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Q&A: Sanzaru's Egan On Fun With  Ninja Reflex , Wii Development

Q&A: Sanzaru's Egan On Fun With Ninja Reflex, Wii Development

January 16, 2008 | By Christian Nutt

January 16, 2008 | By Christian Nutt
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Nunchuck Games recently teamed with Electronic Arts to co-publish action title Ninja Reflex for Wii and Nintendo DS, in development by Sanzaru Games for a March 2008 release in North America.

When Gamasutra spoke to Nunchuck's David Luntz about his unusual "micropublisher" business model, which focuses on creating game concepts and entrusting them to developers and distribution partners, Luntz stressed the importance of working with the right development studio.

For Luntz, Sanzaru is that development studio, chosen to develop Nunchuck's concept for Ninja Reflex. Having a strong prior working relationship was a factor -- Luntz is former studio head of Z-Axis, and Sanzaru employs numerous Z-Axis vets.

Gamasutra spoke to Sanzaru president and CEO Glen Egan about the studio's inaugural project, the development issues surrounding a title made purely for Wii, and the proprietary engine technology the company's using to build Ninja Reflex.

When did Sanzaru start up?

Glen Egan: We opened our doors in January 2007. We just really hit the ground running. The team has worked together in the past at Activision. We moved into a space, and it was pre-wired, and we just smacked down some computers, put up a server, and made this game. The Wii has just been really good to develop for in a short amount of time.

I was talking to Dave Luntz from Nunchuk Games, the publisher, and he said that he came to you with a concept, basically, and then you hit the ground running with that?

GE: Yeah. We've been with Dave for donkey's years, and he's been talking about this for a while with us. It made really good sense, and was a really good fit. And it's great to work with Dave again. He had the idea, and we were like, "Yeah, we can do something really cool with that." So we just picked it up and ran with it.

Right, your background is also with Z-Axis?

GE: Yeah. I was at Z-Axis in '98, and then we were acquired by Activision, and... yeah, up until the end of 2006.

And then you decided to found your own studio?

GE: Well, you know, before working for Activision, we intended to put out a game a year. Each year, we'd make a game and put it on the market. It really was -- in the larger corporate structure --it was just tricky to do that. There are a lot of other influences on larger projects.

We really just wanted to get back to making fun games, and put them out quickly, and not getting caught up in multi-year schedules. We just wanted to make fun fast. That's what we enjoy doing, and this is us getting back to that.

You guys are doing the DS SKU for Ninja Reflex as well?

GE: Yeah. We're DS developers, and we're also licensed 360 developers, as well as PS3 developers. We're pretty cross-platform.

Do you have any other projects going?

GE: We do, but I'm not allowed to talk about them.

Of course. I know how it is. About how many people do you have in your studio right now?

GE: We've got about 20 people.

And did they all mostly come over from Activision, or are there a variety of people?

GE: A lot of people that we worked with at Activision, yeah. Definitely the lion's share. We've been working in the Bay area for 14 years now, and we've worked with a lot of people, so we can just reach out into that community and bring them on board, and it's great to have them. And yeah, just like I said, get back to making fun.

When it comes to this title, the concepts came from an external source, but how do you interpret it? How does that work for you?

GE: I think it's a collaborative endeavor. We sit down, and talk about the ideas, and talk about how to translate them into reality. There's a lot of... you go into the Wii with several preconceived notions, and some of them are quite true, and others need some massaging to make them happen using the accelerometer gameplay.

It's taking ideas and building on them, and seeing how we can translate them into fun stuff to do using the Wii input system. That's also been a total revelation. As we did things, we discovered more interesting things that you could do with it. There's certain paths we went down and discovered that you couldn't, and then others which just opened up as we were playing around with it.

I remember the first time I ever saw a Wii development kit. A kid about ten years old, he came in and the Wii development kit has a calibration screen which shows you the input from the accelerometers on the screen. It's just this little... red and yellow lines on the screen. And this kid just came in, and for ten minutes, just wiggled the controller around and [we watched] the lines move around. There's just so much you can garner just from that level of fun interaction, and we just expanded on it with things.

There's a lot of simplification, isn't there? Wii Sports is the killer app for the system, essentially, and the buzz-phrase is that Ninja Reflex is kind of Wii Sports for ninjas.

GE: Yeah! Wii Sports is an awesome game in its simplicity and accessibility, and that's what we really want -- something that's really broadly accessible. When I first got a Wii, mom comes over and plays it with you. I didn't have to sit there and go through a whole, "Here's tutorial mode." No. It just goes.

It's that kind of accessibility that I think is really playing out in the market. People are really seeing how much fun it is to get going, and not having to spend the first 45 minutes learning how to play the game. It's just... get to the fun.

