Ray Nakazato is unusually outspoken for a Japanese developer, but he's well-placed to be that way. The president of the AQI-owned feelplus, the studio that developed Lost Odyssey for Microsoft, he's a veteran of the ups and downs of the Japanese gaming industry.
Now that the game has been completed and released to success in the North American market, Nakazato spoke with Gamasutra about the developer's history and future, including the surprising news that while the team has plans to try and work with Final Fantasy and Lost Odyssey creator Hironobu Sakaguchi once again, the Lost Odyssey team has moved on to other projects, calling into question the potential for a direct sequel.
In the interview, Nakazato also discusses Microsoft's 360 business in Japan from a knowledgeable perspective - you can read more about Nakazato's experiences developing Lost Odyssey in an earlier Gamasutra article.
How do you feel about the development of Lost Odyssey? Are you satisfied with how it went?
Ray Nakazato: Yeah. In terms of how the project went, it came out OK. I mean, it was a difficult project [around] three years ago, yeah, but we have overcome a lot of our problems and issues. And we didn't slip the release date, so...
Was the integration of Unreal Engine 3 smoother since we last spoke? How did that go?
RN: Integration of the Unreal 3 Engine was very difficult. Especially, it's not really because it's the Unreal 3 Engine, but I guess a lot of my guys are used to making Japanese RPGs, and they have their own philosophy in designing the games. And, you know, we didn't really follow the Unreal Engine philosophy to begin with, so it was more difficult.
And also, you know, we didn't have many English-speaking engineers, and that made it even more difficult, because at the time, Unreal Engine was evolving, so we needed to really be watching out what's happening with the Unreal Engine on the updates and the newsgroups and everything. But they are pretty much in English. You know, they had some Japanese support, but it was difficult in that sense.
Now that you've completed one Unreal Engine game, do you think it's going to get easier in the future if you use it again?
RN: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. It doesn't necessarily mean we will use it for our next project, but it will be much easier next time, if we use it again.
Is it easier than building your own engine, or do you think you would, in the future, build your own?
RN: Well, we have pretty much decided to go with our own internal engine at this time, so we made that choice -- you know, basically we just weighed pros and cons, and we thought it was better that we create our own.
And also, it's different; back then when we started Lost Odyssey, we didn't even have an Xbox 360 platform. And Epic Games was one of the more advanced technology companies back then, so I think it was the right decision back then. But now that we are under AQI Group, and we have three studios, and we've got a lot of internal technologies, it's better to utilize those rather than borrowing somebody else's engine.
RN: It's not really shared; that's something that we're trying to do now. So there are three studios, we have our own technologies, and we're trying to integrate them for next time.
Yes. How about the reaction to Lost Odyssey from fans and critics?
RN: Yeah, it's been very good. I mean, we kept saying for a long time that it's a turn-based RPG, right? And, knowing that it's a turn-based RPG, I think it was received well. People still say that it's a turn-based RPG, it's an old-fashioned game, but knowing that it's a turn-based game, you know, people received it well. Especially, we have a lot of -- have you played it?
I haven't yet.
RN: OK. So there is this leading character who lives for a thousand years, but he lost his memory. But occasionally he remembers his past memory, and that comes out as one short episode in text form.
In Japan, there is a genre called the Sound Novel. It's like a novel; it's all text messages. And we were, how do I say -- we weren't sure if it would be accepted well, but it actually was accepted very well, because that writing was very beautiful, and it translated well to other languages.
Who did you use for your translation studio?
RN: The original writing was done by Mr. Kiyoshi Shigematsu, who is an award-winning writer in Japan. And it that is translated by -- I don't actually remember his name, but he's a guy who is famous for translating Japanese novels into...
Oh, yeah. He has translated, like...
RN: Haruki Murakami novels.
Haruki Murakami novels, that's right. OK. So, no wonder! Well, that's good. [Ed. note: The segments were translated by Jay Rubin.] Do you know if the game helped sell as many Xboxes as Microsoft hoped it was going to sell? Because they were really banking on that for a while.
RN: In Japan? I don't know. I guess it depends on the timing. I mean, of course, when we started -- when I was at Microsoft, and we started 360, we had a much bigger goal, but as it didn't launch well, they changed the numbers. And I think with Lost Odyssey and this winter in Japan, they reached their goal. The revised goal, I should say.
The revised goal, OK. I remembered that the thing that -- the game that was selling the most Xboxes for a while, which surprised everyone, was Ace Combat 6!
RN: Yeah. It was surprising.
What is your estimation of the Japanese market this year, versus last year? How has it changed in this last year?
RN: Well, Wii and DS, those platforms are doing very well. As last year, it was doing well last year, and this year they are doing well. I think PlayStation 3 has started flying much better than the last year. But it's interesting, most of those next-gen games, like 360 or PS3, are still foreign games.
