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Tanaka’s reference materials
for map and enemy design.

Hiroyuki Tanaka

Designer

Central Works
Dodonpachi
Dangun Feveron
Guwange
Progear no Arashi
Dodonpachi Daioujou
Ketsui
Espgaluda series
Ibara series
Deathsmiles series
Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu

Primarily works on maps. Also did enemies
for Daioujou, and ship design in Ketsui
and Daifukkatsu.

—What part of the game design process do you oversee?

Tanaka: I primarily work on the backgrounds for our shooting games. I think the backgrounds are something you don’t have much of a chance to look at closely while you’re playing. Especially in Cave games, you’re so focused on the danmaku patterns, you can’t really give the backgrounds much attention. And in many instances the bullet patterns obscure the background. (laughs)

—When you make a map, what kind of things do you like to do, and what do you try to avoid?

Tanaka: The first thing I’m careful to do when designing a map is to make sure that the bullet patterns, which are Cave’s games’ selling point, are easy to see. Your ship, the enemies, and the bullets all have to very clear or you won’t be able to dodge, so I always make sure my maps don’t interfere with that. Our games use a lot of pink, blue, and colorful bullet patterns, so I try not to use those colors in the backgrounds. I also avoid using the orange colors of explosions. But if you do that too much the backgrounds become kind of bland, and balancing the colors well is a difficult part of the work.

—It sounds like very specialized work. Please tell us about the titles you’ve struggled with.

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A section of Daifukkatsu stage 5,
designed to look like an actual pcb.

Tanaka: Daifukkatsu. That title has very little natural scenery in it. The Dodonpachi series in general has a lot of mecha elements in the background and it really takes a lot of time. With natural scenery I can take pictures of trees and such with my digital camera and use those as models, but mecha designs have to be drawn from scratch. Because of that the hours you have to put in are crazy. A normal stage map will generally take me about a month to complete. If the map is really long, then it might take about a month and a half. For vertical shooting games, they’re quite long, but they are basically just one large picture. For older games it was typical to draw it in small parts, but lately it feels more like creating a long picture scroll. (laughs) In our early days there wasn’t a lot of memory space, so we’d have no choice but to do things block by block, but now you can put it all in there at once. So compared with the past, its easier to express things now, but as a result it takes a lot more time to get one complete map done. And generally making the backgrounds is a one-person job. I don’t always do everything… I might give one stage to someone else, but other than that I do it all. Though lately I’ve been doing everything by myself a lot. So please, hire more people. (laughs)

—Yeah, you can’t be collapsing now! You must keep yourself in tip-top shape then, to do such work?

Tanaka: Actually, now that you mention it, a doctor did give me several dietary restrictions once. It got so bad he had to order me like that. (laughs) Its gotten a lot better recently so I’m ok now.

Ikeda (sitting beside Tanaka): He has a very unbalanced diet.

Tanaka: I don’t think that’s the case; I have no special love for food. When the doctor told me I had to eat fish eggs, it became a famous story at the office how I just kept eating seafood cup ramen… to make a long story short, I got gout. I would eat the same thing for lunch for almost a month or two. Sometimes for half a year.

Ikeda: Don’t you think that was the reason you got sick?!

Tanaka: Yeah, maybe so… I was living a lifestyle where I’d eat the same thing for lunch, and if I had free time I’d eat at night too. I ate candy too, but since it doesn’t fill me up, I only eat it when I have the time. I’m also really picky. Since I didn’t have a lot of time to eat, instead I’d really stuff myself on the weekends, eating like 5 times in one day.

—Now I see how you destroyed your health…

Tanaka: Yes, so you can see how badly I need some backup here!

Ikeda: That’s not possible. (laughs)

Tanaka: This is a dangerous highwire you’ve got me on here!

Ikeda: Its the same for us all. (laughs)

—Making sure the maps match the world of the game is very important, it would seem.

Tanaka: After hearing about the story at an initial meeting, I take that and start expanding on ideas of my own. For me a game is a success if I’m able to fill it with all those personal ideas I’ve come up with in my head. They don’t always relate to what’s officially been decided in the story… I develop the story in my head by myself. In doing so, my ideas can end up differing from the official story and setting, but I take care not to let them get too far off. I don’t think anything I’ve added has strayed too far, right?

