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NanaOn-Sha: Changing The World Of Games

Outspoken creator and musician Masaya Matsuura has said that he wants to see games into a more positive place -- and in this interview, he discusses what path that could take, while Dewi Tanner speaks on developing Haunt for Kinect.

Masaya Matsuura made a name for himself in games with PaRappa the Rapper, a game that still stands out almost 15 years later as a unique moment in the medium. A feel-good game with a positive message, casual gameplay, and inventive artwork, it charted a course that the mainstream console game industry has not really followed.

Matsuura and his company, NanaOn-Sha, however, are still following the beat of their own drummer. Next year, the company will launch its next title, Haunt, for Xbox Live Arcade. Published by Microsoft and developed in collaboration with UK-based studio Zoë Mode, it's a motion-controlled haunted house.

In this interview, Matsuura waxes philosophical about the changes he'd like to see the industry make while Dewi Tanner, producer of Haunt and NanaOn-Sha's former director of development, discusses the nitty gritty about getting player movement right on the Kinect.

Let's talk about what NanaOn-Sha is up to right now, just in a general sense.

Dewi Tanner: Well, I think we're just wrapping up our main project, Haunt, right now, which has been going on for the past year. It was announced at TGS last year, but just through a kind of teaser trailer video. But since then, there haven't been any press opportunities, so we've been keeping it close to the chest. So we're just winding up the game right now; things are looking clean right now, so it should be a smooth submission.

After Major Minor's Majestic March, did you learn from that experience, making a motion control game?

Masaya Matsuura: Kind of. But maybe the Wii and the Kinect are very different from each other. So we almost have to start from the beginning, for technology.

Did you kind of learn anything about the motion control genre, or audience, from releasing that game on the Wii?

DT: I think as a platform, Wii is so different; it always felt like it was a very big challenge just to reach the audience at all, trying to compete with all the first party titles. Microsoft will be publishing the XBLA title with us, so we've got more insider information this time. It should help make the game reach out to who they want to sell it to.

Did you have to staff up at all, or did you use contract people?

DT: Well, this time we teamed up with Zoë Mode -- a British development team -- so internally I think we've maybe one or two staff more than a year ago, but no big changes. So most of the art and programming production's being taken place in Brighton, in the UK. And they've done a very good job of it really.


Haunt

With Kinect, people keep trying to make standard games -- well, sometimes they do -- and you don't really have precise control over your movements in Kinect as much as with a controller. How do you approach matching what the hardware can do to kind of the gameplay that you want?

DT: Especially because when we started making it there was really no Kinect yet, so we had a chance to go to Seattle and play some prototypes and stuff like that. We had a couple of chats with engineers, but at the beginning we were just going from our best image -- our best guess from our minds, really.

And from then, it's always been a kind of exercise in bringing those two lines to a point where reality meets. I think kind of what we've gone for -- the haunted house and exploration and puzzles and stuff like that -- has been a pretty good platform for Kinect. It doesn't require meticulous precision, but at the same time it's more physical and involving than just using the game controller.

Did you do a lot of play testing with people? Because often Kinect controls seem obvious to the developer, but players can't make them work.

DT: We did do some playtesting to a degree in Japan and in the States as well, that it's been such a short project -- only one year, limited resources -- that we had to pick very specifically when we wanted to do that and how we could get the best out of it. I'm sure that there will be occasions when we're unable to completely satisfy every person's different interpretation. I remember early on there was a command called "thrust", where you can attack a ghost by thrusting towards them like a sword plunge. And we have this video of a play tester, and he was doing pelvic thrusts towards the screen.

Did it work?

DT: No, it didn't.

[Everyone laughs]

DT: "Thrust? What am I supposed to do?"

Did you go the vague path where motions are open to interpretation within the code, or aim toward specificity within the player instructions?

DT: I think we were trying to allow for different interpretations within the code to a degree, but you can't foresee everything that people are going to do. And we would've liked to have spent more resources on better instruction, instructing the players and stuff like that. But at the end of the day it's an XBLA title, so we didn't have the funds to cover all the bases. So it's a little bit of a case of wait and see, to see how the market reacts to that.


