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Silence Is Golden: Takayoshi Sato's Occidental Journey

Sheffield talks to Takayoshi Sato, now working in California at Electronic Arts, but perhaps best known for creating the groundbreaking Silent Hill CG sequences for Konami single-handed, and discusses his fascinating career and the differences between Japanese and Western game development.

Takayoshi Sato’s name may not be known industry-wide, like the Kojima-s and Miyamoto-s of the world, but his skill and vision are such that perhaps it should be. His career began at Konami, where he went on to create, direct, model and design the CG movies for the first Silent Hill, entirely on his own.

The movies in that game were widely regarded as the best of that particular era, and earned him the right to direct much of Silent Hill 2, which was lauded by critics as emotionally complex and pioneering for its time - some might say that Sato's stark, eerie concept art and CG scene contribution to the two games is one of the key parts of the franchise's distinctive style.

Now, Sato works in North America at Electronic Arts, most recently completing work on Goldeneye: Rogue Agent as associate art director. A quick glance at his official website shows that in his early CG models for Goldeneye, his style, and love of detailed, complicated characters, is still intact.

In this exclusive interview with Gamasutra, Sato gives a very candid impression of the Japanese game industry, as well as a look at the American industry from the position of a partial outsider.

GS: So how did you decide to get into the game industry?



Takayoshi Sato

TS: Well, at first I was studying sculpture and fine art at Tama Art University in Toyko, but at a certain point I decided that I would like to get into CG or game industry work. And just when I had that thought, I got a flyer saying that Konami was hiring artists. So that’s when I decided.

GS: And you started with 2D art, working on Sexy Parodius, right?

TS: That was basically porting (from the arcade to Saturn and PlayStation), and I kind of got to do animation, draw the UI, extra enemies, and the characters themselves.

GS: Did you study 3D art simultaneously while at Konami, or at school?

TS: At Konami, because that time, we used Indy from Silicon Graphics, and 3D packages were extremely expensive. So there was no choice but to do it there. The porting of Sexy Parodius was hell – I was the only artist in the team, and had to work 15 hours, seven days a week, and… that’s hell. It was a 2D game, and 2D was on the verge of extinction at the time (1996). So I was pretty worried, being that I was so busy, and working so hard, but in a few years, I’d be basically skill-less, and laid off. So I started learning that 3D package after midnight every day, on my own.

GS: Was it difficult for you to make the jump from 2D to 3D art?

TS: Yeah. Software-wise, it’s ok. Five months after starting, I became comfortable using it. But getting a 3D job within Konami was hard.

GS: So how did you manage to get to the point where they trusted you to do Silent Hill’s CG on your own?

TS: That’s a really long story! I appealed over and over – “I want to work on 3D, I want to work on a serious project, like a Silent Hill or Metal Gear Solid kind of game.” And I was assigned a 3D job, fortunately, after a few months.

At first, the work they gave me was much more basic, like making letters for subtitles, or UI for presentations, and scheduling, and sorting files. That sort of job. It was hard. And there were artists that were older than me, but didn't have any knowledge of 3D. But in Japanese society, older people get more respect within the company. So I had to teach them, while doing this work. So basically, I was doing demos and presentations in 3D, and not getting credit. I thought that was unfair, but I was paying my dues.

So I decided to compose my own four-second piece of a movie, and then presented it. I kind of stepped over my boss, and showed the higher-ups, saying “This is what I can do. Let me do some real 3D work, otherwise I won’t teach anyone else.” So that’s how I started gradually getting 3D work, like rigging, lighting and atmosphere, character design, and other things on the visual pipeline. More than 8 months later, we had a chance to show our movies, and in-game stuff at E3. And at that point, I got applause.

People liked the content and visuals. But I still wasn’t in charge of cinematics, or characters or anything. Well – even though I was actually “in charge” of it, my title still didn’t reflect that. And my boss wanted to find somebody above me to give me direction, because in Japanese companies, they don’t want to credit someone like me, who’s the youngest in the team. He wanted to give me a CGI and visual supervisor. But that was kind of strange because I had all of the pipeline, and 30 or 40 percent of all movie sequences done. Why should I have a supervisor for that? So I said “I don’t need anybody above me,” and a fight started, during which my boss said “Fine then – can you finish everything on your own?” And I had to say “Ok I will!” That’s why I had to do everything.



