With the right IP and the right teams, US and Japanese developers can be the perfect match -- if you know how to manage them, that is.
Capcom's Lost Planet 3 project lead Andrew Szymanski talked with Gamasutra about his experience organizing Capcom's Osaka team and US developer Spark Unlimited to build a new Lost Planet that draws upon both sides' respective strengths, and the some of the procedural pitfalls producers will need to avoid along the way.
Right now, how are you dividing labor and organizing the two teams?
Spark is doing the heavy lifting, so to speak -- all the coding, creating art assets, things like that. Most of the collaboration happened early on; to give you a brief recap, Oguro-san, the franchise director, came to me right when Lost Planet 2 was about to ship with some ideas he had for the third game. One of the things he felt strongly upon was to go back in time for the franchise -- one of the things he wanted to do with the first Lost Planet game that he wasn't able to do was to sort of show the extreme nature of the environment and the hardships people faced in the environment, not just in the visuals like "Oh, it's snowing," but in the gameplay and the narrative and stuff like that. He really wanted to hit on it, he felt strongly that he wanted to get back to our roots with more of a cinematic, narrative-driven setup.
Through those discussions, he and I made a joint decision that in order to hit to cinematic points and touch on the themes he wanted to touch on, it would be great to work with a Western partner to take some of that know-how about characterization and dialogue and everything and bring it in. Obviously, we recognize our strengths and weaknesses, and I think we can all agree that while the first two LP games did a lot of things really well, characterization and narrative wasn't one of them.
So in order to strengthen the narrative, you went with an American dev?
We wanted a strong narrative, a strong protagonist the player could live vicariously through, and we wanted to push the boundaries of a shooter. The premise of the first LP game was, "Let's take a bunch of Japanese guys and make a shooter." Well, you use guns as weapons, but it's not really a shooter. One of the first things we worked on with Spark was to make sure we had the fundamental shooter elements down.
What engine is Spark using for LP3?
First two games were on MT Framework, LP1 on MT Framework 1.0 and LP2 on MT Framework 2.0. Because Spark is an Unreal house, we wanted to make sure they could use the tools they were comfortable with. We did want to make sure that LP3 wasn't going to look like a "Typical Unreal game" -- our art direction is about the planet's extreme conditions, so we're not browns and greys, but whites and purples and greens and blues and so on.
From the way you describe it, it sounds like Capcom Japan's involvement ended after pre-production.
The ideas that Spark had come up with independently was very close to what we wanted to do with LP3 -- we both wanted to explore the human element. This was two and a half years ago at this point. So what we did was, we took everyone and said, "Let's basically get everyone in a room for a week, and let's pound out what the narrative is going to be, what the enemy types are going to be, and what the feel is going to be."
And so, there was a productive series of meetings for months where we'd bring both teams in and have them throw their ideas at each other. The idea was more for the Osaka team to direct Spark's creativity, not stifle it but channel it. A lot of times, the publisher/IP holder says "No, you can't do this." We thought it was better to say "We don't think it'll work and here's why, but why don't you go off in this direction instead?" You wanna make sure the developer really feels like they own it.
Once we got through pre-production, the Osaka team's involvement was kind of a paradigm where both teams had agreed on a shared vision, and the Osaka team would play the builds and offer feedback when they felt Spark had strayed from that vision.
Speaking of stifling creativity: Was deciding to go with an American team a way to make an end run around internal stifling elements?
There's definitely an element of that, I'd agree. I don't want to name names, but I've been working in Japanese development for 10 years myself, even before I came to Capcom, and there is very much a top-down structure in Japanese game development, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you use it. For us, when Oguro-san came to me, it was a very smooth process for us to go with a Western development partner because he knew what he wanted to get out of the game, and what the internal team could do.
Honestly, there are going to be some things that the internal team could do even better than Spark, in some cases. But for the game that we wanted to make -- which was a game that was going to be highly cinematic, and focus on characterization and interaction and good dialogue and good mocap and things like that, and to bring LP back to a strong shooter basis...well, I don't want to sound like I'm speaking badly of the Osaka team, what they did with LP1 and LP2 was great and exactly what they set out to do, but if you're looking at this from a creative standpoint, do you want to try and fit a square peg into a round hole by getting the Osaka team to do things that aren't really their strengths? You're not using their strengths, and you're forcing them out of their comfort zone. For LP3, it felt smart to take a Western dev that already had all the strengths we needed, and bring in the Osaka team to shore up the weaknesses. You can't cover all the bases, but it seemed like a smarter, more holistic approach.
