until now, there have been many examples of games that have used turn-based battles that were eventually replaced by active action scenes to give the player an improved sense of immersion. However, I personally believe that turn-based battles will not become an archaic system if they can be implemented in a way that fits as “part of a cutscene’s composition.”

Show the scenes that need to be, and don’t show the scenes that don’t need to be… In short, if we think of the cut-and-paste method used in anime and manga scenes as a method that can be brought into game battles, I believe that turn0based battles in RPGs will continue to evolve in the future. This is why, when we created Persona 5, we didn’t hesitate to adopt a turn-based battle system.

Hashino: That being said, we’re aware that the “turn-based” system halts the tempo of battles as a whole, so we were conscious of the gameplay in Persona 5 in order to not spoil that sense of immersion as much as possible. For example, players can immediately attack or summon a persona with a single button press. We spent a good amount of time thinking about that.

Turn-Based vs. Action-Based Battle Systems

Hashino continues by discussing the importance of meaningful cuts in turn-based battle systems for the purposes of dramatic emphasis.

Hashino: I don’t remember exactly how we went about creating this system, but I think it was convincing, in the end…

An example is, if the player would think before a battle started, “It would be more fun for this combat situation to use action instead of a turn-based system,” the battle would just be a throwaway “battle with bad pacing.”

In Persona 5‘s case, players have to take distance from enemies that appear on the map, reveal the enemy’s identity and face the enemy in a battle with a party. What kind of enemies will you be fighting now, and how will you fight them? The setup to the fight needs to be convincing. For example, in an action movie, when a powerful enemy or a rival appears, the cut and the flow of time changes, doesn’t it? This creates a moment where you have to face the opponent with caution.

Hashino: By incorporating these cuts and the moments when the flow of time changes into an RPG, we try to make the visuals convincing in terms fo a turn-based battle. Then, we add the dialogue between characters during the battle and the story before and after the battle starts. And when the battle is over and the tension is released, the player returns to the map, where he or she can move freely.

We are conscious when it comes to creating a sense of tension throughout the game. Not only during combat, but also before and after the battle, and building a story and context through turn-based battles.

Hashino follows his thoughts on RPG combat systems with the use of a sports metaphor.

Hashino: Sometimes, I like to convince myself by thinking of the difference between turn-based RPGs and action RPGs as the difference between soccer and baseball in sports (laughs).

While soccer is always continuous, you wouldn’t say that baseball is less immersive… right? While baseball itself has a solid separation between offensive and defensive turns, and rules are set in place like changing the game after three outs.

Naturally, there are interruptions between plays in baseball compared to soccer, but if you have a firm grasp of the rules and the turn changes, you can feel the fun of “what kind of strategy is being planned” for both the offensive and defensive turns.

Of course, soccer has its own unique charm, while baseball has a different one. When I think about the difference between action RPGs and turn-based RPs, I often use this “difference in the fun between soccer and baseball” as an example.

Designing Main Characters

Hashino discusses the design process for creating the main characters of Persona games, as well as the supporting cast.

Hashino: In the case of Persona 3Persona 4, and Persona 5, we started with the main characters [when it comes to creating the characters in the story]. After that, we establish “what kind of problem does the main character have and where should they end up?” However, the protagonist cannot reach the final destination by their own strength alone.

So we have to ask ourselves, “What kind of characters should stand with the protagonist and support them?” We base that answer following three steps.

The first step is to actually position the boys and girls who will stand by the main character, and from there the number of characters increases until the party is filled with about 7 to 8 people. So, frankly speaking, this character placement is like a promise… (laughs)

Hashino: One of the things that I’m clearly conscious of when creating the characters is to have the players identify with the main character. We need the players to empathize with the conflicts and concerns the main character faces.

And because the allies are characters who support the protagonist, they may also have their own conflicts and problems that they are wary to tell others about. We have created episodes with a human touch so that the players feel that these friends are truly human, just like the protagonist.

Persona 5 key art featuring the main characters.

The Premise and Conflicts Tackled in Persona Stories

Hashino addresses the conceptualization of the story in the games he’s worked on.

Hashino: In the Persona series’ case, the premise is about boys and girls becoming adults, so it’s important to provide a reason preventing these characters to come-of-age. There needs to be a wall that the characters have to hit before they can progress into adulthood.

For Persona 5, the main character has a criminal record from the beginning of the game, and his classmates gossip about him. We made it a story about a boy who breaks through this wall. I aim to create a story where players will be able to sympathize with these young characters facing that wall to adulthood.

When asked about where he comes up with the problems that the main characters in the Persona series have to face, Hashino responds with the following:

Hashino: I think a lot of it has to do with the current zeitgeist.

That era had a certain “cynical mood.” The kind of feeling that felt cynicism towards putting in an effort in a difficult situation, or like, “There’s no point in trying your best.”

