Dino Crisis – 1999 Developer Interview

Dino Crisis – 1999 Developer Interview

This fascinating pre-release interview with Dino Crisis director and producer Shinji Mikami was originally featured in the 5/99 edition of The Playstation magazine. While many pre-release interviews are essentially little more than promotional fluff, this one sees Mikami expounding on his ideas about horror game design, difficulty, and how to engage players on a deeper level than just “winning”.

Shinji Mikami – Director/Producer

—So how far along is the Dino Crisis development now?

Mikami: In terms of percentages, that’s hard to say. We’re about 90% of the way along our master schedule… but content-wise, maybe 70 or 80%.

—It sounds like the basic framework of the game is done, though.

Mikami: That’s right.

—Can you give us some details, maybe…?

Mikami: No, I’m afraid I can’t tell you much.

—You’re worried it will ruin the experience for players when they play it, you mean.

Mikami: Well, I definitely think that not knowing what’s going to happen is one of the fun parts of any video game, you know? If you’re thinking “Oh, I know what comes next”, that makes for a boring experience. It’s important that we preserve those surprises for players: “whoa! look at that enemy!” I know that sneak peeks and early looks and all that do get people excited, and they help sell magazines, and it also can be a big boon to your initial sales, but… I’m sorry, if I have to slice and dice my game up to make a profit then I think it’s not worth it. My apologies to journalists who have to cover our game, though. (laughs)

—At the present, all we know is “there’s dinosaurs” and “the protagonists have snuck inside some research facility somewhere.”

Mikami: Yeah, the protagonists enter this facility on a mission to locate a missing doctor. And that’s all they themselves know, too. Despite being a military research facility there is not a single guard. Then they notice spent shell casings on the ground, and a fence that’s been torn open. The player is 99% sure “this must be the work of the dinosaurs…”, but there’s a 1% chance it’s something else. I want the player to do the legwork in discovering the truth of all that, piece by piece—like a story you weave together yourself.

Shinji Mikami, circa 1999.

—Changing gears now, let me come straight to it: why dinosaurs?! Resident Evil was all about zombies, so why have you switched foes for this game?

Mikami: Um… to be honest, there’s no special reason behind it. I just like dinosaurs. (laughs) When you think about what it is that makes dinosaurs so cool, first off it’s their strength, their size, their speed, their toughness… and of course the very fact they once walked the Earth, but now are extinct. I thought it would make for a thrilling game, to take a real-live dinosaur and throw it into a realistic situation, and force the player to confront that. So yeah, I mean, if I had to say, that’s what was going through my head.

—Did the whole dinosaur idea work once you tried applying it to your game?

Mikami: Well, I don’t really “apply” or piece together individual ideas like that when I’m designing a game. When I have an idea I think is interesting, it’s always bundled as a “package deal” of sorts with other ideas. In this case, it wasn’t just me thinking “oh cool, dinosaurs” and shoving that into a pre-existing template; rather, the scenes with the dinosaurs themselves all came to me at the same time, as a set.

—What’s the deal with that “deep flashback” scene?

Mikami: In the novelization of Jurassic Park, there’s this scene that takes place deep in the jungle in a fenced off area, and the character know there’s something in there, rustling around, but their vision is obscured by the thick jungle foliage. The movie has a similar scene, where the cow is being lowered into the raptor cage, but the movie shows it from above, a place of safety—while the book scene has it at eye level, as a person would see it if they were really there. Then, in the book, the character tries to peek through the brush and there’s a sudden rush of movement before they’re attacked at blinding speed. That was my image for Dino Crisis—a predatory creature lying in wait, and the unique, primordial fear that arouses in us.

—Can you tell us more about that fear?

Mikami: The first impression is the huge size, of course. Then the speed at which it can move despite that size. Then there’s the fearsome jaws, the sharp claws, and even its tail can be a deadly weapon. Evolution tells us that dinosaurs are related to birds, but our mental image of them is far more reptilian, and they’re far harder to kill. You can’t be sure they even feel pain. And their minds are alien to us, we have no idea what they’re thinking. They only see humans as prey. It’s that pathetic feeling of being a prey animal, of being “locked-on” by your hunter… it’s terrifying, don’t you think?

—They’re completely inhuman creatures.

Mikami: Yeah, I mean, you can’t reason with them. Nor are threats likely to work. They just make a beeline right for you. So it’s that ferocity—for example, the ferocity you see when the raptors are devouring their prey—that I wanted to depict more directly in Dino Crisis. That’s why we were very attentive to detail and authenticity in the scenes with biting and so forth.

The dinosaur combat, as described by Mikami in greater detail below, posed a number of challenges to the developers.

—Can you tell us more about how you approached combat, then?

