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Art-Media Innovation: Yudo's iPhone Success, Natal Dreams

Gamasutra sits down for an in-depth interview with Beatmania co-creator Reo Nagumo and former Q Games exec Reo Yonaga (Lumines) to reveal their new, thus far iPhone-centric developer Yudo, as well as possible plans for console titles and hopes for Microsoft's Natal.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

November 27, 2009

22 Min Read

[Gamasutra sits down for an in-depth interview with Beatmania co-creator Reo Nagumo and former Q Games exec Reo Yonaga (Lumines) to reveal their new, thus far iPhone-centric developer Yudo, as well as possible plans for console titles and hopes for Microsoft's Natal.]

Outside of a group of dedicated music game fans, Reo Nagumo's name isn't that recognizable -- despite being the original co-creator of Beatmania, the original button-pushing, color-matching music game.

Konami's innovative series of Bemani titles eventually and directly birthed, through inspiration and a dash of cultural refinement, to the successes of music game titles Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

Reo Yonaga, on the other hand, is probably even less famous -- despite being deeply involved in many of Q Entertainment's games, including directing or being heavily involved in titles like Lumines, Every Extend Extra, and Ninety-Nine Nights at Tetsuya Mizuguchi's studio.

Now, the two have formed their own company, Yudo, which has found success on the iPhone with apps like the Matrix Music Pad (which Yudo describes not as a "game", but as a "media art app") and its SV-5 vocoder and synthesizer software. There's also Ninja Honda Karate -- its adorable 8-bit style music game, or its 8-bit synth app, 8bitone.

Gamasutra caught up with these two innovators to discuss the state of the industry that has lead so many Japanese creators to leave established developers and break out on their own, as well as discover what the company's plans are. The future of the music game genre is also discussed -- relevant, given the down trend it's seen this year.

First off, Mr. Yonaga, why did you leave Q and go to a different outfit?

Reo Yonaga: I wanted to create something new, and there was a short list of companies that I had in mind which I thought would be a useful environment for that purpose. Under that same timing -- well, there were several companies I was talking to, but -- the first one that fully understood my idea and said to me "let's do this" was Yudo. I've only just joined the company; I've been here about 40 or 50 days now, and I'm loving every minute of it.

How has it been working with Mr. Nagumo?

RY: Well, he's been a partner in my unit, and now he's also my boss in the company I work for. I've come to know him in a lot of different environments, and I think we'll come to know each other even more in the stuff we do together from here on in. We're the same age, and we were both born in Yokohama, too, so maybe it's sort of destiny. (laughs)

As for you, Mr. Nagumo, why did you leave Konami to go to your own company?

Reo Nagumo: Konami's a great company and I had a lot of freedom there, but when you make popular games and become a known name in the industry, your time gets consumed by business and money matters; you run out of energy to do creative things. I wanted to shift back to that sort of thing and make new things on my own, so I went back to school and then built my own company.

You were the creator of Beatmania.

RN: Right.

What do you think of the more recent Beatmania games?

RN: (laughs) Oh, I think they're making games which do everything to keep fans of Beatmania happy. But I think that's all they do. It doesn't have that craziness to it. I don't think they have any really crazy people working on it anymore.

Ninja Honda Karate

You can't make a fun game without some craziness.

RN: They're all salarymen. At the company, it's all marketing, and they just go on and on about their marketing stuff...

In English, you'd say "yes-man".

RN: Yes-man, yes-man, yes-man! That's right. I'm definitely not like that.

I hear you. Where did the idea for it come from?

RN: That idea came back when I was working overseas. I worked on it during Saturdays and Sundays. People thought it was pretty neat, and after this and that I brought it to Konami and asked if they were interested. That's the basic story.

What do you think are the problems in the Japanese industry right now?

RY: I really feel like creating a good video game requires sound leadership skills. It's creative work, but it's also like building a house in a way. But lately... well, you could say that there were too many companies involved in the Japanese industry in more recent times, but a bigger problem is that you have directors and producers who take a "Let's all think about this together" approach and use that to get out of their job duties.

In an environment like that, the staff stops thinking about what would be best for the game and start thinking about how to please the audience, how to please their bosses, that kind of thing.

If you want to make something good, you can't think that way -- in fact, I'd almost say that the audience doesn't matter in that respect. For example, if you're building a house on top of a mountain, there's a certain style of house that works best in that environment.

If you're building near the sea, then there's a style of house that's best for that, too. Lately, though, you've got a lot of creators who don't have a concrete plan in mind at the start of the project and sort of wing it along the way instead.

Not everyone's like that -- I think Nintendo's titles are really thought out well from the ground up; they're all really wonderful games. If you're building a waterfront property, for example, it makes sense to place a deck up high outside so you can get a good view of the water.

