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Afro Samurai's David Robinson: New Studio, New Problems, New Chances

In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, we go inside Namco Bandai's internal U.S. development studio with senior producer David Robinson, discussing outsourcing and art direction for Afro Samurai.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

October 6, 2008

23 Min Read

Being the senior producer of Afro Samurai at Namco Bandai isn't quite as predictable as its sounds. On the face of it, it's a huge company and it's a licensed game -- a situation that is always difficult, but in which there is a certain amount of built-in predictability.

But as David Robinson explains, his team was founded with a start-up mentality within this company, long after the last vestiges of its PlayStation 2 era development teams had dried up and been forgotten.

And though Afro Samurai was the most successful anime property of 2007 in the U.S., when the project first began, nobody knew its fate -- and nobody was convinced of its impending popularity.

Now, several years after the process first began, Robinson speaks about how bringing together a team of veterans from developers like Crystal Dynamics and founding the studio under strong management, and with a strong game property, has allowed the idea of the Afro Samurai game to flourish even when it didn't have all of the support it could have used.

How long have you been with Namco Bandai, since it restarted U.S. development?

DR: Yes, about four years. The game has been through a few iterations, but this iteration is about two and a half years old.

What's the team size?

DR: It's about 55 people.

Are you using your own technology, or are you licensing?

DR: Yeah, that was one of the things that I decided early on -- was that we would try not to use any proprietary technology. That's one of the reasons why the company would give us money to develop. So it's all proprietary; it's all [our own].

Excellent. And are you doing any outsourcing at all, with this?

DR: Yes. Heavily. Heavily. Easily 70% of all art, background art, is done out of house, by a great company called Igloo, in Malaysia.


DR: And they did an amazing job of -- we had a huge, like year-long vetting process for outsourcers, and they really kicked butt with their communication strategy. Because art is kind of easy now; people can do great art, but it's the communications strategy that leads you to not have to re-do the art.

And especially on a platform game, that's all you're doing, is pushing verts all day long. If you don't own it, it becomes a huge problem.

So how have you been managing them?

DR: We created a really, really cool process by which the Igloo management flew out, and we did everything to a very strict, three layer process, of preproduction drawings, concepts, and then we went to a what's called "block world" -- everybody knows what a block world is -- and then we'd sit down and discuss what we're doing with some of the problems with communicating some of these issues, especially to non-English speakers.

Largely, Igloo's management is English, so that literally gave us a huge leg up, because at least the guy on the ground there understood American intonation, which can be a huge problem when you say, "You know, I really need this tomorrow," and people think, "Ah, we have two weeks."

At the time we started working with him, we didn't have any memory map for the game engine, and we were actually building the game at the same time the engine was being created, which was a whole host of drama, because you're not supposed to do that. Because we didn't have a lot of money, and this was a high-risk project, we just had to go for it.

And they sat down with us, and based on our PS2 and Xbox experience, we just tried to use old school pilot thinking, and what do we think a world would cost? And just trying to make as many open avenues as possible for if we screwed up.

And what that involved is trying to play the character in as many block worlds as possible -- but that wasn't always possible. Making sure that as soon as we got a block world, we dumped all kinds of other art in it, even if it wasn't appropriate, to see what it was going to do, and when it was slow.

So were you able to prototype with your own tech, or did you use another solution?

DR: No, we didn't have to use a single piece of outside technology.

Excellent. So was Igloo the first company that you went to for outsourcing, or did you have to do due diligence?

DR: Oh man, we married a lot of losers before we found the prince. It wasn't that the companies were bad, it's just that a lot of people [think] that they can do game development, but it's a hard business. It's hard to get customer service.

Do you have to work with them, in other words, to actually know how they're going to shake out?

DR: Yes. What we did was we created vignettes; Duke Mighten, our Art Director, who was on there with us, did a great job of giving us a preproduction process when it came to art. And it was a very long six-month kind of process where we would work with them, and we would give them a piece of concept art, and some rules, and they had to match it.

And they would send us back different iterations over time, and it didn't matter if they got it wrong the first time, what mattered is how quickly we could get them right, and how honest they were about screwing it up, right?

Then one of the trickiest parts was the language barrier failure -- it's one thing to be a polite professional saying, "This isn't right," and it's another when the outside studio doesn't acknowledge the severity of the problems. And we're burning time, we've got milestones, we've got the president -- at the time we were a really small internal studio, and literally the president was my boss. You know what I mean?

So it's really hard on the nerves to have him come by and say, "Hey, where's our stuff?" You know? Yeah, so, we started off with five companies doing that, and Igloo was the only one that survived.

And were you able to give them things like -- well, obviously, there's the show, so that's a pretty good visual.

