Q&A: The Way of Team Ninja - Hayashi on Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2
Team Ninja's Yosuke Hayashi recently gained exposure with the announcement of his collaboration with Nintendo on the surprise title Metroid: Other M, first announced at June's E3 Expo. However, the team is working also on the latest installment in its own flagship series, Ninja Gaiden.
In addition to Other M, Hayashi is spearheading development on Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, due for the PlayStation 3 this fall. An enhanced version of Ninja Gaiden II, which showed up on the Xbox 360 last year, it adds online co-op play, enhanced enemy AI, and promises to smooth out the rough patches in that game -- called a disappointment by many fans of the series.
Here, Hayashi lays out Team Ninja's development philosophy for Gamasutra, expounding on what makes Ninja Gaiden what it is, and how he and his colleagues tackle the challenges of developing hardcore action games.
So the base of Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 is Ninja Gaiden 2?
Yosuke Hayashi: Yes.
That's interesting, because Microsoft published Ninja Gaiden 2.
YH: Yes. [laughs]
Any comments on that?
YH: Everyone knows that Ninja Gaiden 2 was exclusive to 360. And yes, it was published by Microsoft. But beyond that it wasn't really within Microsoft's control.
I think fans will be happy you're revisiting Ninja Gaiden 2, because some seemed to feel it wasn't everything it could have been the first time.
YH: I think that's a good lead into why there is a Sigma 2. Yeah, there's no denying that. Ninja Gaiden 2 was a game from Team Ninja -- and we won't say that we're just going to do better, and put something out way better.
But we do believe that we can add a few layers here and there and then Sigma 2 will allow people that have played Ninja Gaiden 2 to see some of the new things that we've added. And to those that are new to the entire series, or just new to the 2-line of Ninja Gaiden, they can, and they should, expect something pretty different from the original in the series.
I think we first spoke when Ninja Gaiden Sigma 1 was announced. You said that it was so easy to have ideas of what to add, because when you work on a game it's always in your head. Do you find that's the case again -- that it was really obvious what needed to be addressed to make Sigma 2?
YH: Well obviously after finishing -- let's say, Ninja Gaiden 2 in this case -- there are going to be things that our staff and team will come up with, as well as user feedback. Especially, I think, people had strong opinions about certain things -- and we've taken that into consideration for Sigma 2.
But in addition to that as a team and as just members working on the Ninja Gaiden series, having seen this franchise growing into a multi-platform franchise going from Xbox to 360, DS with Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword, as well as the original Sigma on PlayStation 3 -- even though it has the Sigma name to it and then a number 2 to it, [with] this Sigma 2 we wanted to represent the total package of what we provided and offered to users as what is Ninja Gaiden.
So, Sigma 2 we wanted to reflect on what we were able to create as a series, Ninja Gaiden, and also to sort of contain the total package, you know, "this is what Ninja Gaiden is all about". So it's not just a sequel to the original Sigma. It's not just a port of 2 to PS3. It's not just something that we're taking and cutting and pasting. We're trying to incorporate all these different elements that we've created so far in the series and put it all into one package.
I imagine when you were making Ninja Gaiden 2 you were not making it with the primary intent to put it to PS3, so you may have spent less time making sure it would be easy to port. Can you talk about the challenges that you've encountered on the multiplatform road?
YH: Can I get very technical?
YH: I answered a question earlier today about what engine Sigma 2 is running off of, and Sigma 2 is running off of a hybrid of the engine from 2 as well as the engine that we had created for the original Sigma on PS3. So, yes, it's more difficult to port from Xbox 360 to PS3.
But just in terms of having to have to basically split the memory going from Xbox 360 to PS3, [this] to us was a rather easier thing to do because it wasn't like taking that one bucket full of memory and then having to have to figure out how to split it so that it goes appropriately into each slot that PS3 is basically providing us.
We kind of had a way, or formula, that was already almost figured out by the time we knew that we we're going to move on to PS3, and it was an easier method for us, because we had both the engines that we had worked on for the previous Sigma as well as Ninja Gaiden 2.
So, do you currently have a multiplatform engine that covers the Xbox 360 and PS3, or are you still working on different technologies across the current generation?
YH: Yeah, as a result, yes, we can say that we now have that. It's available to us, yeah.
The Ninja Gaiden series is built on head-to-head fighting against enemies. Can you discuss the AI development process for the game, and how you make engaging AI opponents for a Ninja Gaiden game?
YH: Personally I think that having a convincing way of why... usually there's a story that you're playing along and yeah, you're up against your enemies and opponents -- monsters, humans, it doesn't matter -- but at the end of the day you want to not just have a sense of accomplishment, but you want to be convinced that this is why you were able to defeat your enemies.
This is why you're killing your enemies, and therefore this is how they ended up dying, or this is how you ended up defeating them. So, it's not just a matter of being able to hack-and-slash and go up against your enemies, it's just, there has to be a reason why you're doing it. And therefore, yes, there is a thought process that goes behind that in order for it to make sense.
Some developers have told me they have a hard time convincing their studios to let them spend a lot of effort on AI development, because it's less obvious than adding more enemies or more levels. What are your thoughts on the importance of AI development?
YH: You're right in saying that it is a difficult -- it's not an easy, simple solution depending on who you're talking to; depending on which developer or studio or product or series or whatever you're talking about.
