The Soulcalibur series has become an institution since it debuted -- as one of the important games for Sega's ill-fated Dreamcast, it became essential for hardcore gamers, and its sequel, which debuted on Gamecube, Xbox, and PlayStation 2 with Link, Spawn, and Tekken's Heihachi, respectively, as guest characters.
Well, maybe it's not quite the institution it used to be. The series is still going strong, and despite obvious commercial success with the fourth installment, which debuted in 2008, it wasn't the best in the franchise -- something proved by the fact that Namco Bandai is clearly positioning Soulcalibur V as a revitalization of the series. It's set to debut on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 next year.
In this interview, producer Hisaharu Tago talks to Gamasutra about the development of 3D, weapons-based fighting games, how the company perceives the series and its setting, and why it decided to work with an external developer, the Fukuoka-headquartered CyberConnect 2 (Solatorobo, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm) for the story mode for the upcoming game -- and how the team is "basically changing everything" about the new game, in Tago's words.
There aren't many weapon-based fighting games at all. What do you think's important in a weapon-based fighter as opposed to a fists-and-feet game?
Hisaharu Tago: Well, at the base level, your hands and feet are two of the most basic weapons that any human being possesses. Generally, though, the moves you can pull with them are well-known: punches, kicks, grabs and so on.
Weapons unlock more variety -- slashing, piercing, throwing, and more -- and also allow for longer-range moves, all of which adds a larger element of possible strategy to the gameplay and makes for a more exciting visual package than plain martial arts.
How do you balance between characters with long weapons, and others with shorter ones that need a method of confronting their opponent more quickly?
HT: This would be something that the director would be more familiar with, but generally, in a hand-to-hand fighting game, you have characters with long and short reaches, and it's part of the strategy behind each fighter to learn how to use your unique skills to fend off each opponent.
When weapons enter the picture, this becomes all the more obvious. If a character like Ivy has a spear or some other long weapon, then she'll have a longer reach, but the weapon will be heavier and take longer to attack with.
Meanwhile, someone with a smaller weapon can close in and attack multiple times before the opponent can mount a defense. The best way of thinking about it is that you aren't balancing out these things as a whole, but instead balancing out the individual traits of each character. You want each aspect to have a role, and it's important to keep that in mind.
You also make a mental leap because you're using blades that aren't actually cutting people. Do you ever worry about that kind of stuff?
HT: I do think that's something Soulcalibur needs to tackle in the future. The thing with that is, if a character actually took an appropriate amount of damage for the weapon he was hit with, he wouldn't be able to respond in any sort of quick manner. He'd wind up taking more hits and the fight would just get worse for him. That'd be realistic, but in a fighting game that'd mean whoever strikes first wins.
Right now Soulcalibur has the same general taste as a punch-and-kick fighter, but if the series evolves in the future, we'd like to have the game more centered around the weapons used in it. Doing that right now, though, would just confuse our audience.
The other weapon-based fighter that people often remember is Bushido Blade, where they did try to do that. Would there ever be, like, a Soulcalibur Gaiden that goes that way?
Fighting games tend to put characters in these ridiculous outfits that one couldn't actually fight in. Does that matter to you much, or does presentation take priority over realism here?
HT: (laughs) Certainly, between the two choices, good characterization. I think Soulcalibur is the kind of game where players get a kick out of trying out all the moves each character has and watching them unfold onscreen, even if it's just them bashing the kick button and seeing how the combos play out.
What is it that attracts a player to this or that character? Well, it's his or her style, physical motions, maybe their face or their beauty; all sorts of things. People don't judge characters strictly by how powerful they are in battle; they talk about how much cooler or scarier-looking this or that fighter is as well. Along those lines, we do play that aspect of it up.
My [Brandon's] ex-girlfriend really likes Soulcalibur and Street Fighter, and she always chooses the character she likes visually, even if they're weaker or really hard to use. She'll figure out how to use that character because they look cool.
HT: Another aspect of that in Soulcalibur is the character customization options. You can use those options to create more realistic characters, although people are more likely to make them more "adult" instead (laughs).
