Over its fifteen-year history, Japanese developer and publisher Nippon Ichi Software has gained a reputation for quality strategy RPGs.
It is best known for its flagship strategy RPG series Disgaea
, whose first two entries appeared on PlayStation 2. A third PS3 entry in the series was released earlier this year on Japan, and is being localized for North America.
NIS America, established in 2003, publishes both Nippon Ichi's own games as well as various niche titles from other Japanese studios, and has earned a strong following among a small but dedicated group of North American gamers.
During a recent company event, Gamasutra sat down with NIS producer Souhei Niikawa, who also wrote Disgaea 3
, as well as Disgaea
series lead programmer Masahiro Yamamoto.
The pair spoke on their company's unlikely success in North America, the difficulties in transitioning to the current generation, and making appropriate use of modern systems' capabilities.
NIS has been in America for a while now, and you've become successful with your titles. Did you ever think this kind of game would become successful in America?
Souhei Niikawa: First of all, I really work more on being successful in Japan. I think about our key successes in Japan.
So your top priority right now is developing games for Japanese audiences and then hoping they'll appeal to American audiences?
SN: As a Japanese person, it's hard to know what American gamers will like, so, since I don't know that, if I try to make a game for an American audience, I might make something that the American audience would laugh at. My goal is to make a game that will sell in Japan, and hope that if it sells in Japan it will sell in America too.
The reason why I think that is when I heard that they were going to make a version of Disgaea
for America, I didn't think it was going to sell at all, because there are a lot of topics that had a very Japanese feel with Japanese culture, and that only Japanese people would understand, and it's a very unusual game. But it does sell. So I guess that it's a good game.
I think everyone was surprised at just how popular Disgaea turned out to be. It opened up the floodgates for your games to get more popularity in America, because gamers were able to understand your games and try new things. And I think that NIS is probably more successful with these types of games than other publishers are.
Masahiro Yamamoto: I'll try and keep making weird things!
Obviously the games you make aren't at the highest level of graphical specifications. Disgaea 3 on the PS3 is low-spec compared to most games. What do you think of the evolution of the PS1 to PS2 and PS3, and how that affects how Nippon Ichi makes games?
MY: It's not the graphics that comes first in games. It's more of the game itself, how you play it. And that's what we're focusing on. Even if it's the latest super console, we're trying to make the most fun games out there.
From a business standpoint, do you worry that, as the consoles progress, your fans will begin to demand something you can't supply? Nobody else is really making games the way you make games.
SN: We're well aware of our fans are demanding better graphics for the next-gen consoles. We'd definitely love to do it. But the very first point, like I said, is the games themselves. We'd obviously want to improve and amp up our graphics as well. But we won't ever go to, like, a Final Fantasy
level. That's impossible for us.
In the balance between the graphics and the gameplay, the graphics won't be all the way up. It will be at a level where we can say, "Alright, it's not bad. It's good." I think we can fine tune it. Disgaea 3
is our first title for the PS3. So, again, whatever's demanded by our fans will be something we'll improve on.
My other question is that graphics are just one way to use the PS3 - the most obvious way. You're using downloadable content in Disgaea 3. You could also do improved AI. What ways can you, as a developer, keep the spirit of your games the way you want to use them but still make use of the next-gen console features?
SN: You're right with some of the things that you've mentioned. There a lot of things that can be improved upon - that also could be sound, maybe something completely new with the sound system, or using the next-gen power for the gameplay itself, for something new that maybe you've never seen before.
It's about improving the game as a whole and trying to come up with something new that you've never seen before. We're definitely working on that right now - thinking about what route could be taken.
Over the course of the PS2 generation, especially, in the beginning of the year, every year, Nippon Ichi would release a new SRPG game in Japan, with a year between each title. Were they made by the same team each time?
SN: It's the same team, and he's the one responsible for all of the games. [Niikawa points to Yamamoto]
Wow. Did you have a one year development cycle for each game?
MY: Yes. [laughs]
Will [PS2 Pilot Wings-esque flight game] Tori no Hoshi ever come out in America?
SN: If American fans would like to see the game Tori no Hoshi
come over to the U.S. then they should let that guy know. [Niikawa gestures toward NIS America president Haru Akenaga.]
I think they'll buy anything with Prinnies in it!
SN: Please go tell him that.
What was the idea behind that game? It's different from everything you've done so far - it's a full 3D action flying game.
SN: So in Nippon Ichi Software, there are actually two development teams. One is a software team in-house which makes the big ones. The second one is a partnership with a few other companies - like Hitmaker, with [our new DS title] A Witch's Tale
, for example. We'll work together to make a game.
Tori no Hoshi
is part of the latter group. When we do that, we'll do something completely new and different from what we originally are used to. So it's a nice little change.
Was the main planning for that game done by Nippon Ichi or was it done by the subcontracting developer?
SN: The planning was originally developed by our partner.
But they added in elements like Prinnies to add a Nippon Ichi flavor?
SN: Nippon Ichi is producing the game, and we'll put comments, and we'll go into meetings to improve the game. Adding Prinnies was one of the ideas - it was a relationship maybe like a movie, where you have a director and producer. It's kind of like that.
Having done a little research before I came, I noticed that Nippon Ichi is in Gifu Prefecture. Most game development companies are in Tokyo. Why are you out in the middle of nowhere for game development, and how does that affect your development?
SN: We get this question a lot in Japan as well, because people do wonder. But the truth is that you can do game development anywhere.
Especially in Tokyo, in the middle of the city, there's more temptation and more distractions. And other companies might headhunt your people, so you never have enough people. In Gifu it's more quiet and we can concentrate more on development than going out and having fun.