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Q's Hidden Genius: Reo Yonaga Speaks

Although Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi is the public face of Q Entertainment, designer Reo Yonaga is a vital collaborator on titles such as Lumines - and Gamasutra has the first major Western interview with the vibrant developer.

Everyone in the game industry knows the name Tetsuya Mizuguchi. The celebrated creator of works ranging from classic arcade game Sega Rally to innovative hits like Rez, he's an outspoken and thoughtful game creator. But everyone who works in the game industry also knows that no creator works alone.

Reo Yonaga is one of Mizuguchi's most important collaborators, and game director of most Q Entertainment projects. Having been with Mizuguchi since his days at Sega, Yonaga moved to Q Entertainment to work on projects like Lumines, Every Extend Extra, and Ninety-Nine Nights.

Gamasutra is pleased to present the only long-form English interview with this up-and-coming game designer published so far.

Brandon Sheffield: Since when did you start working with Mizuguchi?

Reo Yonaga: I got to know him at UGA. [Ed. Note: United Game Artists, the Sega development team headed by Mizuguchi, which created the Space Channel 5 series and Rez.]

BS: That's a while ago. How many years has it been?

RY: I think it's been about five years. Wait a minute, let me count. I was 23, plus two years is 25, add another three years, that makes 28. I'm 33 now, so yeah, five years approaching six.

BS: What was your last game? Before Every Extend Extra, from the UGA days.

RY: Actually when I was at UGA, one of the games that I worked on was cancelled.

BS: Can you talk a little about that game?

RY: Mizuguchi-san might still want to produce that game so I can't say much, but what's been revealed and is running in the news is that Mizuguchi-san went to talk to John Woo.

BS: I asked Mizuguchi the same question but he also couldn't say much.

RY: Well the public knows that Mizuguchi went to talk to John Woo and Sega was interested in working on a project with John. That made the news. In terms of content, it's probably still a work in progress for Mizuguchi so I need to keep quiet.

BS: It may be in progress, even though it's a game from your UGA days?

RY: That's right, UGA. It's through that job that I got to know Mizuguchi and got involved with games. Before that I was working on touch panels, like those you see at yakiniku restaurants. Back then UGA was launching a project to produce touch panels. I also worked on a mobile phone application plan.

BS: How about even earlier?

RY: I was at a record company working on Flash games and fan club member services. When streamed programs came out on the internet, I would emcee for weird shows, and film and edit video clips. In other words, I worked in the digital department of a record company right when broadband service made its debut and ISDN was still the fastest connection available. So even if recordings were updated daily overseas, taping and editing with the broadband service took four hours or so. That's the kind of work I did.

Coming back to what we were talking about, Mizuguchi-san came to me and suggested that we make money by providing SMS services to the Chinese market. "What do you think?" he asked me. "Do you know how many times bigger the population in China is compared to Japan?" he would say. I was tempted by this opportunity and left Sony Music for UGA.

In the end, while I was at UGA none of the games I worked on were released. That's when talk about establishing Q Entertainment with five or six founding members came up. Mizuguchi-san invited both Otsuki and I to join. Like me, Otsuki started at Sony Music, so when the company was first established, of the members that became the non-Lumines team, both Otsuki and I were from the recording industry and games were not our strength. We only had experience in digital art and some CD-ROM stuff, that's it.

In the end our team went on to create N3 [Ninety-Nine Nights] and Battle Stadium D.O.N., a Japan-only game that incorporates characters from Dragon Ball, among others.


Eighting/Bandai Namco's Battle Stadium D.O.N.

BS: Did Q create a Dragon Ball game? I didn't know.

RY: Yes we did. Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Naruto all appear at once. If I remember right, when you look up that game my name comes up first (laughs). In Japan that game did pretty well, selling roughly 250,000 copies, but it did fall short in many areas. Kids are harsh critics; we got a lot of feedback off of kids' BBS sites.

Tim Rogers: There are kids' BBS sites?

