House of the Dead – 1997 Developer Interview

The House of the Dead – 1997 Developer Interview

This interview with the development staff of The House of the Dead was originally featured in the May 1997 edition of Sega Saturn Magazine. The Saturn port was not officially in the works yet, so it focuses on the design and creation of the arcade release. The image to the left is taken from Alex Pei's amazing artwork for a new HotD vinyl release in 2022.

Takashi Oda – Planner/Director
Hiroyuki Taguchi – Designer
Kazutomo Sanbongi – Programmer
Koji Ooto – Programmer

—Please tell us how the House of the Dead project got started.

Oda: It began in December of last year. I had finished the “Puzzle and Action: Treasure Hunt” development, and our team was talking about making a light gun game. We didn’t know what kind of gun game to make—there were a lot of different ideas at first, including doing a police-themed game. But we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the Sega R&D AM2 development team at Sega, and after talking it over with our section chief we settled on the idea of making a zombie game.

—And how did you come up with the idea to include those cinematic cutscenes?

Oda: That was something we wanted to do from the beginning. If you’re trying to give people a little taste of the wider story and world, then movie cutscenes are the perfect way to do it. The programmers and designers hashed it out together, and no one objected to the idea.

—I also think it’s very rare nowadays to see a game where the protagonists aren’t young teens or 20somethings, but older adults around 30.

Taguchi: That was also Oda’s idea. I personally liked the idea of making a more sophisticated game myself, too.

Oda: I did that because our target audience was adults and up. From the start of the project we knew we didn’t want children playing this game. (laughs) Had we wanted to target them, I think we would have made the game more about ghosts or something, not zombies. Those considerations were one of the tougher parts of this development.

—The effects and animations are awesome, the way eyeballs pop out and limbs fly off. Was that challenging for the designers?

Taguchi: Yeah. For each character model there was a couple stages of work, so it was double the normal labor. Adding the skin/flesh, adding the bones… it took more work than it might appear. The motion capture also took a lot of time and manpower. Several designers perished there, I’m afraid. (laughs)

The House of the Dead development team. L-R: Kazutomo Sanbongi, Koji Ooto, Takashi Oda, and Hiroyuki Taguchi.

—Were the enemies all done with motion capture?

Oda: It’s about half-and-half. At first we thought we’d do everything entirely with motion capture, so we tried having the actors exaggerate their movements and act like zombies… but they looked entirely like humans. (laughs) So we decided to take what we had and doctor it manually to make them look more zombie-like.

—You didn’t try going back and just having them act more zombie-like?

Oda: We definitely tried, but it just wasn’t working—they still just looked like humans. (laughs) One exception was the stage 1 boss, Chariot. We were able to use pure motion capture for him, with no adjustments afterwards. We had someone on our staff who could make those movements.

—On the sound side, the dialogue and sound effects really stand out.

Oda: There was a ton of dialogue. The Sega Model 2 hardware we were working with had a fixed amount of memory, and the dialogue took up about half that space. We had a hell of a time figuring out how to cram the sound effects into the remaining space.

—What other difficulties did you have during the development?

Sanbongi: This was Sega AM1 R&D’s (aka Sega Wow) first attempt at making a gun game. There were a lot of “firsts” for us. The size of the team was also large, but since I had experience playing a team sport like baseball, that wasn’t difficult for me.

Taguchi: When we first started creating the Curien Mansion, we were taking a really long time. Once we started working on it, we didn’t want to stop—we wanted to craft every detail, right down to the trim on the doorways. But if we’d have kept going down that path, it would have really taken forever.

Oda: As for difficulties with the gameplay system, our first point of reference in creating House of the Dead was Virtua Cop. That game uses something called the “lock-on sight” system, which helps distinguish for players which enemies are tough or weak, which are near, far, easy to hit, etc. But in House of the Dead, the enemies walk towards you and thus gradually became larger targets the closer they get. It was extremely challenging for us, then, to try and create a suitable game-like difficulty in a gun game where aiming is so easy…!

Sanbongi: Yeah. Because unlike Virtua Cop, the enemies here don’t have firearms. We experimented with making the zombies more resilient, so they wouldn’t die in one hit, but this seemed to confuse a number of our testplayers.

Concept art for three zombies, from left to right: Sam, Ebitan, and Harris. These were all created by director/planner Oda.

Ooto: Another difficulty, in a different sense, was that we felt a lot of pressure to compete with the development groups that made Virtua Cop (Sega AM2) and Gunblade NY (Sega AM3), our rival teams at Sega.

Oda: Actually, lots of different people at Sega would come up and sneak a peek at what we were making. They’d all yell out “Wahhh!!!” and then run away in fear. (laughs) The overall tone of the comments we got was basically, “is it ok to make a game like this…?” (laughs)

Sanbongi: There were others who said just the opposite, that we should have gone further. (laughs) We didn’t know exactly how grotesque and gory we should make everything.

Oda: It was actually far more gruesome at first. There was some disgusting, really cruel stuff in there. (laughs) We then surveyed the general public’s attitude about these things, and calibrated the level of gore to that line. We pushed it right up to the edge of that line though, I should say.

—It seems your efforts paid off, as House of the Dead has become quite a hit. Do you have any plans for a sequel?

Oda: “Castle of the Dead.” (laughs) Or maybe “School of the Dead.” (laughs) Anything goes for a sequel. Though unless I can guarantee to the staff that we’ll have at least 6 months or a year to work on it, I don’t think they’ll want to do it. (laughs)

—Could the next House of the Dead be on the Model 3 hardware?

Ooto: With hardware that powerful, we could do something truly disgusting. (laughs) I’m not sure the public could handle it, even if we did make it. (laughs)

Oda: A sequel really depends on the response we get from this first game. I think there’s a definite possibility though.

Oda: “We knew we wanted the final boss to be really strong and really cool… but it took us 2 whole days of thinking just to figure out what we should do. (laughs) Given the result I think it came together nicely. There’s no strategy for him other than shooting his weakpoint. (laughs).”

—On the other hand, do you think a port to the Saturn is foreseeable?

Oda: Well, we pushed the model 2 to the edge in terms of both visuals and programming. All I can say is that I think it would be difficult.

Taguchi: Which isn’t to say we wouldn’t try it. As long as we could maintain the atmosphere, I don’t see it being too much of a problem.

Oda: Ultimately a port depends on everyone’s reaction. If people want it, I’m definitely willing to try.

—As the development team, do you have any tips for players for fun ways to play House of the Dead?

Oda: Everyone should try, at least once, to rescue all the scientists that appear in the route you’re on. Something cool will happen at the end if you do. Also, the ending will change if you meet certain conditions, so please look for those. There’s three endings total.

—Please give a final message to all the players.

Sanbongi: Unlike Virtua Cop, some of the enemies in House of the Dead take multiple hits to kill. That may be confusing at first, but the more you play the further you’ll get. I know summer is still a little ways off, but please enjoy playing House of the Dead in the coming months.

Oda: I know many people are afflicted by those “mid-May blues”… so we’ll be very happy if playing House of the Dead can sweep those away and cheer you up! We intended it to be a refreshing, lighthearted, fun game, so grab your lightgun and blow off a little stress.

—Thank you!

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