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Yoshiki Okamoto: Japan's Game Maverick Speaks

Game Republic (Folklore) founder Yoshiki Okamoto is a game development legend, having created titles such as Time Pilot, 1942, and Street Fighter II - and Gamasutra has a rare interview with the Capcom veteran on the biz in 2008.

Yoshiki Okamoto is a luminary of the Japanese gaming industry. He got his start in the '80s at Konami, producing arcade classics Gyruss and Time Pilot, before moving to Capcom to work on such hits as 1942, Street Fighter II and Resident Evil.

In 2004, Okamoto left Capcom and founded his own development studio, Game Republic, which has since produced a number of games, principally on behalf of Sony -- the Genji series for PS2 and PS3, Brave Story: New Traveler for PSP and Folklore for PS3 comprising the lion's share of the company's output.

Now, as the company moves forward into the mature next-gen market with a contract with Brash Entertainment on a Hollywood movie licensed title, Okamoto discusses his dissatisfaction with Game Republic's output up till now.

Okamoto was joined in this discussion by Shinichiro Kajitani, executive vice president of Game Republic. The two confirmed to Gamasutra that the company is working on its own, internal engine, but was hesitant to give any details.

For even more insights into this iconoclastic developer and his views on the state of the industry in 2008, keep reading.

Christian Nutt: It's been a few years since Game Republic formed. Could you tell us how things have been going with the company?

Yoshiki Okamoto: I'd say that from the beginning, there's been a definite direction we've wanted the company to grow in, and we've pursued that. We've been trying to grow in a variety of ways, from the people we've got working for us, to the sorts of games we make, and the quality of our finished products.

But rather than focus on these elements individually, we've always tried to make them serve the bigger picture. So, for example, just talking about personnel, we currently have 280 employees and should have over 300 after April. When we got started, we considered scenarios where we'd have 300 people working for us by this point, but we also imagined what the situation would be like with as many as 500 or as few as 100 employees.

In the big picture then, I'd say we're a little below where I'd like us to be. This is true both for the quality of the games we're making, and for the size of the company. Considering the three scenarios I mentioned above, we're really close to what I'd call my average expectations, but still coming up a bit short on the whole. Still, we're definitely well within the range of where I feel we should be.

CN: You've had the chance to work with Microsoft and Sony on different titles. Do you think working with first-party companies is the best situation for your company, or are you looking for lots of different opportunities?

YO: Heh. Do you want the honest answer, or the polite one?

CN: Well, honesty's always the best policy.

YO: Being totally honest here isn't easy. I don't really want to bad mouth Capcom, or anything. (Laughing) I went independent right around the time the new hardware started appearing. In times like that, first party companies are eager to get good software for their systems, and are also willing to pay the most.

Now though, when the consoles are really starting to become established, people can see what's worked and what hasn't, what console is on top and how likely that situation is to change. In this sort of environment, it's the third-party companies who most want to get in on the action.

So, it basically follows the demands of the gaming market. Being independent means that at a given time, we're hoping to work with the companies most eager to get good games on the market, and that have the funding to back that desire up.


CN: You worked on the title Dark Mist for the PlayStation Network. Do you think downloadable games are a good place to work, or do you want to continue working on high-level boxed games? How do you view the market for the two different formats?

YO: Well, the number of downloadable games being made fluctuates based on what publishers want. We really received a lot of help from SCE when our company was getting on its feet. We might feel a game like Dark Mist won't be the most profitable choice for downloadable content, or even all that necessary due to the slow PS3 hardware sales. We're happy to make it for them though, because of what they've done for us.

CN: It's an interesting title because it combines aspects of shooting games as well as dungeon RPGs. Those types of shooters seem to have gotten very popular for downloadable games. What are your thoughts on the genre?

YO: From my own personal perspective as a gamer, I'm not all that interested in them.

CN: Obviously, it's good to make games that satisfy the market. Is that what you try to do when creating games for your company? Do you make games that inspire you, or games you think will become popular?

YO: Honestly, it's a bit of both. This is actually sort of difficult to express. The companies that hire us tell us what sort of game they'd like us to make, but it might not be something that's in high demand from a market standpoint. So no, we don't necessarily take on work based on what might be popular.

However, publishers like Sony may ask us to make a shooting game, another company to make them a racing game, and a third company to make an action game. The money spent on all those games in total is Sony's way of trying to meet the demands of the market. The games we make may not meet the demands of the market on their own, but they may still be necessary. Sony might feel they need to come out with a certain kind of game only because they know the competitor has plans to do the same.

