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Interview: How Tecmo Targets The West, Cold Case Style

Interview: How Tecmo Targets The West, Cold Case Style Exclusive

December 4, 2008 | By Christian Nutt

Tecmo's best known asset is Team Ninja. This development team, formerly headed by the iconoclastic Tomonobu Itagaki, is respected for its attention to detail, fast-action gameplay, and technical expertise in games such as Ninja Gaiden.

And while Team Tachyon has less renown, it has provided Tecmo with a solid basis for its business: it pioneered the Fatal Frame survival horror franchise, for example.

But while these two internal teams make up the company's highest-profile content, there's another business unit within the company devoted to externally-developed games.

Gamasutra recently had the chance to speak with producer Koichi Yamaguchi, who's in charge of the externally-developed, Western market-targeted games coming from Tecmo's Japan offices, alongside Tecmo U.S. VP John Inada.

Yamaguchi's projects include Again, the company's intriguing upcoming casual, western-targeted DS adventure game, under development by external team Cing (which developed Nintendo's Hotel Dusk).

How does this business unit allow Tecmo to expand its business? How does the company decide which games to bring to the U.S.? And can Tecmo get casual gamers interested in a murder mystery? The answers to these questions and more follow.

Reaching Out to New Audiences

What's the process that you use to work with external developers, and how you determine which games will be sold to the Western market?

Koichi Yamaguchi: The goal of the business unit that I belong to is to expand Tecmo's business, as well as its audience. We already have Team Ninja, Team Tachyon; they've put out franchises, and series of games that have captured a certain user base and audience, but our goal is to expand on that, and showcase titles to a potentially brand new audience.

Within that unit, we actually have the luxury of coming up with concepts and ideas that we believe would work for a specific title, or audience, or what would be the next big hit; what would be the next most entertaining product within a certain genre, or for a certain platform. So, we're not really restricted, in a way, in that we have the freedom to go out and work with and collaborate with external development teams.

There is no restriction on platform; there is no restriction on genre. The only thing that I have to worry about is expanding our customer base: Reach out to people who've left gaming, or who used to be Tecmo fans but are not anymore. So, that's my focus. I am not trying to compete with Team Ninja, or Team Tachyon, or any of that.

With games, as well as with other entertainment products, all it is, is really anything that's fun, and interesting, and entertaining; that is what becomes successful. That is the key to success. So it's not really based on the user audience, or the region, or the territory, or what characteristics are more favorable in Japan or outside of Japan. It really comes down to: "Is it fun to play?" and, "Is it interesting to play?"

And one of the initiatives that I am working on right now is the mystery adventure game title called Again, for the Nintendo DS. And we are working on creating the ultimate mystery game, and we are quite confident, in working with our developers. In addition to Again, I am also working on a WiiWare title, called Playshake.

How do you think the DS market is doing? The DS is famous for pulling in non-gamers, but it's unclear whether many of that audience buys games with a narrative structure, as opposed to just sticking with Brain Age, at least in the U.S. Are you hoping Again will be the title that changes that for you?

KY: We're very much aware that Brain Age, even in the States, when it was released, was what sort-of triggered this casual gaming audience, and the DS being accepted as not just a gaming platform, but as an entertainment device. It was very similar in Japan, too; once that game came out, every family member was playing that game, and very similar games; you would see people commuting with DSes in their hands.

But it seems like, after that, a lot of people actually haven't had a chance to play anything that is equally as entertaining, or is equally addicting, so it seems like the DSes are stashed away in their closets. So, hopefully, a game like Again would be something that they would seek out of interest, and from a game concept standpoint, we're trying to have this mystery-solving, crime-solving series.

It doesn't have to be a game, but anyone would be interested in that kind of entertainment, whether it be a novel, or a movie, or a TV series. So, you have a sense of comfort, you know, reading through a series of chapters of murder mysteries. So, hopefully, that concept of Again, which it just so happens we are developing on the DS, would make sense for them to bring out their DSes again -- this time wanting to play an adventure game.

