Matsuura Got Rhythm: The State Of NanaOn-Sha's Founder

Gamasutra profiles Masaya Matsuura, who pioneered music games with PaRappa the Rapper, but has also created iPod games, a hit Japanese Tamagotchi series, and now a re-teaming with PaRappa artist Rodney Alan Greenblat for a Wii music game.

As everyone knows by now, Masaya Matsuura pioneered music games with PaRappa the Rapper. What many may not realize is that his development company, NanaOn-Sha, is still going strong. Responsible for Namco Bandai's successful Tamagotchi Corner Shop series on the DS and the iPod title Musika, the company also recently announced a partnership with PaRappa artist Rodney Alan Greenblat to create a new music game for the Wii for Majesco.

Gamasutra sat down with Matsuura to discuss his company's unique "jam session" development style, the state of Japanese studios, and his plans for the Wii. Joining the discussion was NanaOn-Sha's overseas business manager, Dewi Tanner.

So, how did you wind up making the iPod game, Musika?

Masaya Matsuura: Ah, yeah, that was kind of -- how can I say? [Our] in-house development team, at that time it was around two years ago -- we made [Bandai Namco's] Tamagotchi game for DS, and we had a little time to spend, and so I had tiny ideas. So I told the ideas to the team, and we spent time making a very early prototype, according to my ideas. It was a start. So, after then, I don't remember exactly, but maybe around TGS or some time, several publishers sent us an email to have a meeting.

Tokyo Game Show 2006?

MM: Yes. So, I showed that demo for them. So, the one publisher, Sony BMG, loved our prototype. So we started to discuss the possibilities to publish the game to some environment.


Music game pioneer Masaya Matsuura

How long was development on the title?

MM: It's a little hard to say, because the start was a kind of easy "jam session" type of development. We didn't have a certain goal in the schedule. Just making scratches, and building the ideas; something like that. So it was two years ago, but after then, [team members] went to another project, and we didn't do the development for that, for awhile. After then, Sony BMG decided to publish [the game] onto the iPod, so we had to find an iPod programmer. Fortunately they found a development solution in Texas. So, we sent the source code, and the document, and talking on the phone, and they converted that to iPod.

Is everyone pleased with the result so far? Are you pleased with how it came out? And Sony BMG and Apple, too? Or, you don't have to say if you don't want to.

MM: Yeah, actually, we had many hard points, difficult points to achieve that. So, our entry, not so many people are buying the game -- especially in Japan, because we couldn't support the Kanji characters. So it was a very big [problem] for the Japanese market.

That's a shame. What happens when those titles come up, if you have them in your iPod?

Dewi Tanner: Just question marks.

Just question marks. Yeah. Then it becomes a bit too easy... Because I actually have multiple languages in my iPod as well, and so it becomes somewhat difficult. I was even trying to get Thai support, and I'm sure that that doesn't work.

MM: Yep.

DT: I think we're pretty happy, considering the power of the iPod.

MM: Yeah! I was surprised to know the iPod is kind of powerful hardware, for the game.

Everything on the iPod seems to have a certain style of graphics; it feels like its own specific platform, which is interesting. Do you have more small ideas like that, that you plan to release -- not necessarily on iPod, but perhaps on Live Arcade, or Wii Ware, or something?

MM: Currently we are focusing on making the prototypes rather than an actual production line. Of course, we have the production seasons for the product, but focusing on making the unique prototypes helps our business be much more reliable.

You mentioned the "jam session" style development last time we spoke, and you mentioned that there are other creators that you'd like to have that sort of "development jam session" with; have you been able to do any of that yet? Do you think sometime you will?

MM: You mean other developers in Japan?

Yeah, or other countries, too.

MM: I don't know. But basically, this kind of "jam session" style for the development of ideas, came from my music career. On the other hand, currently we are focusing on making the prototype. These kinds of ideas come from the big game companies' ideas.

Do you mean when you are working on a large game? They are ideas that get thrown off from that, or...?

