The 'Military Nut' Behind Devil's Third Takes Aim

Tomonobu Itagaki, the outspoken Ninja Gaiden developer, speaks about his ambitions for his PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 shooter Devil's Third, and sizes up the competition, explaining how he expects to get to the top of the genre eventually.

Outspoken developer Tomonobu Itagaki, having left Tecmo in 2008, set up his own new studio, Valhalla Games Studios, in 2009. Since that time, the developer has been working on Devil's Third, a shooter for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 -- which isn't due to be released until 2013, he tells Gamasutra.

"You already know the answer," he teased Gamasutra, when asked if he was hoping to make the best shooter in the industry, when we spoke to him at E3. "I will do everything I can to achieve that, okay? And to make the best fighting game, it took a long time to do that, but I think I made it. So to make the best game in this genre now, I might take a long time, but I know I'm going to do it."

In this new interview, Itagaki goes more into the depths of his ambition, talks about his respect for and fandom of games like Modern Warfare and Battlefield 3 -- but also his plans to surpass them. "If you look at military-themed games, do you really feel like it's a battlefield you're seeing?" he asks.

We're not seeing much of Devil's Third yet.

Tomonobu Itagaki: Well, it's coming out the year after next, so... The game's actually in a pretty impressive state, but we want to keep the hype under control for the time being. So I apologize to our fans, but I hope they can wait a bit.

Last we spoke, you said you wanted to challenge the top with this game, as you did with previous genres. It took you a few iterations to get to the top in fighting games; do you think you can do it in one go this time?

TI: Well, I doubt that's possible. At the same time, though, I think you know how tenacious I can be until I reach the top. We're still in the realm of home consoles at the moment, but the definition of "top" can be nebulous; it can be about quality, or about sales, or other things. If you compared our console product with the latest top-of-the-line shooters running on the latest gaming PCs, then it's not going to win against that. There is one area we can aim for top with this game, though, and that's in playability.

One reason that Western developers have done so well with shooters is the years of experience they have in the genre. This is a new genre you're tackling; how do you feel about that?

TI: My response to that is I feel that we managed to catch up with Virtua Fighter, and we caught up with the competition when we released action games as well. Maybe we can't destroy them with the very first title, but like I said, I feel we can more than compete on the playability front. Besides, I'm not sure that every American developer or designer out there knows all that much about military stuff. What do you think about that?

I think it's more a matter of art -- getting the realism there, as opposed to really simulating the military look and feel.

TI: Right. There's one thing I want to be sure that you and the readers don't get the wrong idea about. I'm not intending to insult any game here; I'm just stating facts. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, there's a Russian Typhoon-class submarine that shows up; have you seen that scene?

There's a mission that shows you getting into the submarine after approaching it. There are two propellers, on the submarine, and they're rotating in the same direction. That's impossible, though, because it wouldn't work to propel the craft; that can't exist in real life. That's the truth, and I speak as a major fan of Modern Warfare who really respects what they've done.

That's why I don't think everyone who makes war games like that has a full knowledge of war technology, or the physics and weapons involved. Maybe it's all little details, but it's a big surprise to me that that incorrect detail went unnoticed by anyone -- as they put it in their E3 trailer. It's like "What is that?" Don't you think?

Do I think it's an important thing?

TI: No. What do you think about the fact they're showing off a submarine that ignores the laws of physics? It'd be like an airplane flying backwards, and it's surprising to me that something a nonsensical as that went unnoticed by anyone.

I think it's surprising. I know how it is; you've produced many demos for trade shows, trailers and stuff, and I know deadlines can be very right, but it is a surprise.

TI: Yeah, and that's why I don't want to be misunderstood about my motives in pointing this out. I bring it up to point out that even though some studios have been making war games for a long time, that doesn't mean they have knowledge of technology or weaponry or whatnot which is unassailable by anyone else.

I saw on your blog that you went to visit a museum for planes after E3, so I wonder if that's connected to this.

TI: Certainly, yes.

Do you find it important that you have hands-on experience with this hardware? A lot of studios would delegate that research to others.

TI: I'm not the sort of person who makes games by looking at other games. My inspirations lie in real-life, in completely different things.

A lot of companies hire ex-soldiers or military consultants to advise them. Is that something you'd do, or do you prefer direct experience?

TI: Well, among my friends, I have a colonel in the Japanese army and a commander in the navy. That's the JSDF, I mean, which is the military, really; it's called the Self-Defense Force mainly for political reasons.

I've also had a look at a firing session for the newest MBT (Main Battle Tank); I got to see it firing off these shots and take pictures, and you could really feel it, too. I wonder how many people would know what the shockwave feels like when the MBT fires its 120mm gun.