DR: Yes. Yes. We flew them out, we showed them a lot of our preproduction stuff, and we gave them a lot of stuff -- we gave them a lot of our own art, so it wasn't like they went in flying blind -- and we asked them to hit it. We gave them a specific amount of time, and our art -- most of the people on the team are what I call "force multipliers", so basically they are just guys who are badass enough to do three or four disciplines really well.

I mean, they can do art, animate, do textures; they can just do everything. So it was very easy for us to get further down a very narrow path, and stop, and say it's not right. So when you have an extra team, and you have to review their art -- if you've got twenty guys on this, and it took them three weeks, and it's still wrong? It's not gonna fly.

Are you using any kind of agile methodology, or are you going traditional waterfall-style?

DR: Well, actually, we're just doing it ghetto style. I think that the cornerstone of the Afro team was that I hand-picked all the guys I had known who could ship a game with no babysitting. It was the guys from Gex and Soul Reaver and Crash, and the guys who've done it again and again and again, under crazier circumstances, right?

Because there literally wasn't a layer of management, it was just, "Dude, you got my art?" "No, I've got to work on this program! No, I've got to do this animation!" So it really worked out well. And the process was professionalism. That was our most salient thing in getting the preproduction; it was everybody knowing what it took to get something on the screen, and backing off from them a bit.

It sounds like it has the potential to get a bit crunchy.

DR: Oh, yeah, it was chaotic, and crunchy, yeah. It was -- well, I would say for the two and a third years that we were in production, it was seven day weeks, for everybody. Just, literally, taking a weekend off would feel like, "Where's all this time?"

I would never want to do that to myself. Personally.

DR: Well. Some of us are stupid enough to forget what it's like until you sign up again.

Well, I can understand, really. If you want to get it done, and make it good.

DR: And we had something to prove, too. I mean, the team had pretty much -- all the guys who'd worked on it had fifteen years or more in the industry, and we'd all worked games that were real safe, and Namco gave us an opportunity to do something really cool.

It's very rare that a studio says, "Do something cool; just don't fuck it up." I mean, what do you say? You show up for work on a Sunday, you work your tail off, just as long as you don't have to do something "safe".

Yeah. It's too bad that that's the way that the industry is set up right now, though.

DR: Well I think the reason is because there are a lot of teams that haven't been honest, and a lot of team members that haven't been honest with their team. When you screw it up, you've got to take responsibility and fix it, and a lot of companies have been burned by teams that kept it close to the vest -- kept their failures close to the vest -- and then they end up spending all this money, and the whole wide organization is screwed by it.

I think that's true even within teams. There seems to be a lack of traditional management, in which someone can actually be chastised for doing poor work.

DR: Well, let me tell you... (laughs) Well yes, actually. Knowing most of the guys for years gave me an advantage: they were all friends. And when it came to the drama-cam, we could be pretty open with "Hey, you screwed that up." Actually, we use more colorful terms, but yeah, we say things like that.

As the team has gotten bigger, I've had to be cooler, when it came to relaying critical information internally. But I think in the industry as a whole, because we're constrained by talent, you have to be nicer to people than would normally feel like you have to. And I don't mean "nicer" as in treating them unprofessionally, I just mean giving people chance after chance to get it right.

It seems like the industry is growing so large, that it's just getting more and more people, so even if someone is really not that good at their job, they can always find one, and they can stay in the industry forever.

DR: Yeah. There are enough puppy mills to keep the people who aren't as talented as they should be well off. There are enough, now, industries pilfering our super-talent to cause a problem, I think.

Yeah, it's a little frightening.

DR: It's really frightening, actually. But that's created a waking effect, where a lot of guys get a lot of opportunities; get like a walk-on shot, you know? That's a dream, to get a walk-on shot and do well. I've seen the ratio of success is like 30%. Thirty percent of the guys we took a chance on never worked out.

Interesting. It's always that double-edged sword of "needing experience, but how do you get it?"

DR: Yes. But I think a lot of the kids who sign up -- who we would check the points in which they're training up to make it, and the kids who got kicked out of their mom's house because all they want to do is art, and they've got tons of their own freakin' art.

Some of it is like really weird art, right? I've seen some weird art. But it's the guys who literally would rather draw than hang out with a girl, so they don't have a girl; those are the guys you want.

Yeah. Like the people making entire games by themselves during college; that kind of stuff. So how is the collaboration with the property's creators going? Since it's the same company, technically, right? It's a co-production.

DR: It was really awesome. I came from Universal, and we were doing Crash, and I did Battlestar Galactica, and there are licensors who can be a lot of drama; they don't understand the process, and they can really muck it up, when they don't even have to. And Gonzo was just amazing, in that they understood what they didn't know.