But what I see with Japanese companies these days, it's like they're putting up a tall building at the top of a mountain and forgetting the elevator. It's hard enough to walk up the mountain, but now they're expecting visitors to climb up all the stairs, too. There's no point in having a tall building up there in the first place. It's plain that the creators aren't thinking, or that they went astray midway.

A lot of other companies see Nintendo's initial spark of creativity and want to make games like that, but they're imitations; they don't have any individual creativity to them.

RY: That's certainly true, but I'm not saying that all companies should be like Nintendo. Instead, they need more of a sense of direction. For example, if we made a game that did nothing but perfectly simulate this room we're in, it'd be pretty boring, right? But if we took out this glass table and used the space for some kind of game, that'd be more fun.

If everything was totally realistic, it'd be no fun at all. I think Nintendo's creators understand that; they pinpoint what makes a game fun from the beginning, or else they abandon the project.

You know Demon's Souls? I love that game, and I really think it was made well. And if you look into the process behind it, the producer of it is a really big fan of King's Field and the original idea was to create a modern edition of King's Field. That pretty strictly defines the game right there, and I think that's just what the game needed -- a sound, valid sense of direction. I really think Sony had the right idea there.

If a less talented director was on that job, he'd take that idea and be like "Well, I don't really get this, but I guess we'll make a really hard game where you die a lot, and it'll be sort of fantasy or sci-fi or something; I'll have the designer come up with a document and take what I like from that." And it would just be a waste of time.

Aero Guitar

I don't necessarily think that leadership means everyone should be able to make what they want to make. Like you saw a bit with the Aero stuff, Yudo got its start because Nagumo wanted to do stuff related to health and neighborhood directories and things like that, but then after that they made a music game, and then after that, they made a synthesizer.

Right now, the synth is probably Yudo's most well-known product; it's certainly its top-selling one, making it to the top of the App Store rankings and all. But even that only took about six months to make.

RN: About that, yeah.

RY: So it only took six months to completely change this company's image in Japan. And once our new thing comes out, then I think we'll be the coolest game company in Japan when it comes to media art. No other company is doing stuff like this. Why can we do this? It's not because of dj nagureo the artist; it's because of the leadership of our president, Reo Nagumo.

What do you think of the Korg DS-10? I'm not a musician, so it seemed pretty complex to me.

RY: Oh, yeah! Well, I think it's something meant for people like us. I like music. I made that sequencer that was in Gunpey DS, right? That was actually the first touchscreen sequencer released to the consumer market. I made that because I really wanted to see it happen, but I don't think I could've made anything more complex than that. I made a lot of presets and such for that sequencer.

With the Korg DS-10, though, you really have to be a musician. In our presentation, we had some vocoder software that he made, the SV-5. It's a software synthesizer where you sing into your iPhone and then mess around with that. And it's really cool...

Like an auto-tuner.

RY: Sort of, yeah. But to me, to be frank, the DS-10 is too difficult to use. I have a friend who works for [top Japanese record label] Avex; he was the one who invited me to Sega, and he has a ton of synthesizers. He tried it out, and his response was "I can't make head or tail of this without an instruction manual." I don't think that makes for a good game or toy.

With this current project, though, we've got all the technology he came up with for the SV-5, but the shell around it is such that a child can use it. I passed it to my two-year-old niece, and she was able to play with it.

With your Matrix Music Pad, I understood it just by touching it.

RY: Yeah. The theme of the whole thing is to make something that you can touch and get moved by. That and... what else did we write in the App Store description? "Touch it, and you understand it. Experience it, and be moved by it." What else? Basically, something really interactive that you don't need a manual to use.

I do think the DS-10 is a wonderful piece of software, but when I saw that even my friend couldn't work it, I gave up on it. So if you're asking me whether I want something exhaustive and hard to use, or simple and more limited, I think the media-art series we have here is all about being both easy and capable of a lot. It's not a game, it's not an instrument; it's a piece of media. And I'd like to see it work on Natal, too.

Matrix Music Pad

I like the simple interface. If this were a Q Entertainment product, the background would probably be all...

RY: Flashy?

This question is probably for Nagumo, but is it hard to run a small company like this in Japan?

RN: [begins speaking through the iPhone vocoder, for the next 10 minutes] Some parts of it are; other parts of it are easier than being in a big outfit. The business aspects of it are tough -- we all need to keep our heads above water, after all. It's very nice to have control over your own destiny, though. If I give the okay to something, then that's entirely my deal.

RY: I think that's leadership in action there.

If you get larger, though, do you think you'd wind up doing nothing but managerial work again?

RN: Well, the other benefit of being an outfit like this is that you aren't obligated to do everything, especially if we grow larger. If we need someone to do managerial stuff, we can get someone to specialize in that. Same deal with marketing.

