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Games That Can't Be Duplicated: Arc System Works' Ishiwatari Speaks

The mind behind the Guilty Gear series speaks to Gamasutra about what he sees as the future of the idiosyncratic fighting game developer, saying, "I want it such that the fighters we make can't be duplicated by overseas developers."

With the West taking over stewardship of the console marketplace over the course of this generation, and setting the tone of technical innovation and gameplay styles, some Japanese game developers might question their future in a global video game market.

Daisuke Ishiwatari, creator of the Guilty Gear fighting game series and composer of the music for its spiritual successor BlazBlue, has been working at Arc System Works for around 15 years. He took the company from an unknown contractor for other publishers to a studio with a dedicated, hardcore fan base around the globe.

While he's not working on any of the company's currently-announced projects -- that would be the Persona fighter that Arc is developing in conjunction with Atlus and the latest version of BlazBlue -- he does have his own project, which he teases in this interview. His goal is to ensure that his company gains a bigger global foothold while creating games that could not come from the West.

What game are you making?

DI: Ah, that I can't say right now. It's a secret.

Arc has Persona and BlazBlue in the works.

DI: With BlazBlue, I'm only involved with the music.

What role do you have in the company right now, as a producer? What is your title of the game you're working on?

DI: I'm working as a director right now.

Do you think the fighter genre is booming right now?

DI: That's a good question. I'd say the first fighter boom pretty well wrapped up around 15 years ago, but now we're seeing a lot more excitement for the genre, especially over in Europe. That's helped contribute to what I think is a becoming a growing scene for fighters.

I spoke with your colleague Mori earlier. He said that Arc may make fighting games normally, but the boom doesn't have anything to do with Arc. Arc is always developing fighters, so to Arc, the boom doesn't matter.

DI: Well, Arc has been making fighters for a while now, so that's the genre that we have the most knowledge about. Going into the future, well, Street Fighter is the most popular game in the genre worldwide, but we make our games with the goal of becoming a major player as well.

Recently you also made Hard Corps: Uprising, a downloadable title. What do you think of downloadable games?

DI: I think that download content, in itself, is a great opportunity to give users a lot of fresh and interesting stuff. However, I also have the impression that there are too many titles out there.

Everyone wants new things, but I also think there are a lot of fun older games that people have never really picked up. I think it'd be better if there was a way to reintroduce titles like those to users.

There are a lot of downloadable games, but do you think people can't find them through the current user interfaces?

DI: Yes, I do have the impression that downloading games off the net is still difficult for a lot of people; it's too much of a hurdle. That's about what I think.

Packaged software gets a lot of promotion, but downloadable titles don't get much promotion or commercials.

DI: I think the Castlevania downloadable game [Harmony of Despair] received a fair amount of advertising, but it's true that you don't see a lot of it. If there's anything, it's just little notices in magazines and so on. Back when we made Hard Corps, we had wanted to see more done along those lines for it.

Do you that modern consoles, with their ability to do DLC and game updates, has changed the development style of Arc?

DI: It has changed. The effect of DLC sales is pretty large, after all, in the end.

Do the fans like the DLC?

DI: Yes, and that's especially the case with fighting games, since everybody likes having more characters. That's the type of DLC that fans want the most.

The DLC characters were originally in the story mode, but players can't use them. They became DLC later on.

DI: Well, things like the story can get added on to later, but I'd like to try and provide better service for the fans.

Downloadable games are popular in North America, but I heard that they aren't as popular in Japan. Is that true?

DI: I think so. There aren't that many people in Japan who want to go through all of that in order to play games; they think it's too much work to connect to the net for that, or make an account, or pay money for something that isn't a package. That sort of thing is difficult for them.

Between the U.S., Europe and Japan, which region had the most people purchase BlazBlue characters online?

DI: Japan, probably. I don't recall the full numbers, but I think Japan has the most people purchasing.

Why do you think that?

DI: I think it may be because Japan has the most people who enjoy the anime or manga-like look that is prevalent in most of Arc System Works' titles.

Is that in terms of percentages?

DI: I think Japan has overwhelmingly the largest percentage.

What percentage of people who bought the game went on to buy DLC for it?

