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In-Depth:  PixelJunk 's Baiyon Vs.  Katamari 's Takahashi

In-Depth: PixelJunk's Baiyon Vs. Katamari's Takahashi Exclusive

November 19, 2009 | By Jeriaska

November 19, 2009 | By Jeriaska
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Where do new game design ideas come from? It's the kind of question that might come to mind playing PixelJunk Eden or Noby Noby Boy for the first time. Here, game creators from both titles voice their perspectives on the subject of creativity in the video game industry.

Baiyon is art and music director on Q-Games' third installment in the PixelJunk game series for the Playstation 3's Playstation Network. His background as a DJ and graphic designer based in Kyoto lent the title an outsider's perspective, but was also supplemented by years of passionate interest in the industry.

Keita Takahashi played a central role in creating the breakthrough Katamari Damacy series published by Namco Bandai Games. An enhanced remake of the original title was released for the Playstation 3, called Katamari Forever.

Also on PSN, Takahashi was responsible for the innovative Noby Noby Boy, which has been evolving through gradual updates on the Playstation Network. In addition, he was recently interviewed by Simon Parkin on his work designing a playground in Nottingham, home of alternative UK game conference GameCity.

This discussion between the two creators offers various insights into their views on what matters most to creating enjoyment through game design.

Baiyon: This is a question from Jeriaska, the website correspondent: People sometimes describe PixelJunk Eden and Noby Noby Boy as being out of the ordinary, but being different has not stopped them from appealing to game players. When there is demand for novel game experiences, is it an important requirement of game designers that they exercise their imaginations?

Keita Takahashi: Are people hoping for a new experience?

That's what I thought when I first read the question. I wasn't sure if this was true, especially for Japanese audiences. They like the big, familiar titles, not stuff that's out of the ordinary.

This session is going to sound self-pitying before long. "No one appreciates our games!"

I think we've talked about this before, how experiencing really good game design motivates people to innovate themselves. However, I feel it gets harder and harder to inspire someone as the development process gets larger and more impersonal. For instance, let's say you're someone who loves Final Fantasy. Now, if you want to try to make a game like that, it's going to take forever. Is it even a realistic ambition to set out to make another Final Fantasy?

In music, someone could listen to my songs and decide to make their own. This happens all the time when people go to clubs and then decide to DJ. On the other hand, in the case of designing games there are barriers to sharing your expression because it's all happening within the context of large companies. It's unfortunate because I think for instance young people could draw all sorts of inspiration from your games and make their own.

This is something that I've thought about myself since the development of Katamari Damacy, but I can't get lured into thinking I have such a broad influence and that I'm such a source of inspiration to people.

There's always the fear that in creating a totally new kind of game your audience won't get it. That would be so embarrassing, don't you think? In fact, a lot of people were concerned when I told them about this latest game idea [Noby Noby Boy]. They were wondering whether it was risky to go in such an "artsy" direction, instead of doing something everyone already knows and accepts as conventional.

I think the game is straightforward in a good way. I don't think it's trying to be artsy or something.

That's it exactly. I can totally understand when people are wary of pretentiousness. I'm always careful about it and I don't feel out of touch with what people are actually interested in playing.

You don't feel controversial as a game designer? Sometimes I wonder if I'm a bit of a hypocrite because while it's one thing to complain about mainstream games, what makes my own independent game so special?

I had a lot of these kinds of complaints myself around the time when I was working on Katamari Damacy. Now I try not to say too much. Although I don't think of myself as inciting controversy, I do want to do my part in expanding the possibility of games.

We both have things we want to accomplish, but game development is new to me. I began this collaboration with Q-Games only two years ago.

That was my same experience with Katamari. It was my first game and I think it was my second year in the company.

I still feel there's reason to be hopeful.

You mean in terms of the game industry?

Not exactly. More in the value of media in general.

By the way, is there a clear ending to Noby Noby Boy?

Yes, it's in the game already.

So if the player meets the right conditions, the game ends?

Yes, you can see for yourself. The ending will bring tears to your eyes, for sure.

And you had a broader vision for the game initially?

That's right. The first release of Noby Noby Boy had about 30% or 40% of what was intended overall. I think that's one of the strengths of the downloadable platform for games. You can keep updating to your heart's content. There are the server costs, and the price of the downloads of course, so it does have its limitations.

The Noby Noby Boy updates seemed sizable when I last checked online. It was like 580MB.

That's because it's pretty much a renewal of the entire game. And the sound files take up a lot of space.

For PixelJunk Eden, our music tracks were generally over ten minutes in length. I wrote one hundred minutes worth of music, which took up a lot of disc space.

That particle effect looked great. I wanted to see it a bit more.

At the beginning there were about 5,000 pollen particles visible on the screen. Eventually that number exceeded 30,000 thanks to the efforts of the main programmer. I really wanted to avoid using HDR, though. People say HDR makes everything look better, but I'm not so sure.

I don't use HDR myself, but I'm not that picky about visual effects.

