At the 2004 Tokyo Game Show held late last month, the focus was on the consumers - the tickets are cheap, the crowds are large, and the developers are, by and large, hidden away from the public eye. But if one looks hard enough, they can be spotted, usually behind sunglasses, gazing in proud satisfaction as people enjoy the products they have on display.
During the show, we spoke to a few key Japanese game developers from Sony Computer Entertainment, Konami, Koei and Sega Sammy about their thoughts on game development, the new wave of handheld consoles, and the methodology of attracting various markets in an era where the mainstream is the golden treasure (and perhaps a Pandora's Box).
We've presented the conversations, previously edited down for use on Gamasutra and in Game Developer magazine, in an uncensored form. Hopefully, they'll help you better understand the state of Japanese game development, and what some of the leading Japanese creators think about the state of the industry and the creative process that goes into making video games.
[In each interview, 'GS' stands for the Gamasutra questioners, and the respondent is described by their initials, such as 'NN' for Nobuya Nakazato.]
Konami's Nobuya Nakazato
Nobuya Nakazato is a producer at Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, Inc, and is currently responsible for Shin Contra (Neo Contra in the U.S.). His past games include Contra: Shattered Soldiers, Contra III, Contra: Hard Corps, and Rocket Knight Adventures.
GS: What is it like to make a game with 2D gameplay in this 3D world, and how did you avoid the pressure to make a fully 3D game?
NN: I myself really liked the games from the Famicom days, because they focused on gameplay over graphics. Graphically intensive games are still selling well on the market now, but in 10 years time, will you still be able to say that those were the best games? The game market is going to be in trouble unless we look towards the long term and reorient ourselves towards what makes games fun to play.
We did come up with a 3D-looking game, but when brainstorming for the 'next Contra Project' we were mostly just looking for more freedom of play, with more opportunity for tactics. So the 3D visuals resulted naturally from that.
GS: Contra is known for its high level of difficulty. How do you plan for this, and gauge what level of play the game will require? Are you purposefully singling out a certain type of player?
NN: Regular action games can be beaten just by guts and stamina; you can just keep on playing through to the end. That's normal these days. But with Contra, you have to really think about what you're doing, and challenge it over and over in order to master your skills. The more that you try, the more reward you get for your efforts.
So there are those games that are easier to pick up, but have less reward for hardcore players. This is not the Contra model. Contra is harder to get into, but gives you a great sense of satisfaction if you beat it. I think that in the gaming market, the consumers will soon get fed up with that easier style, and will eventually refocus on what a true action game is.
GS: Do you and Konami consider the hardcore market to be valuable?
NN: Yes. Speaking specifically about the Japanese market, it has really focused on the mainstream since the PlayStation era. I think that was a good model for a while, as the publishers and developers were able to lure in the 'light' users.
But the hardcore gamers were being somewhat disenfranchised in this situation. The game developers were all focusing on the high-end graphics, and maximizing the hardware, and the 'light' users dominated the japanese market. They got used to high-quality cinematics, and no longer found them impressive, so started searching for other means of entertainment. They kind of left the game market.
Casual gamers are important too, but I think that hardcore gamers should be the driving force to lead the market.
GS: The older Contras had very campy story sequences, and with this game you seem to be trying to go back to that unique style, as opposed to the more serious storyline of Shattered Soldiers. Why is this?
NN: Of course Contra is mainly an action game, so action takes precedence over story. With the original Contra in the '80s, it was really easy to just have a simple story about a war hero or something of that nature. But depicting realistic war is against the current world scene, I think. We want to create a kind of fighting that people can think is 'cool', and simply laugh about, not realistic death.
GS: Contra: Legacy of War was widely regarded as a departure from the series - how did you get Contra back on track with Shattered Soldiers?
NN: First of all, I just want to say that I had nothing to do with Legacy! But I wasn't really trying to 'return' to the Contra style per se. I was just thinking of what should come next from the SNES and Genesis Contras that I created myself, and Shattered Soldier came from that.
GS: What was your motivation for going for a more comical style of violence?
NN: Well, it's not comical in the classical sense, but more like taking these superhuman characters and kind of overwhelming you with the ridiculousness of their situation. We push it over the top so that you have to laugh. Humans wouldn't perform these kinds of actions. I just want the game to be enjoyable, free of the issues involved with realistic depiction of violence.
GS: In America, violence is a major point of contention for game developers and consumers alike. How do you see the role of violence in games in Japan?