Ikeda: Yeah, we rarely have to ask you to revise anything because of that. This is a tendency of our games, but enemy placement really depends on the backgrounds for us, so the background design is directly connected to the appeal of the game. Revisions are generally things like move this castle over here, or shift this road over here.

—It doesn’t sound like work that just anyone can do.

Ikeda: That’s true. So even if you ask for backup, I don’t think this work can easily be given to someone else. For example, say we’re doing a European world like in Deathsmiles II, and someone gives us a map with castle and cliffs and such… but we don’t end up using them because they don’t work for enemy or item placement, so we have to ask for it to be redone. But that isn’t to say we just want a wide empty road or something, either. The know-how required for map creation is very important, and its not the kind of thing you can just easily pick up.

In fact, we did have an outside subcontractor working under Tanaka at one point, but he got overwhelmed and asked to quit. Although he felt confident about Tanaka’s leadership, he left saying “I can’t do what Tanaka does.” (laughs)

—Practically speaking, what are some of the skills required for this work?

Tanaka: For a tate scrolling game, you have to place things while remembering that the screen will be scrolling right and left a lot. These aren’t games where you can just stick things in one place and be done with it. So keeping those things in mind, roads shouldn’t be straight but should wind around, and if you want a road to go off to the left, you need to think of having a side road going to the right… and so on. You have to always be aware of how the player will be moving left and right. Daioujou was the first game where I started doing all the map design on my own. The others before that were done by Junya Inoue. During that time I saw how he would place enemies, and it turned out to be invaluable experience for me.

Ikeda: The left/right aspect of map design is something that, if you don’t have experience, you won’t know how to do. How to make the backgrounds beautiful, and the balance and tempo of the left/right placement are very important. Its difficult to describe… until you’ve done it 2 or 3 times. And it would be easier if we didn’t have ground-based enemies in our games, but we have many such enemies to place. So working on the backgrounds takes a lot of skill.

Tanaka: And that’s precisely why when you finish a map you’ve been slaving over its a really joyous feeling. While you’re making it you’re just stressed out the whole time. But finishing something that matches the game’s atmosphere feels great.

—By the way, do you play any games?

Tanaka: Yeah, just to pass the time. Lately I’ve just been going straight to bed when I get home though. Playing a little Metroid on the train is about all I’ve been able to do. I’ve been playing that one for awhile… the gameboy version.

—The Gameboy version, that old?!

Tanaka: Is there something strange about that? (laughs) Its the color model, not the huge monochrome gameboy! Its a Gameboy Advance SP. Though on the train all I see are people playing the DS…

I play some older shooting games, but I don’t really play any newer ones. I suck at danmaku games… (laughs) With all the different bullets, there’s too many vectors to keep track of and I can’t handle it. And the maps that I’ve worked so hard on disappear beneath all these bullets, so danmaku games are my natural enemy. (laughs) On that note, I like older shooting games because you could see how pretty the backgrounds were. The game I really liked a lot is Volguard II. I played it so much I had to be told to stop.

—It sounds like you’re into old hardware and old games.

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Volguard II, an old favorite.

Tanaka: Like with food, I tend to be partial to one thing. I don’t have any knowledge about new things… I don’t know anything about the PS3. I’ve never touched an Xbox 360. (laughs) We have them all over the place at the office but it would interfere with work to play them there. And I don’t really like 3D or realistic games. The parts of them that don’t look realistic always end up standing out too much to me. Actually, I do play Metroid on the Gamecube. I could probably just play Metroid for 80% of my time and be happy. For the remaining 20%, give me Volguard II and I’m set for life. I know its two rather narrow choices, but eh, I don’t miss what I don’t know. And if I ever need to really know something for work I can just study up a bit. For example, if someone says at a meeting they want something “like xxx scene in xxx game”, then I just go to Yodobashi or something and take notes as as I stand behind and watch some kids play. I don’t buy anything. Since I don’t have the systems it wouldn’t be any use anyway. I just stand behind those kids and go “Ahh, hmmm, I see, like that…”

—Is there anything you’re into other than games?

