[In one of the company's first-ever Western interviews, Gamasutra talks to Guilty Gear creators Arc System Works on the state of the fighting game genre, their new projects, and their opinions on the Soulcalibur and Street Fighter franchises.]
Best known for its freaky and stylish Guilty Gear 2D fighting series, Arc System Works has built itself up the most prolific purveyor of 2D fighting games of the last several years -- beyond its own series, it has done contract work for Sega and Capcom.
The company has done this while maintaining a fiercely independent, idiosyncratic vision, while still managing to dip its toes into the waters of 3D. Arc's work with the overlooked Battle Fantasia, released last year on Xbox 360 in North America via publisher Aksys, provided inspiration for the 3D turn of Capcom's Street Fighter IV before that game entered development, according to SFIV's director Yoshi Ono.
In this interview, Gamasutra was able to sit down with four of the company's creative talents at its Yokohama headquarters: Guilty Gear creator and the company's chief designer, Daisuke Ishiwatari; Battle Fantasia director Emiko Iwasaki, one of the few women to rise to that level in the Japanese game industry; Junya Motomura, the company's U.S.-educated, English-speaking graphics designer; and Toshimichi Mori, the director of the company's upcoming HD Guilty Gear replacement, BlazBlue.
Guilty Gear replacement? As more or less confirmed by Ishiwatari in the below interview, rights issues with Sega have, as net rumors have suggested, caused the developers trouble with what was once their own original IP -- and as Mori admits, the company is "basically begging" Guilty Gear fans to play BlazBlue.
With a body of intriguing work behind them and a future set on bringing 2D fighters dazzlingly into the HD era with BlazBlue, Arc System Works seems to be at the most vital it has ever been. We tackle the company's present, future, and philosophy in the following questions.
Arc makes games that appear both in arcades and on consoles, like the Guilty Gear series. Do you feel arcade fans and console fans want different features from your games? Do they have different expectations?
Daisuke Ishiwatari: In my experience, the biggest difference between arcades and games made expressly for home consoles, like Guilty Gear 2, is that solid online play is tricky to arrange for the latter format. The console games I'm most interested in making are highly competitive, and their quality depends on whether you can get a reliable network up and running or not.
In arcades, or game centers, two people can battle on different machines without even a single frame of lag. In trying to bring games like these to the home machines, we have to tackle these network related issues as well, which makes the production process for the two formats fundamentally different.
With ports of arcade games to consoles, you're forced to do what you can to preserve the original. It's also really important to increase the game volume by adding new content and features. Not that I'm really qualified to talk about that though, as I haven't done much porting work. My experience is more with original titles made expressly for the consoles.
So, it's tough to speak about porting issues as I haven't done it much myself, but I think the main goal with home ports should be to add volume to the originals by enriching the game world and adding content that gives fans new incentive to play at home.
Arc System Works' Guilty Gear XX: Accent Core
Toshimichi Mori: I've been involved in porting Guilty Gear to the consoles a bit, and also in working on the arcade versions. With arcade games, people insert a coin, and generally play them for a short period of time. When you play at home, though, you can take your time, and explore all aspects of a game.
We want our arcade games to provide quick bursts of enjoyment, and then when the same game goes to a console, the goal becomes creating a play experience the user can really sink their teeth into. People don't just beat a fighting game once at home, they play through it numerous times, so we add things like a story mode to flesh out back story for each of the characters, things that will expand the game world.
Are there a lot of female players of Arc System Works games?
DI: As far as the fighting game genre goes, yeah, I think we have quite a few.
This question is for Iwasaki-san. I don't know if you saw, but we did an interview with Ono-san from Capcom about Street Fighter IV, and he said that they weren't sure they could make a 2D fighting game in 3D until they played Battle Fantasia and they saw how you guys had made it work first. Had you heard that? It's true, Ono told us.
TM: [To Iwasaki] Nice! You totally influenced Street Fighter IV!
Could you talk a little bit about how you made that work? I would say that usually 3D graphics with 2D gameplay doesn't work very well, so could you talk about that process a little bit?
Emiko Iwasaki: Well, we were told from the start that Battle Fantasia "needed" to be in 3D, so... (laughter) And at the time, I had zero experience working on games using 3D graphics.
