At the 2004 Tokyo Game Show held late last month, the focus was on the consumers - the tickets are cheap, the crowds are large, and the developers are, by and large, hidden away from the public eye. But if one looks hard enough, they can be spotted, usually behind sunglasses, gazing in proud satisfaction as people enjoy the products they have on display.
During the show, we spoke to a few key Japanese game developers from Sony Computer Entertainment, Konami, Koei and Sega Sammy about their thoughts on game development, the new wave of handheld consoles, and the methodology of attracting various markets in an era where the mainstream is the golden treasure (and perhaps a Pandora's Box).
We've presented the conversations, previously edited down for use on Gamasutra and in Game Developer magazine, in an uncensored form. Hopefully, they'll help you better understand the state of Japanese game development, and what some of the leading Japanese creators think about the state of the industry and the creative process that goes into making video games.
[In each interview, 'GS' stands for the Gamasutra questioners, and the respondent is described by their initials, such as 'NN' for Nobuya Nakazato.]
Konami's Nobuya Nakazato
Nobuya Nakazato is a producer at Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, Inc, and is currently responsible for Shin Contra (Neo Contra in the U.S.). His past games include Contra: Shattered Soldiers, Contra III, Contra: Hard Corps, and Rocket Knight Adventures.
GS: What is it like to make a game with 2D gameplay in this 3D world, and how did you avoid the pressure to make a fully 3D game?
NN: I myself really liked the games from the Famicom days, because they focused on gameplay over graphics. Graphically intensive games are still selling well on the market now, but in 10 years time, will you still be able to say that those were the best games? The game market is going to be in trouble unless we look towards the long term and reorient ourselves towards what makes games fun to play.
We did come up with a 3D-looking game, but when brainstorming for the 'next Contra Project' we were mostly just looking for more freedom of play, with more opportunity for tactics. So the 3D visuals resulted naturally from that.
GS: Contra is known for its high level of difficulty. How do you plan for this, and gauge what level of play the game will require? Are you purposefully singling out a certain type of player?
NN: Regular action games can be beaten just by guts and stamina; you can just keep on playing through to the end. That's normal these days. But with Contra, you have to really think about what you're doing, and challenge it over and over in order to master your skills. The more that you try, the more reward you get for your efforts.
So there are those games that are easier to pick up, but have less reward for hardcore players. This is not the Contra model. Contra is harder to get into, but gives you a great sense of satisfaction if you beat it. I think that in the gaming market, the consumers will soon get fed up with that easier style, and will eventually refocus on what a true action game is.
GS: Do you and Konami consider the hardcore market to be valuable?
NN: Yes. Speaking specifically about the Japanese market, it has really focused on the mainstream since the PlayStation era. I think that was a good model for a while, as the publishers and developers were able to lure in the 'light' users.
But the hardcore gamers were being somewhat disenfranchised in this situation. The game developers were all focusing on the high-end graphics, and maximizing the hardware, and the 'light' users dominated the japanese market. They got used to high-quality cinematics, and no longer found them impressive, so started searching for other means of entertainment. They kind of left the game market.
Casual gamers are important too, but I think that hardcore gamers should be the driving force to lead the market.
GS: The older Contras had very campy story sequences, and with this game you seem to be trying to go back to that unique style, as opposed to the more serious storyline of Shattered Soldiers. Why is this?
NN: Of course Contra is mainly an action game, so action takes precedence over story. With the original Contra in the '80s, it was really easy to just have a simple story about a war hero or something of that nature. But depicting realistic war is against the current world scene, I think. We want to create a kind of fighting that people can think is 'cool', and simply laugh about, not realistic death.
GS: Contra: Legacy of War was widely regarded as a departure from the series - how did you get Contra back on track with Shattered Soldiers?
NN: First of all, I just want to say that I had nothing to do with Legacy! But I wasn't really trying to 'return' to the Contra style per se. I was just thinking of what should come next from the SNES and Genesis Contras that I created myself, and Shattered Soldier came from that.
