A Global Phenomenon: Andersson and Judd on Capcom/GRIN's Bionic CommandoBy Christian Nutt
Capcom has positioned itself, over the course of the generation so far, as being one of the Japanese companies best-positioned to capitalize on the western market this side of Nintendo. Yet, unlike Nintendo, many of its games target the core gamer demographic.
Following up on some of the firm's internally-developed successes, such as Devil May Cry 4, Lost Planet, and Dead Rising -- is the Q1-due Xbox 360, PS3 and PC big-budget title Bionic Commando. This is a fully re-envisioned sequel to the beloved 20-year old NES game, which was recently remade for Xbox Live Arcade, PC, and PlayStation Network.
Both new editions of Bionic Commando are developed by Swedish software house GRIN. Recently, Gamasutra had a chance to sit down with GRIN co-founder and game director Ulf Andersson, and Ben Judd, the games' producer at Capcom Japan -- and the company's first American-born producer.
During the course of the interview, conducted at Tokyo Game Show, the discussion turned to the strength that the company has shown this generation, the nature of the collaboration between the two companies, and much, much more.
Has it been an interesting road? For both of you, I'd imagine that it's been interesting. Ben, being your first next-generation title as a producer at Capcom of Japan, which is craziness, and Ulf, it's your first major next-gen disc-based product for Capcom.
Ben Judd: Console, right?
Is this your first console game?
Ulf Andersson: Yes, it's my first released console game. I've done one game that got shitcanned, because the publisher went bankrupt, and then I made arcade machines, which is pretty simple. But yeah, it's the first one.
BJ: It's the submission process, I think, that's the scary thing when it comes to console titles.
What about you, Ben? What's your reaction now that you're far into the development process of this game?
BJ: After you spend a couple of years of your life on something like this, you go through... When I first started, the first year was great. Everything was perfect. I was like, "Oh, people talk about how painful design is. They don't know what they're talking about. This is great! I'm having a great time. The GRIN guys are fantastic, Capcom's a great company, and this is a huge game. Awesome. I love life!" Now that it's nearing the end...
UA: Just invert all of that. "Everybody sucks!" (laughter)
BJ: I hate him! I hate GRIN, I hate Capcom Japan... Oh, it's just a huge amount of pressure, a huge amount of work, and a huge amount of, "Now that you're getting close to the end..." You don't know. Because games are a gamble. They're a bit of a crapshoot. You have no idea whether they're going to do absolutely fantastic -- better than you ever imagined -- or whether they're going to tank.
UA: Well, I think it sort of shows, if it's got the potential or not. You can play a game and go, "Ah, this is going to be shit." But of course marketing can do an excellent job and push out shit. I don't think we're in that area, though.
BJ: If you'd asked me before we did [downloadable 2D 'side project' Bionic Commando:] Rearmed if that would be the highest-ranked Capcom Xbox 360, PS3, or PC title...
UA: Of course! I'd say, "Of course."
BJ: Well, you would say, "of course", because you're full of Swedish shit.
BJ: But I would say, "Oh, that's not going to be possible," because I have so much respect for the Japanese designers, and their skill level. So I was just, "Oh, no, not my first time out. It's not going to be like that." But in the end, that's what it is. So again, even if it's going to be a great game, I didn't know that at the time.
Capcom/GRIN's Bionic Commando: Rearmed
Did that lend you some confidence on this project? Obviously, when Rearmed came out, you were still very far into this project. Once you saw that working on a project, and this huge international collaboration, could be a big success, did it uplift your spirits a little bit, in terms of working on the main Bionic Commando project?
UA: I think it did for everyone. I know from the team side it really picked up. It was really cool. And we got a lot of attention from it, so on all sides it worked out.
BJ: The one difference I think between Rearmed and the 3D one is that since Rearmed is based on the original game, people knew what it was going to be. Since it's 2D and the hardcore people just flock around that now -- 2D is like the cool, hip thing -- it was much easier to be like, "Oh, we know exactly where this is going. We know people are really excited about it and it's going to be great."
But when it comes to the 3D one, there are more unknowns. Every time there is an unknown, you just don't know what the ultimate result is going to be.
But at the same time, I think the hardcore fans would've really hung you out to dry on the 2D remake if they felt like it didn't live up to their crystalline, 8 year old's memories of the NES game.
BJ: Yep. That's also one of the things which is great. The negative comments we got for Rearmed were that people thought the mechanic was too archaic. They weren't able to do what they wanted to do with it.
But when it comes to a 3D game, with the fact that it's online, and the swing mechanic is much easier... it's more standardized with the two thumbsticks. I think that people who are complaining about the 2D one not playing the way they thought are going to be able to play the 3D one. You can sit there and control the direction you want to swing. It really works the way I think everyone wants.
