Koji Igarashi didn’t sleep much last night. He blames jet lag, but he also has a big day ahead.
The former Castlevania producer is in San Francisco to promote a Kickstarter campaign. It’s been many years since he released his last Castlevania game, and he wants to make something similar. A spiritual successor. Because that’s what you do on Kickstarter.
Yesterday, he gave media interviews to talk up the potential project. Last night, he filmed an episode of the online video show "Devs Play," discussing on an old Castlevania game to remind people why they want a successor. And today, he’s driving out into wine country to film a Kickstarter pitch video at a castle in Northern Calif.
He will, at one point, turn into a bat.
He gets ready, dressing in all black in his room at San Francisco’s affordably-priced Hotel Carlton. A few blocks away, two twenty-somethings stop their car at an intersection and shout hate lyrics at four prostitutes standing on the corners.
Igarashi prepares to head out of town.
Igarashi heads down the hotel’s elevator to the lobby and meets the crew for the day’s video shoot. That includes Paul Levering, Paul Owens and Asif Siddiky from video team 2 Player Productions — on loan from their day jobs at Broken Age development studio Double Fine — and Igarashi’s agent and translator for the day, Ben Judd, from Digital Development Management. Given the hour, no one has slept much.
The crew loads everyone into a van and departs, Siddiky driving. Judd attempts to wake up the car, singing, "B, double E, double R, U, N. Beer Run!"
Judd reviews the latest "key messaging" of the Kickstarter video script for the game. It’s a 2.5-D side-scrolling action-adventure game, set in a gothic universe, starring an as yet unnamed female main character. Her body is covered in crystals that make her skin look like stained glass, and these simultaneously give her magic powers and attract demons.
The messaging is on track, though there’s a gap in the script where the game’s title is supposed to appear. The team hasn’t yet locked it in and is batting around "Bloodrite" and "Bloodstained," the latter of which plays into the stained glass theme.
The van exits the city, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and Igarashi settles in to discuss everything that led up to this point.
Unlike many well-known game developers, Igarashi didn’t create the franchise he’s best known for, nor has he had much success branching out beyond it. But he was in the right place at the right time; he was a key part of the team that mastered the formula, and he led the franchise through what many consider its best years.
In the mid-‘90s, while working at game publisher Konami, Igarashi joined the team working on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The Castlevania series had been around for 10 years at that point, and Symphony of the Night marked its first release on PlayStation. Even today, more than 15 years later, many still cite it as the best Castlevania game.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
After Symphony of the Night, Igarashi continued to work as a producer at Konami, often handling multiple titles at once, and the company put him in charge of the Castlevania franchise. It didn’t hurt that he looked like a character from the game — tall with scruffy facial hair and strong facial bones. He played up the similarity, often wearing a large-brimmed black hat and carrying a whip at press events, even at industry parties.
He served as the public face of the franchise for approximately 10 years, overseeing a run of well-regarded 2-D games and slightly less well-regarded 3-D games. It was a dream of his to nail the 3-D format the way his team had with 2-D. But toward the end of that 10-year run, he says, he ran into some issues trying to make that happen.
Close to the end of those 10 years, Igarashi worked with a team to create a new 3-D Castlevania game, their first for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. He only briefly ever mentioned the game publicly, showing a teaser trailer for it at the Tokyo Game Show in 2008. But development wasn't going well.
Around the same time, a development team based in Spain, MercurySteam, had finished work on the horror game Clive Barker’s Jericho. The game had reviewed poorly, but it gave the team experience with a gothic art style similar to Castlevania's. MercurySteam was looking for its next project and presented Konami with a prototype for what could be the next 3-D Castlevania. Igarashi says that prototype marked the kiss of death for his project.
"We had spent a decent amount of money and our game really was not coming together," says Igarashi. "And in parallel, MercurySteam’s prototype was looking great. So if you put both on the table and looked at them side by side — the company made a decision to go with MercurySteam.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
"At that point the executive team at Konami said, ‘OK we’re going to go this direction now [and the game that became Castlevania: Lords of Shadow], and you need to step back.’"
