Hudson's Revenge - Looking Forward With The House That Bonk Built

After a U.S. comeback in the mobile space, Hudson Entertainment is returning to console games in force. In this extensive Gamasutra interview, president John Greiner and director of marketing John Lee reveal all on the pioneering, 34-year-old developer and publisher.

The Hudson brand has serious history in the game industry. Hudson Soft began operation in Sapporo, Japan in 1973, and was Nintendo’s first third-party publisher. As such, the company has enjoyed a longstanding history and collaborative spirit with Nintendo which continues to this day.

In Japan, the company was responsible, along with NEC Electronics, for the release of the PC Engine line of home consoles, called the Turbo Grafx 16 in the West. The console was a humongous success in Japan, though not so much in Western markets, launching too late to make a significant impact. The subsequent console, the PC-FX, did little to help the company, with some 64 games released, as other companies such as Sega with its Sega CD and Philips with its CD-i also foundered with FVM-based game models.

Since that time, Hudson has moved more operations into software, eschewing the hardware scene almost entirely. After many years not operating a U.S. office, Hudson opened Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Hudson Entertainment in 2003, headed by John Greiner, who has been with Hudson for over two decades. He spent the grand majority of those with the Japanese parent company.

Hudson in the U.S. is focused on mobile entertainment (games and ringtones, specifically), but has recently branched out into console publishing. As the gateway to the Turbo Grafx, Hudson’s titles are appearing on the Wii Virtual Console in droves, and Hudson is taking this opportunity to re-launch the brand in the U.S. with more force than has been seen from the company since the early 1990s.

In this exclusive, lengthy interview with Hudson Entertainment president John Greiner and director of marketing John Lee, a lot of ground is covered, from the difficulties of launching Japanese IP in the West, to the decline and subsequent reinvigoration of the parent company, to the company’s relationship with Konami, of which Hudson is now a subsidiary. With occasional divergences into obscure bits of Hudson knowledge and a discussion of executives riding tiny trains, this interview should tell you almost everything you need to know about Hudson for the near future.

GS: How do you feel about Bomberman: Act Zero’s reception in the U.S.?

John Greiner: The problem is, I think, when you look at the way the Japanese intended the game to be marketed, and how it was marketed, there is a disconnect. And I think it’s an unfortunate thing that happened, because Japanese Hudson and Konami U.S. don't speak to each other. So that needed to be properly explained, because the game is made as a multi‑player battle game, which is what the Japanese Hudson people thought American people really wanted.

Mind you, the game is really made for the Japanese market, but they do look to see what American tastes are. So I think, basically, without knowing those key selling points, then the message was lost, and if you play that game as a multi‑player game over the 'net, it's great. So in Japan, you can take a game like that and you can tell the market exactly what it is, and they will respond in kind. But you have to tell them. That's the problem. That kind of thing happens. But anyway...

John Greiner

GS: So how long have you been with Hudson? I know it's been a long time.

JG: Eighteen years.

GS: Eighteen years. What were you doing before that?

JG: I started my career at Hudson, actually. I graduated from college and went to Japan, and found Hudson, and never left.

GS: How did you wind up there?

JG: I was actually traveling, and met the owner of the company. Those were the early days of the Turbo Grafx, so Hudson had just released ‑‑ I should say NEC had just released ‑‑ the PC Engine, and they were going to bring it to America. And Hudson was, of course, a very important factor in the technology, the software, everything, because the whole machine is Hudson's that they then licensed to NEC, so Hudson was a very important partner for NEC.

The NEC guys were Americans, and Hudson was a very Japanese company, and they needed somebody to help this transition. So Mr. Kudo, the chairman of Hudson, had to do business with the chairman of NEC Home Electronics, an American guy. And there was a big cultural gap, not just communication but cultural.

So he hired me for that, and we just built the business as it rolled along, because it really was a big deal at the time. There was so much success in Japan, and suddenly here was the idea to bring it to America, of course, and they had a lot of potential, so it was a big deal for Hudson and it was a big deal for NEC.

GS: So was NEC involved in the Japanese launch?

JG: Yeah.

GS: Ok, I thought so.

JG: So Hudson never released any machine, we just licensed the technology; and we continued to support Nintendo while we did that.

GS: Yeah, I remember that.

JG: And of course Nintendo knew that with no problem.

GS: So what was it like being in a Japanese company at that time?

JG: Those were the early days, not only being in a Japanese company, but just a foreigner being in Japan was really unique, because there wasn't this mass influx that you now have. You saw another foreigner walking down the road, you gave him a high five, because you didn't meet that many other people.

