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The Philosophy of a Ninja: Tomonobu Itagaki Speaks
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The Philosophy of a Ninja: Tomonobu Itagaki Speaks

October 1, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

What do you think it takes to make a game that's appealing to the entire world? That's a thing that is rare to achieve; it is rare not just for Japanese developers, but even western developers typically don't find global success. They might find success in America, and/or Europe, but not often global success.

TI: I don't think it's as difficult as it's made out to be. I think you have to focus on creating games that have an appeal that extends beyond regional boundaries: that do not rely on historical background, religion, fashion, a specific culture, or things of each nation. Then, I think, that makes it easier to be accepted. I think that this is particularly a problem for American developers, because most of your major games are totally marketing-driven. It's all about focus groups, and all about saying, "OK, this genre is selling, therefore we have to make a bigger and better game in this genre." Or, "American consumers right now are looking for this kind of game, so we'll make this kind of game." Now, obviously, when you base your game design decisions off of that kind of feedback, you're going to get up with a game that's only viable for that region.

In Japan, there is a saying "kachoufuugetsu", which is "flowers, birds, wind, and the moon." That basically is a vague summary of things that human beings might find appealing. You look at a flower and say, "Oh, this is beautiful." You look at a bird that can fly, whereas humans can't, and we see it as a symbol of freedom, something to aspire to. The wind, you know, if you were to have a cool wind blowing, that would help to convey your mood at that moment. And looking at the moon, you may think that not only is it visually beautiful, but it may bring to mind things like wanting to see the moon, wanting to go to the moon, and wanting to know what's there. That sort of inquisitiveness.

So, I think that if you look at those key human emotions that cross national boundaries, and don't rely on the circumstances surrounding each country, then it's relatively easy to make a game that can be enjoyed anywhere. Although obviously if you send somebody out there to look at flowers and they say, "I don't like flowers. Why did you send me to look at flowers?" Those are the kind of people that I just have to say that this game might not turn out to be for you. I wonder what would happen if I said this to a marketer, and he said, "Well we have conducted focus testing that concludes that flowers are no longer popular!" But once again, that's just my kind of approach. That's my philosophy.

Itagaki's Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2

So you don't rely on the marketing -- you rely on your own inspiration for the games that you create.

TI: Yeah, that's definitely the origin of everything I do: my own inspiration. However, the amount of people around the world that play my games now has increased so much that sometimes I do need that feedback from other sources as well. Whether it is to rein me in if I am going too far, or just to give me suggestions, in that sense I really value the marketing people that work on my games. And once again, just to reiterate: this is my philosophy, as it relates to games for a global audience, that don't rely on a cultural background. Obviously, there are games out there that do, and are successful, but this is my approach.

It's interesting that you say this as regards Ninja Gaiden. Obviously, ninja is a Japanese cultural reference, but it is accepted all over the world. So as far as the game goes, the setting varies. You might have parts in Japan, you might have the Vigoor Empire, in the new game there's the Venice-like Aqua City area. So is there a way that you help people to personally relate? Do you give people a piece of the game to relate to, and then the rest is your vision?

TI: Video games are an interactive medium. They have to look good and be interactive. I think that there are many different types of beauty, and so there are many different types of things that are visually appealing. So for us it would be just looking at the total base of what's out there in the world, and just picking what we think is appealing. To include, just as you mentioned, many different types of locations in the game. Now I don't claim to represent all seven billion people in the world, but for me it is all about finding things that I personally find beautiful, regardless of origin. And so, any game design is going to be influenced by my own aesthetic tastes. That's just unavoidable.

Since Team NINJA is so well-known for focusing on aesthetics, working on DS, how have you found the effort of bringing across those aesthetics on a limited platform?

TI: If it was just about trying to compete for pure visual quality, then all you would need is a good still photograph. It doesn't get much better than that for photo-realism, or pure visual appeal. But what we are trying to do is create something that's interactive: you provide an input, you do something, and the game reacts. The visuals will change based on that reaction. On a home console, what you see is an exponentially larger output from the game, as far as visuals, sounds, and everything. You might push a single button, and an incredible amount of activity will happen on the screen.

Just from a purely objective viewpoint, having the rate of increase of output versus input -- well, the higher it is, the better. The more you get out of what you do, the more human beings will be happy, and find that experience fun. So if you have a two-year-old child standing near a light switch, they will turn it on and off, on and off, on and off, until told to stop. [Itagaki gets up and demonstrates.] Do you know why that is?

The recently announced Ninja Gaiden 2

Well, I'd say because there is a big reaction. The whole room goes dark -- and then also to get attention out of their parents for doing it.

TI: Thank you. I don't know if they have these in America, but here we have toys that have big buttons, where you push one and a bear pops up and roars. So the key to games, or "fun," is the relative size of the reaction for every action that you take. On a game console, you have a controller, which gives you very small inputs right on a physical level, but it's creating a huge reaction on-screen, for what you're seeing. This is very appealing for people to play.

And then we have the DS hardware -- and of course the DS has buttons, but I have chosen only to use the buttons for blocking, and for nothing else -- have everything else use the stylus. The reason for this is because this is one of the few devices where you can actually input directly onto the screen. There is not a disconnection. [Itagaki indicates a 360 attached to an HDTV in the room.] You have somebody pushing a button and something happens on the screen. Here, you can literally interact with the screen.

And so, I wanted to take that to its logical conclusion. If there was a chance that we would be unsuccessful with this game, it would be if the reaction to the inputs of the stylus were not enough to satisfy the player. Because we are asking the player to do something more stressful and tiring than the buttons; we are asking to draw on the screen. So, the output and the feeling that you get for playing has to be appropriate for that input.

Another thing is that when you are controlling a character with buttons, it is indirect. You push a button, that signal is relayed to the machine, and something happens. So obviously, if you are in a situation where you can directly interact with the screen itself, you would expect that the character would be able to move faster since you're directly controlling him. So, I understood that unless I made it possible for you to control Hayabusa intuitively, and faster than would be possible with a home console, this game wouldn't be successful. So if I am able to accomplish that, then I think that our plan for creating a paradigm shift as far as this portable system goes, I think we'll be successful.

Just to avoid any possible confusion for the readers, I just want to make it clear that in listening to this philosophy, you may think: "OK, why don't we make it so that you can interact directly with, say, a TV at home through a home console? Wouldn't that be a logical extension of what you're talking about?" But what makes this viable is that because the screen is small, because the machine is small, because you can take it with you and you can hold it in your hands, you can write directly with it. And that is the key that makes this game design philosophy viable.


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