According to Igarashi, this extended not just to his 3-D project, but to new 2-D games in the franchise as well. Konami’s higher-ups wanted to move on.
"I was told to back away, so I couldn’t exactly put together a pitch internally and say, ‘Hey let’s do a 2-D game as well.’ My hands were pretty much tied at that point. And I was still ... attached doing ports and small, related projects. But as far as new titles, I really didn’t have a leg to stand on."
Igarashi then chose to move into Konami’s mobile division, attempting to layer in more complex game mechanics than typically appear in mobile games, as he tells it, but he wasn’t able to get a game off the ground. He kept a toe in the console world, helping bring puzzle platformer Scribblenauts to Japan and producing games like the Kinect experiment Leedmees. He even worked on a small Castlevania WiiWare project. But he missed the old days.
Then he saw the success of the Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter campaign, which Judd also had a hand in. It was a similar situation — the face of a popular classic 2-D franchise wanted to make a spiritual successor, and it gave him confidence that leaving Konami could work.
"As an agent, I also whispered dark words into his ear, saying, ‘Everybody loves you. I want to play another friggin’ [Castlevania-style game from you]. We need to get this done,’" says Judd. "‘So you should probably go independent.’"
In early 2014, Igarashi left Konami.
As Igarashi tells his story, the crew’s van passes publisher 2K Games’ Novato, Calif. headquarters on the freeway. While not mentioning 2K specifically, Judd says that when he first signed Igarashi as a client, he spoke to more than 20 game publishers to try to put together a traditional development deal. Judd does a lot of that; he recently set up the deal for PlatinumGames to make Scalebound, and he represents clients including From Software and Comcept.
Igarashi had a game concept and a plan to work with Mighty No. 9 developer Inti Creates. But after six months of pitching, nothing came together.
"I’ve never felt as depressed or defeated as an agent, as taking him around to all the different places," says Judd. "Because we literally hit just about every single publisher ... we would go into these meetings and it would be like, ‘Here’s Iga. He’s making a game that he knows how to make, so that risk is off the table. He’s also making a game for a budget that’s reasonable. He’s had high Metacritic scores all the time with this sort of a game. And they’ve always made money financially.’ So all the key, high-level risk points that publishers should see — they should have been off the table."
Judd says a handful of companies showed interest and sent the concept through their processes, but the final money never came.
"For Japanese publisher subsidiaries who had interest in the title, it was oftentimes the U.S. offices that wanted to do it, because Castlevania was a game that resonated with U.S. audiences, whereas the European subsidiaries didn’t," he says. "And the way that Japanese game publishers are set up, it’s usually Japan versus Europe and America together in one group. So, unless Europe and America agree on a concept together, then it doesn’t move forward. That happened a few times.
"For major Western publishers, they would look at it and say, ‘This is too Japanese.’ Again, it was very disappointing insomuch as, if they had looked at the sales data at all, they would realize this was a title very much like Mega Man that sold very well in America. But every publisher has their brand image, and maybe Activision releasing a Castlevania game would look very weird, so fair enough.
"Then the mid-level publishers; there were a few that said, ‘Listen, we have ties to Konami and we don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us, so we we’re not going to go in that direction.’ So there were some politics too."
As a result, Igarashi took a day job, working for the Japanese branch of Chinese mobile game studio ArtPlay. But he struck an agreement with ArtPlay that would allow him to pursue console game opportunities on the side, so Judd could continue looking for financing to make the game.
Igarashi and Judd wrap up the backstory as the van exits the highway, heading into the country. They’ve arrived in Calistoga, Calif., a town built for weekend getaways. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a winery. It's a 180 from where they woke up in the city.
"This may be the first time I’ve seen a one-lane road in America," says Igarashi. "It feels very much like a tight Japanese road except you’re going in the opposite direction. It’s freaking me out a little bit."
The crew arrives at the location ahead of schedule: Castello di Amorosa ("castle of love"), a 107-room complex built over 15 years. It’s a winery disguised as a castle with animals on the premises, a drawbridge leading to the front door and a gift shop near the front. There’s a dungeon and a torture chamber. It’s also a common location for film shoots needing a castle backdrop — Namco Bandai recently filmed promotional footage here for Dark Souls 2.