GS: What was your motivation for going for a more comical style of violence?
NN: Well, it's not comical in the classical sense, but more like taking these superhuman characters and kind of overwhelming you with the ridiculousness of their situation. We push it over the top so that you have to laugh. Humans wouldn't perform these kinds of actions. I just want the game to be enjoyable, free of the issues involved with realistic depiction of violence.
GS: In America, violence is a major point of contention for game developers and consumers alike. How do you see the role of violence in games in Japan?
NN: Violence, while it's certainly not a good thing, is something you can't hide from or ignore. It exists in our society. The fact is that violence generates the energy for the next generation of games, too. You have to live with violence. To restrict violence and to weed it out of society is really unhealthy, because it's a part of life.
GS: Because then people have an unrealistic view of the world?
Konami's Akira Yamaoka
Akira Yamaoka is the producer and sound creator for the Silent Hill series at Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo. His other credited games include Contra: Shattered Soldiers and DDR Max 2, as well as Dance Dance Revolution 7th Mix.
GS: Silent Hill is known for creating an unusually powerful emotional response in players. How do you construct this?
AY: Since this is a horror game, the first thing I thought about was what I wanted to make the users feel - I threw out anything that didn't fit that idea.
GS: You seem to be taking a different tactic with your scaring 'style' in these games. What is your methodology?
AY: Well I covered it slightly before, but it's really all about appealing to the user's feelings. Of course we have some elements that are just there for shock value, but the story - the length of it - should ideally draw the users in and scare or stimulate them through this involvement.
GS: I think sound plays a big part. What are your feelings about music in games, and do you tend to add music to a scene, or come up with a scenario idea first?
AY: It depends. Sometimes we make the sound first and construct the scene around it, or we'll have the graphics first and add the sound later. Silent Hill is like a human drama, so of course the sound and music is very important. There are a lot of games that use music just as a background; sound over a picture. I like the music to be able to stand on its own, yet affect the player. I can't really tell you how to do it effectively though (laughter).
GS: What is the team's goal with the games? Is it an interesting narrative style, trying to scare, or just make people feel something?
AY: The market for videogames is still expanding, such as the DS hardware, but Silent Hill is not really targeted at kids. That way, we can put in a difficult story, more of a human drama. The main thing we want to do is to entertain - for adults specifically.
GS: You seem to use a lot of cinematic techniques in Silent Hill. What do you think game companies can learn from film?
AY: Well there are certainly a lot of things - camerawork, for example. But that's obvious. I think that we can also take something from the flow of the presentation; the segues between interactive and non-interactive parts, from when you play to when you don't. There's a lot that we can learn from the way film is edited.
GS: Directors sometimes call themselves auteurs when they create signature works. Do you think of yourself as an artist?
AY: I don't really consider myself an artist - maybe more of a creator. I feel like artists are generally limited to one style of project. Of course, right now I'm making Silent Hill games, but I feel like I can make a game that would make people laugh, if I wanted to. I am more interested in the concept of creating emotion within games than I am with artistry or horror specifically.
GS: So what scares you?
AY: (laughter) Hmm, what would that be? Meeting someone whom I don't understand even after seeing them and talking to them.
GS: Did you take some elements of this and put them into Silent Hill? There seem to be some people in the game that are unintelligible and in some way 'off'.
AY: Well probably everyone has that fear - it's a pretty standard one. For example, if you're sitting at home normally, and you hear something like the "BAAAAN" droning noise of road construction… If you hear a sound that's outside the scope of your daily existence, it will naturally give you an odd feeling. So, the sounds in the game work in much the same way.
GS: Where do you see survival horror going in the next few years?
AY: I think that games like Resident Evil, Siren and Silent Hill are totally different. They're all within the survival horror genre, but if you look at the methods of each, you'll find that they're different. I think the span of the genre will just get wider. Resident Evil, for instance, is very action-oriented, Siren is very influenced by Japanese horror, very Japanese-specific in style. Silent Hill is more like a suspense-thriller, or a human drama, as I said before... maybe you can't even really call it horror. So I think that the genre of horror will just keep widening, and branching in these different directions. This should be good for the market, too.
