Interview with Ted Woolsey

   Ted Woolsey, the spooniest translator in the West, was responsible for some of Square's greatest translations and localizations: Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG, for starters. But after Squaresoft Redmond disbanded, Woolsey disappeared underground with ninja-like stealth. Using its massive international top-secret network of Spies Named Jay Boor, the GIA has found Ted once again -- working at a company of his own devising! While we strongly suspect that so-called "Crave Entertainment" is merely a cover operation for an international RPG translation cartel, we gave Ted the benefit of the doubt and let him talk about his new haunts.

GIA: Thanks for meeting with us, Ted. You have something of a cult-of-personality within the RPG community; your translations were always labors of love, not commerce, and the fans appreciate that. But you weren't always a gamer ... what did you do before your stint at Squaresoft, and what have you done since?

Ted: Before translating those games I was a grad student at the University of Washington, Seattle. I'd finished a masters in Japanese literature, and was beginning to put together a dissertation outline when our first kid was born. I decided I didn't need to spend a ton more time in the stacks of the library, so I looked around for something to do. Square was hiring, and ... well, the rest is (for me) history! After Square, I was one of four people who started a software company -- the assets of which were purchased by Crave (where I work now).

GIA: So you got into Japanese first and RPGs second. For many hard-core gamers, it's the other way around. Quite a few RPG fans dabble in Japanese and import those "must have" titles. Do you have any advice for gamers looking to learn the language?

Ted: This is obvious, I suppose, but living there [in Japan] has to be the goal of anyone who wants to become really good at translating or simply speaking Japanese. I got started because I studied martial arts for years, and knew what, for example, the names of kicks meant ... but little else. I found studying the language very satisfying (much more so than German, which I studied for 5 years and barely speak to this day).

GIA: At first, then, you had no intentions of joining the gaming industry -- you were just looking to apply your language skills. Now, you've run off and founded another company -- one with very few Japanese ties. Why'd you do it? What is it about the industry you love so much?

Ted: It really had nothing to do with the nationality of the ownership of the company. It had more to do with personal dreams and ambitions. Simply put, this is just something I felt I had to do! And I hope Crave can soon announce some of the titles we're working to get from well-known Japanese developers and publishers. I still love to play many of the games released there!

GIA: It's great that Crave is looking to localize some Japanese projects in addition to their original titles. Tell us a little bit about Crave. How big is it? Where's it based? How many employees do you have? What's your position there? How many internal projects are you working on? Are you ever productive since Jay arrived?

Ted: Crave is in two locations, as of this interview. Sales, marketing, external development, distribution and HR [human resource] functions are handled in LA. Crave Seattle does nothing except develop original content. Yoshi Maekawa, the director of Mario RPG and one of the directors of Parasite Eve is a director on a new project up here. He's putting together an original game design and weíre hiring a team to build it. More news to follow!

   Also, we have several members of what was once Lobotomy Software [Duke 3D Saturn, Quake Saturn, Powerslave]. They are finishing up the N64 version of Caesar's Palace before moving on to an original concept.

   Actually, Jay has added more to our marketing department than you might imagine. I like the enthusiasm he brings to Crave -- he has a kind of excitement that is catching!

GIA: Let's talk some about Crave's flagship title, Shadow Madness. Shadow Madness is, in many ways, the first American-made Japanese RPG. How has that influenced the game design? Japanese quirkiness and RPG worlds tend to go hand-in-hand, and Secret of Evermore's "American" B-movie references just annoyed most gamers. Will Shadow Madness have that "Japanese"-feel, or are you looking to make it more "American"? What sort of tone does the game have?

Ted: Rather than aping any existing titles, our philosophy was simply to make a good story come to life, with intuitive user interfaces and battle mechanics. Since there are really no people who worked on Evermore here at Crave, the game is completely different than that title. I think players will have to judge for themselves about the style; I believe it is quirky in its own way. And we certainly aren't billing this as a "made in 'murica for 'muricans" kind of game. Not at all! I suppose in many ways it will have a familiar feel, due to the pre-rendered backgrounds and polygonal characters. But it will definitely be darker and grittier than anything coming out of any other studio to date (at least in the RPG zone).

GIA: Sounds intriguing. Some gamers want a title that lasts for 80-100 hours. I personally think that RPG developers need to make sure their games are truly "epic," and not simply "long." How many hours will it take to complete Shadow Madness? How much secret stuff is there for gamers who want to complete it?

