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The Resurgence Of Team Ninja

Fresh off of the development of Nintendo's Metroid: Other M, Team Ninja's new head Yosuke Hayashi reveals is plans to keep the iconic team intact, discusses new projects, and provides insight into development on Nintendo 3DS.

[Fresh off of the development of Nintendo's Metroid: Other M, Team Ninja's new head Yosuke Hayashi reveals his plans to keep the iconic team intact, discusses new projects, and provides insight into development on Nintendo 3DS.]

Ever since the iconoclastic and outspoken Tomonobu Itagaki parted ways with Tecmo, there's been a question whether the development team he once headed, Team Ninja (Dead or Alive, Ninja Gaiden), would survive intact.

The team recently finished up work on Nintendo's Metroid: Other M. Yoshio Sakamoto, the longtime Metroid creator and producer of Other M had this to say about Hayashi when he spoke to Gamasutra earlier this year:

"...He's smart, he's young, and he's absolutely excellent at what he does. He works hard and he works well, but he also has a really amazing, dynamic brain. He's able to put his hand on a lot of different things and succeed."

In this interview, the new team leader, Yosuke Hayashi, speaks to Gamasutra with conviction about the team's bright future.

The team currently has two announced projects in the works: a version of Dead or Alive for the Nintendo 3DS, and a new PlayStation 3 collaboration with Koei, the publisher Tecmo merged with in 2009.

The game, Ni-Oh, is the brainchild of Koei founder Kou Shibusawa, creator of the original Nobunaga's Ambition series of games that sped that company's rise to fame in the 1980s.

Here, Hayashi talks about those two projects, and how he sees the industry changing -- and how Team Ninja will address the challenges of new platforms, new interfaces, and new ways of creating games.

So, now that you are the head of Team Ninja, what is your vision for the company going forward? What is it that you hope to achieve that may be different, or may be exactly the same, as before?

Yosuke Hayashi: I want to keep the fact that I'm Japanese. I want to treat that carefully, with respect. The games that we've made so far have been made in Japan. We didn't purposefully try to make them Japanese games, but that is who we are, and that informs the way that the games have been made. We want to use that going forward -- to give the world games and entertainment that only we can make, to keep that uniqueness but still make something everyone can enjoy.

In your mind, what are the major points of Japanese game development that are the best and most unique? What do you want to make sure that you keep with your company culture?

YH: It's a visual sense, an attention to detail, the way the feel of the game is a certain style. It's cool. Those are the things that we want to keep. We think those will work for users throughout the world.


Metroid: Other M

There's a lot that Japanese games can do, or used to do, differently that we're not getting to see as much right now. And at the same time, there are different development practices that have cropped up in Western game development versus Japanese game development. Do you feel like there's any kind of meeting that needs to happen there?

YH: I really feel that currently Japanese games focus too much on specifics of the game itself, game spec. But we need to shift focus to presenting the passion, you know, and the heart of the game.

In terms of things like waterfall game development versus things where you do like a vertical slice and then build from there -- development practices -- is Team Ninja going to continue down the same path, or are you going to incorporate some new techniques?

YH: I think if we don't change that the way we make games, then the games themselves will not change either, so we need to change that.

One thing that doesn't happen quite as often in Japan is prototyping an idea before implementing it. A lot seems to be much more finished on paper before it actually comes into production. What do you think about that? I mean, it's got its good and bad points.

YH: If we only use that development style, then we will only be able to make old style Japanese games -- the games that have already been made. In the past, Team Ninja has done some paper-based concepting, and then just gets all the stuff together, puts it into the game, and see if it works. But moving forward -- right now -- we're shifting more towards a more prototype-based development style. We're trying to put everything into the game quickly so we can see if it works or if it doesn't.


Since there have obviously been a lot of shifts in the team, how do you maintain not only the company culture but also the Team Ninja game style?

YH: There were already around a hundred people at Team Ninja before the changes. Even if several of the people left, it's like soil. The soil is still there. So even if the grass that comes up dies away, there will be new grass that comes up. And even after that, the new grass is coming from the same soil, the same base. It will still be similar and maintain that base and that feel.

There are still people that have been there longer than I have. So, that soil is there. When the new people come in, even without specifically teaching them the Team Ninja way of doing things, they just become part of that soil, it becomes part of them, and they become part of the team.

This may also be an opportunity to do new, original things. I'm not surprised that there will be a new Ninja Gaiden or a new Dead or Alive, but somehow I also thought that with a slightly new direction, there might be some other new stuff that we would see. Maybe that's still to come...

YH: The idea of a new franchise, a new IP, actually came up, but when we're looking at a new Team Ninja making a new game as a new team, we have fans out there already for Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive, and we thought it would be best to reach out to those fans and show them, yes, it's a new team, but we still can make a damn good Ninja Gaiden and a damn good Dead or Alive, and prove ourselves through the game and move on from there.

We knew that we would be asked about the past Team Ninja and the Team Ninja moving forward and what's that going to mean. We know that in making a new Dead or Alive and a new Ninja Gaiden, we're going to be compared to the past works, and we're prepared to be judged by our work.

We want people to take an honest look and judge us by the work we do. If we were to make a new franchise, that would be the easy way out, because no one would have anything to compare it to.

But for us, going back and saying, "We're going to make a new Ninja Gaiden, we're going to make a new Dead or Alive, and we're actually daring to do that," that's a statement for us. We're prepared to back that up with the games themselves.

