When we launched Polygon's cover stories last year, I wrote that one of our goals was to do something different each month. One month could be a behind-the-scenes story on a AAA game, like we did with Call of Duty. Another could be a feature about the fall of a company, like we did with THQ. And this month, we're trying something else — instead of posting one feature, we put together an online magazine about Japan's game industry.
In some ways, this is a nod to the Japan theme issues that magazines like Edge, GamesTM and Hyper have done over the years. We did one at Electronic Gaming Monthly while I worked there and it was one of my favorite issues of that era.
But more than that, it seemed like the right time to put a spotlight on Japan. For many years now, people in the West have criticized Japan's game industry, saying that it's become less creative, less technically capable, too focused on mobile and portable games. And then, at last year's Tokyo Game Show, for the first time in many years there seemed to be an upswing in positive attention, led by games like Final Fantasy 15, Metal Gear Solid 5 and Bloodborne.
That's not to say it's back to being the center of the industry that it once was. Hardware and software sales are still down, and many developers are struggling in various ways. But it's showing signs of life.
So we decided to highlight some of the most interesting games, people and companies in Japan, to discuss what they're working on and look at how that work ties into Japan's game industry as a whole. Inevitably, we couldn't get to everyone doing interesting things, so this isn't meant to be a comprehensive look at what's going on over there. Instead, think of it as a sampling.
And it starts on the cover. Rather than sum things up ourselves, we asked a handful of artists currently working in Japan's game industry to give their take on the industry.
The first image comes from Takeshi Oga, who was the lead concept artist on Gravity Rush (you might know him from the game's box art) and has contributed to the Siren series and Final Fantasy 11. He describes his piece, showing two schoolgirls playing in the foreground and the fallout from Fukushima's nuclear disaster in the distance, as a way to show young people as the industry's future with the baggage from the past lingering behind.
The second image comes from Muhan Ogikubo, a pen name for an artist who has worked on some of Japan's biggest game franchises but requested we not use his real name. He decided to play up the idea that Japan has some of the most famous developers in the world but those developers keep making the same types of games, so he drew them as if they were on a Star Wars poster.
The third image comes from Ogata Yuichi, an artist at Mixi working on mobile smash hit Monster Strike. He decided to show how social games are moving away from their antisocial tendencies with players teaming up to play games in public — which just so happens to be one of the key features of Monster Strike.
The fourth cover comes from Kazutoshi Iida, who has directed some of Japan's most creative titles over the past 20 years: Tail of the Sun, Aquanaut's Holiday, Doshin the Giant and now KakeXun, a project seeing through the final game design document created by the late Kenji Eno. Iida's piece shows two hands in handcuffs, because he says, "The current industry is in a negative spiral, and we cannot say that it is healthy." He says the situation reminds him of how Japan's film industry struggled when TV became popular and that he thinks the indie game movement will play an important role in bringing the game industry back.
Iida's cover is a collage of art he originally created for a live show. In 2009, he released a game called Discipline for WiiWare in Japan, in which the player talks with criminals in prison. But since the game is no longer available on WiiWare, in 2014 Iida decided to produce a new episode of Discipline as a live show he's performed in front of a crowd in Japan. He then used the art from that show as a starting point for his cover art collage. [Editor's note: This paragraph originally featured poor wording, saying that all WiiWare games had been taken offline. We regret the error.]
And the final cover comes from industry newcomer Vin Hill, who recently made news with his hypothetical take on what an Assassin's Creed game set in Japan could look like. He chose to show the popularity of mobile and portable games in Japan relative to console games, as seen through a day in the life on a train.
Beyond the art, we've also set up a jukebox on the bottom of this window featuring songs from game music label Brave Wave. The first track comes from Keiji Yamagishi, composer of the NES version of Ninja Gaiden. He's been working on a new album of his own and is debuting the first track from that album, "First Contact," here for the first time. You can sample other songs from the album on Brave Wave's preorder page.
The other three tracks in the jukebox come from Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae, Panzer Dragoon Saga composer Saori Kobayashi and Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka.
Welcome to the issue. Hope you enjoy it.
"It used to be that, as a developer in Japan, you could come up with a great concept for a game, go to a publisher, request an investment and set up a contract," says Nude Maker CEO Hifumi Kono. "But currently, except for certain companies making social and mobile games, that situation basically doesn't exist."
It's a story you've heard before, though somewhat less often in Japan: The former retail game developer who wants to make ambitious, original games but can't because the market no longer supports it, so they turn to Kickstarter with a spiritual successor to a classic game.
What makes this one different is the developer and game involved. Kono isn't a household name, but he's been making cult classics in Japan for 20 years. In the '90s, he created Clock Tower, a horror game without any combat for Super Nintendo. Later came Steel Battalion, an impossibly expensive Xbox mech game that shipped with a 40-button controller. And later, Infinite Space, a DS role-playing collaboration with Platinum Games.
Like many in Japan, Kono has spent time in recent years making casual mobile games. And he felt a desire to get back into the types of games he made when he was younger, so he rounded up some money and put his team to work.
He announced the game in September as Project Scissors, a mobile and Vita spiritual successor to Clock Tower. It's a murder mystery set on a cruise ship, and like Clock Tower, it focuses on running away and solving puzzles rather than shooting or fighting enemies. And now he's ready to unveil it under its official title, NightCry, with a Kickstarter campaign coming soon for a potential PC version as well. [Update: See the Kickstarter campaign here.]
"Once we announced [Project Scissors], the fans' reaction was basically, 'Yeah, we've been waiting for this. Great. But is this only for Vita or only for mobile?' There were a lot of disappointed voices," Kono says.
Unlike many Kickstarter campaigns, Kono isn't presenting his as an all-or-none situation. He's planning to make the mobile and Vita versions either way, using his own money and loans from friends. And he's going the crowdfunding route for the PC version because the loans won't carry him that far. As he tells it, though, the PC version is the game he wants to make most.
"Early on, I was concerned about playing a horror game on a smaller screen," says Kono. "Maybe a tablet would be different, but still it's not a big screen. So yeah, I always wanted to bring it to the bigger screen. But at the same time, I had to think about the budget. That was one of the main factors; I had to limit it in order to keep it independent."
At Nude Maker's office in Tokyo's Suginami neighborhood, Kono sets up the game to show Polygon what he's talking about. It's a work-in-progress version of the game running on PC, but with the planned mobile interface. It stars a yet-to-be-named female character in a revealing cocktail dress confidently walking around the cruise ship's interior, talking to workers and exploring the hallways.
This marks a key difference between NightCry and Clock Tower, Kono says. While NightCry will feature multiple playable characters, Kono points to the difference between this woman and the main character in Clock Tower, Jennifer Simpson, noting that Simpson played a weak, passive role while the character in the demo is much louder and more confident.
"When I made Clock Tower, I was in my 20s, so I kind of always reflected what I thought was society's idealized version of a woman — to be docile, ladylike and all that stuff," Kono says. "And that might have been the my ideal type at that age too. But then, as I got older, I realized, actually no — women are pretty tough. And that's the kind of woman that I like now, as a man in my 40s."
As the demo continues, the female character talks to employees on the ship, explores the hallway and eventually stumbles upon the Scissor Walker — NightCry's version of Clock Tower's Scissorman — who continuously pursues the player with a giant pair of scissors.
On the surface, the Scissor Walker looks a lot like Scissorman, but Kono explains that the Scissor Walker's origin story includes a mother and child who were burned together, so when the Scissor Walker chases the player, they can hear a baby crying. Which is where the title NightCry comes from.
The demo ends with the Scissor Walker chasing the player as the player alternates between walking and running to save stamina and taps a button to switch between forward and reverse camera angles. The final version of the game will give players more to do than run, talk and look behind them, but Kono kept this version simple for demonstration purposes. He says the player will have a cell phone, for instance, which he jokes you can use as a flashlight, because every horror game needs a flashlight.
The biggest internal debate Kono had, he says, was how to handle the game's interface. At the start of development, he says he was nervous about choosing a point-and-click interface similar to the one in Clock Tower. With the game's lack of combat and focus on movement, and the touch screen controls on phones and Vita, he thought it seemed like a good fit. He just wasn't sure the audience would feel the same way.
"I was worried that time has changed and people would think it seems outdated," says Kono.
But, he says, a meeting with Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami convinced him he was on the right track. The pair have known each other since the early 2000s, when Mikami invited Kono to pitch a game to Capcom. Kono presented ideas for straightforward horror and action games, and Mikami nearly kicked him out of the room before Kono pulled a last-ditch idea out of his back pocket.
That idea went on to become Steel Battalion.
Since then, Mikami has served as a sounding board for Kono, whether or not the two were officially working together. And over drinks in early November, Kono mentioned his nervousness over choosing the point-and-click interface, looking for feedback.
"I said, 'I feel like this interface is complete.' And Mr. Mikami just said, 'Yeah, it is complete,' and kind of confirmed it with one simple sentence and wouldn't say any more. And in a way, it actually got rid of all the nervousness that I had about the interface and made me much more confident about making this type of game."
Now Kono's nervousness falls to his crowdfunding campaign. He isn't sure what to expect. He doesn't know how many players today remember Clock Tower, or want a new one. But whether through a crowdfunded PC release or the planned mobile and Vita versions, he plans to find out.
"Up until now, the style of the Japanese publishers I've worked with is, for better or worse, 'good-ol'-days game development,'" says Scalebound Director Hideki Kamiya. "To be blunt, their vibe is 'as long as it works out in the end.' Microsoft is the first overseas publisher I've worked with, but is seems like the overseas style is, for better or worse, 'next-generation game development.' It is focused not just on the final result, but also on the process you take to get there. For someone as irresponsible as I am, it's hard to get my head around sometimes."
As one of Japan's most critically acclaimed game developers, Kamiya spent the first 19 years of his career working for Japanese game publishers — first internally at Capcom, then at Platinum Games working with Sega and Nintendo. But in recent years, the market for independent developers in Japan has changed.
In interviews for Polygon's Japan cover story this month, numerous developers have said that Japanese publishers rarely invest in big budget independent original console games anymore. Those publishers choose to either place their bets on internal products, or shift those bets to other categories like mobile. So many developers that used to make those kinds of games have had to pursue crowdfunding, sign licensed product deals or work-for-hire contracts, work on mobile games or even go out of business.
And while we don't know what options Platinum had on the table for Kamiya's latest project, we do know the one it chose.
In early 2013, Platinum President Tatsuya Minami told Polygon that the most challenging part of his job was finding new work for the studio, and that he felt the company needed to broaden its approach to appeal to players worldwide. Shortly before that interview, we now know, Platinum pitched Microsoft Studios Kamiya's concept for a fantasy action game featuring dragons.
And now the two companies are working together to develop it under the name Scalebound. How it plays is still a bit of a mystery, but the team describes it as a new type of action game.
"Ever since I was a child I've loved Godzilla and Ultraman and fantasy monsters too."
"Often times, 'original IP' is really just an original IP over an old concept or game design," says Creative Producer Jean Pierre Kellams. "While we've gotten good at making original concepts, to have the chance to tackle an original concept at this scale — pun intended — is pretty unprecedented for us."
Kamiya says the roots of the idea have been with him for a long time.
"Ever since I was a child I've loved Godzilla and Ultraman and fantasy monsters too," he says. "I also love dinosaurs — while working at Capcom, when I heard that my colleague Shu Takumi was going to direct Dino Crisis, I was so jealous I couldn't stand it. I wanted to switch with him even though I was working on Resident Evil 2 at the time.
"That feeling has been reflected little by little in the games that I've made. To give some examples, in Devil May Cry there's a moving dinosaur skeleton, and I also used dinosaur movements as a reference for the Griffon. Dragons also serve as the motif for [boss character] Fortitudo in Bayonetta. And anyone who's played The Wonderful 101 should know immediately that there's dragon-like enemies in there, too."
Over the years, Kamiya has built a reputation for pulling ideas from the games and toys of his youth — he regularly posts photos of retro games on his Twitter account and references classic titles in his games. And when thinking about fantasy influences that led to Scalebound, he says the computer role-playing game Sorcerian was a big one growing up.
