Game Designers: The Next Generation
originally featured in the 5/93 issue of Famicon Tsuushin
Shin Megami Tensei – Kazuma Kaneko
—What work did you do on Shin Megami Tensei?
Kaneko: I worked on the graphics, but on Shin Megami Tensei, our entire team contributed ideas to the game, so I was also involved in the basic world design and the story.
—The Megami Tensei series is know for its “end of the world” stylings, but are you a personal fan of the occult yourself?
Kaneko: Yeah, I love it. (laughs) I’ve had an interest in the occult for a long time now, so being able to re-create that in the form of a video game is a dream come true for me.
—The story has many religious elements to it, though. Hasn’t that made it impossible to sell the game in America?
Kaneko: Yeah, and especially with the visuals. Stuff like hexagrams and pentagrams are non-starters in America.
—It’s pretty amazing that you stuck to your guns then, knowing you’d only be able to sell it in Japan. It shows your commitment to the theme.
Kaneko: I wouldn’t say we have some pre-decided policy or anything. It’s simply that, as creators, I think we all wanted to make something with a certain messaging to it. And if that meant only selling it in Japan, then so be it.
—So there are messages that you’re hoping to convey to players with Shin Megami Tensei, then?
Kaneko: Yeah. There were manga and stories I read as a kid, stuff like Devilman. At the time, I was mainly impressed by the amazing scenes of ultraviolence in them. Now that I’m an adult, though, when I read something like the Book of Revelations, I’m struck at the similarities between the two, like how Satan is saved at the end. It makes me realize those were some really deep manga that I read. If 10 or 20 years from now, people likewise look back on these Megami Tensei games and go, “ah hah, so that’s what they were talking about…”, then as a creator that would make me extremely happy.
—What got you thinking you wanted to make games in the first place?
Kaneko: Well, I didn’t get into this industry because I wanted to make games. I was doing other work, and sort of got hired by this company by chance.
—You had no ambition to be a game designer, then?
Kaneko: That’s right. Though I always knew I wanted to work in some creative field, be it games, movies, music, whatever. Some kind of work where I could communicate a message to people.
—What are your top three favorite games?
Kaneko: Megami Tensei, Minelvaton Saga: Ragon no Fukkatsu, and SD Gundam, which really sucked me in.
—Is there anything you want to say to people who want to get into game development?
Kaneko: I would say, rather than sit indoors and play games all day, go outside and do something. Whether it’s just hanging out, or sports, or whatever—even something bad. (laughs)
—Right, if you just play video games all day, it closes you off to the world.
Kaneko: Yeah, ultimately you end up like the proverbial frog in a well.1 That kind of person might make interesting enough games, but they’ll never be able to do anything truly revolutionary. I would also advise aspiring developers to pour their heart and soul into whatever they do—if you can maintain a pure, dedicated mindset, good things will surely happen for you. Stay positive—don’t fall prey to negative thinking!
Silpheed – Takeshi Miyaji
—Silpheed first came out for the PC-88 in 1986, and it’s now been remade and improved on multiple times for different consoles. You seem to have a real passion for creating games.
Miyaji: I do. Since founding Game Arts, our policy has always been to push the hardware to its limits, to do all we can possibly do. Nowadays console hardware is making rapid strides, and I think we presently find ourselves in a situation where software is almost lagging behind hardware. We feel that they should keep pace with each other: as hardware advances, so should the sophistication of the software produced for it.
—Does the latest incarnation of Silpheed for the Mega CD follow that philosophy, then?
Miyaji: Yeah. However, Silpheed’s underlying code was built on computer hardware that’s now almost seven years old. If you think about it that way, there haven’t been any real major advances in hardware yet. We’re confident that when something better does come along, though, we’ll be able to create an even more incredible game.
—What do you think about the Mega CD? Could it be a match for those ambitions?
Miyaji: I think so. We’re very excited about the prospects of CD-ROM media, basically.
—In terms of the increased storage memory available?
Miyaji: Yeah. The possibilities for games are infinite, you know? But when you try and cram the manifold possibilities of game design into a cart with X megabytes, well, compromises inevitably have to be made, and you always run out of memory before your vision can be fully realized.