MM: Ah, yeah, yeah, so one of my friends from one of the biggest game companies in America, he told me they were focusing on making the prototype, and doing the production separately.

Oh, I see.

MM: Many Japanese developers have to do both -- of course we have to -- but which one is suitable for us, the answer is very simple. The development, making the prototype, is a very important mission for us. After the prototype is done, it's easy to find a certain production team [to complete the game].

Have you thought about Wii development much?

MM: We are doing a Wii project right now, but still in the very early stage.

keroican.jpg Actually, when I walked in here, I was very happy to see the Rhyme Rider Keroican character up there, because, as I mentioned last time, I really like that game. Could you ever return to that game, or does Bandai own the license?

MM: Yes, if we want. It is possible.

Yeah. Well yeah, I'm not saying that you want to, necessarily; I was just asking. I think it would be cool, because I like it! But that's just me. Did you also develop, or at least prototype the more recent Tamagotchi games, because I know more of them came out since then.

MM: Tamagotchi game? Yeah, we have produced some Tamagotchi games.

Did you do the one that already came out, after the first one?

MM: Yeah, already. The second one is out last year, and the third will [be released soon in the U.S.]

Actually, I lent the game to my little sister, and she beat the whole thing.

MM: Oh, great! Yeah, the third one is a very smart game.

Oh yeah? It's also DS?

MM: Yes, yes. Much smarter than the last one.


MM: Sophisticated.

OK, good. Actually, some things about the first game were so simple... that I got confused.

(laughter from all)

Because sometimes I just couldn't, like, I couldn't figure out how much money I had at any time, because it was just "you have enough money" or "you don't have enough money." But I just wanted to know, I wanted to see a number, to be like: "Alright, I can buy this, and this, and this." But... It's OK, I forgive you.

(laughter from all)

Have you had to increase your staff at all? It seems like you're doing more games more frequently than you used to.

MM: Yeah, that's true, but as I told you, we are focusing on the early stage of the game, so it requires the power [at that time]. Especially, it's kind of a very rapid type of power. So, we can't spend a year to make the prototype. So every time, I am trying to find new talent to make my ideas obvious. This is our current staff -- this kind of company.

For some people, like Dewi-san, or other people, these [versatile] working trans-project type of people are helping our job. But, some certain people are working on certain parts, like graphics, or programming. So these people are [changing] every time.

Yeah. Contracted, specific for projects.

MM: Sometimes many people come back for [another NanaOn-Sha] game, and sometimes they have another job.

So, with this style of model, can you only work on small games, or will you ever do a large console production again?

MM: I think both. A big company doesn't realize that that kind of [development] style is good, even for them. So many old-style Japanese companies [concentrate on] how many employees they have. This kind of thing is important for a big company, especially for the open market company.

Yeah. Openly traded company. Some companies in the U.S. now are doing things like this -- it's somewhat similar. They have small core staff, and when they are ready to make a game, they make the prototype, and the first of every kind of asset -- and things like that -- and then they outsource and contract. But it seems like the hardest thing is managing the other people. So how are you working with that?

MM: Yeah. Yes. It's a very good question. That is the point. Currently, the similar people who have long experience -- you know, [at] a company -- already had their own company right now. So already they picked NanaOn-Sha.

But a new company, of course they are the new owner of the company, but some parts are invested by us from NanaOn-Sha, and of course they are an independent company, so they are working as they like, basically. But if we have kind of a big project, so we are sharing the mission.

Of course, these kinds of people had a more educated experience with NanaOn-Sha, so they know our company very much. So, they are controlling the production, but it looks exactly like NanaOn-Sha's work. So, they are kind of manager of the production. So we can have this relationship with them, and very tight, very precise communication.

Right. So the easiest to work with are the companies that you know well already. Yeah. But what about when you outsource to Texas? Do you have people on staff whose job it is to manage outsourced development? Do you have project managers in NanaOn-Sha, that are in charge of making sure that contract companies do the job right?

