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The Philosophy of a Ninja: Tomonobu Itagaki Speaks

Famous for being unimpressed with competitors' games, Team Ninja's Dead Or Alive and Ninja Gaiden creator Tomonobu Itagaki is a game design iconoclast with an uncompromising viewpoint, which he shares in this wide-ranging Gamasutra interview, the first he's ever "specifically directed at other developers."

Team NINJA executive producer Tomonobu Itagaki first burst into prominence with Dead or Alive; the original entry became notorious for the size and mobility of its female characters' breasts as much as its Virtua Fighter-baiting gameplay.

Since then, his development studio has increasingly gained relevance. He surprised the world by throwing his weight behind Microsoft in 2000 with the release of Dead or Alive 3 exclusively for the Xbox; in 2004, Ninja Gaiden reinvigorated action gamers with its polish and punishing difficulty.

Here, in an interview conducted at Team NINJA's Tokyo offices in the wake of Tokyo Game Show, the famously opinionated Itagaki speaks about his development philosophies with Gamasutra for the first time.

Welcome.

Tomonobu Itagaki: You're quite lucky, because this is the first time I've ever done an interview specifically directed at other developers. As you may know, I don't have a lot of interest in what other developers are doing, and that's why I tend not to go to GDC and other conferences like that.

Team NINJA is concerned with making games that have very high graphics specifications. Is that more of a challenge in the next generation of development? Is that more difficult than it has been in the past? How are you surmounting that challenge?

TI: I'd say it's actually easier doing high-end graphics now, because you're released from some of the more mundane limitations. Like, I can go back and say that when we were doing the first Dead or Alive for the Sega Saturn, Kasumi's character model was 550 polygons; and then on the PlayStation it was like 520 or 530. The fact that I remember the exact amount of polygons just shows how limited the conditions were back then.

But now, if you asked me how many tens of thousands of polygons are on the character models, I'm not aware on that specific level. So I think it's freed us from some of the more mundane worries that we had in the past. It used to be that claiming you could put X number of polygons on screen at once was kind of a measure of the graphical prowess of a game or a system, but now I think we have a different set of considerations to take into account.

When it comes to Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, it's a realistic looking game for the DS, which few people are doing. Can you talk about any certain challenges that you faced in creating that kind of look and gameplay style on the DS?

TI: I think that the visual aspect is a very important part of game design in general. There is, obviously, the visual; there is the auditory; there is the control scheme that causes the character to act on the screen; and all of those elements are very important, but a game should be beautiful, first and foremost, because it's a visual medium. The other people who claim the opposite, that graphics that aren't necessarily the most important thing -- I don't agree with that viewpoint.

And when it comes to doing stylus-only gameplay, was that something that you set out to do from the very first with this title, or was it something that developed as you realized you could do this?

TI: It certainly was what I envisioned from the beginning. In fact, when Nintendo first announced the specs of its unit, it was around the time that Sony was also announcing that they were bringing out the PSP. When I looked at the estimated specs of both, I knew which platform I wanted to work on. Basically what we see here today is the culmination of that vision that I have had since then. It has taken a while to get this far, of course. And I am sure that you, or people like you, might wonder, "If the visual is so important, then why choose DS over the PSP?"

The reason is because the PlayStation Portable is basically designed on the philosophy of having a console that you can take with you. They are basically just toning down what we see on home consoles such as the 360 or the PS3; whereas the DS was looking at a whole new method of input. Just as I said earlier, one of the key aspects of game design is the interactivity between the user's input and what happens on the screen, so I thought: here is a chance to do something totally original, using the strengths of this hardware. If I was going to make a game for PSP, I would be better off making a game for PS2, because they are essentially attempting to do the same thing.

Do you think that's why the DS is so successful? Because of the new control method, or because of marketing, or innovative titles?

TI: Up until now I have been speaking as a game developer. Now I am going to speak from the standpoint of management of a game company: the success of the DS is directly related to the success of its predecessor, the Game Boy Advance. Someone like yourself, an editor who is very concerned with the industry, asked me back when the DS and PSP were first starting to come out, "Why did you announce a title for the DS? Why didn't you announce one for the PSP? The PSP is gonna be the clear winner in this struggle."