Is it on rails, or do you control your motion? Controlling motion seems very difficult. What people have tried to do has been pretty rough.

DT: I think we've done it pretty well. We've got a little bit of on rails in the game, but mostly you're free to navigate as you please.

Rise of Nightmares, if you've gotten a chance to play it, the Sega game, has a lot of trouble in particular.

DT: Yeah, yeah. Well, they took a very different approach to us, so. We're pretty confident in our approach, and it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. But again, considering it's an XBLA title I think we've done an amazing job of bringing something new to the market in such a short period of time on new hardware. Hopefully it's as fun, too.

How did you come up with the navigation and maneuvering methods? Did you try other things first? How did you settle upon what you settled upon?

DT: This is actually the original scheme we proposed back when we pitched the project. But yeah, we did due diligence on a whole bunch of other ones, like where you just point where you want to go and the avatar goes forward. And we talked about doing one similar to Rise of Nightmares as well, though we really felt it was important that player movement drove the gameplay.

We wanted to avoid any kind of auto movement, because if you're in a scary atmosphere, it has to be your decision, a physical decision, if you're moving forward. And it took a lot of calibrating to get stuff like the height to the floor to a place where it's not so high that it's exhausting, but it's not so low that the camera can't see the movement properly and comes up with lots of false positives. So that was the walking side. And then on the flashlight side, we implemented that scheme early, and everyone seemed to like it, so we just locked in on that one.

That seems relatively straightforward, because Kinect has its hand tracking stuff.

DT: We tried putting in body twisting, for turning, as well, but we found that people would start getting confused and would start facing sideways. So it's important that you define boundaries and keep things tight. We have to keep them tight, and give freedom where you can.

It seems like you've kept most of the action to kind of specific points to where you're in a battle or you're not, or you're dodging something when you're on rails. It seems like you don't have to like look around for the guy that's trying to attack you. Or do you have to do that?

DT: There is a bit of that in the game, but you have to be very clever about how you break things up, with Kinect. As you may have noticed, you're locked in place when you're doing the ghost battles, because we found if people could run around the room and hide and attack and stuff like that, then it would just get too messy. And people would go where they don't want to go, and stuff like that. Also, doing it this way makes it much easier to test the game, if we can break things down into these little modules.

It's just way more difficult to have movement and attacking happening in the same space when you have to remember all these specific rules about how your body works in the game, as well.

DT: Exactly, yeah. Because you're moving in the game world, where in the real world you're not -- otherwise you'd run through the TV.

Indeed. And your flashlight does not pan very quickly, so if I had to look at someone behind me it would be quite difficult.

DT: Right, yeah. I think the speed does go faster as you go wider. I think it's maybe because you're scared of it as well, but... [laughs] Well, it's something that obviously we could tweak, but for new players -- obviously you're an experienced game player that wanted probably more fine-tuned control -- but we found some like more casual players would panic if the camera would spin around too quickly.

So one of the reasons Microsoft came to us, was they wanted a title which would appeal more to families and younger players, and stuff. Unfortunately, we had to take a decision there to make it more casual-friendly.

Yeah, well I don't think it's a problem, per se, and moving the camera too quickly can be disorienting for some players. There's the option of having a kind of quick swipe, that would do a 180, or something like that, but people would probably wind up doing it by accident.

DT: Exactly. Yeah, we did have it in the build at one point, but what would happen is people would do it by accident, and when people wanted to do it it wouldn't happen, and then they get frustrated. So we just designed the game where you don't really need to do a quick 180 spin.


And how do you deal -- emotionally, yourselves -- with people getting frustrated when they're probably doing the right thing? Or what they think is the right thing, but is not actually happening for them? Because that seems inevitable with a Kinect game.

DT: Yeah, yeah. Just try not to watch. [laughs] Well, we've done everything we can, given the time available. Like I said, it'd be great if we could put mini-animations in and other things without over-baking the cake, so to speak. Hopefully we'll get a bit more data from the players, and if we make a sequel, we can have a better crack at it next time.

One of our main goals -- from a certain perspective -- was that casual gamers will be able to navigate 3D space, which obviously with a control pad is something which has always difficult. Despite in a few ghosts in the system -- if you'll excuse the pun -- I think we've done a pretty good job with it.