NN: Violence, while it's certainly not a good thing, is something you can't hide from or ignore. It exists in our society. The fact is that violence generates the energy for the next generation of games, too. You have to live with violence. To restrict violence and to weed it out of society is really unhealthy, because it's a part of life.
GS: Because then people have an unrealistic view of the world?
Konami's Akira Yamaoka
Akira Yamaoka is the producer and sound creator for the Silent Hill series at Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo. His other credited games include Contra: Shattered Soldiers and DDR Max 2, as well as Dance Dance Revolution 7th Mix.
GS: Silent Hill is known for creating an unusually powerful emotional response in players. How do you construct this?
AY: Since this is a horror game, the first thing I thought about was what I wanted to make the users feel - I threw out anything that didn't fit that idea.
GS: You seem to be taking a different tactic with your scaring 'style' in these games. What is your methodology?
AY: Well I covered it slightly before, but it's really all about appealing to the user's feelings. Of course we have some elements that are just there for shock value, but the story - the length of it - should ideally draw the users in and scare or stimulate them through this involvement.
GS: I think sound plays a big part. What are your feelings about music in games, and do you tend to add music to a scene, or come up with a scenario idea first?
AY: It depends. Sometimes we make the sound first and construct the scene around it, or we'll have the graphics first and add the sound later. Silent Hill is like a human drama, so of course the sound and music is very important. There are a lot of games that use music just as a background; sound over a picture. I like the music to be able to stand on its own, yet affect the player. I can't really tell you how to do it effectively though (laughter).
GS: What is the team's goal with the games? Is it an interesting narrative style, trying to scare, or just make people feel something?
AY: The market for videogames is still expanding, such as the DS hardware, but Silent Hill is not really targeted at kids. That way, we can put in a difficult story, more of a human drama. The main thing we want to do is to entertain - for adults specifically.
GS: You seem to use a lot of cinematic techniques in Silent Hill. What do you think game companies can learn from film?
AY: Well there are certainly a lot of things - camerawork, for example. But that's obvious. I think that we can also take something from the flow of the presentation; the segues between interactive and non-interactive parts, from when you play to when you don't. There's a lot that we can learn from the way film is edited.
GS: Directors sometimes call themselves auteurs when they create signature works. Do you think of yourself as an artist?
AY: I don't really consider myself an artist - maybe more of a creator. I feel like artists are generally limited to one style of project. Of course, right now I'm making Silent Hill games, but I feel like I can make a game that would make people laugh, if I wanted to. I am more interested in the concept of creating emotion within games than I am with artistry or horror specifically.
GS: So what scares you?
AY: (laughter) Hmm, what would that be? Meeting someone whom I don't understand even after seeing them and talking to them.
GS: Did you take some elements of this and put them into Silent Hill? There seem to be some people in the game that are unintelligible and in some way 'off'.
AY: Well probably everyone has that fear - it's a pretty standard one. For example, if you're sitting at home normally, and you hear something like the "BAAAAN" droning noise of road construction… If you hear a sound that's outside the scope of your daily existence, it will naturally give you an odd feeling. So, the sounds in the game work in much the same way.
GS: Where do you see survival horror going in the next few years?
AY: I think that games like Resident Evil, Siren and Silent Hill are totally different. They're all within the survival horror genre, but if you look at the methods of each, you'll find that they're different. I think the span of the genre will just get wider. Resident Evil, for instance, is very action-oriented, Siren is very influenced by Japanese horror, very Japanese-specific in style. Silent Hill is more like a suspense-thriller, or a human drama, as I said before... maybe you can't even really call it horror. So I think that the genre of horror will just keep widening, and branching in these different directions. This should be good for the market, too.
GS: In Silent Hill 4: The Room, the main character was a bit unstable and introspective. How do you get an audience to sympathize with such a person?
AY: Yeah, we did have some concern with that… Above all, the first thing we wanted to do was to make sure that the players themselves would be able to understand the situation and what to do. So if we can do that successfully, I think we can allow the main character to be a bit introverted, especially since we tried to give some background as to why he was that way.
GS: Silent Hill appeals to women - how did you manage this? Did you do it on purpose?
AY: True, in Japan there are a lot of female players, and we've gotten feedback from them as well. Of course, when we first made the game, we didn't know who it would appeal to, but once we got the feedback, we started to make the riddles and stories with a consciousness that women were playing.
GS: How do you do this? And do you have women on your team?
AY: Yeah, actually we do have some, and of course we consider things that female players would like for the telling of the story. It seems that they appreciate the story more than the male players do. We also make sure that the level of action is such that anyone can play it.
GS: What games do you play yourself?
first person shooters. I'm waiting for Half-Life 2!