DI: There are a lot of different types of DLC, but new characters are something that really fills a need among users. I'd say over half of the game's purchasers have also bought DLC for it. They say that figure averages out to around 8 percent for games overall.

Has your development process changed with this new generation?

DI: Certainly. The scope has gotten a lot larger. The first original fighter that Arc made was Guilty Gear on the PS1, and that was made with a team of maybe 12 people. Now, though, we have teams of 30 or so working on projects, and we have other companies do some of the work for us as well. So we've definitely expanded, and the way we work has changed as well.

Do you have any news on Guilty Gear?

DI: A lot of people are definitely asking what's up with the series, that's true; a lot of gamers want to see it. I can't say when it may come out or anything like that, but I definitely want to answer the voices of the fans someday.

I heard rumors that there were problems with Guilty Gear in the past, with another company.

DI: Oh, right! Well, rumors are rumors. (laughs) I'd be lying if I said there were no problems at all, but much of that has been cleared away since. There's no impediment to making it now.


There was the EVO tournament in the U.S. earlier, and there was a BlazBlue contest as part of that. A lot of Americans enjoyed watching net streams of the fights. What do you think of that?

DI: Well, there are events like Tougeki in Japan as well; that's a pretty large-scale event. There are a lot of events which are basically just fans kind of getting together, though, and I think it'd be better of games -- especially fighting games -- were seen more as sports. I figured that it'd be better if Japan had these sorts of events that brought all the best players together and crowned a champion, and that's why I like EVO because winning in that tournament really gives you a position of status. Looking at that, I think it'd be nice if we had something like that here as well.

It seems like e-sports are getting more popular overseas.

DI: Japan is definitely lagging behind in that respect, in the way that it's thought of here. We want to try to raise the value of e-sports.

I saw a little bit of the BlazBlue tournament at Tokyo Game Show. Are events like that important to Arc for the purposes of energizing and enlarging the fan base?

DI: Definitely, it's a very important thing. Tournaments like these attract a lot of attention and provide a chance for fans to communicate with each other, and it's also encouraging to physically see the sort of support we're receiving from them. Along those lines, I think it's been a great tournament.

Arc doesn't developer fighters exclusively; they've made more regular games for the DS, and so forth. Are both types of games still under development at Arc?

DI: Well, while I can't say exactly what we're working on, but I don't think most people know about the games Arc System Works makes apart from the famous titles, BlazBlue and Guilty Gear. We'll continue to make fighting games going into the future, but we also want to explore new possibilities. That's an ongoing topic within our company. So while I can't go into specifics right now, but we're always discussing with ourselves way to create a sort of third pillar, another title that puts Arc on the map.

Japan's game industry has a long history of developers making games in secret, without credit. Arc has done that as well, for example with the PS2 version of Ys IV. Do you still do that sort of work?

DI: Well, secret games are secret, so... (laughs) I can't say what, but certainly.

From a business perspective.

DI: Well, the company is gradually getting bigger. The success of BlazBlue has encouraged that, and we'll keep on striving to make more titles like that.

Independent developers in the U.S. and Europe have closed quite a bit lately. Does Japan have that kind of problem?

DI: There has been that, yes.

Arc is a publisher in Japan, right, publishing its own games?

DI: Yes.

And you also have relations with other publishers. I heard you developed a game for Konami recently.

DI: Certainly. We have a lot more experience with the fighter genre than other companies, so it's often the case that companies come to us when they want to make a fighting game.


Hard Corps: Uprising

Japanese fans buy a lot of books and other goods. Is that an important business for your company?

DI: It's certainly the case that you can't make money off a game purely by selling retail packages. That's why you devote a lot of time to things like characters and setting, content that even people who don't play games would like.

Are these ideas a part of the initial planning process?

DI: Yes, we do think about that, especially for the Japanese audience. A lot of it doesn't seem to work for the overseas market, though, and that's one issue we're grappling with at the moment.

Not a lot of goods like that go on sale overseas. Just a little bit.

DI: Would they want more of that?

Hardcore fans would.

DI: Yeah, just the hardcore fans. (laughs) So we're discussing making a new setting in the future that could work in all the world's markets evenly.

