Capcom Japan producer Andrew Szymanski and developer Spark Unlimited talk about their debut collaboration.
A hero, strapped into a giant walking robo-suit, walks through a blizzard with low visibility and no idea what's coming next.
The producer of Capcom's upcoming Lost Planet 3, Andrew Szymanski, is gushing about the video game that changed his childhood, so much so that when he recalls its iconic opening scene, he probably doesn't realize he could be describing his own game — also full of robo-suits and snow and giant, weird worlds to explore. But he doesn't mention Final Fantasy VI because of any sense of fate or serendipity. Instead, his is an instinctual reaction to a simple question: Did any video game in particular send him on his career path?
"It was Eff Eff Six," Szymanski answers without missing a beat, no clarification needed. In 1994, a buddy's traveling father brought home a Super Famicom and a bunch of Japanese games, Final Fantasy VI among them.
Szymanski had been intrigued by Japanese game development ever since he'd beaten NES games years prior: "The credits would roll with fake names, but sometimes instead, you'd see these names jumbled with symbols. I remember an older kid telling me, those guys are all Japanese. I'm like, what?" Szymanski laughs. "You don't understand the concept of nationalities or anything like that, and you're thinking to yourself, 'this is made by someone who speaks another language and is very far away.'"
Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, American kids were at the mercy of giant Japanese developers, waiting for overseas games to eventually make their way stateside. Magazines like Nintendo Power commonly gushed about weird games that Westerners might never see. 1992's Final Fantasy V proved to be one of those. Now, Szymanski had Final Fantasy VI.
"That was the game that set off the idea that, 'OK, I have to learn this language and experience what's going on. I may never have a chance to play this. And even if I do, I may have to wait a couple of years for it. I don't want to wait for it!'"
Attempting double redemption
Years of language lessons and game design training later, Szymanski's name has made the credit rolls of Japanese video games, including fare produced by Tecmo, Microsoft and Capcom — and his own last name's jumble of consonants and vowels might seem fake to a new generation of gamers. Szymanski now calls Tokyo home, but his role can't be what he expected as a wide-eyed "Eff Eff" fan. He's a project lead at Capcom for Lost Planet 3 — but that means overseeing the efforts of Spark Unlimited, a game developer in Los Angeles. Capcom has hired the company to put a Western spin on an already Western-friendly series.
For the past few years, as the West has outgrown Japan in game consumption, more Japanese game companies are following suit, hiring Western firms or focusing squarely on its shooter-heavy sales charts.
Lost Planet 3 is a particularly interesting case study in East-meets-West game design. Language and culture barriers are obstacle enough, but theirs is an attempt at double-redemption. Capcom had a critical failure in Lost Planet 2, while Spark's last flop, the first-person shooter Legendary, was followed by canceled contracts and unfinished games.
While Lost Planet 3, over three years in the making, constitutes a massive, bicontinental effort, Szymanski slips at one point, saying his "ass is on the line for the whole shebang." Though, in the end, you can't blame him for feeling that way. Just like in his favorite opening sequence, Szymanski — with a lot of people on his robo-suit's back — has jumped into Lost Planet 3 to stomp through showers of snow and unexplored territory.
All images in this story are from Lost Planet 3.
A modest approach
If the robo-suit comes equipped with a rear-view mirror in its cockpit, surely the first thing in that view would be the wreckage of Lost Planet 2.
In 2007, the original Lost Planet made waves as a solid, gorgeous-looking mech shooter for an Xbox 360 still starving for action games. Its bombastic-yet-isolated style looked ready for a major refresh with the 2010 sequel, and Capcom promised a ton: four-player co-op, bigger worlds, and much nastier Akrid — the series' monstrous race of alien-bugs. But the return to the planet EDN III proved bumpy, thanks to issues like confusing level paths, abysmal AI and an excruciating "stun-lock" effect that sent players to their frequent, frustrating deaths.
Capcom didn't take long to realize that the team would need to break ranks once more — and more severely, at that.
Szymanski points to Kenji Oguro, game director for the first two installments and a Capcom developer for over a decade. "We're blessed in the fact that out of all of the creative leads inside Capcom, he's not only one of the most open minded, but one of the most — what do you wanna call it? He realizes that not everything he's done is gold."
"Let's try to do some of those things we weren't able to do before."
A backhanded compliment if there ever was one, but that approach enabled Oguro and Szymanski to have a "candid and frank" conversation about another Lost Planet release, which had entered the concept phase before LP2 had reached store shelves. Szymanski recalls specifically calling out the stun-lock issue that drove Western players nuts, and the resulting discussion about that and other design decisions proved to be an "epiphany" moment on both sides, which paved the way to shaking up the series.
