Post-GDC: Suda Says Punk's Not Dead
On the final day of GDC 2007, a talk was held by the singular Suda 51, CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture inc. and lead designer of Killer 7 and the upcoming No More Heroes. Entitled “Punk’s Not Dead”, it was a talk focusing on his design philosophy and what Japanese designers need to do if they want people to keep playing their games.
Speaking through a translator, Suda began by giving some background information on himself. He was born in “a cold place” called NaganoCity in the Nagano Prefecture. At the age of 18 he moved to Tokyo and entered the game industry at age 23. He is currently 39 giving him about 16 years of industry experience at this point.
He first worked at Human Entertainment – contributing to such titles as Super Fire ProWrestling Special – before leaving to start his own company in 1998, which turned out to be only one year before Human Entertainment closed down. “Companies that aren’t doing well tend to not pay you on time, so I thought, ‘this might be bad’”.
His goal for creating Grasshopper was to focus on making original games. “We don’t make ‘part’ of games. We do the planning, the script writing, programming, graphics, sound,” defining their process as independent game design. He then gave the audience his three design slogans for the company: call and response, crash and build, and let’s punk.
Unfortunately his talk would only focus one of these enigmatic phrases: Let’s Punk! Suda saw punk as a gaming philosophy in the need to go beyond what he called the current framework of games. “There are so many games, and there are so many big titles, but most of them are copycats.”
Suda then went on to describe how Grasshopper was looking for a new kind of game which embodied the punk spirit. “There were a lot of punk games in the past we made a lot of games in Japan. Lately American games and European games are much better than the Japanese ones.”
He explained that that's “because we don’t have any punks or innovative people,” and that “the Japanese market is getting smaller, so we don’t have room for games that challenge. Therefore, we would like to create new games that target the global market.”
As an example of designing for the global market, he discussed how Killer 7 was his attempt at getting some of his earlier ideas from Grasshopper’s first game, The Silver Case – a PlayStation title never released in the U.S – and introducing it to markets outside of Japan. He listed their common themes on a slide that read:
-Angle of camera, movement of game players and settings of the controller’s buttons.
-Freedom of expressions and adding the element of animation.
-the fight between expressions.
For Killer 7, Suda wanted try a new control scheme that put the player’s character on rails: “In many action games you control the character directly. But there are many people who find that too difficult. They don’t know how to hold the controller, or how to use the analogue stick. I decided not to use that complicated control scheme.”
As a result, the only movement control in the game is to either go forward or turn around, as well as making the choice of which direction to go at certain branching paths.
What Killer 7 is more renowned for however is its surreal and at times psychedelic storyline and visuals. “I get a lot of questions from the media that ask ‘why is the game so crazy?’ They ask if I’m on drugs.” Suda clarified that, “I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke... I like alcohol but I can’t drink a lot.”
“I hate doing things that other people do," said Suda, "I like to do what other people are not doing... developing games that nobody else will think about. That is always the root of what motivates me.”
At Grasshopper, Suda said, they don’t create a spec design. They have open discussion with all the team members and the concepts comes out of these discussions. “My Japanese is hard to understand, so I used sounds,” illustrating the point by making what sounded like a crash followed by an explosion, and laughing that “the young staff members tend to want to leave the company right away.”
Suda stressed the importance of having a strong relationship between the game director and producer. Discussing his own relationship with Shinji Mikami – creator of the Resident Evil and Devil May Cry franchises – Suda said that “since he entered this industry he’s always been involved in [game] concepts, so he understands the difficulty of coming up with ideas,” adding that “he protected me, he never yelled at me... well, one time.”
Shortly before the unveiling of Killer 7, Nintendo expressed concern that a title with the word 'killer' in it may not be a good idea, and they requested some alternate titles. Suda was on the phone late at night and asked Mikami if he had any ideas for other potential names. Mikami scolded Suda by saying “That’s a director’s job, you do it!” Suda’s ultimate point was that as a game director, he shouldn’t have to worry about dealing with Capcom, that would be Mikami’s job.
As an example he discussed a time in development, roughly a year before the game’s release. At that year’s E3, Suda was asked by Mikami to see what games were popular in the U.S at the time. “What I saw was that free running was popular” -- the total opposite of Killer 7's rail movement system.
He became worried that “Killer 7 would not become mainstream in America.... Shinji [and I] met in Tokyo and thought about this. If we make it a free running game, the chance of selling will increase.” Ultimately, Shinji Mikami left the decision in Suda’s hands: “Instead of selling a lot I wanted to pursue the original idea. And he agreed”.
For his final thoughts on the producer/director relationship, Suda said that “We are not working with publishers, we are not listening to their opinions. But we do have to listen to our producers and we have to believe in [them]. If the games does good, then the producer becomes the head of the studio and that’s a good thing!”
He then went on to discuss his theory of game directors. For him, there are business oriented directors whom only thing about what will be popular and what will sell, and then there are the artistic directors who are about new things and are willing to adept to new ideas.
“I think all game directors though have to be the business director at some point in order to fulfill the clients request,” ruefully adding that switching between the two kinds can be very difficult.
His main driving force behind making games is recreating the impact of seeing a video game for the first time. “It was different from movies, comics or novels. I felt completely different [after that] and I don’t want to forget that impulse. I want to use that impulse to create my game,” continuing that “life without games is no fun. If we continue as it is now, in Japan there is a sense of impending [danger] that games will disappear from our culture.”
Concluding with the thoughts that commercial games are a necessary evil, and that the duty of a director is to continue to make games for the future, Suda showed off the new trailer for his forthcoming Wii title, No More Heroes that is currently making the standard internet rounds.
He also announced that on April 14th in Tokyo, a special six hour event will be held called Hoppers with guests Hideo Kojima and Shinki Mikami, and announced that his Silver Case game would be ported to the Nintendo DS, but whether it will finally be brought to the U.S. was not specified.