GS: In Silent Hill 4: The Room, the main character was a bit unstable and introspective. How do you get an audience to sympathize with such a person?
AY: Yeah, we did have some concern with that… Above all, the first thing we wanted to do was to make sure that the players themselves would be able to understand the situation and what to do. So if we can do that successfully, I think we can allow the main character to be a bit introverted, especially since we tried to give some background as to why he was that way.
GS: Silent Hill appeals to women - how did you manage this? Did you do it on purpose?
AY: True, in Japan there are a lot of female players, and we've gotten feedback from them as well. Of course, when we first made the game, we didn't know who it would appeal to, but once we got the feedback, we started to make the riddles and stories with a consciousness that women were playing.
GS: How do you do this? And do you have women on your team?
AY: Yeah, actually we do have some, and of course we consider things that female players would like for the telling of the story. It seems that they appreciate the story more than the male players do. We also make sure that the level of action is such that anyone can play it.
GS: What games do you play yourself?
first person shooters. I'm waiting for Half-Life 2!
Koei's Takazumi Tomoike
Takazumi Tomoike is an Executive Officer of Koei's Software Department 4. He is currently heading the company's PlayStation Portable projects. He has also worked on console games for the company, such as the Sengoku Musou (Dynasty Warriors) series and Winback.
GS: Koei is developing Sengoku Musou games for both the PSP and the DS. How different are they?
TT: They're both totally different. The PSP game is a port of the PS2 version, but the DS game is going to be made in a different way. At this point, we can't talk about the DS version, but the PSP version was just finished.
For the PSP version, we know that people won't be satisfied with just a port from the PlayStation 2. People are used to playing games on their cellphones, so we had to make something that would be more entertaining for a short time. We made the game around that kind of theme.
GS: Were there any issues with the port?
Dynasty Warriors 4
TT: There were many problems. For instance, you can't use the exact same models. With the specs, it should work the same as it does in the PS2, but on this hardware it doesn't. So we had various problems like this. We also had problems with the library that Sony gave us. There are still quite a few bugs, and they haven't fixed them yet.
GS: Of the two handhelds, which are you most interested in?
TT: It's hard to say, since I'm not working on any DS titles. But the PSP version's team is Omega Force, the same team that made the whole Dynasty Warriors series, and the DS team is going to be totally different. That's all I can say.
GS: What are your impressions of the PSP in general? How does it compare to the PS2 in terms of power?
TT: Comparing it to the PS2… well, since it's a portable system, it's like a simplified version of the PS2. Our development model for PSP is that it's a portable system, and mobile like cellphones. With the PS2, you can play games at home for as many hours as you like. But we consider the PSP a mobile device, so people can play for a short time, then stop whenever they want.
GS: How easy is it to port a game straight from the PS2 to the PSP?
TT: Of course, ports are easier than making brand new games, but that's not to say that it's easy. The graphics make it tough. The PSP can't keep the framerate high enough. We like to keep the framerate at 60 fps for the PS2, but you can't do the same with PSP. It's very difficult to get it that fast with the lower polygon models. So, in order to get it (Sengoku Musou) fast enough, we lowered the polygon count of the models, and broke up the stage maps.
GS: How long has the game been in development for the PSP?
TT: About half a year. We got the development kit six months ago, and started immediately.
GS: Which game is it specifically based on?
TT: Dynasty Warriors 4.
Koei's Yoshiki Sugiyama
Yoshiki Sugiyama is an Executive Officer in Software Department 2 at Koei. He is currently heading the company's Nintendo DS projects.
GS: So you are working on Sengoku Musou for the DS?
YS: The DS version of Sengoku Musou isn't done - it's still in development so we can't talk about it yet. But we're also making a Mahjong competition game, and a simulation title. The Mahjong game will be our launch title, but Sengoku Musou is planned for Q2 of next year.
GS: what's it like to develop for DS?