Shortly afterward, Oguro framed conversations about the next steps by queuing up a prototype — the first version of Lost Planet, as it turns out, before it was known as Lost Planet. This game, which had been designed for the PlayStation 2, was called Third Planet, and it resembled more of an "open, exploration-based experience" complete with larger-world issues like resource gathering.
The game changed when it shifted to the spanking-new Xbox 360. So that they could squeeze the most out of unfamiliar hardware, and launch "one of the first shooters" on the platform, the game became "an arcade, level-based experience," Szymanski says.
LP2's further push toward arcade-style action — and away from plot — didn't pan out. For the brains behind Lost Planet 3, then, moving forward meant moving backward in the series history. "'Let's try to do some of those things we weren't able to do before,'" Szymanski remembers saying. "'Now that we're near the end of the [console] lifecycle, let's make a more narrative-driven, exploration-based game about these colonists and their struggle.'"
Conveniently, the team Capcom eventually hired for the job came to the same conclusion before it even knew about the Third Planet prototype.
What this says about Capcom
Technically, Szymanski never comes out and explains exactly why Capcom had to hire a Western developer to make Lost Planet 3. Nobody claims that Capcom's internal resources were stretched too thin, nor has anybody outright taken credit for setting sail across the Pacific or examining sales charts and data about American developers.
Maybe the subject is still a little touchy. In May 2010, Capcom president Haruhiro Tsujimoto addressed the dismal sales of two of its then-recent Western-developed games, Dark Void and Bionic Commando, with pretty stern terms. He said Capcom wouldn't do that again — specifically, wouldn't pick up a game that had been developed independently by a Western studio. In an interview with the Nikkei, Tsujimoto insisted that such collaborations were still important to Capcom, but they would now revolve around established IP.
But Lost Planet wasn't shopped to American firms with a "more of the same" mission. Quite the opposite. The words "Lost Planet" would be the only series constants not poked, prodded and shuffled into new — and hopefully improved — shapes. That sounded just fine to the design team that eventually got the job, Spark Unlimited.
"In early stages, our fear was that we'd make compromises, they'd make compromises, and something in the middle would be something that nobody really likes," Spark lead designer Matt Sophos says. "After that, we realized that they came to us for a reason. We were afforded the freedom to spin [Lost Planet 3] in a Western-centered way."
"We needed to create a really good test case — a really good representation of, 'here's how we can work with Western developers.'"
It's not exactly bucking the president's orders, but there's something a little cavalier — sure, Western — about the process, at least as far as Capcom is admitting. As such, Szymanski takes indirect credit — and admits to a motivation of pride about the Western search.
"Our first and foremost goal is to show people that this isn't just outsourcing, or farming it out to the lowest bidder," he says. "We wanted to make sure that it was understood that we're working with Western developers. We're trying to create something more than the sum of its parts. We needed to create a really good test case — a really good representation of, 'here's how we can work with Western developers.'"
One of the biggest design challenges for a Lost Planet game is making levels that work both for players on foot, and for players driving mechs.
Software doesn't lie
When asked just why Capcom picked Spark Unlimited for the job, Szymanski launches a pre-emptive strike: "You don't have to mince words. We can take it. 'Why would they choose the developer of Legendary and Turning Point?' I get it!"
The Spark games in question had first-person gunplay in common, but also dismal sales. Both games launched in 2008 with a thud, and the next year saw Spark try to right itself in a particularly pre-Kickstarter way. After the company sent a few game idea pitches to publishers, one seemed to stick, and a new team formed to pound out a prototype.
The prototype remained just that; the contract fell through, as did the funding. Spark had gone to the trouble of reorganizing its development process and hiring a bunch of people. What now?
Around that time, Szymanski flew to the States with a Lost Planet 3 mission and a number of game studio visits. He focused on those who'd built first- and third-person shooters, especially those who'd made games that never saw the light of day.
Fitting that bill, Spark received permission to show off its prototype to Capcom. Szymanski stopped by.
"There was a certain amount of trepidation walking into Spark," Szymanski admits.
"I'd seen the games. I'd seen the Metacritic. You know — there's no point in sugarcoating it. But I'm not gonna write them off purely because of that. We've all known teams that have fluctuated between great products and not-so-great products. A lot of it is publisher relationship."
Chatting with the Spark team lightened his spirits. Team members emphasized their efforts to reorganize and to implement more "agile" development strategies, among other things. They also had this prototype.
"There was a certain amount of trepidation walking into Spark."