Actually, no one on the entire team knew how to do 3D, so Motomura-san was nice enough to train one of our interns from the ground up. I think the game looks the way it does because we had a group of people with backgrounds in 2D fighters making one in 3D for the first time.
If there was no one on the team who could do 3D graphics, why did you decide to proceed with that?
DI: Those were the company orders.
Arc System Works' Battle Fantasia
Was it an experiment to see if you could make it work, or did the company think the game would be more popular in the West, or something, because of the graphics?
EI: I think the company wanted to develop their 3D talent a bit more.
Junya Motomura: Yeah, one part is that we wanted to build up our 3D skills, and it was also our first fighting game using the Type X2 arcade technology. In order to use the hardware efficiently, obviously it needed to be 3D.
BlazBlue uses the Type X2 technology as well, but it does 2D graphics in high definition. It must be really difficult to make high-resolution 2D sprites. Most companies have completely abandoned that sort of thing. For example, Igarashi at Konami said they thought about making a hi-res 2D Castlevania game, but they decided they couldn't do it...
TM: SNK Playmore had something they were working on, but...
DI: Actually, I heard that was shelved...
TM: Ahh, right... So, what was the question?
JM: I think he was saying it's cool that we're doing it.
DI: Oh, heh, [in English] Thank you!
Why are you doing it?
TM: Precisely because nobody else is doing it! (laughs) Usually, people sort of turn up their noses at the idea of wasting the effort it takes to make a game in HD on a 2D fighter. In business terms, it costs more money and time, and needs people that can use the most recent technology.
So it might not be the wisest strategy, but it's something we've really been wanting to do. And the higher-ups were supportive of the idea, so we went ahead with it.
I also heard that the King of Fighters XII team at SNK made 3D models for the animation, and then they're tracing them. Are you using the same tactic or are you actually doing hand animation?
JM: Yeah, we're doing almost the same thing.
Had you done that with other games, or is this a first time thing for BlazBlue?
JM: Yes, actually I did something similar on a Dragon Ball game for the Game Boy Advance, and then for Basara as well. We used it in those cases to make sure the quality would be even throughout the game.
DI: One difference between BlazBlue and KOF is that after we have the animators design things like the shadows, we go in and make corrections ourselves.
JM: Yeah, compared to KOF, the BlazBlue sprites are closer to being hand-drawn, because we only use the 3D graphics as an outline. In KOF, they do all the shadows and shading in 3D, and then convert them into 2D sprites, but in Blaz Blue, we redraw the sprites by hand.
Did you have to make special tools to be able to do that, like new tools made within the company?
TM: Actually, no. We were able to use techniques we had in the past.
Do you just export the animations and then pull them into a 2D artwork program, so you can see how the poses are? It seems like that must be really hard to do.
TM: Well, when making a 2D fighting game these days, people tend to do almost all the work using 3D models, which usually ends with them saying, "Well, why don't we make the whole game 3D, then?"
For me, the graphics in a 2D fighter have to retain that hand-drawn feel, no matter what technology is being used. So, even if we're starting out with 3D models, we have to go back over them by hand, and make them come alive that way.
Something I wanted to talk about is the balance you have to maintain. Games like BlazBlue, Guilty Gear, and Battle Fantasia have to have a lot of depth to retain their audience. But the core concept of a fighting game is super simple. It's just two people fighting; anyone can understand it. Look at the shooting genre, it's completely lost all its popularity, and only the otaku can play the latest games. How do you avoid that kind of situation with fighting games?
DI: Well, for starters, I think fighting games are fundamentally different from shooters in the sort of communication that occurs between players. That unique sort of culture fighting games have, of squaring off against another human opponent, is what's kept them alive this long, and I don't see that changing in the near future. It's sort of like the popularity of chess in that way.
I still think there could be some problems, though. Guilty Gear and most of the others are fun games to play, but I still think that to really understand the games is pretty difficult. So, in this day and age of making games easier to play, do you think about that, or are you happy with the way that you create the games? And I don't think the way you make games is bad; I've always liked them, but it's something to think about.
DI: For the original Guilty Gear, and I think this is true for any person playing any game really, there comes a time when you hit a wall in terms of difficulty, and you have to decide whether you'll keep at it, or stop playing. In designing games, you have to decide when the player is going to hit that wall, early on, or later. I prefer it to be later, so that even beginners can enjoy themselves.