"It's a standard fantasy title with swords, magic and gigantic monsters," he explains. "You can choose from 15 different scenarios in all, and if you buy the separately sold scenario set, you can play even more new adventures. This game was really full of expansive possibilities.
"[Also] a hydra boss appears in the first scenario, so that might be why a hydra appeared in the Scalebound promotion video ... [laughs]."
Kamiya was also inspired by the computer game Hydlide 3. "It's the first software I bought after buying my computer," he says. "Up until then I had only been playing on the NES, and the beautiful graphics and big sound of a high-end computer — PC-8801 MA — stole my heart in an instant."
What these inspirations will lead to is currently under wraps, apart from speculation based on the game's announcement trailer. That trailer shows a human character running away from a large dragon — and then seemingly teaming up with another — in the middle of a giant battle. The human character at one point also puts on a pair of headphones, grows what looks like a shield made out of dragon scales and ends up riding on the back of one of the dragons.
Asked about the game's title, Kamiya says explaining it would reveal more than he's willing to say about the story at this point, but that it refers to the story that a dragon and a young man will create together.
However the game turns out, the international collaboration is a new way way of working for Kamiya and his team, and he says it's a challenge he's enjoying.
"Dragons are very special to me, and I've always wished that I could make a game that focuses on them," he says. "Scalebound is the title in which I can finally realize my dream."
"I think it would be crazy to say that we would have this much press for Vane if it wasn't for [people knowing we worked on The Last Guardian]," says Rasmus Deguchi, art director at developer Friend & Foe. "But at the same time, I know that it's a completely different project with completely different people. The only thing people here worked on was The Last Guardian. We had nothing to do with Ico. We had nothing to do with Shadow of the Colossus. ... I think before too long this game will be standing on its own two legs."
Deguchi is sitting in an apartment converted into an office in Tokyo's Ikejiri neighborhood. It's in a quiet part of town, bordering a large park, across the street from a hole-in-the-wall apple pie restaurant. Inside the office, Deguchi and four others are making the adventure game Vane.
Ask them what it's about, and they'll say it's a "very minimalist open world game" focused on exploration. Look it up online, and it's better known as the indie game being created by people who used to work on Sony's long-delayed adventure game The Last Guardian.
It's an easy narrative — Deguchi and co-worker Rui Guerrero used to work on the game. Vane is also a third-person adventure game with a weak-looking main character, and screenshots have shown a muted color palette — all traits of Last Guardian developer Team Ico. Squint and you could mistake one for the other.
"It's completely understandable," says Vane Director Ivar Dahlberg. "That's the only thing people have to go on, right? And if you look at it visually, right now, what people have seen, it's easy to understand the parallels."
Asked what it felt like being inside Team Ico when he heard rumors swirling publicly about The Last Guardian, Deguchi says, "It feels a little bit like it feels now when we read comments on our own stuff and people are really clueless. But of course you can't say anything about it, so I don't know. I didn't think much about that then. Of course, now it affects us in a totally different way. When you're working for someone else, it's like you don't really care about [the gossip]. ... Now I do."
Sony's silence on The Last Guardian has made anything in its orbit newsworthy, which is a double-edged sword for Friend & Foe. In one respect, it gets the team attention, both from players and the industry. Deguchi says he's been overwhelmed with the business opportunities that have arisen since announcing the game last year. But the comparisons also present a hurdle to overcome, as Friend & Foe now needs to convince the world that the game can stand on its own. The team doesn't want to be compared to Team Ico's work forever.
And Deguchi and Dahlberg think they'll be able to turn that corner soon. Their first step in that direction, in fact, comes with the screenshots they provided for this story, which show more variety than the images they've released previously.
To further help its cause, Friend & Foe is eager to show a bit more of how the game actually works. That's where things get a bit complicated, though, because the team doesn't want to give away many specifics. The game is about showing up in a mysterious place without knowing what's happening and then learning what's happening as you play. And even then, much of it will be left up to interpretation. Vane is deliberately vague. The main character doesn't have a name or even a gender. The story appears through visuals rather than dialog. Deguchi says there probably won't even be any words in the game.
"There's a title screen when you start," jokes programmer Matt Smith.
Friend & Foe founder Thomas Lilja says this vague approach has been a theme of the game's development. The original idea for the game, in fact, came when Guerrero put together a short demo — Lilja calls it an "interactive sketch" — that the rest of the team didn't initially understand.
"It was a tower, and there was an ice cream truck and a guy with an umbrella and balloons, and this bird landed on a weather vane and time stopped," says Lilja. "And we were like, 'OK this is all cool and stuff, but what do you do with it?' And Rasmus said, 'Well, what if you turn into a boy and you can transform from a [bird to a boy to explore].'"
"From that point, it's like, 'OK that was a nice artsy thing,' which [Guerrero] is fantastic at making, but then we took it from that and everybody just collaboratively fleshed it out and turned it into the thing it is today," says Deguchi.
Next, the team spent a month or two putting together a short prototype, defining the game's look and formalizing the ideas they had in their heads. During Polygon's visit to the office, Deguchi hands over the controller for us to play through it.
It starts with a young-looking character running around a desert that has a sandstorm off in the distance. For the most part, the game doesn't use textures, going for a broad-strokes look that players can see clearly from a distance. "It forces us to be better artists," says Dahlberg, and helps speed up the production process — which Deguchi says will be important for a team loosely tied to The Last Guardian's reputation.
The main character can run and jump but, initially, doesn't seem to be able to do much else. After playing for a few minutes, you realize the character can also transform into a bird by falling off a tall building or a cliff, at which point the controls change and the character can fly. It feels a bit like the swinging movement in a Spider-Man game, swooping down to gain speed then moving higher to look around. Find a target, and you can either slam into it or land on the ground nearby to stop. (Friend & Foe says, in the finished game, players won't have to fall off a cliff to start flying.)
The team designed the prototype as an art proof of concept, so there's not a lot to do in it. You move from tower to tower, climbing to the top of each and stepping on a platform to trigger a wind vane up top to move, which eventually leads you to a room where you catch a glimpse of a magical-looking bell as the screen fades to black.
In the finished game, Dahlberg says the player will be able to do a lot more. There will be an interact button and other characters to work with. There's no combat in the game, but there will be dangerous situations and puzzles to solve. As an example of how a puzzle might play out, Dahlberg shows one piece of concept art in which the main character guides a flock of birds toward a specific object. And Deguchi hints that the main character may be able to transform into more than just a bird.
The most the team will say about the game's story is that it's told through the gameplay, and that greed and vanity will be big themes. "If you just say [the title Vane], it has a lot of duality to the word and all the puns that ... come with it," says Dahlberg. "If you spell it differently, it might still fit to the game story."
During Polygon's visit, the team is wrapping up the game's preproduction phase while trying to sort out the business side of things. Deguchi warns that the game is very early in development and that the team showed it online earlier than most teams would, so it won't be coming out soon, despite aiming for a short production cycle.
And from there, he and the rest of Friend & Foe have been giving a lot of thought to their overall company goals as well. In addition to the five in Tokyo, Friend & Foe employs another member in Sweden and works with a large network of outsourcing partners from the team's previous incarnation as an art outsourcing studio under the name Shapefarm. The Tokyo side of Friend & Foe is making Vane, while the Sweden side is making a cartoony side-scrolling beat 'em up called Dangerous Men. The two games couldn't look more different, and Deguchi says one of the team's main goals is to make games that are very different from one another.
"It's too early to say, but I don't think we want to make Vane 2," says Lilia.
"Yeah, we're never ever going to do that," adds Deguchi.
For now, the team is focusing on the game and figuring out the business that will help them finish it. Deguchi says one of the team's main priorities is keeping the development schedule short, in part a reaction to his time at Team Ico. "We're also tired of working on big games that take too long to make," he says.
Asked how long, the team dodges the question.
Asked if he considers two years "fast," Deguchi says, "That's not fast enough, but it'll do."
"Now that we're at the 20th anniversary of Tekken and I've been at the company roughly that number of years — and also, I don't think I've said this publicly before, but I recently had a child — that's kind of changed my perspective on things," says Tekken Series Director Katsuhiro Harada. "I realize that there's not as much time left as you think when you're young, so I'm starting to think that I only have maybe another 20 years working here. And in that time, how many more games do I have left in me to make?"
To many, Harada is the face of the Tekken fighting game series — the one who travels to tournaments, tweets announcements, wears dark glasses, flies through a glass window, competes in a hot dog eating contest, squats over a bed of nails and dresses in lederhosen. Part game developer, part hype man.
In 2015, though, Harada's job extends well beyond Tekken. As a general manager at Bandai Namco, he's currently juggling director, producer and executive producer roles on approximately seven games, ranging from a Pokemon fighting game to a long-delayed crossover and a controversial virtual reality experiment. He also just saw two Smash Bros. games out the door and he's been working up ideas for a new batch of products.
It's a lot of balls to keep in the air. But perhaps that's fitting for someone conscious of the amount of time he has left.
Sitting down with Polygon, Harada runs through his current project lineup.
First on the list is Tekken 7, the latest in the series that made him famous. He says he's been spending "less and less" time on Tekken recently, because the team working on the series has enough experience to handle it on its own. But he says the team is aiming to make the game more accessible to newcomers compared to previous Tekken titles, and they are tying up a lot of character story threads to bring some closure for the series' 20th anniversary.
Next is Pokken Tournament, an arcade fighting game using characters from the Pokemon universe. He says the idea came about when Bandai Namco went to meet with Pokemon Company president Tsunekazu Ishihara about licensing music for the Taiko Drum Master music game franchise, and Ishihara surprised them with an idea for a game similar to Tekken. Because Pokken is the first game in a potential new franchise, and because the team has less experience than the Tekken team, Harada says he's spending a lot of time on it at the moment.
Third on his list is Summer Lesson, a virtual reality demo about communicating with a schoolgirl that Harada says ties in with one of his biggest plans for the future.
And fourth is Time Crisis 5, the latest light gun game in the long-running arcade series.
Beyond those four, Harada says he's also working on "a few games that aren't announced." [Note: Following this interview, Harada revealed one of those as Project Treasure, a Wii U four-player co-op action game.]
Which leaves one elephant in the room.
In 2010, Bandai Namco and Capcom announced a pair of crossover fighting games. Capcom's half of that agreement, Street Fighter X Tekken, shipped in 2012. But Bandai Namco's half, Tekken X Street Fighter, went quiet shortly after the announcement. At this point, due to the silence, news stories tend to pop up whenever Harada mentions the game hasn't been cancelled.
"It's very difficult to talk about," he says. "Obviously, I had originally planned to release it much earlier than we're currently looking at."
He says Bandai Namco delayed the game because other fighting games had saturated the market, not because of development trouble, and that it specifically wanted to put some breathing room between the game and Street Fighter X Tekken to avoid player confusion. He says the game is still in development with around 40 people currently working on it (though some of those split their time with Tekken 7), but he also says that "Tekken 7 will be our big thing for the next while."
Asked if Tekken X Street Fighter will be available in the next two years, Harada says he can't commit to that time frame, but he wants to resurface it in a way that will surprise people. "People have been talking about the game for such a long time that they aren't going to be surprised if you just release it normally," he says. He jokes about announcing it by saying, "Hey, you can play it tomorrow," which Bandai Namco did with the free-to-play game Tekken Revolution and Harada says worked well in that case.
"I don't know if that's what we have planned, but we do plan to have some kind of surprise," he says.
While describing his workload, the project that seems to excite Harada the most is also the one that's come under the most controversy: virtual reality experiment, Summer Lesson.
Bandai Namco pitches it as a game about communication, but when the project surfaced last year, some in the West thought it seemed inappropriate. The announcement trailer shows the player as a tutor talking to a school girl wearing a short skirt in her bedroom, with camera angles leering at her various body parts and a scene where she covers her body with her hands then bends down to pick up a pencil.
