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Much More Than Naruto: Catching Up With CyberConnect 2

President and CEO Hiroshi Matsuyama explains how the Fukuoka-based studio expands its reach by working with more publishers, developing more games, and reaches out for tighter collaborations, including on Soulcalibur V

[President and CEO Hiroshi Matsuyama explains how the Fukuoka-based studio expands its reach by working with more publishers, developing more games, and reaches out for tighter collaborations, including on Soulcalibur V.]

For a long time, CyberConnect 2 has been a quietly interesting development studio, though many did not notice, thanks to its small stature. That may soon change.

Based in the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka, also home to Dragon Quest IX and Professor Layton developer Level-5, the developer has long partnered with Bandai and Namco Bandai for titles like the Naruto fighting games and the anime-inflected late DS cult hit Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, recently released in the U.S. by XSEED.

However, the studio is expanding greatly -- in this interview, president and CEO Hiroshi Matsuyama explains how the company has expanded to seven development teams, and has two animated films in production.

This comes alongside work with Capcom on the Unreal Engine-based Asura's Wrath as well as the company's recently announced collaboration with Namco Bandai on Soulcalibur V -- CyberConnect 2 will be handling the game's story mode. The studio was chosen for this role thanks to its performance on the Naruto games.

In this interview, Mastuyama talks about his thoughts on working with developers, how there aren't any social games worth playing from either of the Japanese industry leaders (GREE and DeNA), and why "the video game industry has to make sure they don't make the same mistake" as the anime industry, and continue to appeal to mainstream audiences.

You announced that CyberConnect 2 would be handling the story mode in Soulcalibur V.

Hiroshi Matsuyama: Yes. That's true. Did you hear that from the producer?

Yes. CyberConnect 2 has a new office in Tokyo?

HM: Yeah, from last year.

Is the Tokyo office a development studio?

HM: Yeah, yeah. Development. We have 170 people at our headquarters in Fukuoka, and about 35 people at the Tokyo office. So, we have about 200 people total developing games. In regards to Soulcalibur V, most of the members are in Fukuoka.

Are there any games that the Tokyo office is working on that have been announced?

HM: Actually, the members in Tokyo are working on the same titles as in Fukuoka. The Tokyo office is working on Capcom's Asura's Wrath and another unannounced title, while communicating with the team in Fukuoka. The Naruto title and Soulcalibur V are both being developed in Fukuoka.

Was CyberConnect 2 chosen to work on Soulcalibur V? Was it because of the excellent graphic and animation work you guys did for the Naruto games?

HM: Yeah, I suppose. I was approached by Namco almost two years ago. I knew they were working on Soulcalibur V, and they asked for help in the visual side of the game. The fighting gameplay was handled by their own team, and they just needed help in the visuals of the game, because they wanted to add more to the dramatization of the game.

We used motion capture techniques to render the acting, but they wanted us be involved from creating the storyboards, as well. That was the request, and we have the know-how to do motion capture, because we're also making movies -- but Namco has been doing this for a longer time, so we thought this was a great opportunity to collaborate with them, and learn from the Soulcalibur team at the same time. That's how the project started.

But as I understand it, CyberConnect 2 uses hand-drawn animation.

HM: Yes, we use hand animation a lot. This time, our team went to Namco's studio to capture the motion. Our staff gave acting instructions while taking footage. As you saw in the demonstration earlier, the effects have not yet been added. But, the actions look a little like in Naruto, in the sense that the motion doesn't look like we used motion-capture. In that sense, I think the game looks like it's been done by us.

[Ed. note: during the Namco Bandai TGS event, the press was shown an early demo of the CyberConnect 2 animation for Soulcalibur V which has not been released to the public.]

Does CyberConnect 2 have any plans for expansion?

HM: No. We don't have plans for making the company bigger. There are a variety of projects that we want to work on. When we finish projects, and plan for the next ones, and they require new staff, we hire new staff and try to bring young blood into the company. In that sense, we hire and try to educate new staff, but we are not looking to be any bigger than we are now.

You are currently working on a anime movie, is that correct?

HM: Yes, .hack, the movie. It'll be released next January.

There's a new project, too?

