Persona Team Interview on Difficult Development 3 Years After Persona 5, Future of the Series


Atlus’ RPG Persona 5 (hereinafter P5) was released around eight years after the previous mainline title for the PS3 and PS4 to great critical reception both in Japan and overseas. Three years after its release on September 15, 2016, the “complete version” called Persona 5 Royal (hereinafter P5R) has been released.

During the three-year period between P5 and P5R, Atlus released Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight (hereinafter P3D). Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight (hereinafter P5D), and Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth (hereinafter PQ2).

On February 20, 2020, the new action RPG Persona 5 Scramble: The Phantom Strikers (hereinafter P5S) will also be launched in collaboration with Koei Tecmo Games’ Omega Force team.

On December 18, 2019, 4Gamer conducted an interview with Persona Team members Kazuhisa Wada (director, producer) and Daiki Ito (director), along with Shigenori Soejima of the Artwork Team (who worked on the art and design of the Persona series). The interview covers the team’s efforts from P5 to P5R, along with their thoughts on the Persona series.

Shigenori Soejima (Atlus Artwork Team), Kazuhisa Wada (Persona Team), Daiki Ito (Persona Team)

P3D & P5D Development

Developing 3 titles simultaneously

P3D and P5D were both released on May 24, 2018. PQ2 was released on November 29th of the same year. And P5R was released on October 31, 2019, about one year after PQ2. Wada says that while when they actually began development was different, there was a time where they were essentially working on three titles at once. That period of work was demanding.

The start of P3D and P5D’s development

P3D and P5D were planned before the release of P5 itself, but there was a hiatus when they had to finish P5 with the team’s full strength. As soon as the official “GO” sign was given, the development for P3D and P5D was pushed forward, and they were developed the fastest, as the release date order would imply.

As discussed previously, Wada was originally both the director and producer of P3D and P5D, but left his director role to Nobuyoshi Miwa because Wada was working on multiple projects at the time (presumably P5R and P5S).

Developing P3D and P5D with a small team

The development of P3D and P5D had very few staff members, with around 10-15 at the most at any given time. Outsourcing was asked for some elements such as for the graphics but, although it was a small group, the game was made internally.

For the latter half of Persona 4: Dancing All Night‘s (released in 2015) development, they shifted from an external to an internal production, so they made use of the know-how they gained at that time.

On the reason behind the different style of storytelling between P4D and P3D/P5D

While P4D had a substantial story based on the mainline game, Wada says they believe that more casual conversation would take better advantage of the rhythm game genre. The team wanted to make P3D and P5D games where the characters’ charms could be shown, while players could also enjoy the rhythm game.

As a result, it’s relatively easy to progress through the narrative, and it made it possible to work on P3D and P5D along with other works without problem. In the end, they determined that a substantial story was a poor match for the genre.

Wada says that they were prepared for a mixed reception to the new approach, but they strongly wanted to challenge the format. It’s the first time Persona has had first-person perspective scenes.

PQ2 Development

Working on the story in PQ2 and P5R at the same time

With both PQ2 and P5R being developed simultaneously, working on the heavy scenario for both games was a difficult task. Ito states that members of the scenario team would shift according to their priorities.

On developing PQ2 for the Nintendo 3DS

The first game was well received, and members of the team were enthusiastic to work on another one. However, they were told that if they wanted to do it, it would need to be for the Nintendo 3DS, and that they would not be able to take it slowly [because it was after the release of the Nintendo Switch].

As discussed last year, active development on PQ2 began after P5‘s development ended. Persona Team’s Daisuke Kaneda was going to be the director of the game like he was for the original Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, but he was working on another title at the time (which would turn out to be P5S), so he left the role to Yuta Aihara.

Soejima’s Oversight on P3D, P5D, and PQ2

Soejima says that his role was mainly supervision, but the P-Studio Art Unit was really active for all three games. Designer Hanako Oribe worked hard on the art direction and character design in PQ2, while four members of the team designed costumes for P3D and P5D.

Soejima says that the period of time when P3D, P5D, and PQ2 were in development may have been the most difficult for the art unit.

A lot of thought was put into the costumes in P3D/P5D. Alternate costumes were not much of a consideration in the past, but that increased considerably with the Dancing series, as it became part of its charm. The designs are meant to represent each characters’ background and also align with what one would think they would actually wear.

P5R Development

The start of P5R’s development

Ito says that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the development for P5R started, but he says that the thought of something like P5R as a complete version started not long after the completion of P5’s development.

Developing P5R for the same hardware as P5

Unlike with Persona 4 to Persona 4 Golden (hereinafter P4G) representing a hardware transition from PS2 to PS Vita, there was no such difference in hardware for P5 and P5R. Wada says that because of this, the difference would need to be shown in the content, and thus work on the game would need to be done particularly well.

The team believed that P5 was created with a quality that would satisfy players to a certain extent. However, they felt that there was more they could do, and they thought about improvements they could make.

First steps of P5R development

Wada states that the first step when planning P5R was to solidify the content for the third semester, create the story elements necessary to get there, and then “push” them into the existing story. Specifically, the role of the new characters Kasumi Yoshizawa and Takuto Maruki were set, along with changing the Confidant of Goro Akechi.

One of the difficulties when it comes to adding a new character to the original version is for them to mesh seamlessly with the existing ones. In order to avoid a dissonance, they took advantage of the game’s Confidant system, being conscious of naturally deepening bonds between the characters and the protagonist. Ito believes Marie’s Social Link in P4G served as a model for this.