People say that HDR is more vivid but I think the color combinations of Eden are enough to catch your eye. I thought there was some great use of color in Noby Noby Boy as well. On this game I found I had the chance to spend some time learning about programming, especially in making the extension pack. It was a new chance to experiment with the visual design.

The downside is that the more you do, the more money it costs. I do agree though that it's fun to try new things: spend time on your game, and bring it closer to your ideal.

Even upon reaching the end of the project, I was still discovering new things to try out. Game design can be a lot of fun...

Well, it seems we've reached the end of our conversation.

What should we do now?

You know, you see all these explosions in shooting games. They're bright and shiny, but so what? Is it really beautiful to people, these explosions?

Sometimes it's just to show off the technology. Many of these games idealize things that are actually really boring. I sometimes wonder whether this is the best use of our efforts. Videogames are luxury items, after all. As I mentioned at the Game Developers Conference, it's not game design that interests me but creating a fun experience. It doesn't have to be electronic media that provides that experience. For example, kids in developing countries in the world don't know about these videogames. Those kids don't care about HDR and stuff like that.

I've heard that in some region in Africa kids don't know the concept of colors since they don't paint or draw. Sky is sky and they don't have means to express what color it is.

If you were to make games at a lower price so that everyone could afford them, even that wouldn't solve the problem. There are so many things besides games out there that are interesting, and people in developing countries have different sources of enjoyment. I don't think it's the right idea to set as your highest priority in life popularizing your brand and making money. That whole idea is totally misguided. Sometimes just to think of myself as being a representative of this industry and making a living of it is hard to even consider. These are the kinds of concerns that many people think about briefly in college or something, but for me it never ends.

I think for those who want to make games, they should go for it. Game creators like us would probably prefer they were out there exercising their opinions and not just letting business decisions dominate the whole process.

That's a good goal to aim for. There are times I wish everyone in this business would stop acting so serious.

What do you mean? You take your work seriously, don't you?

Yes, but there's a certain inflexibility I notice in this industry. There are games that boil down to going around killing people, and yet they're venerated. It makes me wonder about these people. How can you treat it as such a serious matter when it's just a game, right?

Along those lines I think humor is important to games. Let's move on to the next question from the game correspondent: Is it necessary for game designers in Japan to interact more with international media? You've appeared on Boing Boing Video, and I've helped organize a videogame music roundtable at GDC. What does the industry as a whole have to gain from this kinds of international discourse on games?"

Hm... I have no idea.

I think it's really cool that there are these writers in other countries that are curious and want to know more about our games. I was fascinated by GDC because these developers that make projects costing millions of dollars wanted to talk to me in person. I felt that people really care about the experience, not the profit margin or anything else. There was this great atmosphere there and it was really fun. I wanted to interact with more of these people. Don't you feel the same way?

I think it's important. At the same time, I think game designers need to put more of their energy into making fun games.

Okay, for one, if someone on your project team was struggling with their role in the game industry, I would definitely suggest their checking out GDC.

Are you serious?

Sure. They should go and see what it's about.

Well, that's because you had just made PixelJunk Eden. I think that if you didn't have a game to your name and you went there, it wouldn't be so exciting.

Maybe you're right about that. At the same time, I think that rather than being lost and struggling in Japan, it might be worth checking it out and seeing if you get inspired. I think games can be an incredible source of inspiration.

There's something to what you are saying, but GDC has grown too big to be what it once was. I honestly cannot stand those sessions that are all about the keys to sales success, the keys to not making a game that fails in the marketplace. I haven't attended all of them, so I might be wrong about this, but I presented on Katamari for the Experimental Game Workshop, and it seems to me that every year the games in that booth just get worse and worse. It is called "experimental" but the content is just not creative at all. It limits itself to a single gimmick. The presentations are aimed at getting people to laugh and that is pretty much all there is to it. This year it was particularly painful. I didn't think it was experimental at all.

Maybe part of the problem is that there is this concept of an "experimental" genre. People imitate the surface elements and make some superficial play experiences out of it. How do you feel attending these events outside Japan?

I received a prize at GDC and it certainly made me feel happy. It was never my expectation that games developed in Japan would receive such attention from around the world. I think even if you go out there, if you don't have anything to show, there is not much point in going. They will recognize you if you have something that others can be interested in, right? So before looking to GDC or other external sources to validate their efforts, game designers should look to themselves to create the best possible games.

At the very least I think it can be an opportunity for people to get interested in the possibilities available within this industry. In arriving at GDC, I suddenly thought, "Hey, I'm not alone!" I am a little out of the ordinary because I do many different things. That is what made me so excited to be there, to feel that my way of doing things was appreciated. I felt there were greater possibilities all of a sudden, like my battery had been recharged.

Yes, but PixelJunk Eden is a very special case. I don't really concern myself with international collaborations, and for that matter, I am not so sure they are at all necessary. I was happy to see my game receive recognition in Japan. When it gained some popularity abroad, I was flattered. To be honest, I felt maybe I was too happy about it. I think many of us here in Japan are made too insecure by Western culture. Why should it matter to us? I heard a story about an elementary school child in Japan who was playing with a ball and called out to his friends, "Hey, it's Katamari Damacy!" Those kinds of stories makes me happy. If you hear something like that, the number of overseas units sold really doesn't matter.