They were struggling, with two guys on their own when we met them, and the initial meeting was like, "Look, we've got this great idea! No one believes in it! Do you want to help us try to change the world?" And we're like, "YEAH!" It was pretty awesome.

And that's what it was: Everybody was broke, everybody was trying to keep their jobs and do something cool, and then boom, it caught on fire, and now we've got this huge thing.

It's better to do that by taking a chance on something, instead of going, like, "Alright, we're gonna have to make something that's exactly like Evangelion, because everybody's going to buy it."

CR: Yes. Right. Yes. And all the props really go to Namco's management, because Namco really had a checkered past -- just really bad luck in the past five to seven years -- and this cat named Makoto Iwai came in and really literally changed the company.

And it was hard, you know? Imagine a general dropping down and cleaning guns: that's the kind of guy he was. And for them to take a chance on a property that wasn't even greenlit for the series, and no one knew what it looked like, and a freshman team inside the studio managing everything, and then us guys who had a lot of game experience but there was no remaining internal institutionalized memory of making a game.

So it was really difficult for them to swallow -- but they did, and they believed in us, and they gave me a lot of freedom. Criminal freedom! To just get it done, and I broke a lot of rules out of ignorance, you know? I'm just like: "I'm not gonna miss that milestone!" And I'd find out, through all kinds of means, that I broke rules. That I won't do again -- but at least they understood.

Yeah, Iwai is a pretty good fellow. I'm sold on him. I interviewed with him my first time at TGS; I think he must not have been working there very long, at that point.

DR: No, no. He is literally one of those guys who's young enough and just, I think, listens, you know what I'm saying? He doesn't have to be right, he doesn't have to know everything, but he's the boss, and he's like really intuitive with people around him, and he's certainly not shy about telling you you suck.

And you can't get away from him, you know what I'm saying? He's like one of those coaches that's grabbin' you by the mask, and he's lookin' at you in the mask, and you've got spittle all over your face, and you're really fuckin' afraid of him but you go out there and you don't want to disappoint him. That's the kind of boss I want.

So you're saying Gonzo was on its last legs itself?

RD: I don't know anything about [them] -- I didn't know they existed until I met Eric, and Eric did an amazing job selling the series. He was instrumental in selling the series, and I think when I saw-- I actually-- The series was brought to me by my assistant at the time, Mark Brown, my assistant producer on another game, and I refused to see the trailer for almost two months.

He started trying to show me in, like, '05, and it's like December, and I didn't look at it until February. And he was right over the cube wall, and I just heard the word "afro" and I'm like "Ugh, I've got things to do, I don't need this drama," And he's like, "You've gotta to see this!" And man, when I saw it? It changed everything. Oh my god, it was awesome.

Yeah, it definitely had the potential, as a concept, to go down the wrong path -- but once you get Samuel L. Jackson voicing it...

RD: Yes. Well I think that enough people who were cool enough decided to take a risk on this one, you know? It's like a real magical thing, because it's like tumblers, right? You've got these thousands of tumblers, and everybody has to agree to do one thing, and boom, the spark goes through, and pshew, you've got The Matrix. The first one, at least. And Afro.

You mentioned that Yasuhara has a build at his desk; has he given you any suggestions?

RD: He's asking for a lot of suggestions. He's kinda got this aura of greatness around him, so we tiptoe around there. And there's like a five foot space between him and the rest of the designers; there's a lot of respect for him, in the studio. And a lot of mutual friends -- the guys at Naughty Dog, and everyone, kind of grew up, kind-of in parallel houses, so there's always been a free exchange of ideas and trouble and...

When he went there, from Sega, it was huge; it was like he had joined the family. And then when he came to us, through Mr. Hector -- Roger Hector -- in getting Mr. Hector in the studio, was another one of those things that changed Namco permanently for the better. Because he had an institutionally overqualified understanding of how games are made, and how process is important to predictability, and what you can expect, as a parent, making a game.

I call him Obi Wan, because he just literally is the calmest, coolest guy, and he just has the friggin' answer, and he's an amazing artist, and there's all this finished art that that he did; and when your boss is the freakin' Sith Lord, it's easier to understand it. But he was an artist on Battlezone... I mean, he's just got mad props. So, I mean, that sealed it.

He designed a car.

RD: I remember, when we first heard he was coming on, we were all sitting in the media room, and we were going through his website, just shaking our heads. You can usually say, "I've done more than my boss," but this guy had us beat by a hundred years! We could be seventy, and still not accomplish as much as him. And he's so absolutely humble about it, that it's absolutely cool.

I can imagine from his perspective, he's this gigantic lion with all this knowledge, and we're just little puppies running around, poopin' everywhere. It's great. So it's great, it's great. Him and Iwai make a great team. Really, when a team is falling on its face, they were literally picking up the baby out of the mud, dusting him off, and keep pushing him forward. You know? Like, they're not holding us back, and trying to make things safe; it's just, like, "Go! Go!"

