Densha de Go! – 1997 Developer Interview
Densha de Go! is one of Japan's most enduring and inimitable arcade franchises, but it's little known in the West owing to the inherently local appeal of the Japanese rail system. This interview was originally featured in Gamest and focuses on the game's conception and design. Some of the names will probably be unfamiliar to the Western reader, but keep them in mind for the next time you visit Japan!
Akira Saito - Programmer/Planner
Masayuki Kikuchi - Programmer
Masaya Kinoshita - Programmer
Suguru Kawashima - PR
—Densha de Go has finally started hitting the arcades! So far it's been very popular in every game center it's been installed in.
Saito: Thank you very much. It looks like people from every age and walk of life are enjoying it, which makes me very happy to see.
—There's a lot of things I'd like to ask you today, but to start off, when were the plans for Densha de Go first proposed?
Saito: The plans for a game featuring trains existed as far back as 5 or 6 years ago. The opinion at the time, however, was that trains were kind of plain and boring, so the idea was warehoused.
The planning for this development, then, officially got underway about a year ago. We decided it would be a large-cabinet style arcade game at this point, too. In July we entered the development phase proper, and the game was completed in the span of three or four months.
—Why "trains" to begin with, by the way? Was there a specific reason?
Saito: The current arcade game market is dominated by fighting and racing games. We asked ourselves what idea would be totally new, in contrast to those genres? And "trains" is what we came up with.
Also, I think when you consider the number of "train otakus" out there, and just the general population who likes trains, there's actually a lot of hidden fans out there. We did some solid market research on this as well, which we used when we presented our plans for a train game.
And of course, there's also the simple reason that I love trains… (laughs)
—By the way, who came up with the title?
(everyone looks at each other)
Kinoshita: I think it was me. (laughs)
—It has a great ring to it, doesn't it?
Kinoshita: Well, it was actually just a provisional title at first, but somewhere along the way it became the official title. There were other candidates too, including some hardcore-sounding ones like "Hagane no Tetsuro" (Tracks of Steel) (laughs). But everyone had become used to saying "Densha de GO!" around the office, so we just left it that way.
—You mentioned that the development began in earnest about 1 year ago, but I'm curious about the gap between that start and the earlier conception of the project several years prior.
Saito: The truth is, when we first presented our plans to Taito, opinions were divided into two camps: some thought "this will definitely be a hit!" and others said "No way." There were some pretty harsh criticisms in there too. "Driving a train...? What's supposed to be fun about that?"
—It sounds like it was a struggle then.
Saito: Nevertheless, there were many train fans at Taito, and thanks in part to their efforts, the plans were eventually accepted.
—Considering the opposition you had to face up-front at Taito, what gave you the confidence that this would be a good game? Did you already have a demo or prototype, something that gave you an initial feel for how the game would be?
Saito: I had been to the Transportation Museum in Akihabara, and tried out the Yamanote Line simulation machine they have there. I noticed that anytime I went there, whether weekday or weekend, that simulator was very popular with everyone, from hardcore fans to regular people, from adults to children. Seeing that made me certain: "this game will appeal to a wide demographic; even your everyday non-gamer will want to try it."
On the flip-side, provided we could create actual deep gameplay, then the hardcore users, despite being a smaller base, would help with the replay value and repeat plays for longevity in the arcades.
In any event, a game about trains had plenty of appeal for a broad range of users, I concluded.
—The appeal of Densha de GO!, above all, is the feeling that you're piloting a real train. No doubt this feeling could have been accomplished even with fictional trains and station names, but you decided to use real Japanese trains and locations... was that done as a nod to the train otaku crowd?
Saito: That's certainly part of it. But also when you consider the average person, seeing real trains and stations that they're used to riding in their everyday life better enhances that feeling of realism and familiarity, I think.
—The four tracks available are the Yamanote line, the Keihin-Touhoku line, the Toukaidou line, and the San'in Line. How did you decide which lines to add? Were there any other contenders...?
Saito: The first criteria was that both the starting station and the ending station on the line had to be famous. Then we wanted lines that weren't too long, ones that would take about 20-30 minutes to traverse. I guess those were the two biggies.
Ultimately, you know, we didn't have a ton of time for this development, nor did we have much time for location scouting, so we decided on a simple scheme of choosing two famous tracks from the Kanto region and two famous tracks from Kansai. Though some of my tastes are reflected there in the San'in line, which is a personal favorite… (laughs)
—Are you originally from Kansai?
Saito: Yeah. I was born in Kyoto. I've been riding the San'in line since I was a kid. And the San'in line has beautiful views too, of course.
—Actually, Densha de GO! inspired me to visit Kyoto for some "on-location" reporting. (laughs) There certainly is an allure to that line. By the way, a lot of visitors to the recent AMS show were hoping for a speedy, fast train experience on something like the Shinkansen or Rapid Express...
Saito: We did consider a Shinkansen line, of course. Unfortunately, with the Shikansen, if you're sitting in the conductor's seat, the only thing you'd be able to see would be tunnels and completely straight rail lines. On top of not being able to enjoy the surrounding scenery very much, a lot of the Shinkansen driving is computer-controlled, so it wouldn't make for a very fun driving game. For those reasons we cut it.
—The entire experience, starting with the controls, feels like it was designed with a maniac's attention to detail, but what areas in particular would you say you put your focus on?
Saito: Trains have their own rules as trains, and I did feel that we should observe that as carefully and realistically as possible. Naturally we also had to think about simple controls and gameplay that the majority of people could enjoy, but I had a feeling that if we weren't faithful to the real world of trains, it would displease the more hardcore train fans out there. So just as you said, we did endeavor to create a game that would satisfy them as well.
