GS: At that time you came and started Satoworks, right? What happened with that?
TS: Ah, well that’s another long story, but…
I was not supposed to be a manager for that division of Konami of America, but I was kind of forced to because there wasn’t anyone else to do it. I didn’t know enough about money and contracts, and so I started negotiating about money after we were already working on the game (Silent Hill 2). So we ended up making a deficit. It wasn’t really that bad, because Konami made money on the product, but because I hadn’t negotiated the contracts properly at the beginning, our division wound up being unprofitable. So we put ourselves in a difficult position.
Even though the game was successful, we had people asking us how we were going to make our division profitable. So it was hard to continue that team. In order to compete with American CG houses, you need more equipment and money. And that was not possible. That was a good time to finish the team, I guess.
GS: So what was it like moving from a Japanese company to an American company?
TS: It’s…different. Very different. EA’s a gigantic company. In Konami, or in Japanese companies, there’s a lot more politics that you need to keep in mind. They really don’t like people that are like nails sticking out of a board. And most Japanese companies consider that you’re a lifetime employee. You join the company after you graduate from school, and then you work for that company for your entire life. That’s good in a way, because you don’t have to worry about losing your job, or anything.
But at the same time, you have to worry about the company – what if it goes bankrupt? Where can you go? Most companies take that kind of lifetime employment approach, so it can be really hard to go to another company. And even if you did a great job in the previous company, you’re not a special case when you enter a new one. They don’t really like change, and they love hierarchy. So that makes you really angry sometimes.
I don’t mean to say anything bad about Konami, this is just how the culture works. In the end, I had a great number of friends, and I really appreciate my time there.
In an American company like EA, it’s not lifetime employment, so you have to always keep yourself marketable. And the education and culture is much different. Japanese companies don’t have designers, they have directors, and under them, a technical director and art director. Those three people have control over the project. Usually gameplay is owned by the technical director. The art director owns movement, visuals and timing. So that’s how the Japanese game industry works. But here, it’s more divisioned. Design department, art department, story department, and people are more specialized. And we do have to show higher-ups some presentations and demos of the game, and they ask that I show them my finished work, but it's not as fierce as in Japan.
Thinking of the future, maybe games will cost 100 million – who knows? And at that time, the American game industry, along with Hollywood, is going to manage it better than Japanese companies. Strict hierarchy is really hard to manage with 400 people working on graphics, or 100 million dollar budgets. American companies have specialized people, but are also constantly developing new workflow techniques to keep everything moving.
GS: Since you worked on smaller games before, do you feel like your personal vision comes through as well, now that you’re part of a bigger team?
TS: The team I’m on isn’t that big yet – it’s a pretty comfortable size. But it’s still bigger than Japanese development. Usually there we would keep the team under seven people from six months to a year. And compared to that, this is still big. When the team is small, I can have more of an opinion. With Konami it was easy to do that. EA is more like collaborating with the publishing side, the marketing side, the studio side…more business-like.
|Sato's distinctive style permeates GoldenEye: Rogue Agent's early character work|
GS: I noticed that you have a very distinctive style - are you able to have personal expression even in licensed games?
TS: Well…that’s not my choice. I just have my own style, but it’s not necessarily exactly what the producer wants. This is an issue with hiring somebody from overseas, since there’s so much specialization here. Where do you put them? I like the Silent Hill or Max Payne style of game, and I’m comfortable with that style. Since I did so much work on Silent Hill, I’m used to those deeper types of expressions, and ways that characters act. But you can’t always get that kind of job.
Here, you’re asked: “are you an animator, or a modeler? What are you?” If you’re an animator, you have to animate fast action, or alien animation, or cartoony animation, and face expressions. It’s specialized, but broad within that skillset. I always have trouble answering that question. Modelers have to create humans, sharks, ships, planes, anything like that. I have skills in those areas, but I can’t really fit into the pipeline easily. I like to animate faces, but if I’m an animator, maybe I have to animate other things. So it’s always hard to answer.
GS: What position are you within your new team?
TS: Well, I’m on the character side. I’m an associate art director, working for the art director, with concepts, or creating archetypes, or rigging, and working with the character technical director, and doing animatics and lighting. But I’m mostly on the character side, developing characters from every angle.
GS: As an artist, are high-level 3D graphics really important to a game in your opinion? Will the next generation have a big advantage over the current generation, because of graphics?
