Koei: Designing Historical Games (1988)

Koei: Designing Historical Games (1988)

This unique interview featuring Koei’s historical strategy games was originally published in the May 1988 edition of BEEP! magazine. Instead of the usual developers, Koei chose to send two senior sales representatives to talk about their games; it was still common then for companies to hide the identities of their devs for fear of poaching. Surprisingly, there’s less blatant shilling than one might expect, and I’ve included some of the original illustrations from the article as they add a nice humorous touch.

Hironori Horiguchi – Director of Sales
Hirohiko Miura – Sales

—The first game of Koei’s historical trilogy was Nobunaga’s Ambition, released in 1983. What was your original concept for this game?

Miura: Our producer and CEO, Kou Shibusawa, wanted to make a kind of game that had never been seen before.

—And what about the historical connection?

Miura: Shibusawa has always loved history, and I understand he’s always been very fascinated with Oda Nobunaga.

Horiguchi: With great historical figures like Nobunaga, beyond just reading the dry text, you can’t help but wonder “what would I do in this situation if I were Nobunaga…?” Shibusawa enjoys those historical thought experiments.

—It’s like you get to re-live Nobunaga’s life vicariously. (laughs)

Miura: Yeah. I think lots of people enjoy thinking about history that way. In our President’s case, he wanted to find a way to bring that feeling to life.

Horiguchi: Home PCs were just starting to become commonplace, and Shibusawa realized that with these new machines he could finally realize his ideas, and that’s when he started development.

The original design spread for this feature. BEEP was the only gaming publication doing these kind of interviews and articles; they’re arguably the forefather of serious gaming journalism in Japan.

—Were there any tabletop board games you were inspired by?

Horiguchi: No, back then Shibusawa didn’t know such things existed. (laughs) He bought a lot of books, studied them intensely, and after a lot of trial and error, Nobunaga’s Ambition was the result. At the time, no game like that had ever been made, and it truly became a “new style of game”, as Shibusawa had envisioned it.

—Shibusawa’s Ambition, we might say. (laughs) All three games in the historical trilogy became long-running hits, as it were. As the creators, what do you believe the key to that success is?

Miura: I think these kinds of strategy games could all be described as variations on shougi.

—How do you mean?

Miura: For other genres, it’s mostly about games with fixed patterns. With strategy games, though, while the gameplay may have a certain flow, there’s multiple patterns and ways things can unfold.

Horiguchi: If 10 people play this game, they’re each going to experience 10 different stories. To put it another way, with these strategy games, when you finish it once, you’ve only finished a single story—there are countless others waiting to be discovered.

Miura: That’s why you can replay them again and again. In that sense they’re just like shogi and igo.

—Ah, I see what you mean. Now that you mention it, I’ve re-played Romance of the Three Kingdoms countless times. Plus when you consider the different generals, scenarios, and the strength of the computer AI, the permutations are endless…

Miura: Exactly. As you play, the variations and possibilities gradually open up to you. I think that’s the biggest reason why these games have continued to be enjoyed by everyone for so long.

—If you don’t mind me indulging myself with a personal anecdote, but… the first time I played Romance of the Three Kingdoms, aside from the main figures, I didn’t really know anything about the historical setting. After clearing it with Liu Bei, I suddenly became interested in knowing more. (laughs) I started reading a book about the Three Kingdoms era, actually.

Miura: One of Eiji Yoshikawa’s works?

—No no, actually it was Mitsuteru Yokoyama. (laughs) But actually, as I read it I became more familiar with all the characters’ stories and adventures, and when I replayed the game again I felt way more emotionally involved. (laughs) I found myself yelling things like “Xiahou! Prepare yourself!!!” (laughs) It was so interesting, I replayed it many times to experience the story from all the different characters’ perspectives.

Miura: Wow, that makes me so happy to hear. To know there’s people out there who have gotten that much out of it, makes us feel like they were really worth making. (laughs) We may be the ones who have presented these games, but it’s only when players like you get so deeply invested that the experience truly becomes complete. Seeing that makes us extremely happy, and is a huge encouragement too.

Horiguchi: That’s both the strength and the appeal of historical games. I mean, I know that’s kind of obvious, but. (laughs)

Magazine ad for the Japanese PC versions of Nobunaga’s Ambition, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Genghis Khan.

—I see. “How to get the Most Enjoyment from Historical Games!” (laughs) My comparison might be a little dated there. (laughs)1 By the way, you recently re-made Nobunaga’s Ambition and Genghis Khan. What made you decide to re-release these older games, as opposed to creating something new?

Horiguchi: It’s because these games are so beloved by us here at Koei. The content has been largely overhauled, which was all the more reason for us to feel that it would be a shame to abandon these older games to the dust bin considering how much we’ve grown and matured as game makers since then. They’re like our children to us—we can’t give up on them. (laughs)

Miura: And so as a proof of how far we’ve come we wanted to give these older games new subtitles like “international version” and “Genghis Khan”, while still retaining the original titles. That appears to have confused a number of people, however…

—Yeah, I think a lot of people didn’t understand that.

Miura: We’re sorry!

—Changing the subject, I’d like to ask you about your new game, Ishin no Arashi (Storm of Reformation).

Miura: I was wondering when you’d ask. (laughs)

—I’ve heard rumors that it will feature a new system very different from your historical trilogy.