Matsuura-san, a long time you were talking about how you worried that future anthropologists will look back at video games and think that we're just a crazy, violent culture. Have you thought more about that and what steps can be taken to change that? Do you think it's changing or not changing?

MM: Yeah, we are changing. I don't know about the others, but already, we are trying to contribute the OneBigGame project. These kinds of things are not directly connected to anti-violence approaches. We believe that games should contribute much more to society and the community, for solving problems. So I think that these kinds of approaches are really sympathetic for me. I really respect that everyone has started thinking about that.

So in a different way to say, if this kind of trend gets much more successful from now, maybe I think games' treating of violence will not be a big issue for me anymore. So I mean, inside [the game], the original contents -- it doesn't matter. I think the more higher layer -- of the mission of the business, or creators -- still we can have a chance to do much more from now. So that's really interesting to me.

Intellectually, I agree that games should be and should have a wider view and should address more subjects. But personally, I just like playing games where you're a little guy with a sword and you hack everything up. So it's difficult to reconcile this.

As examples, Flower I actually do find fun to play, and Ico is fun to play, but some other games more about a mood, or something, than they are about having a fun gameplay experience; they're like an art piece instead of an entertainment piece.

Do you think those two things can come together eventually?

MM: I don't know. What I just wanted to say was not a complicated thing. What I wanted to say was that layer of the content -- maybe the sword, guns, shooting someone, killing someone -- the basic contents of the game, of course it's a very important layer, but if the benefit from this game, if they can contribute to another purpose -- like charity or something -- that would be a very good thing, I think. So these two layers should be evaluated in separate ways.

I think that this higher layer of the content's meaning is still just coming out, essentially. So last time I talked about these kinds of things, maybe we don't have this kind of layer yet. So I think these kinds of violent games sometimes look great, probably. But if we can have gamification, or some charities, or new possibilities, this kind of game looks a little different for me.

Do you think people will remember these layers, or they'll only see the game in isolation?

MM: Up to the customer, I think. I don't know that we have a way to give some email of our character, something from the developer or publisher. That some developers make a very ugly and violent game, but have the possibility to contribute to a very good purpose, for example.

And maybe the customer doesn't care about what kind of purpose the money will go, but after six months the developer or publisher will send an email to thank that all players contributed to a great purpose for society, for example. Maybe the game player will be surprised to know that, as just [the game] was killing zombies with a soldier, or something like that. But I think that there'll still be these kinds of things as a possibility. It will happen, actually.

For example, in many movies we have a dying episode, or a killing episode. But not so many people think that movie contents include too much violence. But of course in movies, there's not interaction, so just watching is completely different from a game. But still, movies have many violent scenes. And also music has similar kinds of contents. So I think the problem or point is that what kind of economic influence, finally, these kinds of contents make, and also cultural influence, too.

It's interesting that government agencies are getting in to funding positive game projects like OneBigGame. These things are happening in Canada, too. The government is helping games move into a more artistic space, even as other parts of it are putting games down.

MM: You have good government; Japanese government would never do this. [laughs] Just watching.

DT: Well, I don't think the governments are trying to pull games into that space; I think they're trying to fill arts-funded space with more interactive content.

Yeah, that's probably true.

DT: Game developers have the skills to fill that, especially since iPad and iPhone and stuff is coming out, there's a lot more diversity there, so. "Oh, finally, something I can kind of understand!"

Matsuura-san, will you be making any more music of your own outside of games?

MM: [laughs] Sounds impossible.

Impossible?

MM: I don't know, but...

DT: You released Huge Hug through WINtA, didn't you?

MM: Yeah, yeah. It's a very difficult question, because if I make music, always the game -- or connecting a game interaction -- is embedded into my idea. So this is very hard, to divide them.

I guess it does sound impossible, because if you don't want to, obviously it's not going to happen.

MM: [laughs] But still, as you know, we did a music oriented speech. We went to the Sydney Opera House, and we joined the graphic event there. And we did a performance.

