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Marching To His Own Drummer: Masaya Matsuura's Thoughts

NaNaOn-Sha founder Masaya Matsuura has created memorable music games like PaRappa The Rapper and Vib-Ribbon, and in this in-depth Gamasutra interview, he tackles the Japanese game industry, upcoming title Major Minor's Majestic March, and the future of music games.

Masaya Matsuura may be best known for PaRappa the Rapper, a game which was released over 10 years ago. But his development company, NaNaOn-Sha, has been going steadily since that time.

Its upcoming Wii-exclusive game, in partnership with Majesco, Major Minor's Majestic March, reunites Matsuura with PaRappa collaborator Rodney Greenblat and marks the company's most notable original release since the PaRappa era.

Though Matsuura hasn't made a major commercial impact in the West in some time -- his company's Tamagotchi licensed games have done quite well in Japan, on the other hand -- doesn't mean he hasn't been giving serious thought to the problems facing game creators globally today.

To that end, Matsuura spoke at the 2008 DICE Summit; Gamasutra was happy to republish the speech as an article last year. In it, Matsuura outlines the sorts of concepts that he thinks will lead to wider acceptance of games.

Continuing that discussion from where it left off, Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine's Brandon Sheffield took the time to visit Matsuura's Tokyo studio late last year and conduct this interview, which also touches on music games and the relationship between musicians and game audiences, the advancement of technology, and more.

Some in the Western games press feels that Japanese games overall are becoming less global than they were before. And that they're much smaller games, no real, impressive, big new titles. Is that a good thing, that there are more small titles?

Masaya Matsuura: I really agree with your impressions, but maybe these kinds of small steps are necessary for the current market. Maybe -- for example, Europe and America is different from each other, but it's not such a big difference as between us.

So maybe we need some improvement, to adapt the methods from the Western game industry. Of course, we can't mimic, and do some kind of production that mimics Western developers. We have to find another way to re-appeal to the wider market.


Majesco/NanaOn-Sha's Major Minor's Majestic March

You're creating your latest game with the mindset of making a game that people will remember in a positive way, as opposed to what you were talking about in the DICE speech. What do you do to make that happen?

MM: That's a very difficult question. Of course we are making it very -- how can I say... a game for very positive interactions. But it's not simple, in my head. Maybe the player will feel, sometimes, that it's pretty simple. That is a good thing.

Dewi Tanner [NanaOn-Sha overseas business manager]: I would also say there's no loser in the game. Because in some games there's a winner and a loser.

MM: Is that how it is? There's a "loser", but it's not such a serious situation as to be called a "loser". In this game, it's more like, managing the team is a very big mission. For example, there are two characters in the game, so you do have a winner and a loser... [it's about] how the player character can...

DT: Can keep everybody happy?

MM: Yeah, and correspond with each other.

DT: Teamwork.

MM: That's right.

How do you think about the game in a more complex way, while still making it simple for the user?

MM: Maybe I am not ready to say that kind of thing yet. Still, we are struggling to make a certain type of gameplay, so I think I need a little more time to set my brain for that kind of thing.

I was so surprised to come to know, during this development -- our game is using marching songs. A marching song is kind of a simple beat type of music, but I have big trouble in my mind with the many marching songs sticking in my head frequently. I can't erase those tracks from my brain. They have a very strong... something.

They're catchy?

MM: Not simply catchy. Maybe if it's a similar type of activity with the marching songs -- so if I walk around for a few minutes, suddenly the marching song comes up.

Because of walking? Like if you wind up walking to a specific rhythm or something?

MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just for example. It's very interesting.

Why, in that case, didn't you do the game on a handheld? With DS, or PSP, or iPhone, there is this kind of connection -- when I'm outside and walking, I think about a marching band.

MM: I'm always thinking about the possibilities to make that game for a mobile environment too. But for what I wanted to do, that game's audio system is a very unique system. It requires CPU power and memory. For this reason, I chose the Wii.


In the past you've said you're running up against some difficulty with limitations of the audio capabilities of systems, right? Even with Wii.

MM: That's true.

The iPhone has an accelerometer inside. You could actually do the same thing while you walk.

MM: Yeah, for that kind of reason we just started to investigate by checking out Japanese websites on iPhone development.

It feels like some of the action in Major Minor is somewhat similar to the action in Wii Music.

