Artdink Corp. – Developer Interviews

Artdink Corp. – Developer Interviews

Founded in 1986 and still active today, Artdink is a Japanese pc/console developer famous (in Japan, at least) for their simulation games. The first of these two interviews touches on the origins of Artdink and the A-train games. The second focuses on the advertising and public relations side of the game industry. Perhaps more interesting than any particular revelations about Artdink are the comments about empty game “journalism,” which now seem keenly prescient.

Tatsu Nagahama
Born 1953 in Chiba Prefecture. Worked as an assistant director in the film industry before founding Artdink in 1986. Assumed the role of President, which he continues today. Famous for his “Take the A-train!” series.

—Can you start by telling us about your early days, when you were first out there looking for work?

Nagahama: Well, I feel bad now since you’ve taken the time to set up this interview, but there’s really nothing exciting to tell, sadly! I never had that typical experience of putting on a suit and tie and making the interview rounds. I’ve never even been officially hired as someone’s employee, for that matter.

—Wait, so you just instantly became President of Artdink…!?

Nagahama: Well, not exactly. When I was a student I was utterly obsessed with movies, and after graduation I intended to pursue work in the film industry. I had no interest in the everyday business world. So after I graduated, I jumped into film as planned, working as a freelance assistant director. Of course, “freelance” might be overstating things… it was more of a glorified part-time job. In any event, yeah, I never joined a company or worked as a typical employee.

—But it sounds like you got to do the work you wanted.

Nagahama: Yeah, maybe so. I just loved the world of film, so I worked with great zeal, sometimes taking on up to 6 projects simultaneously. Partly I was just young, and working intensely didn’t bother me. But the main thing was that working as a junior assistant director paid really low wages, so if I didn’t have a bunch of projects going at once I wouldn’t have enough money to eat. (laughs)

Tatsuo Nagahama

—But somewhere along the way, you switched over to the game industry?

Nagahama: Yeah, despite the fact that my assistant directing work was going quite well. (laughs) The truth is, at the time, I was really into messing around with my pc (we called it “maikon” then, not “pasokon”), and eventually I started making my own programs…

—Is that how you made “Let’s Take the A-Train!” ?

Nagahama: Oh, it wasn’t like that. (laughs) If I can take a moment and explain the circumstances of that time—25 years ago, computers weren’t proliferated among the public in the way they are today. A computer wasn’t a consumer good you could buy at a store; if you wanted one, you had to buy the chip and put the hardware together yourself. It was the same thing with the software. Drivers, programming, all that… you had to do everything by yourself.

—Wow, it sounds like things were tough back then.

Nagahama: It was fun though. What I eventually realized was that I was limited by working alone, and that I needed other people. If I did that, I thought I might even be able to create programs for commercial sale.

—I see. And when you released the software you made?

Nagahama: It sold better than I ever expected… thankfully! (laughs) At the same time, it gave me the motivation to formalize things and start my own business. I realized that having my computer work be recognized and accepted by people like this gave me the exact same sense of accomplishment that I got from working with movies. Anyway, after a few more twists and turns, I founded Artdink.


—How did you come to make the first A-train game?

Nagahama: Everyday, I would have discussions with my colleagues about what kind of program would best display, and make the best use of, a computer’s power. Nothing was coming to us at first, though. Then one day, out of the blue, I got an idea: “what about a train simulator?”

In it’s simplicity, the structure of a train system is perfectly suited for a computer program. Moreover, the weak (compared with today) computers of the time could probably handle a train simulator. Since there’s so many train fans in this world, I thought it would lay a solid foundation for Artdink. And so, right away, I went and presented the idea to everyone else at Artdink.

—And what was their response?

Nagahama: They were surprisingly into it. I don’t think they had ever accepted an idea of mine with so little argument. (laughs) But when I think back on it now, their response was really meaningful. It gave me that momentum, a real push from behind to get started.

—Was the development difficult?

Nagahama: Eh, just as much as any development is. It was like a first experiment for us, too. Precisely because of that, though, we had a lot of energy and we neglected eating and sleeping, really abandoning ourselves to the work day after day. Then, as it neared completion, we stopped and realized something was off, it wasn’t very fun…

—It wasn’t?

Nagahama: Yeah, just recreating a rail system—I mean, just watching the trains run on the rails—turned out to be pretty dull. To make it interesting, it needed an extra something… after mulling it over, the conclusion we came to was: “let’s make it a game!” (laughs) From there we came up with idea of adding a puzzle element, where you have to build a route so the train can get to a certain destination.

—So wait, you’re saying… “A-Train” wasn’t originally designed as a game?

Nagahama: Yeah… I guess I am saying that. (laughs) Ultimately we settled on the “game” genre for our software, but the important thing for us was answering that question, what would be interesting to create, and would show off the computer’s power?

