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Team NINJA executive producer Tomonobu Itagaki first burst into prominence with Dead or Alive; the original entry became notorious for the size and mobility of its female characters' breasts as much as its Virtua Fighter-baiting gameplay.
Since then, his development studio has increasingly gained relevance. He surprised the world by throwing his weight behind Microsoft in 2000 with the release of Dead or Alive 3 exclusively for the Xbox; in 2004, Ninja Gaiden reinvigorated action gamers with its polish and punishing difficulty.
Here, in an interview conducted at Team NINJA's Tokyo offices in the wake of Tokyo Game Show, the famously opinionated Itagaki speaks about his development philosophies with Gamasutra for the first time.
Tomonobu Itagaki: You're quite lucky,
because this is the first time I've ever done an interview specifically
directed at other developers. As you may know, I don't have a lot
of interest in what other developers are doing, and that's why I tend
not to go to GDC and other conferences like that.
Team NINJA is concerned with making games that have very high graphics specifications. Is that more of a challenge in the next generation of development? Is that more difficult than it has been in the past? How are you surmounting that challenge?
TI: I'd say it's actually easier doing high-end graphics now, because you're released from some of the more mundane limitations. Like, I can go back and say that when we were doing the first Dead or Alive for the Sega Saturn, Kasumi's character model was 550 polygons; and then on the PlayStation it was like 520 or 530. The fact that I remember the exact amount of polygons just shows how limited the conditions were back then.
But now, if you asked me how many tens of thousands of polygons are on the character models, I'm not aware on that specific level. So I think it's freed us from some of the more mundane worries that we had in the past. It used to be that claiming you could put X number of polygons on screen at once was kind of a measure of the graphical prowess of a game or a system, but now I think we have a different set of considerations to take into account.
When it comes to
Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword,
it's a realistic looking game for the DS, which few people are doing.
Can you talk about any certain challenges that you faced in creating
that kind of look and gameplay style on the DS?
TI: I think that the visual aspect is a very important part of game design in general. There is, obviously, the visual; there is the auditory; there is the control scheme that causes the character to act on the screen; and all of those elements are very important, but a game should be beautiful, first and foremost, because it's a visual medium. The other people who claim the opposite, that graphics that aren't necessarily the most important thing -- I don't agree with that viewpoint.
And when it comes to doing stylus-only gameplay, was that something that you set out to do from the very first with this title, or was it something that developed as you realized you could do this?
TI: It certainly was what I envisioned
from the beginning. In fact, when Nintendo first announced the specs
of its unit, it was around the time that Sony was also announcing that
they were bringing out the PSP. When I looked at the estimated specs
of both, I knew which platform I wanted to work on. Basically what we
see here today is the culmination of that vision that I have had since
then. It has taken a while to get this far, of course. And I am sure
that you, or people like you, might wonder, "If the visual is so
important, then why choose DS over the PSP?"
The reason is because the PlayStation Portable is basically designed on the philosophy of having a console that you can take with you. They are basically just toning down what we see on home consoles such as the 360 or the PS3; whereas the DS was looking at a whole new method of input. Just as I said earlier, one of the key aspects of game design is the interactivity between the user's input and what happens on the screen, so I thought: here is a chance to do something totally original, using the strengths of this hardware. If I was going to make a game for PSP, I would be better off making a game for PS2, because they are essentially attempting to do the same thing.
Do you think that's why the DS is so successful? Because of the new control method, or because of marketing, or innovative titles?
TI: Up until now I have been speaking as a game developer. Now I am going to speak from the standpoint of management of a game company: the success of the DS is directly related to the success of its predecessor, the Game Boy Advance. Someone like yourself, an editor who is very concerned with the industry, asked me back when the DS and PSP were first starting to come out, "Why did you announce a title for the DS? Why didn't you announce one for the PSP? The PSP is gonna be the clear winner in this struggle."
What I told that person is: you frame in terms of a battle between a
PSP and a DS. But what the PSP needs to defeat is the predecessor, the
Game Boy Advance. Because Nintendo has made all their profits, and made
this fan-base off of the success of the GBA. And they never imagined
that the DS was going to be the success that it was; it was just a new
challenge, a new way for them to broaden their market.
So the whole viewpoint of the PSP versus the DS is flawed. What Sony really needed to do was get those key Game Boy users and broaden the market. When Nintendo first announced the DS, they were very realistic at the time in knowing that it may be a success or it may not; they certainly weren't convinced of its success. They just knew that it was something they needed to try, for the sake of the industry, to continue to expand the kind of experiences that were available. And that type of spirit is something that I could relate with, and part of the reason why I chose to go with this hardware.
like to support people who are trying to challenge the status quo, and
do new things. That's why when Microsoft announced the original Xbox
back in 2000, I said, "OK, I'm going to get on board with that."
And then when Nintendo announced the DS, I thought, "This is a
good thing for the industry, to have these new kinds of challenging
experiences." That's why I've gotten on board with this hardware.