Interview: Suda51 Talks Pushing Style, Pursuing Freshness

Grasshopper Manufacture director Goichi Suda talks to Gamasutra about how the studio balances original and commercial projects, art, horror, the Unreal Engine and... therapeutic chair-smashing?
As the director of Grasshopper Manufacture, Goichi Suda has overseen the creation of games that are unique in their subversive wit and style. Suda recently talked to Gamasutra about how his experience previous to Grasshopper informed the studio's strategy of balancing aggressively original projects like Killer7 and No More Heroes with more publisher-driven commercial work like Fatal Frame IV and Samurai Champloo. We also discussed the distinctive Grasshopper style, the Unreal Engine, and matters of art, horror and... therapeutic chair-smashing? Do you have a special affection for the horror genre? A lot of Grasshopper's games have a sinister quality to them. Goichi Suda: It's not that I consciously think about horror during the creation process. When you're making a horror game, of course, that's a different story. I can't deny that I like a lot of movies in that genre, though, so from that standpoint, you could say that. Horror is one of the easiest story genres to express within a video game, but it's also one of the most difficult emotions to invoke within the player. It's undoubtedly an interesting and vital storytelling tool in games, so from that aspect, I do have something of an affection for it. Grasshopper has a very distinctive style that is easy to spot -— the way that it looks and sounds. But many studios are not as successful at developing a recognizable style. What do you do to insure the Grasshopper look and feel? To be honest, I didn't realize that the style was so distinctive until I began hearing it from other people worldwide. That's when I first became cognizant of it, and certainly I realize it today. It's not something that we deliberately set out to realize with each new project, although there's naturally going to be a lot of the development staff's own minds in any final product. If you asked me what I consider to be Grasshopper's most unique trait, it's that we create games not by crafting individual parts and building them up like blocks, but by first considering what sort of emotional response we want to get from the player. That's a big part of what makes a game Grasshopper-like, the message we try to send. Did you have a chance to look at any of the games in the Independent Games Festival? They have a very strong visual style. Very small teams make the games and they're generally not making much money at them, but they're very challenging works. I'm wondering what Grasshopper does to be commercially successful while retaining a somewhat confrontational spirit. Well, I didn't get my career start in video games until I joined a publisher called Human when I was 24 years old. I left school at the age of 18 -— actually, I was in school for one more year after that, so it was 19 -— and in the five years between, I did all sorts of jobs, none of which had anything to do with games. Through that, I think I got a very personal insight into the ways of the world, and how our society is built. I had that experience before joining the game industry, and in the beginning I was working on previously established games and series -- first a pro wrestling game, then I joined midway on another development team's project. I was a designer, but I also had a team to direct, dealing with the dev team on one end and the main brass of the company on the other. There was a balance that had to be struck in order to keep every side happy with each other. So with all that previous experience, I think we at Grasshopper have become adept at not only pushing our own style, but being able to work alongside partners, producers and publishers on an equal basis, being able to listen to their opinions and work alongside them. There are games like Killer7, of course, but there are other games we've worked on that were a great deal more publisher-driven. I think that production style is something we've been able to preserve throughout our history; keeping up that sort of relationship is one important part of that. With these other projects that you take on, like Fatal Frame 4 or Samurai Champloo -- how much time do they take away from productions like No More Heroes or Killer7? Is it a matter of setting aside time from your personal projects for these more commercial ones? The original titles definitely take more time. When you're working with IP that previously exists, then your top priority is to make fans of that IP happy. It's the same story in the anime business, and naturally when you make a game based off anime, job one is to attract the fans of the original property. In a way, a lot of your job in a non-original-IP project is done for you in advance. In the case of Fatal Frame, there are naturally a great number of wonderful games in that series already, so it's our job to create the game that series fans are hoping for, not necessarily to inject every creative idea we come up with into the project. That's the reason projects like that take less time -- it's a more compact and pointed development process. Are you able to talk about your work with the Unreal Engine? I saw the session that Square Enix had at GDC where they discussed using Unreal for Last Remnant, and the results seemed mixed. They were saying that it excelled in some ways, but in others it didn't meet their expectations. I actually attended the session too, and certainly I've heard a lot of the issues in that session brought up by other people in the industry I've talked with. In my experience, I think ourselves and the companies we work with both know how to use Unreal and what we expect to get out of it. We knew what to pay close attention to during our own preparation, and now we've got the pipeline down for the creative process. The decision to use Unreal was made at the start, and it's been a smooth process. Certainly, mastering the system has taken time and it took some experienced people to help, but since we prepared ourselves for the worst case that we've heard of, it hasn't been a problem. Grasshopper games always have such outstanding music, and I'm wondering what influences you when you're deciding on how a title should sound. I want to make sure I don't give people the same impression all the time. We want to avoid, for example, having a Killer7-like song play in the middle of No More Heroes, because that'll wind up making players remember Killer7 instead of the game we want them to pay attention to. Since it's a new game, we want it to be a new experience for the players, and that's something we consciously think of for any soundtrack. We don't want to repeat what we've already done in the past; instead, we want to give something new and interesting to the players. That's something that applies for the whole design process, of course. We always want to do something fresh. Do you follow American wrestling? I have to admit, I probably don't know much about more recent WWE stuff. The last guy I really followed was John Cena. Do Japanese wrestlers have face and heel personas? It's a pretty different story in Japan. There are promotions that work in a similar way, but in Japan it's more of a pure contest to see who's the strongest or the most popular. Certainly, after a long workweek, it can be relaxing to come home and watch someone get hit with a chair. (laughs) Definitely. The game business keeps all of us really busy, after all. While I'm here in the US, I took the opportunity to buy THQ's latest WrestleMania game, and that helps too, certainly. [Special thanks to Kevin Gifford for interview translation help.]

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