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Afro Samurai's David Robinson: New Studio, New Problems, New Chances
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Afro Samurai's David Robinson: New Studio, New Problems, New Chances

October 6, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Being the senior producer of Afro Samurai at Namco Bandai isn't quite as predictable as its sounds. On the face of it, it's a huge company and it's a licensed game -- a situation that is always difficult, but in which there is a certain amount of built-in predictability.

But as David Robinson explains, his team was founded with a start-up mentality within this company, long after the last vestiges of its PlayStation 2 era development teams had dried up and been forgotten.

And though Afro Samurai was the most successful anime property of 2007 in the U.S., when the project first began, nobody knew its fate -- and nobody was convinced of its impending popularity.

Now, several years after the process first began, Robinson speaks about how bringing together a team of veterans from developers like Crystal Dynamics and founding the studio under strong management, and with a strong game property, has allowed the idea of the Afro Samurai game to flourish even when it didn't have all of the support it could have used.

How long have you been with Namco Bandai, since it restarted U.S. development?

DR: Yes, about four years. The game has been through a few iterations, but this iteration is about two and a half years old.

What's the team size?

DR: It's about 55 people.

Are you using your own technology, or are you licensing?

DR: Yeah, that was one of the things that I decided early on -- was that we would try not to use any proprietary technology. That's one of the reasons why the company would give us money to develop. So it's all proprietary; it's all [our own].

Excellent. And are you doing any outsourcing at all, with this?

DR: Yes. Heavily. Heavily. Easily 70% of all art, background art, is done out of house, by a great company called Igloo, in Malaysia.


DR: And they did an amazing job of -- we had a huge, like year-long vetting process for outsourcers, and they really kicked butt with their communication strategy. Because art is kind of easy now; people can do great art, but it's the communications strategy that leads you to not have to re-do the art.

And especially on a platform game, that's all you're doing, is pushing verts all day long. If you don't own it, it becomes a huge problem.

So how have you been managing them?

DR: We created a really, really cool process by which the Igloo management flew out, and we did everything to a very strict, three layer process, of preproduction drawings, concepts, and then we went to a what's called "block world" -- everybody knows what a block world is -- and then we'd sit down and discuss what we're doing with some of the problems with communicating some of these issues, especially to non-English speakers.

Largely, Igloo's management is English, so that literally gave us a huge leg up, because at least the guy on the ground there understood American intonation, which can be a huge problem when you say, "You know, I really need this tomorrow," and people think, "Ah, we have two weeks."

At the time we started working with him, we didn't have any memory map for the game engine, and we were actually building the game at the same time the engine was being created, which was a whole host of drama, because you're not supposed to do that. Because we didn't have a lot of money, and this was a high-risk project, we just had to go for it.

And they sat down with us, and based on our PS2 and Xbox experience, we just tried to use old school pilot thinking, and what do we think a world would cost? And just trying to make as many open avenues as possible for if we screwed up.

And what that involved is trying to play the character in as many block worlds as possible -- but that wasn't always possible. Making sure that as soon as we got a block world, we dumped all kinds of other art in it, even if it wasn't appropriate, to see what it was going to do, and when it was slow.

So were you able to prototype with your own tech, or did you use another solution?

DR: No, we didn't have to use a single piece of outside technology.

Excellent. So was Igloo the first company that you went to for outsourcing, or did you have to do due diligence?

DR: Oh man, we married a lot of losers before we found the prince. It wasn't that the companies were bad, it's just that a lot of people [think] that they can do game development, but it's a hard business. It's hard to get customer service.

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