Ito says that it was important that players of P5 would want to be able to enjoy it again, so the original story couldn’t be broken. Keeping that in mind, how to add new elements was a big concern.

Being deeply embedded in the work, it can be difficult to notice certain elements that may stand out poorly after seeing a character over and over again, becoming familiar with them to the point where you no longer notice. Wada says that they would gather feedback from staff from other departments and make adjustments to eliminate any uncomfortable feelings.

On the philosophy behind P5R’s new story (No Spoilers)

Ito says that P5 had its own concepts and thoughts unique to it, and that were also completed in its own game. The prevailing thought was that it would be interesting to bring back those same concepts and ideas to continue them, and the general idea was to draw opposing or different ideas from them.

The point was not to deliver a message to the player, but for the ideas to establish themselves naturally. Wada says that a mistake in the way they would convey the message would make it sound preachy. However, the scenario after that decision was made was difficult, and it was probably only Takuto Maruki’s character and his position on the Phantom Thieves that was solidified from the beginning.

Soejima’s role on P5R

Soejima was mostly in charge of designing additional characters and bosses. He recommends paying attention to the new portrait illustrations. He laughs at the mysterious effort made by the team to redraw almost all of them.

He understands why the decision was made to redraw, which was in order to convey the character portraits with new perspectives. He just laughs that when a designer is asked about redrawing their work, permission is usually not granted.

Soejima discusses that even if the change might sound minor on paper, a lot of a players’ interaction with the game’s visuals are represented by the character portraits in dialogue. Even if the main story remains the same, different expressions will give a different impression to the player.

Difference in the team for P5R compared to the past

Wada believes that the division of roles in the team was a major move. If you only work with the same staff, new ideas will be hard to come up with. So Wada wanted to create an environment that would motivate young staff members and have them present their ideas.

P5R as the biggest Atlus game yet

Wada says that P5R was the largest game created out of all titles developed by Atlus. There has been no game so packed in terms of resources so far. Atlus was originally a small company and the team itself wasn’t large at first, so he’s deeply moved by the fact that P5R was made.

Looking Back at the Past 3 Years

On wanting to grow the Persona series

Wada says that the whole team strongly wants the Persona series to become more important. However, instead of going about it recklessly, they’re checking their approach and properly supervising any developments together as a team.

Wada says that the Persona series has much in terms of complex setting/lore, but they’re working under the condition of preserving the elements that should be kept intact.

Soejima points out that the opportunities for collaboration have increased. He supervises officially produced Persona figures, and many outside the company come to him and say that they are Persona fans themselves. In business talks, rather than having to say “this is how well the IP is known and this would be the synergy,” he’s told, “I want to make a figure of Takemi!“, having him reply with, “Well, all of the main Phantom Thieves aren’t out yet… (laughs).” A lot of support comes from those people.

Wada agrees, saying that recently, there are many such people reaching out to him like that, and he’s very honored for it. An example he gives is TV anime, which is really easy for them to do now, and they’re glad for it.

On representation in different media

Persona 5 the Stage is a stage play adaptation of Persona 5 that was recently held at the end of the year. Atlus Sound Team’s Atsushi Kitajoh was involved with the music production, Shinji Yamamoto who was a lead scenario planner for P5 supervised it, and Soejima oversaw the costumes.

Wada says that, recently, it’s been possible to develop “media mixes” like this to match the timing of the games, such as the announcements of titles and the development of information. They are thinking a lot about it so that all of the fans can be excited together.

Thoughts on the future of the series

Ito says that there’s a feeling that P5R represents everything that they can do in a game, but on the other hand, there are already voices in the team talking about wanting to do something new. There’s nothing concrete at the moment, but Ito hopes to create a new game experience that takes advantage of that feeling. They’re all working hard together as one, with the young staff members at the center, so he asks to please look forward to it in the future.

Soejima thinks it’s a pleasure to work on something new, and he hopes fans will continue to give various feedback so that he can do his best.

Wada says that the first order of business is to properly release P5S. He wants to be more careful about the type of work he produces moving forward, so that more people will know about the Persona series in the future.

For the past three years, until P5R was released, there were a lot of trials and errors within himself. There were many things to think about in the past three years, and not only what worked and what didn’t. He wants to make good use of that knowledge in the future, while closely reviewing it.

As reported previously, Wada says that the rest is about their approach to everyone overseas. Promotion in Japan has started to receive information in real-time, and Wada would like to deliver information from Japan the same way overseas. In order for people from all over the world to have more enjoyment and excitement, he hopes to minimize the gap in time between information and content sent from Japan.

Editor’s Note

Based on this interview and what Kazuhisa Wada had to say for his 2020 aspirations, it sounds like the period of time from the release of Persona 5 in Q3 2016 to the release of Persona 5 Royal in Q4 2019 was strenuous for the Persona Team.

After attempting to work on too many projects at once, Wada’s keyword for 2020 is “Retry,” to find a better approach moving forward while looking back at the past three years to see what can be improved. Wada says that things have started to settle moving into 2020, with the flow of development easing up since the release of P5R, and that steps are being made to prepare for the Persona series’ 25th anniversary in 2021.

From Ito’s final statements, it sounds like planning for Persona 6 is underway, however the ideas have not been solidified yet. It sounds like they want to create a new experience, and that young staff members will have an important role on the project.

Much of the original leads from Persona 3 to Persona 5, including the director Katsura Hashino, have moved on to Studio Zero and are working on Project Re Fantasy. This leaves way for a new team to lead the creative direction for Persona 6, which Atlus project director Naoto Hiraoka previously implied. In May 2018, Wada implied that planning for P6 was also being made.