You've announced Dead or Alive for Nintendo 3DS. How have you found the 3DS to work on?

YH: The 3DS is, you know, itself easy to develop for. It is a handheld platform, so it is relatively easy from a development perspective. But being 3D, other than just the technical specifications, we have to figure out how to use 3D well, use that effect well, and that's something we're playing with -- literally playing with, having fun trying to figure that out.

Is it difficult to figure out just in what areas to use it? We're still in the early days of 3D film actually, where everything is all about novelty -- spears flying out the screen at you and that kind of stuff. How do you know when and where you really want to showcase the 3D?

YH: So, up until now, 3D has been in the realm of not an everyday experience. We think that with the 3DS, this will be the first time that anybody can get a 3D experience just about anywhere, and it will be a part of everyday life.

So, we're trying to put out a 3D fighting game and see how that goes, and learn from that experience and go from there to see where 3D should go and how to make 3D fun and how to use that for the whole experience.

Speaking of Team Ninja doing DOA in 3D, like DOA always has this sexy element to it, and putting that in 3D is amusing to me, like the potential possibilities, that is really funny.

YH: We haven't really talked about that, but we figured that people would be thinking in that direction.

We kind of think of it as up until now, you've had an actress that's on TV, they're just on that side of the screen, but now with the 3DS, you have that person right there with you, so that should be fun and a different experience.

Previously, you had the screen, and the only real like link in actual space between you and that screen before had been sound. Sound fills all the space regardless of the image. The image is just on the screen, but now you also have the screen reaching out to you as well and bringing you even closer. Do you think that actually changes the dynamic of games at all? Intrinsically?

YH: The sense of depth, being able to really feel and understand depth, I think, is going to be really big. Figuring out how to use that well in the game, to design a game around that, will still take a little bit of time. You know, we're obviously playing with that on our end as well, but to potentially make something fun and put that in the game right, that will take a little bit of time.

It seems the best way to start is with some kind of known quantity and figure out how you can make that fun in 3D, and then after that figure out, "Okay. What can this 3D space properly do?" Like the next generation of 3D.

YH: I don't think everything will be revolutionized, but we do think that will allow a different kind of gameplay and more gameplay. So, right now, game designers are looking at how to use that and how to implement that aspect of gameplay into a whole game.


How long have you actually been able to work on development for 3DS?

YH: Not that long. We only started working on the game not too long ago.

When you actually have something like that in 3DS in 3D space, where it's almost occupying your world, I wonder if that changes everyone's interaction with games, and how they feel about game world and whether it's alive and things like that.

YH: When you're talking about moving images, you have YouTube, you have TV, you have movies, and now you have 3D movies. They're fighting. You can't any longer just say, "I watched something," and have someone know which one it is.

But with games, people just refer to games as "games". I think we're at a point now where we can probably divide games into segments. I don't think it's good to lump all games together. So, just as, you know, some people play one kind of game and others might enjoy 3D games, you have these 3D games coming out, that can be another sort of version.

You don't want to watch Avatar on YouTube. You want to go see 3D Avatar. There was a different kind of video you watch on YouTube than you do going to the movies. It's a different experience, but they're still both moving images, and we think games can also offer a variety of different kinds of experiences.

With this Ni-Oh project, it was announced in 2005 or so, and now it's back. Why did you decide to bring it back? Was it Kou Shibusawa who decided to?

YH: He was the one that originally presented the idea, but for us, too, you know, really the only samurai action game out there was Onimusha, and that for us was not the kind of samurai game that we wanted to make. We wanted something else. So, we thought this would be a good opportunity for us to make a samurai game that we wanted to make. And so we agreed.


Ni-Oh

Was there much there when he brought it to you, or are you starting from scratch, or are you taking anything that was done if anything was done?

YH: There was a prototype made while Koei was still Koei, before the merger, but it stopped there. And when we decided to take on the project, we decided to make it from scratch. So, we are building it from scratch. And you asked about hardware. It was originally announced for the PS3, and moving forward, we will focus on development for PS3.

That was announced in an environment where the Xbox 360 was not considered as viable by Japanese game companies, but now -- definitely for the Western markets, -- the Xbox 360 is quite important now. It feels like the era of the exclusive is going away.

YH: I agree. When we're trying to make a game, to have a lot of people play our game, we can't limit ourselves to that. If we think about that, that limits who we can have play the game.

This year is an interesting time because not only can you make multiplatform PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 games, you can also make multiplatform movement games now theoretically, because there's Move, Kinect, and the Wii. So, in theory, you can make one game and actually have a multiplatform motion game for the first time ever.

YH: Yeah. And I think that having more options is a good thing. It seems like whenever a new feature comes out or a new something comes out, there's a chorus of people saying, "We don't need it." Like for motion, "We don't need motion. What do you need motion for? Come on."

We've been developing games for 10 years, and I've seen different things come up. Back when the DS first came out, people said, "Why do we need two screens?" And now look at where the DS is. So, for me, I'm like, "Wake up already and embrace the change." You need to embrace it. There's nothing that's going to come from just denying the change. So, just stop complaining and embrace it, enjoy it.

It's difficult for me, too, because I definitely resist those changes myself, so I have to remind myself that it's not going to be terrible because I have no interest in Move or Kinect myself.

YH: [laughs] I know how you feel.

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