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The secrets of Disgaea's decade-long success
Gamasutra speaks to Sohei Niikawa, the creator of the cult-hit strategy franchise, which marks its 10-year anniversary in 2013, about what he has done to keep reeling players in for all these years.
Though he originally planned to be an archeologist, Sohei Niikawa played Final Fantasy V, and that was it -- he wanted to make video games. He set aside his dreams of exploring ancient ruins, and set about building them instead. Niikawa founded Nippon Ichi Software, which branched out into the U.S. on the strength of a single title, Disgaea -- a surprise cult hit on its Western release, via Atlus, in 2003. Since then, Niikawa has managed to turn the niche it mind -- turn-based strategy RPGs -- into a perpetual success. This year, Disgaea -- which remains the company's biggest franchise -- turns 10. According to Niikawa, who also serves as the series' producer and writer, as well as being the president of the company, Disgaea now sells as well in the West as it does in Japan. How has his company managed to turn the anime-inflected, stat-driven franchise into an enduring cult hit?
In other words, only Disgaea is Disgaea. Even if it looks superficially similar to other games -- say, Final Fantasy Tactics and a host of other grid-based titles -- it's still unmistakably itself.
This is the cornerstone of the company's strategy for survival, says Niikawa. "If we were just doing what other companies are, there's no reason for us to be around; it wouldn't be necessary at all for us to exist. Instead, we pushed ourselves to provide games that only NIS could produce, and that led to the creation of games like Disgaea."
"We try our hardest to put in all this really ridiculous stuff, the kinds of things other companies would never think of doing, and I think that's one of the biggest trademarks of our company."
When Niikawa says "ridiculous," he is, of course, talking about its farcical story. One of the main features of the franchise is the "Prinny," a human soul trapped, in the afterlife, in the form of an explosive peg-legged penguin -- a perpetual fall-guy for any and all of the series' deranged heroes and villains. But he's also talking about its gameplay -- you can stack characters on the battlefield like boxes, or do tens of millions of points of damage with a single attack.