Iwai kinda looks like a lion, or a general, possibly.

RD: He is a very cool dude. He has very "general" qualities; very forward thinking. "March. Get it done."

So, was the game co-developed alongside the animation, or was it adapted from the animation?

RD: Well... Between you and I, we were way ahead of them, from the start.

I see.

RD: And because they had to go from the manga translation of script, back to more correction and drawings, their process was a lot slower than ours. We're just like: "We see that picture! Let's get it moving!" You know what I'm saying?

And the series was originally supposed to be black and white, right? And we thought "Woah! That's gonna be great!" because no-one had ever done that before. Marketing squashed it, in their infinite wisdom, and, well, in the end, they were kinda right, so -- but you never want to tell marketing that!


RD: So we had to create a color palette, and so we had to go to Eric, and Okazaki and his guys, and say, "Hey, look. We had to create a color palette, because our marketing department says we can't go black and white. Will you accept it?" And Duke Mighten did an amazing job coming up with the original color palette of how the game was going to look. And it got approved by Gonzo.

And then it started showing up in their art. So there's been a lot of cross-pollenization. Where I had originally sold the franchise on, "I'm gonna get all this free art! We can save all this money!" Nnnnever happened! We were always so tied together that no one could get ahead of each other, to even help each other out.

I really like the watercolor look that the backgrounds have; it's pretty neat. And I saw did put some of that black and white in there.

RD: Yeah, well, we had to sneak it in. We changed art directors almost a year and a half ago a cat named Brian Johnson, who literally sat down with Danny Chan, who was old school from Naughty Dog, from old Crystal days. Just one of those programmers who are keyed into the industry; who just literally never say no. They always just say, "This isn't good enough. We can do better. We can do something wicked cool! Never mind the milestone, I'll talk to Dave!"

And they said they could create something -- I remember, the milestone was coming up, and they just had this idea of literally taking it from the stylistic, to the, like, hyper-stylistic, and the crosshatching and all that was born. And I remember the day Danny told me, "Hey, man, I think I have a great idea. It'll push us..."

Because we were worried -- our original prototype looked nothing like the current Afro; and it would've shipped a year and a half earlier, but it was late by game standards, and would've not survived in the current game market. It just was way underperforming in the look.

But we took six weeks to get it to work, and we missed an enormous amount of milestones trying to get it pulled off, but it changed everything once they got it. The dynamic crosshatching through the engine -- they hammered on it for weeks and weeks till they got it right.

It's nice when a game can go in a visual style that's actually interesting and different; it's not just, like, you know, closer to reality; it's actually trying to use next-gen power for what it should be used for, which is to try to do something unique, that we could only do with computer graphics.

RD: A lot of the decisions we made were not because we thought we were the smartest kids on the block. We definitely knew we were the poorest kids on the block, and we had to take a lot of... Not shortcuts, but we had to get there. Especially with fifteen guys.

So, the whole cutting and crosshatching was, we knew that we couldn't survive, competing with the Gods of Wars; it's always on a really big games; it's just a lot more of everything.

So we had to say, "Hey, Danny, how can we catch up, and make ourselves as different as those games, without spending all our money on it?" And Danny said that we just had to be different, and stay different, period. We can't be realistic -- too many titles do that amazingly well. We can't do the movie fantasy -- way too many teams do that amazingly well. We had to just literally find our own path, stick to it, and hit it. He was right.

Same thing with the cutting. We simply, doing the math, didn't have enough money to animate all the permutations of Afro killin' people. So Danny Chan again said: "I've got a solution, and I think I can have it prototyped in a week." It took him four days. Boom. And I think that in 30 years of gaming, no-one has ever had this, and DC, as we call him, pulled it off in four days.

Since then we've been thinking, "Oh my god. It's just a time bomb ticking in our game." And I don't know what that cutting is going to do, because all these other teams never pulled it off, and I was sweating that for the longest time. I'm still sweating! There's got to be something there waiting, some ogre under the bridge, that says that that can't work -- but it's worked. We can't imagine why no one ever thought of it.

There are still ideas out there, to be found, potentially. It's just, you know, sometimes necessity is the mother of invention, but also I think some people are, on the other hand, too busy just making a game --

RD: Spider-Man 50.


RD: Just makin' the same games, right? And it takes a lot of trust, and a lot of professionalism on both sides: From the management side, to know that, hey, we're going to have to take some risks, and we're going to miss some milestones; do we still believe? And I found myself in a lot of meetings with management, saying, "Do you believe?" and they did. And again, and again, Mr. Iwai did; again, and again. And so, it worked.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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