In the world of game development, Hisashi Koinuma is a bit of an anomaly. Even after five years as the president of Koei Tecmo, Koinuma still finds himself with “producer” credits on many of its games. He splits his time between the two roles (and others) at a point when most would abandon the day-to-day work on games like the latest Dynasty Warriors — or as the case may be, Attack on Titan 2, out today.
Koinuma’s journey started when he took a job as a programmer in 1994, eventually shifting to a production role, and then president in 2013. Nowadays, Koinuma uses his background to do what few video game executives might, and takes a far more active role than might be expected of a businessman, for better or worse.
Koinuma says he’s always been someone eager to share his knowledge of games, even if his role didn’t necessarily call for it. His first exposure to the power of the medium and how it functioned was during a stint working at an arcade while in school. When not playing himself, Koinuma took time to watch how each customer played games differently.
“I was able to see which techniques they used to play games, as well as where they got stuck,” Koinuma says. “Those elements are so different from individual to individual. When I produce a specific kind of game, I want to make sure it’s inclusive of all different types of gamers. I think, as a producer, it was really helpful to have that experience.”
The industry’s seismic shift from 2D to 3D marked Koinuma’s time as a programmer. After working on the 2D dungeon crawler Brandish 2, Koinuma joined the Dynasty Warriors team, which has spawned eight (soon to be nine) numbered installments and countless spin-offs in the historical 3D action series.
“Shifting from 2D to 3D, our ability to express ourselves became so different,” Koinuma says. “All of a sudden, it was like a new horizon. To be able to work with the PlayStation 2 as a programmer, we had to be a little tricky to make it useable. It was challenging, but very interesting and rewarding.”
Koinuma was initially surprised when, after starting out as a programmer, the then-current president requested he take over the role in 2013. To someone used to working in the trenches of a game’s development, becoming an executive would typically mean less time to help in the construction of games, or none at all. Despite the many hats he’d be wearing, Koinuma decided to stick it out to work directly on multiple titles, including producing 2016’s Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom and 2017’s Dark Souls-esque samurai adventure Nioh.
“Even though my time is limited, I do want to be directly involved in the creation of games because I love making them,” Koinuma says. “But I also feel indebted to [the former president] because he was the one who trusted me to manage the company. I want to pay him back because of that interest he gave me.”
Juggling those two sets of responsibilities, even if some are self-inflicted, is “extremely difficult,” Koinuma admits. While the temptation to funnel more resources into pet projects is there, Koinuma instead says his focus is on how he can more efficiently run the company in a way that will leave him time to actually work hands-on with a game.
“My main job is to run the company as president, so I really need to make sure the company is healthy and well-run,” Koinuma says. “So whatever time is left, I can work on the games. So I feel as though I don’t have enough time at all for whatever I need to do and want to do.”
When it comes to the actual development process, especially the early stages of pre-production, Koinuma maintains that his experience working his way from the ground floor gives him the ability to more effectively communicate with employees.
“I think at times when there are executives who only know the general framework but not the details of development, they can make misjudgements on the good and bad points of proposals from the development team, or take more time than necessary to approve something that is already good, resulting in missed opportunities,” he says.
When it comes to potential conflicts of interest the dual roles may incur, Koinuma is generally resolute that his circumstances are an overall benefit for the company, stating it gives him a higher regard for the difficult decisions that must be made over a game’s development. Since becoming president of Koei Tecmo, Koinuma’s most frequent development role has been producer, including credits on Hyrule Warriors and Nioh, the latter of which he considers one of his biggest contributions to Koei Tecmo’s success.
When it comes to potentially establishing a trend of executives becoming more directly involved in development, Koinuma doesn’t think it will always be a good idea, saying it should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“While it does become a plus to someone who has both the track record and ability to become involved in both, it is not something to take on just purely out of interest,” Koinuma says. “Even for those [executives who came from development], if they become too involved in the development there’s the risk that they cannot make the most accurate decisions from a corporate business standpoint.”
One of Koinuma’s greatest wishes is to expand Koei Tecmo’s appeal to a broader international audience, rather than restricting the appeal to primarily Japanese or eastern audiences.
In some ways, Koei Tecmo has already begun walking that path, with adaptations of popular anime franchises like One Piece and Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda, and the original Nioh, which proved successful in the west.
Koinuma partially credits a shift in strategy to each individual franchise’s branding. Rather than micromanaging each franchise from on high, each team is now responsible for ensuring its game is easily marketable to overseas audiences, allowing for a larger sense of ownership over each project. Koinuma adds that Koei Tecmo is also taking a more active role in managing its presence at industry trade shows and in the distribution process, rather than relying on third-party partners as much in Western countries.
With Dynasty Warriors 9 bringing Koei Tecmo’s brand of Musou action to an open-world environment, and Attack on Titan 2 out today, Koinuma has a lot to focus on if he wants to keep Koei Tecmo thriving. For the Attack on Titan sequel, Koinuma thinks the team expanded the sense of flight and movement the series’ action sequences are so well known for, with characters zipping between trees and buildings on waist-mounted harnesses that shoot out gas-powered grappling hooks. Koinuma also hopes to exploit players’ instinctual fear of the towering, deformed Titans, saying the original AOT game never quite captured that perfect sense of dread.
When asked if he thinks Attack on Titan has the potential to become a long-running game franchise like Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors, Koinuma says he remains cautiously optimistic.
“The original manga is still continuing, so we hope it will be successful as a franchise, but it depends on how players and fans feel, too,” Koinuma says. “We hope it’ll be a good, robust story.”
While the balancing act of president and producer can be challenging for Koinuma, he says some things never change.
“What is not different from before is because I love games, I want to continue to work on them and create interesting experiences. That hasn’t changed,” he says.
Asked if any of his employees have ever shared their thoughts on his involvement in their work, Koinuma says reactions seem to be split between the senior members and younger hires.
“The people I’ve worked with from way back don’t really think anything special of it, but I think that those who have joined the company in the past couple years are probably surprised,” Koinuma says. “I think it does make a big impact, but I think that if people aren’t stimulated then great ideas won’t be born.”