A still from one of Silent Hill's haunting CG sequences

 

GS: So you didn’t have any assistance at all?

TS: No. Not many people believe that I did it myself – and it wasn’t like I wanted to make it all from scratch! I just had to do it in order to get credit. Plus, you don’t want to be credited in your game as assistant artist if you did everything. So it wasn’t easy. I didn’t go home for three years, almost. I lived there. I slept under the desk, and that midnight time I talked about, after everyone went home, was a real chance for me to work, because I had access to all of the computers in the office. We had over 150 computers or something like that, and at the time we were using the Unix operating system. So after everyone’s gone home, I can operate all of these computers to render my stuff. Yeah…I couldn’t go home.

GS: And with the next game you worked on (Silent Hill 2) you had a lot more story control. Do you miss having control over a project like that?

TS: Well…I don’t know, I’m in the United States now, and the hierarchy is so different. When I worked on Silent Hill 1, the budget average was like three to five million, like Final Fantasy. Around the time of Silent Hill 2, the average budget was maybe seven to ten million. So it was easier to get power over a project at the time, because the cost wasn’t as much. But now games could cost, I don’t know, ten to fifty million? That’s too much. Way too much money.

Yeah, those were my glory days, with Silent Hill 2, because after the first one, I got a Japanese Cultural Ministry award, and it was shown at Siggraph, and I got the personal CEO award from Konami, so I had a lot of power over my next project. And that was really fun.

GS: The story for Silent Hill 2 went over very well in America. Did you write most of the scenario?

TS: There was a writer, but I provided the dialog and storyline for the women. The basic storyline was based on Crime and Punishment. The background story of my university was also kind of twisted into Silent Hill 2.



Silent Hill 2's Angela

 

GS: With Silent Hill 3, you developed a concept that wound up not being used. How did that happen?

TS: At that time I was in the U.S. already, and I was in Konami of America, a separate division from Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, and basically we were kind of contracted to them. And before getting the contract done, my team was already developing new Silent Hill stuff. But our contract didn’t meet with what they wanted, so we didn’t show anything, and they didn’t get anything. Since we were external, we had to pitch our ideas like any other third party, and it just didn’t work out.

GS: How different was your vision from the way the game actually turned out?

TS: Well, I like really deep, introspective, psychological horror. I like stories where the villain isn’t really a villain. They just want what they want, and they’re thinking about it, not just purely pursuing evil. That kind of complicated thought process was not as apparent in Silent Hill 3, which was more like pure horror. It didn’t feel like psychological horror anymore, to me.

GS: And what made you decide to come to the West in the first place?

TS: Well, Silent Hill 1 did pretty well with the U.S. audience, in terms of gross sales. I considered that to be kind of fortunate, more like luck. Because at that point I hadn’t been to the U.S. or Europe or anything. So I really didn’t know anything about the West, other than what I’d seen in movies, or translated books. So that hit was not planned. It was just luck. But the higher ups in a Japanese company don’t think like that. Even at that time, the main markets for games were America and Europe, even though the developer is in Japan.

So we had to seriously think about the Western market, and I mentioned this to the higher ups, but they weren't so sure – they'd say “a good game sells, no matter the culture, no matter where it’s developed.” I didn’t think that was right. I think that in order to sell something to someone, you have to know that audience. And the Japanese game market had already started shrinking, so I thought I had to see Europe and the U.S., since it would be the next main market.


GS: At that time you came and started Satoworks, right? What happened with that?

TS: Ah, well that’s another long story, but…

I was not supposed to be a manager for that division of Konami of America, but I was kind of forced to because there wasn’t anyone else to do it. I didn’t know enough about money and contracts, and so I started negotiating about money after we were already working on the game (Silent Hill 2). So we ended up making a deficit. It wasn’t really that bad, because Konami made money on the product, but because I hadn’t negotiated the contracts properly at the beginning, our division wound up being unprofitable. So we put ourselves in a difficult position.

