Recently, Final Weapon had the chance to interview Kristian Pedlow, Zhuang Yucong, and Li Zhuqing, three members of Virtuos’ global studio network. Virtuos was one of the studios that supported Square Enix in developing Final Fantasy XVI, which released worldwide earlier this year on June 22.
This interview dives into the different roles each Virtuos studio played in the development of Final Fantasy XVI, the project management methodologies utilized, and some looks at FFXVI models produced by Virtuos. Before we dive in, we’d like to thank Kristian Pedlow, Zhuang Yucong, and Li Zhuqing for their time answering our questions. We’d like to especially thank Square Enix, Virtuos, Sparx* – a Virtuos Studio, Virtuos Shanghai, and Virtuos Chengdu for this opportunity. We hope you enjoy this exclusive interview!
Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background for our readers?
Kristian Pedlow: Hi! I’ve put my full name here, but everyone calls me Kris. I am a Senior Art Director and have been with Virtuos for 17 years, first in Shanghai and now at Sparx* – a Virtuos Studio in Vietnam. I have worked on a vast array of projects during my time at Virtuos, from game assets, props, vehicles, characters, and levels, to working on full games with our Game Division. I have also had the pleasure of working on almost 100 movies and TV series, primarily with Industrial Light & Magic.
Zhuang Yucong: Hello everyone, I am Zhuang Yucong, a Character Art Director at Virtuos, currently leading the character team at our Shanghai studio. I have over 15 years of experience in character art, with expertise in anatomy and biology. In addition to the Final Fantasy series, I have worked on projects such as the Horizon series, The Last of Us, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Uncharted.
Li Zhuqing: I’m Li Zhuqing, an Environment Art Director at Virtuos. I have been serving in our Chengdu studio since 2008, accumulating over fifteen years of experience in the industry. Throughout the years, I have been involved in the production of approximately hundreds of games spanning across console, PC, and mobile platforms. Among those games, there have been collaborations with Japanese companies as well as cross-cultural game development projects.
Final Fantasy XVI is a major title in one of gaming’s greatest series. How did Square Enix approach your team for the project, and what was your initial reaction to the project?
Zhuang Yucong: Through Kyos, our business development representatives in Japan, Virtuos has a long-standing partnership with Creative Business Unit 3 – the division in charge of developing FFXVI – for over 10 years now since we started supporting Square Enix with asset production for FFXIV. We believe, and are very thankful, that Square Enix entrusted us with this project because of the trust in our production teams that has been built over time.
When we found out that we were working on the newest sequel to the Final Fantasy franchise, our initial reaction was a mix of excitement and pressure! The series holds a special place in the hearts of many of us on the team. We have been fans of the series since we were children, starting with FFVII and FFVIII. I was just a kid back then and even needed help from others to play the games (laugh). Later on, we were once again captivated by the stunning CG animations in FFX, which sparked our interest and passion for the animation and video game industry.
Of course, we were fully aware of the challenges that came with this project. The technology of gaming consoles has reached a whole new level, and the industry’s visual effects have yet to fully catch up with the pace of technology – that was generally what we strived to improve upon.
Li Zhuqing: Our team was also thrilled to have had the opportunity to contribute to such a highly anticipated project and esteemed IP. FFXVI is quite different from the previous instalments in the series as it returns to a medieval fantasy setting, which is a departure from the more modern and sci-fi settings of its predecessors. This stark contrast greatly piqued our team’s curiosity, and we couldn’t wait to witness the official release of the game and see how players would be immersed in its unique and captivating world. That served as a driving force to give our all in participating in this project!
Kristian Pedlow: In the case of Sparx*, we were asked to build part of the mountainous vistas that surrounded the levels in FFXVI. Our team was very excited and jumped at the opportunity to complete a pilot test, which was successfully delivered. We are grateful for the learning opportunities and collaboration with Square Enix as we refined our approach and overcame software limitations over the course of the project.
Something that continuously caught my eye during the game was the intricacies of Oriflamme and other major locations in the game. With your team assisting in the development of the world of Valisthea, what challenges did you face in creating such complex regions?
Li Zhuqing: The main scenes in FFXVI were indeed incredibly captivating. In this project, my team’s responsibilities were focused on the creation of architecture and scene props. However, from our experience in creating environment art – building a complex world involves various challenges. For instance, in terms of storytelling and world-building, it requires us to carefully plan the background story, character designs, and the world history of the game. That enables us to present a game world that is immersive and cohesive in terms of its artistic representation. On the technical side, we need to work with large-scale 3D models, high-resolution textures, and complex physics simulations. That also necessitates continuous improvement of our tools and techniques.