And it's a bit subjective for us as designers, as we're the ones who have to control the difficulty and complexity. We have to be very careful that this "wall" doesn't just turn people away, no matter how bad at or uninterested in the game they might be.
That said, we also want to cater to our core audience by implementing solid and more complex gameplay that rewards those who really delve into it. It's sort of difficult to explain. In my own opinion, no matter what the game, it's important to make sure that beginners and non-gamers can pick it up, and have fun just mashing the buttons.
Arc System Works' BlazBlue
What do you think of the health of the genre right now, because actually, I think 2008 is the best year fighting games have had in a long time. Obviously there's Street Fighter IV, but also Soulcalibur. You have multiple development lines going. Battle Fantasia just came out, and as we head into 2009, BlazBlue is on the way, and KOF is coming out with a new one, too. What do you think about how things are going right now?
EI: I think the way people play fighting games is in the process of changing right now. More and more people are going online to find others to play with, which leads to a lot of information being exchanged, and people socializing in forums outside the game itself. I don't think the way things are now will continue forever, but that the genre will change to meet the evolving needs of its user base.
But the basic appeal of fighting games has always been strategic competition, like chess or shogi. They provide almost endless entertainment to those who really get into them, and that's something I don't see changing.
DI: I think both 3D and 2D fighting games are approaching a dead end of sorts. Increasing the appeal of new fighters these days comes down to things like perfecting game balance, or improving graphics. I feel like the genre is limited to growth in those types of ways, at this point. That's not to say I think the fighting game scene will just end if those type of improvements stop being made.
I also don't think it's fair to compare whatever happens to be the newest, flashiest game of the moment to an older fighter and say, "Well, I guess we've reached our peak." I hope that gamers will go on being able to enjoy the best 2D and 3D fighters of the past, to appreciate them like wine.
I do think there is a definite shift going on right now, with the arcade market shrinking and more people playing at home. The network problems I mentioned earlier are still a factor on the consoles though, and so far, the technology that would equal the zero lag environment of an arcade just doesn't exist yet. At any rate, I think the genre has proven its worth, and it should be exciting to watch it evolve over the coming years.
TM: To tell the truth, I'm a skeptic about making fighting games work online on the consoles. When you're playing against someone, I think the best communication comes from the fact that you have to share a physical space with your opponent and face off against them.
I worry that if we develop a method of fighting that doesn't require you to face your opponent, this important communication between players will eventually be lost. That's why I most want to involve myself with games that encourage this face-to-face interaction. As things stand now, I think this lack of communication is quickly becoming a reality, even in arcades, people are keeping more to themselves, but I'm not giving up. It's sort of a personal mission of mine.
Or take, the PSP, which can do online play. Monster Hunter has been a huge hit here, and it's common for people to actually hang out together when they play it. It's important that we keep that, that sense of physical community. The arcades offer it, and as long as people keep going, I think the fighting genre will last.
It's interesting that a common thread there was that the way people communicate contributes to the popularity of fighting games. People can of course play together, but with the expanded ways to communicate that we have online, the fans can find each other. That's kind of the sense I'm getting. And I think you feel that helps contribute to the health of the genre, and also the ability to play online. So you really think that communication is the key to keeping the genre healthier right now?
DI: Right, and there are also things like voice chat that can enrich online play. At any rate, Japan's unique in that it's a small country with a relatively high number of arcades and people who use them.
One of our biggest challenges moving forward will be to bring our games to the consoles so we can market them in countries where this isn't the case.
I think that a lot of people want to create a game center type atmosphere for the online modes of console games. I remember that Itagaki, the ex-head of Team Ninja, was saying that with Dead or Alive 4 on the Xbox 360, he wanted the online mode to be like an arcade -- to bring back that feeling -- and I think that a lot of people have nostalgia for that. Do you think that's important? Especially when in Japan, you can still go play Battle Fantasia right now against somebody. I played Street Fighter IV with a friend the other day here, but I can't really do that in America.
DI: I just think with the current technology making reliable online play unattainable, really replicating the game center atmosphere is out of reach. We're not even sure it's possible for two people in different countries to physically manipulate the controls in a way that would give 60th-of-a-second precision. The gameplay in Guilty Gear 2, for example, was designed with some amount of lag in mind.