What I told that person is: you frame in terms of a battle between a PSP and a DS. But what the PSP needs to defeat is the predecessor, the Game Boy Advance. Because Nintendo has made all their profits, and made this fan-base off of the success of the GBA. And they never imagined that the DS was going to be the success that it was; it was just a new challenge, a new way for them to broaden their market.

So the whole viewpoint of the PSP versus the DS is flawed. What Sony really needed to do was get those key Game Boy users and broaden the market. When Nintendo first announced the DS, they were very realistic at the time in knowing that it may be a success or it may not; they certainly weren't convinced of its success. They just knew that it was something they needed to try, for the sake of the industry, to continue to expand the kind of experiences that were available. And that type of spirit is something that I could relate with, and part of the reason why I chose to go with this hardware.

I like to support people who are trying to challenge the status quo, and do new things. That's why when Microsoft announced the original Xbox back in 2000, I said, "OK, I'm going to get on board with that." And then when Nintendo announced the DS, I thought, "This is a good thing for the industry, to have these new kinds of challenging experiences." That's why I've gotten on board with this hardware.

 


So what do you think of the current state of the market? With so many different platforms, what do you think of the fortunes of those platforms? Will they all find their success with different audiences?

TI: Before I talk about the industry in general, I'd like to just comment a little bit on why the DS was able to be as successful as it was. When I announced my support for the DS three years ago, when it was first announced, I envisioned several things. One thing that made me happy was to see the success of this hardware that I have chosen. That was something that was pleasant -- but one thing that has been disappointing is seeing that the kind of experiences that I envisioned at that time have not really been realized in the form of true "game" games. There are not so many of those out on the market.

Though I understand the reasons behind that: because developing a game for the DS is like a tenth or a fifteenth the cost of one developed for a home console, so I know that a lot of developers out there who do not have the talent or the backing to be successful on consoles are putting their weight behind the DS. Of course, Nintendo is very strict with their approval processes, so we have not seen a lot of truly crappy games come out on the system, but it is just a matter of fact that when you are dealing with small budgets like these, you are going to reach the limitations of what you can do.

So now that we are in this market where there are a glut of relatively low-budget games that are filling up the marketplace, the market may be ready for a more serious, more refined experience. We are right at this turning point in the portable space, where we will be launching this Dragon Sword game, and this may be exactly what people out there are looking for. They may be tired of all the "training" games, and looking for something more substantial. Or maybe not. We won't be able to tell until we actually throw it out there and see how people react.

I think that there is a feeling among the people I talk to this year that the "training" games have reached their limit, and that the bubble may burst soon. There are way more "training" games in Japan than there are in America; they didn't seem to take off there. What do you think the audience of the DS will be a few years from now?

TI: It's been three years since we announced our title, so it is true that the market has definitely matured. Maybe I should have tried to figure this out earlier! But, you know, from here I think that the market definitely will mature. Whether it really becomes a reliable market for years to come is going to depend on the stability of all the titles -- all the people who are playing the games, and what they are looking for.

Looking back at the GBA, it was relatively stable. We'll just have to see how it unfolds over the next few years. I am definitely looking at companies like Square Enix and Konami; those are the companies that are bringing out really game-like games for the DS, and I hope that they continue to do so. We will just have to see, and hopefully we will find a happy medium where the entire market is finding something they want to play. Metroid Prime: Hunters was developed in America, and it was pretty fun as well.

It's interesting that you mentioned Square Enix, because definitely, looking at their booth this year, you could see a clear division between their strategy for DS -- which could be considered their main strategy -- and then their future titles, which were for the PlayStation platforms. Titles like Crisis Core, they have Kingdom Hearts upcoming, and Final Fantasy for the PS3. There is becoming a clear division; do you think that the whole industry is dividing like that?

TI: I think that's a bad trend. To give a war analogy: it's a much more stable to have both aircraft carriers and battleships in a single formation. One of the bad tactics that the old Japanese naval forces had was to put their aircraft carriers in front, and put their battleships behind. But what you have to do is take your weapons and put them in a single formation, in order to be as effective as you can.