Yeah. And it seems even the local next-gen games are still not selling that well. In the U.S., SEGA has released that Golden Compass game, based on the movie. Do you know it? Over here, they had it across every platform. Like, Wii, DS, 360, PC, PS2, everything; and in Japan, they only released PS3 and DS. That's really interesting to me. It shows that people are taking sides.
RN: I don't know. Like, Call of Duty 4 -- I think [sales are] like, even between PS3 and 360 in Japan. It sold fairly well. I think... Probably 80,000 units in total with PS3 and 360, which is pretty good, yeah.
That's pretty good, actually. So, I don't know if you want to answer this now, but how do you think Nintendo is affecting the market?
RN: They are great. It's really that the Japanese video game industry is growing, and that's mostly because of the contribution of Nintendo.
Yeah. Right. I guess my concern is that most third parties are not capitalizing very well or very consistently on Nintendo hardware. You know, it's kind of hit and miss; sometimes they're able to have a success, like with Cooking Mama, but a lot of the time there are just so many games out there that it's hard to make any kind of...
RN: Yeah, I think Japanese publishers still struggle. I don't know how struggling they are, but AQI is struggling, so we need to look at the overseas market more seriously.
I was going to ask how [feelplus parent company] AQI is doing as a publisher.
RN: As a publisher, we are still a start-up, and I shouldn't really say numbers, but you can probably check. But as the AQI brand, we published four titles last year, and all four of them aren't a big hit. [First is] the boxing game, on Wii.
Yeah, Hajime no Ippo. [Ed. note: This game is known as Victorious Boxers Revolution in the U.S.]
RN: Yeah. And Arcana Heart, that's an arcade port; and Anata wo Yurusanai, that's a mystery adventure game on the PSP; and Dokomodake, that's a puzzle game. Those aren't big projects...
But this year, we've started making a lot of games for AQI, but the things we've announced or we've published already are things that are smaller in size. And this time next year, I think finally we will be able to release something that's meaningful.
Wasn't Vampire Rain released under AQI?
I know a couple of larger-scale games, like also Bullet Witch came out, but that game was released in 2006. And AQI seemed like one of the companies that was going for the big budget stuff, much more than some others. Do you think that's going to work in Japan? The big game model?
RN: Well, I guess it depends on how big it is. You know, as feelplus, we did Lost Odyssey for the last few years, and that was a really big project. Now that Lost Odyssey is done, feelplus has started on three projects internally.
That's still next-gen games, but it's of course not as big as Lost Odyssey. I think it's comparable in size with other competitors. Enough to -- the Lost Odyssey team, my studio, can start three projects, where before it was just one project. So...
Right. So, it's the same amount of people that were on Lost Odyssey, broken up into three?
OK. So those will be like, well -- Are you doing any kind of console download games, or is it all packaged products?
RN: It's all packaged products. I can't disclose details yet of the three projects.
I just noticed that not a lot of Japanese developers are doing the console download stuff yet. The only thing I've really seen is publishers rereleasing their games, like on PSN; rereleasing PlayStation 1 games and things. But even when Capcom and Konami do ports of their old arcade games, it's mostly being done in America anyway. So I'm just wondering, it seems like the Japanese game industry is not really hot on that concept yet.
RN: Well, I think we are hot on that concept. I mean, everybody is interested in WiiWare. And [email protected]; I'm sure you know of [email protected]. [Ed. note: pop star management simulator The I[email protected] is one of the most popular Xbox 360 games in Japan.] It did very good business with downloadable content.
Yeah, on Xbox 360. Which is surprising.
RN: Yeah. So, we are interested.
I know that with the bigger projects, you have to really make sure that you appeal to a Western audience, because that's where it has the possibility to sell well at this point -- how are you doing that? How are you trying to figure out what the mass western market will want? Or are you?
RN: Well, I guess, of course we have to make games that are accepted in the Western market, but we also have to stand out, so we just can't mimic those games that are already out there in the States.
So, we try -- when we start up the concept of the game, we really don't think too much about Western users or Western market; we just focus on what we would want to make. So that's something to start with, then that's, in the concept design stage, that's how we do it.
Once we figure out overall plot, like the design ideas and world plot, then we start consulting with European and North American agencies. Like story agencies, story writing agencies, or marketing agencies. But the core concept is something that Japanese people came up with.
I was thinking about, in the old days, like in the NES era, Japanese games were really popular here, but that was just because they were the best-made games at the time. And I wonder where that shift was, that the next-gen games, the highest end games that were the most fun, weren't coming out of Japan anymore all the time. Do you have any idea how that shift might have happened? Or maybe you don't agree...
