Goichi Suda, aka Suda51, has become the darling of video game fandom in recent years, with his brash and bold games, his unique moniker, and his company's devotion to unique visual and audio style. Is he purposefully forging new paths, or has he simply fallen into the right groove at the right time? Gamasutra set out to map this designer's brain, and in this extensive interview, we discover some of the method to his madness.
From open world games, to current influences, to violence, to mascots, to designing for the west, we discuss his creative methodology, his desire for emotion in games, and the paramount importance of linear story.
Has Grasshopper Manufacture grown much in the last few years? It seems like you're doing more projects now.
Suda: We've added about 10 extra people to our staff. That's about it (laughs).
How big is your entire staff now?
Suda: Now… about 50 people. Somewhere around there.
Are the company's goals still the same? I've seen a few more licensed games from you, but it's still all in the same Grasshopper style.
Suda: It depends on the project. There are clients who put in orders that request we bring out a strong Grasshopper style in the game, and of course there are also licensed projects where the client already has some degree of a set image in mind and they ask that we hold back on the signature Grasshoppe style. It's always different.
So I guess that's the difference between (Grasshopper's) Shining Soul games and the Samurai Champloo games.
Suda: That's right. Especially for Samurai Champloo, which is based an anime, so there's a basic contract that we don't destroy the style of the original work. So by making anime-based games, we learn a lot.
It's interesting. When I say that we learn a lot, creating games within set boundaries requires an entire different skill set than creating games freely without restrictions. In other words, our staff develops new skills while they try to work around these limits. So that constitutes a learning process.
What was the inspiration for the Wii title No More Heroes?
Suda: I was inspired the most by the movie El Topo, by Alejandro Jodorowsky. I've always wanted to create a game like it, where the story progresses with a series of battles.,In No More Heroes there's also a killer. I visualized the game to be one where this killer battles and defeats his enemies one by one with his light saber.
Have you played Red Steel? What did you think of the sword fighting in that?
Suda: I played it a little. When the Wii hardware was announced, my initial thoughts were that there would definitely be games of Red Steel's style produced. It's a game that encompasses everything. I think games like this are ones that become example models for other developers. Red Steel and Made in Wario, these two games are perfect, or in other words probably serve as models for all Wii game developers to find out exactly what the Wii can do.
A lot of people said that the sword fighting was too simple, so I wondered if you learned anything from it.
Suda: I think both the good qualities and the bad qualities were examples that I could learn from. Also, from a Japanese perspective, I was confused by the unrealistic recreation of the Shinjuku setting. Ridley Scott's portrayal of Osaka in the movie ''Black Rain" was really cool, but the Shinjuku created in Red Steel wasn't really that great.
Why did you choose English as the language for the game?
Suda: Well Killer7, which I worked on with Shinji Mikami, was a game created more for the overseas market, which later gathered a lot of public attention, so we sort of wanted to continue to develop and grow along those lines. But more than anything we felt that Grasshopper's style is more suited to the foreign than the local Japanese market.
I wondered if it was done that way for the Western audience or a Japanese audience that might find English rather interesting - but that kind of answers the question.
Suda: After the release of the PlayStation, there've been more games like Biohazard and Metal Gear Solid that take place in an overseas setting. Well, even before then, I mean Mario's Italian, right? From the get-go, the Japanese audience has been used to playing with foreign characters. There's no sense of incongruity.
I think it's funny that sometimes Japanese developers have Western characters and Western developers make games like Jade Empire or Heavenly Sword with Asian characters as the main. It's very strange.
Suda: I see, I see. Yeah, that's strange (laughs).
Do you know Kenji Eno?
Suda: Oh, yeah yeah. I know of him and see him every once in a while, but we're not close friends, I don't know him personally.
I know he's also making a sword fighting game... I was wondering if you may have seen it?
Suda: I haven't, but I do know that he's making games for the Wii.
His new company is called FYTO. From Yellow To Orange.
