Originally set to be published by Microsoft on Xbox 360, Devil's Third saw more prerelease action than most games, moving to a multiplatform release including PC, then including mobile, then ultimately settling on an unlikely home in Wii U. For a game that took eight years to get there, the critical and commercial response was disappointing for all parties involved.
Initially conceived primarily as a single-player game with multiplayer components, Devil's Third transformed through the years to the point that the priorities mostly reversed, with the game now finding a second life on PC in the form of Devil's Third Online heading soon to the U.S. and Europe. DTO is basically the Wii U multiplayer mode fusing third-person combat and shooting, expanded into a standalone online multiplayer game.
I recently caught up with Itagaki at Valhalla Game Studios' office in Tokyo. It's been a long and unpredictable road for the game, but despite all the trials, Itagaki says before our interview that he has plans to continue the series with a proper sequel, Devil's Third 2, and that he even wants to make the series into a trilogy.
[Editor's note: James Mielke is the creative director of Kyoto-based independent game conference BitSummit.]
James Mielke: So let's talk about Devil's Third. It was originally supposed to be a Microsoft exclusive, right?
Tomonobu Itagaki: Yeah, this is probably a shock to the gaming world.
JM: I heard the game didn't hit the "tentpoles" Microsoft was promoting at the time, such as Kinect or social networking, and Devil's Third wasn't the only game that was dropped or cancelled. Is that true?
TI: I don't know about the other projects, but back then Microsoft's interest drastically turned to Kinect. So I think that [was the main reason why], because I have a great relationship with everyone at Microsoft, and we greatly appreciate what Microsoft did for us. They helped us launch the Valhalla battleship through stormy seas.
JM: So, Microsoft helped bankroll the new studio beyond just funding the game's development?
TI: Yes, of course. And Microsoft sent out a press release when I left Tecmo. To them, I'm just one employee at a third-party publisher who left to go independent. But they released a press release saying that I had contributed great games for the Xbox system and they wished me great success in the future. There's no other company that would bother to do that. ...
Microsoft also helped us find a new publisher. They're not a coldhearted company that just sends people off into stormy weather without assistance. But there was probably another strong factor and it's that I have a strong voice in the industry. They probably felt that if they didn't help us through it, there was no saying what I would say publicly. Honestly [laughs].
JM: So they were trying to please you?
TI: We met with all the big publishers. The game wasn't called Devil's Third at the time. [Itagaki points to a photograph.] Here's a picture of Danny Bilson of THQ. The first time I met with him, we fought for three hours. For three hours before I showed him my game, we quarrelled.
'Battle Angel Alita'
JM: About what?
TI: He said, "I only make unique games. I only make games that don't yet exist in this world." And then he proceeded to tell me about his philosophy. The moment I met him I felt that he was someone worth having this discussion with. So I stopped his rant and said, "There is nothing that doesn't already exist. Let's start by defining the term 'unique.'" Then he started his rant again. So, I stopped him again. I said, "You're an interesting man. But we can't have this argument without defining what you mean by unique." So, we went back and forth about four times. And then he said, "Why are you here?" to which I responded, "To show you something unique!" And, he stood up and said, "Let's play your game!" and we went to the game room to play my game. ...
Danny plays the game himself, which is unusual because most executives don't actually play games. And, Danny said, "Wow. This is fun. This is great." I was watching his eyes while he played. He looked at his team and asked them what they thought. They liked it and Danny decided right there that they would take the game. He said he was going to sign the contract by end of day, which I was skeptical of, but sure enough, by the end of day the contract arrived at our hotel. So, Microsoft and Danny are the fathers of this game. And, of course Nintendo, who released the game. While the sales of the game were not very good, there's a huge difference between a game that sees the light of day and one that doesn't. So I'm grateful to Nintendo from the bottom of my heart for shipping Devil's Third.
JM: Yes, well, that's jumping to the end. At the beginning, the initial trailer was very well received and I believe there were two playable characters, a male and female character ...
TI: There wasn't an announcement that there would be two playable characters but, yes, there were two characters in the initial video. The thing I want to say to the readers of this article is to never give up. If you don't give up, you will find supporters who will help you. I think you can see that from this story. And to live optimistically. You know that my commitment has never changed. If you persevere, you will always find someone who will support you.
JM: How long was it from when you signed with THQ until THQ closed as a company?
TI: I don't know. I'm a mathematician but I'm no good at counting. But I worked with Danny until the very end. Even after THQ closed. That's why he's at the very beginning of the staff credits on Devil's Third.
