Earth Defense Force 5 is now available in the United States, and Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain, a spinoff targeting Western audiences, will arrive in early 2019. With the franchise doing great in Japan and trying to gain steam internationally, we met with longtime producer Nobuyuki Okajima to talk about the past, present and future of one of gaming’s most underrated franchises.
After the interview, be sure to watch our impressions video of Earth Defense Force 5’s Japanese release and read our preview of EDF: Iron Rain from this year’s Tokyo Game Show.
Polygon: When you published the first Earth Defense Force as part of the Simple 2000 series, did you imagine it would have a life beyond the budget titles?
Earth Defense Force producer Nobuyuki Okajima: I never thought this franchise would be that big, honestly. But when I was working on the Simple 2000 series and I saw the first beta of Defense Force, I asked myself if it was right to include it in this budget titles series.
Because it looks pretty good, you know what I mean? With Simple 2000, we were selling all the games for 2,000 yen, which is $20. I wondered if it could be like, you know, $50 or $60.
The original became a cult hit, and the series has grown steadily ever since. You were saying yesterday EDF 5 has sold over 300,000 copies, and that’s before a release in North America and Europe. What do you think has helped it grow into a franchise?
I have two points. One, simply, the game got better. More fun. We kept the same concept over the years and added more features for the core fans. The games reflected all the trends and what people were expecting every year, every generation. But we didn’t change the original direction of the EDF franchise.
The graphics aren’t the best, but the gameplay, the game design, is always reliable. So that’s the number-one reason.
The second reason is people like you guys, who loved the first game or earlier entries in the series and then stayed with the franchise. The fans then talked to people about EDF, and its community expanded. I think that, you know, grassroots push activity helped the franchise grow both in Japan and internationally.
Do you feel that some of the game’s rough edges have been intentionally kept, even as the franchise has become a more traditional franchise? You can still clip through walls of buildings as they crumble. Sometimes bugs and robots glitch into oblivion. A lot of us long-term fans enjoy how the game’s quirks haven’t been polished away.
I think that’s different. I mean, so do you remember the spiders that shot a [web] that could go through you?
We actually tried to fix those. So, EDF 4 was [the] worst with these problems. EDF 4.1 was better. EDF 5 is even better. The franchise is getting better, but I think it’s a balance. We’re trying to fix the [issues], but also, the fans still — they enjoy the fact that it’s not perfect.
I think you are super hardcore. I think, normally, people would complain if the game is broken or something wrong is happening. But we truly appreciate people like you who feel positively about the game in this way.
Next year, the spinoff Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain will be released outside Japan. What inspired you to create a spinoff series? And what do you hope to accomplish with it that you aren’t already doing with Earth Defense Force 5?
EDF is a big franchise in Japan. All the main titles — from 1 through 5 — have done pretty well. But I’ve wondered why EDF hasn’t had a big break in the Western countries yet. How can we make that happen without disappointing all the fans in Japan?
The answer has been to create a side project that could appeal to the existing Japanese fans, but also all the international people in the States. We can ask what would be better design-wise for the people outside our country. We can include more Westernized game design and aesthetic and graphics and music. And we can experiment more.
That’s the biggest reason we kicked off Iron Rain, instead of calling it EDF 6. We want to make a game for the international audience.
What do you think the international audience wants?
Graphics and location have been a big change. Iron Rain is not set in Japan. In EDF 5, everything happens in Japan. Iron Rain takes places in the U.S. That first level in the demo is San Francisco. And then the other one is like the redwood forests.
The other big emphasis is character customization. This is a speciality of the developer we chose to work with. We couldn’t go back to Sandlot [the developer of many other EDF games] and say, “Hey, can you guys make a Westernized game?” That would be tough, because they’ve been working on the traditional version of Earth Defense Force for so long.
That’s why we picked Yuke’s. They know characters. [Ed. note: Yuke’s develops 2K Sports’ annual WWE 2K wrestling games, which are best known for their elaborate character customization tools.]
I think they are doing [a] good job in terms of bringing the new style and pace. They’re trying to really make it look and feel like a Western game.
Why did you choose to work with Yuke’s?
They are friends of mine. They don’t really develop games for the Japanese market. Their product is for international markets. They made a Pacific Rim game for the U.S. and international [markets]. The make the WWE games. They’re familiar with the Western games, you know?
Iron Rain isn’t the first attempt at a Western Earth Defense Force game. In 2011, D3 and Vicious Cycle Software released Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon. It received mixed reviews, especially from fans of the series. Were any lessons learned from that game that have helped with Iron Rain?
Honestly, that game wasn’t that good, quality-wise, but we got some positive feedback. And we saw the positive points in the game, versus some of the negatives. We put all the positives into Iron Rain.
Is there a specific example of these positive things?
So Insect Armageddon, the location was in Los Angeles. So one example is the location. The world space was pretty small in that game. So I didn’t want to do that this time. I wanted to make the map and the levels as big as possible.
And the ants must be brown, not black. It’s just a little, tiny detail. Like, color of the insects. And the ant was too small, too. I wanted it huge. Everything huge, you know?
There was no gigantic kaiju type of character in Insect Armageddon, so I definitely wanted to bring back the big, big guys.
Like the Godzilla-sized kaiju in the demo.
So there’s actually bigger kaiju than that in the game. Massive. It’s a secret, but they’re developing it.
In terms of the core Earth Defense Force games, I feel like they have gotten sillier, especially with their DLC. We’ve seen anime characters as kaiju. Lots of over-the-top monsters. And the characters have goofy B-movie style dialogue. Will Iron Rain have more colorful, silly characters or, since it’s closer to a Western game, will it be more serious?
So in fact, with the dialogue, the creators of EDF games are pretty serious about writing the story and dialogue for each characters. It just [becomes] — it just [turns] out it’s funny. So, the Sandlot people have been taking the characters and script very seriously. It will continue like that. The character and dialogue will be [of] pretty similar taste.