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?

It's the Gameplay, of Course

"Well, it's hard to give an exact reason for why gamers have supported Disgaea for such a long period of time," Niikawa says, when asked. "However, I think part of it comes down to the high-quality gameplay, which encourages and rewards deep, low-level play." Disgaea's gameplay is both complex and flexible -- that's the key to its success in a nutshell, really. It's not an average turn-based tactical franchise; it's one that allows players to play how they want to, with a slew of tactical options, opportunities to go off the beaten track, and reconfigure their party or their strategy on the fly.

Attracting New Fans

There's a flipside to being so deep and involved -- as its fan base ages, they don't have the time to devote to Disgaea anymore. Attracting new fans is another part of its success. "The impression I get is that the number of fans who have played through all the games starting with the first one is declining; however, they're being replaced by new people constantly getting into the series. As a result, it seems like there's always been the same ratio of new players versus series veterans for each game," Niikawa says. "The feeling I have is that maybe about 20 percent of the people that purchase Disgaea each time are new players. That same percentage drops out of the series with each game, and the new people make up for that."

So What Reels Them in?

"The way we think about it is that it's really important that in each game, we provide as much of the sort of content that only we can produce as possible," says Niikawa.
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.

But... It's Only 80 Percent Ridiculous

In fact, this "ridiculous" character has a very sensible basis: When creating new games in the franchise, says Niikawa, "I think about things like what we can do to please our customers or make them laugh." When I ask him if the story reflects his sense of humor, he responds, "Well, I'd say about half of it does," and laughs. So it's not just about pleasing himself: it's about pleasing players. But things can't become unbalanced, he says, or it won't work. "Basically, I think it's fine to have the story be ridiculous, but I also have a respect for the basic things any story needs to have -- parts that emotionally move the player and makes the game stick around in their hearts. Having it be 100 percent ridiculous would get boring, so it's important that you keep a sort of balance like that. It's about 80 percent ridiculous, though." And when it comes to keeping the series appealing -- and ridiculous -- "the characters help a lot, too, I think," he says.

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