Why Itagaki brought his hyper-violent THQ shooter to Wii U as an exclusive

Devil's Third is a bloody shooter. A game obsessed with perfecting the close kill. And now it's a Wii U exclusive.

The shooter's creator, Tomonobu Itagaki, is a man best known for games that titillate with skimpy clothing, or lopped limbs. He's a to-the-point game maker, not shy with his criticism. So it's not surprising that in bringing the game to Nintendo, there were some arguments.

What might be surprising, though, is the idea that this developer — a man who is rarely seen without his dark sunglasses and worn leather jacket; a developer seemingly so different from Nintendo's famed creators — discovered within the Japanese game company not just strong allies, but what he describes as a fundamental design lesson.

"There are also cultural differences between the way that I've worked and the way Nintendo works, which is when it comes down to the basic grammar of games, the method of game creation," Itagaki said through a translator. "And so we certainly fought some, but I think that I saw the value in a lot of the ways that they do things and learned a great amount.

"Now this is close to a trade secret so I can't say too much, but I feel like I learned the most fundamental meaning of what it means to push a button. When you tell someone, 'Push the A button,' there's a wealth of information there. And I feel like all of us who have worked on this project, as a result, have grown a bit."

REBIRTH

It's been four years since Itagaki and Valhalla Game Studios announced this, their first game.

Devil's Third was to be a hyper-violent shooter, packed with deep melee and fighting systems, for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It was to be the by product of a temporary partnership with THQ. It was to be a game that brought a better sense of killing, and more purposeful close combat, to the shooter genre.

But in 2012, THQ started imploding and the publisher returned the rights for the game to its creator.

Now the game is back with the same drive to reinvent the up-close-and-personal kill in shooters, and to bring the game exclusively to Nintendo's Wii U. That the game is coming to the Wii U is in part due to Danny Bilson, the former senior vice president of creative development at the now defunct THQ.

It was to Bilson that Itagaki first went with his game all of those years ago.

"What ended up happening is that we fought for 30 minutes," Itagaki said. "What Danny said to me at that time was, 'We should make something that no one has ever seen before.'"

Bilson's take on that first meeting skips that initial drama.

"I was a big fan of Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive, many of the games he's made for years, a big admirer," Bilson said. "I was always really an admirer of the way his games felt, to hold the controller in my hands. And so, when he came in with his partners, and everyone came into THQ, and what Itagaki said was, 'I want to make a game with ranged weapons and swords and the kind of physical acrobatics that I've done in the past. And I want to combine and tune these three to a seamless mechanic.'

"And I thought with his background and that vision, that's something we should absolutely go for."

Ultimately, THQ approved the pitch and Bilson and Itagaki began to work together. Itagaki provided the feel, the look, the essence of the game. In turn, he asked THQ to help the fledgling studio create a game that would "appeal to Western audiences," Bilson said.

Bilson and his team flew over to Tokyo to meet with Itagaki about the world and story of the game, something incredibly important to Bilson because it "informs the marketing position, the consumer perception; everything about it comes out of the narrative."

Bilson and a couple of writers hammered out a story to present to Itagaki, because that's what he thought the developer wanted.

"So we got to the conference room in Tokyo, jet-lagged as usual, and we started pitching, pitching the story," Bilson said. "And they were very polite, and they smiled and they nodded their heads. And when we got to the end of the story, they said, ‘We have a story.' And I said, ‘Great.' And then they pitched their story, and I said, ‘Your story is better than our story. That's fantastic.'"

So instead of creating a "Western" story for this Japanese game, Bilson's team reacted to Valhalla's ideas and "nudged them this way and that way."

"But I never wanted to lose their vision," Bilson said. "I never wanted to lose the Valhalla vision. If I wanted to go make a game, I would go work at a studio, not at a publisher."

"I need to be able to work with mature partners, and thankfully I was able to find Nintendo as a partner."

That give-and-take went on for years and over time the two teams, Bilson's and Itagaki's, became friends.

And it was that friendship that Itagaki returned to after THQ collapsed and the developer was looking for a way to get Devil's Third published.