JM: How did he contribute?
TI: We made it together. ... [One way was that] initially, were going to build territorial boundaries in the game using U.S. state borders. That made for too many areas, so we had to come up with a way to separate the country into bigger chunks. But I didn't know enough about the culture and politics in the U.S. to know the best way to separate the country. So let me ask you this. Do you know the difference between the Gunma and Tochigi prefectures?
"Our situation is different than the other THQ titles, like Saints Row and Warhammer. We kept our IP."
TI: There's history between those two prefectures. Conflicts that last to this day between the people of those two prefectures. So, how about Yamaguchi and Fukushima prefectures? You don't, right? A hundred years ago, there was a battle between these two places. Yamaguchi destroyed Fukushima. There was a genocide. And the people of Fukushima are still mad about what happened. It wasn't exactly a genocide, but their actions went against bushido, the spirit of the samurai. It was the end of Edo period, beginning of the Meiji era, and the people of Yamaguchi killed a lot of people in Fukushima and then refused to let the people of Fukushima bury the dead. They had to watch the bodies rot. ... You can see how, a hundred years later, they would still be mad.
JM: Yeah, there's resentment.
TI: And, that kind of historical tension between people must exist in America as well. But that's not something that I know. Danny was originally a movie director, so he and his team took on the task of grouping the U.S. for the game based on historical divisions of groups of people. And they provided an explanation for why certain areas were grouped together like they are based on history.
JM: In the eventual Wii U version, I had a hard time getting out of the tutorial and graduating to the next level because I couldn't find enough people to play with through the matchmaking.
TI: We're very sorry about that.
JM: Once THQ announced that it would be dropping all its games, Valhalla announced it would be working with [South Korean game publisher] Doobic and be taking a multiplatform strategy with the game, even on mobile and PC. It was very broad. How did that come about?
TI: First of all, unfortunately, Doobic went out of business. And our situation is different than the other THQ titles, like Saints Row and Warhammer. We kept our IP so we own the Devil's Third property. That's why we were able to release the game with Nintendo and [now are releasing it on PC]. Doobic was a South Korean company and they were good with PC shooters. So in exchange for showing us how to make good PC shooters and understand that market, we provided them with general game development guidance.
JM: Why was there an announcement that it was going to be released on all those SKUs?
TI: Because that was the intention. We own the IP so anything is possible. ...
We still envision that we will expand to all the SKUs. ... You never know when something might move forward, and we work fast. We've already built it on the PC, so with a little optimization, the game can run on any system.
"That must be one of the seven wonders of the world [that we kept the company going for so many years on Devil’s Third]."
JM: Were you ever worried during this constant shift between Microsoft, THQ and Doobic that the team wasn't going to finish the game?
TI: Doobic really wasn't involved. There was more that we had to offer them than the other way around. I'm always calculating the risk involved. I'm the general at headquarters and anybody that goes into battle without calculating the risk is stupid. I was never worried because I'm the commander, so I always have to calculate the risk. That is the fundamental principle of the commander.
JM: I know what the burn rate is for keeping a staff this large afloat, so that's why I'm wondering. Most video games don't go through an eight-year development process. So, how were you able to keep the company going through that period of time?
TI: That must be one of the seven wonders of the world. It's through determination and honesty to each other. As you can see in this picture of our team, we are all happy. [Valhalla CEO] Kanematsu, [game designer] Hiroaki Matsui, [Valhalla producer] Yoshifuru Okamoto and all of us all believed that we were going to make something great and a savior would always come along. This is a picture of us in China with my sensei [Captain Harlock creator] Leiji Matsumoto. We have big supporters in China, Russia, the U.S., Canada and elsewhere who stepped up to help us.
JM: By support, you don't mean cheerleaders but people who financed the company?
TI: Yes, of course. Can I add an important thing? It's thanks to the fans that we have this network of supporters. It's fans of our work that have given us these connections. That's why I feel I did the right thing to continue to make games [after leaving Team Ninja]. And, another thing I want to tell your readers is that you can't work for money. You have to stay true to yourself and try to capture the hearts of your audience. And you definitely have to take care of your fans. This is a must. And contribute to the betterment of the industry. There are a lot of executives in our industry who think spending time with the fans is a risk. But I will go drink and party with my fans.