"She is a fantasy for some, and it's for all the wrong reasons," wrote Ron Duwell on the site TechnoBuffalo. "... Virtual reality might be different, but in actual reality, she doesn't just giggle this off and let you continue teaching her in a secluded bedroom. She screams, runs to get her parents and they file all the proper charges against you."
Shortly after announcing the project, Sony and Bandai Namco announced they were pulling it from a planned appearance at the Tokyo Game Show, but Harada says this was a logistical decision rather than a reaction to the criticism. The companies ended up holding a separate event and showing it a couple months months later.
Reacting to the criticism, Harada says, "It wasn't a surprise at all. I've gone to the States quite a bit, so I kind of know what to expect."
In fact, he says he intended for the video to spark controversy. "If you saw the video, a lot of the camera angles weren't presented as the game actually plays. They were a little bit more tailored just for that video, to evoke people's imaginations. So I kind of planned that there would be a response like that from the West because I wanted that attention from the media."
"[The controversy] wasn't a surprise at all ... I wanted that attention from the media."
"It's quite interesting that you mention this, because I feel recently many Japanese people are actually more surprised by Western games," he says. "For example, one game I like a lot, Payday 2, has four people trying to plan a bank robbery, which, to your average Japanese citizen, is crazy to have this kind of crime simulator. Or even just your average war game where your goal is to shoot your enemy in the head to defeat them as quickly as possible. It's something your average Japanese citizen is shocked by."
Taking a step back, Harada explains that he came up for the idea of Summer Lesson with two primary goals in mind. The first was to create something to help Sony show its Project Morpheus virtual reality headset to other studios in Japan. Before Sony had announced Project Morpheus publicly, Harada says, it tried to get developers interested by providing software development kits, but the hardware wasn't getting the same kind of traction in Japan as it was overseas. So Harada approached Sony and offered to make a demo to interest other studios.
Harada's second goal was to use that demo to get attention from both game industry and mainstream media. He explains that, at a big company like Bandai Namco, it's not always easy to convince board members to approve a budget for a new idea like a virtual reality game, but it becomes easier if you can show similar ideas getting attention in the media. And Harada figured that a realistic game starring a schoolgirl would have a better chance.
"When I was brainstorming with what to do with the head-mounted display, obviously ideas came up like Ace Combat where you're flying through the sky, or some kind of science fiction idea where you're in space," he says. "But Oculus had announced its virtual reality plans much earlier, and they had some similar demos and none of them really created any good will in the media. So I thought that, to create the kind of buzz we wanted, the best way to go about it was to create something that's more of a day-to-day experience. And when you think about that interaction with another person — it could be a man or a woman, but if they're the opposite sex, then a lot of people feel this kind of tension if you're close enough.
"Not everyone can imagine what it would be like to be at war, to be in space. But they have all, most likely at one point in their life, experienced something similar to that — being that close physically to a person of the opposite sex."
Harada reiterates that the actual game behind Summer Lesson is more tame than the announcement trailer suggests.
"When you have a chance to play it, it's not a peeping Tom kind of game like a lot of Westerners expect," he says. "It's more just a simulator of human communication. The goal isn't to look up the girl's skirt. It's about the reality of communicating with another human being. And that includes the atmosphere. So it doesn't have to be a girl. It could be someone who's interviewing you for a job. There was even a specialist who said that could be used as training for interpersonal communication. It could even be a scene where you're captured by terrorists and they're interrogating you — anything where you have two people communicating up-close."
As an example, Harada says the demo originally starred the character Kazuya from the Tekken series, because the team could re-use existing art assets. But Harada says it didn't give the demo the right atmosphere because a tough male character doesn't offer the level of facial expression or emotion the team wanted.
Ultimately, Harada says that his plan to get attention from the media worked, and he was able to use that attention to get approval to start on another virtual reality project — "the game I had originally wanted to create." He says he's also currently in talks with Sony as to whether they will offer Summer Lesson for players to download or whether it might become something more than a tech demo.
While Summer Lesson may seem like a simple idea, for Harada, it's also a stepping stone to bigger goals. By making Summer Lesson, he got the green light to start another virtual reality project. And he's not sure where that next project might lead.
But he has ideas.
Returning to his thoughts on how many games he can make in the next 20 years, Harada says he currently has three games on his bucket list to make before he retires. The first two, he explains, are "big ideas" for virtual reality games. He keeps the specifics to himself, as these are ideas on paper at the moment and he hopes to make them as the market grows and can support bigger budgets.
"I'd want to have a disclaimer ... 'Not for casual users. Only for hardcore gamers.'"
The third, though, he's happy to detail. He wants to develop a fighting game containing characters from every fighting game franchise that was popular in the 80s and 90s — "or maybe even toward the 2000s," he says. This wouldn't be a party game like Smash Bros., but a traditional fighting game with characters from Capcom, Sega, Koei Tecmo, SNK, Warner Bros, Data East, etc.
"And I'd want to have a disclaimer," he says. "You know how for horror games, it says, 'Not for children'? I'd want to have, 'Not for casual users. Only for hardcore gamers.'"
He says that given the current state of Japan's game industry, probably only Capcom or Bandai Namco could pull that game off, but he'd love to see it happen before he retires.
Now if only he can finish everything else on his plate first.
"It really was an uphill battle," says Capcom Corporate Officer Yoshinori Ono. "It took a lot of patience, a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations and a lot of logical persuasion to get traction."
In late 2004, Ono felt it was time to revive Street Fighter. It had been five years since the last proper game in the series, and Ono had joined the company because he was a fan. He'd worked on music for a couple of earlier Street Fighter games and produced a spinoff fighting game for Capcom, but he wanted a bigger piece of the pie.
Many at Capcom felt they'd whipped that horse to death, but Ono didn't believe it. And beyond that, he didn't care. He knew he wanted to make a new Street Fighter.
So he chipped away at the idea, gathering whatever data he could find and strategizing with then-Capcom Corporate Officer Keiji Inafune on the best way to present the idea to the executive team. With Inafune's blessing, Ono put together a pitch presentation under the name, "Street Fighter 20th Anniversary Edition."
"This was very deliberate," Ono says. "At that time, the vast majority of the company wasn't really keen on making a new Street Fighter, so I had to devise a logical reason as to why it was a good idea. If I just went before the higher-ups and said, 'I want to make this,' I would have been bombarded with questions as to why."
Ono says, in his head, he always envisioned the game as a return to Street Fighter 2's roots — going back to the point when the franchise was at its most popular. He says that the most challenging part of development, in fact, was getting the team on board with that idea rather than trying to turn it into something new.
"Creative people are often naturally driven to strike new ground, to create things that are brand new and that no one has seen before," Ono says. "I had to find a way to steer them away from that natural tendency and understandable inclination and more toward the idea of making a game that is, instead, quite familiar and inviting to a wider audience."
By 2006 Ono got approval. By 2007 Capcom announced the game. And by 2008 it was out. (Or 2009 on consoles.) Street Fighter was back, but not as an anniversary edition.
This was Street Fighter 4, and it was a success.
Then came the expansions. In 2010, Super Street Fighter 4. In 2012, Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition. In 2014, Ultra Street Fighter 4. Even today, Ono says he can't deny the possibility of another expansion.
Now, more than 10 years after his first discussions for Street Fighter 4, Ono wants to do it all over again.
A year and a half ago, while spending time as a director at Capcom Vancouver overseeing zombie action game Dead Rising 3, amongst other things, Ono started putting together a plan for Street Fighter 5.
This time, he didn't have to dance around the idea. Thanks to the ongoing popularity of Street Fighter 4 and fighting games in general, Capcom executives had enough evidence from the market.
Ono set out to find the right direction and build a team for the project, which ended up with him once again collaborating with developer Dimps. While some players have complained about how long Capcom stretched out Street Fighter 4 with multiple expansions before getting around to SF5 — running on seven years at this point — Ono says he's thankful that he didn't have to rush into anything.
The game is still early in development, and for marketing reasons Ono can't go into gameplay details, apart from a few teases. He says he's attempting to bring more young players into the series, who may be easily distracted by other forms of entertainment, and he wants to grow the game's tournament scene. He also says he wants to improve the netcode in Capcom's fighting games in general.
"We were able, with Street Fighter X Tekken, to develop new netcode that was a generational leap above what we'd done previously but were unable to work that code into Ultra [Street Fighter 4] since the underlying tech is so different," says Ono. "I'd certainly like to continue breaking new ground in this arena."
At Sony's PlayStation Experience event in December, Capcom revealed that Street Fighter 5 will be exclusive to PlayStation 4 on consoles. It also announced that PC and PS4 players will be able to play against each other online, which should help Ono's goal of bringing the Street Fighter community together.
Now, after nearly 10 years producing Street Fighter and 20 years at Capcom, Ono's job and roles have changed, but he still regularly shows up at tournaments and fan events aimed at the community.
Though at this point in his career, Ono works on more than just Street Fighter. In recent years, he's served as an executive producer across multiple titles ranging from Monster Hunter: Frontier G to Darkstalkers Resurrection to the currently-in-development PlayStation 4 action game, Deep Down.
His role has extended beyond specific titles as well. Over the past nine years, he's worked as a producer, a general manager of online research and development, a director of Capcom's Vancouver studio, an officer of Capcom's U.S. division, the head of one of Capcom Japan's consumer games divisions, a director of Capcom's Taiwan division and now a corporate officer at Capcom Japan.
Despite all that, he says he's putting Street Fighter 5 first. "It is fortunate that I have many titles that I can contribute to in terms of development and promotion, but there is only so much time that I can allocate to those activities," he says. "... I spend more hours in the development studio on [Street Fighter 5 than on my other current games], as it's the next numbered title in the SF series and a big project.
"All in all, I started working for Capcom because I love Street Fighter."
Looking back at personal lessons learned from a decade working on Street Fighter, Ono says he doesn't have any regrets.
"I don't know that I'd do anything different, really," he says. "It really feels like I did everything I possibly could have at the time. If I had to change anything, I think I'd try to spend more time at home during that period, as I went long stretches not going home at all. I wish I could visit my past self and say to him, 'Dude. You don't need to work THAT hard.'
If we lived in a universe where that kind of time travel were possible, I'd also stop by and visit my family in that timeline and apologize for neglecting them. Lucky for me, I have a pretty understanding family."
"You'd be appalled," says Hajime Tabata, director of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD and Final Fantasy 15. "Just as a reference, I sleep maybe three hours each day. It's difficult every day ...
"There is a sense that this is shortening my lifespan. But it's all worth it."
For a man who jokes often about his work sending him to an early grave, Tabata is in good spirits. Charismatic and sharp, he smiles and jests frequently, even when he has good reason to be losing sleep. In the next few months, he'll finish off the first Final Fantasy game for this generation's consoles — Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, a PlayStation 4 and Xbox One remake of a Japanese PSP game arriving for the first time in North America. And his other project, Final Fantasy 15, the long-delayed and next big numbered game in the franchise, is only a little further down the pipe.
Those two titles may come to define the franchise as it enters this new era, but it's still unclear — even to Tabata — exactly what kind of legacy they'll leave.
"With Type-0 HD, we started the project because of our fans, so we want to ensure that we're able to deliver the experience to them properly," Tabata says. "With 15, we're looking even further ahead and really want to make an evolved version of Final Fantasy. Both games are very much worth our time."
When it came to setting the tone for Final Fantasy games on PS4 and Xbox One, Tabata says Square Enix didn't set out with a clear idea of what that future should look like. After all, the Final Fantasy franchise has spanned generations of consoles and explored dozens of different themes and settings.
"In terms of the franchise as a whole, there is no directive or a clear direction that we're moving towards for this generation," Tabata says.
Fear not — Tabata says that the teams have clear ideas of what they hope to achieve individually. Both of his games are more action-heavy than previous entries in the series, yet strategy remains. And Tabata is eager to use the big screen to help players dive deeper into their experiences, a point he reiterates often. It's a puzzling comment unless you've studied his development history, which is filled with handheld titles like the original Japan-only version of Type-0 on PSP, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 and Final Fantasy Agito. Type-0 HD is his first chance to launch a Final Fantasy title for consoles — and then he gets to repeat the act with Final Fantasy 15.
