[Shadows of the Damned director Massimo Guarini speaks about the studio's new global synthesis of creativity and technology, why his personal vision fits better with a Japanese studio, and what we can expect from Grasshopper Manufacture in the future.]
While Grasshopper Manufacture came to prominence thanks in large part to an unfettered creativity generally perceived to be very Japanese, the truth of the matter is that CEO Goichi Suda has always been incredibly influenced by Western culture. Still, the studio had almost exclusively employed Japanese developers, and worked with Japanese publishers -- but times have changed.
As the studio expands to support multiple projects, Suda has moved into the role of executive director or creative producer on many of its projects -- leaving the day-to-day management of teams in the hands of others, like Massimo Guarini, the director of Shadows of the Damned. its game for EA -- released this week.
The game, published by EA and launching this week, marks the emergence of international talents at the studio, and is also Grasshopper's debut using Western-developed technology, Unreal Engine 3. In this interview, Guarini, who worked for Ubisoft in the West, speaks about this global synthesis of creativity and technology, why his personal vision fits better with a Japanese studio, and what we can expect from Grasshopper Manufacture in the future.
You came to Grasshopper having had a background working at Ubisoft. What did you bring to a Japanese development studio that made it appealing for them?
Massimo Guarini: Well, I think, basically, passion. I mean, I've been working for a long time in Ubisoft. In the Western industry I've been always very passionately interested in Japanese culture, and especially the Japanese game industry, so as soon as I had an opportunity I jumped in.
And I would say from a creative point of view, my vision and my style, is very much more in sync, I would say, with the Japanese way of dealing with contents and creating new contents. So for me despite all of the challenges about working and living in Japan, it was kind of a natural passage, and I'm still very much thrilled about this.
Were you able to influence the style of production in any way? Or did Grasshopper have production sorted out in a way that you could more just come in and concentrate on creative?
MG: Fortunately, I had an opportunity to influence quite a bit of the game at Grasshopper because... Grasshopper is changing internally and it's growing as a company. That means Suda-san cannot follow personally all the projects; his role is now one of the executive director of most of the projects, and he's also president of the company. And that means he needs to rely on directors in order to follow multiple projects.
So I'm very much thankful to him for giving me this opportunity to be in control, actually, about the project. Obviously still he's the executive director on the project, so he's still checking and gives feedback on all the things, but I had pretty much freedom to give influence to the game. And we also share taste and style, so we had this kind of luck to be very much in sync, I would say.
Do you have any examples?
MG: Definitely being surreal and grotesque. It comes really natural for Suda-san to come up with jokes, or visual situations, that literally lets you say, "WTF!?" And that's also something I pretty much enjoy and like. And when I brought up, you know, the Evil Dead series and Sam Raimi in general as an influence for this kind of game and for this kind of style that we're going to go with a horror, it was totally in for that. So that's the kind of taste that we kind of share.
When Suda said it was "Sid & Nancy in hell," that made me smile. But do you think that's apt?
MG: No, I mean that's honestly what he thinks and I believe it's true. (laughs) I mean, we can go on forever about inspirations, examples from movies and things because we really, really took a lot of inspirations from other things -- not just video games. So I believe you're going to find a homage to movies from the '70s, from the '80s, from the '90s in every single chapter of the game.
A lot of people accuse video games of taking too much from cinema, but it's usually a very narrow strip of cinema that ends up influencing games.
MG: Yeah, I think so. From a canonical point of view, we're not taking influence from movies plainly, like other games are doing. We're creators and developers which are not kids anymore. So our background is one of like 35 to 40 years old people, right? And we have a huge background of movies and cinema, and we just blend it, mix it. We just come out up with a melting pot; it's not just like taking the single bits. And that makes possible to add a flavor to the game, rather than just like barely come up with the very same situation of the movie. That's what I mean.
It's like the difference when you take artistic influence versus using something as a template.
MG: Absolutely, same difference. Although, I have to be honest, there's a couple of situations in the game where I have personally the fun –- I really wanted to do it, I really wanted to take a specific bit of a movie and represent it in game form just to make the fans happy and just to make people smile and laugh. But I'll leave it to you to find it out, but it's pretty much obvious, I think.
