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A Veteran With Character: Roger Hector Speaks

Namco VP of development Roger Hector is overseeing the new U.S. development teams for the veteran Japanese publisher, and discusses Afro Samurai, original IP, and his fascinating industry history in this Gamasutra interview.

Roger Hector has had a long and storied career in the game industry; he began at Atari with Nolan Bushnell in the 1970s. He's now the vice president of development at Namco Bandai Games America, as the company builds up its U.S.-based development studio and produces its first title with its current team -- Afro Samurai, based on the popular TV show.

In this recent interview, Hector recounts his career, which included stints at Disney and Sega, as well as discussing the current state and future of Namco Bandai Games' U.S. studio and reflecting on the importance of character in games.

So now at Namco, are you in charge of the... I guess it's not called Namco Hometek anymore, but the U.S.-based development?

RH: Yeah. It's called Namco Bandai Games America Inc., which is a really long name.

What are you all working on now? What's the kind of stuff you're doing now?

RH: Namco in Japan has a large development group that's working on a large number of titles. Only a percentage of the titles that are created in Japan make it outside of Japan. They're very culturally specific to Japan.

And a lot of them are anime license-based and stuff.

RH: Right. And there's any number of reasons why they don't fly outside that market. Namco Bandai Games America is all about focusing on creating properties in both licensed and new IP that's going to be more targeted towards North America and Europe.

The kinds of things we're working on right now are things that will complement the brand image of what Namco's supposed to be all about, but it's going to be focused more on things that are primarily going to be sold here in the West.

Are they original projects, or are they coming from extensions of existing Namco brands?

RH: We have examples of both. We have completely new, original, never seen or heard before kinds of games. We are also interested in using the value in intellectual property in Namco owns. Not rehashing something, but more along the category of reinventing it. We have some pretty cool things that are in the pipeline in that regard.

Hopefully it can be as successful as Pac-Man CE. That was quite well-done. But I guess Iwatani came back to design that. You can't go wrong there.

RH: Nah. (laughs)

It's just been interesting to me that the U.S. division of Namco is not that prominently displayed, in terms of developing projects. There are a few I can think of.

RH: Actually, what's going on is a relatively new thing. The division used to be called Namco Hometek, and there were games that were produced out of Namco Hometek. But since the merging and the blending of Namco Bandai, things got reworked, and it's now Namco Bandai Games America.

I think that there has been in the past some brand confusion as to, "What does all this mean?" It can be hard if you're working literally in the company to figure some of this stuff out, but if you're outside the company or even very casually associated with it, you don't have a clue.

One of the things that we are doing is rebranding or looking at rebranding the American studios in a way that will build some brand equity around what will hopefully be the kind of successful games that will keep coming out of this group.

How many developers are working on the American side?

RH: We have both internal teams and we contract with outside developers. If you added them all up...

Well, just the internals.

RH: Well, we have a couple... I can't even say that exactly. In a rough sense, we have a couple of next-gen teams. Those are pretty good-sized teams.

But we're also doing a whole portfolio of games, from full-blown, next-gen, big-production, big-budget kinds of games to some small, simple XBLA-like titles that don't require that kind of staff. But we're covering a full range of the potential for the market.


I'm interested to see what's going to come out of it. Hometek was kind of dissolved-ish at some point, and then it was built back up again to be larger than before. I'm curious to see what the results of that are going to be.

RH: You and me both! Actually, I'll say that we, fairly recently, had some exceptionally good success at recruiting some very strong, well-known industry talent into this new entity of Namco.

Do you have any examples of that?

RH: No. (laughs) It will become apparent at the right time. When we're able to, we'll be able to talk about that, and it will be pretty obvious. You'll go, "Oh! I know those guys."

Excellent. There hasn't been any product resultant of this so far, right?

RH: Yeah. Really, I think the first one that will be somewhat representative of this was what was shown yesterday, with Afro Samurai.

It's got quite a good visual style. It's like a very detailed Ukiyo-e painting, like Japanese style. It's pretty neat looking. We'll see how that goes. It looks good, though. It's a good property, and there's a lot of good potential there. Fingers crossed.

