Hudson is what you might call "the lost first party." Long known as a third party developer and publisher of games ranging from Mario Party to the Bomberman series, the company, originally founded in the '70s, was also the shepherd of its own platform: the PC Engine, or TurboGrafx-16, manufactured and sold in partnership with NEC Home Electronics.
That doesn't matter much these days, except to retro game fans, but it does give the people who have been at the company for a long time -- like Toshiyuki Takahashi, affectionately known as "Takahashi-Meijin," or Game Master Takahashi -- a certain perspective.
Takahashi was catapulted to celebrity in Japan in the 1980s, becoming a role model to Famicom (NES) obsessed Japanese kids thanks to his game playing skills. His celebrity may have faded, but he continues to work at Hudson in its publicity department, and offers a 20-plus year understanding of the market.
Here, he's interviewed alongside Kazufumi Shimizu, director of Hudson's upcoming Wii horror game Calling, about the state of the market in Japan and the U.S., where Hudson has found notable success with its downloadable Bomberman Live for the Xbox 360.
Thanks to that, the company will soon follow up with the first new Bonk's Adventure game in years -- an XBLA and PlayStation Network title.
With Gamasutra's fixation on history, of course, we couldn't resist asking Takahashi about the PC Engine, in particular about the origins of its CD-ROM2 System, one of the first CD-ROM gaming systems to launch in the world (and the first to hit the U.S., in 1989.)
Brandon Sheffield: This might be a rude question -- in the past, Hudson had a habit of taking any game genre and making its own, better version of it. For example, Nectaris was based on Famicom Wars, and Neutopia was based on Zelda. Hudson applied more polish to them, though, and more "heart" to them. You are a different sort of Hudson now.
Toshiyuki Takahashi: Well, up until around 2000 or 2001, we retained that same philosophy of leaving it to the programmers, letting them create whatever they wanted to create. But from the perspective of the company, not all of the results were entirely successful. Sales continued to go down as a result, and we accrued more and more debt.
In 2001 Konami bought a bunch of our stock and became more-or-less our parent company. Since then, we've been trying more to ensure that each of our individual releases are more profitable. So you could say that the current climate makes it hard for programmers to simply create whatever they want to any longer.
BS: That kind of mandate tends to create more generic games rather than the more forward-moving games.
TT: Yeah, and I suppose a year or two ago -- maybe three -- we realized this wasn't the best approach. That doesn't mean we went back to the old ways, but with each game, we tried to listen to gamers' opinions more via playtests and so on; we treated each project with more care than we used to.
That's how we're doing it now, so the direction has shifted a bit. With the Hudson up to now, something like Calling never would've happened. Our business was in cutesy games with multiplayer support, so we could never have made this.
Hudson's never made this sort of haunted house-style game before, but now we have people like [director Kazufumi] Shimizu here coming up with ideas like this, and now we have the company telling them go ahead with it. That's what the past two or three years have been like here. We're seeing the initial results right now, but I'm really looking forward to what we'll have next year and the year after that, things we've never done before.
BS: If the programmers are working on what they want to make, the results will probably be more fun to play. You actually care about it as a developer.
TT: Our company system changed again this year -- boy, it's changed a lot of times! We're trying to implement a producer-driven system now. A single producer now takes the responsibility for taking a game project and putting it under his wing, so to speak, figuring out how to advertise it and so forth.
The process used to be separate, but now someone is on the team's side, showing off what's good and fresh about the project, and it helps the staff mesh better as a team. That's the system that started this year, and I'm looking forward to seeing the results of that next year.
BS: A real director-style system.
TT: Right. Shimizu's a programmer, and until now, his job would've been done after the program was complete. He'd think up the design for the manual and so on, but someone else designed the webpage, for example. Now it's different; he's the one who figures out what the Calling homepage should be like. The people who know the most about the project are now the ones directing its public image.
Christian Nutt: I'm curious about Calling -- there's been discussion about whether the Wii audience can support more mature games. What do you think about that issue?
Kazufumi Shimizu: Well, when we started developing Calling, it was with the knowledge that the Wii marketplace might be a tough one to crack for it. However, when it comes to the controls and the experience, the Wii is really the platform that's best suited for it. The Wii has a pretty family-friendly image, of course, and everyone knew from the start that it'd be tough for this game in the marketplace. But we wanted it on the Wii; we wanted to take [the remote] and use it like a phone.
From a pure developer standpoint, though, no one can say whether something will sell or not at the outset -- and like what Takahashi said earlier, if you aren't passionate about the game you're making, then it's not going to have a chance in the first place. You need that sort of force working on it. If all you think about is money and finances, then you tend to put what you want to do on the back burner.
I think the higher-ups understand this -- even though the Hudson of the past had a lot of failure, there were definitely a lot of diamonds in the rough, too. Besides, it all comes down to the game. If the game is interesting, then it'll attract both kids and adults on the Wii. It's hard for the Wii at present, but no matter what the platform, if it's good, people will come to it.
BS: With a small staff, it sort of becomes a battle between your ideas and the budget.
KS: Certainly. We're all designers here to some extent and we all have ideas on what we want to do, but naturally we can't run through all of them. But we had an environment where people felt discouraged to be creative and discuss what they really wanted to make, and I think that's what we're really improving upon here, right now and into the future.
BS: A new Bonk is being developed in the US. How did that come about, and why hasn't Hudson supported the series in Japan as much?
TT: Well, it's not that we haven't supported it so much as...That's more of a question for Mike [from the U.S. office]. But the U.S. staff just absolutely loves Bonk. They begged to get a new one out! And we figured that since Bomberman Live was a pretty decent success, selling something like half a million units, we figured that if they love the idea that much, we could rely on them to produce something really fun. So that's why they're making it.