Interview: Robert Jerauld, former producer at Enix USA

Before there was Square-Enix, there was Square and there was Enix, two Japanese publishing houses well known for their RPG output. During the heyday of the SNES, both companies had a US presence based out of Redmond, Washington, where they published some of the most beloved games of those eras. The inner workings of Enix USA during that time, however, have always been the subject of much rumor and fan speculation. What happened to localizations of Dragon Quest V and VI, Enix’s flagship franchise? Why did Nintendo publish Illusion of Gaia? And how did King Arthur and the Knights of Justice wind up the way it did? Is there really an Ark of the Covenant? Will we ever find Noah’s Ark? Where exactly is Atlantis and did Amelia Earhart land there? Are we alone in the Universe…

Ahem. I had the opportunity to talk to Robert Jerauld, producer during the first incarnation of Enix USA on all titles titles throughout the NES/SNES’s life. Robert’s early career trajectory took him from working as a Nintendo Game Counselor to working many roles on some of the most beloved games on the platform. Robert continues to work in the game industry to this day – he is currently an Executive Producer at Microsoft Game Studios, with credits on games like Zoo Tycoon, Gears of War, and Alan Wake. I am incredibly thankful and excited that Robert took the time to talk about his experience at Enix USA with us. Read on for a fascinating look of what Robert’s time at Enix USA was like!

So when did you first join Enix USA?

Enix USA had been open for a short time before I joined the company. I was one of the original game counselors at Nintendo, and left there to join Enix. I wanted to have an impact on the development side and Enix had a very strong reputation in the industry at that time so it felt like the right opportunity. Fortunately, they chose me out of the thousands of resumes they received.

Oh wow, you were a Game Counselor? I made good use of that service. I remember my parents yelling at me over a long-distance phone bill that involved numerous calls to the Game Counselors.

Well, when I was at Nintendo – keep in mind this was right after NOA opened – the calls were free, so let your parents know it wasn’t my fault.

Will do! So what was it like being a game counselor at Enix?

Similar to being a counselor at Nintendo, but without the challenge of memorizing multiple games. Keep in mind at that time, we weren’t using databases yet, so we had to train and memorize every game that was released on the platform. Think about the number of titles on the NES and then imagine the craziness of trying to remember all the challenges in each game that commonly tripped people up! At Nintendo, we were given each game about 1 month prior to release. We’d then play through each game, make notes in a giant binder, and then each binder would be copied and merged with every other binder on every other gameplay counselor’s desk. So we all shared notes and updated each other on new hints/secrets that were found. At that time, the developers didn’t share secrets, hints, etc. You had to find everything yourself. Not to mention, calling Nintendo was free and there was no time limit, so you’d have a shift where you’d spend 8-12 hours on the phone helping people one after the other.

At Enix, I only needed to catalog and keep track of Enix titles. Naturally, this made it infinitely easier to keep track of the problem areas that tripped people up. I enjoyed talking with people about our products. It gave me the opportunity to really hear what people liked, what parts they enjoyed, areas they struggled with. That experience really shaped my passion for being a voice for the consumer in all the products I’ve developed since.

While I was on the phone talking with people, I’d spend time testing early builds from Enix Japan to provide feedback. That’s how I started learning how to test and file bugs. The most enjoyable part, oddly enough, was learning to play RPGs in a language I didn’t speak. I got pretty good at completing games even when I wasn’t able to read the language. Eventually, I took formal Japanese – but in truth, it had nothing to do with understanding the game and everything to do with the desire to understand what the developers were saying when they assumed I didn’t speak the language.

Any particular memories of the best and worst games you played through during your game counseling tenure?

It’s hard to say which were the best and worst games I played through when working at Enix. At the time, I spent quite a bit of effort and energy reviewing unreleased titles in Japan for possible publishing by Enix. Aside from the language challenge, I really enjoyed what I was doing and I believe my passion for games helped to heighten the enjoyment of games that might not have been super entertaining. In all games, I believe there is something good but you need to find it. There is always something to learn. Some games can be easier to find that magic compared to others.

How did you make the jump from Counselor to Producer?

