On Tuesday, October 25, Japanese-headquartered publisher and developer Koei (Dynasty Warriors series) held its expansion launch party for its subsidiary in Toronto, Koei Canada. Though Koei's Canadian location was established in 2001 with a focus on CG, the team has now been expanded to function as a next generation development studio, working on its first title, Fatal Inertia, for the Playstation 3 launch.
As such, Gamasutra was there to witness the opening of Koei's expanded offices in the presence of Koei co-founder Kou Shibusawa, and talk to the developers about why a Japanese company was expanding into Canadian territory for next-generation titles, and the company's continuing plans for Western and worldwide expansion.
Historical simulations are Koei's most well known and successful titles in the West, including the action series Dynasty Warriors and the strategy series Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but Koei is a company with a diverse portfolio of titles in the Japanese market, including horse racing simulations such as Winning Post and G1 Jockey, and "romance" genre titles such as Angelique aimed at female users. Other Japanese success stories for Koei in the Japanese market include their online strategy title, Nobunga's Ambition Online, with a user base exceeding 120,000, and the recent launch of online RPG Uncharted Waters Online in March 2005, now with a user base of more than 50,000.
A strategy of media diversity produces items such as anime, drama CDs and publications expanding the universe of Koei's games. This diversity also includes creating a foundation to fund research projects, and for developments like this, Koei co-founder Keiko Erikawa received a commendation from the Economic Trade and Industry Minister in 2003 for her contribution to the Japanese economy. Koei calls its overall business technique "Consolidated Entertainment Development", involving creating diverse games in a variety of genres using the company's own systems of real time simulation and 3D graphics technologies. Koei's technologies were used to demonstrate the upcoming PS3's abilities at E3 2005 with a demo of Ni Oh, one of the firm's forthcoming PS3 titles.
The establishment of Koei Canada as a next generation content developer continues Koei's globalization strategy to expand and increase its share in the worldwide market, including offices in the U.S., in Asia, and in Europe. As one of the few remaining publishers showing continuing prosperity in Japan through its evergreen franchises, the expansion of the company in Toronto was gratefully welcomed by speeches from both Jeff Leal, parliamentary assistant to Canada's Ministry of Economic Trade and Development and Mike Feldman, Deputy Mayor of Toronto.
|The entrance to Koei Canada.|
Shibusawa's Western Plans
Koei co-founder Kou Shibusawa himself gave an outline of the company's current fortunes, remarking that though Koei is successful, the Japanese market currently makes up less than 20% of the global market and that expansion in North America and creation of new titles such as Fatal Inertia are critical to the company's continued success. In this vein, Koei Canada is now one of the most important studios to Koei, as a leader of its next generation software and technology development.
The targets for the studio include the development of current titles and the creation of 3 development teams to create major titles specifically aimed at the Western market within the next 3 years, with an estimated number of staff between 150-200 employees and an active interest in co-development and technology sharing with local Canadian companies.
|Work in progress - next generation title Inertia.|
Establishing the special relationship that Koei has with Sony, a short video from Ken Kutaragi, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, was shown, in which he thanked Koei for their support of the original Playstation 2 with Kessen, and indicated hope that with the Playstation 3, SCE would work as hard as possible in the final stages of hardware development to support Fatal Inertia.
Producer of Fatal Inertia Takazumi Tomoike and lead designer Michael Bond both gave presentations, with Tomoike describing the make up of the team, with many members having been trained at Koei Japan on Dynasty Warriors 4, and continued interaction between Japanese and Canadian staff. Michael Bond described the game concept, a high-speed aerial combat race game with a real-time physics engine providing a solid reality for the player to interact with, and showed a promotional movie of the game, showing a red ship and a blue ship destroying the tranquility of a mountain pass with an explosive dogfight through a checkpoint race. However, the real-time demonstration which followed was from a build so early that all that was shown was a fly through a single environment, with a relatively low polygon count, few textures and no physics or gameplay features.
Also shown at the event were the demonstrations of Ni-Oh and a PS3 tech demo previously shown at E3 2005, and the North American playable debut of Samurai Warriors for PSP, a port of the PS2 version featuring more characters and an all-new storyline. The earlier PSP port of Dynasty Warriors was poorly critically received, but even in its unfinished state, this new title is highly polished and playable. With all programming performed at Koei Canada and the Art and Design handled by Koei Japan, it is an intriguing possible example of Koei's techniques for global development.
After the event, Gamasutra took the opportunity to talk to Koei co-founder Kou Shibusawa alongside Fatal Inertia producer Takazumi Tomoike and lead designer Michael Bond, with the aid of an interpreter and Jarik Sikat, Sales and Marketing Manager of Koei North America.
GS: What were your introductions to the game industry?
Kou Shibusawa: I've been in the industry for 25 years. The company was started in 1978 as a chemical wholesale company. My wife gave me a computer, and developing game software became a hobby of mine. A game which I developed was so interesting that we decided to sell it. However, Nobunga's Ambition in 1983 was our first big hit.
Takazumi Tomoike: I've been in the industry for 20 years. Originally I spent 3 years in arcade gaming before coming to Koei. My first title with Koei was Bandit Kings of Ancient China. I later moved on to the Dynasty Warriors series.