And there are six games. Is there a certain liberation that comes when you realize you do not have to make a 20-hour, linear, complex narrative? Wherein, if you hold back to an extent, you're actually delivering what the audience probably wants more than you're not?

GE: Yeah. And we're not really facing a conceit or a premise, as far as we would, now that we've worked on a lot larger projects and sat in endless discussions about how to get the gameplay to bend back into the premise or the plot. It never makes the game more fun. It always pulls back from it. So yeah, it's very liberating. "Hey, I'm going to make something fun out of this."

There's no PS2 SKU, so this is a pure Wii game, not a multiplatform game that will be on the PS2/PSP/Wii's graphical level. You're making a game specifically for Wii, right?

GE: Yeah. First and foremost, we built it on the Wii. Again, market forces drive a lot of those kinds of things. With the PS2 market, I think that Guitar Hero has kept it alive for quite a long time. Looking back at the PS1/PS2 overlap, I don't think there was a product like that that really pushed it as far out into the next generation as this one has. Again, I think it's a function of that. I think we'll follow the market on the Wii. I think we'll apply that same process.

And creatively too, is that what interests you the most right now? Or do you have a variety of projects and potentials that you see?

GE: Again, yeah, we're very open-minded when it comes to that. The Wii is very exciting, and it has all kinds of... we love the accelerometers, and we love the gameplay based around those accelerometers, but all the other platforms have their own little benefits. Having a lot of power allows you to make some different games based around different types of mechanics.

The ability to push a lot of polys allows you to explore things like flocking, and... yeah, it's a lot more intensity in some of your gameplay that you wouldn't necessarily be able to follow on a lower-CPU platform. I think they all have different benefits, and we'll make a game that really takes advantage of whatever the platform offers.

Can you talk about the technology you're using to work on this title?

GE: We have our own cross-platform engine. We've always been working that way, and we sat down and took everything that we've learned over the last ten years, and put that into our pipeline and our engine and our tools. I'm very happy having our own internal engine group, because if I want to bend something to the gameplay's will, I can go and have a conversation and make that happen right away.

There's never a question about taking a spanner and turning it into a hammer. We can always just make a hammer to implement the gameplay. And all of the key players in getting that onto the screen are sitting in our office, so I'm very comfortable and happy working that way.

Obviously, there's a technological difference between the Wii and the next-generation consoles, but does their technology span into the next-generation consoles? You know, the PS3 and the 360?

GE: Yeah, I mean, fundamentally, we have Wii as a driver layer that essentially abstracts away the game engine from the actual rendering engine, so we're writing specific engine code for the specific platforms. Then we have our driver layer that essentially sequesters the gameplay code from that. So we can write a single set of game code and have it run on multiple platforms, and the driver layer is optimized for that specific platform.

With the issues on the PS3, with going to the PSP, or that kind of stuff...how does that work for you? Or have you not really delved into that stuff yet?

GE: A little bit. I think the challenge on the PS3 primarily comes from attempting to go with a homogenized view of moving things around, and I think that again, we'll address things on a per-platform basis, and again, turning a spanner into a hammer is where you'll probably run into trouble on that.

So yeah, there are different things that we do on the PS3 versus the other platforms, but again, the people are in the building, and I don't have to make a phone call and have an external engine group...

Someone in potentially another country, or another coast...

GE: Yeah, to try and get it to work the way I need it to. And I'm just down the street from Sony, so I can always go knock on their door!

Do you find that you can just go knock on their door, or have you not had that opportunity yet?

GE: No, I haven't gone and knocked on their door. [laughs] I haven't had to.

Hopefully, if you have to, it works out for you. It's not just Sony... I mean obviously, even writing for the 360 is a challenge also. But is it a challenge that people are better suited to now, because they had a year lead?

GE: Yeah. I think, again, that larger publishers and groups often try to come up with the one-size-fits-all, and I think that with this generation, one-size-fits-all is definitely more challenging. So I think it's a shift in the way that people are going to have to think about it.

But you know, on one side, that just makes it more interesting. The last go-round was pretty flat, but this time around, there are a lot of advantages for all three platforms, and I think it's a lot of fun to explore them.

Are you guys ramping up for development on the personnel? Are any of the projects coming down the pipeline where you'll need more than 20 people to work on?

GE: Oh yeah, definitely. Again, we want to grow at a speed that makes sense, and not cram a bunch of strangers into a room and hope that they make something great, or creatively mesh together like a beautiful 200-speed gearbox. So yeah, we'll grow at a speed that makes sense, but definitely we add one or two more people a month at our current rate. And yeah, we're going to keep on doing that. I think the game industry has had challenges scaling, and I witnessed the issues it causes, and I want to make sure I avoid them.


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