MM: I feel that that there's a big difference between that game and Guitar Hero, or ours. Because the Wii Remote is not the instrument, not an actual instrument -- of course the Guitar Hero guitar controller is not actually an instrument, but maybe players feel more like it's a musical instrument.

But the Wii remote and the nunchuck is not a musical instrument. I think maybe players feel more of an air guitar feeling. This difference is very big. I'm really interested in how the market will react to that kind of interaction.

DT: Regarding these things like Guitar Hero and also Wii Music, I think those games the goal is to feel like you're playing the music. That's not really the goal in Major Minor. It's more about the game experience; you just happen to be doing marching music at the same time. It's more of an action game, in that sense.

You made one iPod game [Musika, pictured], and now the iPhone is out. Have you thought about that yet?

MM: Ah, yes. Sometimes we're discussing the possibilities to make a game for iPhone. We set up a dev kit for iPhone recently, and Apple started to have Japanese support, which makes it easier for us.

Of course it's very hard to think about the business scheme. Many of the iPhone games are 99 cents, so it looks very hard... [laughs]

I think that some full games are more like $5, but yes, many are cheaper.

DT: It's just very important to follow the trends for the iPhone. Just in a few months, things have changed a lot. If you look at the top 25 now, many of the games are 99 cents or a little more.

MM: I feel a little different I guess, when you say that we don't need any publishers for iPhone. From my experience using the iTunes Store, I really think Apple was the publisher. But there's a new type of relationship with the publisher. So it looks like it's hard to say that Apple's simply a "publisher", but...

After hearing your DICE talk, I wondered if you plan on releasing any of your own music.

MM: Yeah, I'm writing some tracks for our new game and I will keep doing something by writing some music.

Because I was very happy to see you perform. I guess it's been a while...

MM: Yeah, I really feel like doing a performance sometimes, but I don't have so many chances to do that.

A lot of players would like to feel like they're giving a performance, or becoming a rock star. And since you've actually done all of that, it seems like you might really be able to give players that experience sometime. Have you thought about that much?

MM: That's something I think about in my games. It's really an important point in my games, all the time. I always try to make games so that everybody can experience of being a musician, for example.

The music experience is a very important human skill. I really want everybody to have that. But it's up to the customer and the player. I'm trying, and some people really feel like they can be a musician, sometimes, by playing my games. Some people don't feel like that, so it's very hard.

As a musician and a game developer both, how do you approach the conflict that sometimes surfaces between music and rhythm games? Some people might have gotten the impression, for example, that playing Rock Band is a substitute for learning to play a real instrument and experiencing music genuinely --  do you think this is a danger, in a way?

MM: It's very dangerous. It's a very tough mission for the musicians right now. Everybody has a much wider chance to interact with their favorite music -- much more than in the last ten or twenty years, or more.

Professional musicians have to make a much higher effort to listen to the audience. But not so many musicians can be successful with that kind of mission.

I really keep thinking about how the music should be independent from the interactive experience, like playing Guitar Hero. It's a totally opposite way to think about the music-based game. But it looks like a very, very difficult mission for me.


It feels to me like many of your games go for more of a fun performance feeling then a "cool" performance feeling, partly because the graphics are cute. Have you thought about doing something more edgy, that might appeal to an older audience?

MM: I'm pretty open to various kinds of age groups, but especially including kids. I really don't like that music is divided by the age groups. Rather, for my experience at the launch of PaRappa, I was so happy to feel that families and kids played the game so much.

But older people told me sometimes, "Ah, your game was great, but it was based on a Simon Says type of interaction." I really don't like them to say things like that. People who say that really don't understand what PaRappa was.

Of course the Simon Says functions were parts of the layers of the functions of PaRappa. Some adults don't want to accept the new things, or try a new way. I really don't like that. Older people tend to approach new things by using old knowledge or experiences.

Are you sure they were saying that in a negative way? I think that people are increasingly accepting of simple input these days -- but now, what might prompt judgments is visual style. They look at something and immediately say, "That's for kids, that's not for me."

MM: That's also a difficult question.

DT: I think it's something we're always trying to do.

MM: I think the key is female players. Women have a very different way to adapt to the graphic sense, from the male players. It's very active, the female's reactions. I always try to know how women feel about our graphic expressions.

How do you test? Do you have user tests?

MM: We don't do any tests -- I just discuss the game with the female staff in our company.