YS: Because of the two screens, there are lots of new ways you can use the DS. There are lots of possibilities, so we had to think about this during development.
GS: Have you come up against any hardware limitations? Were there any difficulties in development?
YS: Well, the 3D memory isn't very good, so we can't remake PS2 versions like you can with the PSP. Therefore we're developing entirely new games, more reliant on 2D.
GS: Do you find the DS easy to work with?
YS: Hmm, is it tough? We haven't finished development on any of the DS games yet, so I can't really say, but it's not so hard to use so far.
GS: Are the DS libraries easy to work with?
YS: Yeah, totally fine. The library Nintendo provided allows us to do various things, so we're satisfied.
GS: Which games are you planning to put out on PSP, and which for DS? How are you deciding?
YS: We don't really know the targets yet, since they are both new systems, so we're making the same franchises for both, in the interest of getting games out quickly for both.
GS: Have you worked with both of the new handhelds?
YS: Yes, I have development experience with both.
GS: Which is easier to develop for?
YS: (nervous laughter) Uh…which is easier? You mean, right now? Well it's not really a question of which is easier to develop for - the DS environment is more prepared, so it's easier to release games on it at this stage.
GS: You said that you're releasing the same franchises on both systems. Are you using similar designs, or totally different?
YS: The games aren't the same, just the titles. It's the same lineup, but the games themselves are totally different for each platform. The PSP version of Sengoku Musou is close to the PS2 version, for instance. The DS can't do the higher quality graphics, so the 3D models are pretty tough. As a result we decided to make a game that's simpler looking, and plays simpler too, when compared to the PS2 version.
GS: Are you using totally new game resources for the DS version?
YS: Well, we could re-use art and maps for my version of Sengoku Musou, so it was easier than starting from scratch.
GS: Would people want to get both versions if they had both systems?
YS: Yeah, since they're totally different.
Konami's Yasumi Takase
Yasumi Takase is a director in KCET's production division. He is responsible for the recent console versions of the Dance Dance Revolution series, and has recently been working on the EyeToy-compatible PlayStation 2 DDR title Dance Dance Revolution Extreme.
GS: How do you go about developing games that require physical motion on the part of the player? What challenges do you face?
Well, of course, we wanted to make a game that makes moving your
body fun. In normal character games, moving the character around
is the fun part, but we wanted to make a game that moves you instead.
At the beginning, we were very nervous about whether or not players would actually want to move their bodies.
GS: How did you overcome that?
YT: We figured it out, just wait for the release and see!
GS: Is your market the same as normal arcade gamers, or somewhat different?
YT: Yes and no (since this is the home consumer version). Of course, some arcade gamers play it, but there are also those who only play at home.
GS: DDR seems to attract a lot of female players - is this intentional?
YT: Not specifically, but with the two dance pads in the arcades, the original development team was hoping that couples would play together.
GS: Was it your intention to slim down the gaming public (by including diet modes), or was it more for a diversion?
YT: Yeah, not at first - at first it was just for fun, but if people use the game to get thinner, that's great too! I guess maybe some people do that now.
GS: This is also the first time that DDR has involved the EyeToy (in a video-capturing role). How did that partnership begin?
YT: Well, the EyeToy is just another piece of hardware, so we didn't work with the EyeToy team specifically. Sony made it and said that anyone could use it if they wanted to, so that's what we did.
GS: When you first saw the EyeToy, did you think of bringing it into DDR?
YT: Well of course since it's a device designed for body movement, we saw the connection. DDR is the type of game where you want to show off your moves. You can use the camera to capture movies while you play, so we were pretty excited about that.
GS: Did you have to think any differently about developing for the EyeToy, compared to what you are used to?
YT: The hardest part was pretty much just that we hadn't used the hardware before. We had to think carefully about what it could do, and what we could allow it to do without letting it overwhelm the DDR aspect. So it wasn't really difficult to implement, the issue was balancing it.
You know, DDR is played with your feet, and we figured the player's brain would get confused if we used the EyeToy too intensively. It would be too hard.