Once dubbed as spin-off title Final Fantasy Versus 13, Final Fantasy 15 is a nearly decade-long project Square Enix rebranded in 2013. Tabata, previously a co-director of Final Fantasy 15 with longtime designer Tetsuya Nomura, is now the sole director on the project. Tabata says that while Nomura's departure may have shocked some fans, lengthy discussions took place internally — both within the company and inside Tabata's head. Tabata considered the fans' reaction, the realities and responsibilities of assuming a full director role and the long hours he'd already come to know with Type-0.
"I knew whatever lifespan I'd already shortened with Type-0 would be even further shortened with 15," Tabata says. "But after a minute or two of thinking it over, I thought, 'That shouldn't be much of a problem.'"
It's not just sleep Tabata is sacrificing, either. As a husband, and as a father to a daughter in kindergarten, he says the time he spends at home never feels like enough. He cranks into the early hours of the morning during the week in order to spend his weekends playing with his daughter or eating with his wife. His own alone time is nearly non-existent, pushed back into the hours he spends in the car on the way to work.
"In the car, I listen to music," Tabata says. "That's all I really do. In essence, that's the only place where I listen to music now."
Yet by taking on these projects — and by tackling Final Fantasy 15 specifically — Tabata feels that the reward will outweigh the work.
"I can finally kind of be on the same battlefield as some of the globally popular AAA titles, the major hits," Tabata says. "That's been one of the best feelings that's come from working on this."
There's something special about watching Final Fantasy fans get excited, too, he says. Tabata says it's worth all the struggle when a game is finally released and feedback comes pouring in. Criticism is only a temporary setback, and it inspires him want to work harder. But the real joy is finding the players who enjoy the team's work.
"Once we receive news of fans enjoying this game, it all kind of is worth it," Tabata says. "You forget about all the struggles that you faced during the development ... I think that's what keeps me going."
As an example, Tabata points to the PSP version of Type-0 that he directed in 2011 — the same year the Tohoku earthquake hit, triggering a powerful tsunami and killing thousands of people. Stories about death and damage filled local news: nuclear facilities suffering from accidents and meltdowns, families being displaced from their homes.
Type-0 hadn't been released yet. Yet along with an outpouring of global support for Japan, the developers at Square Enix began to receive their own encouragement: fan letters.
"We received a lot of letters during that time saying that people were really looking forward to Final Fantasy being released," Tabata says. "It felt great that entertainment was helping people keep their heads up so they could have something to look forward to.
"I think it was at that point that I started to feel like it's OK — it's really not a big deal if I'm shortening my lifespan to bring enjoyment to others. That's when my mindset started to change."
This mentality is typical of Japanese game developers, Tabata says. For Final Fantasy in particular, Tabata sees it as a franchise that brings happiness. He's quick to offer lighthearted, if not cutting commentary about his work ("I wouldn't really recommend developing games at Square Enix much. We don't sleep."), but there's a sharp sense of pride there, too.
"I put everything into all the titles that I create," Tabata says. "Final Fantasy sticks in many people's memories, so ... if I'm bringing a positive outlook to those who are playing it, if I'm delivering a positive experience — then I guess yes, it'll be great to be remembered as someone who was part of the franchise.
"It's really the drive to create the best experience. Something that surpasses everything ... That's just what Final Fantasy development is like."
"In America, people kind of saw ninjas as modern day superheroes," says Hideo Yoshizawa, director of 1988's Ninja Gaiden. "But in Japan, they were historical figures highly associated with the Edo period."
Yoshizawa is sitting in a small apartment in Ebisu, Tokyo, reminiscing with artist/writer Masato Kato and composer Keiji Yamagishi. Twenty-five years ago, the three men, together with their team at Tecmo, developed the classic 2-D NES action game that more or less defined the company. Now they've reunited to tell the story of how the game was made in Japan, yet inspired by Western tastes.
For most questions, Kato and Yamagishi defer to Yoshizawa to answer first, out of respect for their former boss. And for Ninja Gaiden's origins, he knows the story better than anyone.
Yoshizawa sits up straight and says the directive for the game came from then-Tecmo President Yoshihito Kakihara, who noticed that ninjas had become a fad in the United States. Kakihara wanted Tecmo to make a game to capitalize on that popularity, so Yoshizawa started on a design, first working with a small team then adding more members as time went on.
Given what Yoshizawa knew about the different perceptions of ninjas in Japan and the West, he wanted to make something that didn't feel too much like a historical piece and also not too much like a superhero game.
"I joined the project after it started, and when I joined I was wondering why Mr. Yoshizawa wanted to make a game in present day with ninjas," says Kato. "I thought that was a contradiction. [laughs]
"I remember when I was given the game's script, and there's a saying when [main character] Ryu Hayabusa ends up killing the last boss. The expression feels very old, but the game was supposed to take place in modern day, which was confusing. The name was kind of funny to me either way. It was kind of out of touch, so I thought, 'Well this is awkward.'"
But Yoshizawa's concept caught on, and the team began to implement features cited to this day, from the Cinema Display cutscenes that magnified the game's story to the difficulty level that punished players to the upbeat music.
"I worked hard to make sure I made one of the first Famicom games that featured a drum roll in it," says Yamagishi, who adds that he never intended to work in games. Yamagishi says that he fell into an interview, and when Kakihara found out Yamagishi was in a band, Kakihara demanded that he join the company. So he did.
Discussing the game's story, Kato pulls out an old notebook filled with artwork and storyboard sequences for various Ninja Gaiden games. He says these represented ideas he had for the series at the time, and they show how much effort went into planning these scenes before the designs ever touched a computer.
"Nowadays I think it's something people take for granted," says Yoshizawa. "But I thought that by putting these animation scenes in it would be pretty fun. It was a very fun part of the development process."
Discussing the challenging gameplay, Kato says it frustrated the development team as much as it did players. "Mr. Yoshizawa was great at enemy placement and pacing," says Kato. "I was always impressed by that. But unfortunately, the game's difficulty was too hard, even for the development team. So during the bug-checking process, team members were basically crying while trying to get through the game."
In the retail game, one of the most common player complaints is that when the player dies toward the end, the game sends them back to the beginning of the level. "That actually wasn't my intention," says Yoshizawa. "I wanted to put players back to the middle of the stage. But one of the programmers lied to me and said he'd do that, then ended up putting them back to the beginning."
Yoshizawa adds that part of the difficulty came from a lack of playtesting. "We developed the game with the intent that the player should use items shortly after they get them, and if they do that, the game isn't that hard because the items are designed to help with certain enemies," he says.
"But there are certain players who don't use items right away and want to save them for the end. And after the game came out, we realized if you do that, you pretty much can't win. It becomes a very difficult game."
Yoshizawa says if he could go back and change anything in the original game, he'd change the amount of damage the game's birds inflict on players from three points to one. For the most part, he's happy with how the game turned out, and he's especially happy with how the team was able to balance the Japanese and American impressions of a ninja.
In the years following the release of Ninja Gaiden, Yoshizawa, Kato and Yamagishi all ended up leaving Tecmo.
After the first game, Yoshizawa moved into an executive producer role, while Kato took on more responsibility and eventually directed 1991's Ninja Gaiden 3: The Ancient Ship of Doom. Over time, Yoshizawa joined Namco and worked on games including platformer Klonoa and puzzle game Mr. Driller. He cites Klonoa as a personal favorite, since it was the last game he directed. These days, he's happy to work on what his bosses assign him rather than directing games himself.
After Kato's time at Tecmo, he joined Square and worked on role-playing games including Chrono Trigger and Xenogears. Then he broke off on his own to work as a freelancer and returned to the Ninja Gaiden series in its modern 3-D incarnation to write the script for 2012's Ninja Gaiden 3. The game reviewed poorly, and Kato says the development team cut a lot of what he wrote for the game's ending.
But he's happy with a subtle reference that made it through: a scene in the story when Ryu Hayabusa gets shot in the back, a nod to a similar scene from the NES days. "I have this penchant for making sure Ryu gets shot from behind by people," jokes Kato. Most recently, Kato has been involved with the 3DS role-playing game The Legend of Legacy.
Following Yamagishi's work at Tecmo, he took a job at Koei, working on the first Dynasty Warriors soundtrack, then eventually moved away from game work. In 2012, he joined game music label Koopa Soundworks — now known as Brave Wave — to create game-style compositions for a handful of albums, including his own called Retro-Active.
"It's kind of a hybrid album in the sense that each song will have a normal composition with a layer of chiptunes thrown onto it," he says.
Retro-Active Pt. 1 is now available for preorder, and Yamagishi is debuting the first track, "First Contact," in the audio player at the bottom of this page. Yamagishi is planning to release Pt. 2 and a physical CD version later this year.
Through Brave Wave, Yamagishi also connected with game publisher Marvelous and signed on to compose the soundtrack to the upcoming indie game Exile's End.
In retrospect, Yoshizawa, Kato and Yamagishi look back on the early Ninja Gaiden games fondly. For most of the interview, they laugh at each anecdote brought up. But looking back at the game's legacy, they get a bit more serious. Yoshizawa recalls the original game selling out in stores in America. Kato says that after the game shipped, a disabled boy sent Tecmo a letter saying how much he liked the game, which Tecmo's president read aloud in a company meeting. Yamagishi says to this day, when people find out he worked on Ninja Gaiden, they often tell him how much they like the game's music.
And while the game marks a career highlight for all three, they imagine that's where it will stay. Despite Kato's recent stint on Ninja Gaiden 3, none of them think it's likely they'll work on a new Ninja Gaiden project in the future.
"I can't imagine that," says Kato, laughing.
Instead, they're happy to have built a game that has come to help define Japanese game development, even though it started as an idea to appeal to the West.
"I'm far from an expert, but there does seem to be a bit of a lack of confidence in general with Japanese indie developers maybe not believing they can make games on their own as much as, perhaps, Western developers do," says Magnetic Realms' founder Matt Fielding.
In many ways, Fielding is an outsider to Japan's game industry. He used to live and work in Australia. He's never been an employee of a Japanese game company. And unlike many foreigners who have moved to Japan to work in games, Fielding didn't grow up on Nintendo and Sega. Or on anything made in Japan, for that matter.
Despite all that, in 2012 he took a shot and founded Magnetic Realms in Tokyo — a "one-man" studio where he would do everything himself. And in 2013 Magnetic Realms released its first game: Inescapable. Many familiar with Japan's game industry might call it a Metroidvania title — 2-D action, exploration, puzzle solving, etc. But Fielding points to European influences ranging from Exile to Flashback and says he instead took influence from 8- and 16-bit home computer software.
"That's a part of the industry's history that often seems to be overlooked — at least until fairly recently, with things like the Sensible Software and Ocean retrospective books, the From Bedrooms to Billions documentary and so on — compared to what was going on in the U.S. and Japan, and something of the feel of those kinds of games was something I missed and wanted to try bring back in my own way," says Fielding.
Now he's signed a deal with Japanese publisher Marvelous Entertainment to remake Inescapable under the name Exile's End. And this time he's not doing it all by himself.
After releasing Inescapable, Fielding says he heard from Esteban Salazar at Marvelous, who has been heading up a Steam publishing division for the company. Salazar was looking for new games to sign up for the company's portfolio, which also includes Half-Minute Hero 1 and 2 and Skullgirls.
"He liked what I'd done and saw the potential in it and approached me with the idea of expanding on it and working together to make something bigger and better than I could manage on my own," says Fielding.
Exile's End will feature new graphics, more content, variety and options, and multiple endings. But it will also feature collaborations with Japanese developers to give the game a different feel. Specifically, Fielding is working with artists who have contributed to Sword of Mana and the Guilty Gear series to design cutscenes that may remind some of the Cinema Display sequences in the NES Ninja Gaiden games. And Fielding is also working with Ninja Gaiden composer Keiji Yamagishi (whose upcoming album you can sample in the jukebox below) to create the game's soundtrack.