—Ah. And when the “A-train” series really took off as games, that was the start of Artdink as a gaming company.

Nagahama: Exactly. But personally, I don’t see Artdink as a “game” company per se (nor did I then). Our vision for the company isn’t only focused on games either. We’re blessed to work in this enormously interesting field called “computers”, where rapid evolution is always underway. In such an industry, I think you’ve got to have that fighting spirit where you’re always ready to challenge yourself and create something new—software, that is—that incorporates the evolutions from the hardware side.

Tatsuo Nagahama and Kouichi Kohara proudly display A-Train 5 in 1998.

—I see. You can see that attitude in the first A-train game too. And your later games all had very high system requirements for the time, which would also seem to derive from that policy. That reminds me, in the days before hard drives were commonplace, you released Lunatic Dawn, an RPG that required a hard drive…

Nagahama: Yeah—maybe we got a little ahead of ourselves there. (laughs)

—Do you have any advice for newcomers to the game industry?

Nagahama: My advice to all students now would be: have a clear vision of what you want to do, and pursue it vigorously. In the creative world, this kind of attitude is very important. If your inner focus and vision get compromised, you won’t create something good. On the other hand, you need to know what it is you want to do, and how to achieve it—if you put in the effort today, you will see it rewarded as mastery tomorrow.

From the outside the game industry looks glamorous, but the truth is it’s a very harsh industry to work in. You need both brains and physical endurance, and you must always be studying and adapting to the ever-changing hardware. On top of that, with the bad economy these days, it’s honestly a lot of work for little pay. If you don’t have that fire to see your dreams realized no matter what the cost, I wouldn’t recommend going into games.

—What you say is very true.

Nagahama: However, as I said above, we have the privilege to work with these amazing toys called “computers.” Even today, whether I’m working as a director or as a programmer, I still love game development. And since the hardware is always evolving, the possibilities feel endless. If you’re a young person who wants to have a creative job, I don’t think there’s any field more enticing than this.

Artdink and Advertising – 1994 Developer Interview

with Kumi Yasukawa (PR Representative)

In our case, we’re a small company with a small staff, so we have to do everything ourselves: outside of the game development, we do all the advertising and public relations work. For example, we’ll walk from shop to shop doing market research, or bring promotional posters directly to storeowners and explain our new game to them. And we sell our games to wholesalers by directly approaching them and asking them to please take our inventory. (laughs) We’re also involved in promotions, posters, tv commercials… We’ll tell the development team to get us screenshots to send to publishers, and we do other coordination with their schedule, obtaining demos and samples if we can. There’s a lot of variety to what we do.

The way I think of advertising is that we’re like a bridge between the players and the developers. On the one hand we’re the closest people to the creators, and our job is to help them. But we also help players, retailers, and wholesalers understand the appeal of the game they’re working on. Sometimes we’ve had conversations with retailers where we say, “We know our game has a steep learning curve, and looks plain, but if you just play it we think you will see it’s an amazingly good game, so please believe in it and sell it in your store.” However, while I can’t guarantee that a game will be a big hit in terms of sales, I will never lie to a retailer and say that a game is good when it’s actually bad. Advertising may be my job, but I won’t do that. (laughs)

If advertisers keep acting that way, it will eventually spell doom for the whole industry. I want to avoid a future where we’re left with big companies hawking mediocre games via flashy TV commercials. Companies should be confident and forthright when telling the public about the appeal of their games. And we should do our honest best to communicate to players what the developer’s intentions were behind a given game.

Artdink commercial for A-Train 4. Perhaps not the best example of the advertising principles pronounced here…

That’s the feeling I have when I do our advertising, and it’s a feeling I would like to see spread through the entire game industry.

In the sense that we convey the wonder and appeal of games, I think our job is similar to that of game journalists and publishers. Those opinion leaders fulfill an important role in the world of games media, and we don’t shy away from courting them. I want to see games scale the walls of “culture”, and be regarded just as movies and literature are. I think it will be very sad if the public perception of them never changes from “oh, these are just toys for kids” or “games are just one of those otaku things.”

I think we’re entering an era where games will be viewed as artistic works. As long as game journalists pass judgement on a game after they’ve dedicated some time to playing it, then I won’t mind if their appraisal includes very harsh criticism. The point is that I want them to write fairly. My job as a public relations representative is to openly and honestly share what the developers have made with as many people as possible. So I want a fair shake from games journalists when they review the game. If that happens, it will help contribute to raising the public’s awareness of games as culture. I want the world of gaming to be elevated–for them to get proper recognition. I see that as the true meaning of my work.

Finally, there is something I want from players and readers: I want you to be proud when you say “I play games.” Even if you are a college student or a working adult, be proud when you say you love games, that games are amazingly interesting, or that games have moved you.

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