Even though the game was successful, we had people asking us how we were going to make our division profitable. So it was hard to continue that team. In order to compete with American CG houses, you need more equipment and money. And that was not possible. That was a good time to finish the team, I guess.

GS: So what was it like moving from a Japanese company to an American company?

TS: It’s…different. Very different. EA’s a gigantic company. In Konami, or in Japanese companies, there’s a lot more politics that you need to keep in mind. They really don’t like people that are like nails sticking out of a board. And most Japanese companies consider that you’re a lifetime employee. You join the company after you graduate from school, and then you work for that company for your entire life. That’s good in a way, because you don’t have to worry about losing your job, or anything.

But at the same time, you have to worry about the company – what if it goes bankrupt? Where can you go? Most companies take that kind of lifetime employment approach, so it can be really hard to go to another company. And even if you did a great job in the previous company, you’re not a special case when you enter a new one. They don’t really like change, and they love hierarchy. So that makes you really angry sometimes.

I don’t mean to say anything bad about Konami, this is just how the culture works. In the end, I had a great number of friends, and I really appreciate my time there.

In an American company like EA, it’s not lifetime employment, so you have to always keep yourself marketable. And the education and culture is much different. Japanese companies don’t have designers, they have directors, and under them, a technical director and art director. Those three people have control over the project. Usually gameplay is owned by the technical director. The art director owns movement, visuals and timing. So that’s how the Japanese game industry works. But here, it’s more divisioned. Design department, art department, story department, and people are more specialized. And we do have to show higher-ups some presentations and demos of the game, and they ask that I show them my finished work, but it's not as fierce as in Japan.

Thinking of the future, maybe games will cost 100 million – who knows? And at that time, the American game industry, along with Hollywood, is going to manage it better than Japanese companies. Strict hierarchy is really hard to manage with 400 people working on graphics, or 100 million dollar budgets. American companies have specialized people, but are also constantly developing new workflow techniques to keep everything moving.

GS: Since you worked on smaller games before, do you feel like your personal vision comes through as well, now that you’re part of a bigger team?

TS: The team I’m on isn’t that big yet – it’s a pretty comfortable size. But it’s still bigger than Japanese development. Usually there we would keep the team under seven people from six months to a year. And compared to that, this is still big. When the team is small, I can have more of an opinion. With Konami it was easy to do that. EA is more like collaborating with the publishing side, the marketing side, the studio side…more business-like.



Sato's distinctive style permeates GoldenEye: Rogue Agent's early character work

 

GS: I noticed that you have a very distinctive style - are you able to have personal expression even in licensed games?

TS: Well…that’s not my choice. I just have my own style, but it’s not necessarily exactly what the producer wants. This is an issue with hiring somebody from overseas, since there’s so much specialization here. Where do you put them? I like the Silent Hill or Max Payne style of game, and I’m comfortable with that style. Since I did so much work on Silent Hill, I’m used to those deeper types of expressions, and ways that characters act. But you can’t always get that kind of job.

Here, you’re asked: “are you an animator, or a modeler? What are you?” If you’re an animator, you have to animate fast action, or alien animation, or cartoony animation, and face expressions. It’s specialized, but broad within that skillset. I always have trouble answering that question. Modelers have to create humans, sharks, ships, planes, anything like that. I have skills in those areas, but I can’t really fit into the pipeline easily. I like to animate faces, but if I’m an animator, maybe I have to animate other things. So it’s always hard to answer.

GS: What position are you within your new team?

TS: Well, I’m on the character side. I’m an associate art director, working for the art director, with concepts, or creating archetypes, or rigging, and working with the character technical director, and doing animatics and lighting. But I’m mostly on the character side, developing characters from every angle.

GS: As an artist, are high-level 3D graphics really important to a game in your opinion? Will the next generation have a big advantage over the current generation, because of graphics?

TS: This is something I don’t agree with. Having a greater spec is nice, and it looks good, but I don’t want to say that “oh, we finally got the tools to do what we want.” I want to make a game that’s fun, like a Miyamoto type game. A game is a game, it’s about balance, and mood…that kind of thing is important. But high-res, or PS3 – that doesn’t appeal to me much. Sure we can get super-real or high-res visuals, but at the same time it costs a lot. That means you need a lot of people. That means it’s really hard to have integrated and polished mood for a game.

