Nomura, lover of Nanoblocks.
Muchi Muchi Pork!
Primarily does character design and the interface/menus. On Ketsui he did part of the maps, and on Espgaluda II and Mushihimesama Futari he did the world/setting.
—It looks like you’re very busy right now, but how are things going?
Nomura: The project I’m working on right now, Akai Katana, is at the final critical stage. Everything has to be completed within one week. Normally I’d have more time, but I have so much other work to get to… Right now, I-san of our subcontracted staff is sitting next to me, and he works very quickly, so I’ve had to hand the next design drafting work to him. I want to get started on the modeling, but without the design drafts the team is stuck… but they aren’t something you can just come up with in an instant, they take time. You have to look at all the materials we’ve come up with for the game and draw new patterns too, and when you finally think its right you can hand it over. So while I’m waiting for all that, I’m not doing anything at all. Only when I-san returns can I finally get to work. (laughs) So I can’t even really get started on my work until the evening.
—You also work on the interface and menus. What kind of difficulties arise there?
Nomura: The world of the game and the menus are connected, I think. For instance, if its a mecha game, it would be strange to have a Japanese aesthetic in the menus… a mecha game should have mecha styled menus to make the game consistent, so I always work on them myself. The truth is I should probably give that kind of work to someone else, but I always end up doing it. I’d like to give more work to others, but we don’t have enough employees. (laughs) And I feel bad giving so much work to the subcontractors, knowing they’ll be stuck here all night. So I usually portion a certain amount of time for it and then just do it myself.
Once its decided whether the game will be mecha or character style, and the general world and setting of the game are known, then I put the menus together. Because without any kind of motifs or themes I can’t do anything. For this game, the katana is the motif, so I try out different backgrounds and search for interesting visual materials until I find something that fits. The truth is I don’t have enough time to do it all, with only two weeks to make the character select screen, name entry screen, and ranking screen. I’m barely able to keep on schedule. I always say I’m not going to do anything else while I work on the menus, but in the end something extra always gets put on my plate.
—With all that work, how have you not collapsed?!
Nomura: While I’m working on a project, its somewhat mysterious, but my body never breaks down. Even now, I can’t remember the last time I took a break, and for days and days now I just go home and go straight to bed. Somehow, I just keep going on… because if I collapse now, its all over for the project. (laughs) Though, it has happened that I collapse the moment a project is over. (laughs) Its probably because I’m so tense and keyed up while I’m working. After a project is completed I’ll sleep for over 12 hours. Well, actually, the truth is that we’re always crunched for time. Location tests, game shows and events, release deadlines… it never lets up.
Projects don’t always start out busy. Lately the busiest part has been all the initial planning, and once that is over, to a certain degree you can decide your own schedule, and work on the things you want at your own pace. Of course, in the final stretch its always hell. That reminds me, I had my health checkup today, and I’ve lost a ton of weight. (laughs) Aside from not eating much at night, I haven’t changed anything in my diet but I’m still losing weight… it might be from never taking a real break. And yet the doctor said to me, “you’ve gotten a lot better!” I had mixed feelings about that. (laughs) I moved not long ago, and I’m close enough to walk to the train station, so that’s good.
—Maintaining your health seems difficult…
Nomura: During our last project I had some free time, so I would go running at night. I’d run to the Tama river, but I never lost any weight. No matter how much I ran I didn’t lose weight, though I know why that is. After you exercise food becomes a lot tastier… I’d get back and have a beer and such. I figured since I was sweating it was ok. (laughs) When I was running crazy distances in the middle of the night I lost nothing, but now with all the hard work I’ve been doing at the office, I’ve lost 5kg. Its a mystery to me.
When I was running, before coming back for overtime I’d go have dinner at a place nearby. They didn’t have fish there, it was only meat. I was eating a lot of heavy food then, and it probably wasn’t good for my health. I’d have an American burger one day, and a Japanese style burger the next… you can’t lose weight like that. (laughs)
Now that my wife and I live together, I think that’s had a very positive effect on my health as well.
—You’ve definitely been working hard for quite awhile. What are some of the more memorable titles you’ve enjoyed working on?
Lost in snowboard development purgatory.
Nomura: Ketsui was very memorable. I joined Cave because I wanted to work on shooting games, but at first, fate seemed to be against me. I wanted to make shooting games, so I brought a bunch of my mecha design drawings with me to the interview, but after the interview they told me, “Ok, well, starting tomorrow, you’ll be working on our snowboard game.” I was very surprised… “What, snowboards?!” (laughs)
Well, I figured it was good that I had even passed the interview. My first project was with the snowboard team, and my next three projects were all snowboard games as well. While making those games I started to think, “Am I only capable of drawing snow…?” At this rate I was thinking of quitting, but then like a godsend a space on the shooting team opened up, and that was for the project Ketsui. I was told to work with Tanaka, who was managing the backgrounds and maps for the game, but when I was all of a sudden asked to draw like him, I couldn’t do it right away. So at first, for many days I stayed up all night, and I slept at the office for 9 straight days. Though I did go home to take a bath each day.
—Weren’t there any sentou (public baths) near the office?!