Miura: Yeah. Well, for example in the Nobunaga games, we basically didn’t include any actual historical events in the games. We’ve had a lot of requests from users to include more real history in the games—even if it’s just text and dialogue.

—As a player who also gets into these games on that emotional level, I wholly concur. (laughs)

Miura: For Ishin no Arashi, therefore, we’ve tried to respond to those players’ wishes by including a lot more historical events like the arrival of the Commander Perry’s black ships and the Bombardment of Kagoshima. Depending on the player’s actions, you can also avoid or prevent some of these historical moments, as well.

“This time I won’t die!”

Horiguchi: The other big difference is the introduction of “ideologies”. In all of our previous games, in almost all cases you ultimately won by conquering your enemies through force of arms, but many people started to feel like this was too brutal, too savage. That led us to develop a game where you could persuade people and use diplomacy in order to finally unite Japan under one ideological banner.

—Ah, I see now. That does sound rather interesting. And I very much agree with the aim of your new system.

Miura: Yes, and our adoption of this system largely was a response to user feedback. In that sense, you could say Ishin no Arashi is something where we took all that community feedback and criticism, gave it our Koei spin, and worked it into a game.  

—From what you’ve shown so far, this game will feature over 500 different individuals from history.

Miura: Yes, twice as many as Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

—How many of them are playable characters?

Miura: Ishin no Arashi features three scenarios, and in each one, you can choose from 9 different people. Sakamoto Ryouma is the only one who is playable across all three scenarios. Of course, depending on the scenario you can also play as famous individuals like Saigo Takamori and Takayoshi Kido, and there’s multiplayer for up to three players.

—I’m starting to get excited here. (laughs) When did you begin developing Ishin no Arashi?

Horiguchi: Let’s see… the first plans were put forth about a year and a half ago, I think.

—What made you want to set a game in the upheaval and chaos of the late Bakumatsu era?

Miura: It was a time period that we’d received many requests for, from players.

Horiguchi: Yeah, and putting aside historical interest for a moment, the number of eras that would make for interesting strategy games is actually quite limited. So when we were looking for an appropriate new setting, the idea of using the Bakumatsu transition into the Meiji Restoration came up, and we went with it.

A brief history of the Nobunaga’s Ambition series from 1983-2019.

—Oh man, I want to play it right now. (laughs)  Changing the subject, recently there have been more and more strategy games released for the Famicom by other companies. What are your thoughts on these?

Miura: Hey, we’re making Famicom games too! (laughs) I think it’s a very good situation though. Having rivals like this pushes us, in a positive sense, to be our best. The competition will refine and improve the historical game genre as a whole, over time raising the quality to the benefit of all.

Horiguchi: Also, judging from the age of the readers of BEEP, I think the level of interest we’re seeing is totally natural. When I was in elementary school, I too was fascinated by the military commanders of the Sengoku era, you see. In our day, though, if we wanted to learn more we had to read a book or watch an NHK Taiga drama, those were our only options. But now you can learn about history while playing these games on your Famicom or PC, and I think that’s a great thing. I’m jealous of today’s youth. (laughs)

—Wow, now I want to tell the Ministry of Education and Culture about these games. (laughs) To change the subject, in your opinion, what’s the hardest part of developing historical games?

Miura: All the research that goes into learning about that historical period. When we decide we’re going to make a historical game in a certain period, the first thing we have to do is gather up a huge mountain of documents and texts. Though for games like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Genghis Khan, there’s really not a lot of exact documentation of specific details like people’s ages, numerical strength of troops etc, so some compromises and imagination is necessary too.

Horiguchi: Yeah, though that hasn’t stopped players from sending us angry letters, “There’s no way this general would have such low abilities, what were you thinking?!” (laughs)

Horiguchi (L) and Miura (R), sales employees at Koei.

—And I imagine that for a game like Ishin no Arashi (Storm of Reformation) which takes place in more recent history, it’s all the more difficult…

Miura: Yeah, very much so. For that one, we went to the Diet Library in Tokyo and gathered up every relevant document we could get our hands on, and when something was still unresolved, we asked local libraries across Japan to send us documents…

Horiguchi: And sadly, as was often the case, we still had to make the trip out to these libraries if they couldn’t send us things. In fact, since announcing Ishin no Arashi, I think most of this guy’s work has been doing just that.

—Maintaining that fidelity, that’s the tough part of doing historical games. Anything else?

Miura: Yeah, another challenge is figuring out how to make the computer feel lifelike. If your opponent acts in a completely mechanical, robotic way, it won’t evoke the feeling of an actual historical personage. And there’s a limit to how much graphics and dialogue we can add, so yeah, this will probably be an area of focus for us for awhile yet.

—Keep at it! (laughs) Well, finally, please tell us what lies in the future for Koei, and for your future historical games.

Horiguchi: Sure. Koei’s motto is “E&E”, which means “Entertainment and Education.” We’re going to keep making games with that ethos, of “learn while you play.”

Miura: I think historical games continue to be popular with the public, and we plan to keep pushing the envelope on what this genre can achieve, and working on exciting, fun games. This Fall, as part of our 10 year anniversary we’re going to release a huge historical game, so please look forward to that!

—Thank you for your time today.

OXO City Historical Archive. “Huh…? Sim-u-lay-shun?”

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  1. His quote there is a reference to a popular older series of baseball books in Japan, “pro yakyuu o juubai tanoshiku mieru houhou” (lit. how to Make Watching Baseball 10 times more fun!)

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