"That was all thanks to Esteban," says Fielding. "He set it up after meeting Yamagishi-san at [independent game conference] BitSummit. I, of course, leapt at the chance when he suggested Yamagishi-san might be interested in working with us on the game, and thankfully it all worked out."
Now Fielding's game is a bit of a melting pot, from its European computer game roots to its Japanese developer collaborations. And, Fielding teases, the story will throw a few twists in on what players expect from an action/adventure game as well, taking "a slightly different approach to the portrayal of heroism that most games take."
Fielding says his current plan is to launch Exile's End on Windows, Mac and Linux in the second quarter of 2015. (He's interested in developing console versions as well, though those aren't on the books just yet.) Now it's just a matter of seeing it through. Even if he does have a little more help this time around.
"Basically, I'm one person playing two roles at this point," says Ys Net President Yu Suzuki. "I have my creative side, but I'm also president of the company and have to be a salesman. So the salesman part of me wants to negotiate deals down to a moderate budget to make things happen. But the creative part of me says, 'I'm Yu Suzuki, and I'm going to make it this good, so you should pay this amount.'
"To be honest, that's not always an easy thing to balance."
Sitting at a kitchen table in the small Tokyo apartment he uses as an office, Suzuki doesn't have a game to promote. He has a few knickknacks around — a mug with a character from his game Shenmue on it, a Hello Kitty-themed Dreamcast console and a tile Ys Net sign sitting on a desk built into the wall. But mostly, it's a quiet place for him to work.
He's in what he calls a "creation phase," when he spends his time writing game concepts and building up a portfolio to pitch to investors and publishers. He'll follow that with a "sales phase" and see if he can make any of those ideas happen.
It's a fairly standard process for someone in the game industry trying to sign a deal, with one exception. Suzuki, in the '80s and '90s, was arguably the most popular arcade game designer in the world, heading up games such as Hang-On, Space Harrier, Out Run, After Burner, Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and others.
For the past six years, he's been running a game concept incubation and production company, mostly working on small mobile games while drumming up ideas for more ambitious projects. And he wants another shot at playing with the big money.
Talk to Suzuki about his work over the past six years, and he'll often deflect questions, instead preferring to tell stories about the old days. That's where he started, and in some ways, that's where he wants to return.
Suzuki says he more or less lived at Sega in the '80s and '90s, breaking the company record for overtime hours clocked by a single employee. He says he regularly slept on a flattened cardboard box on the office floor. On the rare occasions that he made it home, he sometimes found his power and electricity shut off.
"When the president of Sega found out, he decided to put a shower in the office and set up a room where people could take naps," says Suzuki.
Because of Suzuki's working habits, the hours between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. became his favorite time of day, a time when he could escape from the distractions of managing a team and work for himself. "During those two hours, I got the equivalent of a normal person's two weeks of work done," he says. And when he did fall asleep, he would keep a pen, pad and recorder next to him in case he came up with an idea in his dreams — a practice he termed a "pop-up."
Visualizing the right camera mechanics in Virtua Cop? Came to him in a pop-up. Balancing the characters Wolf and Jeffry in Virtua Fighter? Came to him in a pop-up.
Then in the late '90s, Suzuki set out on the biggest game of his career: Shenmue, an open-world adventure game set in 1980s Japan. Suzuki says Sega considered it a "company project," so he nearly had a blank check to make the game he wanted in the hopes that it would push Sega's Dreamcast hardware sales. He directed that game and a sequel.
But Sega was struggling, and the game didn't bring in enough money to justify a planned third installment, so Suzuki had to cut the project short.
And since then, Suzuki has struggled to get big projects off the ground. He worked on a variety of things at Sega that either didn't make it through production or didn't take off in arcades, and in 2008, he left to start his own company.
As Suzuki describes it, Ys Net is a production company that generates and oversees game concepts and scales up and down to produce specific games. To date, his main projects have been small mobile games, and he says it's been a challenge finding the right funding to pursue his bigger ideas.
"I used to spend more time pitching my ideas to people, but it's not that fun of a job to do," he says.
Asked if he thinks Shenmue losing money hurt his ability to make deals, Suzuki acknowledges that Sega took a loss on the game but says the company "easily recouped" Shenmue's development budget with profits from Virtua Fighter 3 and 4 — two other games he worked on alongside Shenmue — so he doesn't think that's the case.
But he also says that his lifestyle is a lot different now. At age 56, Suzuki says he sleeps more and doesn't have many pop-ups. "Now I'm married and I have a kid, so I have other things to think about and responsibilities to carry on my shoulders," he says.
Still, he has ideas.
Showing Polygon some of his concepts that didn't make it to release for one reason or another, Suzuki pulls up a list of folders, documents and screenshots on an old computer.
One is a 3-D Space Harrier concept for smart phones. He describes a player sitting in an office chair holding a phone in front of them to simulate an arcade cockpit and using the gyro in the phone to control the game. He starts rotating in his chair to show how it would work. "If you don't have a chair that spins around, you can't really play the game, but it's a fun idea," he says.
Next he loads up a prototype of a massively multiplayer role-playing game called "Pure Breed," in which each player travels around as a human with an animal companion. Suzuki says he noticed a trend in Japan of dog owners who started to dress and look like their pets, and he thought it could be interesting to explore a pet/owner relationship where the two have similar tastes. The game's concept art features a Western, surrealist style with a taxi shaped like an alligator and a house floating in midair. Suzuki says he started on these ideas while working full time at Sega, but they ended up being too expensive. "I'd need to cut down the budget to make it happen," he says.
Next Suzuki pulls up one of his favorite concepts for a simplified touch-screen fighting game called "Psy-Phi." Unlike "Pure Breed," Sega promoted this one quite a bit before deciding not to release it because of a safety issue — the game's touch-screen technology produced too much heat and became hot on players' fingers.
Suzuki pulls up concept art of early arcade cabinet ideas for Psy-Phi, showing that it originally went by the name "Psychic Duel." The art shows giant touch screens, clear screens, even a curved screen. "I wanted to create the next Virtua Fighter, basically," he says. "But I feel like the idea was probably ahead of its time back then. It might be a perfect concept for games now, actually."
While running Ys Net, for the past three years Suzuki has also worked with developer Premium Agency as an advisor, and one of the concepts he's developed there was to turn Psy-Phi from a touch screen arcade game into a Kinect fighting game. He says the team at Premium Agency liked the idea, but because the company has investors, it can't decide what to develop on its own; the idea stalled before becoming much more than a concept.
As Suzuki scrolls through his files, other titles appear — a concept called "E V E"; another called "Extreme Gunners" — and it becomes clear that Suzuki has dozens of these. He even points to art on the wall of one idea based on a character his daughter drew.
"All of my concepts are like my children, so if there's anyone who wants to make them happen, I'm definitely open to that," he says.
Today, Suzuki works as the president of Ys Net, as an advisor to Premium Agency and as an advisor to Sega. He declines to say what he does in his advisory role at Sega but says he's currently trying to create new game concepts for Premium Agency as he transitions from creating to selling his ideas.
He says his goal at this point is to sign a deal with a console-sized budget rather than the mobile deals he's done. And he says that even though he's been quiet for a while publicly, he still has big plans for the future.
He just needs to find someone to pay for them.
"After watching PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 for a few years, I figured there wouldn't be any more consoles," says Yoichi Wada, then president of Square Enix. "I thought things were going to move toward the cloud, so I started researching it because I wanted to know more about what kinds of game design could be possible. But then I didn't see any innovative platforms come out. Like OnLive — there was nothing innovative about that. So we decided to create a system on our own."
Sitting down for an interview in December 2014, Wada admits he was a little off by predicting the end of consoles. But he still thinks he's right about the broader idea. He's so convinced of it, in fact, that in 2013 he stepped down from the board of Square Enix to start Shinra Technologies, a company focused on cloud computing.
And now he wants to show the world what it can do.
At a base level, Shinra's pitch is that it will provide servers, technology and support for developers to make games that they couldn't make otherwise, whether for creative or financial reasons. And then Shinra will manage the store that sells those games.
One of the biggest obstacles for Wada is that cloud computing doesn't make for an easy sales pitch. Developers will be able to use more processing power and avoid certain programming hurdles, but it's not like a Wii or Kinect where someone who has no knowledge of games can look at it and understand it in 10 seconds. At least, not yet.
"One big challenge is that we don't have a convincing game in front of us to say, 'This is what we are about. This is what Shinra can do,'" says Wada.
While Wada and his team can go on and on about the benefits of their technology, he knows what his team really needs is at least one big killer app for the system.
"I think we need to do something about it within the first two years," he says. "And if that game is going to release in two years, then everybody should know about a year from now."
To make that happen, Wada has a four-part plan.
The first step, he says, is showing developers what they can do with Shinra's technology that they couldn't do before. Things like removing the need for an engineering team to synchronize between client and server states, and having elaborate physics simulations with data distributed across servers. Things that your average player won't understand but, to a developer, could spark ideas.
For step two, Wada says, "We touch on their emotions." When meeting with developers, Shinra team members point out that they feel the cloud market will be huge down the road, and they try to instill confidence in developers to join them.
Step three is to offer to build a game together with developers and to give as much development support as Shinra is able. Wada says that Shinra won't develop its own games, so it will be easier for it to openly collaborate with external studios.
And step four is figuring out how to finance games, which Wada says he is figuring out right now. He's vague on the details but makes it clear that Shinra will invest in developers that can help its platform.
"I think we need to [find a killer app] within the first two years."
At this point, Wada says he's already seen some games running on Shinra's technology that he thinks have potential to be breakout hits, but he's not sure which game will be the first to define the company's approach.
He's also not sure where it will come from.
While Wada works out of an office in Square Enix's Tokyo headquarters, Shinra has staff in Tokyo, Montreal and New York. Wada says this distributed approach makes managing the company a challenge, but he sees upsides in the types of tech knowledge and the local tax breaks found in Montreal, and the lack of competition found in New York.
He also explains that he wants to launch Shinra's technology in the U.S. and Japan first, and having these three offices will help in that approach.
"I've always had this idea of approaching the American and Japanese markets simultaneously, because I think these two markets are the ones who will lead the rest of the world into the next phase of gaming," says Wada. "There's no logic behind it. It's just my personal preference."
Now Wada is eager to see how well his plans pay off and whether he can find that first killer app to prove the concept. Going by Wada's estimate — and subtracting the time between his interview and this story going live — he has about 11 months.
"Japanese game media, not only Famitsu but the others as well, really work closely with publishers and developers," says Weekly Famitsu magazine Editor-in-Chief Katsuhiko Hayashi. "We team up with them and decide when to put out stories and things like that. So it's kind of like a partnership — we have the same destiny as the game publishers, and we work as a team to make the game industry better. That's how we view ourselves."
Weekly Famitsu is Japan's biggest game magazine. It's where Japanese publishers regularly announce games. It's where Western media outlets often go for news about Japan's game industry. In the '80s, it even inspired the structure of many U.S. game magazines, with sections like a "cross review" department in which multiple writers review a game side by side.
Every week, a team of 30-40 editors (and around 10 designers) generates hundreds of pages from a small office that looks like that of a Japanese game developer — low walls, employees sitting in front of rows of monitors, gray file cabinets all over the place. Every Friday, the staff puts that week's issue to bed. Every Thursday after that, it goes on sale.
Hayashi has been with the magazine for the past 20 years, recently becoming editor-in-chief, and he faces the usual challenges of someone in the print media world — the popularity of online news, the popularity of social media. But he also faces certain benefits and challenges unique to Japan, and he recently met with Polygon to discuss them.
Game media in Japan is quite a bit different than in the U.S. For one thing, there are more print magazines available, which some credit to cheaper distribution and the commuter lifestyle, where many people travel by train rather than car. Hayashi says print is declining in Japan but at a slower rate than in the West. He credits the decline mostly to the shrinking number of bookstores.