Do you think that there are too many platforms to support right now? Not just for Team NINJA; obviously, you pick very specifically what you're going to do. But in general for the industry, do you think that we have too many different platforms going right now?

TI: Do you think that there are too many publishers of game magazines and websites in America?

Um... interesting question!

TI: Sorry! Sorry to answer your question with a question -- that was just a joke. I think that the more you have, the better. The more pieces of hardware you have, the more you find different philosophies being introduced into the market. That helps us stimulate the entire industry. Plus, competition is always good; it keeps people striving. So I think it is good to have so many different platforms.

What do you think of the competition between the PlayStation 3 and the 360? Especially since as of now, the rumors are starting to circulate that Microsoft is considering pulling out of the Japanese market, whereas Sony is starting very slowly to gain a foothold at the same time.

TI: Do you think that the 360 is going to withdraw from the Japanese market?

I'm not sure. To withdraw completely and cease production, that doesn't seem likely. But probably, I would think that Microsoft would look at Japan more as a talent base, to create games that could sell internationally, rather than compete on a one-to-one level.

TI: Well first of all, if Microsoft withdrew the 360 from the Japanese market, I would not have any way to let my daughter play the games I make, so that would be a big problem! Well, of course the game I am making right now is rather intense, so I do not think that I could let her play it either way...! Joking aside: as long as there are guys like me here, we will continue to have Xbox titles coming out of Japan that are going affect the entire global market. So I don't think that they're considering withdrawing.

That being said, I think a key to my titles is that I don't aim them specifically at the Japanese market, or any market. I aim my titles at the world. So, I think that of all the strategies that one can take when developing a game, the one of choosing to make a title for the global market is certainly one of the most effective strategies.

 


What do you think it takes to make a game that's appealing to the entire world? That's a thing that is rare to achieve; it is rare not just for Japanese developers, but even western developers typically don't find global success. They might find success in America, and/or Europe, but not often global success.

TI: I don't think it's as difficult as it's made out to be. I think you have to focus on creating games that have an appeal that extends beyond regional boundaries: that do not rely on historical background, religion, fashion, a specific culture, or things of each nation. Then, I think, that makes it easier to be accepted. I think that this is particularly a problem for American developers, because most of your major games are totally marketing-driven. It's all about focus groups, and all about saying, "OK, this genre is selling, therefore we have to make a bigger and better game in this genre." Or, "American consumers right now are looking for this kind of game, so we'll make this kind of game." Now, obviously, when you base your game design decisions off of that kind of feedback, you're going to get up with a game that's only viable for that region.

In Japan, there is a saying "kachoufuugetsu", which is "flowers, birds, wind, and the moon." That basically is a vague summary of things that human beings might find appealing. You look at a flower and say, "Oh, this is beautiful." You look at a bird that can fly, whereas humans can't, and we see it as a symbol of freedom, something to aspire to. The wind, you know, if you were to have a cool wind blowing, that would help to convey your mood at that moment. And looking at the moon, you may think that not only is it visually beautiful, but it may bring to mind things like wanting to see the moon, wanting to go to the moon, and wanting to know what's there. That sort of inquisitiveness.

So, I think that if you look at those key human emotions that cross national boundaries, and don't rely on the circumstances surrounding each country, then it's relatively easy to make a game that can be enjoyed anywhere. Although obviously if you send somebody out there to look at flowers and they say, "I don't like flowers. Why did you send me to look at flowers?" Those are the kind of people that I just have to say that this game might not turn out to be for you. I wonder what would happen if I said this to a marketer, and he said, "Well we have conducted focus testing that concludes that flowers are no longer popular!" But once again, that's just my kind of approach. That's my philosophy.

Itagaki's Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2

So you don't rely on the marketing -- you rely on your own inspiration for the games that you create.

TI: Yeah, that's definitely the origin of everything I do: my own inspiration. However, the amount of people around the world that play my games now has increased so much that sometimes I do need that feedback from other sources as well. Whether it is to rein me in if I am going too far, or just to give me suggestions, in that sense I really value the marketing people that work on my games. And once again, just to reiterate: this is my philosophy, as it relates to games for a global audience, that don't rely on a cultural background. Obviously, there are games out there that do, and are successful, but this is my approach.

