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The Evolution Of Grasshopper: Suda Balances Social, Core, And Growth

Iconoclastic developer Goichi Suda talks Gamasutra about how his studio Grasshopper Manufacture hopes to rebound from the commercial flop Shadows of the Damned with social game development and the upcoming Lollipop Chainsaw.

[Iconoclastic developer Goichi Suda talks Gamasutra about how his studio Grasshopper Manufacture hopes to rebound from the commercial flop Shadows of the Damned with social game development and the upcoming Lollipop Chainsaw.]

A little while ago, Grasshopper Manufacture seemed like it might end up being Japan's best hope, as far as independent studios went. It had created engaging, creative games like No More Heroes and made a name for itself before leaping into a partnership with EA for Shadows of the Damned, a PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game developed by a multinational team.

Shadows of the Damned couldn't find a major audience, and Grasshopper has turned to the social games space -- which, while sensible, isn't exactly what we expected from this group of iconoclasts.

Here, Goichi "SUDA 51" Suda discusses the failure of Shadows of the Damned, the studio's need to evolve its direction in the market to stay afloat, and just how well the company has been doing at integrating Western developers into the workflow and creative process at the company.

A while ago you said you planned to be the biggest game developer in Japan. How are you tracking on that goal?

Goichi Suda: Wow, how many years ago was that? (laughs)

Probably a couple years ago.

GS: Well, we are bigger, at least, but we still need to think about where we want to go, looking at what kind of era we're in. At the moment, we're faced with two choices: the consumer market, and the social game market.

As you scale up for all of this stuff, what has been your approach to hiring people? You've had to grow quickly over a short period of time.

GS: Certainly. Well, in Japan, it's really become the norm as of late to hire on a contractor basis. That's quickly becoming the general practice in the game development community, especially.

For a while, you were also gathering big names from other companies in Japan and elsewhere. How do you decide who will fit within your culture?

GS: Well, Grasshopper is essentially a very well-mixed culture already, so it's a matter of finding people who can work well within that, who can get used to our style. We work on a great deal of different projects, so in that respect, every project tends to develop its own culture. As far as big names go, too, some of those are gone at this point, so...

I was going to ask about that. What about [Little King's Story creator Yoshiro] Kimura?

GS: Indeed, he and [Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro] Wada are not here any longer. In a way, they didn't fit into the culture after about a year of working there. It's taught us that publishing companies really are different from developers.

Each have their own position in the business, and it usually works out well then they work within those positions, but if you put someone from the publishing side into a developer position, you realize how different the two entities really are.

Somehow I didn't think that Kimura, especially, would fit, given his strong personality.

GS: (laughs) Really? Well, he did try really hard during that year-long period. It's a hard job, after all, trying to manage this huge mix of Japanese and foreign developers. He really did his best, and we're very grateful for that.

What do you think about the management approach to having a successful game business in Japan? A lot of companies have become very salaryman-oriented, making it hard for them to adjust to this rapidly-changing market.

GS: Well, it really depends on each individual team. I think we're at the end of the era where you have a team with every person working completely full-time on the project at all times -- in Japan, at least, if not the rest of the world. In Japan, at the very least, employment laws have become stricter and that's extended into the game industry as well.

So when talking about overtime and all, I think it's difficult these days in Japan to create a group where the point is to make a game in a way that goes beyond a simple job. I think the staff behind making movies or TV shows gets more preferential [treatment from regulators]. Well, is that the best way to put it?

They have more history behind them so ... [breaking] the regulations which [Grasshopper] has to follow in terms of overtime and so forth is forgiven more [in film and TV], but that isn't the case yet with games. It's more the case that the government sort of turns a blind eye to it [in film and TV]. It has a history behind it, after all. There is overtime, but that gets ignored since it's seen as part of the system, and in Hollywood that's how it works.

At the same time, though, we have staff from overseas who work well within the more regular hours, and get settled and comfortable with that culture, even as we have people who just want to keep on working until it's done. It's not a matter of which approach is better, I don't think, since we have a bit of both within the company.

I think it's also a difference between Westerners and Easterners. Japan has always had this culture of artisanship and a whole ideology revolving around that, as well. All these approaches go into game development, and it's not my position to say whether one is better than the other.


It's been interesting to see how that's shifting. You have a lot of Western people in the studio so they may not have that mentality of, for example, not leaving before the boss does, since that may make you look bad.

GS: That's true. I do think we've got room for improvement when it comes to our office environment. I get tours of Western game studios now and again, and a lot of them seem like really incredible places.

How long do you think the package retail business will remain successful or viable in the market? Some people say the social scene is going to explode, for example.

GS: You're asking me? (laughs)

Grasshopper is making more original packaged games that are intended to really appeal to Western markets than other Japanese outfits.

GS: Well, retail is definitely still strong overseas, isn't it? It's the same case in Japan as well, and I think any big change related to that in the industry is going to inherently take time to unfold. However, this is the kind of industry that can also change instantly whenever some new giant trend hits.

We've seen that already with social networking services, and you see it with the music industry very well these days, the changes it's been forced to go through. It's an industry driven by hits, and when the next giant comes along, it'll change things.

We want to be in a position where we can work with that, where we can look ahead and take action rather than stay on the tried-and-true paths of console or social or whatever. So while we can't take action on this immediately, I would like Grasshopper to be able to provide an idea of what video games are going to be like in the future, beyond packaged software and beyond social -- something that gamers haven't imagined yet. I think it'd be neat if Grasshopper could act as dynamically as that, and I hope people are willing to expect that from us.


