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[Iconoclastic developer Goichi Suda talks Gamasutra about how his studio Grasshopper Manufacture hopes to rebound from the commercial flop Shadows of the Damned with social game development and the upcoming Lollipop Chainsaw.]
A little while ago, Grasshopper Manufacture seemed like it might end up being Japan's best hope, as far as independent studios went. It had created engaging, creative games like No More Heroes and made a name for itself before leaping into a partnership with EA for Shadows of the Damned, a PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game developed by a multinational team.
Shadows of the Damned couldn't find a major audience, and Grasshopper has turned to the social games space -- which, while sensible, isn't exactly what we expected from this group of iconoclasts.
Here, Goichi "SUDA 51" Suda discusses the failure of Shadows of the Damned, the studio's need to evolve its direction in the market to stay afloat, and just how well the company has been doing at integrating Western developers into the workflow and creative process at the company.
A while ago you said you planned to be the biggest game developer in Japan. How are you tracking on that goal?
Goichi Suda: Wow, how many years ago was that? (laughs)
Probably a couple years ago.
GS: Well, we are bigger, at least, but we still need to think about where we want to go, looking at what kind of era we're in. At the moment, we're faced with two choices: the consumer market, and the social game market.
As you scale up for all of this stuff, what has been your approach to hiring people? You've had to grow quickly over a short period of time.
GS: Certainly. Well, in Japan, it's really become the norm as of late to hire on a contractor basis. That's quickly becoming the general practice in the game development community, especially.
For a while, you were also gathering big names from other companies in Japan and elsewhere. How do you decide who will fit within your culture?
GS: Well, Grasshopper is essentially a very well-mixed culture already, so it's a matter of finding people who can work well within that, who can get used to our style. We work on a great deal of different projects, so in that respect, every project tends to develop its own culture. As far as big names go, too, some of those are gone at this point, so...
I was going to ask about that. What about [Little King's Story creator Yoshiro] Kimura?
GS: Indeed, he and [Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro] Wada are not here any longer. In a way, they didn't fit into the culture after about a year of working there. It's taught us that publishing companies really are different from developers.
Each have their own position in the business, and it usually works out well then they work within those positions, but if you put someone from the publishing side into a developer position, you realize how different the two entities really are.
Somehow I didn't think that Kimura, especially, would fit, given his strong personality.
GS: (laughs) Really? Well, he did try really hard during that year-long period. It's a hard job, after all, trying to manage this huge mix of Japanese and foreign developers. He really did his best, and we're very grateful for that.
What do you think about the management approach to having a successful game business in Japan? A lot of companies have become very salaryman-oriented, making it hard for them to adjust to this rapidly-changing market.
GS: Well, it really depends on each individual team. I think we're at the end of the era where you have a team with every person working completely full-time on the project at all times -- in Japan, at least, if not the rest of the world. In Japan, at the very least, employment laws have become stricter and that's extended into the game industry as well.
So when talking about overtime and all, I think it's difficult these days in Japan to create a group where the point is to make a game in a way that goes beyond a simple job. I think the staff behind making movies or TV shows gets more preferential [treatment from regulators]. Well, is that the best way to put it?
They have more history behind them so ... [breaking] the regulations which [Grasshopper] has to follow in terms of overtime and so forth is forgiven more [in film and TV], but that isn't the case yet with games. It's more the case that the government sort of turns a blind eye to it [in film and TV]. It has a history behind it, after all. There is overtime, but that gets ignored since it's seen as part of the system, and in Hollywood that's how it works.
At the same time, though, we have staff from overseas who work well within the more regular hours, and get settled and comfortable with that culture, even as we have people who just want to keep on working until it's done. It's not a matter of which approach is better, I don't think, since we have a bit of both within the company.
I think it's also a difference between Westerners and Easterners. Japan has always had this culture of artisanship and a whole ideology revolving around that, as well. All these approaches go into game development, and it's not my position to say whether one is better than the other.