Meet Wan Hazmer, the man who put Malaysia on the Final Fantasy XV map

Realistic fantasy: A shot of a building in the town of Lestallum, which was inspired by architecture in Cuba, Malaysia and the Middle East. — Picture courtesy of Square Enix

PETALING JAYA: While most gamers dream of going pro someday, Wan Hazmer Wan Abd Halim took his passion a level up. Instead of just playing games, he creates them.

As a lead game designer for one of the world's biggest video game developers, Wan Hazmer's day-to-day job at Square Enix involves the imagining of fantastic worlds.

Even more impressively, the 36-year-old heads the game developers' "Culture" team, which is tasked with designing cities and dwellings for Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) the upcoming installment of the massively popular Japanese role-playing game (RPG) series.

"Game designers are like the architects of a game's fun factor. We craft the game experience by planning the gameplay mechanics, creating the layout of levels and even defining the intended atmosphere of a certain area or a scene," he said in an interview with The Star Online.

The plot centres on the trials and tribulations of Prince Noctis, who tries to reclaim his homeland and the magical crystal that protects his people after it is seized by the powerful Niflheim empire on the eve of peace negotiations.

Within seconds of gameplay, the open-world of FFXV thrusts players into the heart of the road trip experience as Noctis and his friends travel to new and exciting destinations on their quest.

However, they first have to deal with a broken-down car, which is a welcome break from opening credits that often take too long to describe past events instead of immediately immersing the player in a riveting adventure.

Bazaar hopping: The players can explore the souks of Lestallum as Prince Noctis. — Picture courtesy of Square Enix
Bazaar hopping: The players can explore the souks of Lestallum as Prince Noctis. — Picture courtesy of Square Enix

As a proud Malaysian, Wan Hazmer tries his best to introduce his own culture into FFXV.

"I tried to persuade the team to put in Pontianak and Orang Minyak as staple enemies, but they got rejected; they didn't fit with the FFXV world," he said.

"However, FFXV is a RPG that delivers a unique road trip experience with your best friends through both a realistic and fantastical world.

"And everyone knows that when there's travelling, there's always food! One of the towns that you'll come across is Lestallum. Its food culture is inspired by our Mamak stall culture. So yes, for the first time in Final Fantasy history, you'll be able to see roti canai, satay and teh tarik," he said.

Wan Hazmer admits that his favourite town is Lestallum due to its diversity. With a mix of vibrant influences like Cuban architecture, a Middle Eastern market atmosphere and Malaysian food culture, Lestallum will function as a hub city for the game.

"We also have a hotel there! While the building architecture is based on Cuba, it also looks like one of those hotels that you might see in Taiping, Perak. So it's not a very grand one; it has something of a colonial element," he said.

To make the town even more realistic, keen observers will notice pieces of rubbish on the pavements and a medley of disorganised items such as oil drums and stacked boxes along Lestallum's alleyways.

The town's economic lifeblood lies in the generation of electricity for the continent. This explains the many exposed pipes travelling through Lestallum, channelling water, gas and heat. And the weather is hot, very hot. Much like home.

A "walk" through town with Noctis proves to be a wonderfully immersive experience – souqs, palm trees, food vendors, alfresco dining, cobblestone surfaces – all put together under a sunny filter.

It even hosts the quintessential Malaysian food carts with glass-fronted display boxes and umbrella stands.

Imagination unlimited: Wan Hazmer’s passion for creating fantasy worlds is evident from the game’s detailed designs.
Imagination unlimited: Wan Hazmer’s passion for creating fantasy worlds is evident from the game’s detailed designs.

"I tried my best to expose my team to Malaysian culture. I took them to a Malaysian restaurant in Ikebukuro called Malaychan, and I actually got the animator to tarik (pull) the tea!

"I'm on good terms with the owner so I asked her to bring out the two big cups for us to tarik the tea. A lot of it was spilt on the floor, unfortunately," Wan Hazmer said with a laugh.

Through that trial and error, not only did the animator observe his own movements while doing the tarik – his earnest efforts also saw him going online to watch videos of teh tarik competitions!

The FFXV production team also trekked through dark caves to experience the skin-crawling dread needed to create a convincingly creepy dungeon.

It is this sort of peerless attention to detail that elevates the gaming experience as a whole, and after a decade of waiting, fans are likely to savour every moment of gameplay.

"When you do play FFXV – I hope you do! – please pay attention to the little details when you visit a town. It took a lot of effort from the artists, 3D modellers, animators, programmers and game designers to craft these; I'm incredibly proud of my team," he said.

As to how he got to where he is, Hazmer said that he was previously a university lecturer and a member of a local award-winning team of independent game creators. He took a leap of faith in 2008 when he flew off to Japan in hopes of landing a career there.

"Not being fluent in Japanese, I enrolled full-time into a Japanese language school with one objective in mind: to be able to write a ten-page game proposal in Japanese at the end of the one-and-a-half-year course.

I used that proposal as my foot in the door to joining the Square Enix HQ in Shinjuku," he said.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Final Fantasy XV will be released on Nov 29, 2016.

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