This isn't your first time to the international developer rodeo. What did you do differently with LP3 based on your previous experiences?
For the first part, a lot of it had to do with how to foster creativity and channel it in the direction you want without beating it down. Japanese development is top-down -- not dictatorial, but you have a director and his word is law. We tried to make sure our work with Spark was always collaborative and tried to build consensus instead of telling them that the Japanese director was always right and that Spark should simply do as he says.
That isn't to say that Spark has all the answers either. Some things required a lot of work and heated discussion, but ultimately you have to look at a situation and say, here's where the IP holders think the IP's strengths and weaknesses are, and here is where the developer thinks there is room for interpretation, and let's meet in the middle and try to find the common ground.
And believe it or not, it's much easier to do this when you can go into the software and actually play around with it. As long as everyone is dedicated to making the best product possible, and it's not about egos, or who's, you know, is bigger than the other guy's, that's where it really all starts to come together.
What would you do if you had to do LP3 all over again, knowing what you know now?
If I had to do it all over again, well, no matter where you're working or who you're working with, there's always a difficulty between taking something from the concept to the prototype, and actually building it into a full game. Particularly in this case, where we have the Capcom team and myself, even though we're in LA once or twice a month, I'm not there on a day to day basis. Getting the boots on the ground is important for myself, and for the publisher side representatives, so the developer can take the vision we've built together and run it with and get it done. Ogoro-san and I always talk about how taking a game from 0 percent to 80 percent is -- it's not easy, but it's the fun part. Taking it from 80 to 100 is the slog, the death march, and that gets multiplied when you're working with multiple teams across different time zones.
Has LP3 made a case internally for working with Western devs?
Capcom has had a mixed track record when it comes to this kind of thing. We like to be self-aware -- we know that we've had some hits in the past, and a few more misses when it comes to working with Western devs. I like to think of this as one of the initiatives -- I'm not saying I want to replace the Osaka teams, or their IPs, or what Capcom has done with internal development, but I do feel that this has the potential to be one of Capcom's many strategies for making global products. And it's not "Hey, we have the Lost Planet IP lying around, go work on that." And I think that's something that with LP3 and Devil May Cry, I personally believe that we're starting to create a best practices for success. But it's been hard, and there have been a lot of growing pains.
What kind of growing pains?
Well, the goal is to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. Ideally, you want the final product to look like something that neither team could have done on its own. We've had a surprisingly easy time from a creative vision standpoint in terms of coming to a consensus pretty early on, but when you get to the nitty-gritty, there's always going to be issues with what truly makes a franchise unique, and what are the must-haves of a franchise versus the things that have some wiggle room. And some of our growing pains had to do with just the sheer volume of content that gets put in. If you're one of the guys in Osaka, you're playing a build and something gets put in and you're like "Wait a second, I've never seen this before, what's going on?" and that could be a good surprise or a bad surprise. You don't want to create an atmosphere where the dev feels like they're being watched, but at the same time, you want to build a relationship where there's enough trust that the dev is willing to check something out with you that might be controversial in advance, and you can sit down with the dev and have them walk you through their thought process. And sometimes as a result of that, you'll be like, "Hey, you know what, that makes perfect sense, let's do it," and other times you'll be like "That's a dealbreaker, sorry."
Lost Planet isn't Capcom's most prolific IP. Does give you more creative freedom?
There was definitely more freedom working on Lost Planet, because each LP has had a specific goal in mind, and each one has been successful in achieving that goal, but the franchise and IP itself is not rigid. The first one was "We're a Japanese team, let's make a Japanese shooter, and show how neat the 360 hardware is, because it just came out." With Lost Planet 2, let's take it 180 degrees and make it basically a crazy party game with guns, where everyone is having a great time running around shooting stuff and there's all sorts of crazy content. That concept may not have resonated to a huge degree outside of Japan, but it was extremely good at doing what it set out to do.
There's one thing I love that Oguro-san has said, which is, "The first two Lost Planet games are action games with guns." They take the Japanese, not-realistic, almost-ludicrously stylized aesthetic -- ludicrous in a good way -- and just happened to have guns. When we sat down with LP3, we realized that we weren't beholden to the past games, as long as we gave our fans what they wanted. This gave us the freedom to sit down and say, "We don't have to make a strict followup." We can go back in time and tell the back story, the narrative implications are great, and for the gameplay Oguro-san said "Let's go make this a shooter," and that'll piss some people off, but we're gonna do it.