Frog Minutes

Speaking of the music industry's evolution, the closest analog seems to be free-to-play titles. In the past, you had to buy a whole CD if you wanted the one hit song, but now you can just buy that song. While they aren't selling a lot of CDs, they're selling a lot of that one song. In games, it seems like titles where you pay for the certain parts you want are the closest thing we have, and that seems to be an area that's taking off. Have you looked at that arena?

GS: I think that as we get into social games, or start to build the basic development structure for them, we'll start to look into experimentation like that. I think that Valve has given the industry a good example of the way to go with that. They really care about their customers, they have a unique and successful distribution system, and I get the impression they always have the player's perspective in mind as they make their games. Although maybe there's nothing inherently unique to Japan in this idea, I think it'd be great if that sort of marketplace made its way over here. Team Fortress is free, right?

That, and League of Legends. That game is very popular and profitable right now. In your mind, what kind of shape would a Grasshopper social game take -- how does the studio esthetic apply to this space, which usually doesn't accept core developers much?

GS: It's a label-by-label process. Frog Minutes on iOS, even though it's a pretty small project, is the start of the approach we're taking, a sort of entrance into the space for us. It's a new kind of title for us, one with an educational aspect to it, and it'd be nice if it could turn into a new label or franchise for us. We have our core titles, and we have more family-oriented titles like Frog Minutes, and if we can build these labels, then that's a good way to go for us.


Grasshopper is taking a different approach to the West than others have, trying to make games that appeal to Westerners without pandering to them. How do you think your approach to the Western market differs from those with less success in that field?

GS: I wonder, actually. There are few things that I keep in mind. One is that, from the very start, we think about a worldwide audience -- not just the West, but Japan as well. Something that anyone can get into, that common language. Maybe it doesn't all come across to every region, but that language is still there. That's a sort of training process, because it's something you have to think about constantly, for every idea you come up with, until it becomes your baseline. You can't compartmentalize projects for Japan or the U.S. in your mind, and that's harder than it sounds.

Do you think having a multicultural staff helps with that, bringing their different viewpoints to the table?

GS: I think that certainly helps, yes. We have foreign people right up to the concept staff, not just Japanese people, and that goes for the art and level design departments too. It adds a fresh perspective that I think has helped us, just as the Japanese influence has probably helped the Westerners in our staff. I think there are a lot of cases where the two sides have helped each other to improve.

I think one mistake that's often made in these discussions is to presume that the Western ideas are the only good ones. Japanese game companies also make this mistake, forgetting about the great stuff within their own culture already that should be preserved and mixed in with Western ideologies.

GS: I agree with that, definitely. Every country has its own culture, and the games each one makes might be different, but perhaps nations don't play as much of a role in this as people think. This industry is about more than two-billion-yen ($25 million dollar) projects, and it's not a two-horse field between huge projects and everything else, like social network games.

It's about choosing the right ideas for the right project instead of choosing a direction and sticking with it, like a train on the rails. So why do you think Shadows of the Damned didn't have the success that everyone expected? I don't understand why, because there's nothing especially wrong with it -- there's no reason it shouldn't sell more.

GS: I think there are several conditions a new IP has to meet in order to succeed, and we just didn't meet them. You really need a lot of power, a big push on your side, in order to make a new IP succeed these days. I can certainly understand why it's more important for a title like Battlefield 3 to be successful, too.

Working with Digital Reality; how has that collaboration been, being in the supervisor role? Will you do more of that in the future?

GS: It's on a title-by-title basis. Work on Sine Mora is being handled over there, with the visuals and sound being done by Grasshopper. That sort of structure. For Black Knight Sword, meanwhile, we're the developers. So it depends on the collaboration.


Lollipop Chainsaw

Lollipop Chainsaw is a collaboration with a Hollywood writer. A lot of those haven't been successful, since they often don't know much about games, which makes them difficult to work with. Why did you go with that approach, and how has it been working out?

GS: Well, it was Warner's suggestion to start out with, and James Gunn... He's a director who came from some really interesting roots. He really knows his stuff when it comes to the zombie genre, and I think it's been going really well. He's been really proactive to work with us throughout the process. We've been holding lots of videoconferences and so forth.

I'm not writing the script in this game, because I thought that we both collaborated on it, the things that make our writing unique would clash with each other. He has the final judgment in story matters, and the system is set up clearly in that way, which I think is an important step toward making this really work.

Hopefully that will go well. When I see Hollywood writers involved and I see the final product, well, it doesn't take a Hollywood writer to come up with "girl fighting zombies." We already have Oneechanbara.

GS: I agree, and I think this will turn out a lot more interesting than that. We haven't announced it yet, but there's a well-known Japanese director handling a lot of the cutscene work in the game. That's something we need to keep secret for the time being. So there's two directors from these two different countries, which I think is another neat thing about the project.

I've never seen anyone collaborate with Takashi Miike yet. Someone should do that sometime.

GS: Ah, well Miike is pretty busy, so... He has a cameo in No More Heroes 2, though, did you know that?

I didn't.

GS: Well, he's in there, although it didn't get reported on much. He does the voiceover as well. Nobody's asked about that apart from you. It's surprising how few people know about that.

His Gozu is one of my favorite movies.

GS: I had Miike sign my copy of Gozu.

Well, I'm a little jealous.

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