Last generation, Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies was one of the best-selling games for the PS2; these days, the series seems to be taken for granted. Even more than the descent of Namco's once-proud Ridge Racer series, which was eclipsed by the success of competitors like Gran Turismo even before the more general descent of the Japanese-developed core game, Ace Combat's slide highlights changing gamer tastes in this latest generational transition.
Producer Kazutoki Kono, who also directed Ace Combat 04 and 5, is helming Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, the seventh in the franchise, due for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 this October. It's under development in Tokyo at Namco Bandai's internal Project Aces studio, which produces the series.
His approach for the series marks a change and evolution, despite his success with the fourth installment -- the series' most popular game. It's one driven by the fact that "now we have to look forward, for the gaming industry is going in another direction," Kono says.
"I want to take Ace Combat a step further as a franchise, and I want to use Assault Horizon as a base."
His challenge is to understand the tastes of today's gamers, rather than reflecting on past success, he says: "Creators always have to be looking forward, anticipating, and assuming what the users would want. That's our job. It's challenging, but it's our job."
"Over 15 years, we have been developing Ace Combat games, from Air Combat " -- the series' first installment, released in 1995 on the original PlayStation -- "and we really haven't changed the game system as we have with Assault Horizon. I thought that we have to change it now; now is the time, or else we won't have it in the future."
Kono is a bit worried, because "in general right now the Japanese game developers are rather on the low," but he "wants to make it more top-notch" with Assault Horizon.
While he is concerned that "we have to learn technological things from Western developers," he feels he can rely on the expertise and skills at his disposal at Namco Bandai.
"We still have really good parts, for instance the creativity that the Japanese people have, and certain skills that we still have that are better than the Western developers. We use that and also communicate with our other overseas affiliates, to work with them and make things better -- and step up," he says.
And he does have real confidence in his team. "Project Aces; specifically, we're really good at, of course, aircraft -- so nobody could probably get better than Project Aces for that. But interweaving the storyline and gameplay we are also really good at, so we think that there are probably no others that, we think, can beat us."
Not that many are trying. "Not many other publishers make flight games, but I think that's actually a problem, because I want more competition. We'll probably always be the king of kings, but we want more competition; we want more people to be interested in the drama," he says.
Of course, intense dogfighting gameplay is dramatic, but the Ace Combat series began, with its later PS1 installments, injecting more story into the games.
"The gameplay and storyline always conflict with each other at some point," Kono admits.
That said, it can be balanced. "Where to balance that out, without having the users realize it's being balanced out, is probably the guideline I follow. For instance, in a certain place within the story, there's a gameplay goal of what you're supposed to do, but users don't realize that probably it's on rails. They just do it because it's the storyline," he says.
This will only work, he says, if the gameplay is "very immersive in the first place." That can only happen when "the story gives you a certain goal, or gives you a certain objective, within the interest of gameplay."
Still, he says "the story is like a plus aspect... story is something that is in there [that helps] the players not to be bored of the gameplay."
His theory is that while the game can communicate with the player in multiple ways, the player can only communicate back to the game by shooting.
"If the player shoots at the enemy, you have to give some kind of reaction -- because that's how the user communicates with the game. So if he shoots something, something's supposed to collapse. Those kinds of things are really taken into importance in Assault Horizon."
"First, the user needs to feel the sensation of shooting and destroying; that needs to be fulfilled for the users."
"What's important for Ace Combat is that what you tend to do to communicate within the game is you only shoot missiles or machine guns. That action being brought back to users is most effective." In fact, the team concentrated first on nailing that core feeling in the game -- through visual and audio feedback, controls, and even vibration -- and then moved on to production of the rest of the game, says Kono.