Metal Max – 2014 Developer Interview

Metal Max - 2014 Developer Interview

This Metal Max interview with creators Hiroshi Miyaoka and Tomoki Tauchi originally appeared in Roleplaying Gameside #1, a short-lived offshot of Shooting Gameside. The interview covers the pair's post-apocalyptic and sci-fi influences, how the series got started, and their favorite characters and scenes. Please note, this is only the first part of the interview: we'll publish the rest in the coming months!

Hiroshi Miyaoka - Director / Designer
Tomoki Tauchi - Director / Programmer

—First of all, could you tell us about what works have influenced the Metal Max series?

Miyaoka: In the 1966 film Battle of the Bulge, the German army is amassing tanks for a battle against the Allied Forces. However, they end up running out of fuel, and their high-performance tanks are reduced to mere lumps of steel, and the German army loses. I saw this movie when I was a child, and I remember vividly this kind of romantic notion that "without bullets, it's just a hunk of trash." Another point was the idea, "what is a tank...?"

—Where did the idea for a post-apocalyptic world come from?

Miyaoka: There was a golden age of science fiction in the U.S. in the 1950s, when the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was in full swing. There were a ton of apocalyptic movies made then, which is where I got the inspiration from. It was also the heyday of Fist of the North Star, so partly it was knowing that players would immediately recognize the trope of a post-apocalyptic world.

—How about Mad Max, itself said to be the motif for Fist of the North Star?

Miyaoka: Personally, with the original Mad Max it always felt to me like, "it's not post-apocalyptic, it's just Australia...!" The police are just less organized, and there's not much talk of fuel either, and people are living normal lives. I guess the budget was a factor, but I thought it was naive for a science fiction doomsday theme.

—What works of fiction or film with a post-apocalyptic theme did you find most impressive, then?

Miyaoka: The most intense was On the Beach. There was no great drama, just people dying. After seeing the movie, I wanted to read the original novel. That and Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley may have influenced me a little. Also, Bill, the Galactic Hero is super pulpy, and is quite similar to Metal Max in taste.

Hiroshi Miyaoka (L) and Tomoki Tauchi (R)

—Metal Max has a strong Western atmosphere, doesn't it?

Miyaoka: There are so many Westerns that I like, too many to count! They showed a lot of Westerns on TV when I was a kid. Most of them had Giuliano Gemma or Franco Nero in them, and they showed them so much that eventually I got sick of them. It wasn't until I became an adult that I learned the actual names of all these films. I like the music of Ennio Morricone and know the songs, but if you ask me what movie it comes from I wouldn't know. Nowadays, the Internet has made it easier to search for things, but when I was young there was no way.

—I've heard that it was manga artist and Metal Max character designer Atsuji Yamamoto who influenced you to start reading sci-fi.

Miyaoka: I became friends with Yamamoto when I was in junior high school. There was a lot of intense sci-fi anime then, and his influence pulled me into that world. When we were growing up there was no such thing as Amazon, so we'd take the train to the nearest city and visit a used book store to buy back issues of "S-F Magazine". We trekked out there nearly every weekend and bought up all the used sci-fi books we didn't have.

—Did you have any creative impulses of your own then?

Miyaoka: Yeah. We collaborated on stories and manga. The manga was a Bruce Lee parody, I think? Nowadays you see dedicated fans uploading their homemade fan films to youtube, and we did stuff like that too. We took pictures of ourselves doing flying kicks and thought it was sooo cool. "Whoa, you look just like him!" (laughs)

—It seemed you like all kinds of entertainment, but sci-fi was a favorite, was it not?

Miyaoka: Yeah, it was. Sci-fi was a lot harder to imitate than Bruce Lee. One of the stories we collaborated on was about supernatural powers. It was about spies fighting each other in the future.

Unfortunately no one has made a solid video overview of the Metal Max series yet, but this visual retrospective will give you a good idea of how the games look and play.

—In an old interview in a Metal Max strategy guide book, it said that Metal Max was originally a board game. Can you tell us how everything started?

Miyaoka: Well, it wasn't "Metal Max" to begin with. Data East asked us to make a game, and since at first we didn't have a budget, we thought maybe we'd make a board game—just something small, we weren't aiming for huge sales or anything. But it gradually got bigger and bigger, and before we knew it, we had a full-fledged RPG on our hands. Of course Dragon Quest loomed large in our minds, so we thought a lot about how to differentiate it from that. We decided to make it sci-fi instead of fantasy, and do away with magic.

—Tauchi, when did you start working on Metal Max as a programmer?