Hayashi says that Weekly Famitsu used to sell more copies of the magazine in convenience stores than bookstores, but now the numbers have inverted, which he speculates has to do with the rise of internet media and people buying the magazine to read it rather than buying it to skim information.
The general purpose of most of Japan's game magazines is also different. While publications in the U.S. span a gamut of styles, most have rules in place to limit a game publisher's control over editorial content. They value independence, which at times creates an adversarial relationship with game publishers. At Weekly Famitsu and most publications in Japan, they have similar rules but place less of a priority on independence, so the line exists in a different place.
It's regular practice amongst many Japanese magazines to allow a game publisher to approve the text of a story before the magazine publishes it, for instance, or to allow an interview subject to look over what they say and decide after the fact whether they want it printed.
"Let's say we're doing a cover story," says Hayashi. "We'll do the planning and writing, then show it to the publisher for confirmation. Then as we do that, the publisher might come back and say, 'Actually we want you to do this or that,' and then we'll take it back and consider it. And if it makes sense to us, then we'll do that. So it's almost kind of like a negotiation, but we are always in the driver's seat."
Most Japanese game magazines also allow game publishers to pay them to write specific stories or to add pages to game previews to make them look more impressive than they would otherwise. In Famitsu's case, when they receive money from a publisher to write a story they will generally label it as "PR" in the story.
Hayashi says the line for Famitsu changes depending upon what part of the magazine a story appears in. If they are discussing a cover story or game preview, they are open to working with game publishers to have the story told how the publishers want. But if they are writing a review of a game, they don't let publishers affect what they write.
Asked if he finds it a challenge to have strong opinions in one part of the magazine while working closely with publishers in another, Hayashi says he doesn't run into problems because he keeps the magazine sections separate organizationally. There is a team that works with game publishers to plan out preview coverage and make a schedule for when to print what, and there is a separate team to organize review coverage.
"Of course there are times that publishers are not happy with the ratings we give, but we keep it separate," he says.
"It's kind of like a partnership — we have the same destiny as the game publishers, and we work as a team to make the game industry better."
Kevin Gifford, who has translated Weekly Famitsu news for GamePro, 1UP and Polygon in the past, points out that the magazine's approach is an evolution of how game magazines worked in Japan in the '80s and '90s, when Nintendo had a firm hold over what information went public, much like how it controlled what went into its official magazine, Nintendo Power, in the U.S.
"The Nintendo of the era operated in a pretty monopolistic way, and magazines were not really in a position to do much to disparage them if they wanted continued access to their material," he says.
Gifford credits Weekly Famitsu with steps it has taken to appeal to older players in recent years, adding more interviews and opinion pieces, but says it straddles the line between critic and cheerleader.
"Even today, there is still no more powerful brand in video game media in Japan, and that's been the case for over 20 years," says Gifford. "As a result, they do have a certain 'newspaper of record' mentality where they both cover the game industry and are one of its biggest proponents at the same time."
And while some criticize Weekly Famitsu's close relationships with game publishers, those relationships also provide a different level of access than you typically see in the West. Weekly Famitsu often prints download codes for games and features interviews with subjects who rarely appear elsewhere, for example.
On the day Polygon visits Hayashi, he's just gotten the latest issue back from the printer, and it's a particularly meaningful one for him.
Hayashi started at Weekly Famitsu in October 1994. Two months later, Sony released the first PlayStation in Japan. And for the past 20 years, he's seen both the magazine and Sony evolve. In the issue sitting in front of him, that all comes full circle with a cover feature on PlayStation's 20-year history, which includes interviews with people such as PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi, who rarely speaks to the press.
"It was kind of like tracing my own career up to today," Hayashi says.
Going forward, Hayashi wants to use Weekly Famitsu to reflect what's happening in the industry. He recently redesigned the magazine to focus more on mobile games, PC games, indie games and arcade games, in addition to the magazine's console bread and butter.
Despite the challenges of print media around the world, Hayashi remains confident about Weekly Famitsu's chances. He says he doesn't see print media going away, and he points to Famitsu.com and the digital version of the magazine as steps the company has taken to expand.
"We are continuing to reach out in different ways," he says.
"... In 10 years from now, 20 years from now, I want to keep Famitsu the biggest game media brand in Japan."
"The formula is relatively simple," says Koei Tecmo Executive Vice President Hisashi Koinuma.
He's talking about the recent trend of pursuing licenses for Koei Tecmo's Musou series. Take a popular Japanese anime or game license, mix it with combat mechanics built over the past 15 years and watch the money roll in.
Of course, it's not that simple. But sometimes it seems to be.
Fifteen years ago, Koei released Dynasty Warriors 2, the first in its "one versus one thousand" historical crowd combat series that took off in Japan, leading to numerous sequels and spinoffs. Now it's evolved into a genre covering multiple franchises and, in recent years, many of Japan's most popular entertainment licenses: Fist of the North Star, One Piece, Gundam, Zelda and Dragon Quest.
At this point, it's the modern-day equivalent of an 8- or 16-bit side-scrolling action game — a template that a game publisher can attach to almost any license.
Despite the popularity in Japan, though, the genre hasn't seen the same level of success in the West, either in its historical or licensed form. Western reviews often criticize it for feeling too repetitive. And while that perception may be changing — Hyrule Warriors went over well last year — the genre has a lot of ground to cover before players will consider it a staple the way they do in Japan. So we tracked down Koinuma to get his take on the cultural divide and how he sees Musou games evolving in Japan.
Koinuma has a long history with Koei, directing games in the Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors franchises, then producing the Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage series, the One Piece: Pirate Warriors series, the Dynasty Warriors: Gundam series and Hyrule Warriors. He's overseen much of the company's transition from making Musou games strictly about historical time periods to making Musou games about Japan's most popular entertainment licenses.
He points to the historical approach in the early days as one of the biggest challenges for making the Musou franchise popular in the United States. Koinuma thinks the popularity in Japan and other Asian territories is due to Japan's familiarity with swords and spears, its "history of preying on and fighting for survival against outside forces" and its "attraction or tendency for people to adore figures with absolute strength."
Koinuma says that, when possible, the development team tries to make the games more appealing to Western tastes, but these changes are generally subtle since the team doesn't want to alter the base gameplay. "It seems to go unnoticed on most occasions," he says.
Ultimately, Koinuma says the idea of playing as one person against a thousand is more important to the Musou genre than any particular historical context. He's open to the idea of a Musou game targeted at kids, for instance, if the right license comes along, and in a recent interview with Eurogamer, he even mentioned a Mario Musou game, saying, "One of my ultimate dreams would be using that character with the red hat on top."
Asked whether he was joking with that comment, Koinuma says he thinks it could actually work. He sees Mario as a character that would need to branch out from hand-to-hand combat but could focus on his distinctive moves. Speaking hypothetically, Koinuma suggests Mario could "blast enemies off the screen or knock them unconscious" with his moveset. "I suppose the game would be balanced so the kids could enjoy it as their first action game experience, whereas the adults could enjoy the game with friends and families as a group," he says.
In that same Eurogamer interview, Koinuma adds that he thinks a Star Wars Musou game would be "the ideal dream" — a clear route to gaining traction in the West.
To some in Japan's game industry, the hurdle to making a Musou game with their franchise has less to do with game mechanics and more to do with surprising players. For this story, Polygon asked seven developers working on popular franchises at other companies what they would think of adapting their franchises to become Musou games. And the most common answer that came back was they would be hesitant to do it in a straightforward way because, at this point, it wouldn't be surprising for players.
"The interesting trend recently is that the talks are not limited or specific toward our Musou franchise."
Pokémon Producer Junichi Masuda says he'd be open to it if the game wasn't too violent, suggesting that it could work if the player threw out a lot of Pokéballs, but it would need a new form of gameplay so as to not feel too familiar.
Tekken Director Katsuhiro Harada says he doesn't think it would be a bad idea, but he worries some players could think it's a continuation of Tekken's Force mode and it would need more originality.
Monster Strike Producer Koki Kimura says he thinks the Musou approach has been copied so much at this point that he doesn't find it interesting.
Koinuma says external companies still frequently pitch Musou ideas to Koei Tecmo, and his company has had to turn down many of them. But now the pitches have evolved.
"The interesting trend recently is that the talks are not limited or specific toward our Musou franchise," he says. "In fact, most of these inquiries are based on or geared toward our technical capabilities in creating action games."
Koinuma teases that he can't yet go into detail on what might come from these talks, but these ideas could offer the surprise factor others feel would be missing from further straightforward licensed Musou games.
That doesn't mean Koei Tecmo is moving away from its bread and butter, though. Koinuma says he has no rigid long-term plan for licensed Musou games, since new potential licenses become popular on a regular basis, but he says the company plans to pursue "all possible licensing opportunities."
And if those all pan out, how many licensed Musou games could we see down the line?
Fumito Ueda can't talk about the things you want him to.
As the creative director behind Sony's long-delayed action-adventure game The Last Guardian who then left Sony to finish his work on the game as a freelancer, he's maintained a low profile the past few years. Sony isn't ready to talk about what's going on with the game and what problems it ran into, so neither is Ueda.
But Ueda recently agreed to answer some questions about his take on the state of Japan's game industry. Here he gives a handful of quick takes on current trends.
"I feel like games have historically always embodied the latest technology available, but lately players in Japan don't seem to care as much about that as players in the West. And I've always felt that two key strengths of Japanese developers are attention to detail and creativity, but I think Western developers have improved a lot in attention to detail ever since the PS2 era, and now in creativity with the rise of the indie scene.
"The Western style of taking a massive budget and rock star-style group of developers and putting them together is difficult to imitate in Japan due to the size of the market and the way organizational contracts are structured here. So I think that we need to focus on sifting through and improving the design process, making clear what aspects of game design should and shouldn't have more work devoted to them, more than ever."
"I see it as something exciting, in terms of how mobile devices let you reach a much wider audience. I can also see, though, how people who think that mobile games are all about monetization are pushing back against it.
"You're seeing a polarized market between mobile and consoles, but both types of games are essentially ways for players to occupy their time, so I think the main difference lies in the way the games take up a player's time. On one end you have games built to be as quick and easy to learn as possible to make the most of a player's time; on the other, you have games meant to be so attractive that players want to go out of their way to make time for them.
"When designing something, I naturally work based on the previous entertainment I've been exposed to. And I think the stigma toward mobile games may be in part based on the entertainment today's developers were exposed to back when they were the most open and susceptible to the experiences around them. For example, when I was growing up in the 1980s, movies and video games were king when it came to entertainment. These were both forms of entertainment I wanted to make time to experience, so when I'm making an effort to create something myself, I naturally tend to aim for that kind of thing.
"However, there's no reason why you can't create an experience gamers will want to make time to play in a mobile-style pick-up-and-play environment. I think the ideal scenario would be to strike a balance — something fairly accessible, but still retaining the visual and gameplay strengths that make people want to sit down and create the time to play."
"There's a lot of attention being paid to it. I think a lot of developers have high expectations for it, not just for the tech but also in how it's a reset button, in a way, for the high difficulty of modern game development. It kind of resembles the reset button that came with the advent of the Wii remote and Move controller.
"I'm still evaluating it. I purchased an Oculus developer kit and have tried Sony's Morpheus. In terms of game design, I've seen some of the restrictions, strengths and weaknesses of HMDs. I feel like there are more restrictions than I originally thought there would be.
"But the experience of being there in a story you get from VR is something I've always tried to aim for with games I've made, so I'm looking forward to improvements in the sense of immersion you can get, both with HMDs and without them. There are a few walls that HMDs need to overcome before they can really be consumer products, though, so it kind of starts there, I think."
"You're starting to see more games in Japan's indie scene these days. Japan's always had a very active 'doujin' software scene too, although that's a bit of a different thing. I think that language issues play a role in the scene not being as known outside of Japan, but I also think it'd be great if we saw more support from companies, etc. that distribute games in Japan and other countries."