DT: We'll also be at Game Masters in Melbourne next year, which looks exactly like the kind of event we were talking about a minute ago, where they're going to try and approach video games from a wider cultural perspective than just "this is Sonic, this is Mario" kind of thing.


So Dewi, with Haunt, was this the project you were working on most?

DT: Yeah, I've mostly been running the ship on this one; Matsuura-san's the guy upstairs, overseeing the whole project.

How has that been for you? Because you haven't really gotten a chance to really lead a project before, right?

DT: No, no I guess not. It's been a pretty intense project. [Everyone laughs] Especially in this occasion -- it's our first time working with Microsoft Studios. And so having a publisher in the States a development team in the UK and us in Japan, trying to merge all these different cultures together.

Yeah, it's difficult to have a lot of different viewpoints to put together.

DT: But out of conflict often comes good ideas, so I think it's made the project much stronger, to have all these different standpoints. But the game doesn't seem to have a concrete national identity, which is something I think we really wanted; we didn't want it to be too Japanese, or too American, or too British.

That's kind of the ideal -- to have something that is culturally agnostic, but still interesting.

DT: That makes the most of the implicit strengths of each region.

But instead, the Japanese industry has mostly been trying to follow what works. There's a lot of kind of same ideas being done over and over, which is a shame. But it seems like you guys try to do new things, which is good.

DT: I think we've done something like five new IPs in five years now.

I personally think the only way to make something interesting is to try to do something different.

MM: Yeah. It is. So for us, the very important thing is working with the different creative people in an equal position. Yeah, obviously the publisher has big pressure, and bargaining power, of course. But still they have to act in a reasonable kind of way, to accept or deny any kind of action... Reasonable, reasonable, of course.

But on the other hand, they always -- the developer and the studio -- has difficulties to have to accept new ideas, or those kinds of changes. And so all the information is controlled from here [at Nana-On Sha] so that these kinds of connections are very thrilling, and a new kind of thing for us.

As far as I know, Microsoft tends to have a lot of strong ideas about things. That can sometimes be difficult to work with.

DT: And which tend to change from month to month as strategies and departments shift like tectonic plates.

Yes! And people come and go quite rapidly -- that sort of thing.

DT: But at the same time dev studios that we work with are very used to working to three year schedules with concrete deliverables, and contracts, and stuff like that. And it just doesn't seem to work anymore like that, because things are constantly changing. And what's fashionable in games changes rapidly, too, so it requires a huge amount of power to pull the ropes from both sides into a place where you're happy with.

Yeah, I feel like the business is changing faster and faster now; it just keeps going. Two years ago nobody would've thought that social games -- like Zynga -- would be anything.

DT: Two years from now we might have forgotten about them. [laughs]

There is a lot of potential in social games. If you really think about it abstractly, from what most games are right now, there's a lot of interesting possibilities there. But it hasn't been all explored yet.

MM: One of the very remarkable things for me about Haunt was that we invited the voice over actor, Tim Schafer, for the main character.

Wait, Tim Schafer is the main character?

MM: Yeah. He's very, very interesting for it.

I bet! Well, he's a really funny guy, that's for sure. I'm surprised that he had time to do that.

MM: Actually he didn't have time! [laughs]

DT: We managed to squeeze him in nonetheless.

That's great.

DT: There's not too much narrative in the game, so a couple of afternoons and we were pretty much done.

MM: It was very strange idea, I think. So we decided at GDC, last time. So already at the time, we had some other voice over track already put into the game. And since everybody was satisfied with that voice character already...

DT: Maybe not me.

MM: [laughs] But we talked about "maybe something is missed," still. And one day that you told me that about how Tim would be a good voice over actor.

DT: I think we met him at a Ngmoco party, and the next day at breakfast, we talked about it.

Was it after seeing him present at the Choice Awards?

MM: Yeah! [laughs] That was a very huge input for me. I really loved his speech at the Choice Awards.

DT: And it's a really specific mood that we were looking for in this game. So it's a haunted house game -- we don't want it to be like slash horror -- so we wanted to keep a little sense of humor, and a little bit impish, in that sense. And I think Tim really has that kind of passé humor, which really comes out well. You can never know if you can really trust what he's saying.

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