Yuji Naka left Sega because his job was getting less and less creative. If he was a famous movie director, he'd still be making movies anyway, right? But not in the game industry.

RN: I think the main reason for that is that movie directors are still, basically, freelancers. When it comes to creators in the game industry, they're seen as businessmen and expected to act as such. I think that's the biggest problem.

So you're trying to avoid that.

RN: Yeah.

That's good to hear.

RN: I don't think I could become that, and I really couldn't, anyway.

That's good, though, that you know that.

RN: Yeah. At the same time, Yudo wouldn't be around without me, probably, so it all worked out regardless.

RY: There are several types of presidents, you know? The type who basically takes the leader role and becomes sort of a general for his troops, and the type that's focused entirely on the business instead.

In the game industry, in particular, you've got the idea of president-as-celebrity, the guy who does the interviews and stuff. Nagumo's gonna be doing some of that stuff next month, too. But he has business sense, and outside of that he's got creative talent, too, not to mention being able to do the whole PR thing. Just having two of those talents really makes you something, much less three of 'em.

I know you want to make a shooting game -- are you worried that if you do, your company will get bigger?

RY: Well, if the company gets bigger in a weird way -- I wasn't able to do it previously, but this time I will speak up against it. The studio needs to remain a studio. The needs of the creators have to occupy 80 or 90 percent of the decision-making process here.

Is this an iPhone project?

RY: We're thinking it'd be good to have on the Xbox [Live Arcade] or PSN. The iPhone is great, but I'd like to match the user interface as best I can when I make something for it. I don't think the iPhone is the best for shooters, but I think the Space Invaders [Infinity Gene] they made for it has the right idea.

You need to keep it in 2D the way they did. I want to make something that's somewhere in between 2D and 3D. 2.5D or something, a sort of virtual 2D. So I don't know if it's well suited for the iPhone yet or not.

When you look at games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the object there is to play the songs exactly like they were composed. The theme here is more improvisation, which is something I've always wanted to see in games.

RN: To put it one way, with Rock Band you take something that's a 100 and keep it at 100, but here you can make it 200 or 300. In Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you are playing the same music as what's up there, and the game ends if you mess it up. And that's exactly what Beatmania was doing 10 years ago.

RY: I guess you could say we're sort of responding to that. The idea here is that the whole game changes as the player changes his way of doing things.

RN: The user is composing music here, even if he doesn't realize it.

RY: I do like Guitar Hero a lot. The music itself is the game. Rock Band is geared a bit more towards people who can play instruments, and if you can do that, then great. All of my musician friends who've tried both like Rock Band better; meanwhile, all the gamers I know who don't play instruments like Guitar Hero more.

I think with Guitar Hero, it's set up such that the finger movements are more fun to pull off. When a kid is tapping a beat to whatever music he's listening to, he'll do a lot of the same things with his fingers, like this. It feels good. Rock Band, meanwhile, is a lot closer to the instruments it's imitating, and that makes it tougher.

One thing I don't like about Rock Band is that I like singing, but if I sing it perfectly, I don't get counted that way because it wants all the notes to be flat, as opposed to adding tremolo or something.

RY: People at my company play Rock Band with the volume way down, and all you hear are them tapping buttons, and it looks so silly. It's like you aren't playing for the music so much as playing in order to follow instructions and get praised for it. I think a lot of people look for that from the game, as opposed playing for the joy of music.

With the Matrix Music Pad, you said you were interested in bringing it to Natal?

RY: Yeah, I think it'd be great on there.

Do you have the SDK for that?

RY: Well, I don't have any work going on that yet, but once it happens, I think that'll be the best.

RN: The one we really put all our power into.

RY: Yeah. I'm really satisfied with this, but I think the Natal version is gonna surprise a lot of people.

It'd be nice if three or four people could play, or maybe attach a mic that lets you change effects with your hand.

RY: Have you gone to see Natal yet?

Not yet.

RY: You absolutely ought to. That's really just... great.

Nakazato from Feelplus told me the same thing -- just seeing it in video form isn't that interesting, but getting the demo from MS is really cooler.

RY: Not that I knew this for sure or anything, but I'd bet most companies are going to use it to make action games. I'd like to leave that work to them while we do our media-art thing. There's a ton we can do.

Phil Harrison, that's a guy I really respect, and I think Natal was something like what he wanted to do for a while. Also, I'm sure it'll change, but I don't like the design of the camera too much. They should ask someplace from Germany that makes really cool cameras and get them to work for them. That'd be great.

RN: The thing about Natal is that it's hard to communicate what's so good about it in words.