It wasn’t a direct jump, but more of a journey. Because Enix America was such a small company, I was able to take on many different roles – from game counselor, to marketing, to PR, to tester, etc. It was toward the end of Enix America that I made the move to Producer.

While there are many paths one can take to becoming a producer, I’ve always been an advocate of trying out as many roles as possible before deciding on a specific role. Not only will this give you better insight into the roles and responsibilities of each function, but it will make you a more effective leader if you understand what you are asking people to do. You better understand their tasks, challenges, and time commitments.

Out of the games Enix America published during the SNES era, which were the most successful?

We were REALLY fortunate to work with a number of developers that were responsible for many hall-of-fame titles on the SNES. I was incredibly blessed to work with folks like Quintet, Chunsoft, Almanic, and others. When I think about all the titles we published, I have my favorites – and some that make me cringe. But in terms of most popular, I’d say Actraiser was probably at the top. But then you’ve got SoulBlazer, The 7th Saga, and Ogre Battle. All incredibly entertaining experiences. You can’t forget the lesser known titles that were really packed with amazing gameplay – games like E.V.O., Brain Lord, Robotrek, Paladin’s Quest. Those games just constantly pushed the genre and sought to set a new bar for creativity and story.

And which didn’t perform as well as you’d hoped?

I’m not sure “performed” is the right word. I wish more people had the chance to play some of the lesser known titles like Brain Lord, Robotrek, etc. But I can’t blame them, because by then the market was so saturated with titles that it was really difficult for people to determine what to buy. Nintendo Power had limited space to promote games, the Nintendo seal of approval had been pretty diluted by that point, and so many companies were churning out content it was hard to find the diamonds.

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Dragon Warrior seemed to perform well enough on the NES. What was the reasoning behind not localizing Dragon Quest V?

We localized it. It was ready to be released.

Just to clarify – which one, Dragon Quest V or VI? There’s an old Enix newsletter scan floating around that mentions that DQV was off the table for technical reasons so you were looking at DQVI instead for localization as Dragon Warrior 5. 1

Yep, likely it was DQ 6 that was fully translated and ready to go as DW 5. If I remember correctly, it would have been too expensive to bring DQ5 over and thus Enix Japan didn’t give permission for localization.

I see! So what stopped the game’s localization? I’ve heard a few rumors that companies like Nintendo were looking for stronger visuals during this time period.

Well, you’d have to ask Nintendo for their comment. In my opinion, it had nothing to do with Nintendo and everything to do with the console market at the time. It was arguably the most beautiful SNES game I’d seen at the time. And trust me, we had a number of games in the industry that really got people thinking about what kind of power you could really wring out of the SNES. At that time, you never really had a chance to see the pinnacle of what a console could deliver as it would be phased out long before we could see that. Back then, the lifespan of a console was 2-4 years.

Yeah, it was really short, especially compared to the last console generation.

I remember being at E3 when Rare showed DK Country. That was the first time people REALLY started thinking about polygons and how we might explore depth in our worlds. We were all blown away by the visual look of DKC, but felt they sacrificed challenge for visual appeal. It’s probably not something people really think about when considering pivotal moments in the game industry, but that was one of them. It really cemented the notion that US gamers needed to be visually satisfied before they’d even consider buying a game. You can still see that now, but gamers are savvy and really demand excellence in all phases of the games they play.

Anyhow, we had it translated and the game was set to be released in Japan. At the time, it was truly one of the most beautiful RPGs I’d seen. It fit the more classical visual style of the DQ RPG. Enix wasn’t chasing Square to try and develop more realistic characters and more visually appealing cut-scenes. The formula at Enix was always to focus on gameplay first. Get that to quality, and then build your visuals around the gameplay. By staying true to the worlds of Dragon Quest, each game was able to transport a player back to a familiar place. You could sharpen and improve the visuals but you shouldn’t make the world unrecognizable. That would have defeated the purpose of creating such a great franchise. To my knowledge, Nintendo was a HUGE supporter of the DQ series and has remained so.