In the fastest 2D fighters, there are moves that take only one to three frames to complete. Played online, quick action like that will produce different results on each player's screen. In Guilty Gear 2, the fastest attacks take at least 13 frames to land, which is enough time to ensure both players see the same result.
This is serviceable, but it doesn't provide the instantaneous response of an arcade fighter. It is something we want to work on, but we just don't know if it's going to be possible yet. It's a problem that won't be solved until the technology advances.
TM: I think the general opinion among Japanese fighting fans is that bringing the precision of the arcade to online console play is impossible. I'm not sure of the situation in other countries, but fighting fans here place a huge amount of importance on fair play.
We're talking about people who won't be satisfied unless they know they're playing under exactly equal circumstances with an equal chance of winning. First and foremost, we have to be able to assure the people that play at a level where each of the 60 frames in a given second matter, that the game is fair.
I think Western gamers are maybe more interested in freedom of choice, ease of play, and eye-catching appeal. Creating a way to play online that meets both those sets of needs seems impossible to me. That's the way I see things right now, anyway. Instilling that sense of "fair play" on a home network will be really difficult, given the current situation.
DI: We don't really have a sense of how popular fighting games are in the states, so it's tough to know how much demand there would be for accurate online fighting. We know the FPS is king there, and also that Soulcalibur, which I personally think is junk, has a big following.
It doesn't seem like fighting games will ever be as popular as they were in the '90s, but it does seem that things are on the upswing, all the same. I think Street Fighter IV might affect things too, to remind people why 2D gameplay is good. I think part of it is that [Capcom SFIV director] Ono-san is very particular about the fact that they wanted to retreat from the ideas of Street Fighter III, which was very hard to understand, and return to something more like Street Fighter II. The game is deep, but very easy to play on a basic level.
What do you think about the situation, with fighting games coming back? Are you happy to see it? Things are changing. Fighting games will probably never be as popular as they were, but if things keep developing they can return to some degree of popularity, but it may not be the same world that you started out in, in terms of the way fighting games could be.
DI: Well, taking Street Fighter IV as an example, it actually has more gameplay elements than Street Fighter III did, it's just that parrying in the older game was really tough. But if you say, "Oh, well III would've been much better if they'd only fixed the parrying," I actually think the opposite is true.
The important thing is the existence of that "wall" I mentioned earlier. If you're going to include a hundred different techniques a player has to master, the important thing is whether you can give them the motivation to do so or not.
With Street Fighter III, and I did have fun playing it, but having all your attacks parried when you can't manage to do it consistently, frustrates a player more than it motivates them.
My point is: a game that's easy to understand isn't necessarily shallow, and a game that's complicated isn't necessarily deep. And I think that's an interesting question: how do you decide how to balance that?
TM: This reminds me of something I've been thinking, and it actually relates back to the last question. I'm not trying to pick a fight with Capcom or anything, but with Street Fighter IV, they made a big deal about how the game was designed to be accessible to people new to the genre.
I remember when I first read that in an interview, I was like, "What? How can they say that?!" I thought maybe I was seeing things. I think they need to take a second look at the list of moves for that game before they make a claim like that.
Sure, people like us who work with games, or fans of fighting games can do a hadouken or a shoryuken without thinking much about it, but for somebody just getting started? Those moves are pretty tough! You can't expect new players to just whip those moves out every time.
To fill your game with moves like that and then emphasize how simple it was for beginners to pick up seemed irresponsible to me. Street Fighter IV is not a game geared toward people who've never played fighters before. If they were really interested in making a beginner-friendly game, they should've made included a few impressive moves a player could do with the press of a button.
Which leads me back to game balance. A while back, someone brought up chess, a game where you have to think a couple of moves ahead, if you can manage it. I think the same sort of thinking can work well in fighting games. I always want a player to use their head as much as they use their hands, balancing a need for both strategy and quick reflexes.
DI: One thing I hear from players, and something I never want to lose sight of -- while understanding that game balance is something we can only use our best judgment on, it can't be boiled down numbers or formulated -- is the phrase "This game rewards effort."
