Sato’s name may not be known industry-wide, like the Kojima-s and
Miyamoto-s of the world, but his skill and vision are such that perhaps
it should be. His career began at Konami, where he went on to create,
direct, model and design the CG movies for the first Silent Hill, entirely on his own.
The movies in that game were widely regarded as the best of that particular era, and earned him the right to direct much of Silent Hill 2,
which was lauded by critics as emotionally complex and pioneering for
its time - some might say that Sato's stark, eerie concept art and CG
scene contribution to the two games is one of the key parts of the
franchise's distinctive style.
Now, Sato works in North America at Electronic Arts, most recently completing work on Goldeneye: Rogue Agent as associate art director. A quick glance at his official website shows that in his early CG models for Goldeneye, his style, and love of detailed, complicated characters, is still intact.
this exclusive interview with Gamasutra, Sato gives a very candid
impression of the Japanese game industry, as well as a look at the
American industry from the position of a partial outsider.
GS: So how did you decide to get into the game industry?
Well, at first I was studying sculpture and fine art at Tama Art
University in Toyko, but at a certain point I decided that I would like
to get into CG or game industry work. And just when I had that thought,
I got a flyer saying that Konami was hiring artists. So that’s when I
GS: And you started with 2D art, working on Sexy Parodius, right?
That was basically porting (from the arcade to Saturn and PlayStation),
and I kind of got to do animation, draw the UI, extra enemies, and the
GS: Did you study 3D art simultaneously while at Konami, or at school?
At Konami, because that time, we used Indy from Silicon Graphics, and
3D packages were extremely expensive. So there was no choice but to do
it there. The porting of Sexy Parodius was hell – I was the
only artist in the team, and had to work 15 hours, seven days a week,
and… that’s hell. It was a 2D game, and 2D was on the verge of
extinction at the time (1996). So I was pretty worried, being that I
was so busy, and working so hard, but in a few years, I’d be basically
skill-less, and laid off. So I started learning that 3D package after
midnight every day, on my own.
GS: Was it difficult for you to make the jump from 2D to 3D art?
Yeah. Software-wise, it’s ok. Five months after starting, I became
comfortable using it. But getting a 3D job within Konami was hard.
GS: So how did you manage to get to the point where they trusted you to do Silent Hill’s CG on your own?
TS: That’s a really long story! I appealed over and over – “I want to work on 3D, I want to work on a serious project, like a Silent Hill or Metal Gear Solid kind of game.” And I was assigned a 3D job, fortunately, after a few months.
first, the work they gave me was much more basic, like making letters
for subtitles, or UI for presentations, and scheduling, and sorting
files. That sort of job. It was hard. And there were artists that were
older than me, but didn't have any knowledge of 3D. But in Japanese
society, older people get more respect within the company. So I had to
teach them, while doing this work. So basically, I was doing demos and
presentations in 3D, and not getting credit. I thought that was unfair,
but I was paying my dues.
I decided to compose my own four-second piece of a movie, and then
presented it. I kind of stepped over my boss, and showed the
higher-ups, saying “This is what I can do. Let me do some real 3D work,
otherwise I won’t teach anyone else.” So that’s how I started gradually
getting 3D work, like rigging, lighting and atmosphere, character
design, and other things on the visual pipeline. More than 8 months
later, we had a chance to show our movies, and in-game stuff at E3. And
at that point, I got applause.
People liked the content and visuals. But I still wasn’t in charge of
cinematics, or characters or anything. Well – even though I was
actually “in charge” of it, my title still didn’t reflect that. And my
boss wanted to find somebody above me to give me direction, because in
Japanese companies, they don’t want to credit someone like me, who’s
the youngest in the team. He wanted to give me a CGI and visual
supervisor. But that was kind of strange because I had all of the
pipeline, and 30 or 40 percent of all movie sequences done. Why should
I have a supervisor for that? So I said “I don’t need anybody above
me,” and a fight started, during which my boss said “Fine then – can
you finish everything on your own?” And I had to say “Ok I will!”
That’s why I had to do everything.
A still from one of Silent Hill's haunting CG sequences
GS: So you didn’t have any assistance at all?
No. Not many people believe that I did it myself – and it wasn’t like I
wanted to make it all from scratch! I just had to do it in order to get
credit. Plus, you don’t want to be credited in your game as assistant
artist if you did everything. So it wasn’t easy. I didn’t go home for
three years, almost. I lived there. I slept under the desk, and that
midnight time I talked about, after everyone went home, was a real
chance for me to work, because I had access to all of the computers in
the office. We had over 150 computers or something like that, and at
the time we were using the Unix operating system. So after everyone’s
gone home, I can operate all of these computers to render my stuff.
Yeah…I couldn’t go home.
GS: And with the next game you worked on (Silent Hill 2) you had a lot more story control. Do you miss having control over a project like that?
TS: Well…I don’t know, I’m in the United States now, and the hierarchy is so different. When I worked on Silent Hill 1, the budget average was like three to five million, like Final Fantasy. Around the time of Silent Hill 2,
the average budget was maybe seven to ten million. So it was easier to
get power over a project at the time, because the cost wasn’t as much.
But now games could cost, I don’t know, ten to fifty million? That’s
too much. Way too much money.
Yeah, those were my glory days, with Silent Hill 2,
because after the first one, I got a Japanese Cultural Ministry award,
and it was shown at Siggraph, and I got the personal CEO award from
Konami, so I had a lot of power over my next project. And that was
GS: The story for Silent Hill 2 went over very well in America. Did you write most of the scenario?
There was a writer, but I provided the dialog and storyline for the
women. The basic storyline was based on Crime and Punishment. The
background story of my university was also kind of twisted into Silent Hill 2.
GS: With Silent Hill 3, you developed a concept that wound up not being used. How did that happen?
At that time I was in the U.S. already, and I was in Konami of America,
a separate division from Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, and
basically we were kind of contracted to them. And before getting the
contract done, my team was already developing new Silent Hill
stuff. But our contract didn’t meet with what they wanted, so we didn’t
show anything, and they didn’t get anything. Since we were external, we
had to pitch our ideas like any other third party, and it just didn’t
GS: How different was your vision from the way the game actually turned out?
Well, I like really deep, introspective, psychological horror. I like
stories where the villain isn’t really a villain. They just want what
they want, and they’re thinking about it, not just purely pursuing
evil. That kind of complicated thought process was not as apparent in Silent Hill 3, which was more like pure horror. It didn’t feel like psychological horror anymore, to me.
GS: And what made you decide to come to the West in the first place?
TS: Well, Silent Hill 1
did pretty well with the U.S. audience, in terms of gross sales. I
considered that to be kind of fortunate, more like luck. Because at
that point I hadn’t been to the U.S. or Europe or anything. So I really
didn’t know anything about the West, other than what I’d seen in
movies, or translated books. So that hit was not planned. It was just
luck. But the higher ups in a Japanese company don’t think like that.
Even at that time, the main markets for games were America and Europe,
even though the developer is in Japan.
we had to seriously think about the Western market, and I mentioned
this to the higher ups, but they weren't so sure – they'd say “a good
game sells, no matter the culture, no matter where it’s developed.” I
didn’t think that was right. I think that in order to sell something to
someone, you have to know that audience. And the Japanese game market
had already started shrinking, so I thought I had to see Europe and the
U.S., since it would be the next main market.