RH: Both of ours.

Yeah. So we were talking very briefly yesterday about the reasoning for Darth Vader being in one SoulCalibur and Yoda being in the other. Do you have any...

hector_vader.jpg

Namco Bandai Games' Soulcalibur IV

RH: There is a whole strategic plan that has resulted in what we have here at this time. As time goes by, there will be more revelations about how that will continue to unfold. It hasn't been fully revealed yet, what's going on there.

So this is not like putting Link in the previous games. This is a universe merging?

RH: Well, there's just more to be revealed on all this. It was actually held as a pretty complete, full secret. There was practically no one inside the company who knew about it. It was kept to be a highly confidential situation that was pretty much a surprise to everyone when it was revealed.

Did the idea come from the Namco side, or the Lucas side, if you know?

RH: I believe that came from the Namco side.

It seems like it probably would. So I guess you're not directly involved with these titles, as you're high up. Are you managing the direction or the scope of these games at all?

RH: Actually, one of the things that I like about this particular situation is that I do get a chance to get right down into the game design and documents, working with the team, and talking with the guys, and coaching as much as I can. I really enjoy that part.

That's good. Are you able to make changes on things? Are you playing things constantly?

RH: Oh yeah. Yep.

Excellent. What kind of games have you been playing recently, if you actually have time to play games?

RH: That's the hardest thing. There are so many games that I want to play, and having recently been joining Namco, all at once there's a whole bunch of games that I need to come up to speed on. I've got to sit and play the whole back catalog and totally understand it, and do the job at the same time.

But in addition to that, I've been working through... I was a really late comer to it, but I really enjoyed BioShock. I was really into it. I haven't made it quite all the way through it yet, but it's very well done, and I liked it a lot. I've enjoyed Ace Combat 6. It's a game style I particularly like, and I think the guys have done an amazing job with it.

It sure does look nice.

RH: Yeah. It looks great, but it also plays pretty good. It's a lot of fun to get online and play it in a group. It's a lot of fun.


That's what I've heard. So with Afro Samurai, it's kind of a return to the character stuff.

RH: It is definitely a character kind of thing.

You mentioned that the ethnicity was exaggerated to make for more character expression potential. How was that decision made, and what do you decide to do?

RH: Well, we've been working very closely with the creators of the whole thing. The TV production group is called Gonzo, and Samuel L. Jackson is part of the team, and Mr. Okazaki, who is the original creator.

All of these different entities all have a little bit of different spin on what they want to see, but it's been very fortunate for us that everything that we've done has exceeded their expectations, and not by just a little bit, but by a whole lot.

Because of that, they've given us real free reign. They've said, "Look, if you want to create new things that don't exist in the world, go right ahead." That's kind of unusual in a property licensing environment.

So you're able to expand the universe somewhat.

RH: And they've been extraordinarily nice about it.

That's nice. Obviously, you have some experience with building things on licensed properties, and that is one of the areas where there is the largest potential to just make a game, and not put any real thought or effort into it.

RH: Right.

Because quite often, you don't need to.

RH: The license carries it, you know.

But some of those early Disney games were actually quite good, like Aladdin and Castle of Illusion, as you mentioned, were excellent ones. How is this being approached in a way where that's not going to happen? It seems like it...

RH: I'll give you some examples. There's the standard licensed game that we all know and generally dislike, because it's just a license slapped onto some kind of action thing. Specifically, it's easy to do that, but it's unenlightened. It's stupid to do that when you have a character like in Afro Samurai. He has a very rich, deep world to begin with. There's a lot of original, creative aspects to what his personality and his story is all about.

hector_afro.jpg

Namco Bandai Games' Afro Samurai

I didn't talk about it in [my DICE] presentation, but the entire show takes place in his sleep. He's dreaming. The existence of characters in that kind of dream world... that's where a lot of these original characters are dreamed up, as part of his imagination. When he gets effectively killed in the game and the player loses, Afro wakes up.