So in this context it was really exciting, and the company itself was exciting. They had, as you know, such great history, and they were just building upon that. I think at the time we must have been a $400 million company or so, so it was really steamrolling, and there were great games everywhere.

So as a gamer, you can imagine how exciting that would be, to be in a situation where you have all these new exciting products and you’re just rolling them to America, and the company is Japanese. It was a perfect situation for me, personally, but also for the company because they did very well off the entire business.

GS: There was a recent change in leadership in Hudson in Japan, right? Have there been any changes resultant from that?

JG: That leadership change came about almost two years ago, now, and that leadership change put Mr. Kudo in a chairmanship, and elevated Mr. Endo into the presidency. This was kind of spurred by our parent company, Konami, inserting new blood, basically, into the company, and just kind of shaping the company as they see fit, the majority shareholder.

GS: What is that relationship like?

JG: It's good. I think Konami is a great mentor for Hudson, certainly. I mean, they are a multi‑billion‑dollar company, and they do so many things so well, so we have learned so much from them. And the opposite is true. They, not necessarily learn, but they get many things from Hudson because we are a more nimble company who does a lot of new creative things that in a bigger company, you can't do as easily. So we offer them something, and we get a lot in return.

GS: Do they have first right of refusal on publishing Hudson stuff, or...?

JG: In Japan? In America?

GS: Here.

JG: No. I mean, we have a good relationship with them; some games they do, some games they don't. It is pretty much on a game‑by‑game basis.

GS: It's more separate here than it is in Japan?

JG: Yeah, in Japan Konami does Hudson's distribution. Hudson's still the publisher, but they do the distribution.

GS: Hudson's still a publisher in Japan?

JG: Yeah.

GS: OK, I was confused about that precisely because of that relationship, and since Hudson doesn't publish here, still, correct?

JG: Right, right.

GS: Are you looking to get back to that at any point?

JG: Yeah. We’re excited, especially with the release of Bonk, which was actually just released on mobile. So we are a publisher on the mobile side of course, but on console we are really waiting to see about Bonk, and how we can bring Bonk in, and that will lead to other things, we hope. We’re just excited that we have a new flagship character. It's not new, but we're bringing it back, so new in essence.

GS: Why now, to get back into the console space?

JG: Well, I didn't really say we are going to be a publisher, I just mean we are going to get back into it, we're going to still advise...

GS: I don't mean just on publishing, I mean in terms of console itself, like the development side of things, bringing stuff out.

JG: I think it's a good question, and it really relates to timing, not so much the market timing ‑‑ although that's helpful because all the machines are coming out ‑‑ but really timing within Hudson.

We have made this company successful in a little less than three years, so Hudson understands that and would like to build on that. They would also like to build on their foreign markets, so this offers them a really great opportunity to step into these foreign markets, and we can drive that business for them, basically, or at least help. I mean, everything takes time, and we do everything on a step‑by‑step basis, but you build up and you become more worthwhile as a company as you grow, obviously.

GS: It sounds like it was more on your side, deciding to come back into console in the U.S., or it was it a mandate from Japan?

JG: No, we always pushed it because we thought, hey, first of all, we've got a really talented group here in development and marketing and sales, so we know what we can do, and we know how we can enter the market, we know how we can help Hudson Japan. We have a lot of creativity, so at the very least we could give them the creativity that makes their games more relevant for America. Otherwise you get that really Japanese feel for every game, and that's OK for people who really love Japanese culture, but we want to make it a more mass market.

So we’ll start by giving them some advice and doing some of the graphic work here so that those models can be then inserted in the games, and we can have a more worldwide approach to our software.

GS: Yeah, we were actually talking on the way over here about Tengai Makyou, and those types of games that are really Japan-centric.

JG: You know about Tengai huh?

GS: Of course!

JG: Yeah, I respect anybody who does know it, because it's such a good series.

GS: I've got a specific question for you on that later on.

JG: Oh you do? OK. We'll get back to it then, no problem.

GS: But yeah, Tengai Makyou is a good series. The one I really played was the Kabuki Den one on PC Engine Super CD.

JG: I remember when that came out. I mean, that was widely acclaimed in Japan and unfortunately never made it to the States.

GS: Right.

JG: Personally I've tried very hard to get that title to the States. Unfortunately Working Designs bit the dust, and they were the perfect candidate to do that because they really understand that market, so that's too bad.

GS: There's always Gaijin Works.

JG: I’ve talked to Victor and you know I've asked him to do things, and hopefully someday this title will reach the market. I think it will eventually.