There isn't that same kind of fan culture in America. Fighter fans probably don't worry much about that.

DI: That's something we're definitely aware of, yeah. Still, the way we use Japanese culture is one of our primary weapons, and that's not something we want to just do away with. Games developed overseas have progressed massively in terms of technical skill, and I don't think there's any way that Japan can win in that battle, so I think it'd be nice if we can approach the world market in a Japanese kind of way.

Do you play games from other companies?

DI: Yes, I do.

Which do you think is better?

DI: Well, I definitely like overseas games better. If I'm just playing, then do you know Wolfenstein? There's also Operation Flashpoint and Gears of War.

A lot of shooting games.

DI: And also Diablo and Oblivion. Fallout 3, as well. I like games like those a lot; RPGs and FPSes. I also really like RTSes like Warcraft.

That's rare among Japanese creators. Those are hardcore Western titles.

DI: They don't sell games like Warcraft too often in Japan. (laughs) I go to Akihabara and buy import copies. I have an English dictionary by my side as I play them.

I'm the same way in reverse, using a Japanese dictionary. That was how I played through Final Fantasy V for the first time, in 1992. I used a kana chart to decipher item names and menu options.

DI: Yeah, I'm the same way.


Still, Arc's core is fighting games. You made a Guilty Gear with a 3D adventure element.

DI: Right, that was Guilty Gear 2: Overture.

Do you want to make other 3D games?

DI: Well, there are all kinds of things that I'd like to make. Guilty Gear 2 got its start because I wanted to make something new and something that may appeal to the world market.

The very first Guilty Gear came about because I really liked Street Fighter and wanted to make a game like that. With Guilty Gear 2, I wanted to make a game that would then inspire other people in that same kind of way.

So we tried to make the visuals from a more modern perspective, but the results didn't earn a lot of acclaim from the Japanese audience; it made me realize that they definitely preferred the more anime-like look.

Technology can really be a problem. That can be licensed, though, like with the Unreal Engine. What do you think?

DI: It'd definitely take a lot of time if a Japanese company tried to make something like Unreal Engine from scratch. It's gotten a lot less expensive, so I think a lot more companies are using engines like that in their games. I do think that it helps creators get what they want a bit more easily, but myself, I'm the sort of person who wants to do everything by himself.

I think that using a new engine would mean having to invent a new development process.

DI: Right. It makes it easier to move on and expand to other things. We have an engine that has helped us build a foundation that we can use to quickly move on to other projects. I think we want to use that to help improve the value of Arc.

One problem these days overseas is that smaller-scale games tend to get lost compared to the big-budget projects.

DI: I definitely know that. Mobile games are selling just as well as games on portable consoles these days, and for a lot of people, a cell phone can provide all the gaming they want. That's the trend these days. With big-budget games, there's a lot of risk involved. Our aim is to become the number-one maker of fighting games, though, so that's what we're devoting our resources to.

For example, if you want to make a shooter, you're going to be compared to Gears of War and Halo and Call of Duty.

DI: Yeah. I think only Capcom and Konami would have a chance at doing that. Maybe Sega, too. Arc has about 100 employees, but there's no way we could beat the competition overseas if we made an FPS.

You like shooting games; what do you think about the FPSes Japan has made?

DI: There's Vanquish, as well as that one Konami made. I don't think they're very good games. The AI, in particular, was just no good; that field is a lot more advanced overseas, and there really isn't that drive in Japan to make intelligent AI. Enemies just go in the direction they're given and react in preset ways to the player in battle.

This isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but an FPS has to have good AI or it's not going to be fun. The level design, too; in Japan, that's still kind of a work in progress in terms of quality. I do think, though, that a company like Capcom, Konami, or Sega could catch up and make something that meets or beats expectations in that arena within the next five years.

Which do you like more: games, or music?

DI: In the beginning, I wanted to be a musician more; I wanted to form a band. Now, though, I'm a person who makes both music and video games, and I feel like that's the best position for me right now.

Why did you go from music and band dreams to making games?

DI: Well, I wanted to form a band, but I wanted to do something visual as well -- I wanted to draw pictures and write stories. I was wondering where I could go to pursue all those interests, and that's why I joined a game company, because I thought that was the place.