On the whole, those sorts of things don't have much to do with us. We understand that as a developer, we're sort of one cog in a larger machine. So we don't usually tell the companies who hire us that we want to make a different sort of game than they'd planned. We're glad to have their business, after all, and in many cases they've helped us out in the past. I don't feel we've properly paid these people back yet, but I hope we become able to someday.

Game Republic's Every Party

CN: You also had some work from Microsoft at the beginning of the Xbox 360 lifespan with Every Party. How do you feel about that relationship now?

YO: Actually, we're not involved in any projects with Microsoft at the moment. For Microsoft Japan, I think the market has been even a bit worse than they were hoping, so their strategy now is to sell as many consoles as possible. It's also assumed that RPGs are what's needed to expand the Japanese 360 market. That genre isn't really my specialty, so we've put things on hold with them for the time being.


CN: As a company, do you focus on the Japanese market, or are you focusing on more of a global market with your titles?

YO: I definitely keep an eye on the global market myself. However, as a company, Game Republic's focus has to follow suit with the needs of the publishers that hire us. We're aware that America has the biggest market, that Europe is the second largest, and that the Japanese market is actually really small. But when we work with Japanese companies, we're usually asked to develop games that will sell well in Japan, and we have to respond accordingly.

CN: Was Folklore originally made for the global market, or was it a title Sony intended for the domestic market in Japan?

YO: I think it was designed from the start as a game to be sold internationally.

CN: The American players I've talked to have really seemed to like it. Have you been satisfied with the success of the game?

YO: There were a number of problems with the timing of the release, so no, I wasn't that satisfied with how it turned out. This might be me being selfish, but I really wish we'd had more time for development. Also, the Sixaxis didn't have rumble functionality while we were working on the game.

But then, shortly after we'd released it, the DualShock 3 came out with both rumble and motion-sensitivity. Until then, we'd been assured the controller would never have rumble. If we'd known from the start that rumble would be possible, it would've affected the development process.

The controller would have shaken when you got hit during battle, or rattled if you stepped in a trap and then quit as soon as you got yourself out of it. There are all sorts of things we could've added in.

But we were told we'd only have the Sixaxis, so those ideas got left out. Then, at the last moment, they told us we could add in some rumble features if we liked. And the feeling was sort of like, "Really? At this point? Okay, I guess we will." It was a development filled with a lot of nagging quirks like that. The problems boiled down to poor timing, I think.

Yukiko Miyajima Grové: So then, Sony isn't very forthcoming with information like that?

YO: Not at all. I mean, it's natural that they want their products released under the best circumstances, and we can only go by what they tell us. We'd love them to give us any information they can a bit early, but they don't play favorites. Of course, there's always the internet. (Laughs)

If they let us in on some secret a day before they announced it, we couldn't do anything about it anyway. But sometimes, looking at the net, you can find these things out ahead of time.


CN: Game Republic has made a lot of interesting games, but it hasn't been quite as successful a company as I'd thought it would be.

YO: From the beginning, we planned for these first three years to be a time to focus mainly on growing the company -- to increase the number of people working for us, and the scale of the company in general. This has meant having to hire a lot of young employees, many of whom lacked experience in the industry.

They might not be ready to form development teams, but we needed them nonetheless. Like, we might lack scenario planners, but have an opportunity to hire programmers, and we have to go for it. Our goal was to try and hire anybody we thought could be of use in the future, and that's really taken these first three years.

During the next three, the aim is to really improve the quality of the products we turn out -- to really succeed in this regard. Like, if we can get people to invest in our company now, and if we work hard at this, then by years four, five, and six we'll start being able to make quality games. In the seventh, eighth, and ninth years, the goal will be maintaining that quality.

The human resources we've gathered by that point will allow us to start cutting our operating costs. It's generally understood in the [Japanese] market today that a company can start producing interesting games in its fourth, fifth, and sixth years, but still not turn much of a profit. The company is supposed to start making money in years seven through nine, and then those profits can be shared by all the employees. So it's sort of a nine year plan we're on.

Yuki: How old is the company now?

YO: This is our fourth year. We're about four and a half years old now.

CN: Do you think you can give an honest estimation on the quality of the games you've made so far?

YO: As unfortunate as it is, I haven't been happy with them at all. I feel like in each case something's prevented us from putting what I'd consider to be the final touches on the games. A lot of the games we've made so far have been launch titles.

