The video game world is vastly different now than it was in 2007 when Fumito Ueda and his team began working on The Last Guardian. Nintendo dominated the hardware market with the 3DS and Wii while the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 trailed in console sales by millions. Assassin's Creed, BioShock and Mass Effect debuted, kicking off a fresh round of long-running AAA franchises.
Today, we have the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro, and Nintendo is attempting to rebound from slow sales of the Wii U. Day-one patches are normal, pre-order DLC bundles are standard practice, we're on the ninth Assassin's Creed and, sometimes, indie games are indistinguishable from AAA titles.
This is the brave new world that Ueda will release The Last Guardian into on December 6th. Over the past nine years, he's kept an eye on the video game industry and he knows that the market is volatile. He knows that the industry has changed. Fans are used to a constant barrage of information, trailers, screenshots and interviews about upcoming high-profile games. Sometimes this marketing strategy works out just fine. And sometimes, No Man's Sky happens.
At least Ueda has been down this road before. He's the creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, two cult classics that captured the hearts of players in the early 2000s. However, his experience fuels a potential issue that looms heavy over The Last Guardian: After nine years of development, fans of Ueda's work have had time to build up the game in their minds. They've had the space to imagine a million perfect, uncompromising experiences, each one different and attuned to a specific person's taste. When these fans finally sit down to play The Last Guardian, they might expect impossible things.
"Obviously there's a level of expectation, and it's really down to each and every person's level of expectation and imagination that they've created based on what they've seen," Ueda says.
That's what happened recently with No Man's Sky, an independent game that received massive amounts of attention from the moment its first trailer went live in 2013. Sony immediately seized the momentum and ran with it, featuring No Man's Sky in its largest convention speeches and press tours. The game was pitched as a sprawling AAA experience, even though it came from Hello Games, a small team in the UK known for creating the quirky side-scroller series Joe Danger.
It took three years and one delay for No Man's Sky to go gold, giving a flood of hungry fans plenty of time to envision the perfect space-exploration game. And then, when No Man's Sky landed in August, it didn't meet many fans' expectations. Backlash was swift. Livid players gathered on Reddit and Steam to demand refunds, and the game's ratings plummeted. It's now being investigated in the UK on charges of false advertising.
Ueda is aware of the potential pitfalls that come when a game finally goes public after years of anticipation. However, instead of dissuading him from development, he says the weight of fans' expectations actually fuels his team.
"I try not to think about the pressure that has been added or is probably assumed to be added to this title," he says. "But, having said that, I don't think all pressure is always negative. It's actually kept us motivated because of the expectations that people put on our next game. What that does is it creates this weird cycle, in a good way, where the pressure that we feel is then turned into motivation, and then that in turn helps Sony and our partners and our team to have even a stronger belief in the product."
Ueda has already proven he knows how to make moving video games that touch millions of people, but he refuses to settle for average with The Last Guardian. He says he wants as many people to play the game as possible -- and this isn't just the dream of a legendary developer yearning for another slice of glory. Instead, it's the foundation of Ueda's approach to The Last Guardian.
"We found out that a lot of people are very curious and interested in animals," Ueda tells me through a translator. "So we felt like if we introduced an animal or living creature in this game that hopefully it would appeal to a wider audience. That is something that really kicked off our brainstorm in the idea and formation of The Last Guardian."
Trico, the game's massive bird-dog companion that's been plastered on posters and trade show floors across the world, is a direct representation of Ueda's attempt to intrigue a wide audience. Trico is adorable, vulnerable and the perfect tool for manipulating the hearts of every pet owner who sees him. That's a fairly large audience.
Not only does Ueda want animal-lovers across the globe to play The Last Guardian, he wants them to understand and accept the game as it is. He's keeping many aspects of its story secret but says it's a unique experience, much like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were. Those titles eschewed standard video game elements like UI and NPCs in favor of a minimalistic aesthetic, setting them apart from their contemporaries. They were different. So is The Last Guardian.
"For me, that means, 'Oh gosh, is it going to be accepted? Are people going to understand where we're coming from and where we want to go?'" Ueda says.
He'll soon have his answer, regardless of whether he's ready to hear it. He hasn't thought much about what he'll do on launch day, if he'll be glued to the internet, immediately soaking up players' reactions, or if he'll take a step back for a while and simply let the moment sink in.
Eventually, he specifically wants to hear from people who play the game in its entirety. This isn't a hint about The Last Guardian's story, per se, but it does suggest a connected and thoughtful narrative that rewards those who play to the end.
"If they can share their feedback and their impressions, that's going to be something that I really, really look forward to hearing," Ueda says.
Whatever he decides to do on December 6th, Ueda is ready for the game to be done. The Last Guardian represents the last nine years of his life, and even now, a month from release, he says it seems surreal that the journey is ending.
"Even though the game is on its way to being boxed up and going into stores and being delivered to players, it hasn't really sunk in yet for me," Ueda says. "I haven't been able to digest the fact that it's all done and completed....What I'm looking forward to is for everything to just really be done and all the items on the checklist to be checked off. I think at that moment, hopefully, it will register and I would feel like it's finally done. I look forward to that day."