"When things ended the way they did at THQ everyone was very upset about it," Itagaki said. "But happily, we found a way to continue on with this project and that's what was more important to me.

"I've been able to continue working with Danny and others who love games and love game development. That's been the most important thing that has continued to sustain this. I've certainly realized that, at the age of 47, I need to be able to work with mature partners, and thankfully I was able to find Nintendo as a partner. They really supported my vision, and when I saw the level of commitment they were bringing to the project, I knew I had to follow through with them."

ENTER NINTENDO

Nintendo's Wii U had a big showing at E3. The show saw the announcement of a slew of big, interesting, original titles for the console, an attempt to ignite flagging sales. But what it didn't see, at least not as part of Nintendo's big video presentation for the show, was an official Devil's Third announcement.

Devil's Third was announced as a Wii U exclusive during an IGN live show, free of official fanfare or even press releases.

The game does stand in stark contrast to the others shown off at E3 by Nintendo, a collection of colorful, mostly kid-friendly games like Splatoon, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse and Yoshi's Woolly World.

Devil's Third is a third-person shooter, melee game that drops players in a world reeling from the Kessler effect. In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler suggested a scenario in which the clutter of satellites and space debris circling the earth would eventually collide, creating a cascading effect which would wipe out all satellites. The resulting debris field would be so dense it would prevent future satellites from being launched and stop even space exploration. In the game, this also sets off an electromagnetic pulse that fries all electronics on Earth. That results in world war and military chaos, and a sort of combat reset to a more primitive state.

"Hence guns and swords, not the high-tech weaponry we see in some of the other awesome games on the floor," Bilson said. "It's more of a primitive, brutal combat, which fits into [Itagaki's] talents with the control and the animation and the collision and all the great things he's a master of."

The main hero is a former Soviet Union combatant who was a member of a group called the SOD, the Students Of Democracy.

"The enemies in this game are actually the hero's former allies who have all gone very rogue, and our hero is actually imprisoned in Guantanamo at the beginning of the game, and he's taken out of there to essentially hunt down his former allies," Bilson said. "And his former allies are not exactly normal characters. Each one is its own unique, incredible character because there's a chemical thing they've been ingesting that's been mutating them in different ways. So they all have different strengths, different powers and different physical characteristics."

Devil's Third takes place in settings around the world and in a North America that has been divided into 13 regions, broken up along historical and geopolitical lines. The game, keeping with Itagaki's style, is a fast-moving, brutal and gory shooter, replete with blood and dismemberment.

Itagaki said he isn't concerned about bringing his game to a console not known for its violent content.

"Personally, I feel like the future is going to be made by the gamers themselves," he said, adding that, ultimately no one knows exactly what the future holds for any particular console.

"I think a lot of people might have been surprised that such a violent game was going to be released on a Nintendo platform," he said. "But I think that you can say, from a certain perspective, things are getting interesting for Nintendo as well, making these kinds of choices."

He also noted the strong support Nintendo gave his team and the game.

Devil's Third, despite its jump from Sony and Microsoft consoles to Nintendo's Wii U, remains mostly unchanged. Itagaki said that 90 percent of the game's concept hasn't been altered. But that remaining 10 percent, he said, was shaped by Nintendo. Specifically, he said, Nintendo's Hitoshi Yamagami and Yusuke Nakano loved his project like their own and both helped and taught him.

"That other 10 percent I think really has been flavored by this cooperation with Nintendo," he said. "Now, as I'm sure you're aware, Japan is a small country in terms of landmass, but it still has an amazing concentration of lots of different cultures within it, and I think that Nintendo culture is one of those, and I had this opportunity to learn about Nintendo culture through the years working with them."

EPIC TRILOGY

Devil's Third, Bilson said, is "absolutely a slice of a bigger world that Valhalla created."

Bilson sees a lot of potential in the game's characters.

"One of the things I always loved about the game was these wild, unique characters," he said. "And I think wild is probably the word I find most appropriate to everything about Devil's Third because it's beyond heightened reality, it's almost insane reality. it's what one of my old bosses used to call ‘heavy on the fun factor' in all aspects of the game.