MM: Yeah, actually. NanaOn-Sha is just three people. Just us.

Oh. OK.

MM: So, controlling the production is basically my mission, as a general producer. But we are helping each other to keep good relations with [the companies we work with].

It seems really difficult to manage a larger production with that style of work.

MM: It's very difficult. (Sighs) It's very difficult.

And I was just curious -- this is not about NanaOn-Sha, but -- it seems there are a lot of companies that do sort-of "stealth production." Or, the strategy where a company will start up, and they only work on parts of games for other people. This seems to happen a lot in Japan. Often, these companies don't put their name on the product. They're very quiet, small companies, that just work on small pieces of production.

I just wonder how that came about; how that happened. Companies like Tose -- it's a huge company, but there are a lot of smaller ones that have been around for like 25 years or so, but people mostly don't know about them. I don't know -- I just wonder how that environment came up in Japan, where often prototyping is not really done.

MM: Yeah, yeah, it's a very important question. It requires thought.

Basically, small productions -- just making the program, instead of having innovative ideas or strategies -- many of them have started their businesses from the 8-bit ages. So in the beginning of the 8-bit world, we had many small companies. And fortunately, some of them are still doing their business -- and some of them are already growing, like Tose.

So two types of game development companies exist in this country, but I believe that most of them will not do prototyping. So these types of companies, are basically from the 8-bit culture. So, basically they have some logic of the game ideas, and they are improving the original model in keeping their business, making a sequel -- or similar variations [on their older ideas]. This may be the first [evolutionary] stage of the game development style.

I don't know how many generations are existing right now, but maybe we are the third or fourth or something like that. So we are working [with] much more horizontal dimensions.

Right. I don't know if the same terminology is used in Japan, but in certain types of development, like agile methodologies, a "vertical slice" encompasses design, prototype, programming, and code, and then audio, and it's just one slice of everything, complete and in-game. But in Japan, you just do the one layer of programming, and one layer of art, one layer of design, all simultaneously and not in discreet chunks, right?

20071005152220.jpg MM: Yes. Right. So I'll show you: in the early prototyping, basically I don't set a certain mission for the workers; I ask people to make their own ideas of the game, by having the basic element I just told you. So for example: using [the character] Tamagotchi's properties, or think about kids, for example. Well, of course there are kids, but maybe many of them will be female, or a year later, your ideas have to go overseas, for example.

So, for these kinds of basic refinements, I just talk to the staff, and everybody starts to build, and make their own ideas, and I [create a] presentation for them in discussing how their idea is great or not. And discussing each other['s ideas fosters] teamwork and cooperation.

So, finally, in many cases, I have to set a certain game ideas at the end, but many people already know how they have to work with people. So this kind of style is very comfortable for me -- maybe to [other] people too.

It's interesting to me that some of those companies did have their own ideas, earlier, but didn't make it into later generations. Some companies, like Tamsoft -- they did Toshinden games for PlayStation. Very popular back then, but now they only make games for D3, like Simple Series budget games. It's just interesting: some of these companies were totally at the top -- back then, Tamsoft had like 120 people, and now they're down to 60 or something like that. I don't know, it's really interesting to me. With the new hardware evolutions, it seems like some people are not able to adapt to new markets, so perhaps smaller companies are better in that situation.

MM: Yeah. Small, but very powerful and strong company. (laughs)

Well, companies that have a name. It seems like, in a way, your situation is kind of lucky, because the games you made earlier were different, or with music, or more casual, and Nintendo said, "OK, we have to broaden the market." And then after they said it, everyone else said, "OK, we have to broaden the market." And already, your company was able to do this sort of thing; and so, when people think, "Oh, what companies are already able to do this?" You are a company they would think of.

MM: Yes, that's true. We have to keep increasing the chance to make more unique titles, but for us it's getting much more difficult because the game market -- especially in Japan -- is still very conservative. Many people know that the DS has very unique titles, like Brain Training, or something like that, but it's not for younger-aged market. It's kind of older people, like me. So, about the young aged market: still very conservative. So these kinds of things are very important for us.