—What kind of games would you like to make in the future?
Miyaji: I’d love to make a network game of some sort. At present I think we’ve only achieved something like 10% of what’s possible with video games. If ROM carts are a 10, and CD-ROMs take us to 20, well… I believe the remaining 80% of possibilities in gaming lie in network games. Imagine what amazing things we could do, in a game where you and tens of thousands of other players are all connected at the same time!
—That does sound amazing.
Miyaji: I’m actually already thinking about what kind of games we could make then, when that technology becomes available.
—It seems like we’re quite a ways off from that though.
Miyaji: Unfortunately, yeah. When we can get phone bills down to 100 yen (approx 1.00 USD) per hour, I’ll be extremely happy. (laughs) But for now, at Game Arts, we’re first exploring what we can do with CD-ROMs—trying to take gaming from 10% to 20%—and for the rest, well, we can only pray. (laughs)
—You’ve got to wait for reality to catch up with your imaginations, in other words.
Miyaji: Precisely. Our creative ambitions are a bit above the level of the hardware right now. But now that CD-ROMs are finally available, we can start to realize a bit more of what we want to do.
—And next is network games.
Miyaji: Yes. But before that, our goal is to become the top CD-ROM game maker.
—Finally, please tell us your three favorite games.
Miyaji: I love simulation (strategy) games, so Tenka Touitsu is my favorite. Second would be TANK, and because of my fond memories for it, third would be the PC version of Silpheed.
Takeshi Miyaji, who tragically passed away in 2011 at the age of 45.
F1 Exhaust Heat 2 – Noboru Harada
—Harada, you’re most known for the Exhaust Heat (F1 ROC) series, but why did you want to make these games in the first place?
Harada: I love F1 racing, and there just weren’t any F1-themed racing games coming out for the Super Famicom. So it was like—if no one else is doing it, I guess it’s up to us!
—Tell us about the appeal of the newest entry, Exhaust Heat 2.
Harada: As developers, we really focused on the feeling of how the car grips the road. I love F-Zero, but those are hovercars, so it feels more like you’re floating than gripping the track. I love that feeling of sliding on the road, like when you drift. Figuring out how to effectively convey a sense of grip, though, that was our main theme for the development. In fact, when I think about it now, I kind of feel like we neglected some of the other racing mechanics because of it… (laughs)
—When you mention grip, I feel like that’s something Mario Kart manages to capture very well.
Harada: Yes, I think it’s very well done too. I honestly love both those games, Mario Kart and F-Zero, to the point that when we first considered making another racing game, I would have been fine to just imitate one of those two. Of course, you can’t do that, so we endeavored to create in Exhaust Heat a game with its own unique charms.
One thing I want to especially point out for players, is the way the grip feeling changes depending on the course and setting. None of the magazines that covered Exhaust Heat talked about it, unfortunately, so please be sure to write that when you print this. (laughs)
—I hear you, this isn’t just an F-Zero clone! (laughs) What kind of games would you like to make in the future?
Harada: I’ve already got plans, actually. In truth, I want to make a racing game that really caters to the hardcore racing fans out there—one that emphasizes, in meticulous detail, all the different technical and mechanical aspects of the vehicle. Up to now, many games have allowed you to do simple things like swap out your engine or change your tires, but I’m thinking of a game where you can customize your vehicle in great detail, with parts you could even purchase today. I want to capture that thrill for players.
—Is there anything else you’d like to accomplish in the game industry today?
Harada: I don’t know if this counts, but I do have ambitions. I want to create a “world-conquering” game! I’d like to be able to break out of that regional frame-of-mind, “oh, this game will sell well in Japan”—and instead do something with worldwide appeal, a game anyone anywhere can enjoy. It might not be the craziest dream, but it’s something I know all game designers have dreamed about at some point.
—To close, what are you three favorite games?
Harada: Galaga 88, Zanac, and Super Mario Bros. I especially like games where you get to blow up a lot of enemies, it feels great.
Noboru Harada in his office. Note the 1993 Capcom Character Calendar.
