Japanese development studio CyberConnect2 is probably best known for its internally-created .hack faux-MMO RPG franchise.
But over the last few years it has also been the prolific developer of the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja series, a PlayStation-exclusive line of games now spanning as many as seven entries.
Currently, CyberConnect2 is working on Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm, the series' first entry on PlayStation 3. It makes a significant graphical leap beyond its predecessors, focusing on perfecting the cel-shading techniques that imitate hand-drawn animation.
During a Namco Bandai press event, Gamasutra sat down with CyberConnect2 president Hiroshi Matsuyama to discuss the steps the studio is taking to with its proprietary engine and shader technologies, and how its approach has changed since Naruto gained traction in the West.
You mentioned how you're bringing the anime look to the PlayStation 3. What you were going for with the engine, and how you achieved that, technologically?
Hiroshi Matsuyama: Well, first of all, as you are aware, there are a lot of developers out there who use toon shading, and they use it in their CGs often, but as you notice on the screen, it feels a few ranks above the usual toon shading that's been used.
So as you noticed, this is our special engine that we have. For example, when you are using toon shading, it uses outlining on top of the objects, but then we have two different functions that are melding together.
So do you have specific shaders that you've written, that look more like anime? Is that something that is part of your engine?
HM: Yes, we do have a special shader that's implemented in the engine.
Is this an engine that you've written internally at CyberConnect2, or are you using outside elements as well?
HM: This is strictly a CyberConnect2-specific shader, which was created in-house.
And does that go for everything in the engine?
Obviously this game is only for the PlayStation 3 because of the way that the Naruto license is split, but is this a multiplatform engine that you could use for other titles?
HM: Well, this special engine that we call "CCS," this particular engine has been made with the vision of being expandable, so it's not necessarily made strictly only for the PS3.
OK. And will you be using this for other titles, not just Naruto titles? In the past, especially in Japan, it's been about often creating specific engines for each title, but that becomes less feasible as we move into the next generation.
HM: Yes, we do have plans of implementing, but it won't be just a straight implementation. Our vision is to always have some form of expansion, so technically it will be almost similar to a pull with a new engine that's actually built for that specific title that we have.
And this special "super toon," is - specifically in the sense of shading - made specifically just for the Naruto title.
I've talked to a lot of Japanese developers, and as the next-gen is taking off a little more slowly in Japan, because of the PlayStation 3's delayed introduction as compared to the 360, and there's been talk as to whether to adopt Western technology because it's more mature, but a lot of developers haven't been interested in it. Have you thought about adopting western technology, or are you just sticking to your own technology?
HM: I believe you are talking more in the sense of middleware? Currently we don't have any plans for actual implementation of middleware, but we are planning to use whatever engine that we do have, and expand it towards other titles that we have.
Something we've talked about with a couple different developers is the idea that if you license a Western-developed engine, like Unreal, you might end up making a western-style game. It's not good for expressing a Japanese style of game. I was wondering if you thought something along the same lines?
HM: For example, if we take the Unreal Engine as a sample, as you can see how it's actually being implemented in various games, for the most part it is used in first person shooters, or for actually depicting something a little bit more in the sense of a real lifelike scene.
But as you can notice by some of the titles that we have, our titles are very "super anime" and somewhat on a fantasy theme.
So, really, rather than just incorporating small bits of the Unreal Engine for example, for a more effective example, it would be better to work off of what we currently have, to make sure it works better for our products.
The Western Market
When you first started maikng these Naruto games a few years ago for the PS2, the license hadn't come to America, but since it has come to America, it's really huge now - so now that this latest game is debuting in America, how has that affected the development of the property? Especially since because in Japan, the progression of the story is much further than in the U.S.
HM: First of all, when we did partake in the Naruto game series, really there was no movement in the United States for the Naruto license itself, so when we approached the game, we wanted to make sure that it would appeal to the Japanese public.
But then once we heard that we were actually going to be bringing this over Stateside, and we were going to be localizing the product for the US, we really wanted to make sure that the product at that point would be developed on a worldwide scale. So we shifted our development from there. And that was just about the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 2 timing.
For example, in the first Ultimate Ninja, the text was written from top to bottom, but from number two, we adjusted it to start left to right.
Have you done anything like focus testing, or feedback from the U.S. audiences on the series? Is that something that you can get access to in Japan?
Namco Bandai rep: It's actually a whole combination of the different Bandai Namco games companies, and we do a total survey on top of it, and come to a single combination in the decisions that we make.
How do they gather the information that feeds into that? Does it come from within the company or from outside?
NBR: We basically incorporate an external company who will do the surveys, with the focus groups within the U.S., for example, and we collect the information from there, and come to a total conclusion of what actions to take.
Obviously the development budget for a PlayStation 3 Naruto game is going to be higher than the budget for a PlayStation 2 version, and everyone knows that you have to sell more copies, but with that license being split across the three systems, it's going to be harder to sell more copies. How do you feel about that situation?
HM: We've been working on the PlayStation platforms strictly, so the situation really hasn't changed from the very first day that we actually worked on the product.
But at the same time we are very aware that as we make a very high quality product, people will follow along with it regardless of the different platform that it's on, and we're pretty confident that the game that we've got is of high enough quality to gather the audience.