Whenever you're trying to get a game finished to coincide with a console launch, you're bound to run into a few development snags, and you'll always wish you had a little more time. These companies we were indebted to needed someone to be part of that first bloody charge though, so I was like "okay, we'll do it." As a developer though, it's a little...

YMG: It's sort of like being part of a suicide mission?

(laughter from all)

YO: Yeah, our "strike force" hasn't stood much of a chance, so far. Still, this is sort of the way things work for younger companies, so we accept it and do the best we can with what's available to us. I can't really ask anything more than that from our employees. Not when we're being asked to have the highest quality games ready for sale on launch day.

Game Republic's Genji: Days of the Blade

CN: I think Genji 1 was actually better than Genji 2, which was sort of a sad situation for your company.

YO: I agree with you. With Genji 2, not only were we asked to have the game ready for launch, but also to make it a sort of tech demo for the PS3 hardware. The camera ended up being way too close to the character, though I feel the graphics turned out pretty well. It was also difficult to control.

CN: I actually thought the game played all right, but that the level design was a little lackluster.

YO: Again, I think the problem was not having enough time. We were working with a pretty tight schedule, so the time for level design and game balance may have...

YMG: Like polishing the game's graphics became more of a priority.

YO: Right. That's what we chose to focus on. Which is what we were asked to do, really. And we couldn't do it all without sacrificing something. Unfortunately, what ended up getting cut this time were the things that would've made the game more fun to play.


CN: I've talked to a number of Japanese developers about technology, and they don't seem to have as good next generation technology as some of the western developers. Do you think that's a problem right now, and how are you addressing that at your company?

YO: I actually have that sense myself. But from a technological standpoint, I think we can catch up. Once something is released, we can see what sort of technology it uses. The real test will be once we've learned to use that technology ourselves. Being the first to make something is always incredibly difficult, while following in those footsteps is never quite as hard.

We're definitely lagging behind at the moment -- that's clear. And for a company like ours, without much history, this is especially true. But we'll catch up. And when we do, we'll add our own unique innovations to what's already been done. I want attention to detail to be the thing that sets our games apart.

CN: I think Capcom, which is sort of ironic when talking to you, is the only Japanese developer that's really got a functioning next-generation engine right now. One that's been developed internally, that is.

YO: On the subject of engines, Capcom is the last name we want to be hearing right now. (laughs) I mean, I don't want to think that we're copying them, because I'm supposed to have graduated from there, right? But I also can't deny we want to develop an internal engine like they have. I wonder if I've still got Capcom blood flowing in my veins.

Personally, I'm hoping I've been able to move on, but... Our way of thinking is probably similar, but again, from a personal standpoint, I don't want to feel I'm being influenced by them. It's actually kind of weird. I went independent because I thought I was different, after all. Maybe I haven't changed as much as I'd thought.

CN: It's interesting, because while Capcom is very successful right now, they've also lost their big developers. They lost you for example, and shortly after, Inaba-san, Mikami-san, and Kamiya-san, so it's like... what's going on there?

YO: Seriously, they really have lost a lot of people. They're still all right, though. People are going to keep leaving. And by that I mean they still have some room to breathe. If they really didn't want to keep losing people, they'd do something to convince them to stay, you know? I think it means the core of the company is still strong.

You'd think they'd do everything they could to hold on to the people they have, but the fact that they aren't has got to mean they're okay with how things are going on some level. I mean, it's only been five years since I left them myself, so I can't be certain.

Some of the younger employees who are thinking of quitting come to see me, and I try to give them advice. This usually amounts to me complaining about how hard being independent is, and how we don't have any money, but I want to help them if I can. (laughs) I also say that if they can bear staying with Capcom, they probably should. Everybody has dreams, though, I guess.

YMG: So then, dreams don't come true for people working at Capcom?

YO: Not as easily, that's for sure. As a creator in a big company, there's never any guarantee that what you want to do will match with what the company wants you to do. But going independent doesn't mean you get to have everything your own way, either. Like I mentioned earlier, we naturally want to return the favor to companies that helped us out when we were getting started.

So, they may ask us to make game A. Even though we know it might be better to make game B, they need someone to make A for them, and we're obligated to do it. We've had situations like that. So I guess it's never easy.

All I can do for these younger developers, is to explain these sorts of things to them, and then tell them to go for it if they haven't changed their minds. So in the end, I think Capcom is probably doing fine. They don't seem to be in a panic to stop people from leaving.


CN: Are you originally from Tokyo? Is that why you moved your company there? I know the guys from Platinum Games stayed in Osaka.