Ted: Because of the production values of todayís games, making a game with 80-100 hours of fresh (read: 'not overused') locations is costly in terms of both memory space and development costs. Personally, I like a game that plays in the 25-30 hour zone, just because I like a lot of variety and play lots of different kinds of games. Shadow Madness will feature enough hidden stuff to keep a 'pro' occupied for quite a while. Just how long really depends on how much time someone wants to explore. Weíre shooting for 40 hours or so.

GIA: Shadow Madness is your first original story, if I'm not mistaken. What's your favorite part of writing a story? Part of what makes Square's titles so epic is the way they touch upon so many mythologies "bigger" than just a single game. Does Shadow Madness carry this sort of mythological resonance?

Ted: I think weíve got our own kind of mythological resonance (nice term, by the way). I've always been interested in alchemy, early scientists, and epic stories of all types. I think the ideas in Shadow Madness will appear current, but also touch upon some rather intersting subjects as well ... it definitely has its own cosmology and physics.

GIA: Are there any moments in Shadow Madness which you feel transcend the typical RPG trappings of young-hero-discovers-power-defeats-evil? That plot can only be rehashed so many times before it gets really derivative ...

Ted: I still think that with any RPG, the journey is the thing. Of course, the ending has to make sense and be satisfying, but for me it's the enjoyment of travelling through a new world, and taking my time, that I like. In this way, Shadow Madness is similar to some of the best in the genre. You can take your time adventuring as you try to piece things together. Part of this game is the notion that "evil" is transmitted through ideas, through communication, and will exist at least until the idea of the "hero" is powerful enough to supplant the idea of the "other".

GIA: When you were writing the story, what did you think of first? The characters? The story arc? The settings? Or did it all come in bits and pieces and fit together by the end?

Ted:Well, one thing I think is that I better get some help! (laughs) Paul Reed (a.k.a. ĎPabloí) has done a whale of a job on the script design side of things.

    Of course, the first thing you need to do is create (and like) the characters in the game, as they help you tell your story. If you donít like 'em, no one else will. Itís best to start with a sound outline before you start writing, then you try to find the voice of the hero (or heroes) and then create a suitable story line. Itís a pretty organic process.

GIA: To many RPG fans, the play's the thing. But there's often a game, surprisingly enough, in-between the FMV and cut scenes. Unfortunately, RPG battles can be pretty boring stuff. How will Shadow Madness alleviate this "button mashing" problem? What's special about its battle engine?

Ted: Well, in Shadow Madness there are four types of twitch moves that turn a controller into a lethal weapon. Also, weíve aspired to fewer (but harder) battles, so youíre not mired down in the repetitive side of things. I think our FMV based spells [ed note: I believe Ted means "summon"-type spells) are all very short so that youíre not forced to continually watch some outrageous FMV attack over and over again.

GIA: What about the "field" portion of the game ... how is this different from your standard RPG? I know there are some minigames scattered about ... any vehicles or such?

Ted: The field portion of the game takes place on a nicely painted watercolor map. I think the look and feel of the over world area will be pleasing to most players. There is also a slew of interesting illustrations on the map. Most amusing!

GIA: How has your experience with Square influenced your game design? What makes Shadow Madness more than just a "Final Fantasy clone"?

Ted: First, I think it would be hard for a 20-plus person team in Seattle to "clone" a game made in Japan by a cast of hundreds. Weíre not trying to do that! In the same way that an independent film producer (say, with the dream of producing an eclectic love story) wouldnít pack it all in just because James Cameron scored a homerun with "Titanic," we believe there is room for a variety of RPG/story game experiences. I think the gaming community and consumers are diverse enough to support different experiences and presentations, as long as they are fun to play. The key is to tell a good story. Thatís all weíre trying to do.

GIA: The market has only recently become large enough to support these more "niche" titles; hopefully Crave will find success. Your "Titanic" analogy highlights an interesting dichotomy in the gaming industry: some titles, like Square's Final Fantasy series, seem to be more and more cinematic -- and less and less interactive. Other titles seem to focus on an open-ended, fully-realized world, but have little to no story. What do you see as the future of RPGs? What sort of RPG would you like to create? Is Shadow Madness this title?