JM: Right. That a game doesn't betray you for really spending time with it. Which is to say, if a game has that going for it, people will continue to play it, even if it's complicated.
It's sort of like Arc System Works' philosophy, then.
JM: Actually, it's a compliment that we get mostly from fans of our games.
DI: And I want to make sure I continue to deserve comments like that.
I want to talk about Guilty Gear 2 Overture, because it was such a surprise. It's completely different as it's a 3D adventure game. I wanted to find out where the idea came from originally. I heard that it was something you'd been wanting to do, but I wanted to hear a little bit more about it.
DI: Well, we were involved directly with the series up through Guilty Gear XX #Reload, which were the 2D fighting games we'd been wanting to make. At that point we felt like we'd done what we'd set out to, and were wondering what step the series should take next.
Until that time, I'd been playing games at the arcade and on my PS2, but when I started playing games on the PC, I discovered how fascinating FPS and RTS games could be.
For me it was like "Wow. There are these entirely other venues for making competitive games that are really interesting." So when it came time to move forward, we thought we should try to take a totally new approach and move in a new direction.
This is a tough question, I don't know if you can answer it, but there have been some rumors on the net about Guilty Gear and Sega getting the rights, which is why [Arc System Works' Dynasty Warriors-style action title] Guilty Gear 2: Overture didn't feature too many older characters -- and stuff that I don't really understand. Though you might not be able to provide any answers...
DI: Right, I might not be able to provide answers there.
You know, rumors... on the Internet...
DI: Yeah, I can't really talk about it much... except to say that they're basically true. (laughs)
Arc System Works' Guilty Gear 2: Overture
I don't know if Battle Fantasia will have a sequel or not, but was your intention to start multiple series within the same company, because they could expand your audience? I think of the Guilty Gear audience as an existing number of people who like Guilty Gear. I would assume most of them would be interested in BlazBlue and Battle Fantasia, but I don't know if that's your intention, or if it's to develop multiple games with their own style and audience. Could you talk about that?
DI: Our company basically functions in a way that allows people to make the games they want, and these two [Iwasaki and Mori] are prime examples of that.
JM: It's not like we had a grand plan for doing all the different series, but their respective creators said, "Hey, I want to do this," and they just pushed the development forward with all their energy. Some of the ideas don't end up making it, and some do. As for making games into a series, it just depends on how well the title does.
When you were making Battle Fantasia for example, did you think, "Guilty Gear fans will probably like this," or did you try to make a game that could stand totally on its own?
EI: Well, we were asked to make certain aspects of the game keeping Guilty Gear fans in mind.
TM: Yeah, but they did want you to pursue your own vision.
EI: I know, but they still asked me to consider that sort of thing.
TM: With BlazBlue, we're basically begging the Guilty Gear fans to play it. I'd be lying if I said we didn't have them in mind when we were working on the game. We wanted it to be something Guilty Gear fans would be comfortable with both visually, and in terms of controls. But we also wanted it to be something people would want to play if it was their first experience with one of our games.
JM: Yeah, BlazBlue was made more explicitly with fans of Guilty Gear in mind, but Battle Fantasia was more of an attempt at expanding our audience. It has a different type of game world, and the controls are a little simpler.
Yeah, could you explain about what went into designing Battle Fantasia? That was really the first game outside the Guilty Gear series in the genre from Arc, so I want to talk about where the idea came from, and how you decided on the audience and the gameplay style, as it is a little bit simpler.
EI: We were interested in bringing in people new to fighting games, and also female players.
If the target was female players, was it just the art style that changed, or was it gameplay? Because ultimately, it's still an arcade fighting game, and as far as I'm aware, that audience isn't as involved in that. What changed in making this game, different from say, Guilty Gear or BlazBlue to appeal to that audience?
EI: Well, I go to game centers... (laughs)
Mainly, we tried to make things a little simpler. For example, the instruction card on the machine is easier to understand. Also, with the characters and the game atmosphere, because RPGs are so popular in Japan we took some cues from that genre.
As for gameplay, if you're faced with a ton of confusing moves and combos right off the bat it can be frustrating, so we simplified that a bit as well. But, in making it easier to get started, we didn't want the game itself to be shallow, so we tried to strike a balance between a game that looks easy on the surface, but also really draws you in the more you play it, and has some depth to it as well.