It's interesting that you say this as regards Ninja Gaiden. Obviously, ninja is a Japanese cultural reference, but it is accepted all over the world. So as far as the game goes, the setting varies. You might have parts in Japan, you might have the Vigoor Empire, in the new game there's the Venice-like Aqua City area. So is there a way that you help people to personally relate? Do you give people a piece of the game to relate to, and then the rest is your vision?

TI: Video games are an interactive medium. They have to look good and be interactive. I think that there are many different types of beauty, and so there are many different types of things that are visually appealing. So for us it would be just looking at the total base of what's out there in the world, and just picking what we think is appealing. To include, just as you mentioned, many different types of locations in the game. Now I don't claim to represent all seven billion people in the world, but for me it is all about finding things that I personally find beautiful, regardless of origin. And so, any game design is going to be influenced by my own aesthetic tastes. That's just unavoidable.

Since Team NINJA is so well-known for focusing on aesthetics, working on DS, how have you found the effort of bringing across those aesthetics on a limited platform?

TI: If it was just about trying to compete for pure visual quality, then all you would need is a good still photograph. It doesn't get much better than that for photo-realism, or pure visual appeal. But what we are trying to do is create something that's interactive: you provide an input, you do something, and the game reacts. The visuals will change based on that reaction. On a home console, what you see is an exponentially larger output from the game, as far as visuals, sounds, and everything. You might push a single button, and an incredible amount of activity will happen on the screen.

Just from a purely objective viewpoint, having the rate of increase of output versus input -- well, the higher it is, the better. The more you get out of what you do, the more human beings will be happy, and find that experience fun. So if you have a two-year-old child standing near a light switch, they will turn it on and off, on and off, on and off, until told to stop. [Itagaki gets up and demonstrates.] Do you know why that is?


The recently announced Ninja Gaiden 2

Well, I'd say because there is a big reaction. The whole room goes dark -- and then also to get attention out of their parents for doing it.

TI: Thank you. I don't know if they have these in America, but here we have toys that have big buttons, where you push one and a bear pops up and roars. So the key to games, or "fun," is the relative size of the reaction for every action that you take. On a game console, you have a controller, which gives you very small inputs right on a physical level, but it's creating a huge reaction on-screen, for what you're seeing. This is very appealing for people to play.

And then we have the DS hardware -- and of course the DS has buttons, but I have chosen only to use the buttons for blocking, and for nothing else -- have everything else use the stylus. The reason for this is because this is one of the few devices where you can actually input directly onto the screen. There is not a disconnection. [Itagaki indicates a 360 attached to an HDTV in the room.] You have somebody pushing a button and something happens on the screen. Here, you can literally interact with the screen.

And so, I wanted to take that to its logical conclusion. If there was a chance that we would be unsuccessful with this game, it would be if the reaction to the inputs of the stylus were not enough to satisfy the player. Because we are asking the player to do something more stressful and tiring than the buttons; we are asking to draw on the screen. So, the output and the feeling that you get for playing has to be appropriate for that input.

Another thing is that when you are controlling a character with buttons, it is indirect. You push a button, that signal is relayed to the machine, and something happens. So obviously, if you are in a situation where you can directly interact with the screen itself, you would expect that the character would be able to move faster since you're directly controlling him. So, I understood that unless I made it possible for you to control Hayabusa intuitively, and faster than would be possible with a home console, this game wouldn't be successful. So if I am able to accomplish that, then I think that our plan for creating a paradigm shift as far as this portable system goes, I think we'll be successful.

Just to avoid any possible confusion for the readers, I just want to make it clear that in listening to this philosophy, you may think: "OK, why don't we make it so that you can interact directly with, say, a TV at home through a home console? Wouldn't that be a logical extension of what you're talking about?" But what makes this viable is that because the screen is small, because the machine is small, because you can take it with you and you can hold it in your hands, you can write directly with it. And that is the key that makes this game design philosophy viable.