What was the first game you worked on?

DI: That would be the first Guilty Gear on the PS1.

Anything before that?

DI: There was... what was I doing at the time? I was involved with the debugging of a couple of RPGs on the Super Famicom.

Were you with Arc System Works since the start?

DI: I joined the company midway, around 15 years ago. The company didn't have much in the way of original titles back then.

The first Guilty Gear was a major surprise for me when I first played it. It was a real high-quality product from a company I had never heard of, and I wondered where it came from.

DI: Thank you very much.

How long did that game take to develop?

DI: About a year and a half.

When you started the project, were you the one who planned it out?

DI: Before I joined Arc, I was in a vocational school, and even at that time I had the whole plan for Guilty Gear worked out. I kept that plan for a while as I worked on other things in Arc, and one day I asked the president whether I could make this and he said yes. That's how it happened.

You always do the music for your games. Do you think you could do a different style of music if you were making the soundtrack for another game?

DI: Well, the soundtracks for Guilty Gear and BlazBlue lean toward hard rock and metal, but I do compose music in other styles as well. They haven't been put into games, though.

It's very easy to spot the "Arc style," that mix of music and character design.

DI: I'm very glad for that. (laughs)

Is that important to you, that style?

DI: I think so, yes. We've all been doing the same thing for a while now, and that makes it easy to see where we're going in the future. If we tried to make something like Tekken or Street Fighter IV, there's no way we could outclass their knowledge and experience. So we're aiming to be number one and we want to do it our way.

Do you think doing it the same way will increase quality?

DI: Well, doing it the exact same way all the time would be boring. I'd like to go to the next stage visually and graphically, but I don't want the results to feel like something that isn't Arc. So we'll be developing new technology that retains that Arc feel.

Do you think it's be difficult for Arc to collaborate with another company and share that style?

DI: I think it's possible.


Persona: The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena

I think Persona: The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena definitely has both the Arc feel and the Atlus feel. Hard Corps: Uprising obviously has the Arc feel, too.

DI: Right, that anime-like style. But we can't do the same thing forever. We'll retain the Arc style, but we have to evolve it, too. That's our task for now.

It's not just anime-like, though. The character and enemy styles are very detailed and Arc-like, the design.

DI: Yeah. The design work's been done by the same people for a while now. That's probably what makes it Arc-like.

Do you see that as a problem?

DI: I don't think it's a bad thing, but I don't think people will find that appealing forever, either. If we don't try new things and evolve, we'll be left behind. Arc can't make FPSes or RTSes, but I want it such that the fighters we make can't be duplicated by overseas developers.


There's a game called Skullgirls under development in the US. The style of that game looks a little similar to Arc's stuff -- a 2D game with an anime feel.

DI: I like that look at lot. I met the makers before, and while the game system is what it is, the design and characters are something I really like.

Have you played it?

DI: I have.

What did you think of the gameplay?

DI: The control response is a lot like what you see in Japanese games, but the fine-tuning and balancing isn't really there yet.

It's still a work in progress, though.

DI: Right. So seeing a game like this being developed overseas is something that excites and even worries me a little. We need to make games that won't leave us left behind in the business, I think.

Skullgirls' system doesn't allow for combos that go on forever.

DI: I don't know if it's still the case now, but when I played it, it was set up so that you could escape after 15 hits, I think.

Most fighting games have infinite combos. In Skullgirls, you can do it, but the damage goes further and further down. What do you think of that?

DI: Well, it's too early to say how Skullgirls will turn out, but I don't think infinite combos are a bad thing at all. If it's something that players can accept and work with, that I don't see any harm in having them there. Of course, it'd be a boring game if anyone could do them easily.

Serious fighter players all tend to use the same character, whichever one is seen as the best. That's kind of boring too, don't you think?

DI: It is. It's poor game balance. You can't have every character be equally strong, but if the strongest character is always the strongest no matter who's controlling them, I think that's a balance problem.

That can be fixed in BlazBlue with patches.

DI: Right. You can release downloadable patches, which makes fine-tuning the balance easier than before. Before the PS3 and 360, there were patches released for PC games all the time, but not on consoles. You can do it now, though, and that allows that sort of thing to be possible.

