Just over a week ago it was announced that Unreal Engine was powering the Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Unreal Engine, along with other game engines, have been increasingly used by Japanese game developers, which bodes well for the future as creators can focus on content rather than recreating the technological wheel each time.
Below find an exclusive interview extract with Taka Kawasaki of Epic Games Japan, from Volume 2 of my book trilogy, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers. He discusses the history of game technology, licensing of the Unreal Engine, how the company liaises with developers/publishers, and also the past, present, and future of the Japanese games industry. (The full interview, contained within the book, also features some hair-raising anecdotes about a business trip to the country of Colombia!)
If you enjoy this interview please take a look at the books themselves, which discuss the history of Japanese games from the early 1980s through to the present, and contain exclusives map sketches, photos, game design docs, staff listings, and information on unreleased games. Volume 3 can only be completed if there's enough interest in the current two.
Abridged interview with Taka KAWASAKI
Although not involved with the history of games in quite the same way as other interviewees in this trilogy of books, I was extremely keen to speak with Mr Kawasaki on his involvement with the future of Japanese games - specifically Epic Games Japan, which licenses out the Unreal Engine. The Western press has become obsessed with the narrative that the Japanese games industry is somehow failing, and even some developers have started to internalise this fiction, believing they need to compete with games like Call of Duty, or even Epic's own Gears of War. However, this author feels that Japan is still creatively dominant, even if its confidence is shaken.
To understand the complexity and context of the situation, you need to know that traditionally Japanese developers usually create their games from scratch, using proprietary tools. This goes back to the Famicom era, where companies would reverse engineer their own bespoke set-up. As the generations moved on and hardware specs went up, so did cost and employee numbers. Western developers were quicker to adopt and license third-party tools, which allowed for more resources to be spent on game creation. As discussed in our interview, Japanese developers have started to see great success by licensing third-party tools such as Unreal Engine. We also debate other big, contemporary issues. Anyone who argues Japan is losing its creative ability has their eyes closed.
JS: You're with Epic Games Japan now, right?
TK: I joined Epic in 2009 to open up their Japan office. Since then, I've worked on licensing sales of Unreal Engine, customer relationship management and people management of the local office.
JS: Working at the Japanese office of a Western company, how do you regard the differences?
TK: The biggest difference between the Western games industry and the Japanese games industry is whether people working for games are enjoying their job or not. I think this is a Japanese cultural thing, but there is a tendency among Japanese people that enjoying something makes you feel guilty. How can I say this? It is expected that people behave seriously when they are on duty. That is the typical cultural perception in Japan. So the games industry is relatively free from these cultural aspects, but still, enjoying your job could sometimes be perceived as or make one feel guilty. But my impression about the Western games industry is they love games, and they enjoy working for their project. I think that is a very big difference between these cultures.
JS: There's a view that Japan is having difficulty because of the HD era. Before, a small team could make a game, but now you need hundreds.
TK: Yes, so games became 3D and textures became more and more precise, and the customer's expectations were getting bigger and bigger. The budget and required time is growing more and more. This is my personal perception, but I think Japanese people are very good when they are working in a small team, or maybe as an individual. But we're poor at planning or scheduling project management. So that makes it difficult for us to show our creativity or come up with a high quality thing, when we work in a large group of people.
JS: In the West it's believed that Western games aren't enjoyed in Japan. Apparently there was the phrase yoge-kusoge, meaning crappy Western games. Did that perception really exist?
TK: I think the word yoge is already dead. Up until maybe... The last generation when people looked down on Western games, calling them yoge, was the original Xbox and PS2. After the 360 and PS3 the quality of Western games went above Japanese games, and people came to understand we were overtaken, and Western developers are providing better quality. When talking about technology or graphics. Back in the original Xbox or PlayStation 1 days, when people say yoge it means terrible graphics, or terrible gameplay, terrible navigation, bad user interface. So yoge meant low quality, but these days when people say yoge, it means it looks great. The technology is awesome, and the navigation and UI are perfect. So the meaning of yoge is changing from low quality to high quality.
JS: I wouldn't agree the West has overtaken Japan. Christian Nutt wrote about cool Japanese games from this generation. I asked myself, could I come up with 100 games? And I did, easily! That's more than I can complete in a lifetime. Maybe sales of Western games in the West are higher, but Japan has not lost its creative ability. Take Valkyria Chronicles. Both artistically and mechanically it is exquisite. No Western company could have made that. Japan's decline is not as some writers imply. Context is important.
TK: Yes, I think that potentially because of my job, I am kind of an evangelist of Western technologies to Japan.
JS: That's cool. I'm an evangelist of Japanese games, hence this book. Everyone says "Japan and the West", which is an unfair comparison. If you're comparing Western games, you're throwing together Canada, America, England, France, Germany, Spain, Scandinavia, Australia, plus others, and you're comparing all of these against Japan by itself. When you say Japan has fallen behind the West, you're actually saying one country has fallen behind the combined effort of at least 10 other countries together.