Landstalker – Kan Naitou
—What made you want to get into developing games?
Naitou: I’ve just always loved video games. Just playing them didn’t seem to be enough, so I thought, why not try making a game myself.
—Did you learn to program on your own?
Naitou: Yeah, and in those days, there weren’t a lot of guide books—a single book on BASIC programming was all I had. It was an awesome time of discovery though—I remember having that book at my side while I program, and just the thrill of finally making something move on screen! (laughs) The other way you learned was by analyzing other people’s code. By looking at the code of games I had bought, I was able to steal their techniques. That’s basically how I learned to program.
—What have been some of your influences?
Naitou: Movies, definitely. I take a lot of inspiration form Lucas and Spielberg’s movies. In terms of animation, Disney would be another. A single action in Landstalker can take 7 frames of animation, and that’s an influence from Disney right there.
—Are there any impediments, or difficulties you feel exist today in making games?
Naitou: There are certainly a lot of hardware limitations we still face. I’d like to do a little more with our games, but we can only use so many sprites and colors.
—Are you saying there’s no hardware today which can realize your ambitions, then?
Naitou: Well, if I start rattling off my dissatisfactions with hardware, we’ll be here all day. No matter how amazing a piece of hardware is, in the end it’s about the software that’s running inside it. In that sense, I don’t think it’s possible to program something that satisfies me 100%. I think every programmer will understand when I say that, no matter how perfect you may think something is, you can always find something to improve upon. In other words, there really is no “perfect” in programming, I think. It’s the eternal pursuit.
—What kind of games would you like to make in the future?
Naitou: Hmmm… for me, sales figures aren’t everything. After all, in the past, I’ve programmed games that sold practically nothing, and yet it was incredibly fun to make them. Of course making something that lots of people can enjoy is still important.
—You make games that you yourself will find fun.
Naitou: That’s a premise—a central premise—for all the games I develop. It would be pointless to make something that you personally found boring, right? Which reminds me, I really want to make a game where you can drive like a madman on the Shuto Expressway. (laughs) There’s lots of things like that in life, that we’d love to do, but the risk is too high. I’d love to make a game that recreates one of those “impossible” experiences with 100% accuracy and fidelity. So I’m putting together a team for my Shuto Expressway racing game that will meticulously document every billboard and sign along the road… if I have 5000 people it should only take a year to gather that data! (laughs) I’m joking of course. But I do want to make things as realistic as possible.
—What are you three favorite games?
Naitou: Xevious, Quest, and Virtua Racing.
Kan Naitou’s work desk and pretty awesome shirt.
Hanjuku Hero – Takashi Tokita
—Have you been involved in the Hanjuku Hero games since the beginning, with the original Famicom version?
Tokita: That’s right. Back then I was in charge of the graphic design, but the team itself was very small, so everyone contributed to the story and planning as well.
—And starting with the SFC Hanjuku Hero, you switched roles to planner.
Tokita: Yeah. During the Famicom development I was actually a part-time employee at Square, but after working on a bunch of different games they asked me if I’d join the company officially. And after becoming a full-time employee I worked in planning (game design).
—Did the idea for making Hanjuku Heroes come from a love of simulation/strategy games?
Tokita: No, at least for me personally, I’m not much of a strategy game fan. (laughs) That’s why, actually, I tried not to make Hanjuku Hero feel like your typical stodgy strategy game.
—So not worrying about hex grids, turn order, and things like that?
Tokita: Pretty much. Just in terms of aesthetics and visuals, I think there are plenty of avenues left to explore in game design. Even for strategy games, in the end it’s not just about the stats and numbers, you know.
—Something playable more by feel and intuition, in other words.
Tokita: Yeah. That’s why I love games like The Ancient Art of War. Rather than intense stat management, your units fight in small squads, and at the end of the battle when you saw how many survivors there were, in that simple way you got a feel for how to play, strategize, etc. Of course, inside the computer everything is still being precisely calculated.
With Hanjuku Hero I wanted to make something like that, a game that can be easily understood simply by what you see in front of you.
—What kind of games do you want to make in the future?