RN: I think one big factor is that in Western gaming market there is a long history of PC games. A long and big market with the PC games, so I think there are a lot of great developers and creators who kept making PC games, and I think this generation of consoles, finally those people started showing up in the console game arena. I think that's one big reason. Also that's one big reason that Japan also seems to be a little behind in that arena.
When you mentioned that AQI is struggling, what are they struggling with?
RN: Well we are still a start-up publisher, and I think it takes time to publish a great game. That's one thing. And also, at the same time, we have to establish an infrastructure that's as good as others, worldwide. And that also takes time and money.
I see. So it's mostly growing pains?
RN: But we are good, because AQI used to be [just] studios, and we began publishing. So we have a great crew of people, creators, that are making games, that have good experience in making games.
So, you know, 80 or 90% of our employees are on development side, so we have a good credibility in making games for other publishers. So as we grow AQI, we still have a lot of projects that are for other people.
Is it still mainly feelplus, Artoon, and Cavia?
RN: Yeah. Feelplus, Artoon, Cavia, and there's one marketing company called XSEED, that's a U.S. company, that's a member of us now.
So will XSEED, going forward, be AQI's U.S. publishing branch?
RN: Yeah, I think that's one option. XSEED is still a small group of people; they're very good at marketing and research, so we consult a lot with XSEED people for ideas on our designs. And that's working out well.
Do you think that the casual market is possible to predict in Japan right now? Because I know that everyone's aiming for the more casual platforms. Do you think that it's something that people can really figure out, or are people's tastes too different, and dispersed? I know AQI has released one or two DS titles.
RN: Yeah. And two big DS titles are coming up. That's Away and Blue Dragon Plus. They are both produced by Sakaguchi.
Artoon's doing Blue Dragon, right?
RN: No. We're doing Blue Dragon. Actually -- it's interesting -- it's a joint development. Blue Dragon Plus on DS is a joint development between feelplus and a studio called Brownie Brown.
Oh, of course. Brownie Brown did all the Mana stuff for Square.
RN: Mana stuff. And Mother 3.
I didn't know Brownie Brown actually developed Mother 3.
RN: Yeah, they did. So it's a joint development; it's coming out this spring, and Away is, as well. So those are not casual -- as a DS title, they're very big projects.
Yeah. It seems that most of the stuff coming out of AQI -- and certainly coming out of feelplus -- is pretty hardcore-oriented.
RN: Story-oriented. Story games.
Where did the majority of the people from feelplus come from? I had a friend who had heard that people came from Sacnoth and Nautilus.
RN: Yes. That's true. Originally, Lost Odyssey was a Microsoft internal project. So we had about 40 people, I guess -- somewhere around there -- that were working on Lost Odyssey as Microsoft, and Microsoft decided to make it an independent studio, so AQI Group created a studio called feelplus.
And Microsoft sent those employees to feelplus. And also, the entire team of people who used to be Sacnoth and Nautilus -- they did Koudelka, and Shadow Hearts 1, 2, and 3 -- most of them joined feelplus. And usual recruiting, in addition to that. And during the course of the project, most of those people who are Microsoft employees either joined feelplus or went back to Microsoft.
I see. Yeah, I've always been curious to know where ex-SNK groups go.
RN: Currently a lot of key guys at feelplus are from Nautilus.
Will you guys be doing more with Sakaguchi in the future, after this?
RN: I'd like to, yeah. We are doing Blue Dragon Plus, now, so we are still doing a project with Sakaguchi-san. I'd like to continue on. Of course we are in discussion with a few ideas. Yeah.
Yeah, well, I guess, maybe -- Since feelplus doesn't have to go in that market, you may not have to have researched this, but it just seems like when people are releasing these casual games, they have no idea if it's really going to make a splash or not, because...
RN: What kind of casual game are you talking about?
I'm talking about Brain Age type games, or Cooking Mama... There are all these training games, there are the games for women, and those games for older people.
RN: Ah, those kind of games.
It seems like there's so many, it's so hard for something to really rise to the top. Maybe you haven't studied that market; I don't know.
RN: Not really. Well, Cavia is doing a few. I personally haven't studied that much for that market, but it seems like there's a lot of titles that don't sell at all, and there are a few titles that sell like a million, or two million units. Although the development cost is very small, I personally think it's a high-risk market.
It is. It's interesting, because at the beginning of that whole trend, that particular market wound up saving some smaller developers, who were on the verge of going under, and then they made an early DS game, so then they were back in business.
But now, some companies are coming to it a bit late, and it seems tough. Like, ASK is back, as a publisher. They were really, really underground for a while, and now they're kind of back. It's just strange to see these companies return. It's nice though. I guess.
RN: So I guess those small or casual games, they can either do DS, or mobile phones. Maybe PC.
The mobile market is a lot better in Japan than it is here.
RN: Well maybe WiiWare and stuff, they can move on to those kinds of [platforms].