And Devil's Third is driven by the sort of story designed to break free of its initial game, and perhaps video games all together, he added.

Bilson, a former THQ executive, made a name for himself in the film business writing the scripts for cult hits like Trancers, The Rocketeer and Zone Troopers. I asked him if he thinks Devil's Third could make the leap from games to something else, like film.

"Yes," he said. "We've discussed other narrative tracks for this ... that's very important to Itagaki-san and myself, that people really engage in this world, and it is a wild one.

"It's not quite like any tone we've seen. If fans like it, we have more ideas that the fans can engage with in Devil's Third, including an epic trilogy that he's planned."

Bilson said when they were working on the game's ending, anything that could have made it hard to continue the story was a "no-no."

Itagaki said he likes developing things as trilogies.

" I enjoy the freedom of having that arc to work with," he said. "So, that's simply the pattern that I enjoy most. I like being able to develop things that way."

And that would also fit in nicely with his idea of expanding the franchise, Bilson added.

"He has a lot of ideas, and there are a lot of other plans for the future," he said. "But today, for the last four or five years, it's been all about Devil's Third."

That said, the team has a lot of plans for the world of Devil's Third, he added.

"For instance, exploring other characters and their origins, things like that," he said. "So the game can, in success, it can branch into other media, as [Itagaki] said, manga, some linear narrative stuff, but not of this story, of other elements of characters in this wild world they've created."

NINJA

Devil's Third comes at a time when almost all game developer involved in creating shooters seem to be trying to reinvent themselves or the games they make. Respawn delivered Titanfall and effortless run-and-gun shooting earlier this year. Battlefield's next outing involves cops and robbers. Call of Duty is becoming a future military shooter. Rainbow Six is returning to its roots. Even Nintendo is trying its hand at shooters with the kid-friendly, squid-themed Splatoon.

So how will Itagaki's long-in-development shooter set itself apart?

"Well, for one, I would certainly never force people to run straight up to an opponent's face and shoot them from that distance," Itagaki said, standing from his seat and stepping over to the translator. "I think that's nonsense."

Itagaki grabbed the translator loosely by the collar and continued, pushing him back a bit in his chair.

"Once you're that close, you should be throwing someone up against the wall," he said through the pinned translator, "pinning them by their throat, grabbing their sword and gutting them with it."

Itagaki sat back down, relaxed in his seat next to Bilson and continued.

"Also, lots of shooters, I feel, are basically games where you have to do a lot of memorization because the map is static," he said. "But in this game, in the multiplayer mode, everyone can customize their own fortress, and these are the maps you play on, which are dynamic. So in this game, with that dynamic map, recon becomes very important. You need to figure out what the layout of your enemy fortress is, figure out what the chokepoints are and the areas you can use as kill zones."

Swordplay is clearly a distinguishing element of the game, one that Itagaki is quite familiar with.

Sword

"I think what you'll find is you can do the same kind of hack and slash with a sword that you might find in Ninja Gaiden games, but there are certainly times when you're at just the right distance that you can't use a sword but you don't feel like bringing the gun up," he said. "In that case, you can throw the sword to kill an enemy.

"Among the controller configurations that are available in the game, you would have a standard one that's very similar to other shooters, but there's one controller configuration that we named ninja."

Ninja, he said, is going to make the game "very easy to play for fans of the Ninja Gaiden series."

Bilson added that the game has a very distinct look and feel that sets it apart from anything in the genre.

"That's always really important to me, that we stand out and we're our own game," he said. "I think when you play this game you'll find that it's absolutely its own game. It's not Ninja Gaiden, it's not Call of Duty. It's not anything like you've played before, and I think that the goal is always to deliver a new experience.

And Bilson says the game is packed with, powered by, new experiences.

"The multiplayer is really fully featured with the kinds of combat that I haven't played in multiplayer before," he said. "I've never really scurried up a building, saw my friend running down before I jumped down with a sword and lopped his head off. It's all of this grand, over-the-top, cinematic violence that becomes, in action, hilarious."

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