Ted: I think players still demand, and deserve, a beginning, middle and end to a gaming experience. Post-modern structures (such as storylines you can shuffle and play any which way) are not going to satisfy most players. I still believe movies are for watching and games are for playing, and I like to play my way through games, rather than watch a bunch of beautifully rendered movies.

   Iím guessing some large companies like Square will wade further into feature films, perhaps splitting development into movie and game divisions.

GIA: Do you ever think that RPGs will be as popular in the U.S. as they are in Japan? Here, they're slowly becoming successful; there, they're more of a religion than a game genre.

Ted: Yeah. Lots of people speculate as to why this is the case. I still donít know, though I suspect it has a lot to do with the consumers in both countries, their living conditions, education, etc. I never have heard a satisfactory explanation, and my own varies from day to day!

GIA: As long as U.S. gamers get the titles we want, I don't think there'll be much time spent pontificating, either. And there are a lot of titles we're getting, to be sure; many companies have recently entered the RPG localization arena (Konami, Capcom, Namco, Atlus, THQ, and others). What do you think of their localizations? How about Square's current localizations? You've been very forgiving in the past, I recall, as you know first-hand how difficult the process can be.

Ted: I admire anyone attempting to localize an RPG. Itís a daunting task, typically because you have so little time to do the work, and there is such a great expectation on the product. I have seen some pretty good translations, and some that seemed surprisingly wooden and stiff. I am glad, however, that for a long while I havenít seen the awful translations you used to see in 16-bit titles!

GIA: I had a good feeling you'd say that. Did you put any inside jokes into the translations of previous Square titles? How about Shadow Madness? Come on, one of you game designers has to love putting inside jokes into your games, dammit!

Ted: So many of these things have a short shelf life, so the names of the characters, references to hit TV shows, movies, other games, etc., can influence each other. Sometimes itís just an ironic reference to something the hero has to do or feel ... I canít explain it.

GIA: Are there any plans to localize Shadow Madness for the Japanese market? That would be an interesting twist, to be sure.

Ted: Weíre hoping. Some interest, but no contracts signed yet!

GIA: What're your favorite RPG, puzzle game, and strategy titles? What do you love so much about 'em?

Ted: Well, I spent the weekend playing Crash 3. Recently finished Dragon Quest Monsters (GB). I like a variety of experiences and presentations from my games. I also liked Grim Fandango for PC. What a great game!

   If you really want an answer for each category, then my favorite RPG is Square's Chrono Trigger. I liked the great world(s) they built, the characters that populated the worlds, and the vision of the designers. Iíve honestly never spent too much time on puzzle games! As for strategy, Starcraft was a kick in the pants. I liked the quirky characters and smooth game play ... I like games you can play, and then look up at the clock and realize three hours have passed without you knowing it!

GIA: Or eight or ten hours, as the case may be. What's next for Crave after Shadow Madness? Shadow Madness II? Or possibly localizing some Japanese titles? The world must know....

Ted: We just locked up a very unusual and brilliant RPG from a Japanese developer. Canít talk about it just yet, but Iím excited about this one! Shadow Madness II will come if players like the first one! As mentioned above, another title is starting here in Seattle. Excited about this one too!

GIA: Just wondering ... are you aware of how many people you confused with Final Fantasy VI's "loaded for bear"?

Ted: Yep! I love it! (laughs) Part of translating is this sort of "stream of consciousness" thing that has to kick in and lead you through the process. Strange where it takes you sometimes!

GIA: Anything else we should know about yourself or Shadow Madness? It's shaping up to look very promising.

Ted: Thanks -- at this point, I just hope people play it and enjoy it. It is my hope that some day, gaming will be as diverse [as film], with smaller studios having hit products as well as larger ones. Not everyone can create a summer blockbuster-style game ... but not every studio wants to!

GIA: Any words of wisdom you'd like to share with us before you go?

Ted: Nope. Just want to thank everyone for their patience over the years, and the surprising amount of mail and support Iíve received. I have had the opportunity to work on some great properties, and I think Iíve learned a lot from the people who have played these games.

GIA: Any New Year's resolutions?

Ted: Just one for me, "Finish the game!!!!"

   And with that, Ted jumped out of his chair and ran to the door, laughing manically all the way, as the Shadow Madness had gotten to him. Hopefully, he'll be able to pull himself together and finish the game.

Interview by Andrew Vestal.
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