Tanaka: I actually really love bicycles. But lately I haven’t been riding because I’ve been I’m afraid of getting in a terrible accident.

Ikeda: He rides a really nice bike. The kind you wouldn’t want to lock up outside. (laughs)

Tanaka: Right now in my room I have six in total. I buy the basic parts. This week I bought a frame, and I’ll be looking for pedals next time… doing it this way it can take me about a year to put something together. I also like plastic model kits, but I don’t have any painting skills so I like to buy the ones you can just put together.

—How much have you spent on bikes, out of curiosity?

Tanaka: Hmm, should I say this? I don’t think as much as a car or anything, but maybe if you put all 6 together… Each bike is anywhere from 100000 to 600000 yen.

—For 100000 yen you could get an electric bike! (laughs)

Tanaka: There’s no way I’d ride an electric bike! Its heresy! That’s what Moms ride! I climb hills with my own two legs–though I prefer flat terrain like valleys and open plains to mountains. Please think of an electric bike as a different kind of vehicle from a bicycle.

—Speaking of bicycles, there’s the “ketta-machine” ships in Muchi Muchi Pork.

Tanaka: I was working on Deathsmiles at the time so I wasn’t involved in that game. I would have liked to work on it, but it was finished before I knew it. (laughs) Actually, in addition to bikes I also like ships and boats. As a kid my Grandfather got me into boats as soon as I was old enough to understand things. (laughs) My Grandfather loved everything having to do with boats, and he had brought me all kinds of World War II books. I think from that experience I’ve acquired a certain way of thinking about boats and ships in games. When we have meetings about designing the world and setting, if things start to get too far from my real-world knowledge of ships, I end up having to speak out: “Don’t you know ships can’t move backwards like that?!” When I see other companies’ games, and see actual ships used as characters it can irritate me too.

—The world of Ketsui has things like that in it.

Tanaka: That’s right. I demanded a lot of things for that setting. I came up with the basic ideas for the setting, and Wakabayashi tied it all together. Ketsui is a game I’m extremely fond of, but I regret that it wasn’t very well-received at the time. It was a major blow to my confidence and I felt like the world wasn’t interested in my ideas. (laughs) I had a lot of ideas for Ketsui’s setting that went beyond what was included in the game… things that weren’t really necessary for it. For example, the history of EVAC industries is really developed in my mind.

—You didn’t write them out for the official setting?

Tanaka: There was no need to. I gave little hints about them by things I’d place in the maps.

Ikeda: I didn’t know that.

Tanaka: I also had the idea to tie the story into other games as well. There’s no strict borders around the world of the games I design, so I wanted to secretly link things together.

—Please make “Ketsui II” then!

Tanaka: When we do a sequel, we try to make it something that expands on the world of the original like a branch from a tree. Personally I would love to do a sequel to Ketsui if we could, but… I don’t think there’s much to add.

Ikeda: I don’t think so either. (laughs) Though I also would like to do it.

Tanaka: The story is already complete!

Ikeda: Yes, I agree. (laughs)

Tanaka: It really is the case that we did all we wanted to with the story of Ketsui. And I don’t have any literary talent for developing it further, and I can’t do illustrations well anymore either. Over the last 20 years my drawing skills have withered away… but I can still make maps! If you saw me just casually drawing it would probably look “Cave”ish, like I was a fan of Ketsui or something. That’s how much I’ve dreamed and imagined about Ketsui. Though if you asked me to talk about it, it would probably be strange, like “that’s not in the game!” (laughs) When I see people talk about the world of Ketsui on messageboards and such, I enjoy seeing how they’ve taken my ideas in a different direction.

—We’ll leave Ketsui at that. Can you tell us about the other games you’ve worked on?

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The Bismark, Tanaka’s favorite battleship.

Tanaka: Daifukkatsu took a lot of effort. I did the ship designs, so I have a special attachment to it. I really don’t like it when the ship in a shooting game is a human character. However, in Espgaluda it fits the world of the game well, so I like it there. When it comes to battleships in our games, that’s where I draw the line.

