Game-makers should eschew making sequels to their hits and instead do their best to “swim against the stream.”
This was the message from Yutaka “Yoot” Saito, the 54-year-old Japanese creator of Seaman, an idiosyncratic game originally planned for the Macintosh, then launched for Sega’s Dreamcast in 1999.
Speaking at the Game Developers Conference in San Fransisco this afternoon, Saito explained his unorthodox route into the industry when, at the age of 28, he quit his job at a successful Japanese magazine publisher to make a simulation game called The Tower. The game, which published in the West by Firaxis as a sequel to SimCity titled SimTower, was a tremendous success.
Saito’s studio, Vivarium, which had, prior to The Tower’s release, only one employee other than Saito, grew quickly.
The company began making a virtual aquarium for the Macintosh. While out at dinner with his staff members one night, Saito recalled joking about making a game with a human face which players would have to raise like a child. As his employees laughed, he kept adding to the idea.
After that night Saito couldn’t get the idea out of his head. He started drawing some rough sketches of the character. One day he mentioned the idea to his wife, who, he recalled, was appalled by the sketches and called them "disgusting".
Saito dropped the idea till his wife, a few months later, asked him how the project was coming along. An incredulous Saito told her that he’d abandoned the idea after her negative reaction. “She told me: ‘I said I didn’t like it, but I didn’t say I wasn’t intrigued.”
“If an executive came to you and asked if you could make a hit game: what would you go for?” asked Saito. “Would it be a Dungeons and Dragons-style game? An adventure game using famous licensed Hollywood characters? Or a rare beast of a game that is like nothing before it?”
“I wound up going with option 3,” he said. “Seaman.”
“There were several reasons for this,” Saito explained. “I believe that in any creative act inventiveness and courage are needed. I am a game creator who is good at creating new titles. I am not very good at sequels. Even with my own original titles that became hits. That why I went with the third choice, even though it looks like the hardest route.”
In the game, which Saito began co-developing with some friends at Berkeley, where he lived for five years after SimTower’s launch, players must raise a fish, one that features Saito’s face and, in the English language version, the voice of the late Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy.
Using a microphone peripheral, players are able to converse with the fish, which, Saito estimated, understands more than 60,000 phrases.
Sega agreed to publish the game, and development of the game, which had originally been for the Macintosh computers, switched to the Dreamcast platform. Sega did not think the game would sell many copies. Thanks to an idiosyncratic marketing, however, the game was hugely in demand in Japan.
Stocks soon ran out, and then the Taiwanese factory where the microphones were manufactured was hit by an earthquake, causing a further shortage. "We had a mountain of back orders. It was really good news to Sega.” In total, however, Seaman sold more than a million copies across the Dreamcast and PlayStation platforms.
“Seaman attracted more new customers, who didn’t own Dreamcast, to buy the system than any other game,” Saito claimed. “It had the highest ratio of female fans.”
Saito explained the difficulty of the development process, especially for a game that used primitive artificial intelligence (or at least the semblance of AI) on such a relatively basic system. “When you are trying to create something completely new, you are always going to be lost at some point in the process,” he said.
“Creating something that’s never been done before is a great battle against indecision. But there is no better way to show off your inner strength than by actually following through on your idea.
“Anyone can have a crazy idea for a game. But perhaps only one in a hundred actually see it through.” Be the one in a hundred, Saito implored game designers. “Swim against the stream.”