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Q&A: Nippon Ichi On Finding The Hardcore RPG Sweet Spot
Q&A: Nippon Ichi On Finding The Hardcore RPG Sweet Spot Exclusive
October 13, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

For over 15 years, Japanese developer and publisher Nippon Ichi Software has been releasing hardcore-targeted RPGs, particularly strategy RPGs like the successful Disgaea series.

Most recently, the team behind Disgaea has announced its newest game, Zettai Hero Kaizou Keikaku (which Siliconera translates as Absolute Hero Modding Project), a PSP dungeon-crawling action RPG that -- like many other Nippon Ichi games -- features plenty of randomly-generated content.

Gamasutra sat down with NIS president and COO Souhei Niikawa and Disgaea team development lead Masahiro Yamamoto to discuss the small company's attitude toward game development, its RPG success, and why throwing characters is such a big deal in its titles.

Your focus has been on RPGs, particularly Disgaea. Where will you focus going forward?

Souhei Niikawa: Well, RPGs remain a popular genre for the hardcore audience, so I think that RPGs will still be a central part of our strategy.

Disgaea is certainly an important title for Nippon Ichi. We'll continue to grow that game by doing what's best for that particular series. Placing our fortunes on nothing but Disgaea wouldn't be right at all. For example, we want to grow this new game in the same way that we've grown Disgaea. We want to make games that are different from Disgaea, of course, but sell just as well as that.

A lot of Nippon Ichi's character designs have "moe" and "loli" elements. Will that continue? Has for the market for that become smaller?

SN: We made games for the people who play them. If the audience's needs shift away from moe or loli, then we'd certainly go with a different design. We still think there's a demand for that, though, so it will probably continue. From the creator's perspective, we think it's very important to keep trying new things, and as a result, we naturally don't want to stick with any one thing for too long.

What made you adopt that style in the beginning? Did it start out with what the development team liked?

SN: Yes. Well, it's undeniable that a large part of our audience is what people would call game otaku, or hardcore game fans. So we want to make what they want, but at the same time, we're all pretty hardcore too. So, there's that. (laughs)

The first Disgaea really seemed to be designed around picking up and throwing characters. That influenced the rest of the dungeon design and combos in battle. Would you agree with that?

SN: Certainly. Well, not just with Disgaea, but it's been an important aspect of a lot of our games, including this one here. It's been that way from around that time.

It's sort of a Nippon Ichi trademark.

SN: Yeah. We're all about throwing people. (laughs) Using that as a vital tactical tool.

Where did the idea for that come from?

SN: The original task before us was to figure out how this game would be different from the rest. We needed some strong and unique gameplay aspect that would give this project some sort of individual hook. I think it's something that's worked, as you can see how the series has progressed from 1 to 3.

Masahiro Yamamoto: I don't really remember the individual process that led to the pick-up-and-throw idea, but we were coming up with all kinds of ideas to put in the game and make it unique.

The original Disgaea is full of original little ideas like that, but it's undeniable that the throwing system is the idea that stuck out the most in gamers' minds once it came out. It's the result of that kind of thought process.

Just thinking about it by itself, it's hard to conceptualize how it'd be fun. How did you decide that the feature was so important to have?

MY: Well, we're a very small company, and none of the teams behind our projects is particularly large. That structure allows individuals to test out assorted ideas pretty quickly as they come up with them, then show them around to see what the rest of the team thinks.

I don't think that teams the size of what you have for Final Fantasy would be able to try out such risky things within development. I think that's one of the merits of having a small company like ours; it's easier to try new challenges, and that's how a lot of features in our games are born.

You go through a lot of iterations.

MY: I think so, yeah.

How much content is too much for one game? With the item world, you could keep going forever. How do you know when to stop?

SN: I guess you could say it's when we feel like there's nothing left to add to the gameplay.

MY: Oh, we never really stop. (laughs) We put so much stuff into each project, and eventually we get to a point where we ask ourselves, "Do we really need all this?"

When a majority of staffers start answering, "I'm not sure" to that question, that's when we stop. (laughs) That's pretty much how it works.