"Bayonetta 2 and Smash Bros. for Wii U. I have not played either game all that much, but seeing how both of these have attracted enormous amounts of praise overseas in an age where people don't pay a lot of attention to Japanese games, I want to find time for them. Also, this isn't a Japanese game, but Rain World, which I discovered via Kickstarter, is something I love personally in terms of tech and design, so I'm really looking forward to playing it, as well as Inside and Below."
Ryozo Tsujimoto grew up with Capcom. His father, Kenzo, founded the company in 1983 and still runs it today. His brother, Haruhiro, joined Capcom in 1987 and currently serves as president and COO. Ryozo joined in 1996 as a planner and, for the past 10 years, has been working as a producer on the Monster Hunter series.
Junichi Masuda has been working on Pokémon games at Game Freak for 20 years, often contributing as a designer, composer and programmer. These days, he alternates between director and producer roles to, in his words, "raise the new generation of directors at Game Freak" and serve "almost like a father figure" to the company's younger staff.
Last year, Capcom celebrated Monster Hunter's 10th anniversary, and next year Game Freak will celebrate Pokémon's 20th anniversary in Japan. To see what it's like sustaining a massive portable franchise these days, Polygon asked Masuda and Tsujimoto the same six questions.
Junichi Masuda, Pokémon: It's more a general development style. In the very beginning, even in say an interview like this, no one knew what Pokémon was. So we spent a lot of time explaining it — like what a Pokémon is, for example. Now you understand it.
And obviously, people on the team now, they grew up playing Pokémon. So we now need to develop for the people who are familiar, but also for the kids who have never played Pokémon before. Balancing that approach is a big difference nowadays.
Another huge difference is, as the hardware continues to advance, we need a lot more people to keep up with the technology. So on Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, we had 100 people working on the games over the course of the projects — compared to the original games where we worked on them with nine people at the highest. That's quite a huge difference.
Ryozo Tsujimoto, Monster Hunter: Compared with 10 years ago, the IP itself has grown a great deal. We've collaborated with other brands, and we've held huge events. And the development team is always involved in these activities as well, even if they don't directly involve the software — we often drive some of these ideas ourselves. We aim to please the player and many players find it easy to get their friends into the series. That's what we strive for. We want people to feel welcome.
JM: I think there are three big reasons. One is that we treat old and new things equally. We never throw anything out. Like with Charizard — that's a character that's been around from the beginning, but it also feels new to people who are playing the game for the first time. So players who have been around can feel the nostalgia, and new players can pick it up and be on the same level.
Another thing is that, from the beginning, we've always made sure ... anyone can pick up the games and play them. There are always tutorials at the beginning showing what Pokémon's about — how to catch Pokémon, for example — and we always make sure to ease players into the games.
I think the third one is just kind of the staff love for Pokémon. We're all very passionate about it.
RT: I think there are multiple reasons for that. The fact that it's a multiplayer action game is one of the big ones. It helps that the game encourages cooperation over more brutal or savage options. We portray the hunters as cooperative heroes; they're not evil or savage. Nor are the monsters themselves. They live in an environment where they must hunt or be hunted.
Another factor is the way the game is structured. When you play with others, you each receive the same rewards, regardless of how much or how little you may have contributed to the hunt. This keeps everyone on an even playing field. If we issued rewards based on performance, I think you would see less cooperation and more spotlight hogging.
"The things that stick with me the most are the more negative things, unfortunately."
JM: In terms of benefits, since it's a series that's been going on for a long time, we have the base world, universe and setting, as well as the gameplay — that exists from the beginning, and we carry that over through the games. So having that as a base for creating new games definitely makes things easier. Also, the game being popular amongst different generations helps a lot. Having that continuity where a child or a veteran both know the character Charizard, for example, is a big benefit.
But at the same time, in terms of challenges, it's really just kind of keeping up with the times. Like social media — Facebook and Twitter are huge, and making sure you don't get left behind amongst all the new technology is probably the biggest challenge we face.
RT: One thing that I consider a benefit is the fact that I've been privileged to meet so many interesting people during my work — not just game industry folks, but all sorts of people. I learn from these relationships and I find them quite stimulating. ...
[The challenges generally come when we try new ideas.] It's been a decade since this series first debuted, and we've stuck very steadfastly to the game’s core pillars of action and communication. Each title brings with it new elements of action — from the underwater sections of Monster Hunter 3 to the verticality of the gameplay of Monster Hunter 4. We always strive to challenge ourselves to try something new with each iteration.
JM: A long time ago — I think it was back when the original games came out — I remember seeing news that someone outside of Japan went crazy, said "Pokemon exist" and jumped off a roof somewhere. ... The things that stick with me the most are the more negative things, unfortunately.
RT: To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the series [in 2014], one fan rode his bicycle all over [Japan]. Each time we'd hold an event in a different location, we'd see him there on his bike.
JM: I'm involved with the management side of Game Freak as well, and I also work on creating music and other stuff [so I don't feel particularly stuck in a rut]. So Pokemon's great, and of course I'd also like to try new things and create other games.
RT: In the past 10 years, we've released 11 console Monster Hunter titles. Even between titles, I spend a lot of time at events and the like, which means that I am involved year-round, day in and day out. Since I'm always so busy, I honestly don't have the free time to even think about other projects to work on. I can’t say what the future holds, but I can say that, for the time being, I'm firmly committed to spreading the popularity of Monster Hunter around the world.
JM: There's probably going to be a lot more games; we might not be able to use the "Gotta catch 'em all" catchphrase anymore [laughs]. Of course, we want to keep creating things that will surprise and delight fans. I don't think that's going to change. ... I have some big-picture ideas, but I can't really talk about them.
RT: Over the last decade, we've seen tons of players join the hunt in Japan. The American and European audiences aren't quite as large at the moment, but in my travels to global events, I have most certainly noticed a very strong and growing community in these regions that has sprung up around the game. ... I see lots of growth occurring in those regions. It won't happen overnight, but I'm glad to see more and more Westerners joining the fan base.
Hironobu Sakaguchi is best known as the creator of Final Fantasy. That series' popularity in the late '80s and early '90s propelled him to senior roles at Square where he oversaw the franchise for more than 10 years. Today, at age 52, he runs Mistwalker, a game incubation team that often works with external studios to produce console role-playing games (Blue Dragon, The Last Story).
Yoshiki Okamoto came up in the '80s and '90s with Capcom, and oversaw the creation of Street Fighter 2 and Resident Evil, amongst others. In the early 2000s, he formed independent developer Game Republic, which proceeded to hit hard times. Today, at age 53, he works for Deluxe Games, a small team collaborating with former social networking giant Mixi.
In late 2014, both Sakaguchi and Okamoto released ambitious mobile games in the U.S. Sakaguchi's is a tactical role-playing game called Terra Battle. Okamoto's is a fast-paced role-playing game called Monster Strike. To get a sense of what it's like developing mobile games at this point in their careers, Polygon asked Sakaguchi and Okamoto (joined by Monster Strike Producer Koki Kimura) the same six questions.
Hironobu Sakaguchi, Terra Battle: The download numbers in the U.S. are about half of what they are in Japan right now. It's around 300,000 downloads in America. Japan is 600,000 or 700,000 [as of December 4]. America's download numbers are growing, though. And right now, Terra Battle is a closed game. But after New Year's, we're planning to put out an online mode, and I think that'll help the numbers grow even more.
Koki Kimura, Monster Strike: The game was released in Japan, then Taiwan and now North America. To date, it's been downloaded 15 million times [as of November 12]. And in Japan, we're always playing a seesaw game, basically, with Puzzle & Dragons, and you can look that up easily on any of the data services that put those things out. And then worldwide, we've ranked as high as fourth in sales.
HS: We have one programmer. He's kind of a genius. We have another internal person who creates monster data. Then myself. And then we also have three more illustrators. Then we have one person who created the scenario. So the seven of us — that's the internal team that created Terra Battle.
Then I have people outside the company who do illustrations. And there's Mr. Uematsu, who composed the music. And another sound effects guy who I used to work with in my Square Enix days. ... And we've also contracted a call center outside the company. And then we have GungHo America to help us out with promotion, and they have some customer service staff too.
KK: Between Deluxe Games, Mixi and two other companies involved, the entire Monster Strike team is about 160. ... I think we're an exception, and I think largely there are two things I can call out that require this amount of people.
The first is that we run events in game, almost on a daily basis. So if you think of our game as kind of like a Broadway show or a play that goes on every night, then you have a large cast and an audience. But with our campaigns or in-game events, it's live and we switch things up, and so that requires a planner/designer, or design team, a graphic artist resource, programmers, server engineers — because the data will multiply by whatever on that day or that given moment. So that requires a lot of resources just right there.
Secondly, our marketing team is quite large — their activities are on quite a large scale as well. It's almost like running a daily TV show or daily radio show.
"Every now and then, I'll think of just forgetting about making games and decide to go surf full time."
HS: When I was creating Terra Battle, it felt like it was almost going back to the Famicom days. How you make a mobile game is really similar to how I made games back then. So the programmer will put together the build, and I'll give him feedback, and then he'll fix it, and we'll do it again. That style of development was really nostalgic for me. It was really fun, so even with a blank check that might be what I'd do.
When you're creating a consumer title, the game will turn out huge, so you have to have a detailed spec document and people work off that document. And you know, there's a chance you won't entirely understand what everyone is doing since the scale is too big. But with a mobile game, when you're a three-person team, you know exactly what's going on and you can work without a lot of the planning. You're just building it as you go, and I think that's probably a better way to create something fun.
Yoshiki Okamoto, Monster Strike: For me, it came down to a matter of, "OK well, I really want to see smiles and happy faces from users." So it comes down to two scenarios. Maybe the investment price is different, but if I put in the same amount of effort into a game and at the end of that tunnel I see 10 happy faces, or I see a million happy faces, which am I going to go to? And there's a certain value to both approaches, depending on who you are and what your goals and visions are. But to me, seeing those one million happy faces, that's where I want to be.
HS: Basically, I want to do things I find fun. So maybe I'd make a mobile game and then shoot a movie or something like that.
YO: Yeah, without any hesitation. And the money I wouldn't use, I would pocket it.
HS: Every now and then, I'll think of just forgetting about making games and decide to go surf full time. But I feel satisfied when I create a game and see how it's received by people. Being in the middle of all that feels really good. So because of that, I do want to continue doing this. ... I feel like unless I get a powerful disease or something bad happens, I'll probably keep creating games. I feel like people in their 60s and 70s nowadays are way younger than they used to be, so I can see myself making games even at that age.
YO: I think it comes down to how many more games or creations I can do with Mr. Kimura, because I feel that he's the only team member or partner I can have at this point. If he gets bored, and he's like, "I'm out. I'm done creating games," or says, "I've learned enough from you. I have no more to learn," then I think my game-creating career may be over.
HS: I'm the type of person who does what I think of. So I don't have a list; whenever I think of something I want to do, I just do it. I actually have a list of things I don't want to do, like attend my daughter's wedding reception [laughs].
YO: There are two things, I guess, left on my bucket list. Going back through my career, I feel I've accomplished a few things. I was able to earn the top position in the arcade business. I had some hits and I earned the top position in console. And now, we've earned the top position in mobile.
So the two things that remain are — the first thing is, at least in Japan, whoever has earned the #1 spot with a mobile game, they have not been able to make a consecutive #1 title. So I want to make two in a row. ... And then the second thing I want to do is leave behind my knowledge base of how to create games, how to make games, at Mixi.
Gaming in the '80s was amazing. (I know — I'm dating myself right off the bat here, but humor an old man, OK?)
Back then, everything about video games felt fresh and new and fun — the ideas, the characters (many of whom are icons now today) and the music — ah, the music. Gaming was a much smaller, much more personal thing back then. Finding other enthusiasts wasn't so easy — there was no internet, of course. No blogs. No message boards. No downloading games — you wanted more games, you borrowed them from a friend because The Adventure of Link was ALWAYS rented out at Blockbuster video. ... Did I mention I'm an old man?