Interactively, or in terms of cutscenes?
Yeah, interactively? That has to be challenging.
MG: It is. It's blended to gameplay and that homage is like three seconds, four seconds long, but it's very passionate. So that was really fun and challenging to do.
You're the director of the project. When this game was announced it was like "the Suda/Mikami thing." How much creative control do you have on the project? How much have you been able to bring your view to it?
MG: Honestly, I've had pretty much the same amount of creative control since the very beginning, since when I joined the project. Obviously probably that was not exposed to the media beforehand, so that's why you just happen to hear my name only now.
Well, it grabs the headlines to mention big names like that. But ultimately games in general -- not specifically this game -- often... there's a lot of people behind the scenes, doing the work that actually makes the game happen.
MG: Absolutely. Behind Shadows of the Damned it's just an entire team of people, and I have to say there's also a very interesting environment -- because, first off, it's a Japanese company, but it employs also a good number of foreign employees. They come in from every single country in the world; we have a sort of global melting pot.
So that influences, a lot, the style of the game because everybody brings a piece of their own culture. So the theme itself was able to actually come out with this kind of mix, and that's quite interesting I think.
From your perspective, is it more important to concentrate on the creative influences or the gameplay?
MG: Well, we start with gameplay because we're talking about a game, so the interactive aspect, and the challenging aspect, is the first thing you're going to be taking care of. But since this is a Grasshopper game, gameplay needs to be blended with something else. So we added naturally this layer of style and media references and different approach to content that makes, I think, a Grasshopper game a unique game.
It's interesting to see Grasshopper becoming something different than it was. Driven by the recognition the company had achieved, it's been able to grow tremendously since that time. Is it exciting?
MG: Yeah, I mean, as a company, Grasshopper is definitely growing. Like, we were 70 people just one year and a half ago, and now we're 140. So the growth rate is really impressive, but at the same time that brings like new challenges, from an organizational point of view, and from a creative point of view as well. So I'm not surprised that we're going to see some changes in the future, and we're going to see also some new challenges.
What's really important for us is really to bring the new in, to try and not repeat ourselves too much, and to be confident that you can bring, any time, fresh air in the video game business without necessarily becoming excessively niche. That's our goal.
Did the project start before EA signed it or after?
MG: I started on the project after EA signed it. The gestational period that this game was so long. I joined one year and a half ago, and basically there were some problems on the project from production point of view, and we had basically to redo the whole game from scratch. So I would say, ultimately, the actual production time of the game was about -- not considering assets, but coming out in terms of pure game design -- historically, it was about one year and a half, something like that.
How big of a team did you have working on this game?
MG: Well, I think at the peak we were about 40 people, no more than that. And average about 30 to 35 and then scaling down to 20. So it's not a huge team, considering it's, for Grasshopper, the first time we're going to be working on next gen consoles like PS3 and 360, and it's the first time we're using the Unreal Engine 3 for the game. So it's definitely not a big team, and that's also what we like about it. We try to work with less people but more motivated ones. Keeping things small allows it to be more in control of every single aspect.
You have a background at Ubisoft, which is sort of famous for having like humongous teams, right?
MG: Absolutely, yes.
Does that influence your philosophy?
MG: No, I mean I've always been like pro-smaller teams, I think. I started like in 1999 working on portable consoles. The 8-bit era -- I was working on Game Boy Color. At that time the team was 10 to 15 people, so I'm kind of used to that.
And of course I also worked with teams like about 160 people at the same time, so what you get is, basically, you lose control. It's difficult for the creative director to actually keep the vision together, because there's so many people involved, and so many producers, and... you know. So personally speaking, I still like working with small teams, I think.
When it comes to a game like this that has a very strong creative vision, I would imagine that you really want to make sure that you can keep that vision tightly controlled, right?
MG: Absolutely. That's a very good point, and I think it's absolutely necessary. At the same time, it's necessary to make the team involved in every single aspect of the game. So you need to be in control, and you need to be able to take decisions and to validate those decisions.
But at the same time if you don't involve the team, and if you don't get feedback, and especially be open to feedback, you're not going to get anywhere, I think. So as a leader, as a director, you need to be able to also to take criticism, and to take negative points and to be able to transform those negative points into positive points, and the team plays the fundamental role in that.