Ikeda: He does argue a lot about battleships. As I’m sure you can tell now from asking him, he has all these rules about ships. Try asking him about putting cannons on fighter planes… (laughs)

Tanaka: They’re for firing at other boats! Fighter jets don’t fire cannons!

Ikeda: Of course in a game its no problem, but.

Tanaka: This is why I assuage my pride by imagining all these alternative scenarios and settings. By the way, my favorite battleship is the Bismark. It has big cannons, and I just love the thorny, armored look it has. And I also like the Uchuu Senkan Yamato for the same reason.

—It seems like you’d also like strategy games for their real world weapons.

Tanaka: I don’t like those at all. There’s all these games out with ships that the designers have just freely edited. When I see these childish edits I get annoyed… “why did they put so many cannons on the ship!” Or when there’s smoke coming out a rail gun! I can’t help but think about all that, so I’ve never played them.

—With your particularities, have you ever clashed with anyone at Cave?

Tanaka: I work alone, so there’s really no one to fight with. Our recent games have been conceptualized by one person, so my work has been mostly receiving his ideas. It has been difficult when some unreasonable demand comes and I have to say “this is impossible.” I get requests that are impossible to complete within our schedule, any way you look at it. The other thing is when I’m asked to animate the background, like when a snowy mountain gets shot, they want it to cause an avalanche. Just making a single animation like that would consume the entire schedule, so I always strongly object to those requests.

—Do you ever object to Ikeda’s ideas?

Tanaka: Its probably rather the case that he objects to mine. (laughs) He asks me for revisions and such, but I might be hard to work with.

Ikeda: Its not like that. (laughs) When a game has so many cool things in it, its because someone like you spent all the time obsessing over adding them. On Ketsui and Dodonpachi, the person Tanaka clashed with a lot was Wakabayashi. They both joined Cave at about the same time and are my two main designers whom our games depend on. During Daifukkatsu, too, they’d have exchanges where Wakabayashi would say “I think it will look good if we do it like this,” and Tanaka would reply, “No, that’s not how a Dodonpachi game is!” When I saw that Tanaka had such particular ideas I knew he would work out here. (laughs) And also, even though he works alone, he’s never been late on a project. Even with revisions he always keeps on schedule.

Tanaka: Its because I bring my work home… I can’t take all the data from the office home, but I bring a part of it home and keep working. Then I bring it back and seam everything together.

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Tanaka’s beloved tablet.

Ikeda: Do you have the same development environment there? He also uses a touch screen tablet that he bought on his own. “With that I could double my efficiency!” We would have bought it for him… though he’s the only employee who uses it. And with that tablet, if there’s light from above it reflects off the screen, so Tanaka doesn’t use a lamp at his desk, and he moved his desk to a dark corner of the office. People who don’t know must see him and think “Why is Tanaka so alienated from everyone…” (laughs)

Tanaka: Working in a space so dark hasn’t affected my eyesight, which is better than 20/20. I only look at a screen at work or on the train. When my eyes are tired I go for a bike ride and look into the distance.

Ikeda: Tanaka has been working in the game industry for a long time. Longer than me, I think. Actually we’ve been working together for many years now.

Tanaka: How long has it been… I can’t remember anymore. (laughs) About 5 years before Dodonpachi was released, I think. I first started out with a part time job at a Shibuya game center, right at the end of the Shouwa period… about a year after that I interviewed with my previous company, so yeah, about 20 years. I was attending a technical school and taking some animation classes, and thought I might end up doing that in the future, but I ended up getting hired by my previous company. So yeah, my relationship with Cave has been quite long.

—Please leave a message for your fans.

Tanaka: To all our fans, please remember to occasionally look between the bullets and see the backgrounds. Please continue to support us, and don’t let Cave’s shooting game division disappear! I feel like they are the last fortress standing for shooting game fans.

Ikeda: When Tanaka joined Cave around the time of Dodonpachi, he said to me, “I joined Cave because I wanted to make shooting games”, and I remember how happy that made me to hear. I want to answer that by redoubling our efforts and giving our very best as a company. (laughs)