Kristian Pedlow: We had to create different vistas for some of the levels in the game, each with its own geological detail. Some were simple and earth-like, while others were fantastical and alien-like with different shapes, rock types, and erosion patterns. We used Gaea, a powerful procedural tool for creating terrain, but it has its limitations like every tool. We had to understand how the tool worked and how different types of erosion affected different types of rock. As we couldn’t just rely on simulations, we had to somewhat become geologists ourselves. We studied the difference between rock types, the geological processes they form under, how they would erode, and then learn which tools would create which type of erosion simulation.
We also had to experiment a lot, as using procedural tools to match a concept or a photo was not easy. Through a hybrid pipeline that we developed, we first blocked out the mesh to match the reference, ran the procedural tools to get realistic erosion, then refined it in ZBrush to get closer to the reference. We had to then rework and refine based on feedback to ensure accuracy in our client’s proprietary game engine.
What was Virtuos’ creative approach to crafting a world that balanced cohesively with the narrative and gameplay?
Zhuang Yucong: Our general approach is from multiple angles. Firstly, we would immerse ourselves in the game’s lore to fully understand it. In the case of the FF series, it is renowned for its grand fantasy world in both its games and animated films. It not only provided players with a visually stunning experience, but also incorporated reflections on historical events, which adds depth to the game world.
Secondly, our team members are fans of the series, with many of them being experienced players of FFXIV. Their love for the series enabled them to easily envision the effects and details that may appear in FFXVI’s game levels, which allowed us to create a game experience that stayed true to the IP.
Lastly, we studied the artwork of Japanese artists such as Yoshitaka Amano and Tetsuya Nomura during the production process to enhance our attention to detail. They provided us with inspiration and references, helping make our game world more refined, unique, and captivating.
Final Fantasy XVI looks incredible through all of its areas and models, especially in 4K. When it comes to visual fidelity, what challenges did the team face to keep to the high standard we saw in the game?
Zhuang Yucong: The main challenge was to put ourselves in the player’s perspective and consider how we could showcase more details in high definition graphics, or achieve more refined visual effects through technical means. Our team was primarily responsible for the creation of some monsters and boss creatures, which are often massive in size within the game levels and aimed at giving players a sense of awe and invincibility. However, resources within the game are limited, so we needed to maintain high quality while making use of polygon count and texture details efficiently.
Kristian Pedlow: When we first saw the trailer, we were pleasantly surprised by how prominently our mountains featured in the cinematics and cutscenes. They were towering over the characters and the action, not just in the background or shot from above as the player smashes a boss in a cutscene. That’s why the expectations were so high when we started production. To ensure high quality and mitigate any overthinking, I spent a lot of time working directly with our artists and performed at least three reviews a day.
How did you and your team manage the project alongside Square Enix? What project management methodologies worked best for both teams?
Zhuang Yucong: We mainly adopted the daily progress submission method, which effectively strengthened control over quality standards and production timelines. It also enhanced daily communication of ideas and improved transparency between the art teams.
What was your favorite thing you were able to work on with this project, and how did you react to seeing it in the final game?
Kristian Pedlow: As mentioned, we first reacted with a lot of surprise when we saw the final trailer as the mountains that we worked on appear more impressively than we hoped for! You could see all the different rock formations and types, and it really made the effort we put into the details worth it. After that came pride, as everyone worked hard to complete this project and we were rewarded by having our work front and centre, not just in the trailer, but in every aspect of the game – so we were all very keen to play it as soon as possible.
Zhuang Yucong: My favourite part was the process of creating creatures and monsters itself. Through that process, our team had a lot of room to unleash our creativity and explore details. Personally, I also enjoyed thinking about and designing unique creatures and monsters, and infusing them with personality and distinct traits. Seeing them come to life in the game, perfectly complemented by animations and special effects, gave me a sense of accomplishment. I felt proud of all the efforts made by myself and the team.
Final Fantasy XVI is available now exclusively for PlayStation 5. Be sure to check out our review of the game, where we scored it at 4.5/5.
Note: Models shown in the images in this article are from the development stage and differ from the final form implemented in the game.
© SQUARE ENIX
LOGO ILLUSTRATION:© YOSHITAKA AMANO