UA: I think everybody is going to get their piece of Bionic Commando. I mean, I love BCR, and you might love both of them, and I think a lot of people will. But if you're like, "Oh, I can't play BCR!" you're going to be able to play BC, and vice-versa.
When we talked at GDC, Ben, you said you were having a really hard time getting a lot of the Japanese management to understand the western development style of the game not looking as polished in the early stages. As it's come together, or just through the process, were you able to make management understand this a little bit better?
UA: I think everybody sees the quality of the product, but I'd say still there's an idea of how you should construct a game that's different on both sides. I think therefore, you also see different kinds of games from western and Japanese.
Japanese development is more about planning everything out beforehand -- which I love to do too. But it's very, very hard when you're doing dynamic-type gameplay things, because you need to playtest a lot and figure things out as you go. Then if you've made this great big plan, you're going to have to make it again and again and again, and you lose a lot of time.
So with this game, with the goal we had to make this game the way it is, I think it would be very hard with a completely Japanese staff. Although, we've actually changed. In this product, we've been changing our style to fit the Japanese style more, so I think it's a mixed martial arts fight, basically. (laughter)
What kinds of things are you changing, in terms of your production style?
UA: Well, how you report stuff, and how you deliver your builds, and what to focus on. We usually focus a bit more on function rather than form. It feels like with the Japanese, the aesthetic plays a very big part early on in the product. We're not used to that kind of thing.
Yeah, the game looks a little rough usually, early on. Is there anything about the Japanese management style that your studio has found to be good?
UA: There's a lot of good stuff, absolutely. I'd say the straight chain of command is something that I appreciate. There are pretty few people that have complete control over what happens at the company.
Whereas with western publishers, there are so many people, and there are very few people in the business who actually want to take responsibility. So they'll be bouncing your stuff around for weeks and weeks without getting anywhere. But in this case, either you'll get told, "No!" or "Yes!" It's very simple. I appreciate that. It's hard to get a "no," but I'd rather have a "no" than an "enhhh."
Capcom/GRIN's Bionic Commando
How about from your side, Ben?
BJ: From my side, honestly, if you look at what Capcom's done in the past, they had Dead Rising, Lost Planet -- huge success. That started us down this path of, "Let's focus more on the west," [Capcom R&D head Keiji] Inafune-san's vision. This is the next step in that.
BCR has done very well, but I don't know if that's been conveyed internally to the level that I wanted it to. So I think that even if BC does very, very well, I think it will not be as big of a step as it needs to be.
Go take a look at Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, and BioShock, and look at how any of those games have done in Japan. It's always been a fraction of what they've done in the west. It's going to be an uphill battle, and it's going to take a lot of time, I think, in order to have them 100 percent sign off on this.
UA: At the same time, you should look at Monster Hunter for the Japanese part, and vice-versa. There is...
BJ: There's some that don't go the other way, either.
It's interesting, because mostly they don't go both ways. It's hard to point out many franchises that do go truly global.
UA: Metal Gear Solid.
BJ: But there are more Japanese-created franchises that have been popular in the west than vice-versa.
MGS, and Nintendo's stuff, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil...
BJ: Shadow of the Colossus...
UA: Yeah, but Shadow didn't really sell huge amounts. Good game, though.
BJ: In the end, it sold well in the U.S. But again, there's probably about 10 or so... maybe Crash Bandicoot, several years ago in Japan, because of the huge marketing campaign. But that's the only major runaway hit. I guess Grand Theft Auto, but again...
It's still like 500,000 copies.
BJ: A fraction -- maybe one-tenth of what they've got in the U.S.
If we look at what a really good game sells in Japan, a million to two million is like a mega-hit, right? In the U.S., a mega-hit is six to eight million, let's say. So Grand Theft Auto is a mega-hit in the U.S. -- six to eight million -- but not in Japan. Not even close. It's very hard to get something to transport. Call me a naysayer, but I don't think Bionic Commando is the game to become a breakout hit in Japan for Capcom. I could be wrong.
BJ: No. It's going to be a tough hill that we have to climb, definitely.
It's a similar situation to Lost Planet and Dead Rising, I would probably guess.
BJ: Yes, but I think the one thing fortunate at that time was that those were led by 100 percent full Japanese producers. I think they understood how to maneuver within the Japanese framework to get more of the sales and marketing team on their side.
That's definitely one of the areas where I think I could've done better. I didn't know how to work the system right internally, from a Japanese perspective. I still have a decent amount of support, and that's why we had a fairly decent spot at the [Tokyo Game Show] booth, even for a title like Bionic Commando, when there's much bigger titles. But I wasn't able to work it as well as [producer Jun] Takeuchi-san was with those types of things.