RY: Oh yeah, kids' BBS sites are no joke in Japan. Every time a new game like Pokémon is released, related posts flood those sites. You can tell kids are commenting because everything is written in hiragana and there's hardly any kanji being used. Also kids don't really think about the circumstances of others so they would post things like "My friend's coming at 6 so please tell me before then!" when 6 o'clock is only 30 minutes away.

Normally on BBS sites, people post questions and wait patiently for someone kind enough to come along and provide answers. Because kids are so blunt, for WiFi games that involve rescue missions - you know what I'm talking about - crazy verbal battles break out.

TR: How old are these kids?

RY: I'd say they range from first graders all the way up to kids half way through middle school. It's fun to read up on private kids' pages created by Nintendo DS users.


BS: Do you know about Habbo Hotel? It's an application from Finland that's sort of similar to Mixi, but the network targets children. I think it has 80 million registered users, mostly from Europe and the U.S. [Ed. note: Mixi is a popular Japanese social network akin to MySpace or Facebook.]

RY: In Japan's case it would only be domestic users, so there are several weird communities; weird, not as in providing weird services, but more in terms of the community members. For example, there's one called Padotown.

Padotown is extremely interesting. Only kids and housewives use it. It's funny. I have absolutely no idea how that happened. Seriously, there's like no male users what so ever, just children and housewives. Oh, there are little boys though. It's really interesting.

And the thing is all the users aren't very tech savvy. Normally for service sites like this, there are tags that you can't type and service providers strictly enforce these regulations with a dictionary; Padotown happens to be quite lenient about this and people play pranks to make pages not open. They type XMP tags and other tags banned on the net and play pranks on each other. It's almost a trend. Because they're all kids this often leads to fights.

The interesting thing is people are starting to call these tags "Padotown terms" on the web and in dictionaries. Within the kid community, the word "tag" has taken on an almighty existence. They would say, "I used tags to investigate your elementary school!" and such, to scare one another. Do you get what I'm saying?

Basically, under normal circumstances you can't search for things or hack someone's computer using tags, right? But in Padotown it's as if it's possible. "I used my tag to do this and that to your computer!" and other ridiculous conversations along these lines are common and have proliferated. I've seen it happen once and it's incredible interesting.

TR: You have interest in things like this?

RY: I've always been interested in "habitats." New communities with weird - or let me rephrase - with a segregated niche group of users are interesting. For example "mobage", the Japanese used in the community, is entirely different. Everyone uses gyaru slang and terms so I can't even read it. Have you ever seen gyarugo? [Ed. note: "gyarugo" is a leet-speak-like lingo used by a subset of Japanese teen girls on mobile phones.]

TR: Yes, I have.

RY: I can't make out anything!

TR: Yeah, it's hard to read.

RY: It's not that their manner of speech is crude, it's like an entire different language, making it illegible. Yeah, it's not that I can't comprehend it; I just can't read it at all.

TR: How about PlayStation Home? What do you think about that?

RY: Just a short while ago, about two years ago, I submitted a thick proposal for a plan that's nearly identical to (but somewhat different from) PlayStation Home. Because of that, I was kicking myself when it was first announced.

BS: I'm not really interested in games like that. Well, they're not exactly games.

RY: I'm thinking about what's going to happen from this point on. In the end, if MMORPG players get together to advance and level up, and if the main draw of PlayStation Home, oh, maybe not Home but Second Life is chatting, creating things, changing outfits and avatar interaction, then it would be something that falls somewhere in the middle.

When salarymen come home tired, they chat with their online friends, right? Something with that kind of feel, maybe something like [Sega Dreamcast online chat and casual gaming software] Guruguru Onsen, I'm not sure.

TR: Have you ever played the beta version of PlayStation Home? In your virtual home, you have a TV. When you stand in front of the TV you can choose what it displays from your PS3 hard drive. Things you've downloaded from the PlayStation store etc., and when other players enter your house they see the video and hear the audio of whatever you've chosen.

RY: That part of PlayStation Home is almost like a 3D visualization the [PS3 interface] XMB functions. Did you know that Macs used to do this thing with its URL structure (gestures)? To me it's an idea similar to that. To change something you frequently come in contact with that's dull and make it 3D. For example, Apple's Apple TV does this.

