Japanese-headquartered publisher and developer Koei may be known for its Dynasty Warriors
, series, most recently market-expanding in Japan via the Dynasty Warriors: Gundam
That Bandai Namco team-up may have seemed an unlikely combination, but was demonstrative of a surprising market savvy on Koei's part, and the firm is now trying to expand its reach further.
Koei is at work on DS title Monster Racers
] -- which sidescrolls when most racing games are head-on, offers four-player multiplayer in a fashion more often the territory of the PSP -- and tries to challenge Nintendo's market dominance, with strong stylistic influences of Pokémon
and Mario Kart
In this interview, Gamasutra catches up with producer Hisashi Koinuma and Koei sales and marketing manager Jarik Sikat to talk Monster Racers
, from the challenges of the explosive Japanese DS market to the subtleties of the company's bold strategy.
Since we spoke in 2007, which games have you been involved with?
Hisashi Koinuma: This title [Monster Racers
] and a few others that I can't mention at this point.
Jarik Sikat: Dynasty Warriors: Gundam, Samurai Warriors: Katana
... Samurai Warriors
was the last project.
Looking at the art for Monster Racers, there seems to be some Pokémon influence there. Was that an intentional aim to capture that market, or was it a coincidence?
HK: Before, the object wasn't to make a Pokémon
game. First, there was the vision to make a kids game; to focus on games that were more geared towards younger boys. So, when thinking about younger boys' games, there may be some references to Pokémon
And, also [with] the fact that this game uses monsters, there is also that overlap in similarity with Pokémon
. But we don't necessarily think that all monster games are Pokémon
games, so it's difficult to make a kids', boys' monster game and not have people relate it to Pokémon
, so that's very difficult for the team.
Another historical background of the game is Koei released a title [in Japan] ten years ago called Monster Racer
that included monsters. It was quite successful, and is what this game is based off of. An additional reason why Koei decided to make this game is that our Nintendo category is weaker than our other platforms, so this --
JS: Say we wanted to grow
Translator: "Improve our relationships with...?"
JS: Say that we wanted to grow our Nintendo library...
I could, but that's what he said! I heard it too! Well -- nobody's going to argue with that, really. It's not a secret.
HK: So that was a good challenge.
It's true that the old Monster Racers had a different style of character art, and this one leans stylistically more toward Pokémon -- but I guess I don't need to actually ask about that.
Translator: OK. (laughs)
How do you think you can strengthen the DS market right now, when the market is a bit bloated with titles from so many companies?
HK: As a video game entertainment company, we can't ignore the success that Nintendo is having with their platforms, and we want to challenge ourselves to release titles for the most popular platform that is out there.
We need to keep challenging ourselves, as a development team, regardless of the number of other developers and publishers that have released titles for that platform.
Many seem to perceive that there are a great deal of lower-quality titles on the DS. Is that also a challenge, since it can be hard for consumers to differentiate the quality products from so many other look-a-likes?
HK: First, we'd like to see it succeed in Japan, and to help it succeed in Japan, we'll be releasing demos, for people to try it, and we hope that people might soon find that they like it, and if they like the game, we hope that they might purchase it.
And, also, [we want] to push it with the publications and the media over in Japan, so that the game gets noticed and picked up. Then once we've developed a reputation in Japan, [we plan to] use that as a springboard to release it in the States and Europe.
It seems like very few non-Nintendo games have really used multiplayer functionality in a big way on DS. Monster Racers' four-player racing mechanic is the type of thing more common on the PSP right now -- are you specifically attempting to address this absence on DS?
HK: Maybe it's not quite the case in Japan, because Mario Kart
has become quite popular, with the multiplayer.
Right. But other than Nintendo...
HK: We feel that the multiplayer feature is a communication tool, a social tool, that will bring people together, and if people can use this game to increase their communication with other people, we think that's a great thing.
The sidescrolling perspective is slightly unusual these days for racing games, which usually rely on a depth-based, front-bumper kind of camera. Why did you choose the side view?
HK: The main reason was that one of the appeals of this game is the monsters themselves; we wanted to see the monsters. In Mario Kart
, when you're from behind the car, going forward, you can't actually see the character's face. That's why we chose the sidescrolling.
We are currently also working on not just sidescrolling, but moving up, or moving down, for different stages. It's easier for variety in the game.
That almost helps it become a cross between a racing title and a Smash Bros type of aesthetic, because there's some combat, right?
HK: Like you say, there is much more of a visual appeal when there's sidescrolling, because you can see how your opponent is reacting to the attacks that you've made.
This is very hard to express in games such as Mario Kart
, where all you're seeing is the back of your car, and your opponents being attacked either in front or in back of you, where it's off-screen.
Is there a very effective way to release demos for DS games at this point? On Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network, people can simply download them, so is there more work involved in encouraging them to try DS demos?
HK: In Japan, the Nintendo download station is very popular. When people go to retail stores, there's a Nintendo station, and you download demos or whatever into your DS -- and that's the way it is in Japan, and since it's popular, it's not very hard to do. But that might not be the case in the States or in Europe.
Obviously, the toy stores and the retail stores, but even the train stations and some restaurants are also carrying Nintendo DS stations.
I didn't realize it was quite that prevalent. Finally, as a developer-publisher, how do you feel about the DS market right now?
HK: In Japan, the DS sales have come to a point where it's so large that it's not just a target audience; you can't limit it to a younger generation or older generation, it's gone beyond a certain audience, to where they even have a term called 'touch generation'.
So, it's something that has become a very commonplace electronic device that can be assumed that everybody already has, and I think that will be the same in US and Europe as well.
So for a device that is becoming not just a game device, but actually a communication tool, as publisher and developer, you can't ignore that platform and not develop any software for something that is becoming not just a gaming device.