That's not as true in the U.S., though.

MM: Yeah, I know. And also, we have to focus on the worldwide market simultaneously. At the start of development, there are many developers that don't have to care about the overseas market, because the Japanese market is powerful enough to keep their business. But, now it's not so powerful.

Right. Especially with next-gen consoles.

MM: That's right. So this is a very big point. Actually, the offers to make new game titles are getting increased from the overseas publishers.

Oh really?

MM: Yes. So we had to think about American kids or European kids... (laughs)

Is that difficult from here?

MM: Of course.

What's interesting to me is that some companies that do larger games for next-gen consoles like 360 or PlayStation 3 are making games in Japan, specifically for the western market. Capcom is a good example, doing Dead Rising, and Lost Planet, and things like this. They are very much made for the western market, and they already know it won't succeed in Japan -- because it can't. But I wonder, how long will DS and Wii be popular in Japan? Do you think forever, or...?

MM: That's a very difficult question. Some people have said already that the DS software's bubble has burst.

Well everyone -- everyone -- every company that exists, like people that make word processing software, have made a "training" game.

MM: [One company I know has] some kind of learning type of game. The first one sold over 200,000, but the second one is 8,000. So these kind of things are going to happen.

Well, you know, what's difficult is that Nintendo, with the Wii and DS, is bringing in a lot of new users, right? These new users don't have experience with buying games, and so the first game they buy is a Nintendo game, and they think: "Oh, the other games are going to be good, like this!" And so, if they start buying all of these other games, that are just really bad, they're going to be like: "Well, I'm not going to buy any more games!" So that's concerning, because there's a huge amount of titles, and for these kinds of people, there's no real way to tell if it's going to be good.

MM: That's true. I have to say, to the small developers like us, that you have to be unique. So don't be like some of the other developers that's...

DT: Copycats.

MM: Mm. So if you want to make something similar to another title, then you should be an employee of a big company. To be independent, you have to alternate the culture. You can't have set ideas. [If you do,] you don't have to be independent.

If you're going to be independent and small, you have to be agile, and take risks. If you don't take risks, you will just make another Brain Training knockoff. It's better to be at the crest of the wave, and sometimes you just smash into the surf, but sometimes you reach the shore.

DT: Scary example.

Well it's true, though. You have to be able to also take some failures, it seems. Because if you are a small company, maybe you can afford to have a failure, as long as -- if you have two failures and one big success, your big success can carry your two failures. But that's not true if a big company -- a big company, everything has to be a success. Like Ubisoft just did the best they've ever done -- they're like a two billion dollar company now.

MM: I was surprised... we have met Ubisoft's people; they gave us the company's profile. It was dictionary book-sized. And I was surprised and impressed -- the information it says about the worldwide studios of Ubisoft -- how much they are using the electricity power. And water.

(laughter from all)

Wow. That's amazing. Yeah, so they are like a two billion dollar company now, and so for their shareholders, next year they have to be a two-point-two-five billion dollar company, or else they've failed. How do you do that? If you're two billion, how do you do that? But, like, NanaOn-Sha, if you're not two-point-two-five whatever next year, nobody will kill you. Probably. So, it seems in some ways it's a good position. You know, you don't have a sure, steady job, so it may be difficult for some people, but...

MM: Basically, I am very happy to be in the game industry, because I couldn't imagine [how it is now] the first time I made a game in the middle '90s. This industry was much smaller, and [there were] not so many variations. But now, like [comparing us to] Ubisoft, it looks like a different industry is coming. So various kinds of differences are in the same industry. It's very unique.

Well that's true. It's interesting, because often, indie record labels, they're independent but they follow a similar production model to large record labels. So, it's not a huge, huge difference, there.

It's interesting that some of the big companies also, in order to try to achieve that sort of thing for themselves, they also make much, much, much smaller titles. Which didn't used to happen. Like, Ubisoft is an example again: they're doing small, casual titles for DS. But at the same time they're trying to do that, those games don't get a big marketing budget, either.