HM: Haha. Yes, we've only announced it on our website. It's a project we're working on called Strelka Stories -- to celebrate our 15th Anniversary. We haven't decided whom we're going to be working with on this project yet.

And you recently released Solatorobo in the States.

HM: Yep, this month, in September. It was released in Europe in July. Solatorobo is being previewed in the States right now, and the reviews are really good. I'd like for this game to sell really well in Europe and the States, even more than Japan.

Well, I always asked you questions about when we'd get Tail Concerto 2.

HM: Right?!

For a DS game, the quality is very high. The mood feels like an anime movie, even on the original DS. It feels a little bit like a Miyazaki movie.

HM: Yeah, well that's the basis. It even has a floating island.

Japan's RPGs always look a little like Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa. Always.

HM: Haha. Yeah, maybe. Also like Tales. I think there are fewer titles that look like Laputa.

Really?

HM: Yeah, I think so. There aren't that many any more.


How many development lines are going on at CyberConnect 2 right now?

HM: There are currently seven teams working right now. And we're in the planning phase of three more.

You've always worked with Bandai -- now Namco Bandai. Now you're working with Capcom, as well. Are you working with any other publishers?

HM: Yes, we're currently working with other publishers, as well.

Have those games been announced?

HM: No, those haven't been announced yet. We're working with new partners while also trying to create new CyberConnect2 games. But, I think we work best with Bandai Namco. Another thing is that we get a lot of requests from slot-machine companies, but we're turning down all those offers. Another thing that I dislike is social games.

Of course. CyberConnect2 is a hardcore game developer.

HM: Everybody is talking about social this, and social that. Even Bandai Namco. I don't like that.

Have you played a social game?

HM: Yeah. I'm up to level 250 on [DeNA's] Kaito Royale.

Wow.

HM: And Gundam Royale. So stupid. They're not fun at all. But, I have to play it. The reality is that it has over 3 million users, and it's true that they're making money. I need to be aware of those businesses, so of course I play them. GREE's Dragon Collection. I've played that, too. [Matsuyama pulls out two smartphones] This is my iPhone, and this is my Android phone, and I play these games on both of these phones -- but they're all rubbish.

Have you found any decent social games? Can they exist?

HM: Well, native apps -- I'd be willing to play those. But, if you're asking whether I'm playing a decent social game right now, the answer is no.

The Facebook games in the States are becoming more complex and deep, so maybe it'll change in Japan, as well.

HM: Sure. Do you know the native app game Infinity Blade? I think that game is really good. I love that game. I even finished it. That was fun. It was a proper game. But, the others are junk. They're not fun.


Asura's Wrath

Yeah. Infinity Blade is made by Epic Games' Chair Entertainment. And, they made Unreal Engine. What do you think about Unreal Engine, since you've been using it to develop Asura's Wrath?

HM: No matter what you use, it's all the same. Unreal Engine was originally made to make Gears of War [Ed. note: Gears was the first console game to use Unreal Engine 3], but we're not making a third or first person shooter, so the people at Epic Games are surprised at the ways that we use it for rapid action shots.

I think the tools don't matter. And, a perfect engine doesn't exist. There's always something that's difficult to do with every tool. That's the case even with the engine we use here at Namco, called the NU Library that we're using for the Naruto games. Namco has their culture, and we're using it knowing this. We come in using their engine, and even adding our own engine to theirs.

As you said, Unreal Engine is originally made for shooters. Is it difficult to make a game in another genre?

HM: Basically, yes. Very difficult. But, we're using it in Asura's Wrath, right?

Is it difficult to make the cinematic quality that CyberConnect 2 is known for in Unreal Engine?

HM: Yes. It's difficult. But, it's still possible.

How about support from Epic in Japan?

HM: They made an office in Japan last January. So, they're able to offer support in Japanese. But, it's slow compared to support in the U.S. and China, because they don't have as many people in their Japanese office. So, if you're going to use the Unreal Engine, you should have English and Chinese-speaking members on your team. And, we have both Chinese and Canadians on staff. We also have a Korean, as well as a few Chinese. We're in Fukuoka, so we're close to China. We can fly to China in an hour and a half. It takes the same amount of time to fly to Tokyo and China.