Dragon Warrior V simply wasn’t finished by the time Enix America had closed. Had nothing to do with the visual quality and everything to do with Enix America not being around to release. As I mentioned, we had the game basically finished and ready to go but we didn’t have the time to cert the title and finish testing. I’ve heard the various rumors that NOA was looking for polygon based games at the time but that was never something I experienced or heard while working at Enix. NOA wanted the game but we weren’t around to release it.

How did you and the higher-ups in Japan decide what did and didn’t get localized during the time period?

Personally, in the 7 years I worked with Enix Japan, I found them to be really a wonderful company to work with. For the most part, we worked together to discuss game pitches and titles in development around the industry that might appeal to both markets. There were a pretty small number of titles we ended up not bringing over, but it was mainly based on our assessment of appeal to the gamers here.

Do you have any personal favorite projects and do you have any interesting stories around them?

Of course. All of the titles, and I do mean all the titles, are very important to me. They each have a special place in my career and heart because each taught me something different about telling a story, creating a journey.

  •  Illusion of Gaia – I remember when we first started this game. I was pretty excited to work with Japan on it. I helped shape the journey and the places you visited in the game, and I really enjoyed using historical places of mystery the player could explore and enjoy. I didn’t have much to work with for a story at the time, so I literally sat down and wrote the entire thing in English. Much of the lines in that game from both the main character and his companions were heavily influenced by my own experience with personal relationships. I wanted the story to feel natural, the characters to resonate with people, to feel familiar.
  •  The 7th Saga – You wouldn’t believe how long I spent creating the names for the places in this game! I also helped design most of the puzzles to really give players in the US a challenge. I’d grown tired of the persistent notion that American gamers weren’t as proficient at solving challenging games and thus developers in Japan “dumbed down” their games for the US. I simply chose not to believe that and worked to deliver an experience that would challenge the best gamers, regardless of nationality.
  •  ActRaiser 2 – This was one of my first – and most important – mistakes in my career. At the time, I was convinced that players wanted action. They wanted to be challenged and pushed to new levels. I pushed Enix away from retaining the sim part of ActRaiser and toward a more challenging action title. I made that decision because I believed I knew what the consumer wanted. The release of that game taught me quite a bit about the need to really listen to consumers. You can’t get caught up in making games for yourself believing that you speak for the consumer. You have to take the time to really hear what people have to say, read all the feedback, read all the comments, truly understand what people seek in their experiences. I removed the soul from ActRaiser and that was a really tough lesson to learn, but it’s one that has really helped me along the way.
  •  King Arthur – Well, we will talk more about this game later…

Did you ever go to Japan to meet the devs/execs from Enix Japan/Quintet/Produce/etc?

I didn’t travel to Japan. The folks in Japan enjoyed coming to the US and at the time, we had 2 shows a year for CES (Las Vegas in January and Chicago in May). So there were plenty of opportunities for visits, which made it less taxing on the Japanese teams (I wouldn’t have to distract the entire development process because I was coming to visit). So, easier to have a few come to the US and review all development plans, builds, etc.

f093Fun Enix game fact! 7th Saga is called Elnard in Japan, but the manga adaptation (pictured above) uses the name of the US game. – HK

Yeah, that certainly makes sense, given the time period. Something I’m quite curious about: One of Enix America’s most notorious SNES releases was The 7th Saga, which is regarded by many as being impossibly hard. It was discovered that the difficulty level had been upped significantly from the Japanese release (Elnard). Can you talk a bit about the localization process?

Sure. I was closely involved in the development of the 7th Saga. And no, while I believe it’s probably not as exciting to hear, we didn’t increase the difficulty level from the Japanese version.  It’s possible the game had tuning changes from the Japan side to the US version but it wasn’t a mandate to make the game harder. It’s likely that we determined the game in Japan wasn’t challenging enough based on feedback, and thus, tuning adjustments were made. We changed some of the puzzles, in terms of the questions you were asked in order to solve the puzzle but the challenge remained the same.

Keep in mind: at the time, you had a wide range of age groups playing SNES games. Depending on your age level the game was either pretty straightforward or challenging. If I think back on some of the puzzle questions, and imagine an 8 year old trying to figure out some of the riddles, yep, would have felt impossibly hard. We just posed riddles meant to get people thinking but impossibly hard?  Not even close. You want to talk about hard, try Ninja Gaiden 2… That was the bar of difficulty back then and was responsible for more broken television sets, consoles and controllers than any other game to date. (Only to be topped by the first release of Street Fighter.)