MM: Yeah, and also, I was surprised and impressed to know that EA made an iPod game. I was surprised.

But they release games on everything, so.

DT: It was The Sims Pool.

It was not a very daring kind of thing. They did release things, but, you know, they release games on mobile phones and on all platforms -- just so they can control everything.

Another thing that was interesting about larger companies doing smaller games is that your publisher, Majesco, in the U.S., tried to make big games at first. And they all failed.

(laughter from all)

And so, they were going to be de-listed from the stock exchange and everything; they were in real trouble. So, then they just fired a lot of people, got really small as a publisher, and started releasing small games. Like Cooking Mama, and they're releasing -- they're actually releasing independent games, like Kenta Cho's stuff, but they're reprogramming it -- Tumiki Fighters. Now, they're doing so much better.

I think they're making more money than they made when they were trying to make large games. Because they focused on really small titles -- and that's really interesting, for a company to scale down so much and then become much more successful. Because they can choose riskier type things. Because, as I heard from them, they had no idea that Cooking Mama would be popular; they just tried something, because they needed something. And it just sold like a million copies in the U.S., so... it's good that you're working with them. How did you get together with Rodney Greenblat again? Was it Nanaon-Sha's idea or Majesco's?

MM: With the release of a new and innovative platform, it seemed like a good opportunity to renew our collaboration with Rodney. This is something that Majesco was also very into.

How will your "game jam" work, production-wise? Will you collaborate in person, or will Greenblat send you art and you design around it, or do you design and he sends art?

MM: We try to involve Rodney as much as possible in the game’s design, so it’s a very organic and responsive process. He is always a pleasure to work with and brings a fresh dimension to any project.

Can you say anything about how the game will play, or use the Wiimote?

MM: Well, it will most certainly have something to do with music! (laughs)

Will the game also be published in Japan?

MM: We are currently looking to secure a publisher for the Japanese release.

You sent out a New Year's card with some unique art on it -- I also found similar art on your site... is this in any way related to the new game?

MM: I’m afraid that’s a secret! (laughs)


Nana-On Sha's 2008 New Years greeting card

The first games you made, were those for the Apple/Bandai platform Pippin?

MM: It was the first one.

Right. It was called "QES" or something like QuickTime Entertainment System, right?

MM: Yeah, actually, our game didn't use QuickTime. But, it was kind of a toy. A musical interaction toy.

I see. Kind of like Electroplankton? By Toshio Iwai?

MM: Ahhh!

Yeah, like his type of thing?

MM: Um, his game was SimTunes. He released his game from Maxis.

Oh, right.

MM: So his idea is much smarter than mine. (laughs)

Now, he's working with Yamaha. They're releasing the Tenori-On, a kind of interface thing. You can hold it, and you press these touch buttons and LEDs -- you can just touch everywhere, and a wave goes by, and you can play a melody, and you can save, and you can play more on top of it. It's a cool toy.

MM: It's his style.

Yeah, totally. It's a very strange thing, but it's pretty cool.

MM: Did you check the Rolly?

Rolly? What's that?

MM: From Sony. It's an egg.

Oh, the new thing! Yeah, yeah.

MM: But it's an audio player.

Right, right. Why did they do that?

(laughter from all)

MM: I know! Last time I saw that prototype was two years ago, but it was a totally scary and strange product. It's just a music player, but there a cover on the top and the bottom too, and they open up the speakers, you can tell. Sometimes it's closed. And there is a wheel, so the egg is moving -- like this [gestures] -- but playing audio.

So it dances. Yeah, that's really weird.

MM: Yeah!

Well, I heard that -- My friend told me this way; he said: "Sony is releasing this amazing program where you can stream audio from other devices, like the PlayStation 3, but it's not an MP3 player, it's this weird egg." It's just, why didn't they make it something normal that you just listen to?

