Akira Sakuma – 2000 Developer Interview

Akira Sakuma - 2000 Developer Interview

This humorous Akira Sakuma interview from 2000 was originally sourced from the GSLA archive. Known in Japan for Momotaro Densetsu, an early Dragon Quest clone, and the train-themed board game Momotaro Dentetsu series, the discussion here highlights Sakuma's unusual entry into game development, his philosophy of RPG design, and the insights he brought over from his tenure at Shonen Jump.

When I was growing up, "video games" didn't exist. It was as if one day we were playing cards and stilts, and then suddenly we started playing video games. (laughs) So I guess I started with computer games. It was the era of games like Wizardry, with software on cassette tapes. I remember how one day, Yuji Horii (of Dragon Quest fame) asked me if I wanted to play a game. He popped the cassette in, then started making some coffee. "It'll take a bit to load," he said. I asked him how long, and he said, "About 30 minutes or so." I was like, 30 minutes... give me a break!! (laughs)

As for how I got into game development, it was pretty simple. Yuji Horii asked me if I wanted to make games, probably just because we were friends. (laughs) Of course, my position as editor-in-chief of the JUMP Broadcasting Station (JBS) corner of Shonen Jump magazine no doubt had something to do with it, too.

I had seen how demanding Horii's Dragon Quest development was, so I never thought it was something I would be able to do. But I figured that, even if I failed at creating a game, it would make a funny story for JBS. (laughs) Because the JBS corner was a space dedicated to readers, I could say bad stuff like "baka yarou!" ("dumbass!") in a friendly way. But as the sales of Shonen Jump went up, the magazine started to become more and more respectable, and I wasn't sure whether my irreverent little corner could survive the transition.

Akira Sakuma (L) and Yuji Horii (R) palling around in the 80s.

So I decided I'd take the plunge and do something more in keeping with my low-brow taste and develop a video game myself. I figured it would probably fail spectacularly, but at least the spectacle would be entertaining. I didn't care if it sold well or not, and at most I figured it might become a "mid-level" hit. But I was wrong: it was a smash hit (laughs), and suddenly I was thrust back into that "respectable" zone that I'd tried to get away from, with people sending me serious postcards like "What is your favorite food?" and "What is your favorite color?" (laughs)

At the beginning, I wanted to break away from existing RPG conventions. The way I saw it was, Yuji Horii had opened the door to RPGs, and I would close it. (laughs) Of course, I love making things, so I wanted to make it right. But somewhere along the way, I got hooked on games and started to see them as something very interesting. It was my first real exposure to the world of video games. Everything was new to me, and I became very interested in computer systems themselves. The ability to create drama with numerical values and percentages--"parameters" or "stats" as they're called in gaming--is something that is not available in the writing industry. That was so intriguing to me. So I lived in Sapporo for half a year, pestering the programmers I knew with questions while I worked on it. And the game we produced from those efforts was the Famicom version of Momotaro Dentetsu.

To be honest, compared to the main Momotaro Densetsu games, Momotaro Dentetsu is more of a hobby for me. (laughs) I just love traveling around Japan. I really love seeing new urban development projects, you know… the stuff cities make to try and attract tourists. At one point I even thought I'd like to work in that field myself.

I started making Momotetsu because I had an interesting idea. But at that time, no board game had been made into a video game yet, so people had a hard time imagining what it would be like. So I had no choice but to make a mock-up and show them: I made the game board out of imitation paper and styrofoam, had a cartoonist I knew draw a map of Japan on an egg, and bought some things to use as pieces. As I had hoped, once they played it they got hooked. "Okay, let's make it into a game!" And that was the Famicom version of Momotetsu. In other words, it was a port of a board game…! (laughs)

English translation patch for Momotaro Densetsu, Akira Sakuma's popular Dragon Quest "clone" for the Famicom.

I come from the publishing world, and the system of feedback between publisher and reader simply isn't very direct. When making games, however, you can see how a testplayer reacts right in front of you, in real-time. That "live" feeling is so great. In music, everyone loves seeing their favorite singer live, right? It's the same kind of feeling. They'll give you feedback right then-and-there, "that demon there is super tough."

Here's one funny story I remember when we were making Momotaro Densetsu… as you can imagine, during development the balance of enemy characters is not yet perfect. So we had this one testplayer who got his ass kicked by some strong enemies, and he just barely made it to the village, and when the Jizo there made a gag about it he got enraged and threw his controller against the wall. (laughs) I guess after all his hard work, he wanted to hear some words of appreciation. That's a fair point. So I apologized and said, "Sorry, my bad." But what made me happy was seeing him so into that game that it could elicit that kind of anger from him. And stuff like that is why the testplaying process is the most fun part of the development for me.

The hardest part of making a game is teamwork. Right away people stop listening to me. In fact, you could say that pretty much sums up my game productions. (laughs) But once that starts, no matter how much I try to stop it, I can't. (laughs) Let me give you a specific example… we were designing a cave. And just like in Dragon Quest the treasure chests are laid out in a certain order, and the last one has a Mimic lying in wait. As a way to make the player feel like, "argh, they got me!" it's a good trap. But it shouldn't be mean-spirited.