Nobody from the Lost Planet 3 team can divulge just what the prototype consisted of, but Szymanski is at liberty to eke out a "wow" about it. After playing this third-person shooter built in Unreal Engine 3, Szymanski says he thought, "'Now the pieces are coming together. Software doesn't lie.'"
The other factors in his decision don't sound as flattering. He lists off concerns like the cost of hiring better-reviewed developers, not to mention firms that would rather not work within the constraints of Capcom's IP. "At the risk of sounding slightly condescending, there's something to be said for rooting for the underdog," Szymanski concludes.
Sophos chimes in: "That is condescending!" he says with a laugh, and Syzmanski cleans up by adding, "but, but, they're showing now that they're hungry for a chance. From a psychological standpoint, there was something to be said for giving a chance to a developer who's hungry for an opportunity. It could result in something that nobody expects."
A wake-up call
When pressed further about this impressive prototype, Szymanski doesn't let the cat out of the bag. Instead, he waxes poetic about Spark's implementation of a third-person camera. Not character designs, not boss encounters, not a particular gameplay moment — instead, the camera's exact angle and placement. How it handled going up and down stairs. How it reacted to action-filled moments.
As Szymanski explains, something as seemingly simple as a third-person camera doesn't come standard with an Unreal Engine 3 license; it needs to be built and tweaked by its developers. That stuff isn't chopped liver — and it had particular utility in UE3's earliest days. But that love for game design minutiae also speaks to Szymanski's trial by fire in the industry.
He left the States to attend university in Japan, finding a job at Tecmo soon after graduating in 2003 — specifically, with Team Ninja. There, he experienced a different sort of culture shock: game design culture shock.
"In the U.S. you're expected to have the skills when you graduate. You're expected to hit the ground running and be very effective in your field. The Japanese don't work that way. They don't care what you studied in your college. They hire people based on their inherent potential. It's a boot camp of sorts. You're broken down and rebuilt into what they need you to be."
At Team Ninja, that indoctrination meant sleepless nights, verbal abuse, and having work "thrown into your face." Szymanski endured the "spartan culture" by reminding himself that Japanese game makers, at the time, still dominated the industry; as far as he was concerned, he had no other path.
Szymanski says the experience primed him for his continued growth in the industry, building him up to work better with large design teams and thickening his skin. He eventually took on a contract producer job on a Microsoft-funded third-party title, and though the game never saw release or even announcement, he had finally been tasked with "bridging the gap between East and West, if you will" — something he'd been held back from doing for years. [Editor's note: We originally reported that Szymanski worked as a producer for Microsoft itself. We regret the error.]
"I remember one of the first days on the job [at Team Ninja], my boss, [Tomonobu] Itagaki, came over and said, 'I heard you want to be a game designer.' I'm like, 'yeah.' He said, 'you're also American. That'll be really useful.' I said, 'yes.' He's like, 'you're not allowed to speak English for the next two years when you're at work. Don't bet on the fact that being bilingual gives you a free pass, or you think you're special. You have to be as good as any other designer on my team.' That was a wake-up call."
After a year and a half working on a project for Microsoft, coordinating the efforts of Japanese developers and the American publisher, Szymanski came to Capcom to do the opposite. Having the figurative snot beaten out of him at Team Ninja proved useful with the new gig, because it forced him to see the potential downfalls of East/West game collaboration.
Szymanski points to a huge potential schism: the concept phase. "My job is to get the creatives, the artists, and the designers to speak the same language," he says. "I don't mean English or Japanese — I mean the same game language. The actual language barrier? That can always be overcome. All you need is a good amount of resources. But the lost in translation aspect, with different philosophies of game design, that's harder."
On Japanese teams he's worked with, the moment-to-moment experience has come first, like the way players jump or swing swords, and a narrative comes later to execute on those mechanics: "We have a character who traverses the environment by swinging on poles. He's got a giant sword on his back. We need an ice level, a fire level, and a giant space station. How do we tie that together?"
Western teams he's worked with, conversely, have focused on narrative, story and environment portions at the outset, only to build gameplay beats afterward. Szymanski saw that split rear its head at the beginning of Lost Planet 3's concept phase: "It was never people getting upset, but definitely times where those gaps had to be bridged. People had to understand they were coming from fundamentally different points of view in order to see what the other person was bringing to the table. That was one of the most exciting times for me personally. I could jump in there and be that glue, right?"
To ensure the smoothest possible start, high-level Capcom artists and designers flew frequently to Spark's Los Angeles offices during the months-long concepting phase in early 2010. Concepting and drawing pow-wows helped bridge the gap of understanding, and gave the two sides a convenient common language to work with. Spark's take on the utility rig, deemed a little too "blocky and unwieldy," was massaged into a more Japanese mecha style during this process.