YO: That group sort of left Capcom all at once, though. They just sort of picked up and moved. I felt like my company would have to function well at the national level to succeed, so I ended up choosing Tokyo even though I was born and raised in Osaka. If you need to make business connections, Tokyo's the way to go. They were in a situation where they didn't need to hunt down business partners. From the start they knew where they'd be getting their funding from. I wanted our company to be open to international opportunities, and not limited to working within Japan.

I also thought that if I based Game Republic out of Osaka, we'd eventually butt heads with Capcom, especially if we hired people with experience in the industry. There are barely any game companies left in Osaka, so they'd end up being previous Capcom employees. And our goal wasn't to siphon people off from Capcom, anyway. We're not out to become Capcom Jr., so I thought I should put some distance between us.

It felt like if I stayed in Osaka, I'd always sort of be in Capcom's shadow, that we'd end up getting some of their former employees. I didn't think the situation would be good for either of us. People might think I had a grudge against Capcom, and that I was trying to lure people away from them, or something. Or if they opened an office near us, would that mean they were trying to lure people back? I think it would've made it look like the two of us were on really bad terms. Like I'd split off to form another Capcom.

YMG: Sort of like a civil war, you mean?

YO: Right. And that's not how I wanted to start my company. I wanted to wipe the slate clean and start from square one. That was my original hope, anyway. Now I'm wondering how different we really are. Like someone might look at our company and say, "Huh, they do things just like Capcom." (laughs)

I get a bit worried when I wonder if I haven't changed enough. Like maybe the only thing different about us is where we're based. It's no fun to feel like we're following in their footsteps, but it can't be denied that we need to come up with an engine of our own.

CN: Insomniac, the creators of Ratchet and Clank, only use internally developed technology, which is seen as sort of controversial considering the popularity of the Unreal Engine in America. Why do you feel an internally developed engine is so important?

YO: The way I understand it, Unreal seems sort of like an all-purpose engine; it's flexible enough to make nearly any type of game. But it's not like we're out to make games from every genre.

We tend toward specific types, like action, for example. A pre-established engine might be easier to work with, but we haven't found anything yet that meets all the conditions we're looking for.

Feelplus/Mistwalker's Lost Odyssey

CN: People who use the Unreal Engine sometimes end up having to create some of their own solutions - Feelplus made their own hair simulation for Lost Odyssey.

YO: Yeah, it lacks a bit in the uniqueness department, I think; like the catch-all for next-generation engines. In Japan, people tend to say that games made with that engine have a "western game" look to them. They take on that western "taste."

YMG: So, the two styles do have a different flavor to them.

YO: They really do. Sometimes they're as different as miso soup and olive oil. (laughs)

CN: Do you feel it's not as possible to make the games you want using western technology because you might lose something in the process?

YO: I do think it's possible, but that it would actually take more time and effort. If you're using an engine someone else has made, it's bound to take a lot of time before you can understand it 100%. Also, when you run into bugs, you're more likely to blame them on someone else. Like, "This has gotta be a bug in the engine!"

If we build something from the ground up ourselves, the responsibility's also all ours, and knowing that gives you confidence. To me, that's the biggest difference. If we want to do something, and we're told it's not possible with the engine we're using, that could end a project.

We might get stuck having to tell a client we can't do something they've requested because of the engine we're using. But if it's an engine we've made ourselves we'll know what it's capable of from the outset. More than anything, I want something that we're entirely responsible for, that will bind us together.


CN: I'd like to ask about the PlayStation 3, since you've been mainly working with that console recently. First, from a market perspective, how successful do you feel it's been in Japan, America, and Europe?

YO: I think it's on the up and up. Last year wasn't easy, though. Things have been better recently, so I'm not as worried. Isn't that how the PSP's been lately? It had a real rough patch for a while, too. So maybe the PS3 will follow a similar pattern.

CN: But even though the PSP itself has been selling really well globally, the games haven't been. Any thoughts on why that is?

YO: Hmm, I wonder what the situation is in America.

Shinichiro Kajitani: I think game sales in America have been low for the PSP since launch.

YMG: Have they been selling well in Japan?

YO: I'd say so. I think the games have been selling pretty well.

SK: There have been a few titles that have sold over a million copies.

CN: But not even Crisis Core sold a million recently.

SK: That might be because it's not a very good game.

YO: Whose interview is this, anyway? (laughter, apologies) He used to work for Square Enix, so he's always really harsh with his criticism.