It’s really hard. It also requires a lot of people, and a lot of technology, and it’s going to be hard to keep control of that. We need to consider that it’s a game. Of course it’s a type of an art form, but we have to find a balance. Of course some people are enthusiastic about high-res and really detailed graphics, but that’s not the core of what we should be doing.

GS: What is the process that you personally go through in terms of character design?

TS: First I think about the character, and check websites to find points to start with. Then I show pictures to producers, or whomever I’m working for, to get a feeling for how they feel about things, and look at their expressions – “oh he likes that!” That sort of thing. And also I draw, and paint, scan it into the computer, then make it into 3D. Especially for the face though, you’ll never match the 3D geometry to your drawing. So I start modeling in 3D pretty early. It’s faster to do, and quicker to get approval. So I do just the face in 3D, and the rest in 2D via painter of photoshop. Then after I get approval, I go in and start modeling the body.

Also, at that time you have to rig already, otherwise you’re screwed, so I’m thinking about animation possibilities too. But how I do it now is very different from the Japanese way. In Konami I spent a lot more time with character development beforehand; making notes, keeping a diary about the character, and kind of defining exactly what the character is, psychologically. After that, I don’t do much drawing. I just start modeling, because I didn’t have to show anybody, or get approval. Especially with Silent Hill 2, where there was nobody to approve or disapprove. So once I nailed the psychological side, I would start modeling, and finish with high-res modeling, then down-res until it gets to game resolution. It’s very different.

GS: How long does it usually take you now to go from concept to finished model?

TS: Hmm. Well, first people have to approve it. But ignoring that, maybe three weeks? If I crunch!



A finished GoldenEye: Rogue Agent model

 

GS: Do you play games now?

TS: Well, when I was in junior high, I was crazy about that. I used to go to arcades all the time. I would almost commute to them. I played games in the arcades until I was maybe 15. But when I decided to go to college in fine arts, that was pretty much the last time I played games seriously. After getting into game studio, I had to play games, but it became a task. “Oh no, I have to play the game!” It was like that. That’s how I still feel. You have to spend a certain amount of time on technology research, but it’s really hard to find time to play games on your own. Especially RPGs or deep adventure type games.

GS: I wanted to ask about your virtual handshake sculpture. (Sato has a section of his official website with sketches and art from his student days.)

TS: That was one of my graduate works. It looks really stupid, but I was into contemporary art, and at that time with contemporary art, a lot of it I had a hard time understanding. Those artists have their own vision – they make their work, and no matter how it comes out, they just say “you guys don’t understand.” They want to have class. They want to think that they’re higher, and more knowledgeable than others. I didn’t like that. My work doesn’t really show class – art needs entertainment. I want people to enjoy looking at or touching my work. It was 10 years ago, so don’t judge me by it! I was a schoolboy. But I think it’s funny still.

GS: It reminds me of some of Keita Takahashi’s (creator of Katamari Damacy's) work, before he worked at Namco.

TS: I think he graduated from the same university in fine arts. I think he was one year before me, or something?

GS: How interesting that you wound up working on such dark games, and he makes such light ones!

TS: (Laughs) That’s true!



Sato's Virtual Handshake sculpture

 

GS: Do you have any kind of artistic interests outside of CG?

TS: I’m not doing this much now, but I really like painting, with brush and pigment.

GS: Do you have any interest in, or training in movies?

TS: That’s a place I don’t know at all. I’ve heard a lot of things about the movie industry, but it doesn’t sound pretty to me. Doesn’t sound like a nice place to be, for me. I think it’d be nice to work for a movie if it became a blockbuster, but still, I grew up in the game industry. If somebody offered me a change to join a certain project I might be interested, but if you go to Hollywood, they don’t let you do everything from concept to storyboard to modeling. It’s also departmentalized, you have to have storyboard artists, concept artists, modelers, all separate. That’s not something I want to do.

 

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