GS: I guess there hasn't been much in terms of coming back to console here yet, but how successful do you think it's been so far?

JG: Good. I think really what we're talking about is a meeting of minds between East and West [within Hudson]. And so what we've done is shown them what we can do. And of course they were like "Wow, great." You know, this is obviously American and obviously very good.

So I think that when you start to work together, the first thing you go for are the things that you agree on, once you get past any insecurity of meeting somebody. You start to agree on your like points, and so we've already started that process of where you know, "This is good, this is good, this is good."

Once you get a common ground settled, then you can start to work on the more difficult points, and that will run as a game will run through its course anyways.

GS: Right, right.

JG: When you get down to making hard decisions because of whatever the case might be -- time, money, you know, space, memory space, whatever -- you can have those battles. So far everything has been very good, and you know I think it's a great opportunity when you mix American style with Japanese game polish and game play. I think it's a really winning combination. And Nintendo's proved it a couple times so...

GS: How did Hudson in the U.S. become what it is right now? Initially I thought it came from the Japanese company, but it sort of sounds like it sprang up independently, or…?

JG: Yeah it did actually, for a number of reasons. I've always been very close with Chairman Kudo, and worked with him for 15 years over there and then three years here, but you know, I was sitting next to the guy. We're very close in business and in friendship. So he could trust me to come over here and I think that's really the key point is that he wanted an American company, not a Japanese company. Most Japanese companies come over and they're represented by a Japanese chief even though he's not doing the day-to-day work.

So that's a very major influence because now we give him pure American thought, ideas, creativity, games. Everything is really American and there's no buffer. Japanese companies often try to buffer their situations, because naturally business is up and down but there's more fear in a Japanese company, I think, and that's something that you want to put a buffer in between. So we haven't had to do that. And the Japanese at Hudson are very international thinking I would say and so they're allowing this. You know, it takes two. You can't send me over and not have anybody that's willing to talk to me because then you'd have the same mess.

So, we've been able to mesh on that and they've understood that they've got something authentic, and so we can work off of that. It's a nice base, unusual base as well.

GS: Yeah. How many developers does Hudson actually employ in Japan?

JG: Developers in Japan? Don't quote me exact numbers, but I think we're about 450 or 460 people, and out of that I would say probably 360 to 380 are developers. By that I mean either programmers, designers, working on the goods basically.

GS: And I guess you're planning to ramp up some development here?

JG: Yes.

GS: What is your goal?

JG: Well we already have development here in that we have...

GS: Mobile development.

JG: Mobile development, yeah. And so we're using some of those sources and also bringing in new sources to shape the creativity of the products that we'll give to Japan. So we'll do some graphics for them and send it over, and then go back and forth, and develop games jointly.

Eventually they'll probably be sending their stuff here and we'll be doing things so it'll go both ways.

GS: So you do a lot of asset sharing and things like that I guess.

JG: Yeah.

GS: Where would you want to see Hudson [U.S.] in like five years, or maybe even ten?

JG: Well, first and foremost, I think our business has always been dedicated toward mobile, so we want to be one of the top five mobile companies in the U.S. And I think that Hudson is the kind of company, we have so much development, and so much archive development, that there's a lot for us to do. And I know some companies are starving for product and they come to us and ask us if we could license them some of our stockpile, so we're sitting on a goldmine and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to capitalize on that.

On the console side, I think in five years, I would want Hudson - one of the five biggest might be a little aggressive - but you know one of the top ten console companies I think is a possibility for us. So we'd like to be thought of as a major supplier of games to the American market.

GS: Is the money there to support that kind of ramp up at this point? I know that Hudson had to scale down a lot.

JG: You know, they did. That's a different story, there's a reason, and if you want to hear that later, I can explain it. But what Konami has really done for Hudson is put great financial legs under us. And I think that as long as a company is profitable then the sky's the limit, assuming that you have the underlying trust which is always important.

So we have the trust, as long as we capitalize, as long as we execute, and as long as we're profitable, then there is every facility to do that, so I don't think money will be the problem.

GS: What happened to Hudson’s hardware division?

JG: That's a good question actually. Hardware in Japan was located in a building that we created out in Hokkaido's more rural area. It was a very cool building that they did and had a train that ran though it - a train that you could actually sit on and ride. And there was a station in the building.

GS: That's awesome.

JG: It was really awesome. It was a great testament to the Kudo brothers [founders of Hudson Soft in Japan] and what they had built. And they loved [trains], I don't know if you know the story about Hudson, but the name Hudson is derived from the train.