But you don't set out with the goal of making your games specifically for a Japanese audience?

No, it's a game after all. It works fine as a non-verbal medium.

I think there are career advantage if you are able to communicate with people outside of Japan. It's good to present at one of these conferences outside Japan, even if for no better reason than to overcome feeling intimidated by Western culture.

I personally feel, having attended the event, that the barrier has been lifted. People in Japan have this concept of "Western games." "This is a Western game." It seems like people know what they're talking about when they say a game made in Japan looks "Western," but I what are they talking about? Has anybody said Noby Noby Boy looks "Western?"


Don't you find that irritating?

What do you mean?

I don't know. Maybe it's a compliment. (laughs)

Is it a compliment? How should I know?

Maybe this is some kind of Japanese inferiority complex.

Maybe. I'm not so sure.

You don't think so?

I'm not sure. Is it a compliment or an insult? Some people insist on knowing the genre of a game before they play it. While promoting a game the question always comes up first: "What's the genre?" I never want to have to deal with that question.

In the music industry, if you want to do business with overseas companies, they ask for a genre first so they know who to forward the calls to. Since my music is electronic and dance music, I call it house or techno. If I said, "This is Baiyon music," they would would throw it in the trash. Or they would say "I don't know who's in charge of the Baiyon music department, so I'm going to put it aside for now." Then it's never heard of again.

Honestly, I never feel terribly satisfied upon shipping a game. Before getting started, the whole thing's already completed in my head. The rest is just a matter of getting closer and closer to the image I've conceived of previously. That's my style. When the game's finally finished, it's followed by this feeling of dullness. "So, that's it?"

It does take a long time to get to the end. There's endless tweaking here and there for what seems like an eternity, and then it's complete.

That's one reason why it's good to work in a team. You're confronted with ideas you never expected to come across and often it's pretty interesting. I think the teamwork aspect of making games is what makes it is so much fun. I don't program and really, I don't have to.

Okay, next question. What role does it serve to give the game player an interesting character to play as? Both Boy in Noby Noby Boy and the Grimps in PixelJunk Eden are completely new and different personalities for their game worlds. What thoughts went into the creation of these characters? Did you have Boy in mind from the start?

Yes, we had the idea for Boy.

Was stretching in there too?

Stretching came first. Maybe it's worth mentioning that the game was not single-handedly created by me. For the character of Boy, one of the staff members handed me a sketch and I liked it, so we decided to go with it. I made a few minor modifications to the idea, but that was it. In terms of graphics, we had to find a way to make the character not look disgusting. We started out with puffballs attached to both ends of a string, but the long string for an abdomen made it look kind of gross.

For Eden we didn't even have a character for awhile. Someone suggested a circle shape, a simple character. However, I was determined to work on the art of this character and I designed it. We had too little time, it turned out, to add some animations, but I would have liked to do that as well. This was midway into development and we eventually concluded that using the physics engine and incorporating arms and legs for the character would be sufficient. There are three characters you can choose from and each have unique characteristics, since I wanted to make this a little like a traditional adventure story.

The concept for PixelJunk Eden was developed by the game's director?

Yes, in conjunction with the company president, Dylan [Cuthbert]. I'm not credited as the game director. Rather, I composed the music and oversaw the art design.

I see.

The company allowed me total freedom, and it's been a great opportunity to work with game designers. I felt that I was allowed to be totally honest with my opinions, and everyone at Q-Games was receptive to my input.

Okay, next question. What role is there for humor and surprise in games? Do you want to surprise the game player and give them an experience that they were never expecting?

That's the idea in a nutshell. I don't go out there with the intention of surprising the player by adding some unfamiliar elements to the game. However, I do think "There might be a place for this kind of game." Some people will react with incredulity and say, "Can this really be a videogame?" That's what I'm looking for.

I think that once you accept a game that is an unfamiliar experience to you at first, you open up the doors for the possibility of enjoying more kinds of games.

That's true. Your capacity expands when you start to enjoy a bad game. Suddenly you can enjoy all sorts of bad, terrible and mediocre games. (laughs)

Okay, let's say I was a journalist and I said, "Takahashi-san, please give us a keyword that wholly encapsulates the experience of playing your game."

Hmm. I would have to go with "Nonsense." This is a nonsensical kind of game, but that does not make it any less fun to play. The player is meant to feel like if this can legitimately be called a game, then maybe they could make a game themselves. That's what I had in mind for a long time actually.

I see. In my case the keyword is "Feel-good." It's that feeling you get when you are at a club between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning and you get that exhausted adrenaline rush.

Wow, that's a tall order.

It seems to me like your work is focused on developing the game concept, while mine concerns the treatment of the art style.


Perhaps we should make a game together.

Would you like to?

Yeah, for sure.

I bet we'd get into arguments all the time.

Like where to put the fart sound.

That's it exactly.

[Images courtesy of Q-Games and Namco Bandai Games. Translation by Ryojiro Sato.]

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