Gun Frontier – 2006 Developer Interview
with designer/planner Takatsuna Senba
Gun Frontier concept art.
Gun Frontier was both my first original work as a designer and, as producer, an important mission handed to me from Taito.
In order to receive the go sign to develop Gun Frontier, I presented a 200+ page design/planning document that I had spent a month preparing. However, they refused it multiple times, and I had to cut about 40% from the proposed budget (without changing the content of the game) before it was approved.
“A STG game should not be made in-house with our higher paid employees. We also should not use an expensive pcb—it would be more profitable to subcontract out the hardware production.” That was the business perspective, and it was right in its own way.
“But if we want to promote Taito’s newly developed F-series hardware to the market, we need to develop a lot of games for it, and we can’t ignore the STG genre!” That was our perspective as developers, and it was also correct.
It ended up that we were asked to create Gun Frontier with the budget it would have taken to subcontract it out, but with the level of quality of an in-house production—and to have it all done by deadline. If we could do that, then the groundwork would be laid for future Taito in-house STG productions.
As for me, the truth is I had previously been assigned to the graphic design group at Taito, not planning and design. When I was hired my wish was to work in planning/game design, but I was in fact assigned to the graphic design group. However, by this point, I had had a lot of planning experience: there was the “planning push-ups” I did for Darius 2, and the revision work I did for a month on Battle Shark (which had taken 1.5 years in total). I had also attended a dozen or so planning meetings, and through all this I had gained the recognition of the planning department chief.
This was the work I had originally wanted to do at Taito, so there was no way I was going to run from it now with Gun Frontier. The planning department chief told me: “You can do this! Just don’t forget your deadline—we set it on your birthday so you’d remember!” He ended up quitting a short time later.
The development staff was, including me (who did both graphic design and planning), two planners and two programmers. We had originally planned to have one more person for sound, but that ended up being subcontracted out. Four people… it was the absolute minimum personnel for making a game.
Takamasa Hori was one of the programmers. I had worked with him on Cadash, where I designed the opening graphics. Then there was Naoya Kuroki, who I had worked with during the one month I spent on Battle Shark. Finally, Tomohiro Oono helped me out with the planning and game design. It was a lineup of rookies, but even today I remember how well the two programmers worked together. I don’t know if they’d agree with this assessment (laughs), but despite having what seemed to be totally opposite personalities, they worked exceptionally well together.
More concept art from Takatsuna
Senba’s 200+ page design document.
The beginning of the development was even more difficult than I had imagined. There was no one in-house with the foundational knowledge on how to design a STG, and we had suddenly lost the engineer of the F-series hardware (which took its name from his initials, F.K., actually) to a traffic accident. 2 There was still a lot of work to be done on the F2 hardware, including documentation and analysis, not to mention bug checking… so we weren’t just starting from zero—we were starting from a minus.
Every department at Taito had pointed out that our current hardware was too weak to realize Gun Frontier as I had designed it in my initial planning documents. But I had some experience of my own with Darius 2, where I had efficiently optimized the graphics design to make it work. And as I learned more about the F-series hardware, which had so tragically lost its father, I realized that it possessed tremendous capabilities, even when compared with other companies’ boards.
Around that time I also got caught up in something that temporarily brought my work on Gun Frontier to a halt. At Taito I had been given the mostly meaningless title of “STG Development Head.” There was a game in development at Taito called Majestic Twelve, which had been developed on the premise of using old pcb stock and doing some kind of Space Invaders knockoff. The location test wasn’t making very much money so I was called in to help. I had to devote myself to revising Majestic Twelve for a whole month. In order to make it profitable in light of the budget overruns, I was told to up the quality and make it suitable for release on the new F2 hardware. Just so I’m not misunderstood, I want to say that even now I remember how talented the members of that team was, and there was a part of me that was grateful to have had the opportunity to do the revisions with them.
As it turned out, my first original game, Gun Frontier, ended up making the deadline. It also came in right around our original budget estimate too. It cost about half of what Majestic Twelve had cost, and even compared with what a fully subcontracted development would have been, it was still cheap.
If you want to be praised by your colleagues, these are the things that matter more than the scenes you did or the graphics you drew… and yet, my boss only expressed those thanks to me once, on the day of the deadline, and I never heard anything after.
Gun Frontier stage 1 BGM.
On Gun Frontier we weren’t allowed to show the game to our music subcontractor, Hidetoshi Fukumori, because of trade secret issues. However, we built a little cardboard barricade by the elevator in front of game development room and set up a cabinet there. We were able to let Fukumori test out the game, and he even composed the first stage song there. In that way we set a precedent at Taito for letting subcontractors see parts of the game that were in-development.
I was also asked by one of the sound developers at Taito, who wanted to work on the next project with me, why we had switched to a subcontracted musician for Gun Frontier. I took the opportunity in my reply to light a fire under him for the next project: “I didn’t think anyone in-house could create anything that matched my vision. I thought it would have turned out shoddy.”
Also, this is a small digression, but… the selling point, graphically, for Gun Frontier was the waterfall in stage 2. Management was really insistent that this scene be in the game. They even said that if it wasn’t there, the development would be put on hold. Unfortunately the three frames of hand-drawn animation needed to be put together, and the only person who could do that work was me. But I had no time, and on top of it, I also had to write a report on our new character tool software. I decided to tackle these tasks during my summer vacation time.
As part of a cost-savings scheme, the company wouldn’t turn on the air conditioning if only one employee was working. The new character tool software was running on prototype hardware, so it didn’t have a fan installed, and after about an hour it would overheat. I had to do my work by constantly switching between the old and new character tool hardware, saving my work to floppy every time before it overheated. I remember how long it took to save a file, noisily clattering away. And there were times when it would overheat in the middle of saving and I’d lose everything. The temperature in that development room was over 40 degrees celsius as I hurriedly did my work. And with no one else there, I decided to strip down to my underwear and wrap a cool towel around my head…
So even today when I see the background animation for the waterfall, I feel a cool sensation run through my body. Management liked it too, and the project was allowed to continue.
The memorable waterfall scene.
At some point, a kindly security guard saw my half-naked self and took pity on me, and turned on the air conditioning for me for a few hours each day. Also, one of the hardware developers came back to the office for something he forgot and heard about me, and he brought a cooling unit about the size of an arcade cabinet into the office for me.
Even today I am grateful to those two. Without them, perhaps Gun Frontier would never have seen the light of day. But when I think back on myself then, living every grade schooler’s dream job!—when I think of how silly I looked there sitting in my underwear and covered in sweat… I can’t help but laugh at it all.