The Pegasus Dream Tour Will Tear Down Old Precedents
Turning the Paralympic Games into a video game—this unprecedented endeavor presented many challenges that needed to be overcome. It was not, after all, a typical sports game to tout complex maneuverability. Neither was it a party game to be enjoyed by large gatherings of people. The game needed to reproduce the worldview presented by this enormous sports event, which will be held despite being faced with many challenges. To do so, the game creators needed to break free from the framework of conventional sports games. The Pegasus Dream Tour was released on June 24 as the world’s first official Paralympic video game. I sat down with Hajime Tabata, the game creator who led this project, and the members of his company, JP Games, to ask about some of the episodes behind the game’s development.
So how do we balance the aspects that make the sport unique and the aspects that need
to be omitted to make the game work? From there, how do we convey the fun and complexity
of that sport?
A prosthetic foot kicks off the ground and starts running. The rhythmical beat of footsteps seems to quicken your own heartbeat. The city, which is said to be inspired by the Shibuya Scramble Crossing, features colorful roads and buildings that have a futuristic look. The ground is all flat with no steps. As you keep running, you pass by people using prosthetic arms and legs, wheelchairs and various other orthotic devices.
The Pegasus Dream Tour is the world’s first official Paralympic Games mobile video game available for free on Android and iOS devices. Players can participate in parasports tournaments such as athletics, boccia, football 5-a-side, and wheelchair basketball. The game also features nine real-life para-athletes.
If you start playing this game expecting it to be a regular sports game, you’ll be surprised by the unique worldview it presents. Users first take a selfie of themselves to create an avatar called “Mine.” Mine are characters with individual souls who independently move around the virtual city called Pegasus City. Their goal is to win gold medals in the Pegasus Para Grand Prix. They train of their own volition every day, go through physical conditioning and compete successfully in competitions. They also take the initiative to meet and become friends with other avatars from all over the world. The game largely operates in autoplay and players get involved by supporting Mine. Your avatar uses prosthetic arms or legs or a wheelchair, to run around and live inside the virtual city.
The Pegasus Dream Tour was created by JP Games. The company is led by Hajime Tabata, who famously directed Final Fantasy XV and was also involved in developing many other titles including the life simulation game Monster Rancher 2, and the mobile action RPG Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII.
After Tabata left Square Enix in 2018, he was approached with the idea of creating a video game based on the Paralympic Games. If successful, it would be the first of its kind in the world. Meetings started to take place to discuss the project, but since it was still being deliberated by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) at the time, Tabata remained undecided. According to Tabata, the then IPC CEO Xavier Gonzalez said:
“The younger staff members are enthusiastic about making this game, but I’m not too keen about it. When looking at my kids, I feel that they study less because they want to play games. I don’t understand what good video games can do for the world.”
Tabata rebutted his claims, saying:
“Games are a useful tool. Instead of just cramming in knowledge, people can delve inside the game, maneuver characters and learn through experience, which leaves a much deeper impression. Games are very effective as an experiential form of media. From the viewpoint of educating children, they offer role models that inspire children to want to grow up to be like them. After working in this field for many years, I decided to start my own company because I want to draw on all the good aspects of games to help create the future. So if we can agree in that sense, I’d be happy to take on this project.”
“If you say so, I’d like you to do this,” Gonzalez said. With no other option but to accept it, Tabata started working on the Paralympic video game.
Production began in 2019. However, the creators faced two large obstacles.
One was the question of how to feature parasports in the game. Several methods exist for creating games based on sports. For example, the FIFA series, officially recognized by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (International Federation of Association Football, FIFA), focus on recreating real aspects of the sport, such as featuring real teams and players and offering a co-op mode. On the other hand, Olympic Games Tokyo 2020: The Official Video Game allows players to create their own avatars and compete in over 15 sports events in the form of mini-games.
However, Tabata didn’t think that was possible for Paralympic Games events. To turn the sports into a game format, certain aspects would inevitably have to be omitted. As Tabata put it, “No matter how real we make a game, compared to the real sport, it’s impossible to recreate everything that the athletes do in real life.”
If the sport is one that many people know about, users have enough prerequisite knowledge to supplement the omitted parts in their minds. But parasports aren’t widely recognized to begin with. Furthermore, parasports categorize athletes into classifications depending on the type and severity of their disabilities to ensure fairness. So even in the same sport, an athlete with a limb deficiency, for example, will experience competitions differently from an athlete with a visual impairment.
“When a sport is turned into a video game, people who are familiar with the sport will feel that important aspects of it are missing. So how do we balance the aspects that make the sport unique and the aspects that need to be omitted to make the game work? From there, how do we convey the fun and complexity of that sport?”
These were difficult questions that no one had addressed until then. Ultimately, Tabata decided to steer away from creating mini-games out of the sports and instead shaped The Pegasus Dream Tour so that it could be enjoyed intuitively as an autoplay game. This would also allow a broader range of people to easily enjoy the game, such as those with disabilities who may not be able to use both hands to operate a game controller, as well as those who don’t usually play games.
The next issue they faced was monetization.
“We knew that if we created this intellectual property with the goal of making money, we would be disappointed by the results. We had to be careful not to sacrifice our savings and end up doing all this as charity work.”
Yasushi Yamawaki, then President of the Japanese Paralympic Committee, emphasized this point “intently, honestly and many times” to Tabata. In fact, one of the reasons that listed companies have refrained from creating a parasports video game until now is because of the difficulty of making a business profit.
Usually, mobile video games that can be downloaded for free aim to draw in about 3-5% of users who are serious gamers. They are willing to pay money and creators run the games to satisfy them. In exchange for their money, gamers gain advantages in the game world, such as by receiving precious items. This is known as “pay to win.”