I've been warned by Okamoto that I need to stop partying with my fans. Especially since the company is going to go public soon. People tell me that there could be psychos and it's not normal for executives to go spend time with the fan base. I'll take invitations from fans that I meet online or invite them to our studio. But our company is going to go public in Canada soon so I've been asked to stop doing that. But that's my style. There may be risks, but there may also be new opportunities.
[Note: Earlier this year, Valhalla opened an office in Vancouver, making it the company's headquarters, overseeing Valhalla Game Studios Japan and other subsidiaries.]
My third point is that people are interesting. The same person can say completely different things depending on whether they are communicating via email, text, phone or face to face. You have to understand this when looking at marketing data.
JM: Let's talk about how Devil's Third ended up on Wii U.
TI: When we were working with Danny at THQ, he said that because this is such a unique game it should be on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. So Danny and I initially decided that this game should be a multiplatform game. When THQ went bankrupt, Kanematsu approached [Satoru] Iwata-san at Nintendo and they picked up the game. The reason why Nintendo picked up the game is that they don't have enough strong online games. Devil's Third is not a game that Nintendo could make internally, so we came in as their mercenaries to make a strong online game.
JM: I heard that Nintendo U.S. was obligated to find a publisher in the U.S., but when they were not able to find a publisher they had to release it as a first-party title. The way they released it, it seemed they only made the minimal effort necessary to satisfy their legal obligation. It was very hard to find physical copies, and there was very low visibility and awareness.
TI: I generally don't like to badmouth people and I have nothing but appreciation toward Nintendo for releasing Devil's Third. However, I don't believe that they gave this game their best effort in promoting and selling the game. At the same time, I also understand their position.
JM: It wasn't even in their official North American release calendar after E3 in 2015, which led a lot of people to wonder if Nintendo was going to publish the game as had been previously announced.
TI: I know. I got a lot of inquires on my Facebook from my fans about whether it was going to be released. If Mark Zuckerberg is reading this article, I want him to remove the 5,000 friend limit on Facebook. I can't add any more fans to my Facebook account, and my fans are annoyed.
JM: I understand the need to maintain relationships with Nintendo and avoid the politics, but it seems Nintendo Japan was more supportive of the game than Nintendo America.
TI: Iwata-san took us on for strategic reasons to provide them with know-how of online games and multiplayer games. That was the intention of Nintendo HQ, but those strategic reasons don't always trickle down to the branch offices. This is the case in any U.S. company, especially in the sales division; they always underestimate the sales performance. This way, when they sell over the low estimated sales, they can claim a higher percentage over estimated sales and request a bigger bonus accordingly. There is a typical tendency for this to happen. That's a fact, and it's a flaw in U.S. sales strategy.
I'll give you an analogy: In 1941, Roosevelt made a strategical decision to enter World War II. But did [George S.] Patton or [Chester W.] Nimitz understand the reasons behind Roosevelt's decision to go to war? Of course not. They couldn't have. It's not about loyalty but position. There are certain decisions and orders made at headquarters that can't possibly be understood by all parties involved. And it leads to conflict between the subordinates, and when it's over, people will fight for acknowledgement and credit for the victory. So, when victory was imminent, Nimitz and MacArthur started fighting over who was responsible for defeating Japan. MacArthur was head of Army and Nimitz was head of the Navy. Nimitz wanted to advance by land and win one island at a time, called "island hopping," but MacArthur argued that that would lead to a lot of civilian casualties. Consequently, the U.S. decided to attack by sea.
JM: That's an interesting analogy coming from a Japanese citizen.
TI: People who don't understand history can't make predictions of the future. So in order for me to see what will happen three years from now, I study the past.
JM: Basically, my takeaway from this metaphor is that you're being very understanding of the people in the U.S. sales department.
TI: I don't have any resentment toward the sales team at Nintendo U.S. It's natural for them to have made the decisions they made. But, I do realize that there was a shortage and I addressed this to Nintendo many times.
JM: Did Nintendo print more copies upon your request?
TI: You know the answer to that.
JM: I honestly don't know.
TI: Hmm. Maybe they printed a few more, but it wasn't nearly enough. I heard that a copy of Devil's Third was selling for over $1,000 on eBay.
[Note: As of this story posting, most copies on eBay go for approximately $50-60.]
JM: You've also talked about the plan that Devil's Third is going to be a trilogy …
TI: Before we move on, I don't want the readers to interpret our conversation and think that the Nintendo U.S. sales department sent the game to its death. Our game is alive. It's not dead. It's the difference between a stillborn and birth. We shipped the title. It might have only been a few thousand units but it was released into the world healthy and with all its limbs.
