In-Depth: Shoot 'Em Up Dev, Cave, On Finding A New Audience On iPhone
Founded in 1994, Cave
has since established itself as Japan's most focused, prolific and successful shoot 'em up creator, while expanding its business significantly into other genres.
Famed for popularizing the 'bullet hell' style of vertical shoot 'em up, the developer's brand of challenging, twitch gameplay has dominated the genre in Japanese arcades, while region-free ports of their catalog to Xbox 360 has fostered a small but vociferous following overseas.
In recent months the company has been extending its reach worldwide with the release of ESPGALUDA II
and DoDonPachi Resurrection
for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.
While Apple's mainstream touchscreen devices might seem like an ill fit for games that require pixel-perfect precision in dodging a maelstrom of bullets, some smart adaptation to the hardware has made both games underground hits on the App Store.
Indeed, the latter title secured over 30,000 sales in just four days, no mean feat for a release priced at a relatively steep $8.99.
Despite this recent, perhaps unexpected success on a mainstream platform, Yukihiro Masaki, manager for Cave's Mobile Contents Game Development and iPhone team producer, remains reserved.
"I guess it's all relative," he says. "I don't really have the sense that our games have been accepted, or are performing brilliantly worldwide necessarily. I think there are still a lot of people out there who have never played a Cave game so I'm not sure that we can call it a success yet."
"But I think it's been a great opportunity for people around the world to get to know Cave's shooting games, and I'm glad people enjoy them," he adds.
Cave's entry to the iOS market was in rapid response to the sharp rise in popularity of the iPhone in Japan. "The existing business model for cell-phone game development in Japan was becoming obsolete," Masaki explains, "so we were eager to find a new way of working here. Since the iPhone market was extremely active in Japan, we decided to explore its possibilities."
"When we started developing for the iPhone, we developed a test game to see what the possibilities were," he continues. "We figured that, since people knew us for our shooting games, we should start there, so we decided to go with a shooter for our first release on the platform."
"Of course during the development processes there were all sorts of serious challenges, but for things like controllability and other gameplay elements, we used the know-how we had from previous Japanese cell phone-oriented development to good use."
Located in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Cave has grown to a sizable outfit in recent years, currently employing 156 full-time, part-time and contract staff, partly due to its work on major online games like Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online
. Of the original employees that established Cave's popularity, only six remain, including the CEO, Kenichi Takano.
The creative heart of the original IP shooters at the company rests with two of these original staff, veteran programmers Tsuneki Ikeda and Takashi Ichimura, who are both responsible for the arcade versions of the studio's output, which usually act as lead platforms.
"We have around 10 projects going on in-house at any one time," Masaki explains. "Both in Japan and overseas we are thought of as a pure shooting game company, but the company is actually divided into three major divisions."
He explains, "There's the 'Game Development' department, in charge of our arcade-oriented and home console development, the 'Information Provider' department, which develops and publishes mobile-oriented projects (anything from system development to paid-info services), and the 'Online Services' department which plans, develops and operates online games."
"In the past 12 months we've started to develop social game projects, as well as our iPhone-focused smart phone games and application business. We're always looking for new platforms to put out games or content with that particular 'Cave' touch."
This week has seen the release of Cave's first non-shoot 'em up on the App Store, Mushihimesama BUG PANIC
, an action puzzle game based on characters from the developer's Mushihimesama
shooting games. With this move into a different genre, I wonder whether the full extent of the Japanese shoot 'em up has now been explored.
"Yes, actually, I think you might be right," says Masaki. "Perhaps the possibilities have been fully explored. Shooting games themselves are based on a fairly simple system, which has been complicated in recent years by a lot of new gameplay elements that seem too difficult to me, compared to the shooters I played in my childhood."
"I'm really bad at difficult games myself -- kind of ironic for someone who works at a developer like Cave -- so I think simpler games that players want to keep playing and find fun wind up being the best kind of shooters," he says.
"Even though I do think the possibilities have mostly been explored, there are always new challenges to be found in new game systems and new platforms," he continues. "I think these challenges connect to new gameplay possibilities."
"For example, adding new gameplay elements, new ships, new background music, introducing new ways to control the game, thinking about new ways to tell the story and so on," says Masaki. "Considering the challenges that come along with each game, I think you could call them innovations."
I ask whether the shift into new genre could undermine the work in that area of development Cave is best known for. "I don't think it will undermine us," explains Masaki. "Actually I think producing solely shooters is not a good idea for our future."
"Of course we're going to keep producing shooters, but by involving ourselves in other genres we formulate new ideas and ways of thinking, and these could help us make shooters that are even better than they are now," he explains. "Actually I think exploring new genres is crucial to the evolution of shooters."