CN: I'd also like to ask about the PlayStation 3 from the perspective of development. We all know that it's a difficult platform to work on, and that the techniques learned for working on the PS2 don't apply. How do you find developing for the PlayStation 3? Do you think Sony is good enough to make it a platform worth working on?

YO: They've actually been very good about giving us the support we need. As to how difficult a platform it is to make games for, that's a bit of a tricky question. They've sort of taken care of us, after all. From an ease of development standpoint only, I'd say the Wii is easier to work on. Not that we've released any games for the Wii yet.

CN: Isn't it tough to make a success out of a Wii game as a third party developer? If you look at third party games in Japan, and America as well, they don't seem to sell very well. It seems to be all about the Nintendo brand games.

YO: Okay, now we're getting into dangerous territory. (laughs) I mean, you hear rumblings about that sort of thing every now and again, but nobody talks about it very loudly.

CN: People say it loudly in America...

YO: Chalk it up to culture, but in Japan we don't really discuss things like that openly.

CN: If you can't say what's true, though, doesn't that create problems in the marketplace? Don't bad decisions get made when people don't recognize that these things are true?

YO: Looking at the way things are right now, it is a fact that first-party Wii games are the only titles selling well. But if the first-party titles are selling, third-party games should be able to sell too, so long as their creators have a good working relationship with Nintendo.

I think the problem is a lack of understanding between third-party developers, like us, and Nintendo, and this relationship needs to improve for the games to improve. Also, as a developer, when you admit that Nintendo's games are selling well, you also have to face the fact that the games you've made that flopped haven't been good enough.

CN: We've been talking with Japanese developers like Masaya Matsuura, who say that the bubble has burst for the DS in Japan. Looking at the market do you think that's true?

YO: You just don't ask any easy questions, do you? (laughs) How am I supposed to answer that? I mean, let's say I'm thinking "What, the DS? Oh hell yes, it's over and done with," I can't very well say that, can I? That's the most devious thing anyone's ever asked me! (laughs)

But actually, and again, and this is those whispering voices saying this, but you've started hearing the phrase "Atari crash" pretty frequently. People are talking about how the second "Atari crash" is around the corner. And Nintendo is the one that has to figure out a way to stop it. In Japan we often say that history repeats itself, and it's going to take some serious effort to keep it from happening this time.

Japan had its economic bubble in the late eighties, and that burst. I think some of the same things are happening in the American economy right now. Like, they're going to have to do something to prevent it. It's foolish to keep making the same mistakes people have already made.

So, Nintendo's going to need some sort of strategy to deal with this. I think it's a fact that the market blew up more rapidly than even they thought it would. And the faster something expands, the easier it is for it to deflate again, right? I hope they come up with a way to avoid this with the DS. But for one thing, there are way too many titles out all at once.

CN: Right. So you're seeing companies like [stationary company] Kokuyo making games. You mentioned Atari, and that's the same thing that happened in America in the '80s. Companies that didn't make games started making them, and that created the problem.

YO: And it's happening with the DS in Japan. All sorts of companies that have never made games before are getting involved. I mean, the cost of development is really next to nothing. And what about this flood of "brain training" games? Can they really keep that up?

Nintendo put a lot of thought into the original, and ran some really cool commercials for it. But some of these companies just slap something together, put the word "brain" in the title, and release it. There are a ton of them, and barely any of them are interesting.


CN: You were involved in Street Fighter in the early days, and there have been a couple of things happening with the franchise that I'd like to ask about, like Super Street Fighter II HD Remix.

YO: I think I'm a little too close to this topic to really give any in-depth answers. Just quote me as saying that "I've seen it" and "I'm very interested." "I'd really like to play it." Let's just leave it at that.

YMG: Setting aside the fact that this is an interview though, how do you feel about it?

YO: It's just that I'm pretty well in the know on what's happening with the game. I tend to hear a fair bit about what goes on at Capcom. Also, Dimps is the company making it, and I share a pretty close proximity with them. Or rather, I should say that the president of Dimps lives in my apartment building, on the same floor, in the unit next to mine. (laughs)

Yuki: The two of you are neighbors?!

YO: Yeah. We're actually really good friends. We both originally worked at Capcom, though he'd been there a while when I started. We still talk all the time, I'll just say I know some things that I can't really talk about.

YMG: We're talking about SFIV, right? Not the SFII remake?

YO: Oh, that's what you meant. No, I actually don't know about that one.

Capcom's Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix

CN: It's being developed in the U.S.

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