JM: It's hard to ignore the very vocal voice of the social media community these days, and if they see there's no support and acknowledgement from Nintendo of America, they're going to draw their own conclusions.
TI: Naturally. And I get a lot of comments from fans on Facebook asking why we don't do more updates or more to support the game. My response is always, "It's up to Nintendo."
JM: Nintendo is shutting down the multiplayer servers at the end of the year, right?
TI: Yeah, I know.
JM: Were you involved in that decision?
TI: That was Nintendo's decision. But I think they did well considering the circumstances. The death of Iwata-san ...
JM: Since you're planning on moving the IP forward with sequels, if all goes according to plan, the next game won't take eight years, correct?
TI: Maybe sixteen years [laughs].
JM: The reviews for Devil's Third weren't stellar. A lot of reviews were saying that if it had come out in 2008 it would have been fine, but now it seems dated. The general view was that the game was stuck in the late Xbox 360 era. So, since nobody knows about your plans for a Devil's Third trilogy — I'm guessing this interview is the first anyone will learn of them — because of the reviews and the long wait of the release versus the end result, a cynical response to this is that these are the sequels that nobody asked for. How would you respond to that?
TI: Let me explain this in parts. First, the reason the reviews were so poor. I have analyzed the reason. This game was designed to be a massive shooter, so it would be fun if there were at least a thousand players in the game. But Nintendo didn't set up online matches for reviewers. So there was no way for reviewers to experience the online mode as we designed it, and they reviewed the game based mostly on the single-player story mode. If it had been Microsoft that had published the game, they would have given the game to a group of 500 players who had signed an NDA to play for the reviewers to experience the massive online mode. But NOA didn't do that.
So I don't blame the reviewers for underestimating the experience of the online mode. There's no value to the review of someone who's evaluating a piece of art with blindfolds on. That was 95 percent of the negative criticism toward the game. The remaining 5 percent was by people who wanted to build credibility by criticising the game. And this is my assumption, but one person wrote a negative review and NOA didn't do anything to stop or change the review, so others followed suit. So I don't really believe that the reviews were credible. Although I haven't read all the reviews, the reviews I saw were not very objective, more emotional.
"When we released Dead or Alive, the Japanese game industry called it 'Dead or Dead' at first."
JM: There's nothing Nintendo can do about it once the review discs are out the door. Especially in the West, the media takes its integrity very seriously.
TI: It's just what I presume happened. Once the game was out, the reviews were low but the fan's response was great, right? I don't make games for the media. I make games for the fans. The sales numbers were not great but it was highly received by the fans so that's what matters to me. That's why we are going forward with making the PC version. And the fact that we can make a PC version is thanks to Nintendo for releasing the original game. If the reviewers were right, we wouldn't have been able to find publishers and release the PC version in Japan, Russia, U.S., China, etc., all over the world. People know that it's a good game.
And the fans don't really trust the media reviews these days. They depend more on peer reviews.
JM: But they still like to see an outlet give a high score to a game that they want to see a high score. Like, if The Last Guardian comes out and a publication gives it a 9.5 out of 10. They would say, "Yes! I knew it." But, if someplace gives it a 6 out of 10 and says it's not worth the 10-year wait, without playing the game, fans will discredit the reviewer because it doesn't match their expectations. As a former reviewer, I've seen this transformation take place.
TI: I think you are aware, but I've probably talked to more game reviewers than any other developer in the industry. So I understand the media well and the differences between countries. There was a newspaper journalist who was very passionate and I reciprocated with long responses, thinking he was going to write a lot of good things. But the article was "this" long, only a few lines. Which country do you think? He was Italian. Not a problem. I love him.
Anyway, it might sound like I'm avoiding the question, but I just don't care about reviews anymore. I've been in this business for 25, 26 years now. When we released Dead or Alive, the Japanese game industry called it "Dead or Dead" at first. But, as you know, it went on to be a hit. Ninja Gaiden's code name during development was "Kunai" [the name of a ninja's weapon] and critics called it "Yarita-kunai," which translates to "I don't want to play" in English.
JM: That's what they were saying on message boards?
TI: Yeah. Negative people, you know. But you know the result.
JM: Yeah, Ninja Gaiden was a big hit.
"The fans don't think that [Devil’s Third] was a failure or that it's dead."
TI: So my message is that you have to be honest to yourself and brush off the haters and keep updating and improving the game. You have to listen to the fans and the player's voice. And always give thanks to your supporters.