Mikami: You can shoot a dinosaur, but it won’t die so easily. They’re tough bastards. And even if your shot does knock it down, it’ll get right back up and keep coming at you, seemingly unphased by the injury.

The problem is, as realistic as that might be, it’s not very becoming of a video game… so we had to add some way in which you could defeat them—though there are, of course, certain dinosaurs for whom even guns won’t do anything. For them, I tried to think—ok, so how would you fight them? And I realized, rather than just spraying bullets everywhere, the smartest approach would be to put them to sleep with some kind of tranquilizer gun.

This is what’s so cool about dinosaurs in a video game: using a tranquilizer is a pretty creative way to deal with an enemy, and it’s something you can only do with a living creature. And even if you do manage to hit them with a nice big dart, they’re still a danger until they’re completely knocked out. I wanted to evoke that terror in Dino Crisis, too. You don’t know when they’ll wake up either… but I will say that sleeping dinosaurs are, strangely enough, very cute. (laughs) Passed out like that, you almost feel some reluctance about killing them.

—A tiny little crack for empathy to get in. (laughs) Isn’t it hard to calibrate the right dosage of tranquilizer though?

Mikami: There’s a crafting system to make different tranquilizer darts. As you synthesize stronger items, you can access the most powerful darts. There’s even some that will having a healing effect. There’s a lot of options to play around with. We’re in the middle of creating the system right now actually.

—It sounds like experimentation is required on the player’s part.

Mikami: That’s right. As you learn better combinations you can craft some extremely powerful darts. Though you might experience quite a shock when your lovingly crafted shot whizzes by and misses. (laughs)

—Judging from the footage you’ve revealed so far at events, there appear to be a lot of dynamic, action-packed scenes with the dinosaurs too. Chasing you down, bursting through walls, that kind of thing.

Mikami: In Resident Evil, if you could make it to a room and close the door behind you, it was a temporary reprieve, a moment to catch your breath. This time, the dinosaurs will smash through walls and doors to get to you. You can never let your guard down. “Escape” for the player thus means running, always running. That’s the kind of terror I wanted to have… terror with a sense of speed. Resident Evil was more about that fear of what might be lurking around the next corner. In Dino Crisis, the menace doesn’t just wait there; it comes right for you.

—How many different kinds of dinosaurs are there? Are there a lot?

Mikami: No, not particularly. We whittled the number of dinosaurs down to a few key ones, but in turn, we tried to create a great deal of variation in their actions and just the situations themselves.

Quality over quantity, basically. I mean, partly it was just a matter of not having enough labor to add more, but the point of the game was never to feature a big menagerie of different dinosaurs.

Dinosaur concept art. The designer comments: “I wanted to leave an impression of the penciling underneath, so once the linework was done, these were 70-80% complete. It was difficult to decide on a pose for the T-Rex.”

—How’s the overall difficulty looking, by the way?

Mikami: It’s a difficult game. About on par with the first Resident Evil. There is an easy mode for beginners, though. But as you can imagine, when it comes to the fundamentals of a game like this, if it’s not set at a certain level of difficulty, then the speed, strength, and terror of the dinosaurs won’t be properly conveyed, and I wanted that to be at the forefront. I was actually very divided on the whole question of whether to add an easy mode. Adding it would allow everyone to experience the game, but then we might hear things like, “I beat it, it was too simple, there was no tension at all!”

—Despite those doubts, you went the kinder route and added an Easy Mode anyway. Throwing a bone to those who just want to beat the game, as it were.

Mikami: Actually, I believe that when we’ve overturned that long-held preconception—the one that says the whole point of playing games is just to “beat” them—then we’ll finally be able to embark on something new with video games. Today, when players are presented with a branching decision in the story, I think most of them think about that choice in terms of gain, like “which option will get me to the ending?” But I didn’t want to make Dino Crisis into that kind of a game.

—Can you give us some concrete examples of what you mean by that?

Mikami: Of the three worker characters in the game, only one is playable (Regina), and the other two have completely different motivations from her. One is a hard-ass guy who plays a leadership kind of role, and he has a very cold, matter-of-fact attitude towards his work. The other is black person, who serves as the warmer, more human foil—the kind of character who, when someone calls for help, will always say “we’ve got to save them!” Occasionally those two characters don’t see eye-to-eye. As Regina, who will you side with? …when making those choices, I don’t want players to do some kind of plus-minus, cost-benefit analysis.

For example, if you have to rescue one of your allies, and one of the options is to sacrifice them for the greater good of the mission… I don’t want the player’s mindset to be, “Oh, I had better choose to save them so I can get the good ending.” That must not happen. When players do that, then “beating the game” becomes something separate from experiencing the story, and never the twain shall meet. I wanted to use Dino Crisis as an opportunity to avoid that kind of binary thinking.

