In early March, Capcom released Devil May Cry 5 as a game that avoided many industry trends. Forgoing a season pass, extensive post-release rollout announcements, a multiplayer mode, a padded campaign, and really anything that wasn’t an excuse for more combat options, it came across as a game confident enough in its action that it assumed that would be enough.
And for many players, it was far more than sufficient, giving them a seemingly endless number of toys to play with and racking up top reviews.
At Capcom’s San Francisco office during this year’s Game Developers Conference, I met with Devil May Cry 5 director Hideaki Itsuno, senior producer Michiteru Okabe, and producer Matt Walker to discuss the game’s four-year development cycle and the strategy behind releasing such a focused game in the current market.
Polygon: I saw a quote that was going around recently, where you [Itsuno] were saying before you decided to make Devil May Cry 5, you went to Capcom’s chairman, Kenzo Tsujimoto, and asked him whether you should make Devil May Cry 5 or Dragon’s Dogma 2 — and he said to do whatever you want, so you just decided to make Devil May Cry 5. That strikes me as a very casual way to pitch a game of this scale. Was it really that simple?
Hideaki Itsuno: The portion you probably didn’t see, or maybe wasn’t written in those articles, was that that was just a discussion. I went up to Tsujimoto-san and was like, “I either want to make Devil May Cry 5 or Dragon’s Dogma 2.” And Tsujimoto-san, to his credit, he’s like, “Creators should be able to make what they want to make, so go ahead, do whatever you want to do.”
And at the time, I had looked at the action game market — and this is four years ago — and we’d seen all these amazing advances in action games. We’d seen action games where the scenarios had elevated the games to something like what you see in movies. All kinds of different advances like that, but, not a whole lot of what I considered pure action games. And I thought, you know what? Over the last 30 years, what makes an action game fun hasn’t changed at all. The idea that you come up to a challenge, and maybe you don’t necessarily win against that challenge on your first try, but you keep going. And you know what you have to do, and you practice, and you get better, and then you overcome that and you feel that achievement. That is really what I felt we hadn’t seen a whole lot of. So, I wanted to kind of put that challenge out there and say, let’s do a game like that, a game that we haven’t necessarily seen in a while. I think now’s the perfect time for that.
So that’s really why I chose DMC5. For a Dragon’s Dogma 2, I kind of felt like, well, that’s something we could do now, we could later, and timing wouldn’t really change so much, but for DMC5, now seemed like the perfect time.
So how long would it have been between that conversation and the game actually being an official thing with a budget?
Itsuno: About a year. I was working on DMC4 Special Edition at the time.
Walk me through that process. In that year, what kind of paperwork and designs are you putting together to convince your bosses it should be official?
Itsuno: It’s great that Tsujimoto-san says that we’re only going to make good games if creators are able to make what they want. But obviously, we still need to have a proper business plan in order to actually make something. So I’m responsible for the creative side, but Okabe-san, as the senior producer, is the one then that takes all the information and has to set up a plan, set up a budget, set up a schedule, determine how many copies we think we should be able to sell and whether that makes it worth doing for the company. He’s the one who puts us through the greenlight meeting and stuff like that.
Did it feel like it was a risk whether the game would get approved or not, or was it more a question of scale and how big to make it?
Itsuno: There was certainly the possibility that we’d come up with a plan and bring it to the business team, and they’d go, “Yeah, no, look, this isn’t going to make us any money. We’re going to be in the red for this, so we can’t do this.” There’s always that possibility.
Really, there’s a lot of back and forth, between the producers and the business team and the creators. We’re all going back and forth and trying to figure out, doing this, how much do we think we can make? “OK, here’s how much money we can get at this many copies or whatever, so what can we do with this much money?” We do a lot of back and forth where it’s like, “With this much money, we’re not going to be able to make something that’s going to hit the quality standards of what Capcom’s known for, so can we do this, can we do that?” We go back and forth a lot until we settle on what we feel like is realistic, but then also something we’re confident we can make a good game with.