Devil's Third Online is going to be totally different from the Nintendo release. We'll be starting localization for the North American version soon.
JM: Have you found a good user base of online PC gamers in Japan?
TI: I can't say that we have a big user base here in Japan. But we want to perfect the game here before releasing it in bigger markets — in the U.S., Russia, China and Europe. We're communicating with the gaming community here before releasing it worldwide.
JM: So, ultimately it'll be cross-regional play, right? So, that the 5,000 users in Japan will be able to play with 50,000 users in America?
TI: That's not going to be possible due to latency issues across borders. I tested this with Dead or Alive Online. I sent my staff to LA, San Francisco and New York and we tested it ourselves because I don't believe in the value of pings, only the results of conducting my own tests. The tests showed that playing between LA and Tokyo was acceptable but playing between New York and Japan was not. But, playing between New York and LA was comparable to LA and Tokyo, so it was OK. That's why I divided the regions. Playability is very important.
JM: How do you get the public excited about Valhalla again? Are you determined to push Devil's Third until it succeeds?
TI: The fans don't think that the game was a failure or that it's dead. We're heating the amber and pounding it to make it stronger. Don't forget my story about "Dead or Dead" and "Yarita-kunai."
JM: Yeah, that people were negative about those titles but they went on to become successes.
TI: They weren't able to stop us.
JM: Were there any criticisms that you did take to heart and felt you could improve in those areas?
TI: Of course! There wasn't enough accuracy for a shooting game. We learned a lot from the criticisms. I like honesty. Good, useful suggestions are always welcomed. I've gotten pretty good at skimming English articles so I can judge whether they are just badmouthing the game or offering useful advice that will improve the game.
JM: Was there anything else other than the shooting that you found valuable?
TI: The shooting was the biggest issue. We've completely changed that experience, so that's a huge improvement on the PC game compared to the Wii U version. That's my impression, but the director and producer of the game have probably picked up other suggestions from the reviews and brought them to me as suggested changes to the game.
JM: When are we going to see the next Devil's Third?
"I think that the future is stormy. It's difficult to see beyond that."
TI: This is the next Devil's Third! [He points at the studio TV showing Devil's Third Online.]
JM: Yes, that's Devil's Third Online, but …
TI: We don't know what the next hardware is going to be. So, there's a high chance [Devil's Third 2] will come out on the PC. They've already made announcements for next-gen consoles, right?
JM: Yeah, for PlayStation 4 Pro and Microsoft's Project Scorpio.
TI: And there's already been a public announcement about the release?
JM: For PlayStation 4 Pro, yes. Project Scorpio is 2017 if I recall correctly.
TI: I think that the future is stormy. It's difficult to see beyond that. I'm talking about the consoles past those, past Project Scorpio.
JM: Past PlayStation 4 Pro? I think these are going to last a few more years before the next iteration of hardware becomes available. I'd say at least three more years. If you're saying Devil's Third 2 probably won't be released until after these upcoming consoles, that's at least another four-year development cycle.
TI: I'd like to release it on PlayStation 5 and whatever comes after Xbox One. But I don't think that's the way it's going to happen.
JM: Isn't that why you should aim for PlayStation 4 Pro?
TI: PlayStation 4 Pro is just rhetoric. The current gen doesn't have enough power to support VR, so they're releasing it to support VR. I'm going to get in trouble again for saying this, aren't I? Microsoft and Sony are going to be on my case for saying shit like this. PS4 Pro is not really their motivation. VR, which is what the upgrade is for, requires a lot of processing power.
JM: But regardless, the PS4 is capable of high visual specs, and Xbox One is also a strong machine. Certainly more than the Wii U where Devil's Third landed, right? Does that mean Devil's Third 2 needs even more powerful hardware?
TI: My current standard is PC. You're misunderstanding me. The PC allows me to have direct access to the users, and I'm very comfortable with that right now. That's why Microsoft rolled out Windows 10, even though it was a little forced. They're going to gain a billion users.
JM: But that doesn't mean you're going to get a billion users with quality PC gaming rigs.
TI: Think about it in percentages, though. If 5 percent of those billion users can play games, that's still 50 million users. Compare that to the install base of console users. The end of console systems is within five years.
JM: The install base of the PS4 and Xbox One is set to exceed 80 million users by the end of the year.
TI: That's why I say we're staying flexible. I don't choose the market.
[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.]