To be able to control it without looking at the computer screen (via gestures), leads people to think, "Hey, my mom can use that." In that sense, this applies to other games. Like a game that's more educational, a little on the difficult side and seems like you would need to study before playing, if you impose a character and make it like [Namco Bandai word-matching game] Mojipittan, then kids get completely absorbed into it and begin to memorize new vocabulary.

Same thing goes for kanji-related games and people who hate kanji. If you present old material in a fresh way, you also attract different users. I think most genres are being fully explored. Games are steadily improving; stories are better, the overall balance is better. Don't you agree? But I'm interested in experimenting with things that have never been done.

At this point in time I'm the most interested in online stores, the PS3 system and Live Arcade. I don't really have time to browse around and purchase things on online stores or Live Arcade, but I like games and I have the money. This kind of approach to games is still fairly new. I think PopCap has a great approach on games. It's casual, the visual effects are beautiful and all, they consistently come out with games on the PC that pop.


BS: But sometimes PopCap uses other game designs heavily. AstroPop was taken from Magical Drop and Zuma came from Puzzloop.

RY: There's a game that came out recently that used us as reference. It was called Puzzle Scape?

BS: I don't know that game.

RY: You don't? It's a game that came out on the PSP. It was made by a Finnish company. Some parts of the game are a lot like Every Extend. The game itself is like Tetris, or a slightly altered version of Lumines' Magic Block, but the menus look like Every Extend. The music's pretty cool.

If you don't think about the developing companies, and just focus on the products being produced, then as the genre expands, more and more good games are created. For example when [Capcom's] Sengoku Basara came out, everyone said it was a replica of Sangoku Musou, but Basara has more of an arcade feel, the action battles are better, etc. [Ed. note: Sangoku Musou is known as Dynasty Warriors in the west.]

BS: The overall technology is superior.

RY: Yeah. How do I put it? The components of each stage. For example, if you have three big enemy characters appear in an area, then that path becomes one that's difficult to pass. On the game design side, game planners and people who make adjustments can change a game immensely just by adding another adversary.

For early stages of games like Sangoku Musou, AI programming is key. Thinking along those lines, the release of Basara, Musou, N3 help improve the entire genre. Have you played Bladestorm? It's incredible. Totally awesome!

Anyway, of several games that came out, there's Kingdom Under Fire, where the game's content is sort of a combination of Kessen and Sangoku Musou, right? Bladestorm is like an evolved version of Kingdom Under Fire. There was Kessen, Sangoku Musou, Kingdom Under Fire, then after that came Bladestorm, which made a big hit, so I love companies like PopCap.


Q Entertainment/Phantagram/Microsoft's Ninety-Nine Nights

BS: That's a bit different. If the games are simple, then there should be two separate design ideas.

RY: I think that way about Zuma, but for example Peggle, I've seen several similar games in the past, but Peggle is impressive in its own way. Well, they probably got their inspiration from an old game, but the last part, that split second right before you clear the game when things start to slow down the effects are so detailed and elaborate. Members of our team who are involved with music and audio often say that the game's surprisingly good.

Basically, there's a lot of hardcore gamers that are Gold members on Live Arcade, same goes for online stores, and if it's PopCap's strategy for them to drop casual games into that arena, I find it fascinating.

BS: Isn't Wii more suitable for that?

RY: That's true, but I think it's great that they throw it on a platform that's originally intended for a different group of users.

BS: Earlier you mentioned games that can be played by mothers, most likely these are found on the Wii.

TR: Shigeru Miyamoto said he wanted to make game that everyone's moms can play. That's Nintendo's current strategy.

RY: It's good that they have a set group of users. You see children and mothers fighting for the DS in trains. To avoid fighting, in the end the moms buy their own, and because the moms are housewives and have spare time they get better and better and in turn the children respect them for that. There aren't that many things that parents and children can do together nowadays.

Back in my time, we cut bamboo and made bows, taketonbo, and other toys. I did that when I was a child. It took a lot of time and didn't turn out very well when I made them myself, but when my dad made them, the toys turned out perfect, so I really respected my dad.

These days you can buy almost everything, and where in the world would you even find bamboo? Yeah, if you give it some thought, it's interesting how games have become a form of communication.