TK: Yes, that's a very good point. It maybe feels like we're fighting against international forces alone. That's true. But I think at the same time, people's perception about Japan, one country against the world - maybe we can see it as the exposure of our pride in our games industry. Japanese people believe videogames were born here, the Japanese games industry made it. So we believe it's like judo or karate; games are Japanese culture. We were responsible for leading videogames, and we were responsible to provide the very best quality in the world. That was people's expectation and belief. So people tend to compare, Japan versus The World.
JS: Let's discuss Epic Games, and its influence on Japanese developed games. Epic opened its Tokyo office in 2009?
TK: Yes. At that time I heard that Epic was planning to set-up a Japanese studio, and were looking for a studio manager. The situation was that they didn't have anything. So they were looking for a person who could set up the company here, and that was a very exciting opportunity. That seemed very exciting to me. So I applied through the internet hiring page of Epic, and I went through the interview, and I moved to Epic in December 2009.
JS: You're currently involved in licensing the Unreal Engine to Japanese developers.
TK: I am selling the Unreal Engine to Japanese developers and publishers.
JS: Is that difficult? In America it's common to buy an engine and use it. Whereas in Japan there's a preference to make tools from scratch.
TK: It used to be. When I started my job, buying the engine and using it was not common at all. Everybody wanted to create something from scratch. But it is changing very rapidly, and especially this generation change has accelerated that trend. Now, almost all Japanese publishers and major developers, my clients, they understand the value of third-party engines. Of course some teams are still working on their engines, but they are not trying to reject third-party engines any longer.
JS: Why do you think there was this resistance?
TK: They cannot afford to create an original engine any longer. It takes too long, it requires too much cost, and looking at the success of Western developers with third-party engines... Maybe you might disagree, but Japanese developers understand their technology level is behind Western developers. Especially for graphics and product efficiency. So looking at success stories, their minds are changing.
JS: But before this, why do you feel developers did not want to use third-party engines? Was there a problem with documentation?
TK: That's part of it. Documentation was in English, and support was provided only through English, and another thing is, they used to misunderstand and think that game engines could be a silver bullet. "If you use a game engine, it solves all problems." You know, you won't have any difficulty to develop games. Some early adopters tried game engines, in the very early days, back in 2004 or 2005, and Lost Odyssey was one of these. But of course game engines cannot be a silver bullet. It has bugs, you need to customise the engine for your games. So a game engine is just a tool to make a game, so people didn't understand it during the early days of game engines.* Too much expectation led to disappointment about game engines. But after we set up our Japanese office and started to support it in Japanese, and people could meet me in person, and speak in Japanese, they started to understand what a game engine is and what they can expect in reality or actuality. I think a more accurate understanding of what a game engine can provide, helps them understand and helps change their mind.
* Author's Note: A perfect example is Red Seeds Profile / Deadly Premonition, using NVIDIA's PhysX engine, as detailed by programmer Yutaka Ohkawa in Game Developer Magazine Vol.17 No.8
JS: Would a company approach Epic Games Japan, and then you would persuade them, using slides or brochures? Is there a sales pitch?
TK: Yes, usually we bring our PC, which runs Unreal Engine, and we show off the demo. Have you seen the "Infiltrator" we showed at GDC? It's a very, very beautiful real-time demo. We show it, and people think it's just a pre-rendered CG movie. But after that, we turn on the engine and bring them into the editor, and they understand, "Oh! It was real time!" That's a shocking experience for them. We explain the technical details of our features. That's the ordinary approach. Talking about my "pitch talk"... Unreal Engine is not cheap. You need to pay like, sometimes more than a million dollars.
JS: Can I quote that figure?
TK: Ahh... Yes. But a million dollars, so let's say one million dollars, it can be translated like [being equivalent to] 100 man months. So let's say if you have 100 man months, can you make the same thing as Unreal Engine 3? Or Unreal Engine 4? Maybe you can, maybe you cannot. But we have spent 15 years to reach Unreal Engine 4, with more than 100 people every day. So the possibility that you can beat Unreal Engine with only 100 man months is not so likely. Even if you can make the same thing as Unreal Engine 3, with your 100 man months internally, it will still take you maybe a year or maybe 6 months in real time. But if you buy Unreal Engine now, you can start today. No risk.
JS: Do publishers often buy Unreal Engine for third-party developers to use?
TK: It's case by case and subject to project scheme. In some cases, such as Street Fighter V, Capcom buys Unreal Engine and lets Dimps - the developer - use it for development. We also have other cases, such as Kingdom Hearts III or Tekken 7, where publishers buy the engine and their internal teams use it.
JS: Street Fighter V by Capcom and Tekken 7 by Bandai-Namco use Unreal Engine 4. Both are big franchises by powerful companies. Can you talk about how this came about?
