Q&A: West Meets East: Makoto Shibata On Quantum Theory

Director Makoto Shibata (Fatal Frame) talks about the inspiration for his West-targeted PS3/Xbox 360 shooter Quantum Theory, and details Tecmo's internal development process and plans.
Tecmo has been one of the most consistently successful Japanese developers in appealing to a Western audience -- with its Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden franchises, as well as the lesser but notable success of its cult survival horror franchise Fatal Frame. This is so true that Koei Tecmo president says he sees Tecmo as the part of the merged company which will teach Koei how to appeal to Westerners. Makoto Shibata, director of the company's upcoming Quantum Theory, worked on the Fatal Frame games but now has a bigger mission: to create a third person shooter that can appeal to a broad Western audience, not a select one. A fan of Western games and a man with an eye for detail, he's serving up a PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 title which seems to owe a great deal in inspiration to Western titles -- particularly Epic's Gears of War. The game does have a Japanese sensibility, too -- your AI partner isn't another lumbering soldier, but a lithe female warrior who dashes in for Devil May Cry-style combo attacks. Shibata calls out Japanese games -- Resident Evil 4 and his company's own Ninja Gaiden -- as influences. Two years into its development, the game is due early next year. We tracked down Shibata and discussed the development processes and technical decisions Tecmo made with the title, and its influences and aims. It's still pretty rare for a Japanese developer to make a shooter, so I was wondering, are you a big fan of the genre? How did you come to make the decision to make a game like this? Makoto Shibata: Yeah, I am a big action fan -- a big third person shooter fan. But looking at it from the company as well, we have action games; we have fighting games like Dead or Alive. So as sort of the next challenge for us as a company to take on, we thought a third-person shooter would be the way to go. And this is your own engine for this game, right? You developed it all internally? MS: Yes. Last year, I spoke to Kikuchi-san about sharing some of the Team Ninja tech across Tecmo; has that progressed at all within the company? MS: We definitely looked at the Ninja Gaiden engine, but this is for an action TPS, so it's a little bit different; we can't just reuse things as-is. So we have essentially come up with this on our own. We of course looked at the Ninja Gaiden engine for technical knowhow -- to borrow some of that knowhow and ask them how they do things, but it's not like we're using their tech. You announced the game last year, but it wasn't playable. MS: Yeah, there wasn't anything at the Tokyo Game Show last year that, game-wise, we could really show. We were still working on the engine at that point. We started from the engine, so just doing that work, even before it became a game, laying the ground-level work of making the engine took up quite a bit of time. Other third-person shooters and first-person shooters use a lot of middleware, and we're not doing that; so we had to sort of take our time to make it as we went along. Did you consider using any middleware solutions and then decide not to, or did you feel that you wanted to develop your own technology from the start? MS: We wanted to do it from the start; we wanted to make our own. We looked at some middleware, but in the end we decided to make it all on our own. It's worth it to make our own engine. That's what we felt. How did you tie that into your game design process? Are you document-oriented, or prototype-oriented? MS: There are of course areas where we planned it out on paper first, but since we were coming up with the engine -- literally everything from scratch -- it's sort of been adding to that as we go along, seeing what our needs are, and putting them into the engine. Even within Tecmo, this sort of development style is kind of different. Since this is the first current-generation game for your team, it's probably a different process than you would follow for the next game. The next time, you'll actually have your technology set from the beginning, I'm guessing. MS: Yeah, once the engine gets completed, we should be able to take ourselves back to more thinking about things before and planning it out before putting it into the game. In Japanese game development I often see the concept of "planning" as a job, including production work, managing schedules and managing schedules alongside gameplay design. In America it's more split out, so some people are producers and some people are gameplay designers. How does planning work within your studio? MS: Really, to sum it up, it's the guy who's thinking about how to make the game fun. Once you have sort of that idea -- what's going to be fun -- you look at that and say, "Okay, well what parts do we need?" You talk to the audio, you talk to the graphics, you get the models; put them together. The planner can look at that and say whether that's what he was aiming for or not, and you can fix for that. When you're talking about basing things on a paper plan, the planner can sit down there, and that's what you're looking for; the core of the game -- what's going to make it fun. You set that there at that time. How much documentation is typically written for a game like this? There's a lot of debate in America about how much is right, these days. MS: There's documentation that the planner will come up with in the beginning for the concept, and that sort of becomes the core. Then, as the game progresses, in order to make sure that everybody is still on the same page, we do have some documentation that gets updated regularly for, you know, feature sets and the way things should play out. Internally, we have like a wiki page for the project, and that's the design document that has the topics for the various teams to look at, and gets updated as the game progresses. Since this is aimed for the Western market, did you guys actually do any focus testing in the West, or any sort of user experience, or anything like that? MS: Not official focus tests, but we were listening to sort of the opinions of our U.S. office and the people over there -- we get feedback from them. When you're making a game like this -- more of a shooter -- is there a way to make the genre more appealing to a Japanese audience? Why do you think the Japanese audience just hasn't gotten really super interested in the genre? MS: I'm not really sure. I'm also curious about why Japanese people haven't taken to shooters as well. I think that shooters are accepted -- you know, Resident Evil sells really well over here. So people are familiar with them; it's not like they hate them. But yeah, others just haven't taken off. I was talking to Rex Ishibashi, who is the president of EA Japan, and he said that Western games only account for 5 percent of the Japanese market. That's a very small percentage. MS: We think games from overseas are very high quality, so looking at the kind of stuff that they're doing now, I think that you're going to see more of a percentage and more growth in Japan for overseas games. Do you feel like there are design elements and techniques coming out of Western games that you didn't see coming out of Japanese games, that you feel do appeal to a Japanese audience -- maybe if they were just presented in a different way? MS: There are good points and bad points to Western games, but you look at a game like Fallout 3 and the kinds of things that you're doing within Fallout 3 -- it's an RPG, and you're going around an open world... You would think that Japanese players would like that. Maybe there's something about the setting and the world view and the look of the game that they don't like; we're not sure. But as far as game design goes, that just seems like it would be very appealing to a Japanese audience. Quantum Theory is specifically targeted to a Western audience, but you're going to put it out in Japan as well, right? MS: Yeah, it's going to come out here as well. Do you have an expectation that maybe, because it comes from a Japanese team that has a lot of influence from Western games, it might actually get a better reception? MS: Yeah, yeah. With the character design, the action elements -- we think those will appeal to a Japanese audience. When you're looking at even the visual design, we think that there's a Japanese design sense in here that informs the overall look and feel of the stages. We think Western games look gorgeous; they obviously have excellent visuals and all of that. But we want to try something that a Japanese audience would like and make it just as pretty and just as powerful as Western games. Way back when you were making the Fatal Frame games, they were more popular in America than maybe people expected at first. Did the inspiration to make this game come from previous experience in the West, or did it come from just your desire to challenge yourself and see if you could do that deliberately? MS: It's kind of a little bit of both. Obviously, we had success in the West, so we knew that was a possibility; and the Western market is bigger than the Japanese market, so from a business sense we wanted to succeed in the West. But it's also that I like third person shooters. I like shooters, so I wanted to make a game that I like. Making a horror game and making a third-person shooter are very different; the process is very different. With a horror game, you're trying to control the player's emotions; you control the way they think -- the way they feel. For a third person shooter, it's more about the mechanics and responsiveness and how the game's being played. So the way you're looking for and what you're looking at are very different.

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