Once the van parks, Igarashi hops out and runs across the parking lot back to the foot of the driveway, taking photos of rock formations. He’s capturing photo reference material, he explains, to potentially use for textures in the game.
Jim Sullivan, the castle’s VP of public relations and marketing, arrives to open the doors and let the crew in. He’s a good sport who doesn’t hesitate when the video team asks if it can smash a glass on the castle’s floor. He’s getting married at the castle over the weekend and plans to wear one of the suits of armor on display to greet guests, only to then take off the helmet and surprise everyone.
The team heads inside to set up for the day’s first scene.
The script calls for Igarashi to sit in a throne in front of a fireplace at the end of a massive room designed for special events. A line of tables runs down the middle of the room with a long row of chairs on each side, allowing 100-some people to dine together.
Igarashi sits in the throne, holding a glass of wine. It’s time for a direct plea to potential Kickstarter backers, and Igarashi needs to throw the glass with force, then stand and passionately ask for help.
At first, his mellow temperament doesn’t sell the scene.
Judd describes Igarashi as one of his nicest and most humble clients, which sounds like the kind of thing every agent would say about every client. But Igarashi’s gentle nature and mannerisms seem to support it. He walks lightly enough to barely leave footprints. He asks permission before sitting down.
2 Player’s Siddiky asks for more passion.
"I’m not a very passionate person," laughs Igarashi.
Siddiky asks for "bubbling frustration," suggesting he channel how he’s felt for the last couple years.
Igarashi nails it, shouting into the camera as his voice echoes around the room.
"You look like such a vampire," Judd says to Igarashi after the fact. Igarashi says he hears that a lot, and that people also call him "Japanese Jesus Christ."
Scene two takes place in a medieval torture chamber, which is far enough underground that it doesn’t get cell phone service, so it has its own Wi-Fi password. There’s an iron maiden at one end of the room, an axe on the wall and a collection of spears.
The centerpiece is a table with a crank that tightens rope around a person’s legs. For this scene in the video, Igarashi plays a dungeon keeper, tightening the crank as he asks Kickstarter viewers for money for stretch goals. Judd plays the part of the legs.
Offhand, in what seems like a joke, the 2 Player Productions team mentions a scene in which they’ll need to turn Igarashi into a bat.
Scene three moves to an armory, with Sullivan’s suit of armor and more weapons on the walls. There’s a hole in the ground off to one side to hold prisoners, in theory.
At this point in the day, the castle has opened to the public, so tour guides are filtering guests through to show them the grounds while the crew films.
None of the guests recognize Igarashi.
Happy with the shots thus far, the team decides to break for lunch. Since the castle doesn’t serve food, that means heading into downtown Calistoga, which consists of a few blocks filled with restaurants, bed and breakfasts and consignment shops.
The team ends up at Pacifico, a Mexican restaurant recommended by Sullivan. Feeling the jet lag, Igarashi falls asleep in his chair.
Because of the early start time, it’s just past 1:00 and Igarashi has finished the bulk of his work for the day. The video team needs to film some shots without Igarashi, so he and Judd sit on the castle’s front lawn to discuss his plans for the future while occasionally being nipped at by ducks wandering the grounds behind them.
Igarashi is now 47 but says he doesn’t see a lot of differences in his approach today compared to his approach working on Symphony of the Night almost 20 years ago. And he says he’s not looking at this Kickstarter project as one final hurrah, but as a starting point toward making the kinds of things he used to.
Shiro Neko Project
No matter what happens, he plans to keep his day job at ArtPlay. He says he’s currently working on a mobile game there that layers in more complex mechanics than most mobile titles, which is what he wanted to do in his latter years at Konami but couldn’t get off the ground. He points to a recent hit mobile role-playing game in Japan, Shiro Neko Project, saying that the pitch he worked on at Konami was very similar, so he feels vindicated seeing its success.
He’s hoping to split his time this way down the line, working on new ideas for ArtPlay while producing projects like his Castlevania spiritual successor on the side rather than putting all his eggs in one basket or starting his own company.