Illusion of Gaia was a Quintet/Enix developed game and a spiritual sequel to Soul Blazer, but was published by Nintendo. Enix USA was still operational at this point, so why did you delegate it to Nintendo for publishing?

We’d finished Illusion of Gaia and had submitted it for pre-cert testing. Folks at Nintendo had heard rumor that we were working on a game that was likely to be a big hit and in the same type of game style as Zelda/SoulBlazer. Of note: there is no connection in the universe between SoulBlazer and Gaia. SoulBlazer is actually related to ActRaiser and is in many ways a sort of a prequel to ActRaiser. Now, the connection is a pretty distant one, but it’s there!

So when we finished Gaia and started sending over builds to Nintendo for pre-cert testing, people from Nintendo started talking about how much they enjoyed the experience and essentially validating the rumors floating around the industry at the time. They approached us with an offer to publish, with the assurance nothing would be changed. I thought they did a good job with the release: the game is intact, and Nintendo’s distribution strength was unmatched. It was simply a better way to get the game in front of more people.

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One of the things Illusion of Gaia  is best known for in Japan is the involvement of famous manga creator Moto Hagio and author Mariko Ohara, two very prominent women in Japanese sci-fi/fantasy. Did you work at all with these two when you were writing the game? If so, what was the experience like?

Much of the development on the art side of Illusion of Gaia was handled in Japan by our partners. Beyond meeting with the Producer/Executive Producer, I didn’t spend time with the development team. That’s not what you did on the publishing side when you worked with a Japanese developer. That said, you can really see their imprint on the art style – how amazingly influential it was at the time and how much it has impacted other titles for the better.

King Arthur, to an outside observer, seems to be “the game that killed Enix USA,” as the branch shut down shortly after its release. Can you tell us what went on with that game? What did Japan think about publishing a western-developed RPG?

I can see how people might come to that conclusion. The game certainly didn’t help make Enix a ton of money, but it wasn’t the cause of the closure. At the time the PlayStation was about to be launched. Enix Japan had a long standing loyalty to Nintendo, and you didn’t break that loyalty carelessly. That wasn’t the Japanese way. The SNES market was really struggling, and the flood of titles on the market made it really difficult for titles to stand out and sell well. At that time, gamers were excited for the next generation and Nintendo simply didn’t have an answer for the Playstation. The decision was made by Enix Japan to close down Enix America and re-group to think about their next steps.

As for King Arthur, it’s another VERY important game in my past. It was my first try at being a producer and, as you can imagine, I just went for it! Enix America had been talking about becoming a development house along with continuing to publish titles over here. We were presented with a license that, at the time, was a pretty popular show for the target demographic on the SNES. We didn’t have much of a budget, so we tried to find the best developer we could afford, and made the simple mistake of trying to do everything in a single experience. As a result, we ended up doing nothing well. And that was a really hard lesson for me for many reasons. It’s vital that you really take your time to find the right design, to find the right developer, to ensure you have the right budget, to retain creative control, etc. By the time we jumped through all the hoops to get licensing approvals, to try and accommodate creative feedback from all sources, etc. the game never had a chance.

But I needed to make that mistake. I had to face that failure and really think about what boundaries I, as a producer, needed to define in order to retain a certain level of creative excellence in the things I work on. I think we all kind of have those things in our lives that help define who we are, the strength of our core and the authenticity of what we stand for. While I’ve made many mistakes along the way, since then, I have always tried to be true to myself and to the consumers we make games for.

The game’s enjoyed an interesting resurgence of popularity among game archaeology types – people who look for buried development relics at the ROM data level. They’ve dug up a lot of material for King Arthur that never appears in the final game.

We really took an “all or nothing” approach with KA, and just ran out of time and money. That was a game we could have easily spent multiple years developing, because there was just so much we needed to get right. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a position that the game needed to be shipped ASAP, and there just wasn’t enough time or ability to get the game in a polished, good state. Much of what is in the game but not shown is just work in progress content we weren’t able to flesh out.