I noticed on Twitter that for the Devil May Cry 5 wrap party, Capcom had t-shirts printed that said “I survived DMC5 development hell!” Obviously there’s a play on words there, but was it a particularly challenging development process?
Matt Walker: That was just playful. That was just me and there’s a game designer guy that really wanted to do that, so the two of us got talking. That’s how we came up with the whole idea. […]
The team is always constantly like, “We’ve been working on this game for four years,” and [Itsuno, Okabe, and I are] lucky because we get to be out front and get to interact with people and we go — for example, over the weekend we went to MadFest in Australia, an anime event; we actually got to meet fans. We get to hear feedback from the fans directly. But we have all these people, whether you’re artists, whether you’re programmers, whether you’re animators, whatever ... they don’t get to meet people and actually hear from them, what they feel about the game. But we’ve worked on this game for four years, and so everybody ... they want to find out, like OK, all this stuff that I worked my butt off on for the last four years, has this been worth it or not? Has this been making people happy?
So me and that game designer guy, Yoshio-san, were talking, and we were like, yeah, what’d be really cool is if, at the wrap party then, we were able to have people send us ... tweet at us what they feel about the game, and during the wrap party, the devs can read those. We’re like yeah, that’d be really cool, and then Yoshio-san was like, “Yeah we’ll make t-shirts. It’ll be awesome.”
And so, that “I Survived Development Hell,” that’s just a play on words. He’s like, “Yeah, what do you think would be good for the shirt?” To say basically, “We worked on this game.” And that’s how we came up with it. And then I lost my passport and I didn’t even get to go to the party.
One of the things that really impresses me about the game is that it doesn’t feel stretched out. There’s not as much padding as in some action games. There’s not a lot of repetition with the combat or bosses or levels. Was that a reaction to things you’ve seen in the past?
Itsuno: I think you’re specifically talking about how in DMC4, we had a game where essentially you played through half of it, and then you kind of went through it backwards, right? And you do fight against the same bosses. And this time around, yeah, we very specifically — very much in response to that — it was like, yeah, we’re not going to do that at all this time.
That was interesting because, for DMC4 ... even before DMC3, I had Dragon’s Dogma in mind that I wanted to make. So we finished DMC3 and I was like “Great, I’m finally able to work on this,” and then my boss came to me and said, “Oh guess what? We have new hardware coming out. I want you to make DMC4.” So I was like, “OK.” But I basically had the same budget I had to make DMC3. Which, on new hardware with new technology and high-resolution assets — and with also a very short development period — we had to cut some corners.
But this time around, it was like, we know that people will know if we do that this time, so let’s specifically have a plan; let’s carry out that plan; let’s make sure it doesn’t have anything you don’t need in there.
It seems like the common logic in the industry these days is to make games that keep players around for a long time, whether that means a longer campaign or an open world, multiplayer, a season pass, etc. DMC5 seems to resist that impulse — it’s a great campaign, but it’s a normal length and theoretically you could play through it once and move on. Was there any concern by cutting out some of the fat, it would be more of a risk financially?
Itsuno: There’s kind of two sides to this. As a creator, you do want to make something where people will want to keep it, because they’ll enjoy it so much they want to keep playing it. I very much expect that people will at least want to play through the game a couple times, because once you’ve beaten the game, then some stuff happens where it’s like, “OK, now for this next playthrough, look at all this stuff I can do now.” To the point where I feel like, if I ever talk to anybody that says “Yeah, I had fun playing through it the first time, but I wasn’t really interested in playing through a second time,” I’d love to talk to that person and be like, “Wait, help me understand why.” Because we put so much into this game in a way where, from that second playthrough on, suddenly there’s all this stuff that you can do.
