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Led By A Love Of Games: Team Ninja's Hayashi Speaks

Yosuke Hayashi discusses the changes he's bringing to the Ninja Gaiden series, his collaboration with Nintendo on Metroid: Other M, what he learned from his old boss Tomonobu Itagaki, and what drives him creatively.

Under the leadership of the iconoclast Tomonobu Itagaki, Team Ninja went from being an upstart to one of the most celebrated developers in gaming. The original Ninja Gaiden was one of the Xbox's defining titles. Not so much the sequel, however, which debuted on the Xbox 360 without nearly as much fanfare. It simply wasn't as good.

Itagaki was forced to leave Tecmo, and for a while, the leadership of the studio he had formed was not entirely clear. But now, that leadership has solidified behind one man: Yosuke Hayashi. Hayashi came into the light as the director of Ninja Gaiden Sigma, the PlayStation 3 version of the original Ninja Gaiden title. He's now hard at work on Ninja Gaiden 3, the first game in the series where he's fully in charge of the vision.

To that end, you'll see some significant changes from the first two games -- creative changes driven by Hayashi and the team's desire to push forward and create a great game.

In this interview, Hayashi discusses these changes, as well as his collaboration with Nintendo on Metroid: Other M, what he learned from Itagaki, and what drives him creatively. Ninja Gaiden 3 is due in March for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

So I guess you're in charge of Team Ninja now, right?

Yosuke Hayashi: Yeah. [laughs]

So what's the "Hayashi era" going to bring?

YH: Well, I've been part of Team Ninja since from early on. So I've always been part of Team Ninja, so I don't know that things are going to change a whole lot, but we're going to stay focused on giving entertainment and making games that we like -- you know, that the developers who've been part of Team Ninja like to play, like to make, and that we hope everybody else enjoys it as well. So it's fairly simple: just making good action games that people like.


Hayashi smiles on stage at Koei Tecmo's Tokyo Game Show 2011 booth.

You announced Dead or Alive 5, and you also have Ninja Gaiden 3 -- two series that started before you were in charge. But now you're in charge. So have you been able to do anything with those series that you've been wanting to?

YH: I feel that games reflect the era in the time in which they were made. So it's not like we want to go back and sort of remake or tweak games from five years ago; we want to make games that are modern games and feel like they come from modern game designers. We're just trying to keep it simple, and focused on those games.

And we see a lot of games right now that -- especially here in Japan -- people are saying, "Oh, you've got to focus on the West, you've got to focus on the Western developers and Western tastes" and all of that.

But the more of these external influences and external needs that you have, the vision, the core of the game, sort of gets blurred. So for us as Team Ninja, we want to stay focused on that core that we know and that we know we can do well, and keep making games, and keep updating the games. Make games in the modern sense.

I spoke to your former boss, Tomonobu Itagaki, and he said that he does not make games by looking at other games. It sounds like you follow the same philosophy.

YH: I feel like Itagaki is my master; he's my teacher. So of course we're going to have a similar kind of style. But for both of us, we're making games that we want to make, and having players play the games, and hopefully they will enjoy the games. It's not like we're trying to make bullet points and things like that; we're trying to make creative entertainment that really connects with people. And so we both make good games. I'm looking forward to his game.

Ninja Gaiden II didn't really have the impact that the first game did. So how are you addressing that? Is that a concern for you?

YH: Ninja Gaiden was all about the gameplay and the feel of the action. And Ninja Gaiden just nailed that; the gameplay just felt good. But if that's all you have, players will get tired of it. And we think that for Ninja Gaiden II, our solution was going more over the top in terms of visuals, with dismemberment and with the gore. But that maybe didn't compensate enough, and you get tired of that as well.

So we want, for Ninja Gaiden 3, to have players feel something, and get a shock -- within the course of the gameplay, within the gameplay itself, and within the course of the story -- that will really resonate with them at an emotional level, not just a surface level. That's what we're trying to go for with Ninja Gaiden 3.


What is your process and who is working on the story for the third game?

YH: I came up with sort of the concept, and I had some ideas of what I wanted to do with the game, and the direction I wanted to take it in. And we wanted to make sort of a new [main character] Ryu Hayabusa, and present him in a new way. And so we reached out to the writer for the original NES Ninja Gaiden -- Masato Kato -- and brought him back into the Ninja Gaiden world. And just going back and forth with him, brainstorming ideas, a lot of things like that -- that's how the story came together.

Kato's stories always have a twist -- a very strong twist that you don't expect.

[Ed. note: Kato is responsible for the scripts for such games as Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and Baten Kaitos.]

YH: Yeah, you can look forward to something similar. [laughs]

It usually has a profound effect on the story, to the point where it completely changes your conception of what was happening in the beginning of the game.

YH: For the story, we really tried to work it into the gameplay as well. So for Ninja Gaiden 3, it's not just going to be good gameplay that feels good, and then you have kind of a story there. We really think that the elements of the story will keep you playing, and in the play will keep you interested in the elements of the story; they merge together very well within the course of the game.

Are you telling the story the same way as the previous games have in terms of cutscene, gameplay, cutscene, gameplay? Or are you doing things to change that kind of flow?

YH: You've seen in some of the trailer movies, some of the events within Ninja Gaiden 3 are actually gameplay events. They're done in-engine, but it's a very impactful scenario -- it's a very strong and powerful scene -- and we will have those within the course of the game as well. I guess, internally, yeah, we have gameplay parts and we have movie parts, but for the player we're hoping for a very seamless experience starting from gameplay.