Your game Vib-Ribbon had a good balance between cute graphics and adult-oriented technical appeal. When I played it, both my girlfriend and I at the time could appreciate the graphics in different ways, and the way it interacted with the music.

MM: Maybe "balance" is a very simple word, but for me it's a very important idea. I really want to make the balance in every kind of material and idea [in my games]. For Westerners or Asians, or female, male, older, younger. I always think about these kinds of thoughts.

You should definitely rerelease that game! On PSN or XBLA! Is it a Sony franchise or is it NanaOn-Sha's?

MM: Sony. The program is not simple, because Vib-Ribbon requires external audio for the game. It has a CD based gameplay system. Since the CD disc is owned by the customer, so it's up to the customer how to use this disc.

But currently the music producers use other media. Many musicians think that that kind of re-using the audio for something other than for listening is a different business from the original market.

So it may be because of the rights?

MM: Mm-hmm.

Masafumi Takada from Grasshopper Manufacture describes music in games as the bridge from the user to the screen -- if you think about it, the screen is on one side and the player's on the other, but the music is everywhere. What do you think about that? Is music in the game actually non-interactive, or is there more to it?

MM: Actually, "non-interactive" music, that word doesn't make sense. If you want to listen to the music in any way, you have to do an interaction, by pressing the play button or something like that.

What I'm thinking about is -- back to the live performance -- if I play in the streets, maybe you come across the street by accident. In that case it doesn't require so much intention to listen to the performance, but these kinds of encounter situations are a very basic function that music has.

I'm thinking about it in that kind of way -- if you make a kind of new music style. But it's an experimental thing yet, so I have no good description of my ideas yet. These kinds of things are important to me. [That's why] I try to do a performance sometimes.

Walking up to a performance is almost like having a soundtrack in a videogame, in that you walk into a different area and the music changes. In Japan, as you walk through the streets, you'll hear different music. You'll walk past the Bic Camera store, and hear its song and then it changes as you walk to the next place. It's funny that we think of music in games as non-interactive when it's the way that we interact with music, walking around in the street anyway. That's not a question...

MM: Yeah, but that's a very important thing. About the Bic Camera music, if you go into the Bic Camera store the Bic Camera track doesn't change, but with a live performance, if you approach the live performance in the street, if I see you, I will change something.

Or I can stop the performance. [laughs] I don't want to make you listen to my ugly performance, for example.


You have said that your game was different from either Rock Band or Wii Music, and it's true, in all ways. No NanaOn-Sha games use peripherals, or employ an instrument as part of the interface or as analogy for the gameplay.  They're more how to use the theme of music in a rhythm game -- why not make direct connections to real instruments?

MM: Yeah, that's a very good question. I really love real instruments -- really love. The game peripheral feels like it's very similar to an actual guitar, for example, but it's a little different for me.

As I told you, I really want to feel as if I'm playing the actual guitar... Of course the game controller and the real guitar, there's a very big difference between them, but if I can overcome these kinds of differences by making good software...

Maybe that is what's interesting to me. I really want to make the experience appeal derive from playing the software. It's a very potent thing.

Do you think it's better to have the difference in order to help alleviate the problem that we were talking about before? If someone's playing the fake Rock Band guitar and they feel like they're playing guitar, they might not ever play real guitar. But if they have a regular controller then they know that this isn't a guitar. Is that why you stick with controllers, so that they will still have something to aspire to with music and be like, "This was really fun and I felt like I was playing music but now I want to learn guitar."?

MM: Yeah. Also, there are also various kinds of instruments. So maybe if you do this kind of action [taps controller] it would simulate one kind of instrument. This is the kind of wide open mind that every musician has to have -- and music lovers should have. So I think the game controller is enough as a musical instrument.

I'm also curious and wondering about how about five years from now, when not so many people are playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band anymore. The many guitar controllers or drum controllers made of plastic, where do they go?

Have you ever seen that, in Africa, some countries are accepting e-waste from Europe? I saw so many CD and cassette players. I really don't like that kind of situation, [which is increased] by having the certain game software peripherals.

I really respect and appreciate that a real instrument is much more important in one single human's life. I was so surprised to hear, from my friend who is playing cello -- he told me he that he has one instrument that was made 500 years ago.

Five hundred years ago is a very nice duration to make a musical instrument. Maybe at least five or 10 players are playing that instrument.

Yeah, the older an instrument gets the more character it has and the more people desire it. But with games and software that's definitely not the case at all. It's a difficult situation to get around, because we have these platforms that begin and end. The industry doesn't do a good job of making sure that these things keep getting use and are able to continue.