Well, in order to avoid doing some stupid Afro-slash-sword thing, we have built the game and completely structured it around the concepts of what makes the story interesting, by being very sensitive to what the reality of the property is. What's the real value in this license? It isn't just this cool, urban black guy with a big sword.

It involves his story and mix with characters and the weird reality that is the undercurrent of motivation for everyone in the game. If the game itself embraces that as fully as the original property, then the game itself will hopefully be every bit as good.

The licensed games that I think are successful are ones that allow players to do things that they would really like to see happen. When I looked at the Naruto game that Ubisoft made, you can run on top of buildings and run on walls and things. I never watched Naruto really, myself, but it's neat. It's fun stuff to be able to do. It looks like you're trying to take that tactic.

RH: Yeah. That is an example like with Afro. We are able to expand the world, and we are expanding the world based upon the licenser's acceptance of us as a sensitive creator to the property. You can't be thought of that way without really convincing them that we know it every bit as well as they do, or at least we're completely in tune and harmony creatively.

The new things that we've come up with have blown them away, and they've been very happy with seeing them. That's the ideal kind of licenser/licensee relationship, and it's how you make a good licensed game.


It's a unique license, too, because it's a Japan and America co-production. So it's kind of appropriate for an American team in a Japanese studio to make it.

RH: There's so many ironies attached to the way the whole thing has worked out. The original property was created by a Japanese man, but combined with American, urban hip-hop music and style and culture... it's a huge part of Afro. And we're developing it at Namco Bandai in America. The lead producer on the game is an African American. We've just got all kinds of good karma flowing through this project, so hopefully it'll turn out.

Who's directing the development on that? Who's in charge of design?

RH: A gentleman named Dave Robinson, who is the producer of Afro. He's in charge of design. Now, we have several designers involved with it, and he and I work together daily going through it.

Dave has some good experience in the industry. Once I start naming names, there's a lot of people contributing to this. It's a big project. There's a lot of people, and we have a number of people. Dave has been the cultural, spiritual keeper of the flame, so that's an important person to identify.

How large is the team that's making it?

RH: Well, it depends on what day you ask. There were a little more than a dozen people that represented the core development before it hit full production. Once it hit full production, we do employ some outsourcing, and we have a very large group of people internationally.

I have to mentally add it up, but the size of the team right now working internally is around 35. But we have some art outsourcing that's being done that comprises another very large group of people. So roughly speaking, I'm going to say there's close to roughly 70 or 80 people attached to the project.

Will this group -- the internal U.S. group -- be making original properties as well?

RH: Yeah.

Interesting. One thing I wanted to talk about building and spending character equity was I was wondering if you were going to show a game that was an unsuccessful use of a license of a game. Is that spending character equity?

RH: Oh, without a doubt.

Are you losing it in the long term?

RH: Well, the basic idea is that if a character is used in high-quality entertainment, his popularity will grow, and his equity will rise. If you use the character in low-quality, that will diminish it. There are so many characters you can look at that used to be popular but are no longer popular. You can 100 percent ascribe it to low-quality entertainment.

It might be other reasons why it's lost its popularity, but that can be a major contributor, because it's a very common thing for intellectual property owners to... when they realize that they have a property that has value, they just want to capitalize on that and do it again, and again, and again. That's kind of a normal businessman's reaction, with a general expectation that once you milk that property for all it's worth, you move on and do something else.

That kind of mentality exists very pervasively in all of entertainment, and not just games. I was trying to point out that the Disney company, specifically, thinks of and believes in Mickey Mouse -- just as an example -- as not being something that's ever going to go away.

His value to the company is tremendous, and the importance of managing that value and his equity is one of the highest strategic values that the company has, among many other things. It's part of their corporate culture. Most companies don't see their successful intellectual property as having that real life potential.

There was this cartoon from Warner Bros. that used their classic characters like Daffy and Bugs Bunny and whatever, and it was supposed to be extreme (or whatever) and it was called Loonatics. It turned them all into superheroes with attitude and stuff. I just wonder what kind of long-term damage that sort of thing does.