GS: So how do you gauge difficulty for DDR? Because it seems to have great structure and learning curve.
YT: Basically just trial-and-error, and experience really! Mostly this was done by the original arcade team. In terms of making the game difficult or easy enough for all players, originally they tried to make the machine gauge the ability of the player, but it didn't quite work out. So they set some levels, and tried them out.
GS: Do you test out the levels yourselves?
YT: Uh… sometimes (laughter)!
GS: Where do you think movement games will go in the future, say five years from now?
YT: By now it's been six years since Dance Dance Revolution first came out - 1998, I think. Since DDR has been going strong for six years, I imagine that in five years it will be the same. But of course with the evolution of technology, with hardware like the EyeToy, we think it's necessary to make DDR evolve. So whatever new appropriate hardware comes up, we'll use it.
GS: What kind of new technologies would you like to bring into DDR?
YT: Well if you've got any good ideas, let me know!
GS: How about pairing DDR with Para Para Paradise?
YT: Might be too tough, right? But we've thought about things like that. The first EyeToy games were really simple, which makes sense, because everyone needs to be able to figure it out. But as time goes on, use of the technology gets more complex. So we're not sure where it's going just now.
And of course, the complexity of the foot movements in DDR has been evolving as time goes on, which would make something like that even harder to integrate at this stage.
GS: This is the first major 3rd party title to integrate the EyeToy in Japan, what advice would you give to other companies creating games for the EyeToy?
YT: Well certainly there are some difficult aspects… the DDR pad is a lot more responsive to input than the EyeToy is. But it does have a lot of potential. This is the first time you can really get the user inside of the game. I think that I can really make a game that will surprise people…and actually I'm open to ideas from other developer as well.
GS: How difficult was it to incorporate the interface?
YT: Since our game isn't just about the EyeToy, we focused a bit more on the traditional parts first. Since the main draw of DDR is the pad, it wasn't too hard to integrate the EyeToy. But the interface was a kind of difficult, because the control over the sensors is too sensitive. The interface isn't as transparent as the pad, which has the arrows already on it.
GS: How did playtesting fit into your development process?
YT: Basically we just tried things, then would test if they were fun or not. If it wasn't fun, we had to change it. After all, it's a body movement game… so it's somewhat different from a normal game with a pad. So it's harder to tell what's fun or not for the users, because the standard hasn't been set. We don't know what movements can and can't be done until we test it.
GS: DDR is a game where you see what's happening on the screen, and it's very clear what you have to do. Did you create the EyeToy portion using a similar model?
YT: It should be very clear. We'll use normal arrows and everything.
GS: What games are you playing now?
YT: These days I'm not really playing much… test-playing my own game, I guess? Does that count? I actually like the testing more than the development!
GS: Yeah, it must be fun to try out your own work.
Translator: Well, it's probably not that fun to play your own game…
Hey, it is fun! What are you making me say?
Sega's Yuji Naka
Yuji Naka is an R&D creative officer for Sega Sammy, heading up the Sonic Team division. He is the creator of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, and is currently working on a girlfriend management simulation launch title for the Nintendo DS, by the U.S. name Feel the Magic XY/XX.
(Note: The game was shown in video form only, with players frantically rubbing their stylus on the DS, which was covered with a thick mosaic, purposefully reminiscent of the censorship in Japanese pornography.)
GS: Why did you use the mosaic?
YN: Because Nintendo said we couldn't bring it to the show! Nintendo is officially announcing the DS on October 7th, and they don't want us even to show the hardware, so we blurred it.
GS: Yeah, kind of looks like you were making a joke.
YN: Yep. But you know the DS is actually really a fun system.
GS: Is it difficult to develop DS games?
YN: Oh, it's easy. It's a very interesting piece of hardware. The touch pad is really new though, and this game also uses the microphone, so that was a small challenge.
GS: How do you use the microphone?
YN: There's a scene where there are some candles around, and if you blow on the touch panel, they'll blow out. It's pretty fun! By blowing, you can also move yachts and things. There's really a lot you can do; with the touch panel you can point, or rub, or draw things, so there's a lot of room for entertainment, I think.