We really think that having a lot to explore in our games is very important -- especially with the Disgaea series, where it's become kind of a hallmark. Of course, we definitely can't take that approach with all of our titles; instead, we find different ways of making the games engaging and fun to our audience.

I was wondering if you're concerned that if you give too much, there might not be any need to buy sequels.

MY: That's not really much of a worry to us. The way we see it, in fact, most of audience goes through our games pretty quickly, especially the really hardcore people who support the Disgaea series. It's really something, the amount of time they put into playing our stuff. I wouldn't call it a big worry.

Nippon Ichi is pretty much the only game company in Gifu Prefecture. Do you think your company has any regional flavor since you're isolated from other developers?

SN: Well, the Internet is everywhere, and we're a game company, after all, so it's certainly not an inconvenience or anything.

I would say [our flavor] is not in the location so much as our style of company. Since we're kind of out in the country and have small development teams, that helps to add individuality to our games.

In Tokyo, you have a lot of developers who have gone from company to company, quitting one job and picking up another one right off. I think the fact that we've not experienced that as much helps us keep consistent in the sorts of games we release.

Do your staffers come from all over Japan?

SN: Yes. We don't really headhunt from other companies or anything. Sometimes we hire new grads who apply to our company; sometimes we get people who have previous experience with other game companies.

Finally, when you start a new game, from what point do you begin -- an idea, a list of features? What is your jumping-off point?

MY: In the beginning, there's only an outline, a very general idea of what kind of game we want to make -- what kind of world we want, for example. Then things just expand off from there, and eventually we figure out what sort of genre would be best, like how this game turned out to be a dungeon RPG. That's how things begin.

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Tom Newman
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NIS is one of my all time favorite developers/publishers! FF Tactics on PS1 brought the srpg genre to the forefront, but all other srpgs were weak in comparison until NIS, now they are the kings of the SRPG!

My only frustration is that when Disgaea3 came out on PS3, none of the sprites were re-drawn for HD, which didn't impact my enjoyment, but with all the work that goes into their outstanding art direction, and hand drawn charachter design, it's a shame not to see true HD graphics.

Matt Marquez
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Interesting interview! I'm always interested in what NIS has up their sleeve.

As for the "moe" and "loli" design aspect, I can see that in a handful of characters, at least handled by the talented Takehito Harada. It's quality art in it's own right, and not generic like in other games out now.

One of my favorite artists that has worked with NIS was Ryoji Majima, who did the character designs for Rhapsody (The Marl Kingdom games) and La Pucelle. I was saddened when he didn't return for the DS port of Rhapsody (that game had its own mess of issues when published in the U.S.), but I hear he's back for the PSP edition of La Pucelle.

I looked forward to seeing if NIS has any other projects he can be a lead artist in.

Hayden Dawson
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I wonder if the questioner understands 'moe' and 'loli' are diametric opposites in the feelings and attitudes they are meant to engender in the player? And a company knowing their audience because the creators themselves are part of that same audience should not be surprising -- or will we see infinity ward devs asked regarding MW2 if they created their game becuase they enjoy FPSes?

Just seems this is even more evidence of the western dev mind misunderstanding the eastern dev mind.

Brandon Sheffield
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And I wonder if you understand that it is possible for a person to ask about two things within one question? and further, the question was whether the market is shrinking. who said anyone was surprised they were part of their own market? Is it not viable to ask where a specific style originates from? Were I to ask Vanillaware why they choose to work in 3D, would that be an insulting question? Were I to ask Datawest why they chose the adventure game as their staple genre, would that bring forth the hounds of hell? I suppose questioning Capcom's use of an actor as the model of the main character in Lost Planet would also demonstrate my ignorance of the eastern dev mind (in an interview I conducted in japanese, incidentally).

If you want to get bent out of shape about something, do it where people aren't giving companies like this exposure or taking them seriously. I am realizing that I'm arguing this with someone who thinks moe and loli are diametric opposites in the feelings they're supposed to engender in the player though, so hey!

Andy Chaisiri
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Disgaea turned me into a lolicon

...almost, as technically Etna is 1400 so not loli, right?