Suda: (Laughs) FYTO! I see. So it's "fight-o." I wonder why it's "from yellow to orange." From yellow to orange for a Japanese means… he likes blondes? No, that can't be it (laughs).
Could be. Last time we spoke, you mentioned that you adventure games from the old days - like Eric Chahi's stuff. They've really fallen out of fashion with modern game players, what do you think would bring them back?
Suda: Well first off, do you like adventure games?
Yes. A lot.
Suda: What do you like?
Monkey Island 2 and…
Suda: How about Snatcher and Policenauts?
Of course. The Konami and LucasArts games are great.
Suda: What games did LucasArts produce?
Monkey Island, Loom, Day of the Tentacle, games like that.
Suda: Hmm… tentacle… tentacles are alright (laughs). So you like games like that, not text adventures?
Right, point and click style. I understand you're a fan as well?
Suda: I love them. Action and adventure games are both my strengths and what I've spent most of my time working on up until now. But as for how to make them appeal to people...hmm. What should we do (laughs)? Well everyone likes to fire guns and fight, but fighting shouldn't be the sole logic behind games created for increasingly powerful engines like the PS3 and 360.
Different things and areas should be explored. As long as developers grasp how to express and bring pleasure to the player's experience, I think adventure games will be able to break out of their current state and make a comeback.
Have you played newer ones like Dreamfall?
Suda: No, not yet. What hardware does it run on?
The Xbox 360 and the PC. It's a new kind of adventure game...I would say Grasshopper's own Flower, Sun, and Rain is within the same genre. Would you ever be interested in making another game in that vein? More about the mystery of the story, and puzzles.
Suda: If there's a chance to do it, definitely. I do think of myself as someone in the adventure games field. How do I put this... I want to incorporate elements of the adventure style into my games. Like Mr. (Hideo) Kojima. He's a top-tier creator who debuted in adventure beginnings, and today he still says he wants to continue creating adventure games.
In the same way, I think adventure games gave me a chance at game creation, and I want to continue to develop them. Right now at Grasshopper we have a game called Silver 25 Wars, which is a small adventure game we're developing for mobile phones.
I remember a long time ago you were talking about maybe working with Kojima, has anything come of that?
Suda: Did I ever say that? I did? Maybe to pay empty compliments? Really? I said that? I don't have any plans to work on a game with Mr. Kojima at the moment (laughs).
You sort of touched on this before, but how important is the Western market for GH?
Suda: The Japanese fans are very important to me too, but we want to make a big breakthrough with the Grasshopper name someday, and to that end it's not enough for us to just focus on the Japanese market. I can't give you an exact percentage, but the Western market is extremely important.
When I make games, I always put in a lot of effort toward making them with an image of the Western audience in mind. The Western market is that important to me. I don't make games with only the Japanese in mind, I treat it as though people from all around the world are going to play my games.
It seems like sometimes even very Japan-centric games like Okami do better in the US than in Japan. I wonder why it is that players don't grab hold of the actual more Japanese aesthetic in Japan?
Suda: What's clear is that things Japanese and American players seek in games are completely changing. For example, Okami, which you mentioned. In recent years, the ex-Clover Studios developers have made many game titles that have been successful overseas, so naturally they know how to make games that increasingly appeal to the Western market.
Also another element is that the American and European audiences are more receptive to new games. They welcome change. The Japanese are more close minded and the market is showing signs of rejection towards new games. I think that's the main reason.
In Okami's case, it's especially strange because it's set in Japanese mythological history, and still Americans somehow find that more interesting. Is there some sort of rejection of national identity in Japan?
Suda: Actually, I think the world of Okami isn't one that most Japanese people are familiar with either. So in terms of interest in one's own history… hmm… this is a hard question. I think in Japan's case, if you're talking about history, most people like Oda Nobunaga (and samurai history).
Maybe everyone's interest is channeled in that direction. He's a superstar! Oh, the Japanese also love Sangokushi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), though it's culture of a neighboring country (China).
That's why Koei gets to keep making the same game over and over and it continues to sell.