Tecmo's Philosophy: Working With External Teams

You're working with external development teams. Cing has been well-known for making mystery games before, so I was wondering if that's how they were chosen to work on Again.

Y: Tecmo has been working with Cing for a while... They worked on Monster Rancher 1 and 2 for the DS, which won't be coming out to the States. About a year ago, when working on the second one, the director of Cing, and myself, we were talking about a potential new project, which was triggered by a conversation that we had about Cold Case, the TV show that's in the US.

It's not really a series that's known in Japan -- you can't really find DVDs anywhere, but that triggered the whole conversation, actually leading to an idea of coming up with a brand new adventure game that would be... not Hotel Dusk, but a brand new IP, and that's where everything started, and resulted in the project that became Again.

The game's technology has a strong base -- did that all come from Cing, or did you offer development support to them? At least as far as I'm aware, Cing hasn't done anything quite so 3D before.

Y: It wasn't completely a Cing-developed base, or foundation; when working on Monster Rancher 2, we were already offering and collaborating, and talking about some of the possibilities of using the DS. So it's more of a collaborative effort between Tecmo and Cing. And the idea of having that past and current vision just so worked well with what we were capable of doing. So it was just like a perfect match, in executing that for this title.

Is it a normal situation for Tecmo to work collaboratively with an external developer?

John Inada: Well, you know, historically, we've always developed our own games, with an internal studio -- that's always been our stance, for many years, until maybe a couple of years ago, we decided that in order to expand our customer base, like he said, we had to do that. And he can say that what he's doing is quite new for us.

As I understand it, in Japan, usually, when you work with an external developer, you kind of just hand them orders.

JI: It's not work-for-hire. It's not like they came to us with a concept to sell us. He and Cing got together and started from scratch, so...

KY: It probably wouldn't have worked out if it weren't for Tecmo and Cing already working together, and having and sharing the same ideas.

Well, I think it's a good thing, right? Because it's a game that fulfills an interest both from the developer and from the publisher. Usually I would think that games that are just handed down externally, like work-for-hire, doesn't necessarily turn out well.

JI: Yeah, we both have sense of ownership to this game. So, it means that we're going to care about it more than if it weren't.

Do you have an opinion about how that process has been working? Because it's relatively new, and it's also a little bit different than a lot of Japanese development situations. Might it be creating a stronger product than it would've been from one side or another?

KY: Most definitely. By having, like John said, a sense of ownership, and being able to collaborate with the developer and publisher, and just not having that line drawn, saying "You're the developer, you're the publisher." It will make a better product in the end.

Deciding Which Games To Bring to North America

A lot of companies have released adventure games on the DS, and then ported them to America with a varying degree of success. Like, of course, Gyakuten Saiban became Phoenix Wright, with all of the character names changed. I was wondering -- why the thought to make an adventure game targeted toward the Western market, for the DS, when you have the DS Suspense series, which could potentially be adapted?

JI: Well, you know, that's pretty easy, because I was heavily involved in that decision. It's simple, because the selling point of the [DS Suspense: Nishimura] Kyotaro game is his name. He's a well-known mystery writer.

Since he has zero recognition in the U.S., it just made no sense to bring that title over, and pay him an expensive royalty when his name is meaningless and worthless in North America. So it made no sense.

That makes a lot of sense. (laughs)

KY: So, Nishimura Kyotaro, who is the writer himself, has no name recognition. But, in Japan, there is also a drama series, Nishimura Kyotaro Suspense Incident on TV, so it already has an established fan base. It only made sense that we'll release it in Japan, but that's not going to translate in any way, and we're not going to benefit if we put that game out outside of Japan. So, the decision was pretty easy.

Something I'm just curious about is Matrix's DS RPG Nostalgeo no Kaze; are there any plans to put that out in America? Or is that still under revision? Or do you think it's not appropriate? Because it wasn't announced for the western market.

JI: Well, as far as if it's going to be published in North America or not, right now we have no plan. We reviewed the game, and we decided that it was not the right game to bring to North America. We might change our mind...

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