Even within AI development I think there's a side of where more studios will lean towards pure AI development, on just really focusing on that itself, but all of it can't be done without touching other parts. It's not just that I can assign one programmer to really look into it because in the end it's going to affect a lot of different things.
I think Sigma 2 and what we're working on right now may be a little bit more focusing on the AI development, at the same time focusing on the animation, so the expression itself. Just because the nature, the purpose, of the game is head-to-head combat; and we want to show our games in 60fps so it's going to be more expression-based, visual display-based.
But there is a sensitive balance between how much effort you put into it and where that balance is. How much emphasis you put on purely AI development or if it's going to have to be balanced out with some other element that affects the output of the game.
Sometimes, creating believable AI is at odds with creating a game, as far as balancing the challenge of providing an environment that's fun for the player without making it too hard to comprehend what's going on, or too tough as an opponent. Is that part of the limiting factor?
YH: AI development is an area that we would want to continue to always look at and do enough study and homework and research on, but it's not something that we want to be "proper" with. We don't need to follow a formula. We would never want to do that because it's all about what goes into the game that's going to make the game even more exciting and enjoyable for the end-user. So there is a difficult balance of how much, and where, and how.
It looks like there are a lot of features that are being added, raising some really tough considerations: Time and budget on improvements, how to get users to understand that it's not a port, it's a new game.How do you make that kind of decision at Tecmo?
YH: Obviously as Team Ninja and continuing the Ninja Gaiden series, there's no reason why we wouldn't want to continue. But in order for Team Ninja to take Ninja Gaiden into the future and to continue the series, this just happens to be the right opportunity in two directions; to take it where we can as of today.
So far Ninja Gaiden has been offline, a single player game, so we wanted to take it to the limit to see what else we can do as a perfect offline action ninja adventure game. So in that sense we're adding new playable characters and it's still a fulfilling single player experience.
The second thing is that we wanted to challenge ourselves to bringing in an online co-op mode. And it is an action game, it's combat, and if we can't have the users experience what it's like to go head-to-head with another opponent there's really something missing from what we see as may be the future of Ninja Gaiden. We want players to see what it's like to go up against a live opponent and not just a character in the game.
So those two missions led the team into coming up with Sigma 2, and putting all those new elements in there. And then once we've accomplished that and hopefully user feedback, as usual, we'll take a look at and maybe that will lead us into the next direction of the future of Ninja Gaiden.
And answering your question, that was the way I convinced our management to allow us to experiment this time around with Sigma 2. So we push everything to the limits right now and then see how far we can get; and then that will allow us to see the next big step for the series.
Do you feel it's hard to experiment in games, since you won't know whether your ideas are successful until they reach the end user?
YH: Team Ninja as a team, there's a figure in our heads, we have it in our heads but it's not something that we've put in writing at this point. It's not that we already know what the future holds for the series. It's only depending upon, first, today to make sure that Sigma 2 goes out meeting our own expectations, our own goals as to how far we can push the series. And then seeing the user feedback as well as hoping that we can incorporate our vision that we have for the future of the series.
So only time can tell, only feedback can tell. It's not something that we already know or are determined to make, the next Ninja Gaiden. It's not something that we can even say at this point.
Do you prototype much? What's the production process like for you?
YH: This is just my personal belief and the way that I prefer to work, so it may not apply to Team Ninja as a whole or Tecmo as a whole. My belief is that when you're confident with your concept, when you're confident with your product, you shouldn't have to stage it so that you have to explain why this product is going to be enjoyable and fun and exciting to the end user, to the consumer.
The way that I usually present, let's say with a prototype, I don't even explain what the game is about. I go directly into playing and showing what the game can do and what it offers to the consumer. For me to have to put something together, let's say a presentation, prior to me going into showing the game is almost like setting it up for failure.
Maybe that's just my style but maybe that works better for me, because I've been able to be in a position where I didn't have to really explain the details of these products and therefore the language barrier hasn't been a big issue to me either. I've been able to present, with confidence, the products that I'm working on and it's been rather easy to explain why I'm putting this into these markets and what kind of reaction, what kind of feedback I'm already expecting from them.
At TGS, you talked about increased cooperation between teams inside of Tecmo. I was wondering, how have those processes have been going since that time?
YH: At the end of the day it's up to the development team, or the team leader, or the producer, the director, of that product or that line. As of right now we're not a gigantic company or studio. Team Ninja has about 80 people. Another team has maybe 50 or 60 or 70. So we're communicating on a weekly basis, especially on the PS3 side of things.
We have constant communication back and forth with the teams. But I guess at the end of the day it's really up to the team leader on that specific team if they have the guts and if they have the passion to fulfill their goals and missions and to complete a product that they've been envisioning.
How are things in general lately -- settled down in a form that works, and that you guys are comfortable with?
YH: Regardless of who's at the helm of a team, in this case Team Ninja, as long as the DNA is there hopefully to the end users will know that the Team Ninja essence, or the foundation that we've built still exists and current and future products are to come.
And so if I were to use an example, the 007 series, the main character's played by so many different actors; yeah, they change, but everyone knows that series as that series and the essence, or the DNA still exists. Well, hopefully! Some movies I know they have their ups and downs but we all know what that stands for, what that represents and we all know what to expect out of that.