 


You say that you are not interested in listening to other developers, and do not look at other games. Obviously there is an element in which your games come directly from your artistic inspiration, but there also has to be some reconciling that with the direction of the market. Where does that fit into your philosophy?

TI: I think it's all about luck, in a sense. If I am at E3 and TGS, and I'm walking on the show floor, there are things that are going to catch my eye, and things that aren't. If something catches my eye, then I'll play it for five minutes and analyze exactly what makes it good and what doesn't. But whether something catches my eye or not is nothing; it's just luck.

Now, you may think that's kind of a loose type of attitude for someone who is responsible for making popular games. But as someone who gambles a lot, I think it's only natural that I should take that kind of stance. It makes a lot of sense. You can't expect to be able to gather data on everything, because then you're just going to be derivative.

Look at a roulette table: there is always going to be a guy at the roulette table who is taking down every winning number. Are those guys guaranteed to win? No. The guys that win are the guys that just play their instinct. So I think that there is a very important balance there that has to be made. Just to kind of wrap it up, I think that it is important to understand the mechanisms of the world industry as a whole, but it is hundreds of times more important to know your own rhythms. To know what makes you tick, yourself, if you want to make a good game.

You're right when you say that a lot of the games in the west are developed from a marketing perspective, and features are designed to appeal to the perceptions of the market. But there is also a lot of talk among developers about what makes a game "next generation." What sort of things we can do that are different from what's been done before, that really push a game forward. I was wondering what your philosophy on that is.

TI: It's rare for me to talk about this kind of business-related topic, or "industry philosophy" as it were. In typical interviews, when you ask, "what do you think about the future of the industry?" I almost always just answer that I haven't really thought about it much. So it's rare for me to talk this much about it.

Now, getting back to your question, I think it's important to do what you said: thinking about, "What is the next generation?" A lot of my games rely on elements that are not necessarily easy to be quantified. A lot of my beliefs on what is fun, is not about having X number of levels, or X number of weapons, or anything like that. So, I think it's important that while we have these kind of amorphous philosophies about what makes a game fun, that we include some easily quantifiable things in it as well: that this game uses this type of technology, this type of lighting, or it's got this new feature that is quote-unquote next-gen.

And that can be used as bullet-points when talking about a game to get people to pay attention to it. And that might bring their focus onto things that aren't as easily measurable. I think that that's an important aspect to have. In the past, I have not really focused on the elements that were easy to be quantified. I have always approached my game design, and talked about my game design, in a way that reflected my beliefs that it's not about the numbers, and it's not about the features. Is the game fun or not?

That being said, looking at the past products that I've made, through the years a lot of Team NINJA fans have said that I'm kind of moving more towards an auteur standpoint rather than a game designer for the fans. So I think it's important that I also look at those kinds of elements as well; to try to bridge the gap. In the sense of the past three years or so, I have basically been making games for the fans. However, looking at the future of Team NINJA, I think it's necessary to pull some more arrows out of my quiver, and have a lot of new methods in order to bring in new people as well. I don't just have one or two arrows; I have a whole quiver full! And they're all tangible, and they are all very easy to understand.


Team NINJA's upcoming Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword for the DS

That just leads me to a great wrap-up question, I guess -- or, I hope it's good -- which is: when you first announced the DS game, you said it was something your daughter can play, and looking at the DS audience, I don't think people expected it to be a Ninja Gaiden game. Is creating a different kind of game something in your future? Obviously you guys have done a great job developing on the DS, but as you say, you have other arrows in your quiver -- is that the future of Team NINJA?

TI: My daughter's playing this and she's enjoying it. But it's more popular with her boy friends than it is with her, herself. Just as a final note: I am very happy with what we've done in the past. But I'm sure that there are a lot of fans out there that have kids -- as I do myself -- and there haven't been a lot of Team NINJA games that you could play with your kids, together.

So, I think something in the future could be, certainly, something that a father and daughter or son could play together, and try to beat each other, or compare scores and things like that. But it isn't just those kind of heartwarming feelings that I have when I make this game. This is obviously designed to destroy all the action game competition on the DS as well. Don't forget that.

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