GS: Yeah I did know that.

JG: And so these are scaled down Hudson trains.

GS: Amazing.

JG: And they really were awesome. Coal‑powered. You know, fire the train up. And I saw, many times, very big executives from NEC, to Nintendo, to all the bigwigs out on this tiny little train riding, going round in circles, in and out of the building. So you know, these are conservative people, you don't expect that to happen.

That's one of the unique things about Hudson, they have a lot of great culture and things like that. But anyway, what was the question, again?

GS: What happened to the hardware division?

JG: Ah, the hardware. So game R&D was a victim of, I think, some consolidation. When Konami bought us, they consolidated some parts and they saw a building of that kind as being unprofitable.

You can call hardware research and development because basically they create things, but they are also pushing limits trying to see what they can do and so that was just kind of incorporated into the main Hudson structure. So there are still people doing work on hardware and middleware, but it’s not a separate entity like it used to be. It used to be its own division with its own building and so I think we just retrenched a little bit.

GS: There is no more chip development or things of that nature?

JG: Yeah, they still do chip development. You know, the company itself is always doing smaller things like small games. Do you know what Teku Teku Angel is?

GS: I don’t.

JG: It's a little pedometer - it gets happy when you walk a lot. They're just coming out with a new one. They actually have a game that they put out for that; Teku Teku DS.

So all that inherent technology is part of our culture, and the nice thing about Hudson is that it’s always been very much a three-pronged approach to software development. And in that you've got a hardware division, a software division, and a middleware division. So that middleware division is especially important because you’ve got to have your own tools. If you don't, you're relying on somebody else and you can't be as creative, and we have always had a very incredible tool division which, well, you probably know about Nintendo and how those tools are based on Hudson's tools.

GS: I didn’t actually know that.

JG: Yes, if you look at Nintendo's development kit, it’s not on every kit, but you can choose to have Hudson middleware – the hardware is theirs, but I should say the software that runs the middleware is run by Hudson.

And that still goes strong, so my point is those divisions are there. It's just not as visible.

GS: I have to ask, though – I wonder if, even on a small scale, Hudson would ever consider another console, be it handheld or whatnot.

JG: Probably not, I don't think they would.

GS: That’s too bad. I’d love a new Turbo Express [the portable version of the Turbo Grafx].

JG: Do you have one?

GS: Yep, with the TV Tuner and everything.

JG: Even today, it's not a dated product, if you look at it.

GS: It's got a good screen.

JG: It's got a great screen. It's a battery hog though. That was the problem. But in those days you know, that was spectacular.

GS: It was so expensive though.

JG: Yes, because of the screen.

GS: But I bought mine for 75 bucks.

JG: You did? Recently?

GS: No, back in high school. Even when it was expensive. It's because I got a deal from another kid.

JG: (laughs) See what happens when you beat somebody up? I still have mine too, actually.

GS: But back to the question.

JG: I don't think that's on the horizon. The developments in the hardware side are mainly games.

You know, the nice thing about Hudson is the game culture is like everybody is a big kid, and the personalities that made up Hudson were awesome. That’s why I’ve stayed with the company for such a long time, the people who made up the company were all fun people and all showed that in their daily lives and that's how you come up with good games.

You look at companies today, especially in the mobile space which has a lot of newbie companies like Glu and I-play and those guys are there for a big pay off. It's part of a process, and it's a money game. This will not last forever. It’s going to revert to people who can make games for a long, extended period of time and I think that's really where our success lies - we're going to follow the great gaming we've always had and continue to put that on all platforms. So instead of being very mono-visioned, we want to really have a vision toward every platform and get our entertainment across all platforms.

John Lee [Director of Marketing]: You said a really good one. Platform agnostic‑ we just create content and launch on whatever platform is out there.

JG: If you have flagships that can derive that, then I think that's the success of the company.

GS: You were talking about personalities. I actually don't know what [company spokesperson] Takahashi Meijin’s title is.

JG: I don't know it either!

JL: Marketing promotions.

JG: Is it? Definitely marketing division. I didn't know if he was head or not. He did a lot of work with the Bee studio which we had.

GS: How about the Virtual Console stuff? How did it actually come about?

JG: That really came about I think, because Nintendo saw a great opportunity to give consumers a flashback - that you could do that on today's broad band lines without overbearing it.