Nomura: I don’t like those for some reason… my routine was to go home, take a bath, eat dinner, and come back to the office around 11PM, and work until morning, getting some quick rest before the next day. It was tough when I couldn’t go home for my own birthday though. I spent that birthday all alone at the office with a bentou lunch. (laughs) But a nice employee from the mobile content division did bring me a cake. I was happy to make that connection, but the game development team at Cave is full of people who work very quietly and keep to themselves, so I was a little worried at first. Working on the backgrounds for Ketsui, I did the maps for stage 2, the final stage, and the menus. It was very memorable for me, being entrusted with work that was so hard and challenging. If only I could have started doing work like that from the beginning.
Espgaluda II was the first project I was the lead on, so in a different sense that was very memorable. I had to think of all the character names, but there aren’t too many names that will sound cool if you take them from butterfly names. (laughs)
I think Espgaluda was a very complete work, so I struggled with thinking how I would connect a sequel to it. There were many difficulties, and at first I fought with the programmers. (laughs) It was over a development tool I needed. Before Galuda II, when I created the data, I’d have to compress everything by hand so it could fit into memory. But if I was going to do all that for Espgaluda II, it was going to take over 6 months of work, so I asked them to make a tool to automate the compression. They came back and told me they couldn’t really do it, to which I replied, “well, I can’t do my job either then!” It was a stubborn back and forth like that. (laughs) Finally, the tool did get completed, and without it I don’t think the game would have been finished. (laughs) Because of that one fight, everything, including the console port, went smoothly, so I’m glad it happened.
The development time for Espgaluda II was only 6 months, which was rather short. So during that time I rented a futon and slept over at the office. I set it up in the corner of the office, but that was near an emergency exit so it was problematic and the security guard made me move. (laughs) I had no choice so I moved to another part of the office, but that was where other, non-game development staff were working. When they’d arrive for work in the morning I’d be forced to wake up, so I couldn’t really get any respite anywhere… I’d end up going to sleep at 7 and waking up at 8. That was my life.
—Did you also fight with other employees about everyday things?
Nomura: No, not at all. You can’t really work with people if you have bad relations with them like that. Of course there’s been times when I’ve had to force a smile and hold my tongue. On the project we’re working on now, I blew up once. Though when I look back at it now, it was probably for the best, too. (laughs) Basically there haven’t been any real conflicts between everyone… just the normal extent of “well, I’m not sure if this is the best way to do it” and so on. I don’t think its good to completely criticize another person’s ideas.
Madara, Espgaluda II boss, in tank form.
When we have meetings to decide on new titles to develop, Ikeda will come up with some insane idea and I’m left wondering who the hell these people are I’m working with. (laughs) I really like Dodonpachi, and when I’d bring some “normal” ideas inspired by that design I was told “its too normal.”
To mention some weirder ideas of mine, for Espgaluda II I made a character that only had a head and neck, and everything below was a tank. When we brought that out at the AM show, the players said, “It looks like he’s speaking, but I don’t see his lips moving…” That’s because his face is actually elsewhere. (laughs) After people understood that, in a weird sense he became a popular character. The idea for him was “a man who abandoned his flesh to become powerful”, and having spent so much time on this idea, I had a lot of fun and really went all out with designing him. I even designed parts of his body that you can’t see onscreen when he transforms.
—Speaking of transformations, was anime a big influence on your love for the mecha style?
Nomura: For mecha stuff I love Gundam, but the transformations were largely influenced by the Valkyries from Macross. In addition to buying Valkyrie plastic kits, I also did a lot of papercraft and made them be able to transform. I’ve always like arts and crafts like that.
Liking shooting, I also like mecha stuff, but originally I was obsessed with Gundam and wanted to become an animator. But in high school I played a lot of different games and started wanting to work in that field instead. That was around the time I started drawing pixel art. The first company I joined had a pixel art test, and because I passed it I was hired. At first there were tons of things I didn’t know, and the closest person to my age was seven years older than me, so I had many difficulties. Even though I learned the fundamentals of pixel art there, before I knew it pixel art was fading away, and 3D rendering became the mainstay. I occasionally still do cute pixel art for nostalgia’s sake.
—Is there a connection between your interest in pixel art and Gundam?
Tanaka’s nano block creations.
Nomura: Yes, I was wanting to talk about that. (laughs) There are these really small building blocks called “Nano Blocks,” and I am beyond obsessed with them. They’re about 1/4 the size of legos and they make various different shapes. When they first came out almost no one knew about them and I thought it was rather lonely, but I’ve been posting my creations on my website and lots of people have come to see them.
—And that relates to Gundam…?
Nomura: It will be quicker if I just show you. (shows a picture of his Gundam nanoblock creations on his cell phone) You can see stuff like this on my blog, too. I generally spend about three hours working on them before bed. They’re very small, so you can only make things you already have a general idea about. I can finish roughing in a piece in about 3 hours, and then I enjoy touching it up here and there. The things on my homepage are often too big to display elsewhere, so I post them there for posterity before breaking them down.
—You should sell them at the Cave Matsuri event!