Suda: Exactly! That's right! (laughs)
Here's a strange question. Your email address is "smiths." Are the Killer7 Smiths elements of your personality?
Suda: You mean mine? "Smith" just comes from the band The Smiths. Yeah. I use the name "Smith" when I put my heart into something. The character name "Smith" is a symbol of self investment for me.
A long time ago we talked about how you'd like to create an open world game, like GTA, but we never got to talk about how you would go about creating one. What are the most important elements of open world games for you for a Grasshopper like game?
Suda: Budget, budget and timeframe. That and you have to team up with a major publisher.
And gameplay-wise how would you make it a Grasshopper game?
Suda: How would I want to do it? I would want to make a denser, more intense world. This sounds very abstract, but say there's a town within a vast space where a culture is born.
Unlike GTA, in which this is expressed through a huge map, vaguely, I imagine something very detailed and specific - well not that extreme, but a more compact world where I can show elements of lifestyle, culture, environment. To this, I would probably then apply a different style script and a story that no one's ever heard of, that way a new world is created.
Do you think story can be important in those open world games? Often after five minutes people just start doing whatever they want, and ignore the story.
Suda: When there's a high degree of freedom, people will eventually get tired of being free. You lose the sense of having a goal. It's a given that there's a story, a purpose in life. In the same way, without a storyline, the player gradually loses his or her meaning of existence in that created space. I think this is somewhat close to reality.
I guess the key is to make a story that people actually really feel like they need to unravel.
Suda: Yeah, I agree. It's like having a purpose in living. Also today there are MMORPGs, and the gameplay has everyone playing on a network. Players probably play on that network every day because they seek new stories daily through interaction and meeting different people. That's probably the reason why gamers gather on MMOs.
It seems that especially in these open world games, the concept of life is not very highly valued. You can kill anything, and you can die and come back to life right away. What do you think about that?
Suda: I can't say exactly, but I do want to derive an answer. An answer that's mine, GH's, answer, which is most likely different from GTA's. But, if you talk about and define GTA's style, it's a style created by the players themselves, not the game designers. It's because players don't want to feel stress in games that there's such a thing as revival right after death.
Even if we game designers create a system where death marks the end, players probably won't accept it. There needs to be improvement in that respect and in terms of understanding how gamers think about games, if there's no change, game designers will be handling life very rashly.
I know you've expressed some concerns about certain types of violence in games that have no consequence, because of how easy it is to discard life. You mentioned you thought it could possibly influence some people.
Suda: There is a problem isn't there. It's troubling. Troubling, troubling, troubling… After all, more than anything, because games are a sensory form of media, if you expand the possibilities, of course it will be more influential than any other medium.
Even from the expresser's standpoint - like ours - it's an issue that cannot be avoided. Like how the film industry has historically battled society (regarding ratings and censorship), from this point on, I think the game industry will also be in a constant battle with society. If you're wondering why, it's because there will absolutely be no other media more influential than games, the game industry will most likely always be in the forefront of this battle. Wow, I said something really intense. (laughs)
I spoke with Warren Spector about this sort of thing, and he was very interested in cause and effect. So if you kill somebody, some people might be happy, but other people might be mad within the game world, and he always has a non-violent path through the game, pretty much every time. I interviewed him recently and he was saying that there should always be a consequence for your actions, it's very important to show that and that is a way to make sure that people are not wrongly influence.
Suda: Yeah. I think it's very important. By introducing emotions, I think such actions much have implications. Games without storylines are... very arrogant games. It's like an orchestra without a conductor, or in a band's case it would be like not having a front man. I don't think this absence can be a positive influence on people.
It seems very difficult to create a scenario that has a lot of cause and effect within a story. So if you save this person something happens, but if you kill this person something else happens. Is that something that you think that is possible to do in a meaningful way for players?
Suda: Hmm… I think it isn't all that necessary to have that many endings. Similar to how there's only one outcome in life, there has to be value in having players follow a path to a single ending. Is it variation in games? I don't want to adjust or make life's ultimate outcome something that can be changed just to have variety.