GS: Which is more interesting to you, DS or PSP?
YN: Well naturally both have their own good points… the DS has the touch panel of course, and the PSP has a nice, wide screen, the wireless LAN and high specs, so each has it's place, I think.
GS: I hear that you have a lot of women in the team?
YN: About half of the team is female. This game seems like it will be pretty popular with girls as well. It's kind of, how shall I say, naughty. Erotic, maybe. So of course girls love it!
Sony's Fumito Ueda
Fumito Ueda is a product manager at Sony Computer Entertainment, and directed the critically acclaimed ICO for the same company. He is currently working on an action game by the Japanese name of Wanda to Kyozou (also known as Wanda And The Colossus in the West).
GS: When did you first start thinking of making games?
FU: I didn't originally intend to make games per se, but in middle school I had various interests, including movies and games, and when I saw something I liked, I thought I'd like to make something like that of my own. But it wasn't that I wanted to make a game from the beginning - just something that would make people happy.
GS: What kind of games did you play in middle school?
FU: Normal Famicom games. Then I didn't have time to play for a while, but in college I played games on the Amiga, and maybe some arcade titles.
GS: What games specifically do you like?
GS: Do you still play games these days?
GS: What kind?
FU: Recently, hmmm…I've played Prince of Persia and Katamari Damashii.
GS: What did you think of the ending? It's kind of sad once you've gathered everything up.
FU: Oh, I haven't seen the end of it yet! (laughter)
GS: I wonder what kind of person it was who created ICO.
FU: The way I'm different from a normal producer, or a normal person, is that I really like technology, for example graphics technology and computer technology. So I feel like I can find a good balanced way to express what I want to do, within the limits of the technology. No matter what size world I want to create, I can do it, if I think about the constraints of the console, like the PS2.
GS: Why did you name the main character Wanda?
FU: Well Wanda, W-A-N-D-A, is kind of a play on words, because it also means wander, which you do a lot of in this game.
(Note: in Japanese, Wanda also has the same pronunciation as both 'wander' and 'wonder.')
GS: The Wanda to Kyozou music was done by Kou Ohtani. Why did you choose him?
FU: ICO's composer was (female composer) Michiru Ohshima, and I didn't want to create the same image for this game. Aside from that, ICO was a game that both male and female players could enjoy equally. But I think this is a game that male players will enjoy more. So I chose a male composer.
GS: Do you like music?
FU: Of course.
GS: What kind?
FU: I mostly listen to movie soundtracks.
GS: What's your favorite movie then?
FU: Kind of tough, since I don't rank them in my head. But recently, I liked Spiderman 2 and Gladiator.
GS: What was the inspiration for the graphical style?
FU: The concept is to express giant scale comparative to the player perspective, but within the scope of realistic experience for the users. Take a block, for example - in normal games, the size of a block tends to appear much bigger than it would in reality. But in this game, it's a believable size to involve you in the world.
GS: How can you meet these sort of sentimental graphics with an action game?
FU: Well perhaps they're a bit lonely looking now, but it's not done yet. I think that once the game is more complete, and we put in more greenery and such, it should be a bit livelier. But I don't think that a graphical sadness is out of place in an action game, and really that wasn't exactly our intention to begin with.
GS: Why are you making Wanda an action game?
FU: Because I like them. No real other reason. Well, I guess also, since the last game was very quiet and peaceful, I wanted to do something different, even though it did have some fighting elements.
With Wanda to Kyozou, I wanted to create a firm-feeling environment, so the design was very dense. An action game seemed to flow naturally from what I was doing.
GS: What is your dream?
FU: Hmm, I have a lot of them.
GS: For example?
FU: Some day I want something that I have created to make a large group of people feel something. That would be interesting.
This series of interviews featured interview assistance from Tim Rogers, Jamil Moledina and Yukiko Miyajima Grove, and translation help from Yukiko Miyajima Grove and Tim Rogers - thanks to all.