In Battlefield 3, for example, you have a scene with a MBT firing away with its cannon while running along in the middle of the desert. The speed of sound is about 340 meters per second, but it fires really quickly, so the fire can reach targets several kilometers away very quickly. Battlefield runs at 30 frames per second on consoles, so it's not possible to actually show it at that frame rate.

If something explodes from two kilometers away, you'll hear the sound of it six or so seconds afterward. That's reality, but in the world of entertainment, there's more of an emphasis on making things easier to understand. It's like how you can hear the explosions in outer space during Star Wars. So, when something explodes, you just hear the sound, and when a 120mm gun fires, you can see it in action.

I mentioned that I don't rely on other games while I'm making my own, but that doesn't mean I'm not playing them, either. At that same time, though, if you want to make a real breakthrough in this genre, it's going to have come through realism. So, again, I don't want to be misunderstood here -- I'm really excited about playing Battlefield on both consoles and the PC. I just want gamers to realize the difference between entertainment and reality.

To go back, how did you get interested in pursuing this? Was it because it's the hottest area of competition right now, or are you interested in the genre itself?

TI: Well, I'm a military nut, an otaku. I also thought there was ample opportunity to really break into this genre. I'm not about to make a chess game, because that genre has already been pretty well perfected. There are good shooters out there, of course, but the genre hasn't been perfected yet.

What will make it perfect?

TI: Well, if I told you that, I'd be disclosing some of our ideas before their time.

But I get the impression, nonetheless, that this game isn't following in the footsteps of Modern Warfare and Battlefield.

TI: True.

Just like you'd say Ninja Gaiden wasn't your average ninja game, I get the sense that this isn't your average shooter. Is the way to perfect it to bring new stuff to it, or to bring up the level of detail, as you said?

TI: There are a few things, or ideas, that I feel need to be implemented in shooters that haven't shown up yet. If you're working on a war-themed title, there are a few things that have to be in there.

Like what?

TI: Well, if you look at military-themed games, do you really feel like it's a battlefield you're seeing?

Not at all.

TI: That's my answer.

But when I look at your games and think about the question of realism versus entertainment, I'd say you go towards entertainment.

TI: Well, certainly, these games are made for the sake of entertainment, but these games really just drift too far from reality.

I heard you recently recruited some Westerners into your studios. Can you talk about that?

TI: Certainly. As far as I'm concerned, as long as the communication skills are there, then nationality really doesn't matter to me -- as long as they can respect other people and deal with the social norms of Japan. Other people like that can know a lot of things that we never would, stuff that comes out a lot while we're drinking, or whatever.

You see a lot of Japanese outfits looking toward the West because of what they lack. I get the sense you hire people based more what they have, over what you lack.

TI: I think it's more that we went through a recruitment cycle, and we got practically nothing but foreigners. (laughs) I'm serious here. There just weren't that many Japanese.

I think part of it might have to do with our homepage. It's kind of a unique one, you know? The message on it is "Come to us if you want to emerge victorious by your own hands," which may've seemed like too high a hurdle for most rank-and-file Japanese developers.

When you founded Valhalla, you talked about how you would address technology, collaborating with THQ on that. Can you talk more about how that's proceeding?

TI: Well, it's proceeding like this. [Itagaki moves his hand totally vertically.] (laughs)

Up and up?

TI: Makes sense?

That you're progressing upward?

TI: Very fast.

Are you building it all internally?

TI: No. The cutscenes are being made by a Hollywood director, for one -- Danny Bilson, who's now one of the higher-ups at THQ. The original story is ours, though, of course, the geopolitics and so on.

Are you having fun? [Itagaki asks this while lounging on a sofa.] (laughs)

Oh, yeah. I always have fun interviewing you because you're very different from any other interviewee.

TI: Maybe a little. (laughs) Thank you.

Are you building a game engine internally?

TI: We're using a customized version of the engine developed by Relic, up in Vancouver. To that we've added some middleware both of our own creation and from outside firms.

Does Relic offer Japanese language support for it?

TI: Yes, of course. I mean, THQ has that long history of having Japanese outfits like Yuke's develop wrestling games for them, so they actually have a pretty large Japan staff.

THQ recently closed a lot of studios. Do you still have the same confidence now as you had when you signed up for the project?

TI: Absolutely.

Is that primarily due to Danny Bilson?

TI: Well, not just him; I mean, we have a lot of friends in the outfit.

It's interesting that you talk about the relationship they've had with Japanese firms like Yuke's. Have you found it easier to work with THQ for that reason?

TI: That's something I found out about after the fact, really, so I wouldn't call it a deciding factor. I can speak basic-level English, after all, although it's not very nuanced or anything. I think it's much more of a relief to the rest of the studio's staff than to me personally.