There are 3D action games like God of War and older 2D brawlers like Final Fight. The main difference is that 2D games require precise distance between characters and movements, while 3D games emphasize timing and general proximity. Where do you think Soulcalibur lies as far as fighting games are concerned?
HT: I think the difference here lies in how much information is presented to the player. With 2D fighters, as long as you have a grasp of the ranges required to land attacks, that's pretty much all you need. From there, you can figure out which combos work the best under these rules -- it's a very one-sided approach to strategy.
With 3D fighters, your opponent can approach you from all sorts of angles while doing all sorts of things. There are many more possibilities, so it's impossible to come up with one all-effective answer to every situation you're presented with.
In this way I think 3D fighters are more demanding of players than 2D games, because while 2D games always give you the same front-on perspective, you might be viewing the action from all kinds of angles in a 3D title.
It creates more excitement and encourages a more freestyle approach to play, and that's something any game in the genre should aim to expand upon.
How do you make that mental leap easier for people -- moving around and being able to attack from all sides?
HT: I think it's nice to be able to fight on a full 3D field using weapons that also work in three dimensions. However, it's also important that some of the style of 2D games is retained in the back-and-forth -- both for 2D fighter fans new to 3D, and to people who've never played either. Being able to take what you know from 2D and be able to use it to immediately gain some mastery of the game is a great thing, I think.
I don't think there's been a true 3D fighting game yet, although I'd like to think Soulcalibur comes close (laughs). One way this works out is in the way you can slip behind your opponent -- it's very quick and responsive to your command, not very realistic. It has to feel right, and that's important.
Why do you think there aren't any true 3D fighting games like that? You're always fighting on a 2D plane, after all. Why do you think a full-3D arena fighter hasn't worked yet?
HT: Because we haven't found a way to make it intuitive for players yet. Giving players full 3D freedom in a game like this sounds like a great idea, but for example, if you want to go behind a character, you'd have to give another input in order to reposition your direction and face your opponent again afterward, and that's something a lot of players would find annoying. So freedom is something people want, but not too much of it. Soulcalibur makes some compromises along those lines -- it offers some freedom, but under certain conditions.
Adding that extra aspect of movement would reduce the number of precise moves you could do, as well.
HT: Certainly. There's Monster Hunter, for example, and you have to hold the controller like this (Tago demonstrates) to control the camera -- the "mon-han grip", they call it. You use the directional pad to turn the camera while using the analog stick to move. It's something that works, with time, and it's nice because you can use items on the fly without getting distracted, but while fighting, it's an exercise in frustration.
How do you feel about projectiles in 3D fighting games?
HT: That's a good question. (laughs) I can't talk about all of it, but we're thinking of ways of expanding the weapon-based fighting gameplay in this series, and so we're looking at that aspect... and I can't say much more than that (laughs), but we're looking at the future of weapon-based fighting and what weapons would work with that, so that sort of thing could be a part of that.
In Soulcalibur, you have something that almost feels like a projectile -- just not all the way across the screen. To me, it seems weird, because you can just sidestep it -- something you can't readily do in 2D fighters unless there's a button for it.
HT: With a spear, for example, you can see exactly how long it is and how much speed and range you've got to work with. It's obvious, which it isn't with a projectile. That's often more of a surprise attack in a 2D game, something you can't necessarily dodge all the time. I'm not sure truly free projectile weaponry like that has really worked in a 3D game yet. We've had things like the shots Cervantes can fire, but I think it's a little early for a 3D fighter to have a character that can just fire away all over the arena.
If you guys have some future solution for that, I'd like to see what it is.
HT: (laughs) We have been thinking about the give-and-take involved; how a character would respond to a sudden shot like that. It's part of the ideas we throw around as we try to advance the series, so in that respect, I don't think it's any kind of impossibility.
Why do you think Soulcalibur has so few competitors right now? It's nearly the only weapon-based fighter that exists.
HT: I think the short answer to that is that we've actually got quite a lot of competition. We look a lot toward Mortal Kombat, for example, and looking more broadly, there are tons of action games where a lot of the fun is centered around weapon-based combat. Soulcalibur's audience overlaps a lot with those as well, I think.
That made me think: when you can give different weapons to a character via customization, thus changing their fighting style -- how do you deal with that situation?
