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Stupid And Hardcore: The Secrets To Disgaea's Success

Disgaea 3 and 4 producer Shogo Kozakai tells Gamasutra what attracts fans to the cult-hit tactical RPG series, and what the developer is doing to ensure they stick around in the social age.
Since the first game was a surprising success on the PlayStation 2, the Disgaea series of tactical RPGs has built a comfortable niche, attracting a base of hardcore fans with both its complex gameplay and ridiculous scenarios. "Stupid and being dumb -- that's pretty much the theme for Disgaea," says producer Shogo Kozakai, who has worked on Disgaea 3 (PlayStation 3 and soon Vita) and Disgaea 4 (PS3) among other titles, at developer Nippon Ichi Software's HQ in Japan. What makes a Disgaea game a Disgaea game? "It has to be something completely different from the other strategy RPGs," says Kozakai. "So what we would do is just do something really, actually stupid." This is what pulls in the hardcore fans -- but only because it translates to the gameplay, too. "If you do something outrageously ridiculous, like level 9,999, whatever million damage," fans take notice, he says. The team still has to concentrate on making a deep game that stands up to punishment from the most hardcore players, right? "That's absolutely true," says Kozakai. "Obviously if it doesn't evolve, it's just going to get boring and players will move on. Keeping the basic part is important, and then adding features to sort of refreshing it time to time is probably the important part." One way to involve players more in this year's Disgaea 4 was to bring in user generated content. Players can create battle maps and share them. "That seems to be very popular amongst the hardcore fans right now," says Kozakai. The players get competitive, he says -- maps are rated by the community, and that inspires players to compete to build better ones. "Players communicate with another player and then try to build upon each other. It's almost like a little community, and I guess that extends the life of the game." Another feature that does this is social networking-derived. Players can send their character into other players' games and reap benefits. This feature came up for two reasons. "One reason is, in Disgaea 3 we have pirates invading your world. And so we thought, 'Would it be fun if the other players could do the same thing, invade into other worlds?', and that's how it sort of started off." But also, says Kozakai, "we'd been doing a lot of research, too, on games -- and also not just games, but social networking stuff. And it's obviously becoming a lot more popular, and that's what the gamers are really enjoying, so we figured, 'Okay, it's probably about time that we should do something like that, too.'" Social mobile games are a threat to NIS, says Kozakai. "But then, obviously, cell phones have their own limitations, too, so we're trying to figure out what you can do with a cell phone, and what you can do with a console. And then -- if it's Vita or PlayStation 3 -- try to survive within that category. And that's what NIS is trying to do right now." However, the company announced at Tokyo Game Show that it's working on a free-to-play mobile version of the series for Android smartphones, so clearly -- whether it be PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, or Android -- it's not counting on a single platform, as it could a few years ago. The company is currently porting Disgaea 3 to the PlayStation Vita, and Kozakai is producing that port. "For Disgaea 3 Vita, we are thinking that the main base will be those who've played or purchased the original PlayStation 3 version," he says. "Disgaea 3 fans are really hardcore, and if there's something decent, like something that's good with new stuff in it, they would probably like to try it out." These hardcore fans also buy a lot of DLC, says Kozakai. "Character DLC seems to be the most popular, and probably followed by scenarios and things like that." The key, he says, is making the characters that offer significant differences in gameplay. "The custom characters that you can download, they're not like the generic characters you build within the game. So they have their own movement, stats, also attack ranges and skills are completely original to them, too. So once you get those characters, you could build your new strategy around that character." The company must be doing something right: it gained in profits in its latest fiscal year.

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