Does CyberConnect 2 hire a lot of foreign employees?

HM: Yes, we get applications almost every week.

Are you developing a game for any North American publishes?

HM: Not currently. But, we're in communication with a few, because we get requests from North American publishers. But, honestly, there aren't any publishers that I feel we could work well with right now. We've have a relationship with Ubisoft, and Electronic Arts, and THQ, and Activision. We're talking with a lot of companies, but we can't seem to come to an agreement.


CyberConnect 2 isn't a publisher, but do you have any interest in digital publishing for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, iPhone, or Android?

HM: Hmm. Sure, if we wanted to. But, we currently don't have any plans to do so. At the same time, I think somewhere in the near future, we will publish our own games. But, we have no plans of publishing all our own games like Level-5. Which is fine for them, but I find it interesting to work in a publisher/developer relationship like what we have with Bandai Namco.

So, even if we made a game and published that on our own, would we stop making games for Bandai Namco? I don't think so. I think we will always want to work with Bandai Namco, and I think that will be the same with Capcom, as well.

Do you have plans for collaborating with Level-5, since you're both in Fukuoka? Do you speak with [Level 5 CEO Akihiro] Hino?

HM: We talk now and then, but they keep falling through. But, we get along really well. We have regular discussions with Level-5 about the latest technology. Also, with Ganbarion, the company that makes One Piece games.

Ganbarion is in Fukuoka as well?

HM: Yeah, yeah. We usually host the meetings at our office in Fukuoka, and invite the staff from Level-5 and Ganbarion. And, then we connect our Tokyo office to Fukuoka via a television conference, and do an information exchange about the latest technologies in development. We're planning on next month, in October, as well.

How many Naruto games have you made at this point?

HM: Actually, the Naruto PSP game that we're releasing in October will be the 10th. We've been making them for 10 years now. And, the title coming out next year is the eleventh.


Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Impact

Are you running out of ideas?

HM: Hmm, no. Naruto is still being published in Shonen Jump magazine every week, and there's a new episode on TV every Thursday. So, every time we read a new episode of Naruto in Jump, it gives us new ideas for the game. So, we continue to have new inspirations for the next game.

I heard that you always buy manga -- you have a reputation for being a big fan.

HM: Yes, I love comics.

I've heard you always buy Jump magazine.

HM: Not only Jump. I read 60 books a month. I even read Bessatsu Magazine. Shingeki no Kyojin. Doubutsu no Kuni. It's very good. That magazine is hot. Kodansha is very good.

Do you recycle the magazines?

HM: Haha. Well, we have 200 employees, so if we all pitch in it's very economical. And, anime. It's very good right now. And, cell animation. It's decreased to 40 titles a month now, but still the technique that the animators have nowadays is a professional skill, because they're all hand drawn. So, the layout of each slide is carefully laid out. So, we're constantly watching and staying on top of the latest anime.

Anime doesn't have a good rep in the U.S. anymore -- not as good as it used to be. Do you feel the same way?

HM: Yeah. That's because it's not as mainstream as it used to be. They're making it for a particular audience. I think that's why. I watch a lot of anime but it's for the techniques, not as entertainment. As a product, I think it's going downhill. The general audience won't find those interesting. It's impossible to figure out what the target audience is for Mawaru-Penguindrum. Same goes for Madoka Magica. It's for a very core audience like us, who enjoy them. The video game industry has to make sure they don't make the same mistake.

Recently, Japanese games aren't popular in the States, either.

HM: Right. Japanese games don't sell as much worldwide.

You play Western games.

HM: Yeah.

Which game do you think is the most fun?

HM: Hmm. Which one is most fun? The one I see as a rival is Batman: Arkham Asylum. The team that made that game [London's Rocksteady Studios], they're great. And, their next one, Arkham City? I'm really looking forward to that one, as well. That's also a character game. It's based on a comic book. And I'm impressed at how they interpret the original story, because there are a lot of fans of the comic book and they've answered to their expectations. And we need to answer to the many Naruto fans' expectations. And, I always have thought that they're a really good team.

They capture Batman very well in their games.

HM: Right. It's way different than The Dark Knight.

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