RH: It's tough. It's very difficult. I made the point yesterday about Mickey being changed. And he was. He was changed several times. The idea was to update him to make him more contemporary to the modern audience, whatever that audience is.

You do run a risk of tampering with what was the success of what originally got you there in the first place. Yeah. It's a roll of the dice. (laughs)


So you have a long and storied history. How many companies have you worked with, and which ones and in what capacities?

Roger Hector: I started with Atari in 1976. That was the old Nolan Bushnell era. I truly started as kind of a low-level designer artist guy, and through the years I was there, I wound up working my way up to head of R&D of the company. They were a pretty good sized company at that time. But I left the company -- I don't remember which year it was -- around 1982, roughly.

Around the crash?

RH: Yeah, it was actually just prior to the crash.

Oh, that's lucky.

RH: Yeah. Well, it's not like I could say that we could see it coming, that's just the way it worked out. But we left.

We being whom?

hector_hector.jpg RH: Ed Rothberg, Howie Delman, and myself. The other guys were real prominent engineers. Rothberg was the programmer of Battlezone. Howie Delman had also been a programmer, but in addition to programming, he was also a hardware engineer. The three of us had worked together. We were good friends.

We left Atari and started our own company. Originally it was called Videa. We started doing contract game development, and produced a couple of VCS cartridges that ultimately were sold back to Atari, but then were never produced, because Atari went through their big crash.

Did you ever release those, by the way?

RH: No. Those games were fully finished. In fact, they were sold originally to 20th Century Fox. They bought them, and before they could publish anything, they collapsed, so the rights of these games came back to us as the creators. So we turned around and sold them to Atari, and then Atari collapsed and so they never got made.

Do you still have those?

RH: They still exist, yeah.

Because there's that rabid fan base out there that would love to see those. You should give that out to them somehow.

RH: Somehow, yeah. I think it may be that either Howie or Ed have shepherded those things along. I haven't paid too much attention to them. But I know that there is a fan base out there that has a lot of interest in really old, obscure things like that.


Anyway, you were saying that it was Videa, and...

RH: Well, Videa turned into Sente Technologies. Nolan Bushnell came along and wanted to acquire us. He had been held back from being in the games business with a non-compete agreement that he had with Warner Communications when he sold Atari. That seven-year non-compete agreement expired in 1983, and he would then be free to get back into games. In preparation for that, he bought our development group. We had... I can't remember exactly how many people, but I'm going to say a dozen or so who were developers who were together at that point.

The name was changed to Sente Technologies, and there was kind of a cute story connected to that. You know the name Atari comes from the game of Go, and the term sente is another term that's used in the game of Go. It's a counter to an atari, and that's where all that came from. This was going to be the counter to Atari, but we wound up... the corporate entity that bought us was Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater, so we wound up... Sente Technologies was a subsidiary of Chuck E. Cheese.

We started building coin-operated games. That was a real roller-coaster ride. We finished our first set of coin-op games, introduced them into the marketplace, and then Chuck E. Cheese collapsed, so we had to find ourselves a new corporate home. We sold Sente to Bally, and then it became Bally/Sente. Across this several years period of time, we started... as Videa became Sente, then became Bally/Sente, we produced around I'm going to guess 20 coin-operated games in that same place.

But there was a point in time when Bally wanted to move our operations from California back to Chicago with their corporate headquarters, and none of us wanted to go, so we left. I moved on. I joined Electronic Arts at that point. It was a much smaller little company at that time. I came on board as senior producer in charge of all sports, action, and arcade game production for EA, and this is a pre-public version of EA. I had a great time, and produced a bunch of games.

Just to list this stuff, because it goes on and on, I left EA, and joined Disney. This was really to build up a development software business internally for Disney. I was there several years.

Were you there before they ramped down?

RH: Well, what happened was that we started making money. We were completely below the corporate radar when we got started, but then we started to ramp up the business. We were making sales, and software was becoming more of a visible entity within the company. And then there started to be a turf war that generated internally at Disney for which division should manage and control software.