Anyway, back in those days no one really specified "Japanese games," any more than you would specify "Japanese sushi." As a console gamer in the '80s, video games just were from Japan. (Well, most of the ones worth talking about, anyway.) Outside of some awkward translations, no one cared much that these games were from Japanese developers.
Turns out that, back then, most Japanese developers didn't care much about the West either. Anyone who's studied world history can tell you Japan is famous for its long period of self-imposed isolation. Anyone who's studied the game industry around this time can tell you basically the same thing.
Having lived in Japan for almost 15 years — eight of them working at a Japanese game publisher — I've seen firsthand what makes the industry tick over here. And now at DDM, one of the world's biggest game agencies (plug!), I've had the fortune of working with Dimps, Platinum Games, From Software, Comcept (plug, plug, plug!) and a wide variety of other extremely talented Japanese game creators.
All of these developers are exceptional in different ways, but one trait they all share is that they embrace the West. They have all broken away — and stayed away — from the isolationist policies that marked the early days of the Japanese industry.
Let me explain. First, let's go back to the '80s again: Nintendo's Famicom was released in America as the NES (complete with horrible new front-loading design). It did very well. Sega's competing Master System, not so much (but hey, it had Phantasy Star, the game that introduced me to RPGs, so it wasn't a complete wash). In this era, most Japanese game makers were focused wholly on Japan. They didn't really know what American or European players were into, and they didn't really care — they were making the games they themselves would want to play.
I talked already about how times were simpler back then for game players. They were simpler for game creators too; there weren't all these big sales teams and PR folks telling them what the marketplace wanted from them. And with relatively few games coming out every month, it was generally enough to focus on making a good game — people would find it. Being a game developer was about making something good enough to please yourself, and that was it. Sounds pretty good, right?
Skip ahead a few years to the 16-bit era, and the console gravy train is still steaming right along. Japanese game creators started getting credited by their real names and became famous in their native land. This only reinforced the inward-looking perspective, which is just human nature — why focus on foreign markets where people can't even pronounce your name? For the most part, Japan stayed the course and focused on what it had always been: Japan (even as EA gobbled up the quickly growing sports game market ...).
Some people would say the move from carts to discs — with the more culturally specific voice and video capabilities that came with it — was the big turning point.
Some would say the Western market grew to the point that it could no longer be ignored.
Some would say the Japanese market finally reached saturation, so the higher-ups began to look elsewhere.
Whatever the reason, in the late '90s Japan finally started to come out of its shell and try a more Western-friendly approach. (It's worth noting, however, that even at the dawn of the PlayStation era, globally successful games — like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy 7, Metal Gear Solid with its anime-style character drama and several racing games with Japan-centric track selections — were often still designed with Japan in mind. Foreign sales were an afterthought.)
And then, just when Japan had begun to consider ways to make its games more universally appealing, Grand Theft Auto 3 happened.
"As game development became more and more about going big or going home, Japan got stuck, and some would say lost, in the middle."
I had just been hired into the U.S. branch of Capcom; I still remember everyone gathering to watch a report about GTA3 on Nightline. Nightline! (If you don't know what that is, ask your parents.) I'd never seen anything like it. Times had changed, almost overnight — here was a Western title that looked great, played great. It captured the zeitgeist to such an extent that, not only did it seem impossibly "cool," but other games almost seemed a bit less cool.
At almost the same time, you had Halo and even Metroid Prime. It wasn't just sports titles any more; Western developers began to overtake their Japanese counterparts in a wide variety of genres. The annual worldwide top-ten best-selling games started having fewer and fewer Japanese titles, and more and more Western ones.
By the time Japanese publishers really noticed trends like sandbox gameplay and robust online multiplayer modes, the ship had already sailed. Those that tried to catch up fell victim to inexperience, limited budgets (try making a game for $10 million that competes with a $40 million Western blockbuster), or characters, storylines and dialogue that didn't resonate with Western audiences. (With a few big exceptions, but hey, let's stick to the in general here.)
What happens next is pretty much common knowledge — the downward spiral began, and as many Japanese publishers and their midsized games continued to lose ground to big AAA Western franchises, upper management shrank budgets further to mitigate risk. Wash, rinse, repeat. As game development became more and more about going big or going home, Japan got stuck, and some would say lost, in the middle.
It was about three years ago when I noticed another trend: Japanese publisher spending on console game development was falling off — fast. It was all pouring into mobile: short dev cycles, small up-front risk and — with the right free-to-play monetization formula — the money would flow in. Previously, development investment was 80 percent console and 20 percent mobile games, but then it inverted. One by one, the budgets in almost every major Japanese publisher (save a few midsized companies) turned 180 degrees toward mobile. I can't say I really blame them — the console well seemed to be drying up. With each new generation, profit ratios have dropped. Japanese gamers aren't buying home consoles so much anymore, and Western gamers are buying more and more Western games.
Times change. Change is hard. The era of the Iga Metroidvanias is over ... Ryo has found his last sailor ... I just need to move on, right?
Well, just one problem with that: As an agent connected with a wide variety of publishers, developers and talented creators, I find that many of them, like many of us, want more than mobile games. They want the precision that only a controller can bring. They want to create experiences with the depth and immersion of the "core games" they love.
Some people may disagree with me here, but it must be said: The Japanese indie scene is not healthy.
I'm not saying there aren't good titles, and I'm not saying there aren't talented indie creators — I'm saying there aren't enough chances for either. Many important support structures just aren't there: no government assistance or subsidies like in other countries. Japanese VCs and investment firms care more about technology than they do about games (especially nonmobile games). Crowdfunding has yet to really take off here. Even first-party support is less available, slower and has less money to offer than their Western counterparts &mdash even for the Japanese console makers!
I'll be the first to admit I probably should lower my hopes for the future of Japanese console gaming. But at the risk of getting all Hallmark moment on you, I keep coming back to the Japanese game creators responsible for the favorite games of my youth. As a latchkey kid, Japanese games took what could have been a lot of lonely hours and replaced them with happy memories. So, both for my job and for me personally, if I can enable even a few of them to get a chance, or a second chance, and get a few more great games made during the current indie revolution, I'm not giving up yet.
And neither should you — Japanese indies need your support most of all. Vote with your clicks and your tweets and your dollars for what you want to see: that stylish import with the insane art style? That quirky Japanese indie trying to do something new? That famed old-school creator crowdfunding his latest project? They all need you to pay attention. They all need you to care.
Of course this will take time — nothing's going to happen overnight. In a way, with the mobile trend, Japan has come full-circle: publishers are focused on making hits that cater to the Japanese audience. Once again, Japan is threatening to become more and more isolated in this new market (if less successful on a global scale). The few brave developers determined to not fade quietly into the night have their work cut out for them.
There are spots of hope: Microsoft betting big on Platinum Games with Scalebound. Sony really getting behind Bloodborne. Maybe it's not yet enough to call it a "trend" yet, but first-party publishers supporting Japanese developers like this is a good sign. Add to that the recent attention for Japanese indies from BitSummit and a few Kickstarter campaigns like Mighty No. 9, and there is cause for optimism. At the very least, there are ways we can all make a difference.
So whattaya say? Will you humor this old man and give it a shot?—————
Ben Judd is an agent with Digital Development Management, a game industry business and talent agency.
On July 1, 1990, I found myself, at the wee age of 18, about 30 minutes from touchdown at Osaka's Itami airport, my only knowledge of Japan having come from the '80s "classic" Michael Douglas movie Black Rain (and the smoggy aerial shot of Osaka I was seeing from my British Airways seat).
You see, in the UK there was no Nintendo presence back then. There was no manga, and Japan was seen primarily through the eyes of Clive James, an Australian comedian who would introduce the craziest of Japanese TV shows on late night British telly, usually involving poor Japanese "tarento" risking their lives for a few seconds of fame. For a panicked microsecond, "Wait, is Japan a communist country?" flashed through my mind.
Walking out from the airport to the taxi with my then boss, Jez San, I was accosted by the turgid, hot, humid air, at least 20 degrees higher in temperature and 90 percent higher in humidity than any climate I experienced in the UK. We dove into a taxi, my boss, who had been to Japan once just two weeks before, warning me that I should not touch the door on threat of death because it is automatic. The white-gloved driver switched on the engine and cold air with a subtle scent of citrus hit us, cooling some of the sweat from our 20-second outside excursion.
Jetlagged, I drifted in and out of consciousness as the taxi took us to our hotel about 50 minutes away in Kyoto, but even now, 24 years later, I can still see those fleeting glimpses of thousands and thousands of brilliantly lit vending machines flying past us in my mind's eye.
Needless to say, that first night I would have never have guessed Kyoto would become my permanent home, but about five days later, on the last night of my stay, I had decided Kyoto was where I wanted to live — forever. In a remarkably short time Kyoto had worked its magic on me and I was won over. It wasn't just one thing, but a combination of the friendly people, the relaxed yet not lazy pace of life, the food, the safety and a sense of "This is how civilized people should be living; this is how civilized people should be having fun!" Which, compared to North West London where I lived and worked at the time, was like the difference between dystopia and utopia. The contrast was quite simply as stark as that.
So when people ask me "Why Kyoto?" I answer, "Because it is one of the best cities in the world."
So now, all these years later, Kyoto's indie scene has begun to grow, and other people are coming to the same conclusion I came to back in 1990 and have started setting up shop here too. Q-Games pretty much kick-started (in the traditional sense of the word) the console indie scene with PixelJunk Racers back in 2007, and from there more and more indie games have been made locally.
Going further back, did you know Amaya Daisuke was indie before indie was cool back in 2004 when he released the famous PC title Cave Story? He is Kyoto born and bred. Other companies such as Vitei (created by my Star Fox co-programmer and old buddy Giles Goddard) are also in Kyoto. Vitei works on all kinds of fun stuff while also loaning out its "back room" to indies who want to use the space, which has helped nurture a fun local scene of creators, foreign and Japanese alike. Very recently too, Seattle indie darling 17-Bit, behind Skulls of the Shogun and Galak-Z, also moved here and is planning to bring everyone over lock, stock and barrel!
A key milestone was when, a couple of years ago, James Mielke, who was working as a producer at Q-Games at the time, came to me and asked if he could spend time and resources to set up a summit for Japanese-based indie game devs and hold it here in Kyoto. I told him to go ahead, and we formed a small posse of people in Q who were interested. Six months later BitSummit was born and it was a roaring success. People discovered that BitSummit is totally unlike the Tokyo Game Show and is a chance to see what the real Japanese indie scene is up to.
Our second BitSummit last year had an amazing selection of games, from Million Onion Hotel, to a game in which you taxi zombies around in VR, to a guy who had created a 16 x 16 red LED device with built-in BASIC that you could program — and yes, with only 16 x 16 pixels, the code would get pretty hard to read! On top of all that, we had radio-controlled NES consoles being driven around on the floor and live music playing from famous indie game musicians. It was a like a big, massive party for people who love making games, and the good news is that we are planning to do it all again this summer, so keep your ears to the ground for more info on this! You'll get to see a completely different side to Japanese games and a side that doesn't really get any visibility elsewhere.
So, why Kyoto? It's a city that's small enough that you don't need a car and large enough that it has huge electronics stores and many company HQs located here (such as Nintendo).
It's a city full of hospitality and many "omotenashi" or "omoiyari" [hospitality] touches.
It's a town where the McDonald's storefronts are brown and not red so as not to clash with the Shinto shrines and their brilliant vermilion torii gates.
It's a town full of universities too and has a vibrant, young population and many, many drinking and eating establishments — thousands and thousands, in fact.
It's a city of festivals and parties, good spirits and good people — people doing things that they enjoy.
It's a city of natural beauty, surrounded by mountains on all sides with a great river running right through the center.
It's a city of culture and history where there are shops that have been run by the same families for over 14 generations.
And above all, it's the city I, and many other indies, call home.—————
Dylan Cuthbert is the founder of Kyoto-based developer Q-Games, which is currently developing open world game The Tomorrow Children for PlayStation 4.