But another good thing maybe in your benefit is that you guys aren't going to be a CERO Z, are you? [Ed. note: Japanese ratings board CERO's Z rating is equivalent in theory to an ESRB M rating, but Z-rated games are kept behind the counter at Japanese shops and rarely promoted at retail, and typically sell poorly.]
Are you going to be [ESRB] T or M?
But you think you'll avoid a CERO Z?
BJ: Yes. Matter of fact, I can guarantee you we will.
Because one of the problems with selling Dead Rising in Japan was that it got a CERO Z.
BJ: We will not allow it to get there.
So that might at least benefit it somewhat.
UA: Yep. Bionic Commando is also not necessarily tailored for the Japanese market as much as it's tailored for the U.S. market.
BJ: And that was the whole plan. Western first.
It's similar. Lost Planet, and more so Dead Rising, I think were very much catered to the western audience. But it's a good strategy. I think one thing Capcom has -- not that you guys directly benefit from it -- they got their next-generation game engine off the ground way earlier than any of the other Japanese publishers.
BJ: We have the best tech in Japan, period. That's a statement you can stand behind. And Japanese are not known for their programming skills, but Capcom's got them.
And they're also not known for making technology that can be reused, which is crucial.
BJ: One engine per game, yeah.
Did you guys roll your own engine for this game?
UA: Oh yes. I wouldn't say we rolled it for this game. It's an engine that's been around for nine years or something. But it's always been in development.
We add a couple of things every year and reshape a component and make new tools for it, and stuff like that. But it's a very tried and tested development in our arms, so we're happy with that.
Do you use a lot of middleware, or do you use mostly internal?
UA: Mostly internal. We've used NVIDIA PhysX. I think we're using Bink [for video], right?
UA: But that's about it.
I'd imagine physics are crucial to this game.
UA: Oh yeah, it is. Absolutely. But we usually say, "If we don't make it in-house, you're making it in the outhouse."
CN: (laughter) Nice.
BJ: Cocky Swedes!
UA: For your production, it's pretty bad if you need to move fast and you need to be on the edge and you can't -- or don't have control over what the game is and what's in it. It's very, very hard. We worked very closely with graphic card manufacturers and PhysX.
This is your first console game, so do you see the PC as being a really important platform for this title for you? Or even in the future?
UA: No. I see this more as a console title than anything else. Of course, we've got PC sensibilities, so it's not going to be the average port. We want to make it proper.
It depends on the project we're working on. If it was first-person, I would say something completely different. I think the market and the interest for third-person is lower, but at the same time, the PC version is still fun to play. We've got that playfulness and open-ended stuff going down, so it's still going to be interesting for PC players to pick up.
BJ: From Capcom's perspective, one of the biggest advantages of working with GRIN is that they do have a lot of PC experience. Whereas if you look at the titles we've put out on the PC in the past, they haven't necessarily been optimized at the PC level that they should have been, I think.
So we're trying to also create a pipeline between some of the big PC graphics board makers, CPU makers, etcetera, so we can start focusing on the PC market as well. So this is going to be a good step for us in that direction.
Lost Planet came to Steam, and I think it did pretty all right. I don't know for certain.
Can you say that?
BJ: I didn't say anything. It's the wind! Ask Takeuchi-san about it.
Okay. I will someday. (laughter) Unless I don't.
BJ: Guess you better not forget...
Actually, I would be surprised if it did well, but I thought maybe it did better than I had anticipated.
BJ: People can think a lot of things. (laughter)
UA: Cool game, though. I liked it. It had a lot of cool, different stuff in it.
Did you guys get any design input from Capcom of Japan?
UA: More advice, I would say, and more of having people play the game to their vantage point of if it's too hard, or too complex, or too western.
So we tried to hit somewhere where it feels very Capcom-y, and try to get the lowest denominator up, so everybody can play the game, but you can still go pretty far and deep into it.
But we have had a lot of freedom during this project, so that's been great. I don't think that it would be possible otherwise. If we didn't have that freedom making the swing mechanic and the type of setting, it would be just too scary for everyone involved. So that's been great.
What did you think about the process of taking this franchise? The last original installment -- there's some remakes and things -- came out in 1988, and obviously, you guys had to update it and change the characters a bit. Initially, people were freaked out about that, but from a creative standpoint, what did you think about updating the franchise? Was it satisfying?
UA: It was fantastic. It's always fantastic. I think developers in general have a misconception of working with [established] IP. It's like, "Oh, it's terrible! We don't get creative freedom!" and blah blah blah.
And in the end... you always get the freedom to do stuff. It just depends on what level, and what you're focusing on.
We don't necessarily focus on only creating new shit. We try to make good shit instead. So we focus on the gameplay. What's fun to do on [external] IPs, especially stuff like Bionic Commando, is that you get a certain rule set that you have to keep to, and that is very creatively challenging.