The reason I say this is because everyone wants to live life to its best, so of the many variations, players might reset a game if the outcome is imperfect, or they might even quit the game halfway. Everyone will only seek the "perfect" ending, and that won't be good.
Since life does have many paths, to have all paths be interesting might be a potential way to solve that problem.
Suda: That's true. I must agree. (laughs)
So you're more interested in directing the player's vision than having the player form their own story? Like a movie director's vision or something.
Suda: Well, the ending… it's easier to write scenarios for stories that go straight towards a definite ending, so this is somewhat better. Generally, writing for games with multiple scenarios I fall behind, so considering the production schedule, having only one story is definitely better. (laughs) I'm just kidding.
That's true though.
Suda: When you write many endings, you have to work with many writers, and that can be very overwhelming, because you have to work with everyone. If possible, I'd want to write everything myself, alone. That's just how I feel.
Some people also find that that sort of focused vision is a way to make players feel certain emotions atcertain times, because you can control what they're seeing, whereas in a GTA-like game you can't really create emotion because the players are doing everything themselves. But in a focused game, you can really make people consider certain points that you want them to consider.
Suda: For me what's important is the change in emotions. Large emotional fluxes: it can be anger or it can be joy. Essentially what I strive for the most is to create a world that no one has ever seen. I have the desire to make things never before created, and in an entirely novel domain. I want players to be surprised, or in other words, I want to provide them with something fresh, and if my work can arouse different emotions, I'd be very happy.
What's most important is after you finish playing the game, you walk away feeling lucky to have played it, and elements in the game's storyline or the game itself can actually influence you somehow in real life. If I make a game like that, I can die anytime with no regrets. But I'm greedy, so I think I probably won't die. At least not until I make lots of money like Rockstar Games!
When we spoke once about games that could have political impact. Are you looking at all into that area with No More Heroes? Not specific politics, but just worldview for the player?
Suda: I do believe in that, but I'm not doing it in No More Heroes. If you're wondering why, Killer7 had what you may call innate political elements. When creating a game staged in the US from a Japanese perspective, I thought about the Japanese viewpoint from the American perspective.
That's why Japanese are also intertwined into the story: there's the Japanese politician who lives in the States, Narita, who makes his appearance, and the behind-the-scenes yakuza mastermind who also appears. When I shaped their characters, it was impossible to eliminate politics. But this time No More Heroes is basically a story about a lone hit man, so there was no need to talk about politics. It's a direct result from the character's distinctive traits.
I asked because the title sounds like you could be deposing people in power.
Suda: Ahh, I see, I see. The title comes from a song by The Stranglers, a band from the UK. Either way it means to kill the person at the top. It's a story about heroes killing heroes.
Everyone these days, including Miyamoto, is talking about accessibility and a broader market for games. What do you think about that? Would you ever want to make something so casual for a lot of different players? Or are you still focused on games for game players?
Suda: If you want categorize my current style, what I value the most would probably be how many people I can get to play my games. Regarding controller handling, I'm not bound by the American standard, but I actually am inspired by the idea of deriving original gameplay and controller use. In other words, I think about reasons for people who don't normally play games to play.
So whatever Miyamoto's saying not only foresees the future of games, I think it's a wonderful thing. To sum it all up, I think it's good. The so-called Nintendo style, or to actually change the device to appeal to a greater audience is probably something only Nintendo can do; essentially converting the non-gamers. As for GTA, by creating a culture through the game, it made people who don't usually play games play it as part of culture.
In terms of non-gamers, GTA's a huge contributor to the games industry. I think Grasshopper has a different role. I want to be thinking about methods, ones unique to Grasshopper, of engaging people who normally never play games at all times. I believe that's my goal.
Grasshopper always has a very distinctive style though, would you have to compromise that at all in order reach a wider audience?
Suda: I think now is a time when a little change needs to be made.
And that's okay with you?
Suda: It's absolutely okay. I want to be evolving constantly. One day I want to make a character cuter than Mario.