So I asked them to change it, because it's just an exercise in sarcasm, and they say "it's fine this way", and that's how the rebellion begins. (laughs) In these kinds of conflicts, the more persistent party wins. But either way, there's really no time to argue about little things like this, and before you know it, the release date arrives. But years later, you know, people still come up to me and say, "That part was so unfair…!" You see, I'm the one who has to keep hearing those complaints forever so it sucks! For the guy who put that in there, maybe it was the goal along…

In any event, thanks to my time at Shonen Jump I've got a somewhat unique perspective and know-how. It's not a sensibility so much as a certain logic that says "this is it!" It's my most secret weapon. (laughs)

For example, in an RPG, I'll watch the playtester when he leaves the first town and record every action he takes. Without that data, it's difficult to design the caves and dungeons in a way that properly guides the player. I watch the testplayers very closely--it's like I'm observing them. And I use that data to find ways to trick them and set them up. Like I was saying, it's easy enough to prank the player in a purely mean-spirited way, but what I want is for the player to have a smile on his face, like "you got me!" In a sense, game design is kind of like horror movies… they'll use camera angles and sound effects to build a sense of tension and fear in the viewer, but in a good-natured way, where you're also grinning. That's what I'm trying to do for players. (laughs)

Momotaro Dentetsu, the train-em-up board game inspired by Sakuma's love of travel. While the Densetsu RPGs are largely forgotten, new Dentetsu games continue to be released today.

Probably one of the most memorable moments for me was when we created King Bomby, from Momotaro Dentetsu. During the development I suggested making this character, but everyone was against it. (laughs) We were going to have a meeting later, so I steeled myself against their objections that I knew would come. "Listen up everyone! Up to now I've listened to everything you guys have said, but this time I'm not going to hear it! We're making him!" And when King Bomby was completed, it was of course amazing.

There's this guy on our staff who we use as a kind of yardstick for what will and won't work. He's like the ultimate "Mister Average" when it comes to Japanese consumers. Books, CDs, whatever… he only buys the most popular, mainstream stuff. Not on purpose or anything--that's just how he is. His reactions, in other words, are the most common in Japan.

I wanted to test his reaction to King Bomby, so I asked him to testplay it for me. The debug mode wasn't in place yet then, so I had some of the other staff manually swap his character out for Bomby when it was his turn. He loved it--in fact he doubled over laughing. After that I was convinced Bomby would be a hit.

My favorite games are Nobunaga's Ambition and Dragon Quest. I think I played Nobunaga's Ambition the most. Normally, people play it alone, but I played it with others--with Yuji Horii, actually. (laughs) I think the statute of limitations has passed, so I can tell you about it now, but we removed the software's protections and modded the game together. We shouldn't have done that, but it was a good learning opportunity for us. (laughs)

Yuji Horii has the same know-how as me. Which makes sense, as he also worked at Shonen Jump. It's scary, the stuff you learn working at a place like that. We would do reader surveys, and it was amazing how much a series' popularity could drop by changing just one small detail. That's really the key though, having all that solid data. People would send in those questionnaire postcards, too, and from there we could see how this person who likes this manga also likes this TV show.

Akira Sakuma (1988)

That's why I love reading the feedback postcards from games. (laughs) Lately though, I feel like there's been a loss of diversity in opinions about games, among gamers. The data is really helpful when there's a variety of opinions, but recently it feels like people's opinions are in complete lockstep with the gaming magazines--they just think whatever they say. I guess that's a problem everywhere these days.

When you want to make an interesting game, you've got to look at what's popular right now, and what the trends are, but at the same time you can't just go along with them blindly. It takes a long time to make a game so those trends may have fallen out of fashion by the time your game comes out. So you've got to be one step ahead. You have to look ahead and choose your hardware wisely, too.

Thinking one step ahead is good--but three steps is too far. Ninjara Hoi, a Famicom RPG I made in the past, would be one good example of being too ahead of your time. (laughs) Personally, I consider it my greatest masterpiece, but when we were making it I realized that games which try to be funny the whole way through often turn out bad. For Ninjara Hoi, I was aiming to make something with a Hong Kong B-movie vibe. Unfortunately, RPGs were still a new thing in Japan, and games were really expensive, and what players wanted was more mainstream RPGs. I think it would find a more receptive audience if it was released today.

Ninjara Hoi!, Sakuma's ahead-of-its time gag RPG (apparently, there are a lot of jokes about shit...)

There's a lot of people who ask me to remake Ninjara Hoi actually! (laughs) It's kids who have grown bored with the usual fare that ask stuff like that. It's funny, if you do the market research and ask them what kind of games they'd like to see, it's just pure hardcore maniac level stuff. (laughs) And that speaks to a lack of objectivity. If you can't take a step back and look at the bigger picture your game definitely won't be a hit. As the developers if we go too deep into some niche interest, regular players won't be interested. Of course, in my heart of hearts, that's the kind of game I want to make. (laughs)

You can't make games if you're a normal person, so you have to be a weird person with common sense. But just being weird won't cut it. And of course, just being "normal" and sensible is not enough either. "Weird with common sense!", that's the ticket. Develop your common sense first. Teamwork is no good if you don't have common sense. Also, as I always say, everyone gets into game development because they love games, so your success will depend on the extent you can bring something else to the table. Thankfully, in my case, there aren't many game makers who like to travel, so I'm doing well so far. So my advice to young people is to develop a wide array of interests.

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