Nomura: I’ve made all kinds of characters, including characters and crafts from Cave’s games. But the problem is I can only make one; I can never make the same thing twice. (laughs) So I can’t sell them. There’s also a lot of difficulties with making them. My hands have gotten all swollen before from it. Tweezers are hard to use and if you can’t use your hands, it just doesn’t work. Sometimes when I’m working, I’ll drop the piece and it will crash to the floor… then I’ll be on my hands and knees searching for nano blocks under my desk in the middle of the night. (laughs)
—Your talent for pixel art must help you out here.
More nano blocks.
Nomura: Yeah, it might be true that my pixel art experience of long ago allows me to make these now. I used to build with legos too, but they were too expensive for what you could do with them. But when I saw nano blocks I thought, “this is it!” I became so obsessed with them, it was like this was my life’s work. For a period I thought I might even try doing it professionally. I actually really want to release some things for Wonder_Festival, but I haven’t made any building recipes. After you’ve built something, you can’t really deconstruct it and make a recipe after the fact. I would love to see nano blocks become more popular.
—For Cave’s characters then, you must surely favor the mecha ones?
Nomura: When it comes to drawing, I actually prefer the creatures in Mushihimesama, like the dragons. I like things that I can draw in one burst of inspiration like that. With mecha, I start to get stressed out trying to make the parts fit together. I love dragons, so in Mushihimesama I thought, well, its not insects, but maybe I’ll add some dragons… and really enjoyed drawing those.
—Was it drawing pixel art that attracted you to the game industry?
Nomura: I started doing pixel art in my third year of junior high. In high school I got my motorcycle license and soon started spending all my time at the game center. Around then Ys on the MSX2 came out, and playing that was the thing that made me think I wanted to work with games. I was then employed by my previous company, and when I went to the interview it was in a small, 8-cho apartment. I was surprised, but when I went in and saw game hardware all over the place I finally realized, “Aaa, this is a game company!” I thought there would be a lot of fresh high school graduates like me there, but as soon as I got in they immediately gave me boss characters to draw! I thought of myself as an amateur, but it turned out I was able to do a good job, and I was very happy when I saw a commercial for our game on TV. At Cave, Ketsui was my first shooting game, but shooting games had been my first official work in the game industry, as well.
At that time an amusement park had just been built near me, but everyone went to the game center. Even though Disneyland was within walking distance, everyone went to the game center anyway. So its pretty sad to me now, seeing the game centers dying out. I moved recently, but there’s no game center near me so I haven’t been able to go. Before I moved there was a really hardcore game center near me, though.
—It seems like you’ve been playing all sorts of games for a long time now.
Ys for the MSX2, one of
Nomura’s first inspirations.
Nomura: I really like strategy games for all the customizing. I loved “Front Mission.” I spent so much time customizing all the parts and changing the colors of the mechs and stuff, that it seemed like I would never even start the game. For the Super Famicom version of Wizardry, too, you could draw your own characters in game, and I’d spend tons of time on that without ever starting the game. My favorite game though was probably Tactics Ogre. I like that dark kind of atmosphere. I also loved Ys, the story and the music were so well done, and that is the game that inspired me to join the world of making games.
—Tanaka was saying he hates strategy games. (laughs)
Nomura: I tend to draw whatever I think looks cool, but Tanaka is more like, “There are not ducts here so the ship has no intake.” He’s taught me various things. (laughs) I was impressed because I had never met a person with so many particularities like him. I was glad to have been put on the Ketsui team, but at that time I had no idea how to draw airplanes and fighters jets with realistic weapons. So I figured I needed to study up, and I bought a bunch of reference books and poured over those. Up till then I had thought drawing a tank just meant sticking a cannon on and you’re done. But recently I’ve been able to incorporate what I’ve learned into my designs.
—Do you ever object to any of Ikeda’s ideas?
Nomura: We fight a lot… its a love hate relationship. (laughs) I think that’s just how it is when you’re a director… you can’t always be liked by everyone. You can tell he really loves shooting games. There have been many times where I’ve wondered why this guy is working so hard, and even though he’s the director, he’s the last person to go home. He’s really amazing.
I would like him to spend more time training his successor, though. If we were to collapse, there’d be no one who could continue his work now. I understand though, because I’m also the kind of person who wants to do everything by myself. On this project, Akai Katana, Ikeda was one of the staff and gave us various ideas. Everyone added their own personal opinions, and even though we’d spent so much time mulling it all over, some new idea would come and upset everything we’d worked on. Of course, that new idea would have to be integrated into the old, and that’s how you get a good game. The team is everything… individually, you can’t do it all.
—What do you think shooting will be like in 10 years?
Nomura: I think the entire game industry, not just shooting, will be very different. More and more games and movies are starting to use 3D technology now, so I think we’ll finally see hologram style games we dreamed about in the future. In the old Macross series, there was a scene where the ace pilot is at the game center shooting down the enemy fighters, battling with the Batroids that would appear in front him. I was impressed by that when I saw it. It will be interesting 10 years from now when we have games like that.
—Please give your fans a final message.
Nomura: If you’re trying to get into the game industry, don’t get discouraged. I faced such potentially discouraging situations many times, but it somehow all worked out! (laughs)