Michiteru Okabe: From the production side, we knew that playing through that second time was going to be something that should be really worthwhile for people, but also, from the beginning, I really wanted to make sure that we had a clear offering for people, that from the moment the game comes out, anybody that buys the Standard Edition is going to have the whole experience. We also created all these extras that were part of the deluxe edition, extras that we thought fans would enjoy, but we felt like we didn’t want to add a bunch of stuff just for the sake of adding stuff. We wanted to make sure people would get a high-quality experience that is focused and easy to understand.
When I look at the cameo system, I feel that fits in that same idea of restraint in that it’s not used a lot. Was it hard to decide to include how much of that to include?
Itsuno: We planned early on to only have very specific points where you would see other players. If you ran into them over and over, it would kind of degrade the single-player experience. It would lose focus because you’d always have somebody else around.
And we also set it up this way for technical reasons. When we present those moments, behind the scenes we’ve really optimized the game so that we know that we’re going to have to use all this memory; we’re going to have to use all these resources for the online component. And we wanted this game to run at 60 frames per second, 4K on Xbox One X and PS4 Pro, so the way those moments are designed, the kinds of enemies that come out, the effects that we display for different weapons and whatnot, the environments have all been designed with that in mind. So we know that basically, whenever we have the online component working, we have fewer resources for everything else.
That was part of the whole planning process we did upfront. We knew there were going to be these parts where we have these moments, but for other areas that don’t have any online functionality, we could go all out with fancier enemy models or effects, so that we could constantly keep that 60 frames per second at 4K.
To a certain degree, the game — and Devil May Cry in general — feels like a kitchen sink of different ideas; a lot of things could fit in the Devil May Cry world. Can you think of any things that have come up that felt too out of bounds for that universe?
Itsuno: It’s interesting. I know this isn’t quite the direction you’re going for with that question, but there are things that technically don’t fit in a Devil May Cry, and it generally falls around the sense of style that we have. For instance, it’s not as cool for someone to take out a cell phone and say, “Devil May Cry” [with a normal voice]. But when you have a big landline phone on a desk, you can pick it up and say “Devil May Cry” [with a deep voice]. And that really comes down to the fact that we grew up in a certain era. We grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, before there was technology like this. That sense of style is something that’s been ingrained into us from having grown up in that period. There’s a lot of stuff in the game where they don’t use the latest technology, because from our point of view, this is what’s cool.
Eventually, if we ever have a director on a new Devil May Cry game who is in their 20s or something, they’ll have grown up with completely different stuff. So then the sense of style might change, and you might have stuff where in the game they’re watching YouTube or whatever.
But there’s also kind of that element of, what’s stylish? What we know to be cool is really based on our experiences in the ’70s and ’80s, but then also we have the cool dark hero element. Like with Dante, sure, he doesn’t really do terrible things — he doesn’t kill humans, that kind of thing — but there are dark aspects to him, or to the heroes in these games. Yet really, they’re pure, proper heroes that are very all about justice and protecting.
Since the Devil May Cry 5 reviews started hitting, a lot of people have been talking about how Capcom is “back” — and how it’s had a great run between RE7, Monster Hunter World, RE2, and now Devil May Cry 5. And, you know, I’m not sure everything fits in that bucket, but does it feel like something has changed inside the company over the past few years?
Walker: Yeah, it seems that way, right? And this is also my fault, because on review day, when the reviews went out, I was having a good time with Urata-san, who’s the CEO of Capcom USA over here, and was like “Urata-san, say this!” I didn’t even say anything about putting it up online, and then I put that up on Twitter, and then that became kind of a thing.
From our point of view on the dev side, nothing’s really changed over the last X number of years. People on the dev side have always been trying to make what we think is cool, and hoping that it’ll find an audience. That’s really what it boils down to. I think we’re lucky because, maybe over the last couple of years from a production standpoint, we kind of hit our stride, so with certain budgets and schedules, our devs have really figured out exactly how to best create content over this generation, and do it in an efficient way where we still get really high-quality stuff. But at least from the dev side, it’s always been the same. Always a lot of people working really hard, every day to try to make content that we hope players will really enjoy.