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Grasshopper Manufacture's Akira Yamaoka Talks The Social, Mobile Revolution

Akira Yamaoka, CCO of No More Heroes dev Grasshopper Manufacture, explains the deal with Japan's mobile giant DeNA, stating the local market has "flipped" from console and boxed products to social and mobile.
At a special event prior to the recent Tokyo Game Show, Grasshopper Manufacture revealed that it is teaming up with DeNA to release games for the Japanese social game giant's Mobage network, which is extremely popular in Japan thanks to its legacy as a feature phone service in that region. DeNA recently launched Mobage's English-speaking beta on the Android platform via the company's U.S.-headquartered subsidiary, Ngmoco. Of course, Grasshopper Manufacture is better known for creating off-kilter hardcore games, such as the recently-released Shadows of the Damned and cult classics Killer 7 and No More Heroes. In this interview, the developer's newly-minted chief creative officer Akira Yamaoka -- best known for his work as a composer for video games -- explains why Grasshopper is currently working with the social/mobile publisher on four titles, what he thinks that his company will gain from the relationship, why DeNA's global focus for Mobage was essential to the deal, and the quest to build the "next Super Mario" for smartphones. So you've become the chief creative officer of Grasshopper Manufacture. I guess there are two sides. One is, obviously I'm leading all the work that comes out of the sound department, so obviously I'm still very tight and hands on with all that work. But as chief creative officer, though, I'm overseeing projects that are in the works -- so overseeing and managing game content, which would mean overseeing the pipeline of the current projects that are in the works. I get the impression that the deal with DeNA is a big part of your focus right now. The relationship between Grasshopper and DeNA -- business management, relationship management -- I'm overseeing right now. But we have four producers who are working on a daily basis on the actual content, so I may not be super hands-on with all these projects. But the initiative itself falls under my territory. A while ago you talked to Brandon and said, soon we'll see things that are not Yamaoka-like. Between Evangelion 3nd Impact and the DeNA deal, all I can think is, "none of this is Yamaoka-like in the traditional sense." No, you're correct. I think what people have come to expect from Akira Yamaoka is the music, sound director, composer -- everything from past titles that I'm known for. It's certainly not going along those lines. It's not an extension of some of the work that I've done in the past. Evangelion and the DeNA projects that we're working on are part of an initiative, obviously, within Grasshopper Manufacture as a developer. And yes, I'm overseeing these projects, but it's not something that's "Akira Yamaoka -- producing." It's not "Akira Yamaoka presents" these titles, no. So an "Akira Yamaoka presents" title is still to be determined? Yeah, that would be a separate, a completely separate project. Just the position and the role that I play for the company, currently I oversee multiple projects, so the Akira Yamaoka project will be a completely different project on its own. To return to the question of the DeNA relationship, are you interested in social games? How do you view that space? So at least for Japan, I know for sure, and I can say, that the market has greatly shifted from home console users and boxed products to social and mobile entertainment. Just by sheer numbers alone, we know that it's almost flipped. Now it's like, most people enjoy playing, and are entertained by, social/mobile content. So in our case, we come from more of a traditional video game developer point of view, or stance, and so what we want to do is, hopefully in developing these titles, we still bring what we know -- our knowledge and the entertainment value that we were able to create. And hopefully instill either that practice, or how you appreciate entertainment, into the social/mobile space. So it's almost like, yes, it's a new platform that has emerged out of sort of nowhere, but that doesn't mean that we lose our traditions, or lose our practices and our approach, and how we create content. Our goal is still to create entertaining content, and hopefully the more mass population will be able to enjoy what we create for this new platform. DeNA has launched the Mobage platform in the U.S. Do you think it's likely that these titles could come to the U.S.? The reason why we're even going along with this initiative is because DeNA disclosed to all of us Japanese developers out here that they were going to -- and so that was the biggest reason that we are even jumping on this initiative. And not to say that we're going to ignore the domestic market, but as Grasshopper, we want our content to be available globally, so that's the main reason we're even doing this right now. How has it been working with DeNA, in your opinion? Ultimately, with us coming from more of a traditional game developer and publisher mentality, their goal of delivering entertaining content is the same. That doesn't change, just because they don't come from a video gaming background, or a developer background. But the approach and the way that they view the market, and basically how you deliver the entry point to your content, is quite different. For example, at home you have to turn the power on, and you hold your controller, you either download your content, or change discs, and then you get ready, you're set up, and now you start playing. With DeNA, with one click, one push of a button, you're already in the space. The way they view each and every single user as an individual, and as a group together, is quite different. It's very refreshing to see that it's all user-based; they're looking at it from a user's point of view, and how accessible it is, how low the barrier is. They're trying to break down the walls. You don't have to be a gamer, or have played games, in order to enjoy their content. So the entry level is different from anything that's more on a console. That is not to say that we should still continue to think in two different sorts of dimensions. I think there's something that we can learn from the way they view users, and how you kind of control them and own them. There are probably practices that we can learn from their business model, and hopefully, in the future, try to apply something that works for the console space. Do they value the creativity of Grasshopper in a meaningful way? Yes, they do value the creativity of our company Grasshopper, but I think what they've been looking for is a brand new, fresh set of ideas that would take their platform, their service, and their company to a whole new level. So I think the creativity aspect of it, and knowing how to make entertaining content on the traditional platforms, and having done that, they're looking forward to getting ideas that they never really came up with on their own. And they often say, "Please lend us your creativity, please lend us your experience and knowledge that you guys have put together so far." And on the flipside, what we can learn from them is how we create entertaining content for these different mobile platforms that we've never been really accustomed to. This is quite new for us. So I think there's an equal value exchange between us, being the new crop of developers for smartphones, coming from a traditional video game development standpoint -- but then also learning how this new wave of mass population users, and how they're quickly adapting to smartphones and content that's available on the smartphones. So there's almost an equal exchange between DeNA and a studio like Grasshopper right now. So going from feature phones, where the Mobage service was available, and now going to the smartphone arena, they want to create something that is not just an easy transformation from whatever was available on the feature phones. They think that this is actually a huge opportunity for them to create something that is new and refreshing. In terms of new products, everyone wants to make the next Super Mario, or something like that. Who will make it first? So that's kind of our task in a way. I mean, we're not going to make Super Mario, of course, but they want us to make that first "big win" content for smartphones, like Super Mario was [for the Famicom].

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