Spark's own proposals about the game's direction, including a more open-world treatment, resource gathering and changes to the T-energy system, dovetailed nicely with Oguro's original prototype for the series. On the occasions that Spark asserted a contentious vision, Capcom gave the team ample room to prove out its ideas.
"The grappling hook was incredibly important to the franchise, but we wanted to make sure from our perspective that it was more grounded and didn't create situations that were somewhat ... comical," Sophos says. "Spider-manning around — that's not the direction we were heading with our visuals and our world." Oguro felt like the grappling hook should either work at all times or never, but Spark wanted to try a limited-use implementation.
"'We'll hold off on making a decision until you can show us in software,'" Szymanski recalls saying. "Not in an asshole-ish way, but basically, 'if you're so confident, put your money where your mouth is.' We were blessed with Oguro-san. He approaches things from the perspective of, rather than forcing my opinion on you, 'convince me why this is good. If you can convince me, you can convince the end user.'" Spark pulled it off, and its take on the grappling hook stayed in the code.
Moving to Japan, working with the West
The way Capcom and Spark tell it, the working relationship has been about that smooth, with a combination of serendipitous agreements and healthy compromises, along with less transcontinental travel as Spark hits the game's homestretch. That "agile development" Spark talked about meant they could send playable slices more frequently through development, so as to avoid "gotcha" moments for either side as the final game took shape.
Capcom set the parameters within the Lost Planet universe, but Spark seems to have taken the lead on the tone. Though the game won't reach Skryim or GTA levels, its take on open-world play will hopefully bear out as much as promised. From the sound of it, Lost Planet 3's series of guided missions will often open up non-linear chunks of larger terrain as players discover more of the world — as described, it'll be a nice change of pace from the prior Lost Planet games' arcade sensibilities.
And the game isn't just a rewind in terms of reaching back to the original prototype. As a prequel, Lost Planet 3 aims to make players feel like a frontiersman in mapping out an uncharted planet and harnessing its resources. And through that setup, the game will push a lot more story than in prior titles — and hopefully without turning off Eastern or Western fans.
"This culture is moving from one planet to a place that's uncharted," Sophos says. "We went the route of making it feel like the loner on the frontier. What speaks across both cultures? It's not about family structures, but a family man who's trying to do right for his family. As game developers, where you sacrifice time with your family and things like that, that's universal. Caring about family and wanting to provide for your family, even at a high personal cost: That's where we ended up. The superficial stuff we have is very Western. The music you've heard in demos, the sarcastic and quippy nature of our main character, those are Western trappings. But at its foundation, it's a story that universally anybody can feel and get behind it."
We'll have to wait and see how all of the pieces fit together. Everything from the third-person on-foot gunplay, to managing resources, to the massive utility rig and its latest upgrades (like a grabbing wench), is still up in the air. At the very least, the end result teeters on the Western-friendly side, which shouldn't be too shocking for a shoot-first series like Lost Planet.
Still, this can't be what Szymanski expected when he studied Japanese and game design as a kid, nor when he graduated college and took his lumps at Japanese game studios. Who goes to all that trouble to make games that are less Japanese?
"We're seeing a lot more ... not only the emergence and domination of Western pubs, but also situations like Lost Planet 3, where Japanese publishers are figuring out what they can do to remain relevant."
But Szymanski isn't blind to a changing game industry — if anything, he's eager to capitalize on the transition. He namechecks mobile and downloadable trends, adding that he will "do his part" to ensure Capcom remains relevant on those fronts. Heck, as a bridge between cultures in a rapidly changing game industry, he can't be blamed for rethinking his old boss Itagaki's condemnation, that he wasn't special. Maybe here, in Japan, as a nostalgic, Nintendo-weaned game maker from America, in a unique position to redeem Capcom's Western-minded fare, his role is special.
"The Japanese game industry is on the decline," he says. "The domestic market is shrinking. We're seeing a lot more ... not only the emergence and domination of Western pubs, but also situations like Lost Planet 3, where Japanese publishers are figuring out what they can do to remain relevant. In a twist of irony, a lot of guys, including myself, fell in love with Japanese games and wanted to work in that industry.
"They come over to Japan and realize Japan is looking to figure out how they can spread out to the West, to fill out a niche that is necessary there. In our hearts, we long for those nostalgic days when we played those classic games. I'm sure there’s gonna be things down the line that'll bring that nostalgic feeling back."