RY: Yeah, but just try it out once and you immediately understand why it's so amazing. It was such a surprise. Nagumo was the same way, but whenever you first try it out, you tend to make all these really exaggerated movements. Myself, meanwhile, I was trying to be as subtle as possible, and it still picked up everything I was doing.

I don't like playing games with my body much, though.

RY: (laughs) But there are games that it's meant for. I mean, I like playing [sitting down], but the media art we're making is based around music, and one thing you do with music is dance to it. It's not DDR, of course, but it's an interactive piece of media art that also happens to let you move your body.

There are lots of things that feel good when you're moving, or don't feel good at all -- an MMORPG would be no fun at all if you had to do a physical action 8000 times to level up. But remember Dynamite Cop? Doing things like that with your body would be pretty neat.

Windows 7 has multi-touch tablet functionality. You could make a game like this with that. That might be good.

RY: I wrote my first project document at the age of 22, right after I joined Sony; I still have it with me, although it's kind of embarrassing. It was for this really big white tablet with a bunch of big buttons on it; instead of just pressing them, you could sort of grip them and move things around that way, like the nub on a ThinkPad. The project was just for that peripheral, and we thought a bit about the game potential for it, but it didn't go anywhere.

At the time, there was a big boom in PC sales in Japan, but most people just abandoned them in their homes, not using them for anything. PCs were too tough for them to use, and I was really obsessed with making a system where all you needed was a controller and a CD-ROM, and you could immediately play PC games.

The edutainment genre was really popular for a short period of time in Japan, back when "multimedia" was still a buzzword, and within that environment I wanted to do the things I'm finally doing now. So you could say this project's been 13 years in the making before I could finally do it, thanks to the iPhone and to Natal. It's really great.

Do you think Natal will sell in Japan?

RY: The biggest worry I had is that Japanese rooms are pretty small, you know? I asked if that would be an issue, and they assured me that it wouldn't, partly because it's so accurate, like I said earlier. So to deal with the space issue, I'm making our stuff so that it can work mainly by detecting your upper-body and midsection movements; that way you can play it even if you're sitting down or don't have much space to work with.

But the 360 itself doesn't have a big audience in Japan. They only recently just passed a million consoles.

RY: That's why they'll need a lineup of software similar to what made the Wii a sales success -- health aids, party games for the family, that sort of thing. You know Buzz? That's a lot of fun. If Microsoft can get a lineup like that going in first-party and support the other companies along the line too, I don't think support will be a problem.

Every platform has its good and bad points; but I think Microsoft has the power in hand to take a peripheral like this and really make it a multimillion-selling device worldwide. If they can build up a launch for Natal up to the point where it's as important as the 360, not just a peripheral, I think that'll open up a whole new world for them.

First-party games will definitely be vital. That goes back to what you said about leadership.

RY: Absolutely. You can't have people making stupid stuff. You can't have every company out there making the same fitness and casual-sports collections, or else it's all just going to confuse customers. Microsoft needs to step up and work on that. I don't really see why anyone besides EA or the first party should be doing "real" sports games with Natal; the third parties should stick with what they know how to do best. Sega should make Sega-like games, in other words.

When you say "stupid stuff"...

RY: Games with bad control; games that are just like first-party titles but would be declared worse by 99 out of 100 users. That sort of thing.

Sort of like with all the DS brain-training clones.

RY: Right, yeah. The first party needs to get high-quality stuff like that out right away. Things that anyone could enjoy. Meanwhile, third parties can work in the genres they're best at.

You could say it's the first party's responsibility as the leader to spread the word on Natal and establish a base; once they do that, it's our job to keep the torch burning with our own titles. You do need third parties to come up with the more out-there ideas, like maybe mahjong for Natal. I think that could be fun! Lay out the tiles with your hands, like this.

How big is Yudo?

RY: This company has seven or eight people in it right now. When we put up our first synthesizer on the App Store, it sold pretty well -- it was a quality product, after all -- but we also put a lot of work into promoting it.

We went all out with it for about a week, asking for help from assorted friends Nagumo and I have in Japan. We're a tiny, tiny outfit, so everything from marketing to user support to development -- we all do a little bit of everything here.

My title says creative room manager/cross-media department head, but to put it simply, my job is to keep this room looking nice. (laughs) To create an environment where everyone can do their best work.

If we wind up with an impossible schedule to keep or something going the wrong direction, I bring it up with Nagumo. So I've got that, and I also have the artistic aspect of my work. That and marketing. Everyone at Yudo pitches in a little bit with that, but it's Nagumo that puts it all together.

RN: Right. I let them take care of it.

RY: So everyone splits up the work here. The name Yudo comes from the Japanese word yudou, meaning "lead" or "guide," but later on we also realized it could be read as "you do." That sort of came afterward, though. (laughs)

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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