So what was the factor that eventually caused the axe to fall on the first incarnation of Enix America?

It’s not a salacious event, but rather, a smart business decision. With Enix committed to their partnership with Nintendo and Nintendo’s new console a ways off yet, Enix consolidated until they could develop a meaningful business plan for the next console. I was truly happy to see Enix America return, and even happier to see people still enjoying the games we worked on together. I will always be a true Enix supporter and count many of the people at Enix Japan and Quintet as lifelong friends.

What did you take away from your experience at Enix? How does what you learned working there play into your current job at Microsoft?

Enix will always have a very special place in my heart. It was the first step in my development career and a pivotal moment in forming who I am today (which is still evolving). At the time, working for a Japanese employer taught me a great deal about the game development process and also about being an honorable and committed person. At Enix, you never made excuses, you took responsibility and you fixed it. You genuinely tried to never make the same mistake twice. You put the company and the stability of the employees ahead of your desire for personal wealth. You took pride in your work and your ability to collaborate with others while not seeking the spotlight of fame. It was more honorable to let the game speak for itself and not be a figurehead out in front of the microphone speaking for it. Above all, I learned that you have to value the consumer above all else. If you don’t take the time to listen, to hear what people are saying – you are putting yourself ahead of your customers. That’s a mistake I never choose to make again.

There are many valuable lessons and friendships I’ve carried forward from Enix that have been with me throughout my career. While I am still growing and learning, I keep the core values and commitments I learned at Enix close to my heart. I still make mistakes, I still miss from time to time on a feature or mechanic, but the important thing is that I care. I like that about myself – I care enough to take the time to analyze and figure out where I went wrong and how I can fix it. I value the care and consideration I have for consumers. I will always be indebted to Enix for giving me that.

Special thanks goes to Jake Kazdal and John Ricciardi for their assistance with this interview.

  1. I got this email from the folks behind DQshrine.com: “I might be able to provide some insight on DQ V being ‘too expensive’ for Enix to release. Back in ye olden days, many fan translators tried to tackle DQ V. Neil who manned the Partial Translations/DeJap patch released a statement explaining that the reason why the project was taking so long was because ChunSoft’s code had numerous errors with workarounds to make it stable. If anything was out of place the game would hard freeze with a big “ERROR!” message. The project stalled until DeJap stepped in to help with the programming. So if the fan translators had such major issues, I’m sure Enix encountered the same problem. It seems to fit the old Warrior World statement, as well as the cost for rewriting and testing.” Of course, this isn’t a definitive “this is why this didn’t get localized” reason, but it is some interesting speculation with a solid basis.

4 Comments

  1. hello! just discovered this site recently while searching for info about last rebellion, just wanted to let you know anybody that can talk about taito games is cool

  2. ActRaiser 2 and 7th Saga are two of my favorite video games ever. Robotrek is also way up there on that list. I loved hearing about Robert’s experiences with those titles! His “mistakes” with ActRaiser 2 turned it into one of the most complex action games ever created. I would love to have the chance to chat with him!

  3. Thanks for that interview, it reminded me of the old times and gave me an insight that I didn’t have as a child of the 90’s. Something about this interview striked me. Mr. Jerauld was speaking about the gamers waiting for the next generation of consoles. I was one of them and I clearly remember how fond I was of the SNES, but as you can imagine I couldn’t wait for the next console of Nintendo, the 3D graphics and all… My mother at that time used to say, she does not see a big difference in SNES and N64 game graphics. Now that I’m older I’ve got to say times really have changed and I am finally fully able to understand that the graphics and sounds that the SNES delivered were one of a kind! For me it defined gaming forever. It’s not even about being nostalgic. There is something about the old games, about the style of the SNES that simply can’t be repeated by any other console. This something is simply expressed by the style that the SNES chose, that partially was forced upon it by the limitations of it’s time.

    Now I’m not speaking badly about beautiful 3D games with great graphics! I simply want to state, that the SNES drew you into a beautiful world of sprites were you had to use your imagination. Like a good book, you enjoy every letter of it, but you always add your fantasy to make it come alive.

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