Following his GO3 lecture in April, Gamasutra sat down with NanaOn-Sha's Masaya Matsuura (Parappa, Vib Ribbon), who told us more about his current projects, explained how the Wii is like an amp with permanent distortion, and revealed his ideas for a musically-inclined Brain Training game.
Are you working on any projects at the moment?
Masaya Matsuura: We are working on another Tamagotchi DS game.
That's Tamagotchi's Corner Shop for Bandai?
MM: Yes, we released the first game almost two years ago, and it's sold over a million copies in Japan. We've just released the sequel in European and American versions, and are working on the second sequel right now.
We are also making a very casual music based game called Rhythmica, but it doesn't have any set platform -- it's for many kinds of audio hardware. We're porting it to every device we can.
You're looking into the broad platform of mobile devices?
How do you begin with a game design?
MM: That's a very difficult question! Game designs have a lot of layers, and I usually make the game concept, which is kind of the highest layer – no, the lowest layer of design. But making a game requires many design ideas, and making it rich and sophisticated requires various kinds of brains outside of mine.
You mean programmers, artists...
You've never done any programming yourself, just design?
MM: No, only design.
Vib Ribbon was one of the first games to exploit a custom soundtrack option, and seems like a game that would be well suited to some kind of download service, such as the ones offered by the new consoles. Any chance of seeing such a project?
MM: Yes, possibly. Rhythmica is a very similar idea to Vib Ribbon -- it's about analyzing audio and creating a game from that data, but it uses MP3 audio instead of CDs. We are discussing the possibility of making a downloadable version of Vib Ribbon for Sony. But, I don't know yet - Sony only recently launched their downloadable service in Japan, so maybe we need to wait a while before releasing a title with that kind of appeal.
So maybe some time in the future on the PlayStation Network?
In Tetsuya Mizuguchi speech's yesterday, we heard some of the things that inspired certain games throughout his career. What inspires you to create games, and do any of your games have a specific inspiration?
MM: Yes, my biggest inspiration when making games is basically communication. Communication is usually a word used to describe links between two humans. But my idea of communication is not like that... sometimes!
For example, communication between hardware and humans, or software and humans -- those kinds of communication are a very big idea for me, because, well, basically I am a musician.
For musicians, the musical instrument is a very important tool. If I'm a violinist, I have to buy a very expensive violin, if I want to work as a professional violinist.
I'm 45 now, but maybe this expensive violin is over 100 years old, and if I buy a gorgeous violin I might be afraid to play it. But, sooner or later, I will be very good at playing this old violin.
The communication between me and the tool, or hardware, is very important. This is my basic inspiration, when I think about creating games.
[points at voice recorder used to record the interview] This is a very good example of how I about communications between tools and humans. Many people don't care about how good looking it is, or how useful it is. They just think about how long it can record, or how cheap it is, or how good the sound quality is. No one cares about how this is very good tool for human communication. That's my point, it's what I'm interested in.
Do you play an instrument?
MM: Yes, tomorrow I'm going to play in my address. Please be surprised! (laughs)
Since you're primarily a musician, does that mean you're only interested in creating music or audio based games?
MM: No no, I'm also interested in cognitive science, for example.
A good relationship with an instrument, or the audience, requires a great number of cognitive processes, and these kind of ideas are very good as game ideas.
Recently, as you know, a big trend in Japanese games, especially for Nintendo hardware, are the Brain Training games. These kind of ideas are huge in the Japanese market - games that are not just diversions, but that can be more than that for some people. These are new concepts.
So, as [Nintendo Japan president] Iwata says, the type of games that help your life or can actually be integrated into your life, rather than just being entertainment -- you're interested in that?
Does that mean we will be seeing a Brain Training type game from you?
MM: (laughs) I'm not sure yet. Many young kids are misunderstood by their parents as musical geniuses, so they learn to play the piano or something like that. So, similarly to Brain Training, my idea is a game to help to explore this. Sometimes for kids, even for the elderly, to keep their minds fresh -- something like that.