Tokita: I want to make a new RPG. Something with a different vibe from the usual Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy styles.
—Could you go into a little more detail about that?
Tokita: A long time ago, I was involved in drama and theater productions, so there’s a part of me that really wants to show dialogue, expressions of emotion, and so on. While the goal of any RPG may be to defeat the final boss, I’m more interested in provoking human emotions in players during the game—creating something where, at the end, the story and experience remains in your heart. I especially like all the individuality you find in older manga. Something like Devilman was very shocking, and those stories managed to lodge themselves in our hearts.
—The personality of the writers came through in those old manga.
Tokita: I think so. Things like that have the power to cut through all the noise and speak to us directly. And I think there’s some similarities between the game industry today and the manga scene then, actually. Many game designers today are finding ways to express their own ideas, as individuals.
—There’s a unique form of expression that arises when you mix visuals and music together.
Tokita: Exactly. To my thinking, when you take movies, manga, and video games and put them in a blender, what you get is an RPG. I think drama and manga are very similar, too, but what I’d always wanted was to create my own worlds. If RPGs hadn’t come around, I’d probably still be working part-time jobs while doing theater work. (laughs)
—What are your three favorite games?
Tokita: Fire Pro Wrestling 2, Dragon Quest II, and Fire Pro Wrestling. Dragon Quest II was the first RPG I ever played, so it holds a special spot in my memory.
Takashi Tokita at his (rather sparse) desk at Square.
Super Soccer – Ryoji Amano
—What made you want to be a game designer?
Amano: I actually never explicitly thought, “I want to be a game designer.” I originally joined Human to work as a sound programmer. Then in the course of my programming studies, one day I realized I’d basically become a game designer.
—How did it feel to actually try “real” game design, then?
Amano: Half of me thought this was really time-intensive work, while the other half thought it was fun. Seeing your vision come to life just as you imagined it is a huge thrill, of course. Visuals are only the first step—there’s a lot more work and development before you can call something a game. Seeing people play your game, from the vantage point of being the person who made it, is also really fun. As a designer you’re trying to achieve a certain effect or elicit a response from the player, and in that sense, I think game design is rather similar to being in a comedy duo. “Ah, maybe if I tweak this here, it’ll land”—you’re always thinking about things like that.
—What are your thoughts on games today?
Amano: I kind of think there are just too many games, and a lot of mediocre ones at that. There are great ones coming out too, but I often wish they’d have worked on their game a little bit more, as various elements feel half-baked. The central idea or mechanic may feel good and have a nice “flow”, but the game ends up falling flat because there wasn’t much attention paid to the little details. When you’re making a game, player feedback is important to help you know what to change, and I get the feeling that ultimately most of these mediocre games just ran out of time, and had to call it at some point.
—You mentioned flow above, but what is that, really?
Amano: It’s the part of your game that players get caught up in. In a song it might be the exciting part where the tempo picks up. However, it’s not just about suddenly changing speed: you’ve got to feel the sense of acceleration, that’s key. There’s a million other little elements and details to consider too. Take Super Soccer, for instance. We’d complete one mechanic, and think it was good. But go a little further into the development, and you realize, oh wait—it would be better if it was like this. Those ideas just keep coming, and heeding and implementing all those little improvements is how your game grows to maturity.
—The games that come out today may be considered “100 percent” perfect, but next year that 100% won’t be 100% anymore. The goalposts keep moving.
Amano: It’s the march of time. But those continual improvements are what makes for good games, you know?
—You’ve been involved exclusively in sports game developments. Do you have any insights, thoughts, or preferences about what makes a good sports game?
Amano: Say you’re hanging out with a friend, and you’re having some argument—well, if you use Super Soccer to settle it, each half only lasts five minutes, which is pretty quick. But in that short span of time, in the course of the game a complete story unfolds between the two of you. Using these game machines to settle our disputes, I think that’s kind of cool, don’t you? 2
—What are you three favorite games?
Amano: Tennis, Family Stadium Baseball (RBI Baseball), and Super Soccer. I remember I used to play Tennis on the Famicom for 5 or 6 hours straight until my back started to hurt.