Different divisional presidents all saw that they should have responsibility for that, so Michael Eisner's answer to that dilemma was to do nothing, basically. We were instructed to do nothing, meaning that we could finish all of the games that were in our pipeline, but we couldn't start anything new.

That was because we were in such hot demand, that they didn't want us to keep doing it. It was a confusing, difficult time. We finished all the games we had, but then we had to sit around and we had nothing to do. We couldn't do that. You can only do that for so long.


Around what time was that?

RH: I'm going to say that was probably... I'm so bad at this! But probably...

Had you gotten into the Genesis era?

RH: Well, I left Disney to join Sega. I'm going to guess that was probably around '96.

That you left?

RH: Yes, to join Sega. Yeah, it was Sega Genesis time. Sega had the Sega Technical Institute, which was primarily the home of the Sonic team. Mark Cerny had established that as a group, but he had decided to leave.

I had been managing the relationship between Disney and Sega in terms of developing games, so I had a lot of visibility there. Since I didn't really have much to do at Disney, I decided to go to Sega and watch over STI. I was vice president and general manager of STI.

So at that time, was STI still doing 32X stuff, or was it going into Saturn?

RH: Well, in the beginning, it was all Genesis.

So it might have been earlier than '96.

RH: Might have been '95. I'd have to go look it up, basically.

Because the Saturn came out in late '95.

RH: Yeah. In the beginning, it was really around the release of Sonic 2, so that might have been '94.

It was '93.

RH: Well very good, you're ahead of me then! (laughs) So that would have been that I was there for all of the subsequent Sonic game releases, working with Naka and Yasuhara and those guys. We also had other games that we did and produced at STI. But the biggest corporate expectations were around the Sonic games, of course.

Some of those games did not come out, right?

RH: You mean the quote-unquote "other" games from STI? There were projects that were intended to be very experimental in nature that were not produced, yeah. It was part of the intent of STI, to be kind of an experimental place to try stuff that may or may not be commercially viable. There was an expectation that part of the work done there would be thrown away.

hector_32x.jpg Were you there through to the 32X and that kind of stuff?

RH: Yeah, through the launch of Saturn. It was really as a result of the launch of the Saturn and the subsequent difficulties that the company had that all of the management changed around us. We weren't immediately or directly affected, because STI was a really separate kind of entity within the total corporation.

But when Sega started struggling with the Saturn, a lot of pressure came from Japan to do something about it, and they weren't able to be successful at doing enough of the right things to really make it work. The whole nature of the company changed. The management completely turned over. There was all kinds of stuff that made it not the kind of place that I had enjoyed previously, so I left Sega.


What do you think the reason was why the Saturn didn't do well? My perception was a lack of focus on the strengths that they had, and trying too hard to compete directly with Sony.

RH: There were several things that contributed to that whole situation. One was that early on, there was a commitment made to this NVIDIA chipset that... because we were directly involved with the creation of the entertainment software, we were just peripherally aware of what was going on in the hardware engineering of Saturn.

But one of the real failures that took place was that Sega was in a rush to get this hardware out, and there were no tools. There was no documentation. There was none of the basic stuff that you really need in order to develop something for it, and it wasn't there for a long time. Outside developers were totally left out to lunch. They didn't stand a chance. We had at least the small advantage of being able to pick up the phone and make phone calls to ask questions about things, but we didn't have documentation or anything either. It was very hard to develop for.

Another fundamental problem with Saturn was that it was a fairly complex system by design. It was intended to have a high ceiling above it, in terms of what could ultimately be accomplished. The strategy was that Saturn might be a little harder to work with initially, but with longer-term more and more use and expertise, developers could get more and more out of the Saturn that a comparable PlayStation.

hector_saturn.jpg That was the theory. The reality was that it was hard to work with. It took a long time to get there, and without sufficient help and support available, Sega also lost a lot of the ongoing support from the third parties. That was a big deal. Sony was doing an extremely aggressive and good job of being supportive to the third party community out there, and Sega wasn't. I think that really contributed a lot to the tipping of the scales.

At that point, is that when you went to Namco?

RH: No! (laughs)

What's next?