How much influence did EA have over the creative direction of the game?
MG: EA was really, really a great publisher to work with, I have to say, because they totally left us in complete creative control. They just helped us to refocus a little bit when we were going too much over the top in some portions of the game, and that was probably a little bit too much for normal markets. But on the creative side they 100 percent trust Grasshopper.
I want to talk about using Unreal at the studio. Obviously Unreal has a very, very wide uptake in the Western market, but in the Japanese market there's been very few examples of Unreal use. And when it has been, it's been less than optimally executed. So I was wondering if you could talk about the experience of doing that, with this team at Grasshopper.
MG: Yeah, working with Unreal, definitely it's not a common thing in Japan. It's not a common platform, and we definitely had some troubles at the beginning finding specialized level designers, for example. So we had to hire them from abroad, from the U.S. And we were able, for Shadows of the Damned specifically, to bring together a very specialized team, very knowledgeable about Unreal technologies, and that helped us a lot. At the same time Unreal's technology allows us basically to focus on content rather than technical issues.
I would still say, I mean... that's the first time as a team we're using Unreal in Japan. So we can definitely improve, let's say, our technical side in the next games.
But as I said before, the team is very much international; there's a lot of foreign forces working on it, there's a lot of Japanese programmers as well. So I think we brought in new knowledge, new skills, and from now on it's just going to be growing and improving this.
You've heard a lot of -- to the point where I think it's quite getting tedious -- the Japanese game industry's becoming problems. I think that things are sort of swinging back up a little bit, I was wondering what your perspective was?
MG: Yeah, I mean I hear a lot of times this thing, but I mean... as a developer that has worked in the West and in Japan as well, I don't think it's true at all. I mean it's like... your neighbor's grass is always greener, you know what I mean?
Definitely Japan is a little bit behind from a technology point of view, but you can still find a lot of interesting content, a lot of creative stuff that, culturally, also, you'll never find in the West. So they're just catching up.
And they're just complementary, once again. And I think the most interesting thing we contributed to, as developers, is being able to mix the two of them; to have a workforce both Japanese and foreigners working together and collaborating.
Japan's willingness to play with the culture of games and do different things creatively is its strength, right?
MG: Yeah, I mean culturally speaking, and not just in games, Japan has a totally different approach to visual media in general, and I'm just talking about video games. I mean arts and visual design. So their way of thinking is way more visual than ours, and that reflects very much in games.
In the West, it's more likely to being made and portraying things on a realistic point of view. And those two are, for me cultural, not issues, but cultural properties of each different culture. So you know, that's why I think they're complementary. There are no negative points, it's just like you need to take a little bit from that, and a little bit from that and mix them and get something complete.
Can you talk a little bit about the artistic direction of the game, and keeping it realistic enough to be relatable while bringing in that sort of that visual panache that we would expect from Grasshopper?
MG: From an artistic direction point of view, the main rule, let's say, the main direction, was to create contrast, as well. So we went for a realistic approach, but at the same time it's very surreal and very grotesque. So those two things blended together are kind of unique.
And at the same time we post processed the whole image using specific graphic techniques that you don't see so often in games. We cross-processed the image to add to the overall frame. So we try to give the feel of the movie, at the same time -- that kind of unique flavor that you probably used to see in some cult B-movies of the '80s for example. That was an inspiration.
Do you think there's still room to push forward in those regards, and make games? I feel like it's underutilized. In the current generation, I think, there's way more things we can do that are aesthetically diverse, that are just not happening.
MG: I think absolutely there's room for that. There must be room for that; it's just a matter of coming up with more standardized technology or middleware. And when that time comes, which is going to probably be 10 years or more than that, studios are going to be more focusing on the content itself rather than pushing technology or pushing shaders and stuff like that.
So I totally expect games to grow as an industry and as a medium. We're just not there yet; it's just a young industry. So for now it's still very much software running, and that aspect influences a lot of the mentality of developers and the mentality of companies. You don't see that in movies right now because that's it, the technology of movies is 24 frames per second. That's pretty much all there is about it, so you can experiment with all the rest. So I'm expecting the same thing to happen in video games -- it'll just take some time.