“Having a game that allows players to challenge themselves to go faster, higher, stronger and break personal records as an athlete is fine. But if we tried to monetize that experience, it would be like saying, ‘Buy expensive prosthetics and you’ll win a gold medal.’ That wasn’t right. We backed right away from that idea (laughs). It may be an effective game payment system, but it goes against the entire nature of the game’s content.”
The Paralympic movement is all about aiming to achieve diversity and inclusion, so the conventional concept of game payment is fundamentally out of step with that philosophy. JP Games, therefore, decided to disconnect the contents of The Pegasus Dream Tour from the business side of the game. They instead decided to create a profit by modifying the technologies they developed to create the game and offering them to other companies as separate products.
Instead of preaching diversity through words or as knowledge, this game conveys diversity by incorporating it into the game world and having players experience it for themselves.
After overcoming these two major obstacles, the team determined that the world’s first Paralympic video game would be an RPG, which is a game style that Tabata has many years of experience with.
“With an RPG, you create a virtual world,” Tabata explained. “In that world, for instance, there may be a king, you can use magic, there are fictional nations, an ecosystem, enemies, etc. Players need to maybe save the world or solve problems. What they experience in the game world isn’t much different from the real world, so it becomes a part of their personal experience. So instead of preaching diversity through words or as knowledge, this game conveys diversity by incorporating it into the game world and having players experience it for themselves.”
Originally, the game was planned so users would be able to experience what it feels like to be an athlete as well as a hero. The hero idea was inspired by Gonzalez’s words when he said, “The Paralympic Games isn’t about the heart-moving stories of people with disabilities. It’s about people who have disabilities but who push themselves to their limits and achieve things that athletes normally can’t. It’s a tournament full of superheroes.” So in addition to the athlete’s part of the game, the creators prepared a side story where the world faces a great threat and the athletes work together to bring back peace.
However, when the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, causing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games to be postponed by a year, the video game’s release was also pushed back. During this year, the mood all over the world changed drastically, which made it necessary to change the contents of the game too.
“The Olympic and Paralympic Games needed to be changed to fit the situation of the world in 2021. The same went for the video game. So we cut out the hero part altogether. Now, players gather in Pegasus City and overcome divisions, learn to value the importance of being connected, and positively focus on the experience of being an athlete.”
From hero experience to community building focused on connecting people, the game was significantly altered. Now, the creators’ challenge was how to artfully and boldly express the worldview that is presented by the Paralympic Games. Members of the production team also changed to bring more young women to the core of the project.
“We believed the younger members’ sensibilities would be able to express such themes in a more direct and honest way. We older members have been doing this for so long that our ideas aren’t fresh anymore.”
Among those younger members, who played large roles in the success of the project, were co-producer Eri Monta and art director Harumi Ishizaki from the Sustainable Department of JP Games. They were very particular about the designs for the “gears” featured in the game, including prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs. Monta said:
“Today, wearing glasses is normal and no one says you have a disability just because you wear glasses. They’ve become a part of people’s character and fashion. So in this game, we wanted the gears to be a part of character expression.”
The creators visited sports associations and equipment manufacturers to learn more about the mechanisms behind prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs. From there, they decided to design the gears so that they looked cooler and sleeker than they actually are in real life.
As Ishizaki put it, “Just like we choose which clothes to wear in the morning, we wanted the gears to look attractive so that players would have fun choosing which gear designs to use for the day. Some of the designs are realistically impossible, but inside the game, players can enjoy being stylish.”
In the game, prosthetic limbs for an avatar’s right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg can be swapped as easily as dressing up a doll. On the one hand, it feels fashionable, but on the other, limb deficiency s are deeply connected with an individual’s personal history. It didn’t feel right, in my mind, to reduce them to mere “items” that can be replaced with the tap of a button. When I voiced my frank opinion, Monta shared an episode from the time they asked an organization of people with disabilities from the US to play the game.
“One of the people had a disability that wasn’t a part of the game, so they couldn’t create an avatar that reflected their disability. It was for that reason that the person said the game was ‘really cool.’ It made me realize that what may not feel right to us isn’t necessarily something negative for them.”
Some players may choose prosthetic legs with designs that they like, while others may choose prosthetic arms as an expression of their disability. Therein lies the diversity of the younger generation.
The unique worldview presented in The Pegasus Dream Tour was born from the unprecedented challenge of creating a parasports video game and the unparalleled circumstances brought about by the worldwide pandemic. Going forward, the game aims to be sustainable and already has plans for future developments.
“I hope first and foremost that it contributes to enlivening the Paralympic Games, and that more people will become passionate about parasports after playing the game.”
The creators have plans to continue holding various events in Pegasus City beyond those related to parasports, such as live concerts by musicians and social contribution programs.
Tabata concluded with the following comment.
“If we can create a movement, I believe this game will become an important legacy of Tokyo 2020 as a virtual world born from the Paralympic Games. In fact, we’ve already been approached with talks to hold charity events within the game after Tokyo 2020. Going forward, there will be more and more ways to utilize Pegasus City. Since it isn’t a profit-oriented game, we’ve been able to receive cooperation from various entities. So from here on, I believe the game is poised to take flight on fresh winds.”
Born in 1971. Tabata directed Final Fantasy XV while working for Square Enix Co., Ltd., which became a worldwide success that exceeded the sales standards of the game series. He left Square Enix in 2018 and established his own company, JP Games Inc., of which he is currently the CEO. Alongside co-producer Eri Monta and art director Harumi Ishizaki from the same company, he created the world’s first official Paralympic video game, The Pegasus Dream Tour.