TK: Since the set up of Epic Games Japan in 2009, I've been talking to a bunch of people in the Japanese game industry, including publishers, developers, producers, directors, programmers, artists, game designers… And we also keep trying to make more exposure through tech demos, sessions, game jams, onsite support, evaluation programs, and so on. Adoption of a game engine is very different from purchasing a laptop PC or shoes. People don't buy game engines impulsively, they're never like: "Hmm, it looks great, maybe I want one!"
Instead, we need to take a very long time to find consensus among the dev team, understanding between developer and publisher, and approval by management. First of all, without a new project being kicked off, there is no chance for them to use a game engine. So, we need great accordance of timing, technical demands, and what we can provide. I believe our continuous effort to occupy some mind share among people in the Japanese game industry helped us pop up in their mind when the time was right - for example when they kicked off a new project.
JS: Notable Japanese companies using Unreal Engine include: Access Games (D4), Arc System Works (Guilty Gear), Bandai-Namco (Tekken 7), Capcom (various), Comcept (Mighty No. 9), CyberConnect2 (Asura's Wrath), Grasshopper (Let it Die), iNis (various), Koei (Fatal Inertia), Platinum (ScaleBound), and Square-Enix (Final Fantasy 7 etc); list continues to grow each year. Do you have any interesting stories you can share regarding these partners?
TK: Stay tuned and make sure you have a wide enough space for your question, that list will continue to become much more longer!
JS: Do you feel using third-party engines or tools will help Japan? Where do you see the future?
TK: What the Japanese games industry has been struggling with, during the 360 and PS3 days, were very fundamental parts of games. Just to show graphics, or to move characters. They needed a lot of investment, of time and cost, for non-creative parts. What Japanese developers were struggling with, was something like reinventing the wheel.
A game engine can give them the "skip route" for that fundamental part. So without game engines, maybe they might need to start from here,
JS: Places of education in the West use Unreal Engine for game development courses. Are any in Japan incorporating it into their curriculum?
TK: Yes, of course. After introduction of UE4: Subscription, a great number of universities and professional schools in Japan have adopted UE4 into their curriculum.
JS: Epic Games Japan, is its primary job licensing the Unreal Engine, or does it have other roles?
TK: It's primary job is licensing the Unreal Engine, and providing technical support to our partners. Oh, and translation of documentation. We are only six people, including me.
JS: I've heard comments that the Japanese games market is in decline.
TK: The Japanese games market is not declining. But the Japanese console market is declining, because of smartphones and other things. So I think the lifestyle of stopping by Yodobashi Camera, or Bic Camera, and picking up a game for 60 or 70 bucks, as an initial commitment, that kind of lifestyle is diminishing. You know, you can buy a game for free, even at 2am in your bed. So why bother going to the store to pay $70?
JS: Because it's a richer, deeper experience when you play it on your HD TV, with optimal controls?
TK: People don't care about a richer, bigger experience. Some people care... My favourite analogy which I often use is: It's like a camera. For ordinary people, the iPhone is good enough to shoot or take a picture. But some people, who really like photographs, they will dare to buy a huge, single-reflection lens. So the console game is something like that. People who dare to care are the only ones who buy. So I don't think consoles will go away, or consoles will die. But rather the market size cannot be as huge as it used to be. It's a very disappointing forecast for my generation. But the good news, or bright side, is since smartphone and tablet performance is getting much higher and higher, soon it will catch up with the 360's performance. That will mean you can play something like Gears of War on your smartphone, connected to a huge television.
JS: Where will console games be then, if you can connect your smartphone to a TV?
TK: Those will be very difficult days for the console market, or rather the console makers. But it will be good for gamers, I believe. It will mean more than 3 or 4 billion consoles in people's pockets, worldwide. It must be exciting days.
Back in 1990 we didn't have the internet, DVD, mobile phones, smartphones or 24 hour broadcasting of TV. Nights were much more silent and long. As teenagers, all we could do after 1am was reading a book or playing Famicom. In that sense, games were enjoying almost exclusive position in the "battle of hours". Now, although we still don't have hover-boards or auto-fitting Nike, our available 24 hours are much, much more crowded. Consumer games need to fight against other competitors of entertainment or social networking. So, in short, our lifestyle has changed dramatically in the last 25 years and I don't think we need to be pessimistic at all with this result.
If we look at the entire game market, including smartphones and PC, it's getting bigger and bigger. Very soon hardware performance of smartphones will catch up and go over PS3 or even PS4. When it happens, we can say there are over a billion pieces of hardware with high end games, all over the world, in people's pockets. It is a super exciting vision for all game developers.
JS: A brave new world...
TK: I hope so!
This interview extract was taken from The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Volume 2. There are positive reviews on NintendoLife, Unseen64, YouTube, and the Amazon pages. If you're a game developer or have a fondness for old Japanese games, consider picking up a copy - or even a few copies, since it makes for a great holiday gift!