BS: Yeah. I talked the Animal Crossing producer and he's always at work and never gets to talk to his kids, so he had an experience where he would go play something on Animal Crossing while he was testing, and send them a mail to his house about things that he had done, and they would play and send a reply. They actually got to communicate that way.

RY: I've met the guy who came up with the iMode structure before. He's a middle-aged man. Back then, [cell phone provider] Softbank was still called J-Phone. J-Phone had a hip image and DoCoMo phones were seen as ones only used by old men. After hearing that comment from his own daughter, the guy set out to make a cell phone that would please her. That's how iMode was created. It's interesting how his daughter seemed to be what inspired him to start.


BS: Do you still play fan-made indie games?

RY: Ahh, for example I'm really interested in ABA Games. I like indie games, or more like free games available on the PC.

BS: Some games are only released and available at [fan convention] Comiket or at places like [fan-oriented Tokyo game shop] Messe Sanoh.

RY: In the end, I think our weapon or selling point is in music compatibility. If not for that, I think it would be extremely rude for us to tell everyone who works on the team to "work on the project and we'll pay you" or "it's pretty so we're releasing it".

There's no merit for either party in this scenario, don't you think? So the first thing is how the overall compatibility with music is. Yeah, as long as compatibility exists with the audio...

As for the game that's most likely to be announced in the near future, we hope, well, we talked about online stores and Live Arcade earlier, it's not an indie game but a so-called "package game", which includes games retailed on the PS3, PSP, and the DS.

Live Arcade and online stores still allow for shorter development cycles and less staff allocation. On the other hand, don't you think the great thing about indie games is if you have an idea you can make and release the game immediately? It would be great if a similar movement develops for Live Arcade.

BS: When we talked last year, I remember back then you never heard of ABA Games.

RY: Oh, I knew of ABA Games. Timing wise, the last time you came there was a lot of content I couldn't talk about, so... (laughs).

BS: I found out that in fact many indie game creators don't work in the actual game industry - like Kenta Cho from ABA Games works at Toshiba. Have you found that to be true with other indie game makers as well?

RY: Probably? Well, maybe not... Now that there's Live Arcade, online stores and the DS, developers in game companies don't have to go indie to create the games they want to create.

Do you know the game Archime-DS? There's (Skip's) Kenichi Nishi, right? The company behind Chibi-Robo? They recently came out with a DS game called Archime-DS that's selling for about 2000 yen. I don't know how many months it took them, but the staff created that game by getting together every Saturday like you would for any extracurricular activity.

They created and released the game entirely apart from their job. Ahhh, didn't Geometry Wars start out the same way?

BS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You're right!

RY: I would say games like Archime-DS and Geometry Wars are products of indie activity initiated by existing industry members, don't you think? Right now I'm writing up a couple of games.

For my job, I'm working on that big undisclosed project I talked about earlier. Our usual staff team is on it and I'm constantly working on the scenario on top of other things for the game. With that alone, I get bored and drained, so as an indie activity I work on different projects on the side, and if those side projects become available on Live Arcade then it becomes indie in a way. They're alike.

BS: I think otaku and fan games, games made by people outside the game industry, define indie, though.

RY: People often take [free tools] and make shooting games. Several people have made those shooting games with single mother ships, and their methods are quite interesting. Yeah, that path is possible too.

We had a guy on our staff that did physics; he's a product manager, not a game creator, but he was interested. So he would play around using his mathematic skills. In other words, nowadays there's always the option of partnering up with someone who can draw or has some other skill set to create a game.

BS: Maybe you can't talk about Q's new game, but is it your idea?

RY: Yeah, I came up with the idea for both the undisclosed project we're working on right now and the other one.

BS: So they're Yonaga games.

RY: If we start moving into online stores and Live Arcade then the scale of each individual project would be small, so to bring out more personal style, for example, when I'm to show a game as "Reo Yonaga's game," I'd want to put more effort into introducing and presenting the game in a way that's different from what's been done so far.

Moving forward I'll do my best to bring out myself in games or create games that only I can create. I'm trying my best.

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