Nintendo is concerned about a great user experience. They’ve proved that over and over and over. They're very true to their customer and so they didn’t want to put out everything on the broadband line, just the classics. There's certainly always going to be a demand for the Turbo Grafx, Genesis and the Super Famicom stuff so I don't think that they could miss on that. And obviously Hudson controlled the Turbo Grafx gate, and so they came to us and asked us to do that.

We're obviously very close to Nintendo. They've always been a big supporter of Hudson, and we’ve supported them. And they own shares of Hudson. So I can't think of a better mentor than Nintendo and we've always been respectful of that and deals like this come about because of this long term relationships.

For us the benefit of the Virtual Console is bringing all these old games back into the public eye, because you can re‑launch brands off of this, it offers such a great opportunity.

More from Hudson's game archive.

GS: Has there been any consideration to bring over some of the PC Engine titles that didn't make it here?

JG: I think so. We're going to work on the Turbo Grafx titles, but there were 600 some-odd PC Engine titles, and there were only 150 or so Turbo Grafx titles, so I think that if people tell us they want these games, absolutely.

So we'll blow this up, we'll make it very visible, and we want people to tell us what they think. We've set up an 800 number for help, and that kind of thing, so we'll be able to hear what people really want, and I think there's a lot of demand for it. Wouldn't you say? [laughs]

GS: I would. I've got about 200, or probably more.

JG: Really?

GS: Yeah.

JG: Turbo Grafx, or PC Engine games?

GS: Everything. It's a mix.

JG: So you can play CDs on both, but you can't play [PC Engine] HuCards [on American systems] you've got an adaptor?

GS: Well, I do have an adaptor, but it doesn't work too well anymore, but I have two things. For one I have both Japanese and U.S. consoles. The other thing I have is this aftermarket product. You probably don't want to hear about it.

JG: No, I do!

JL: We actually probably use it. [laughs]

JG: [laughs] Yeah, I was going to say!

GS: Well, it allows you to load ROMs onto it, and you put it into a U.S. system cart slot. And, I forget who makes this one, but I’ve never used it, because I have most of the games that I want, anyway.

JG: Do you have Kato and Ken?

GS: No.

JG: No? You don't have it?

GS: Oh wait, yes I do. I have JJ and Jeff [the American version of Kato and Ken], I don't have the original.

JG: Try to get the Japanese one, that's a great game.

GS: I know...

JG: They ruined that game.

JL: I did. I picked one up for myself when I was last in Japan. I saw it, and it was the only one left...

JG: Oh really? You got one? How much?

JL: 35 bucks. It was a good deal.

JG: Really?

GS: Man, I thought it was worth less than that.

JL: They've been going up, that's for sure.

GS: Yeah, I've played the ROM a couple times. I would like to own it, though.

JG: The NEC U.S. side said, "Oh you can't do that, you can't have people shitting on each other. You can't have people farting on each other." Why not? You know, kids would love that.

GS: Of course they would!

JG: So they just ruined that game.

JL: Ever since Beavis and Butthead, now it's expected.

JG: Yeah, all right. Exactly, it's like why wouldn't you?

GS: It's like Toilet Kids, the Taito game that was also out for PC Engine, with kids flying on toilets. It was a vertically scrolling shooter with kids.

JG: That one I don't know, unfortunately. [laughs]

GS: So, what older properties do you want to bring back? And I'm not going to hold you to anything.

JG: We're looking know, eventually all Turbo Grafx games will be on the Virtual Console, because they’re going to be emulations. There are no limitations to what we can really do as far as development, because an emulation is not going to take as long as brand new development. So you'll be able to see every game, virtually, it might take a couple years, but that’s the plan. What we're really wanting to do is see what kind of brands have an attachment, and bring those to mobile, bring those to other systems.

GS: So you think the viewing sales on the virtual console will be a good indicator on what you should bring back?

JG: Yeah, sure, why not? I mean, certainly you're going to have an audience that's attached to that, and what I think is that if there's a reason for that attachment - and usually there is, there’s something about the game that just makes it really fun - you can repeat that, and you can create something that's much more modern but has the same hook. So, I think that's always what you look for, is every good game will have a distinct hook that you can catch onto.

GS: Will you be looking at any of the NEC Avenue or Interchannel stuff?

JG: Yeah, because that was some of the best stuff. There were some great games that NEC Avenue came out with.

GS: Download was NEC Avenue [which later became NEC Interchannel]. That was pretty good.

JG: What else did they do? Because I remember we had to negotiate with NEC Avenue for quite a few titles.

GS: NEC Avenue did a lot of weird stuff. I know there was a lot of co-publishing happening.

JG: Yeah, I specifically remember them because we had to sometimes fight

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