The Microsoft-published Xbox 360 exclusive title Ninety Nine Nights, recently released in Japan, and soon to be released in the West, is a collaboration between Rez and Space Channel 5 designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Q Entertainment, and Korean console developer Phantagram. This rather unique relationship has yielded a game which strives to go beyond the usual action title, adding some kind of visceral emotion, where possible.
Whilst at E3, spoke to Mizuguchi and Phantagram CEO Sanyoun Lee about their inspiration, methods, and ideas about the industry at large.
Gamasutra: Why do you think so many creators are leaving Japanese companies right now?
Tetsuya Mizuguchi: Well, I left Sega two years ago. Japanese game companies have a conservative structure. So if you're a designer, producer or whatever - if you have an idea, you have to make a presentation to the company to pitch your game. If the executives say no, that's it. So in this era, there are so many new opportunities, so many new consoles and so many markets. The possibilities are stunning. So some people want to break out of that small world, which is just so Japanese-focused. That's it.
GS: How was it working with Phantagram?
TM: Phantagram is a big studio, and very talented. Q Entertainment acted in more of a kind of producing role, and sent a small team to Seoul. I almost lived in Seoul last year! Anyway, Seoul and Japan are very similar countries. We have a lot of historical similarities, but also some big problems with each other. But of course [Phantagram and Q] are the next gen, so we don't care about the government! I met Sanyoun Lee (CEO of Phantagram), and he had a great passion for games. In Korea, lots of companies are making online games - very few make console games. But he did. We wanted to watch the worldwide market, so it worked out for both of us.
GS: What do you think of the Korean game industry right now? It seems there's a lot of technical skill, but not as much design sense just now.
Sanyoun Lee: I admit that creativity is relatively low... most Korean game developers focus on MMOs, which could be part of why. It's almost the same format every time. There have been lots of MMOs, but only one or two have been successful. So now companies are starting to try to find new ways to do things, and be a bit more creative.
GS: How can you train people to have more robust design sense?
SL: There's nothing we specifically do with training or anything, but I try to teach what I believe is right to my employees. I focus more on programming anyway, but still, my goal in life is teaching my employees that they can have their own vision. That they could create their own game if they wanted to.
GS: Does it help to have someone like Mizuguchi as a model for their development?
SL: Many of our employees, including me actually, learned a lot from Mizuguchi. He's not just thinking about design and creativity, but also focused on trends, even outside of games, which is very helpful. He references things like movies and music - I usually just think about games. Mizuguchi knows what will work with gamers in different markets. I've learned a lot from him.
TM: Me too.
GS: What was the inspiration for Nintety Nine Nights?
TM: Well at first a Microsoft guy came to me and said 'let's make a game hi-def'. What is hi-def? The graphics and sound, high resolution, that sort of thing. I thought, ok, let's make something emotional and dramatic. I love action games, but I like to add something dramatic to it. Not like an RPG though. I mean the basic mechanic is very simple, anyone could conceive of this type of gameplay. This is a game, not a movie. In action movies, there's often a sort of one-sided justice. Good guy beat bad guy, that's it.
But in games, there's a new type of expression we can make here. If you can play both sides, and feel the justice of each, what kind of feeling will that inspire? (If you play as a human, and kill a bunch of goblins, you may next play as a goblin whose whole family you just slaughtered as a human.)
I'm really scared to make this kind of game, but in my image, it's got to be fun. But I was pretty scared that this would turn out badly, til I tried it. I think we met the challenge rather well.
SL: Well, I left the emotion to Mizuguchi. I focused on making it fun to play. I'm also interested in showing massive scale for armies and things. There's a different feeling killing tens, versus hundreds, versus thousands of people.
TM: Real war is always happening. It's happening now, even. War has these complex elements, not just a big perfect sense of justice. There are lots of reasons to fight, like money, prejudice, maybe oil (laughs). Anyway, this is a human being, and we have to acknowledge that.
GS: Yeah, it seems like a fun game, but maybe it will also tell you that war is terrible.
TM: Yeah, it's difficult to make a war drama. War games are easy, just fight with somebody, beat them, that's it. Physically everyone wants to fight, that's a basic instinct. That's ok. But I think that war has really dark aspects. So if you use the hi-def technology, and the blood sprays everywhere, the head is exploding and things like that...do you really want to watch that? Do you want to have that sort of experience? I don't think so. As creators, we're always wondering what kind of new experience we can make. We have the great ability to imagine the opposite side, just like any other entertainment, so we should use that.
GS: Is that why you decided on the game being so realistic, visually? I know you usually shy away from realism, because it seems like - why make a game then?
TM: Well Sanyoun Lee takes care of that graphical aspect, partly because Phantagram is so good at it. I was focusing on what kind of reality we could create. Not a real reality, but a constructed reality. So we did the renders in hi-def, but I tried to make sure there's emotional impact. I can't just do it alone, so Phantagram is a big part of the reason it's working. It's not just my style, it's our style. So that could be another reason.