Bob Timbello is the director of development and overseas relations for Japanese game company Hit Maker, which recently finished Blade Dancer
for the PSP, to be published by Nippon Ichi software in the U.S. (the company is not to be confused with the old Sega studio Hitmaker).
His career in games is long-running, with short stints at a number of studios over the years – he even provided some vocals for the 32X title Tempo
. An interesting character, Bob has the appearance of a beat poet, with bald head, dark shades, and a scruffy profile – his laid back demeanor perfectly matches the image. We spoke to Bob and his coworker Hiroyuki Kotani about company structure, next-gen, and how to deal with the Western market from an eastern perspective.
Gamasutra: What's you’re background? In spite of your long pedigree, your name isn't widely credited.
Well, I was at Sega for two years, moved on to Hudson Soft for two years, Red Company for two years, Acclaim in Japan for two years, then Hit Maker for five years. Game-wise there's been a lot. I started out working with third party developers at Sega, working with developers locally at that time [in Japan].
GS: And you did some music-related things as well, such as Tempo.
(laughs) Yeah, well one thing about being able to speak English and Japanese is that I do a lot of translation work and localization. Same with music. On my off-time I do this band bit, so on occasion people drag me in and say "can you do a tune for us?"
GS: So are you often confused with the Hitmaker from Sega?
Yeah, that's often mistaken. Hit Maker got started about a year or two before Sega's Hitmaker. So we've been around, just that we didn't make any major waves til this year.
GS: So what has Hit Maker been working on in that time?
Well Blade Dancer
has been the main thing, but we were also outsource developers, mainly for Capcom.
GS: How do you try to create games that target the west? You seem to have the experience for it.
That's a very tough question. I'd probably be corrected the other way around because I've been out of the States for so long, but I tend to get the impression that the best games are those that you can sort of pick up and play, and where the controls make sense right away. Something we try to do when we make a game is not have everybody digging through the manual when they're playing. It's more action-based over here, am I right?
GS: More or less. Do you guys actively try to design for the Western market?
Absolutely. Even guys like Maruhama here (Hit Maker programmer), sits down and says "I want to make this as easy to localize as possible." You think ahead in these terms. Hiroyuki Kotani (artist) is the same way, he asks "do you think these graphics will go over well in the States?", and things like that. There's always that intention, it's pretty important for us.
GS: How did all of you conceive of graphics for the West?
Well you always keep an eye open.
Yeah, we always look at what we have and wonder if it'll go over well in the States, or in Europe, but basically, if it doesn't work, the blame goes on the director!
GS: What made you choose to partner with Nippon Ichi for publishing? A lot of nice companies seem to like NIS as a U.S. publisher.
Blade Dancer is a character-driven game, and in my opinion, Nippon Ichi had experience dealing with character-driven games. It was kind of a marriage of convenience. I had a game I wanted to release in the states, and Nippon Ichi was a strong company that knew how to release character-based product. Plus they wanted a new PSP title.
GS: So is the company interested in next gen?
Yeah, as far as Maruhama is concerned, he's the type who always picks apart new hardware. The same thing happened when we were doing Blade Dancer for PSP. He went straight into the hardware, and built up the tools. Any time he sees something new, he says "when do we do it."
GS: What kind of game would you want to make in next gen?
Probably an action-based game.
GS: How big is your staff now?
Hit Maker as a core is nine people now. Otherwise we contract out. Right now we've got 40 people total.
GS: When you outsource do you bring people in-house and then let them go?
Exactly. What we do is have our core team of nine people, and as soon as we nail down what project we're working on, we buzz in all the people we know down the line, and see if they're free. Then bore a spot.
GS: What's the core breakdown of the people you have in-house right now?
In-house we have designers, we have both graphics and technical designers. We also have a jack-of-all trades programmer. He takes care of the hardware side.
GS: What are you going to do when budgets get higher, like with next-gen?
Not really worried. We just work with whatever budget we bump into at the time. It's a lot easier that way.
GS: So you get funding before you start development, is that correct?
GS: Do you think the Japanese market is changing?
Handheld markets have literally doubled. And the market for casual users has increased. Compared to a couple years back, DS and PSP casual users have increased a lot.
GS: Do you think that could help offset the time when bigger budgets are the norm?
The PSP is a really flexible platform. You can have really high-end stuff with complex graphics, but you can also have more casual games. It's much more flexible than PS2, for example. I don't imagine that will change with PS3, it'll pretty much be about big budget stuff. And only hardcore gamers can deal with that.
For casual games you can have a smaller team, and naturally for more hardcore games you need a bigger one. I think the PSP supports both. Handhelds are still pretty flexible.
GS: Do you think the market consolidation in Japan will affect smaller developers like Hit Maker?
I think everybody's a survivor. I can't speak for the industry, but for us, we've never had a hard time finding work. There's always something for us to do.
GS: A lot of people seem to miss the time when games were just simple and light. You were involved in a lot of those kinds of titles. Do you think we'll ever return to something like that?
I know what you're saying. I think it should go back in that direction. I love the simpler games myself, and we always talk about it a lot. There's a changing generation of players now. You've got the younger kids who we're just teaching how to use a controller. I see it coming back though. I hope it comes back.
GS: As a company are you interested in that sort of quicker to develop casual game?
Absolutely. Quicker to develop doesn't make much of a difference to me, but it's always fun looking for a game with simple delivery. You just grab it and you know exactly what to do.