RH: What is next? Let's see. After Sega, some of the execs from Sega that had also left, went off, and found other things. Universal Studios was where one of them landed, who wanted me to come along with them and build up a game development entity within Universal. They didn't have anything in-house at that time. That's where I went next.

I didn't want to move to Southern California. I had already done Disney and working in a movie studio environment, and I was a little cautious of that, going in a second time. But we set up the digital arts division of Universal up in San Jose, which is where we live, and basically recruited local games talent from Silicon Valley in to develop games for Universal, at digital arts. I was president of that division. That was about a three-year run.

As it turns out, Universal at that particular time was a very challenging place to work, mostly because there was kind of a constant, steady turnover in management above our heads. I was there for three years. I had five different bosses. Most of those bosses had no idea what games were about at all. They had no orientation to it whatsoever. So you can imagine how that would be tough.

When my contract ran out, I had no desire to renew that. At that point, I went on kind of a hiatus. There were some interesting Silicon Valley startup ideas that I wanted to get involved with. I was a founder in a company called Enterprise Broadcasting, which was taking hi-def video projection technology and incorporating it into an e-commerce business model based in retail shopping malls.

It was entertainment mixed with retail, and was a new business idea. That was actually quite a lot of fun. It was a very interesting project. We managed to get some facilities built and constructed, and it did work, but it also got caught up in the dot-com bust. From there, I went off and wanted to do something totally different in that point. I have a background degree in automobile design.


Oh, right. I heard just a little bit about that.

RH: Yeah. I got involved in a project that basically was all about designing a custom sports car. I did the design on it, and ultimately wound up getting involved in actively building it, manufacturing it, and selling it. That was totally different, and actually a lot of fun. It was a very exotic car, and it was pretty cool. It had a 550 horsepower engine and all-carbon construction. It was a very sophisticated sports car. It was pretty expensive.

Do you own one?

RH: Oddly enough, I don't! (laughs) I don't have one. We sold all of the cars. My plan was to get one that would be built on the assembly line after we built several of them, so that all the bugs would be worked out, and the factory that I contracted with that was actually building the cars went belly-up on us by surprise. So we had to cancel a bunch of production orders. This was just kind of a hobby-type thing, anyway, and it had gotten so serious that I decided to not try and reinstate the whole thing.

What was the car called?

RH: The name of the car was Anteros. Yeah, it got written up in magazines, and it was a pretty cool thing. I do regret that I didn't get one myself, but maybe I'll buy one from one of the guys we already sold it to, I guess. We'll see. (laughs)

hector_anteros.jpg

But it was after that that Namco was contacted. They were looking for an experienced head of production, and I wasn't initially too fired-up over the idea of going back into a big corporate type of thing. I had been a very independent, entrepreneurial sort of business guy for years. But I went and talked with them, and I liked the people a lot. To me, that's a very big part of the equation. If the people are really good people and the projects look really good, all of a sudden, the planets aligned and I said, "Yeah, I'll do it!" I've been having a very good time at Namco.

Characters are really not very well utilized right now in games, one could argue. Namco does still do some of that, and Sega does some still. There's still isolated pockets, but it's not as pervasive as it used to be, like when you'd have a mascot for a platform. Why do you think that is?

RH: I would not completely agree with the premise. Mario has done extremely well for Nintendo all these years and still does. And Ratchet & Clank... there are some examples of existing, character-based games that still hit high sales and industry recognition.

But there are some trends that swing back and forth. You get a few seasons based on military games, or first-person shooters, or whatever particular genre is popular right now. There was a time when Sega and Nintendo and Sony were all vying for supremacy in their own mascot game. Sony had Crash Bandicoot, and one of the things that I felt that Namco has had a great history of having some very historically strong characters, but I can't honestly say why they haven't continued on in that kind of development, at least as of right now.

It seems like a lot of games, since they're first-person, don't have a lot of iconic stuff. People know what Master Chief looks like, but you play as him. It's different.

RH: Yeah. If you don't actually see the character on the screen, it gets to be a little hard to relate to him.

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