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Capcom devs describe the 'long-distance romance' with Ninja Theory that led to DmC

The video-game industry is littered with stories of game developers in the U.S. and Europe trying to work with publishers in Japan and finding it a painful experience. While the collaboration between Capcom and England-based Ninja Theory wound up producing the fairly well-reviewed DmC: Devil May Cry, it was far from smooth sailing from start to finish for the three-year-long project.

"Oh, there were [difficulties]," Capcom producer Motohide Eshiro said in an interview published in this week's Famitsu magazine. "But a lot about it expanded our perspectives and stimulated us in new ways, so it was a really great experience."

One problem well familiar to anyone in international business is that things which have a nice, simple word in one language turns into a drawn-out explanation in another that still manages to lose the meaning. Case in point is merihari, a Japanese term with roots in kabuki theater that literally translates to "modulation," although that doesn't really explain it.

"For example," said supervising producer Hideaki Itsuno, "let's say you're making a punch motion. If it's going at the same speed from the time you start swinging to the end of the follow-through, it's not going to feel all that forceful. There's a sort of charging-up period at the start, and then a snap or a whoosh as you quickly push forward on it; that's what makes it feel good. But at the start, it was all going at the same speed."

Explaining merihari to Ninja Theory took time, as did Capcom's expectations of DmC's violence level. The initial concepts for the game were even more dark and demonic than the final product - something Eshiro blanched at, because if the Japanese CERO ratings board awarded DmC a Z (an "18+ only" rating usually applied to games with dismemberment or other extreme violence), the game would have difficulty finding distribution in many Japanese shops.

"The original concept art had some pretty grotesque depictions," Eshiro recalled. "As the producer, I figured there was no way we could have this get a Z rating, so I had them make things a level or two milder. But it was like, I'd turn my eyes away for a bit, and then there'd be heads flying off bodies, guts all over the place. I don't know how many times I said 'No, this'll make them give it a Z!'"

The Capcom project leads also recalled Ninja Theory's initial penchant for concentrating on cool visuals first, then building the world image from there, regardless of whether the gameplay matched well with it or not. "I remember, during the first stages of development, one of the illustrations we got for a regular enemy had this huge blade on his right elbow," Itsuno said. "It was actually on pretty much all the enemies! Apparently the designer really liked putting blades on people's elbows."

"So we asked how the guy was gonna attack with this blade," Eshiro continued, "and the reply was 'Oh, he doesn't use it much'. So we said 'No, no, that's not going to work as a game' and had them rethink it a little bit."

Yet another difference of opinion in game design lay in the creation of DmC's bosses. In Itsuno's eyes, the first boss designs were flat and uninteresting, basically just minion-level enemies blown up to huge size. "In samurai dramas," he said, "you have the idea of the bad guy getting slain in this incredibly flashy manner by the good guy. It's part of the role of a boss to make the player feel really good as they defeat it. Meanwhile, overseas the philosophy seems to be more like 'No boss is gonna move around so flashily and ask to get killed like that'. To get them to understand this, we explained everything out on whiteboards. It'd be like 'If the boss moves like this, then this is how the player feels, so let's have the boss go like this.' We'd trade drawings along those lines."

After having said all that, one would expect that Itsuno and Eshiro are glad the ordeal is over. But after working with Ninja Theory for a while, positive progress come along surprisingly quickly. "Once we got past a certain point, Capcom started to ask for a lot less revisions," Itsuno said. "At the start of it, we were going to Ninja Theory at a pace of about once every two months, but we'd get so nervous beforehand because there'd always be some kind of problem with the dev ROMs they were sending to Japan. We'd send guidance for fixes before going to visit them, but we'd be freaking out over whether they actually did it or not. In the end, though, they'd always outdo our expectations with the results."

"It was the classic long-distance romance," Eshiro reflected. "We were always the most nervous just before the meeting, and it'd be such a relief afterwards. Development studios working in this kind of client/subcontractor position have a tendency to be really businesslike with their relations, but we had a really close relationship with Ninja Theory. They're really forward-thinking, so it was worth teaching them everything we could."

The next level of puzzles.

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