—The branches in the story, then, are more akin to the choices we make in life.

Mikami: You can’t avoid making decisions when the time comes. And I suppose those decisions are analagous to the choices we have to make in life, and how we want to live. Almost all the in-game choices have that flavor in Dino Crisis.

—On a more technical note… Resident Evil had the whole ink ribbon system, and limiting the number of saves you could make was a big part of its difficulty, I think. Will there be something like that in Dino Crisis?

Mikami: We’re still deliberating on that. In addition to save points, we’re planning to add a Continue system. But precisely how many continues to give, or whether to make them infinite or not—that’s what we’re currently struggling with. Since I want to convey the terrifying nature of these dinosaurs, it would feel really weird if you didn’t die after 1 or 2 bites from a dino. But that also means that the slightest mistake on the player’s part equals game over. On the other hand, if we let you re-do the scenes over and over, it diminishes the terror… yeah, these game difficulty questions are, well, difficult!

The characters of Dino Crisis: Regina, Rick, and Gail. About Regina, the designer says: “They told me they wanted me to re-do her design to look more like a movie character, so I gave it my best interpretation. Dino Crisis was my first time doing rendering and lighting for a character, and it was a learning experience.”

—I can see how having the dinosaurs be very lethal—like one or two hits and you’re dead—would tend to instill a much greater fear in players.

Mikami: But you’d also have players who throw the controller across the room in frustration. Players don’t want to put in that much effort. Overall, there’s been a loss in the kind of vitality, on the part of players, to persevere through challenges like that. That wonderful sense of accomplishment when you overcome a challenge, that “I did it!” feeling, is gradually being lost… I think it’s a negative for the game industry as a whole. If we make games too easy to beat, they cease to be games, and I’d like to see a return to the fundamentals, where beating a game or not all depended on the player’s efforts.

—It must be hard to find that balance, where the effort required is high enough to warrant a sense of accomplishment, but not so high that a player throws the controller down in frustration.

Mikami: I don’t see it as a difficulty balance problem so much as this: if your game can instill a desire in the player to want to see what’s next, or if taking on bigger challenges is fun in and of itself, then players will follow along no matter how difficult it gets. At the present, though, the pain and struggle are too much. Players can’t handle that amount of stress. So you end up having to give them some kind of fabulous “reward” to motivate them to go further. That’s where we’ve got to pour our efforts right now. We’ve got to find a way to convey to players, “Hey, if you want to experience something even more amazing, you’ve got to keep at it and do your best to reach the next scene!”

—Is it a high-sense, sophisticated level of game play you’re after, then?

Mikami: I want to play a game of catch with players, but I want it to be a serious game of catch. For the game to feel like a serious adversary to players. I understand that there are players out there who, for example, come home tired from work and just want to be given two hours of entertainment to kill the time. And there should be entertainment and games like that for them. But that’s not what I want to do as a game designer.

—Ah. “For ye who perseveres, something wonderful awaits you”… and what would be an example of that in Dino Crisis?

Mikami: I want the game as a whole (not just the ending) to leave a lasting impression on players, something they look back on for all the moving scenes and experiences they had with it. That’s the kind of game I want to create. Not “I’m gonna keep playing so I can get this cool thing!” I hate that kind of mindset. I think one of the great powers of games, is their ability to allow us to explore our own notions of what is important to us, what our goals are, what we value… and then to create a framework in which we can strive toward the achievement of those things.

—Dino Crisis is a step in that direction, then. The reason you made the game, you could say.

Mikami: That’s right. I first became conscious of that way of thinking about games with Resident Evil. I came to think that we are at a precarious moment with video games, and it was around the end of the Resident Evil 2 development, I believe, that I thought I wanted to take a stand against that, in the hopes of changing it.

—Resident Evil 2 had a relatively low difficulty for the main storyline, though. The more challenging parts for “hardcore gamers” all came later.

Mikami: That’s true. I personally considered that something of an easy-out though. In reality, what would be ideal, would be for a single game to contain multiple gameplay styles, and some of those gameplay styles would be more challenging and meant for better players. I think the first Resident Evil was very well done, in that sense.

One of the many dynamic T-Rex scenes from Dino Crisis.
Dino Crisis – 1999 Developer Interview

taken from the Dino Crisis Official Guide Book (jp)

—How did Regina become a special agent?

Capcom: Only a tiny handful of people in the intelligence agency know the answer to that. It’s a secret.

—Were Regina, Rick, and Gail’s outfits modeled after anything in particular?

Capcom: According to her designer, Regina’s costume was inspired by a female warrior that appears in the movie SPAWN. Rick and Gail’s costumes were made after Regina’s costume had been completed, so they were created to match her design.

—How about when you were making the characters themselves, were they modeled after anyone?