—The control panel in particular is amazingly detailed.
Saito: There's some things like the pressure gauge, which if push came to shove, probably could have been merely decorative, but we nonetheless strove to make them function like they really would. Then there was the lever… it all cost a ton of money and Taito got mad at us. (laughs) But I told them I wanted to create something that paid proper respect to the material. We really did pay attention to the little details when we made this game.
—It should be a train game, but with the fidelity of a train simulator, in other words.
Saito: That's right. The control panel is an essential part of the game. If we weren't going to be able to recreate that, then the whole thing wasn't worth doing. I couldn't imagine playing this with a standard joystick and button setup.
—A custom control panel like that must have been very expensive to build, I imagine?
Saito: It was. I pushed pretty hard to convince the higher-ups at Taito that it was the right choice, though. "There's no point making this if we don't have that control panel. If we can get that right, everything else will fall into place," I assured them. (laughs)
—If you had to attach a percentage, for example, how important did you think it was?
Saito: The control panel was 80% of it.
—Wow, 80%?! It was really that vital?
Saito: The other parts of the game are important too, of course, but the control panel is what makes Densha de Go stand out. It's the thing we spent the most money developing, and it took the most time to make, too. We could have absolutely no compromises on that point.
—Turning to the gameplay system now, in Densha de Go your goal is to stay on schedule, and points are deducted if you fall behind. Were there any other mechanics that you'd wanted to add?
Saito: One thing that we poured a lot of time into, but ultimately didn't implement, was allowing the player to drive the train recklessly if they wanted. You wouldn't have been required to stop at every station if you didn't want to—it was sort of like, hey, if you want to turn this train into a Rapid Express, go right ahead! (laughs)
Kikuchi: Yeah, the way we had programmed it during the development, you didn't have to stop at a station, it was your decision whether you wanted to stop or not. You lost a lot of points if you did that though.
Saito: Driving the train however you want is, I think, one of the obvious appeals of a train game. It made sense that way. But when it comes to trains, of course, we have to consider the safety rules. Even if it is just a game, if we let you do anything, I think JR (Japan Railway) would have gotten very pissed. (laughs)
—It sounds like it was very challenging to choose the right degree of freedom for the player then.
Kawashima: If this were a car game, well, there's a strong competitive and racing side there and we could let the player go as fast as they want, but for trains, I'm afraid it doesn't work like that.
Kikuchi: It's too bad. I thought driving however you wanted would be a great way for actual train conductors to blow off some steam. (laughs)
—Densha de Go! also features weather conditions, crossing accidents, and numerous other features. Were there any other ideas you had?
Moriyama: It's a video game, so of course we had a lot of ideas that we couldn't implement.
Kikuchi: Yes, such as the scene where your train would suddenly be transported into space, just like a certain manga… (laughs) 1
Moriyama: During the development we experimented with a number of different mechanics. At one point, for example, we had it where if you mistakenly went off-course, you could fall from a cliff. (laughs)
—Densha de Go looks like it will be a game that strongly appeals to both game center regulars and everyday folk. Is that something Taito is thinking about these days with their arcade releases?
Kawashima: Well, with respect to this game, we originally set our targets on a fairly older demographic. These days there's been a trend of arcade games being designed for younger audiences (and the purikura booths would be a prime example), but we're taking a somewhat different tack: we'd like to make games that will bring the late-20s, 30s, and 40s crowd—that generation who played Space Invaders so long ago—back to the game center once again.
—I can definitely see Densha de Go appealing to middle-aged players.
Kawashima: Young kids today probably don't know this, but when we were kids, everyone dreamed about being a pilot or a train conductor, you know? If Densha de GO can serve to fulfill that dream, how great would that be.
—To wrap things up, if you have the chance to make a sequel, what kind of game would you like it to be? I'd like to hear everyone's reponse.
Moriyama: I don't really want to go into specifics, because if we do have to make a sequel, I'd be spoiling it here. (laughs) But I think the game was a little too passive. So if we make another Densha game, I'd like it to have a lot more active elements. For example, when a train is approaching you from the opposite track, and you blow your whistle, I want them to respond by blowing their whistle, too.
Kikuchi: There's a lot I'd like to do. The basics probably can't be majorly changed now, so I think it comes down to adding more fun details and touches.
Ishii: I'd like to see the sequel to include the things we couldn't finish this time around. For example, the graphics for the people on the train platform, they didn't really feel natural. We could have added a lot more details to make them seem more alive. I want our future games to focus more on those finer points.
Kinoshita: I think everyone will be happy if we can include more local lines that people know. I've no doubt it will be difficult as ever to choose the lines, but if we can get more regions represented I'd like to go in that direction.
—Well, let me just say on behalf of the journalists, we will be thrilled if you include Kagoshima or Hakodate, because then we can take a trip there for "work". (laughs)
Kikuchi: Perhaps we should set our sights even higher and include some international train lines then. (laughs)
Saito: One problem with trains in other countries is that they don't really observe strict timetables. This is a video game, so without a concrete goal like a schedule to keep, I wonder if they wouldn't feel too aimless…
I'd also like to include some private railways. The Odakyu line, the Tokyu Setagaya line… (laughs) Obviously that would be one for the true train maniacs. In any event, a sequel hasn't been greenlit yet, but if I dare to dream… it would be awesome to make a game that targets the sci-fi otaku audience, where you fly the Odakyu Romancecar into the sky. (laughs)
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Probably a reference to Galaxy Express 999, though the "original" motif for a train in space comes from the novel Night on the Galactic Railroad.↩