Do you like the Guitar Hero games?
MM: Yeah, I like them a lot. The president of Harmonix, Alex Rigopulos, has been my very good friend for more than a decade. I remember the first time they came to us to make music based games! At that time, the idea they had didn't look much like a game, but more like a music creation tool, so I told them to make it much more game-like.
Was that their game Frequency?
MM: Yeah - it was kind of the father game of Frequency. We discussed a lot of ideas, so I consider Guitar Hero my brother product.
Did you have anything to do with its development?
MM: No no, but as a friend – it feels like my brother's game.
You've mentioned the direction Nintendo platforms are going, what do you think of each of the next-gen consoles?
MM: Hmm – it's a very difficult question. As I've said, my focus is the sophisticated communications between the player and hardware or software. But some next generation hardware, like the PS3 and Xbox 360, look a little too 'heavy' to make interesting titles on, as they require very complicated looking games.
Do you mean the graphics or gameplay?
So you think that on those consoles, people will only want to buy expensive looking games, and might not look twice at smaller games?
On the other hand, the Wii is more casual, but it forces us to use 'that' controller. Of course, that controller is very attractive for us too, but their approach is already possibly too close to the current software areas. The console is not just about the hardware, but some of the software's territory is already occupied by the hardware environment.
Do you think the environment is better for the type of games that you're looking into, or is it more difficult?
MM: Yes, somewhat more difficult. For example, if you were a hard rock guitarist – no, lets make it a fusion guitarist. You wouldn't want to use distortion for your guitar sound. But what if distortion was built into the amp, so no matter how you play it sounds like rock? This is the kind of situation that could happen with Nintendo's Wii.
So you think it almost forces you to use some of the ideas that they've implemented themselves?
MM: Yes. (makes Wii Sports motions)
Handheld gaming, the DS in particular, has really taken over Japan, and on a worldwide basis, portable gaming become a much bigger thing than it has been in the past. Has this changed the way you are look into potential development projects?
MM: Yes - for us the Tamagotchi success has been a very good chance to make DS games for the last few years. But, of course, I don't know the future.
Currently Japan's developers are facing very difficult situations - the very big teams can't make a 'light' DS title, but of course, the small developers can't make a big console title either. So we decided to make the company 'lighter', and, depending on the project and the hardware, we 'band' the team.
So within NanaOn-Sha there's potential for a broad range of development team sizes?
MM: Yeah, sometimes.
So - will we ever see Parappa or [Umjammer] Lammy again?
MM: (laughs) At the end of last year, Sony released Parappa for PSP in Japan, and it's maybe coming soon to some other Asian territories. But I have to think about it for the European territories and the American territories [the game has since been announced for both regions].
Well, that leads well into another question – do you create games primarily for a Japanese audience, or is it more general?
MM: That's a good question. Until just a few years ago, I didn't think about the overseas markets too much, but more recently about 80 percent of our sales have come from overseas, so now we have to think about the overseas market more!
Tamagotchi sold extremely well in Japan for you...
MM: (laughs) Yes, that is the only case we have had recently. That's a rare case for us!
Do you think a lot of Japanese developers will have to think on a more worldwide basis now?
MM: No, I don't think so.
Just for you?
You've been creating games for quite a while now, and you mentioned the different 'size' of the new platforms, can you see anything else about the industry that's changed a lot in the time since the first Parappa on PlayStation 1?
Is that too broad a question?
MM: (Laughs) Yes, too broad!
Perhaps maybe just in music games? Parappa had a lot on influence on other people wanting to do music games...
MM: Yeah - Guitar Hero is a very big step for me. From the time the first Parappa was released, it was more than a decade until Guitar Hero's success. So it took 10 years – only now have music based games for the European or American territories really taken off -- maybe now I have a chance to do something for them.
Finally, what are your favorite types of games to play? Obviously you make music games, do you like to play music games?
MM: No. (laughs) I'm not good at playing music games, even my own titles! Guitar Hero is fun, I do like Guitar Hero. But other games are too scary for me – I feel I can't have fun with them.