However, the games we make are meant to be entertainment, so I can’t help but want to respond to that mood of resignation existing in that time period, “There are other ways to do this!”

Even if the situation the protagonist is facing seems impossible to deal with, it’s still a game, so he or she can gain wisdom from other people, or find like-minded friends with the same perspective. No matter how difficult the situation may seem, I don’t want to deny the possibility that there can be a way out of it.

Through the protagonist’s problems and stories, I have a desire to create something counter to the social issues of the time, the complaints prominent figures have, and the cynical mood.

To follow that up, Hashino describes in more detail the issues each of the modern Persona games were meant to tackle.

Hashino: Persona 3Persona 4, and Persona 5 all dealt with different issues. However, their final conclusion is generally the same.

I know this may sound a a little rough, but to put it simply, Persona 3 is saying: “If there is something you can only do now, do it with everything you can.” Persona 4 is a story where “if you just get your information from what everyone else thinks, you’ll be deceived if you aren’t careful.” And in Persona 5, I wanted to depict a story about defying the rules and labels forced upon you from above.

I wanted Persona 5 to be ag ame that pushes young people when they are unable to move forward freely, when they are unable to decide how they should live their lives as they grow from children to adults and become independent, when they are unsure of their career path, etc. The Persona series has been created in the hopes that they would be games that would push the audience forward at such times.

So, although Persona 3Persona 4, and Persona 5 raise different issues and in different ways, they all tell stories in the same vein, and as a result, in my opinion, there’s not much different (laughs).

The Values Presented in Persona Games

Hashino discusses the values he chooses to present in the games he’s involved with.

Hashino: Speaking about the characters’ values, in the case of Persona 5, the storyline is, “What the adults are saying is wrong. So we want to exert our own justice.” Fundamentally, we decided to always include turns in the story that raised the question, “Can the justice we believe to be right be called justice in the first place?

That being said, there will always be times in one’s life when one cannot live without believing something is “right” for oneself. If you are always alone and always doubting your own justice and place in the world, you will one day fall.

I don’t know if the justice I believe in now can really be called justice, but I still gather friends who say, “That’s right.” And while pushing me forward, I finally arrive at a single conclusion. That’s the style of game I’ve been making. That’s the kind of experience I want players to have.

But I don’t want the player to be completely convinced when it comes to, “were the actions taken by the protagonists really right?” I think a characteristic of coming-of-age games is that you can never be completely sure about that question.

Afterwards, when asked about the correlation between “games and literature” along with games of the era, Hashino responds with the following.

Hashino: It doesn’t matter whether it’s while you’re playing the game or after youv’e finished it, but I want the player to feel invigorated by playing it. This may sound a bit hyperbolic, but I believe that games need to motivate people to do something, or make them aware of something in the real world.

By conveying this, if the game’s setting is completely different from our own world in terms of culture and values, or if the setting is completely  different from modern day, players may simply end up thinking that the story is irrelevant to them. It may be fun to experience an alternate world different from reality, but there’s nothing left afterwards.

No matter what kind of setting or story we create, we want to make sure that in the end, something will stick with the player. Because of this, we try to create a stage that is as realistic as possible, and when we create characters, we try to create people who are familiar to the player, who he or she can relate to.

That’s why we try to make the game as linked to reality as possible.

AI Technology and RPG Development

When asked about the impact of AI on RPG development, Hashino stated the following.

Hashino: No matter what you’re making, it’s becoming quite realistic to input it into AI first and then adjust the output manually. In the future, the amount of data that will be needed to be created by humans may decrease considerably. From an efficiency standpoint, it’s a very exciting future.

However, as creators, we must not forget what we could lose through the development of that kind of convenience. For example, when we created the “Social Link” and “Confidant” systems starting with Persona 3, where the relationships between characters develops and is reflected , we did not expect this system to be enjoyed by users to this extent.

The proliferation of social media and the internet has made especially more convenient for people to interact with each other. However, at the same time, I feel that opportunities to get in touch with people physically and speak directly face-to-face and open up to them have gradually decreased.

I have a feeling that there’s something like a “longing for human connection” that exists in modern society, which boosts the appeal of characters that can be met directly in the game.

Therefore, while it is important to utilize the development of convenience and AI technology, we can’t forget the kind of happiness entertainment should bring to people who live in reality.

Hashino: Coming in contact with people and overcoming difficulties together with important friends is a very precious and wonderful experience in the real world.

The fundamental factor when it comes to the realism of a game that focuses on characters is to make them feel as if they are living with you, and that they have friends by their side who are facing the same things they are.

Even when only a few patterns of conversation can be produced due to development resources, if we can prepare a huge number of conversation patterns by utilizing AI, I think the immersion in character-centric games will be further enhanced.

In a recent interviewPersona series producer Kazuhisa Wada also discussed implementing AI in game development.