"I understand people’s desire to own a company and make it their own thing," he says. "It’s very easy to understand that sort of ambition that naturally occurs. But I just want to make games. Building a company from the ground up is incredibly difficult. Management, hiring — it’s just a huge amount of work."
Instead, Igarashi says he wants to turn his Kickstarter game into a franchise that will allow him to collaborate with external developers, iterate on it, reuse art assets and make sequels. Basically, he wants to turn it into a new Castlevania.
"This sort of a game is one that, as you build out multiple iterations of it and make sequels, then it naturally gets better and better and more crafted and more polished," he says. "So from my perspective, I’d like to make future versions of it. Because with each version, it should hopefully become a better and better game."
It’s time for 2 Player Productions to make good on its promise. It’s time to make Igarashi fly.
Everyone heads up a set of stairs near the top of one of the castle's towers. The video team locates a spot it scouted earlier. It's a small corridor with sunlight creating a shadow at the end of the hall.
Here, the crew reveals the line earlier about turning Igarashi into a bat wasn't a joke. The corridor is angled so that as Igarashi arrives to speak, his shadow is clearly visible on the wall. And with some special effects magic to be added later, that shadow will transform from a bat into Igarashi.
At this point in the video script, there's a gap where the game's title needs to appear. It's still up in the air between Bloodrite and Bloodstained, so the team records multiple takes to have options. (In the weeks following, the team will settle on Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.)
The video team then films the scene with Igarashi walking into the frame. In some ways, it's somewhat anticlimactic; it’s a bit like watching actors perform in front of a green screen before the pieces all come together. But it's also an ambitious idea for a Kickstarter pitch video, one that few teams have the resources or expertise to pull off.
The 2 Player Productions team calls wrap on the scene, then heads off to film some footage without Igarashi while waiting for the sun to go down. Igarashi heads to the van to sleep.
Bloodstained concept art
Judd wakes Igarashi up. It’s time to film his final scenes.
The crew records a sequence of Igarashi walking down a long hallway while speaking to the camera. He almost looks like a different person than the Igarashi who’s been hanging out all day — walking with bold steps like a runway model. Igarashi says he’s least comfortable delivering the lines that are direct appeals to potential backers, but this scene suggests otherwise.
The crew heads up a staircase to get another shot, then ends on a final bit of footage with Igarashi kneeling in the castle’s chapel.
Everyone calls it a day at Castello di Amorosa. They head back to the van and then over to a nearby graveyard to record some final footage. Igarashi falls back asleep.
Skipping dinner, the team returns to San Francisco on a long, quiet drive home. But there’s one more stop before calling it a day. It’s time to record voiceover lines for the video.
The crew drives to 2 Player Productions’ home base at Double Fine’s office, and sets up Igarashi in an audio room across the hall from the company's main studio. It’s a room designed for function rather than beauty, and perhaps a bit of storage, with dumbbells on the floor next to a pair of unexplained hiking shoes.
Despite it being the end of a long day, Igarashi takes time to rehearse his lines, hesitantly whispering each to himself multiple times before leaning into the microphone to record. And much like he does on camera toward the end of the day, when the record button goes on, he transforms into someone else, speaking with a booming voice and the urgency of a Japanese television commercial announcer.
It’s a wrap on Koji Igarashi. The room claps.
He heads to the van and then to the hotel as everyone goes their separate ways. Tomorrow morning it’s back to Japan. Back to the day job at ArtPlay and driving on the left side of the street.
Igarashi looks relaxed and happy. For the first time in a few years, he's making an original game and he’s on the verge of potentially making a second. He’s a few weeks away from knowing whether the day’s efforts will pay off, but he knows his chances are better now than they were just a few years ago.
Earlier in the day, when discussing his future career plans, Igarashi mentioned that at this point in his career, it's not particularly important for him to make one specific game before he retires or to find a job that pays a massive salary. He just wants to make new games again.
"At the end of the day, it’s been a long time since I’ve released a game," he said. "So just getting back to being able to make and release a game, that’s the big thing."