So instead of saying, "Oh, we can come up with anything. Okay, Let's do a shooter!" (sarcastically) Oh, that's interesting. That puts you in a certain area, where you have to start using the old noggin. It's more interesting, to me.
BJ: I think that since it's been 20 years and there's never been a 3D version of it, there's still plenty of room to be creative. If you were doing a new Street Fighter game or if you were doing a new Final Fantasy game, what you have to make and what direction you have to go in is already pretty much set.
You can tweak that to a certain degree. But in general, you know it's got to have these characters and they've got to have these moves, so you can't really be creative with that. With BC, it's been so long since it's been gone that it's practically creating an original game, in some ways.
If you have the right vision, you can take a series and radically alter it, like with Resident Evil 4.
BJ: And Metroid Prime.
UA: Good examples.
I think that you're right. Not that I make games for a living, so people will probably make nasty comments if I say anything, but it seems to me that if you have a framework, it's like that cliché: rules are a framework you can climb around on. They don't cage you in. You just have to change the way you think about things. Obviously, in some cases, if you have a really restrictive license, like a Disney license or something...
BJ: Tom Clancy. Oh, wait a second. That hits too close to home.
Have you found it to be that way?
UA: I worked on Clancy titles too, and it's the same thing there. You get certain rule sets, and you have to keep it within that. It's challenging. Of course, that kind of game doesn't allow for crazy gameplay approaches. You're more gunning for a certain mood or a certain style. But it just has a different focus and a different goal in mind.
Bionic Commando is pure gameplay and experience. We want you to experience something that you haven't experienced in games before, so the whole project is focusing on that. Everything we do -- art, sound -- it's trying to just focus on that goal.
If you make another game, like a Clancy game, it might just be trying to make you feel like you're in a war zone. Every game has a certain set of goals. I like to call them goals instead of rules.
Did you have to send concept art to Japan and get it approved? Did you have to send models?
UA: For finding the right art style in the beginning, we did a lot of back and forth, and also for important characters, like the characters in the story, we did that too.
BJ: I'm just remembering where it started and, now, what it's become. Very different. It went through a lot of different passes.
UA: In the beginning, it was a more boring, western-style [approach], because we thought, "This is what people want." Internally. But after a while, we realized that we had to go for a more "out there" kind of style, so we shot for that.
It used to be a bald space marine?
UA: Bald space marine! (sighs)
BJ: I always envisioned it as kind of a partnership, rather than the publishers telling the developer, "You must do this, do this, and do this." I always envisioned it as, "We're both in this."
There's so much good that would come out if we make a hit title. Obviously GRIN will get a ton of spotlight. They'll sell themselves as a fantastic next-gen developer, and Capcom, as a Japanese publisher, will have taken a huge risk that paid off.
Already you're seeing other Japanese publishers trying to imitate that style. You're going to be seeing more and more tie-ups with western outsource companies, because Capcom tried it out first. There's a lot for us to gain by working together, rather than fixing ourselves in one style or one person's thing.
I think so, and I agree that you'd envision it as a creative collaboration, but that doesn't mean that that's how it would turn out.
BJ: Not to toot my own horn, but it's nice that I am the first foreign producer and able to work with them, because we can speak in English, and I can offer them more trust. Since mostly it was my ultimate call, I can be like, "Let GRIN go with the ideas that they think are working out here," even though the people sometimes on my end weren't necessarily 100 percent signed off on that idea.
We've had Japanese producers try to work with foreign developers before, and it never worked, because they would only know the one Japanese style, and that would not sync the right way. You really have to be able to make compromises, especially in a business model like this.
They're not Japanese. I could throw down many Japanese rules and say, "You must do this, in this style," and in the end, it would take four years, and it would come out really, really weird. By allowing them to have the freedom that they needed to have, they made something great.
Well, it's soon to be seen what the world thinks of it, but it will be a big vindication to you, I'd imagine.
BJ: We'll see. Right now, I'm just focused on getting it out there and getting people excited about it, because I love Bionic Commando, and I think it's a franchise that you can do a lot with. Showing Capcom that it's something that sells has got to be the first key step.
Right. Was this game aimed primarily at the North American territory?
BJ: That's the main SKU, right.
Because in Europe, the NES wasn't any great shakes, in terms of popularity. It was all 8-bit computers, wasn't it?
UA: Well, we had a mix, actually. We were divided up into Atari, Amiga, and NES users, basically. You wouldn't have two of them, but you were divided into these.
I'm an Amiga guy, myself, but all of my friends were NES guys and I got to play it there. For some stupid reason, I always wanted a NES. I'm like, "Ah, NES. My Amiga was so much more powerful." But NES had a lot of good games.
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