How inexperience and failed pitches led to Tokyo Jungle

Experience isn't everything was the overarching message of Tokyo Jungle director Yohei Kataoka's lecture at the Game Developer's Conference. The developer of the post-apocalyptic animal-survival simulator detailed the bumpy timeline that led to the game's eventual release on PlayStation Network.

Before Tokyo Jungle, he said, the team at Crispy's! went through numerous alternative game concepts, including a courier game and a role-playing game about the final days on Earth before a doomsday meteor hit. Eventually the team settled on a platformer that would have taken place in a single 2D world, divided by sky, land and underground settings. According to Sony, the pitch lacked fun, and so the team once again rebooted their development process.

Kataoka said he was motivated by a a desire to make games that enrich lives. Undeterred by the setback, he set out to combine "universality" and "originality." Using Tokyo Jungle as an example, he pointed to animals and familiar characters and a ghost town as a popular fictional setting. Together, they produced something unique.

The game system — the fun, as Kataoka put it — began to materialize on its own.

To clarify the idea, Kataoka used photos and images to prototype the look and themes. Before beginning development on Tokyo Jungle, the team put together a piece of conceptual marketing. Before the game was completed, they created a mock record cover. He found a book by Masataka Nakano that featured empty photos of Japan. Kataoka began drawing animals onto the images.

Kataoka then showed footage from the early 2D pitch video that we recently had the chance to film off-screen in Kyoto. In the video, a pack of wolves hunt a gazelle in the city streets before being attacked by a dinosaur.

For the concept movie, the animation was key framed and the environment was done in After Effects. "We didn't know how to do animation in 3D," Kataoka said.

According the director, the concept video helped unify the team. They all knew what they were making.

Crispy's! studio is situated in an average Japanese residence. The place is just over 1,000 sq. ft. There were two employees, then ten and finally 24 people on the team while finishing the game.

Kataoka says the team's inexperience had advantages and disadvantages.

For example, by not knowing how to make games, they planned on including 50 characters. "No one who's made an action game would ever do that," he said. "Because of our inexperience, we were willing to create characters the users would like to have."

Kataoka also believes his inexperience freed him to include a pomeranian as a protagonist. "It wasn't strong and exciting like so many characters in action games," he said, "but it helped connect the empty Tokyo to its former civilized era."

One of the disadvantages of an inexperienced team was having to switch from 2D to 3D development. The team built their own development environment, eating up lots of time. Being in a house, they had numerous electrical issues, particularly during the hot summer months. Eventually, they had to upgrade their power system, spending as much money as they would have moving into a traditional studio.

In marketing the game, the publisher wanted the box art to have tons of animals squeeze into the city street, but Kataoka went with a single pomeranian in an abandoned Tokyo. He felt it better represented the game. The decision worked. Outlets outside and inside of Japan, including Kotaku and IGN, named it one of the best boxes of 2012.

To conclude the lecture, Kataoka expanded his philosophy to Japanese development as a whole. He recalled last year's E3 and how the audience's positive reaction to violence was difficult to relate to. "There's a difference between what the Western and Japanese audience feel is fun," he said. "I personally feel it's not necessary for Japanese companies to think about marketing to the West when making games."

"Creating what you want," Kataoka said, "will eventually introduce new ideas and values to the west."

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