Do you think it's good to try and make low tier characters more popular with a patch?

DI: I think that happens, yes. If the weakness wasn't something we designed in, then we'll fix that. There are characters that're deliberately weaker, though, like Dan in Street Fighter Alpha 2. It wouldn't be fun if he were stronger. You fine-tune the balance to match the character, but we make our games such that you have the chance of winning with any character you choose.

Each character has a specific purpose in your games.

DI: We have individual purposes for each of the characters, yes, although it's impossible to predict what gamers will do with them after the game comes out. Sometimes our balancing can have results we couldn't have even imagined, and therefore we have to fix it without disappointing gamers along the way.


BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend

What do you make patches for -- in response to user requests, or for bug fixing, or...?

DI: Well, we fix game-crash bugs and things like that first, but rebalancing patches are made in response to users' voices and opinions. We refer to those extensively. That's a really important thing. their opinions.

Mobile and social gaming is experiencing a boom right now. What do you think of that?

DI: To be honest, we aren't making games on mobile or other small devices, so in a way, it's troubling us. That stuff is really popular. Digital download is the same way, too, in the way the market is rapidly going in that direction.

I think people who get into those sorts of games won't be playing heavier genres like fighters or RPGs. Regular gamers used to play fighters a little more often, but nowadays they stick to mobile devices and don't touch the genre. That is trouble for us, certainly. We are thinking that perhaps making some kind app for Android or whatever that links up with our games could be one way to attract attention from that sort of audience.

What do you think of the PlayStation Vita's chances?

DI: I think the Vita's hardware is just wonderful. It's very high-spec, and the touch panel is really neat. The cost of going on the network is pretty high, though, and I wonder if it'll find nothing but a pretty hardcore audience. That's my personal opinion. I also wonder if people will feel like buying it if they're already satisfied enough with their iPhones.

The iPhone isn't as powerful as the Vita, but I imagine that the iPhones of the future will outclass it within the next two or three years.

DI: I don't think many users worry all that much about specs in the first place. Angry Birds is enough for them. (laughs) Everyone likes playing that, and they're satisfied with ten-minute bursts of it.

There are more realistic games on iOS too, though.

DI: Right. We try to follow what gamers want, but the more realistic a game, the more it costs to develop. There's also the question of how much of an audience there really is, too. That's what we're in the midst of researching right now. Are our games best suited for dedicated systems? Would it be a good idea to target gamers who primarily play on mobile devices right now?

Developing on iOS or Android platforms would immediately give you a worldwide audience. Do you have an interest in that?

DI: I do, yeah.

Publishing is easier on those platforms than on the DS or Vita, too.

DI: Right. I certainly have ideas along those lines, but we're a game company in the end, so we haven't really decided whether we want to go in that direction yet.

What do you think about the 3DS, meanwhile?

DI: I think that both the Vita and 3DS aren't getting advertised in the best way possible. It'd be better if they could communicate the charms of the system and its games in more coherent ways. Both of them are more than decent game systems, I think. In this realm, specs don't matter a great deal since non-hardcore users will just play what they want anyway, so in the end, it's a marketing battle.

The PSP really became the number-one hardcore platform in Japan. Do you think the Vita will go the same way?

DI: I really don't know yet. The hardware is really, really good, but networking costs a lot -- like 4000 yen for 100 hours. I don't think a lot of parents would be patient enough to pay that every month for their children. That's why I think only the hardcores will really adopt it en masse.

The PSP has had a lot of problems overseas, such as with piracy. Sales of games in general haven't been good for the past three or so years. It's a really different situation from the one in Japan.

DI: The PSP isn't selling? Is the DS doing better, then? That's largely the same case in Japan, but the PSP has a major hit in Monster Hunter, so sales have exploded in Japan.

Monster Hunter didn't do as well in America, though.

DI: It wasn't very popular? I don't like it much, either. (laughs)

You don't have much interest in it?

DI: Not really. I purchased it, but essentially I didn't like it.

But you like Diablo.

DI: I love it.

You think that's comparatively a much better game?

DI: To me, it's not a matter of good versus bad so much as whether I like it or not.

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