You have a reputation for games with, let's say, well-endowed women. Do you feel that image is outdated as gamers mature? Is that something you want to continue to pursue?

TI: I think it's something important, yes, but the people who actually appreciate those sorts of things aren't there in the way they were when I began to get into that in 1996. Do you like that sort of thing?


TI: (laughs) Well, there's the Internet now, so if you want to look at naked women, it's right there. In 1996, the net wasn't as ubiquitous, so you had this scene where you had to go to a video store and overcome your shame as you went up to the clerk. Dead or Alive, in part, allowed people to enjoy that sort of thing easily while also enjoying the game itself.

I went to E3 and it seemed like every game was a shooter. Does that concern you, or interest you?

TI: I'm not worried, no. [Itagaki removes his sunglasses and leans forward.] Do I look worried?

Oh, no, I can tell that. But not just in terms of competition; do you think it's good that so many games are all the same? Does it disappoint you?

TI: Well, games are all kind of the same anyway. It's just a matter of enjoying them. I don't know, it was the same deal when I was making fighters, and when I was making hack 'n-slash games. So it doesn't really matter to me.

My philosophy, or my passion, is to get to the top three in whatever I'm trying to tackle, and really, having a successful, high-selling game is a great thing to me. That's my personal preference. From an industry standpoint, of course, more variety would always be a good thing. Not everyone likes violence, after all.

Meanwhile, social games from companies like GREE are taking off. What do you think of that?

TI: Well, THQ works in a lot of markets as well -- home consoles, portable systems, phone games, social stuff. Right now social gaming, of course, is a big market, especially in Japan, and one of the reasons is that home consoles aren't selling as they used to.

Some console developers have a grudge against social games, but in the end, it's all play. Besides, social games can have a crossover effect -- people get into them, then move on to other types of gaming. That's a vital thing. There are lots of other games, after all, like mahjong, or hanafuda, or dice, or backgammon... those are the ones I like, anyway.

That's what I would have expected from you.

TI: So it's not a matter of this is better than that. It all comes down to user preference.

Have you played social games much?

TI: Of course.

For fun or for research?

TI: Both. The "research" part of that didn't last for long. (laughs)

What do you think of the games you played, as games?

TI: Maybe it's a reflection of my personality, but when I play social games, I have a tendency to become leader of the group. That social aspect, even in the chatting, is fun -- like, when I log in, lots of other people seem to as well, and the same deal when I log off.

I spoke to Kobayashi, from DeNA. When he described how they view gameplay, it sounded almost like gambling, to an extent, since the player gets a chance to win something instead of getting the actual thing. There's that luck element. They try to control that.

TI: I don't think anybody knows more about gambling than I do. With gambling, the simpler it is, the better. No matter what, there's an element of luck involved; the fun comes in what you're allowed to do, in terms of techniques or your own intelligence, to mitigate that luck factor. So I haven't met Kobayashi before, but when you talk about "controlling" that luck factor, is that like the company maybe upping it up a bit when the game gets boring, that kind of thing?

I believe so.

TI: In essence, then, it's really the opposite of gambling. In fact, it's how you make money.

Those games are obviously very simple, but games like you enjoy making have both skill and luck elements. Can you talk about the balance there?

TI: That's a bit of a difficult question. If you devote yourself entirely to realism, then, for example, a battlefield in real life really comes down to luck, a lot of the time. This is entertainment, though, so like I talked about before, you have to make it so the player can use his skills to reduce the luck factor. It's different from real war, and it allows the player to exercise his skills to win something.

I know you don't like looking to other games for inspiration, but do you look at players?

TI: Well, sure, since they're the target of the games -- the gender, the age group, and so on. If I come up with what I think is a really good control scheme and it turns out that nobody can figure out how it works, then naturally I'm obliged to change it.

U.S. companies do a lot of focus and usability testing with players during the development period. Is that something you find interesting?

TI: Certainly. When we were making Ninja Gaiden, we had a psychologist who worked for Microsoft play the game and give us his impressions about how the game unfolded. The feedback he gave us was really surprisingly helpful. We were able to get data from hundreds, or even thousands, of people, documenting where they got stuck in the game and so forth.

With Ninja Gaiden II, we were in the midst of that lawsuit, and there were a lot of distractions on my end during that period, so I'll freely admit that the gameplay isn't as well-balanced as it could have been. So if you're wondering why the balance is off despite all that testing, there is that. (laughs)

We still have a while to go before release, and so there's a lot of work left to do. We were able to put out some media here, though, and the whole studio is really enjoying the work they're doing, both on our end as well as THQ, so I hope people are looking forward to it.

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