And you can see that you will play through, it's not just killing enemies, killing enemies and then there's a movie; you'll have events that you can play through, and you can see maybe the result of that event of what follows in a movie. But we're really trying to make it a seamless entertainment experience, and an overall story and an overall experience.


Ninja Gaiden 3

It's good to keep your eye on the competition to see what kind of innovations are coming out, or what player preferences are. So I was wondering if you've looked at anything from that perspective.

YH: I was a game fan, first, before I was a game creator, so yeah I'm still playing lots of games.

It seems that sometimes people in companies are not really game fans, especially in Japan.

YH: [In English] Why? Why? [laughs] It seems like there are people, especially in Japanese game development, you have an older generation that is kept making a similar game. You see they're looking at the same sort of younger age group; the target is a younger age and you have big eyed girls, and the standard Japanese tropes.

And you can kind of understand why they make them, but them being now an adult themselves, that doesn't really do anything for them anymore. And so I, along with Team Ninja, want to make games that appeal to us, and appeal to adults, a mature audience. And sticking with that kind of game is not going to resonate with us. And if we're not into our own games, who else is going to be?

I was familiar with Tecmo and Koei for years. And the culture of those two different companies was completely different. So can you talk about coming together? [Ed. note: the two companies merged in 2009.]

YH: So during the Tecmo era, I saw everything that was going on, and I could see everything within Tecmo. And as for that, there were no new experiences; you knew what was going to happen. So joining with Koei, we now have access to a very different business culture, and they are very different, and a different development culture as well.

And we can see how games are made in a different way, and how different teams make their games and how they approach their stuff. So there's a lot of new information and there's a lot of just new stuff for us to learn. And we can look at that and we can take stuff that works and we can tell them, "Hey, don't do it that way". You know, give them feedback and just a healthy feedback cycle.


If you look at other companies that merged -- like Square Enix and Namco Bandai -- they don't really operate as one company; you can definitely see the vision between even Square and Enix, which has been merged since 2004. Is that the same way at Koei Tecmo?

YH: So yeah, Square Enix obviously does that, Namco Bandai is like that. But I think one of the big differences between us and those others is that they were a publisher merging with a developer. Bandai was a publishing company; Namco by and large was on the creative side of things in development.

For us, Koei was also a developer. Koei is a developer, Tecmo is a developer. So it's the merging of two development studios. And so there's game developers, game creators, they want to make their games better. So at least there's that intention within both halves that we want to make games better.

And even Dynasty Warriors, it sells really well out here, but maybe it doesn't sell well in the States, or elsewhere overseas. But game creators themselves want to fix that; they want to make the game better. And so it's sort of a good rivalry between the two cultures.

One thing that Koei is really strong at is collaborations, and you had your own collaboration with Nintendo. Would you like to continue doing collaborations with other IP, other developers?

YH: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we learned a lot from the collaborations that we have done, and it's definitely something that we'd be interested in doing in the future. But we want to make sure that we're not just doing a collaboration just to make a collaboration. If we can have a Team Ninja title with a strong collaboration, and we can put them together in a way that they become more than the sum of the parts, then that's definitely something that we would look forward to doing.

When you collaborate with someone, it's almost like you're learning at twice the pace, because you have your own experience and you have their experience as well. So it's a very valuable experience to have, so definitely we'd like to do it in the future.


Metroid: Other M

And you worked on Metroid: Other M with Yoshio Sakamoto from Nintendo. I'm only guessing, but i'd expect you could learn a ton of stuff from him, given his history.

YH: Within Team Ninja it's very much "This is fun / this is not", and there's a clear line. Do it. Boom. Sakamoto-san is much more fuzzy, and very delicate and very detailed, when trying to think about lots of different things. So we learned a lot from that style of thinking, and that way of thinking. So yeah, it was definitely a very valuable experience.

In the end, were you happy with how Other M turned out? Was it what you wanted it to be when you started?

YH: Other M was Sakamoto-san's idea and it's his creation, and we're just really happy to be a part of that, and that he asked us to be part of that creation. We talked a lot with him over the course of development, having very frank conversations about lots of different topics. But you can tell Samus Aran is his daughter; it's like that to him. So we're really looking forward to what else he might come up with in the future for the Metroid series.

You say you're a gamer. Did you play Metroid when you were a kid?

YH: Yeah, I played it.

What about Ninja Gaiden -- like the original NES ones?

YH: Yeah, I played it, and was so impressed by the story; the story just hit me so hard. That that's why I had the same writer come in for Ninja Gaiden 3.

I remember I first interviewed Itagaki, way back for Ninja Gaiden 1, and I asked him if he was interested in the NES games, he said "no." He didn't care.

YH: You can't make a good game without loving the games that you make, and just loving games in general. So even if it's another company's game, if you like the game, you like the game, and that's going to come out in the game you make. And if you don't like it, even if you lie and say you do, it's going to show in the game that you make -- that you don't like it. It's this love of games in general -- and Ninja Gaiden specifically -- that has led me to be here.

When you entered Team Ninja, did you think you'd be running it someday?

YH: I'll tell you something that we have never told any other media. When I first joined Tecmo, I didn't want to be a part of Team Ninja. [laughs] But Itagaki-san talked to me, and kind of forced me into being part of Team Ninja, and that's the beginning of my journey within Team Ninja. And I realize now that not everything that happens in your life is your decision -- it's very much a creation of those around you as well. So that experience has been very valuable for growing.

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