It's still something of a disposable culture, video games. It seems especially difficult here in Japan, where developers are less likely to save their old documentation or builds of games.

DT: On Saturday I met this guy and he said he still has his PlayStation and PaRappa The Rapper only. Just uses it for PaRappa The Rapper, for like ten years. [laughter]

MM: Wow!

Another thing I wanted to ask you, regarding <i>Rock Band</i>. In an environment that's become very licensed music-heavy, you've always used original music created for the game. To me, licensed music is a waste, in a way, because I can hear it elsewhere; it seems like a wasted opportunity to show people something new. I'm curious about you feel about the whole thing.

MM: That's a really important question for me right now. Actually are doing the licensed music in Major Minor this time. [laughs]

A-ha!

MM: But I have to say, I wrote the soundtrack for the game, and we've got the license from a ready-made record. And also we used very popular traditional marching songs. It's kind of a public domain area. So we use both of those solutions.

The two songs we got a license for from the rights holder, are very important songs for me, personally. I have very personal reasons to get the licenses for them. About the PD song, we have been trying to user them in a unique way to make the soundtrack for the game. Maybe you will feel something...

DT: They're all PD songs, but I think we have done a good job with mixing them up and giving them new life.


Your strong background in music has always heavily influenced your games. If you were to create a full-music album that had nothing to do with games, would the experience of gaming influence you in return? Like creating audience interaction with the music, or something as concrete as the tools you used, influenced by PCM sounds or the limitations of WonderSwan. What about games do you think might influence your music?

MM: One very important thing is that, in any case, I have to keep my style. The games give me very broad new ideas about something, but about my music, I have some style of my own. It isn't influenced from any kind of interactive environment or experience. I will keep my style.

Still, I love to play my own tracks, forgetting about any kind of games. But of course if I play something -- suddenly a game or a relationship with interaction comes into my head, but I try making it independent from the interactive experience.

When I was 18, I was so influenced by various kinds of Western music, in the late '70s. This kind of experience still makes me feel fresh, and want to make something.

A lot of game composers now have to create songs to certain specifications and they can't show their style at all. They may have one, but maybe some of them can't even develop their own style because they're just doing, "Okay, you do this now." I wonder if you have any kind of advice about how to keep their style?

MM: Yeah, you just have to be a musician. If a musician doesn't make their own music, they're not a musician. I really want to say musicians should not be only at the game company.

Quit them and make your own performance or your own CD-R or something, and appeal to the audience. This is a very big mission that every musician has to have.

I think that this is one area where Japan is much better than the US. I feel like a lot more game musicians in Japan try to do performance. Even if they're performing game music, they'll remix it and they'll do it differently. For example, the Square Enix guys who play in The Black Mages.

I have a very good friend who went to school for composition and he makes game music, but he never gets to make his own music. I keep saying, "You should really make something for yourself, or for me, or something." And he always feels like it's so hard to get motivated to do something.

MM: Yup, I really understand that. Finding their own missions, by themselves, is a very difficult thing. And also, music is much more... If I listen to an old record, like from the '70s, that includes a very good songs for the time.

And now maybe a few of the tracks are not interesting, but at that time the record was bought from the market and disappeared. So musicians can release another record.

But now if you put your own track onto your iPod, they can't die. This is a very big problem for musicians. I mean, if you put the soundtracks composed by some musician into your iPod, [they'll last forever].

So that this track can disappear from the world. In the past the music had its own lifetime, but now music has lost the lifetime cycle. This is a very scary thing for me.

It could potentially be good as well, for the listener.

MM: Oh yeah, that's true.

Your game Vib-Ribbon used physical CDs to generate the game levels, but things have changed now that music has become digital, and the same thing is happening with games. If all games were to go digital in the future, how might this influence you? Do you think it's important to have a physical presence, or are you enjoying the transition? Do you think it might impact the game world the same way it has the audio world? 

MM: I think we can't force the games to go digital this early. Of course that environment requires a new scheme. I'm really worrying about games going indie. I really understand that some really unique people can make the indie games and they have the opportunity to publish to the public -- that is very fantastic.

But from the customer's side, sometimes they can't catch on to a certain game title. Of course, the iPhone is a very simple example. I'm very curious about what kind of things happen in the coming years for the iPhone, for example.

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