Masaya Matsuura made a name for himself in games with PaRappa the Rapper, a game that still stands out almost 15 years later as a unique moment in the medium. A feel-good game with a positive message, casual gameplay, and inventive artwork, it charted a course that the mainstream console game industry has not really followed.
Matsuura and his company, NanaOn-Sha, however, are still following the beat of their own drummer. Next year, the company will launch its next title, Haunt, for Xbox Live Arcade. Published by Microsoft and developed in collaboration with UK-based studio Zoë Mode, it's a motion-controlled haunted house.
In this interview, Matsuura waxes philosophical about the changes he'd like to see the industry make while Dewi Tanner, producer of Haunt and NanaOn-Sha's former director of development, discusses the nitty gritty about getting player movement right on the Kinect.
Let's talk about what NanaOn-Sha is up to right now, just in a general sense.
Dewi Tanner: Well, I think we're just wrapping up our main project, Haunt, right now, which has been going on for the past year. It was announced at TGS last year, but just through a kind of teaser trailer video. But since then, there haven't been any press opportunities, so we've been keeping it close to the chest. So we're just winding up the game right now; things are looking clean right now, so it should be a smooth submission.
After Major Minor's Majestic March, did you learn from that experience, making a motion control game?
Masaya Matsuura: Kind of. But maybe the Wii and the Kinect are very different from each other. So we almost have to start from the beginning, for technology.
Did you kind of learn anything about the motion control genre, or audience, from releasing that game on the Wii?
DT: I think as a platform, Wii is so different; it always felt like it was a very big challenge just to reach the audience at all, trying to compete with all the first party titles. Microsoft will be publishing the XBLA title with us, so we've got more insider information this time. It should help make the game reach out to who they want to sell it to.
Did you have to staff up at all, or did you use contract people?
DT: Well, this time we teamed up with Zoë Mode -- a British development team -- so internally I think we've maybe one or two staff more than a year ago, but no big changes. So most of the art and programming production's being taken place in Brighton, in the UK. And they've done a very good job of it really.
With Kinect, people keep trying to make standard games -- well, sometimes they do -- and you don't really have precise control over your movements in Kinect as much as with a controller. How do you approach matching what the hardware can do to kind of the gameplay that you want?
DT: Especially because when we started making it there was really no Kinect yet, so we had a chance to go to Seattle and play some prototypes and stuff like that. We had a couple of chats with engineers, but at the beginning we were just going from our best image -- our best guess from our minds, really.
And from then, it's always been a kind of exercise in bringing those two lines to a point where reality meets. I think kind of what we've gone for -- the haunted house and exploration and puzzles and stuff like that -- has been a pretty good platform for Kinect. It doesn't require meticulous precision, but at the same time it's more physical and involving than just using the game controller.
Did you do a lot of play testing with people? Because often Kinect controls seem obvious to the developer, but players can't make them work.
DT: We did do some playtesting to a degree in Japan and in the States as well, that it's been such a short project -- only one year, limited resources -- that we had to pick very specifically when we wanted to do that and how we could get the best out of it. I'm sure that there will be occasions when we're unable to completely satisfy every person's different interpretation. I remember early on there was a command called "thrust", where you can attack a ghost by thrusting towards them like a sword plunge. And we have this video of a play tester, and he was doing pelvic thrusts towards the screen.
Did it work?
DT: No, it didn't.
DT: "Thrust? What am I supposed to do?"
Did you go the vague path where motions are open to interpretation within the code, or aim toward specificity within the player instructions?
DT: I think we were trying to allow for different interpretations within the code to a degree, but you can't foresee everything that people are going to do. And we would've liked to have spent more resources on better instruction, instructing the players and stuff like that. But at the end of the day it's an XBLA title, so we didn't have the funds to cover all the bases. So it's a little bit of a case of wait and see, to see how the market reacts to that.