Michael Bond: I've been out of school for two and a half years, I graduated from the University of Waterloo. This [Fatal Inertia] is my first title as designer at Koei. Before that I worked as a programmer on Samurai Warriors and Dynasty Warriors 4.
GS: Why Toronto?
KS: In Toronto, there are excellent, world renowned institutions such as the University of Toronto, and the University of Waterloo. As such, the level of technological skill is very high. Furthermore, there is an abundance of people from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
GS: Why have you decided to make a racing game, and in particular, such a Western styled one?
MB: Well, I wanted to work on a new project, a Western-styled game that I'd be more familiar with.
GS: So this game is entirely your own creation?
MB: Myself and one of the other staff members I'm working with, and Koei was very enthusiastic about it.
KS: Koei is always interested in new ideas, and airborne combat racing is a new concept that will hopefully be a big success.
GS: Where did the idea for Fatal Inertia come from?
MB: Something about racing games I've always felt is that they're often very fake, such as cars that grind to an instant halt if they hit the side of the road. I wanted to make something more tangible than that. It's actually not a racing game, but the original idea came from Katamari Damacy – I was really intrigued by just the idea of piling stuff onto something, and affecting the way it would move. So the original idea was for an airborne racing game where you'd attach things to your enemies to weigh them down and make them fly differently.
GS: Is that one of the main features of Fatal Inertia?
MB: Yes, in game there are physics weapons with similar effects, altering the way that enemy ships fly.
GS: So in the new generation it appears that while graphics haven't moved on that far, the underlying systems such as physics are showing the improvements.
MB: Yeah, and that's the way we kind of approached this – to really improve the underlying stuff, and to use physics to improve the gameplay. At least, certainly that's what I'm interested in.
GS: Does Koei use middleware, or is everything done in-house?
TT: Currently everything we use is coded by Koei. We create our own middleware and use it across several projects. However, we are looking at greater cooperation with other companies and using external middleware in the future.
GS: How close to completion is Fatal Inertia?
KS: Fatal Inertia will be ready for the Playstation 3's launch.
GS: What games have influenced you as game creators?
KS: I always like to play the top 3 chart titles in Japan. I like to pay attention to what is successful and learn from that so that I can expand our business. Also, I am constantly playing Nobunga's Ambition Online, and Uncharted Waters Online.
TT: I've been in the industry for 20 years, so have played so many games that I think it would be impossible to pick only one to say that it influenced me. However, Ultima Online was one of the first MMORPGs and I played it so much when it was released that I got burned out. A short time after that I started playing EverQuest and got burned out again!
MB: Obviously Katamari Damacy was an influence on Fatal Inertia, and the original Mario Kart is one of my all-time favorite games. I guess I've always enjoyed games with an interesting game mechanic – Carmageddon 2 I played a lot of too, and the part I most enjoyed about that was the realistic physics engine, for example the ability to watch the car crumple up due to damage.
GS: Speaking of games which influenced Fatal Inertia, have you ever played an old PC title called Slipstream 5000?
MB: Yes, actually, that's one of the main influences on Fatal Inertia. One of the main problems with that game was that the race tracks were often quite featureless without a lot to do, something we're trying to tackle in Fatal Inertia, and you couldn't destroy your opponents. You could be shooting an enemy for 10 minutes and he'd never die.
GS: Slipstream 5000 had a lot of character, is this an angle you'll be exploring?
MB: Well, a certain amount of character will be in the game, but not a full-fleshed story or character portraits, there's a limit to what we can do with the time available. Certainly, in many types of these games the vehicle becomes the character, and that's something we're trying to do with our in-game vehicle customization tools.
GS: Currently the next generation titles you have announced, Fatal Inertia, Ni Oh, and Blade Storm, are all announced for Playstation 3 only. Why have you concentrated on the PS3?
KS: With the Playstation 1 we were given a great opportunity to expand our business, and with the Playstation 2 we continued our success. It's our hope that the Playstation 3 will help us expand our business even further.
GS: Do you plan on any releases for the Xbox 360?
TT: So far we have only announced Dynasty Warriors 5 for the Xbox 360, in Japan only.
GS: The Xbox wasn't particularly popular in Japan, but it was still supported fully by Koei. Have you been happy with the Koei's experience with Microsoft?
KS: Microsoft were very enthusiastic and so we decided to support them with Xbox exclusive titles such as Crimson Sea. As a result of that, sales were less successful than we had hoped. However, Microsoft remains enthusiastic and we have a good relationship with them, just no concrete plans for further support of the Xbox 360.
GS: How about the Revolution? Are you excited by the new controller?
TT: It's very interesting, but we are still looking at ways to use the input system in a new and novel way.
GS: What trends do you expect the game industry to be following in the near future?
KS: Multiplayer, using forms of connectivity such as Wi-Fi and broadband.
GS: While the Japanese market seems to continue to slump, and other famous Japanese companies have to merge to survive, Koei remains strong. What would you attribute that to?
KS: At Koei we have a policy – "Creativity and contribution," which means to create new types of entertainment in order to please our fans. We have constantly challenged ourselves in new fields and worked to create cutting edge game software, quickly adapting to new systems such as PS2, and growing in the online game space. That's why Koei has always been strong.