Capcom: Our theme for the character creation was “strong antagonisms”. Each character would have a way of life and outlook that they would not compromise on. Which view does the player sympathize with…? —that’s the key point for the scenarios. So for Rick and Gail, the first thing we did was come up with what their underlying personalities were. There were no models in particular.

By the way, in the early planning stages, Gail and Rick had the provisional names “Bottsu” (from bokutotsu, meaning frank/unaffected/candid) and “Cyber”, respectively. “Cyber” is the image of an unemotional machine, while Bottsu is warm and open. In a way, you could say we shaped those characters from the initial molds that those names provided.

—Were there ever any plans to include additional dinosaurs?

Capcom: Early in the planning stage, we had a list of dinosaur names we were thinking about, and Triceratops and Ankylosaurus were on there.

—The story of Dino Crisis contains a number of scientific keywords like “Particle Annihilation” and “Electron Kinetic Energy”. Were there any books or films that you drew inspiration from there?

Capcom: Not particularly, but we referred to encyclopedias many times, studying them for terminology and ideas that fit the setting. We bought a number of Kodansha’s Blueback natural science books, too. “What is Electricity?” and “What are Batteries?”, among others. For the “clean energy” concept, we took a hint from the 1996 movie Chain Reaction.

Dino Crisis commercial (jp).

—What’s the meaning behind the name Ibis island?

Capcom: The name of the ibis bird in Japanese is “toki” (a homonym for time), and we liked how that word resonated with the game’s themes of “extinction” and “time”… we could probably come up with a number of different explanations for the name, but basically we liked those associations. Also, considering the name of “Raccoon City” from Resident Evil, maybe there’s a lot of animal lovers on the team too.

—Why did Kirk kill the dying researcher in the Third Energy generator room?

Capcom: She was one of the group of researchers who was trying to expose Kirk’s secrets. When he chanced to meet her in that room, she was trying to ask him about the dinosaurs and the accident. However, Kirk was in a rush then. He had to find the stabilizer and escape the island as fast as possible. It was out of pure expedience, just wanting to end that conversation with her, that he didn’t hesitate to kill her. In an extreme situation like that, he determined there was no chance of the crime ever coming to light. That’s the kind of man Kirk is.

—Why was the code for the locker with the shotgun parts written on that memo next to the dying researcher?

Capcom: We experimented with a number of things she could be holding in that scene, but due to how the game needed to flow, we ultimately settled on having her hold that memo. By the way, originally, we were going to have her clutching a memo with Kirk’s employee ID number written in her blood, as a way to tell people who killed her.

—When the dinosaurs appear as a side effect of Kirk’s failed experiment, Kirk has a few very intriguing lines. Was he perhaps plotting some use for the Third Energy outside of what the military wanted…?

Capcom: In that moment, he was simply happy that he had verified the time warping effect (that is, the exchange of timelines). He essentially is only interested in seeing his research fulfilled, and as for the consequences of that research, or its potential uses, those aren’t matters of any concern for him.

—What were the writers’ favorite lines?

Capcom: They gave us the following answers:1

Gail: “I’ll kill you!” I like how this line so clearly reveals who Gail is.

Rick: “Sorry, I’m a boy scout, you know.” Just reading this line here, you probably can’t tell what’s cool about it, but it punctuates the scene so well, I love it.

Regina: “…my condolences.” This is what she says when she’s standing over the ragged corpse of a dinosaur. Some of the people on the dev team though it was maybe too cold or restrained. But, that facade of restraint will be tested in the later scenes.

—Were Rick’s “american jokes” references to something, or based on something?

Capcom: No, they’re original jokes made by the guy who wrote his dialogue. But he said that if he had to give some influences for the dialogue he wrote, it would have to be the manga Cyber Blue and the movie The Last Boy Scout.

The Last Boy Scout, an unlikely influence for Dino Crisis.

—How did you endeavor to distinguish Dino Crisis from the Resident Evil series?

Capcom: The sense of terror is very different from Resident Evil. Also, the crafting mechanics as well as the puzzles/traps… we wanted players to really think about them this time. That was another thing that was very important to us. Visually, the biggest difference from Resident Evil is that the stages are all drawn in polygons this time. To that end, we took a great deal of care with the camerawork.

—Are you planning to release Dino Crisis outside of Japan, and if so, will there be any differences with the Japanese version?

Capcom: We’re planning to release it in America and Europe. We’ll be updating some of the enemy counts as well as the DDK codes, and getting rid of the Continue system… overall it will be a bit harder than the Japanese release.

—Any plans for a sequel, or even a Dino Crisis series?

Capcom: …as of yet, we have no plans for that.

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  1. These were given in Japanese, so my translations below may be different from the actual lines in the English version.

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