HT: We tend to create motions for male characters and motions for females separately. For example, Xianhua's moves are very lady-like; she relies on speed and quick motions in her combat, but she can also switch to "male" motions if that's the weapon she's given. So that's how we handle that.
Do you ever do any subtle variation? I think it's funny that the character takes on the motion of the weapon, but it also seems like it'd be interesting to keep the character's motion in the animation.
HT: We have done that a bit, in the past. Starting with IV, I think, characters can change weapons but not fighting styles.
So it depends on which game in the series. I'm curious about the ring-out system. How do fans react to that? Not a lot of games do it, and it's an interesting sumo-style system.
HT: Well, I think most fans think it sucks if they lose that way and it's awesome if they win that way. (laughs)
Do you have a set limit for how wide or narrow the stages should be, in terms of the time required to score a ring-out?
HT: There is a general standard for that -- I don't remember the exact measurements so I may have it wrong, but generally you have to knock your opponent back around 16 meters for it to happen.
Now that Tim Langdell has been defeated in court, will we see a return of SoulEdge?
HT: There's always that possibility, because plainly that's a title that we have a liking for. If you compare the logos for SoulEdge and Soulcalibur V, it's pretty plain how much they resemble each other, after all. (laughs)
It's interesting that you are working with an outside studio to work on the story mode. Can you talk about how and why you made that decision?
HT: Basically, we have made four different Soulcaliburs up until now, and we basically wanted to make a huge leap forward this time. We want to create something different. That's why we worked with outside companies.
I [Christian] felt like the Star Wars guest characters in the last game were on the gimmicky side.
Does that concern you -- that guest characters are getting to the point where they're sort of eclipsing the series a little bit?
HT: Yeah, that's so. With the inclusion of Star Wars characters, we were honored to work with LucasArts, and we were able to get a lot of Star Wars fans playing Soulcalibur. That was one thing.
With regard to Soulcalibur V, we really want to be careful with the world setting, so the guest characters won't ruin the Soulcalibur setting. So please be assured that, this time around, we have a really good guest character. We can't tell you anything yet at the moment, so please wait for the event this month.
Can you talk about how you selected CyberConnect2? Obviously, particularly Bandai has a really long history working with that developer.
HT: As you know, CyberConnect 2 has made the Naruto series, and the animations in the game and movies -- the quality is really high. We thought we wanted some of that element in Soulcalibur as well.
CyberConnect2 does hand animation, and you've used motion capture. Are you worried about inconsistency?
HT: We were kind of worried, but we really want to make something new and different. So far, it's been pretty good.
It's very common in the West for multiple different developers to work on the same title and to work on different modes. Could you talk about how you came to the decision that this was something you could do?
HT: As you know, we're specialists at making fighting games, but in terms of story mode, and the world setting, and the drama which gets involved in the game, we were kind of weak on. That's why we needed outside help to really push that area. We thought this wasn't something we could do by ourselves.
From a process standpoint, in terms of working with an outside developer and collaborating at the same time, has it been a challenge making everything fit -- the pieces fit, the schedule fit; that kind of thing?
HT: We have different philosophies with outside companies, and the way we work is totally different. So it was kind of hard to come to terms with different companies and adjust things.
Also, CyberConnect2 is in Fukuoka, so is it challenging from that perspective of having them distant from the main development team?
HT: Actually, CyberConnect made a studio here in Tokyo that very close, so that distance issue was not much of a problem. Also, Bandai has always worked closely with them, so the communication side was also very good. The Tokyo studio is more like a communication point, and the actual creation of the game is done in Fukuoka. It's not really the first time they're doing anything.
You took the step of changing the time-line of the game. Tekken did that in the past, so it's not entirely new, but I was wondering if that says something about the issue of... not rebooting, but making a new start for the series?
HT: We really wanted to emphasize a change. The setting jump for us was like a keyword; we really wanted to emphasize a different Soulcalibur.
You had said that you want to take the game to the next level, and that's part of the reason why you have the new story mode. To you, what represents the next level; what does that mean?
HT: It's basically changing everything: changing the story, changing the gameplay, changing the characters... The key word we have is "change."
SoulEdge image taken from http://caesar.logiqx.com/