Outside of sports, fighting games are the genre most commonly associated with not-so-substantial iterative changes between installments. Not so, claims Namco Bandai's Soulcalibur IV director Katsutoshi Sasaki.
Gamasutra got a chance to sit down with the developer at the San Francisco launch party for his new game, which shipped this week on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and learn a bit about the philosophy that goes into developing one of the most robust fighting game series in the industry - including what keeps the team invested in the title year-in, year-out.
Coming into the next-gen version of the series, what do you have to change to make it next-generation in your eyes?
Katsutoshi Sasaki: The first main principle was the visuals. We had to improve the visuals to next-gen levels. Since we were developing it on PS2 last time, we had to bring it up to the next level of the PlayStation 3 - that was the main principle.
It may be obvious, but the other aspect would be the online play. It has been difficult to actually create the program itself, but we've actually managed to tweak it and work it all out, so we hope that everyone can enjoy it.
Fighting game reviews often end up saying things like, "It's basically the same as the last time, the graphics are a little bit better, there are a few new characters. If you liked the last game, it's good." How do you feel about these sorts of simplistic critiques?
KS: What you said is definitely true, and it's understandable that some reviews do say that. But from the team's point of view, increasing the number of characters is one of the best ways to actually increase the variety of gameplay.
Since Soulcalibur has so many new characters every time, it's actually quite a task for us to create all of the commands for each character. It's a difficult task to actually increase the number of characters, but we see that as being the true strength of Soulcalibur.
How do you make sure your audience can really understand why it's important to buy the next entry in the series?
KS: It's actually quite difficult to draw the line, for the team, between making the game for the reviewers and for the players. But the team believes that its main principle - its ideal - is to make it for the players. To create that, and to think about that, is actually in our minds and in our hearts as well. We want to make a game for the players, that they're actually noticing. That's how the team feels about it.
When you're sitting down and you're going to plan out a sequel in the series - and in a certain sense these games are incremental improvements over their predecessors - how do you begin to plan what kind of features will go into it? It's different to making a whole new game.
KS: As you said, sequel games are usually something that's based on the previous games in the series. But for the Soulcalibur team, we actually go back to the drawing board, and think about what Soulcalibur is, to start with. There we actually pick all the necessary ingredients, in a sense, of what Soulcalibur is, and then start to think about the new game itself.
For this series, for example, the main principles and the strength of Soulcalibur has been the weapon-based tactics. We want to create a game which would actually retain those aspects. So that's why we brought in new concepts, like the Guard Crush, for example. We go back to the principles and work from there.
How long have you been working on the series, at this point?
KS: I joined the series from Soulcalibur III, and was the director from Soulcalibur III: Arcade Edition. And I'm the director of Soulcalibur IV.
So is it difficult to step into a series that has already had a long history, and take it over? Is it tough to bring something new to it, at the same time?
KS: As you say, joining the series from midway is difficult to a degree. That's certainly true. But if you look at it from the other side, someone new coming into a series actually brings new ideas and a new ideology as well.
I feel that for me to join the series midway, from Soulcalibur III, I was able to bring new ideas and talk to the staff who have been working on the series for a long time, as well. I feel both ways, but I feel that it's a good thing.
As an example, bringing in the bonus characters and guest characters - for someone who was working on the series from the beginning, it might be difficult for them to actually accept these new characters to be brought in suddenly, as one-off characters. But for me, I was able to join in and add fresh feelings to the team as well, to get the programmers and creators to rethink their strategies. I think that's one of the examples of what took place.
Everybody knows about Darth Vader and Yoda, obviously, but you also got manga artists to do original characters. How did that idea come about? Those creators aren't necessarily famous, particularly outside of Japan, or maybe even in Japan, outside of fan circles.
KS: For the guest characters, they're obviously characters that are well-known worldwide, as you'd expect from Star Wars characters. That was actually used since we knew that everybody would be excited and happy to see such characters coming into the Soulcalibur world. That was the reason we started those on the guest character side.
For the bonus characters, it was actually the team's idea to try out, in the Soulcalibur world, the different artists who could actually create the characters for us.
This had more to do with the passion from the team's side, to bring this into the game. Since we liked it so much, we just assumed, to a degree, that all of the players will like it as well. So that's the difference between the two sets of characters.
Soulcalibur is a deep fighting game series, but compared to the fighters in the same tier - Virtua Fighter, Tekken, Dead or Alive - it's also accessible to novice players while retaining depth. Do you see that as a hallmark of the series?
KS: As you say, the game is obviously for the novice players and core fans as well. The game can actually be played by pressing buttons randomly, and still play. That's for the novice players.
If you look at it the other way, tactics are really important. The use of the weapons - each has a different reach. If you want to play in detail, you can really bring the tactics in as well, so the feel for both markets has to be in there.
How do you keep both of those things in mind? Many developers I've spoken to find it difficult to keep things in perspective when making a game.
KS: As we said before, for the novice players you can press a button randomly and play it. And in Soulcalibur, there's the Eight-Way Run - you can actually use the stages in 3D and you can run away wherever you want.
Bringing in aspects like that, and the Guard Impact system, where if you keep guarding, the guard will actually break - we keep bringing in new ideas, [and] keeping it simple as well, at the same time.
We reckon that's the reason it's not too difficult for the novice players, but at the same time, it's not too easy for them as well.
But how do you determine these things, as the developer? Do you bring in playtesters?
KS: That's quite a good question, and a difficult one to answer. For the Soulcalibur team, we capitalize on the enormous number of players who have been able to play the game to a certain degree but who has never played a fighting game before.
We aren't targeting real entry-level players. We actually categorize to a certain degree who we see as a novice player, and we get them to come in and test it, and we ask them question between what's too novice and what's too difficult.