TS: This is something I don’t agree with. Having a greater spec is nice, and it looks good, but I don’t want to say that “oh, we finally got the tools to do what we want.” I want to make a game that’s fun, like a Miyamoto type game. A game is a game, it’s about balance, and mood…that kind of thing is important. But high-res, or PS3 – that doesn’t appeal to me much. Sure we can get super-real or high-res visuals, but at the same time it costs a lot. That means you need a lot of people. That means it’s really hard to have integrated and polished mood for a game.
It’s really hard. It also requires a lot of people, and a lot of technology, and it’s going to be hard to keep control of that. We need to consider that it’s a game. Of course it’s a type of an art form, but we have to find a balance. Of course some people are enthusiastic about high-res and really detailed graphics, but that’s not the core of what we should be doing.
GS: What is the process that you personally go through in terms of character design?
TS: First I think about the character, and check websites to find points to start with. Then I show pictures to producers, or whomever I’m working for, to get a feeling for how they feel about things, and look at their expressions – “oh he likes that!” That sort of thing. And also I draw, and paint, scan it into the computer, then make it into 3D. Especially for the face though, you’ll never match the 3D geometry to your drawing. So I start modeling in 3D pretty early. It’s faster to do, and quicker to get approval. So I do just the face in 3D, and the rest in 2D via painter of photoshop. Then after I get approval, I go in and start modeling the body.
Also, at that time you have to rig already, otherwise you’re screwed, so I’m thinking about animation possibilities too. But how I do it now is very different from the Japanese way. In Konami I spent a lot more time with character development beforehand; making notes, keeping a diary about the character, and kind of defining exactly what the character is, psychologically. After that, I don’t do much drawing. I just start modeling, because I didn’t have to show anybody, or get approval. Especially with Silent Hill 2, where there was nobody to approve or disapprove. So once I nailed the psychological side, I would start modeling, and finish with high-res modeling, then down-res until it gets to game resolution. It’s very different.
GS: How long does it usually take you now to go from concept to finished model?
TS: Hmm. Well, first people have to approve it. But ignoring that, maybe three weeks? If I crunch!
|A finished GoldenEye: Rogue Agent model|
GS: Do you play games now?
TS: Well, when I was in junior high, I was crazy about that. I used to go to arcades all the time. I would almost commute to them. I played games in the arcades until I was maybe 15. But when I decided to go to college in fine arts, that was pretty much the last time I played games seriously. After getting into game studio, I had to play games, but it became a task. “Oh no, I have to play the game!” It was like that. That’s how I still feel. You have to spend a certain amount of time on technology research, but it’s really hard to find time to play games on your own. Especially RPGs or deep adventure type games.
GS: I wanted to ask about your virtual handshake sculpture. (Sato has a section of his official website with sketches and art from his student days.)
TS: That was one of my graduate works. It looks really stupid, but I was into contemporary art, and at that time with contemporary art, a lot of it I had a hard time understanding. Those artists have their own vision – they make their work, and no matter how it comes out, they just say “you guys don’t understand.” They want to have class. They want to think that they’re higher, and more knowledgeable than others. I didn’t like that. My work doesn’t really show class – art needs entertainment. I want people to enjoy looking at or touching my work. It was 10 years ago, so don’t judge me by it! I was a schoolboy. But I think it’s funny still.
GS: It reminds me of some of Keita Takahashi’s (creator of Katamari Damacy's) work, before he worked at Namco.
TS: I think he graduated from the same university in fine arts. I think he was one year before me, or something?
GS: How interesting that you wound up working on such dark games, and he makes such light ones!
TS: (Laughs) That’s true!
|Sato's Virtual Handshake sculpture|
GS: Do you have any kind of artistic interests outside of CG?
TS: I’m not doing this much now, but I really like painting, with brush and pigment.
GS: Do you have any interest in, or training in movies?
TS: That’s a place I don’t know at all. I’ve heard a lot of things about the movie industry, but it doesn’t sound pretty to me. Doesn’t sound like a nice place to be, for me. I think it’d be nice to work for a movie if it became a blockbuster, but still, I grew up in the game industry. If somebody offered me a change to join a certain project I might be interested, but if you go to Hollywood, they don’t let you do everything from concept to storyboard to modeling. It’s also departmentalized, you have to have storyboard artists, concept artists, modelers, all separate. That’s not something I want to do.