MM: The electronic companies have to find the new appeal to the market. The game industry is a very stable, very good market already.

Although it's changing a lot now, so it's not stable for everyone.

MM: Yeah, that's true. Also, there are many people that also realize that Nintendo's strategy is very successful. And many other companies can't make the similar type of sequel on the [new] hardware anymore. So, anyway, maybe five years from now, the game industry will be very different.

Yeah. Well I wonder, do you think that -- just speculation -- do you think that Sony and Microsoft are going to create something to try to compete with Wii?

MM: Yes, I think so. But, maybe not the same strategy. Very different aspects.

Yeah, it could be that Microsoft will try to use Live Arcade as its competitive edge. Maybe.

MM: Yeah. Personally, I want to have an Xbox laptop. I need one. This kind of laptop [taps at laptop on table], a very high spec machine, is very heavy. And still the video is less than the Xbox 360. So, I need a very small laptop with Xbox. Very portable. The DS is very small -- and smart, but it doesn't necessarily [work] like that.

PSP is, anyway... they have to take out the UMD, anyway.

Everyone agrees, they won't do it.

MM: No one needs UMD.

No. All these companies like to create -- even, you know, Apple, and Sony especially -- like to create specific formats, so that they can control the media as well. So that's why we have Blu-ray, that's why we have HD-DVD; all these competing media formats. That's why iTunes doesn't let you move your files back and forth -- only one way.

So, it's really all about control, but what's funny is that these larger companies are trying to keep all the control one way, but everything that's really successful -- like YouTube, like social network sites like Mixi or MySpace -- those are so successful because control goes both ways. And mostly it's the user having the control, and doing what they want. So it's just interesting, because it seems like that kind of model that they're trying so hard, and spending so much money to try to control the media, it's really going to screw them over. Especially when YouTube is more popular than Blu-Ray --

MM: Yeah, that's right.

And YouTube looks terrible. It looks awful. It looks absolutely terrible, and the audio is aways out of sync, but nobody cares. That says something. Nobody cares. I mean, people want Blu-ray. They want high definition things.

MM: I think that we need the Blu-ray -- but not [necessarily] Blu-ray, HD DVD is OK. I mean the very high quality environment is required. Yeah, I'm jealous with all the graphic people, that have a very high quality environment like this, and it's not so cheap, but so expensive. But for audio, everybody is OK with iPod already, but iPod's sound is ugly.

Yeah, and even iTunes, its highest compression is 320kbps, and that's not good enough.

MM: So, it's very strange. The people are putting the iPod on their stereos, but Blu-ray's sound quality is much higher. So for the audio environment, that kind of environment is better sometimes.

Have you thought about moving your PS1 game Vib-Ribbon to the PlayStation Network?

Many of my friends from the States ask me why I don't make Vib-Ribbon for the new environment, like downloadable. But I really think I have to do that -- it's going more than eight years, so I have to...

People will still like it. Which console would you make it for?

MM: Which one do you prefer?

I don't know. With Xbox Live, you could use custom music, but maybe the next PlayStation 3 firmware might let you use custom music, too. It would be so easy to make HD.

MM: It sounds like Mizuguchi's Rez HD. (laughs)

Actually, the music you produced for Vib-Ribbon is great. Is the game on the Japanese PlayStation Store yet? The game archives?

MM: No, no.

Will it be?

MM: No.

vibri.jpg You should just remake it. Do you own the IP?

MM: No. The IP is property of Sony.

Aw. So if you do it again, you have to probably talk to them about it.

MM: But currently Sony is a little open about their treatment of IP, so if I make much money [I could] buy it from Sony...

Oh, you could buy it back. That's probably a good idea.

DT: That's what Mizuguchi did with Rez. He bought it from Sega.

No, I think he just licensed it. asked him about it. It says "Copyright Sega" on the title screen. So it's licensed by him, he doesn't own it. Which, I believe, is probably the major reason why he changed nothing [for Rez HD] - it's exactly the same except HD and 5.1 surround.

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