Tauchi: From the beginning. They dropped a five-page planning doc on the manager's desk, and he said "have Tauchi handle the programming." So I participated in all the planning meetings from the start. One thing I was put in charge of was the window UI design. The planning document followed in the footsteps of Dragon Quest and used plain hiragana for the commands like "Main Weapon" and "Sub Weapon", but I said, "come on, you wouldn't write that in hiragana." Given my lack of experience, it was kind of presumptuous of me. But when we swapped it out for kanji it was like, "there, see, now that looks right."

—Was the staff really enthusiastic about making Metal Max?

Tauchi: I got into game development because I wanted to make RPGs, so yeah, my enthusiasm was off-the-charts. (laughs)

—Was the development schedule tough?

Tauchi: It must have been since I could only go home a few times a week, but it didn't feel that way then. One thing, though, is that Dragon Quest was what influenced me to get into game development, and I knew Miyaoka as "Miya Ou" (King Miya) from his column in Shonen Jump, so in the beginning I was really nervous.

—What were your specific responsibilities on Metal Max?

Tauchi: I was in charge of writing down the specifications necessary to translate the planning docs into an actual computer program. I also did the window design, the decision branching of the command and shop menus, the battlefield logic, and other areas directly related to UI and interface logic. I had another colleague who was in charge of map scrolling and the graphical display of the command windows, so the two of us worked together for the entire project.

Atsuji Yamamoto's concept art for Metal Max. The silliness is on full display here, with a spearfishing "frogman" and a walking oil tank, which Yamamoto suggests could be captured and used for fuel.

—These days you're also in charge of the story, but when did that begin?

Tauchi: Since Metal Max: Wild Eyes. I worked on programming all the way up to the Super Nintendo era. I've had the title of director since MM3, but I never know how to answer when people ask me "what kind of work do you do?" (laughs) I do almost everything, so I just call myself a director.

—Tauchi, you've said before that you like Star Trek... were there any other things you were influenced by?

Tauchi: I prefer to movies to books, especially science fiction and action movies. Aside from movies, I'll watch some overseas TV shows and other popular programs, and I still watch about 70% of the dramas being broadcast in Japan. I especially like crime dramas.

—Are there any works that directly influenced the making of Metal Max?

Tauchi: I don't know if I would call them influences, but I crib a lot of stuff. (laughs) When you're playing Metal Max and something in the story makes you think, "hey, that reminds me of…", well, you're probably right. (laughs)

—Which game(s) in the series were most memorable for you?

Miyaoka: The first one was the hardest to make. The one that moved me the most was MM3. There were a lot of problems with trademark rights and things, but I was happy that we'd succeeded in reviving Metal Max. I was also happy that MM2 sold like hotcakes.

Tauchi: For me it was MM3. I love the story of the main character, Drumcan. I think MM3 probably took us the longest to figure out the story and plot.

Miyaoka: It took a long time for MM3 to be greenlit, so I was able to really work on the storyline. Metal Max 4: Diva of the Moonlight was also quite difficult in that regard.

Tauchi: By the time they approved MM4, we'd practically finished it. (laughs)

—Are there any story moments you find particularly memorable?

Miyaoka: For MM3, we had a planning meeting with the producer, Mr. Kubo. Together we came up with several conditions that had to be met, such as "make the main character stand out from the others," or "make the game balanced so that even beginners can play." After much thought, we decided that "the main character is immortal," and as we brainstormed further about the idea of immortality, we came up with the larger story of MM3. A good story alone may not necessarily make a game fun, but I think that's one where we got it right.

Tauchi: The character of Drumcan really stood out. Usually the main character in the Metal Max games is just a neutral avatar for the player, so we try not to make him too conspicuous. Drumcan was an exception and I think we struck a good balance.

Concept art for the final boss of Metal Max 2, Bias Vlad.

—So Drumcan is your favorite character then?

Tauchi: No, actually, my favorite is Luckyna. Miyaoka-san was supposed to write the story for MM3 but I wrote it. It was a mess. (laughs) But it was surprisingly popular with the players, so I thought I could do the same thing in Metal Max 2: Reloaded, with the same plot and a different ending, and that was also well received.

Excluding villains, I generally populate my scenarios with characters I personally like, but Luckyna is the kind of female character I really dislike. Most of the users don't like Luckyna either, but I think the charm of MM4 is how it turns everything around at the end.

—And how about you, Miyaoka?

Miyaoka: I put my heart and soul into each character we make, but I'd have to say Red Wolf. It feels weird saying this since I wrote him myself, but I think he was a good character. In a way, with his character I feel like I finally learned how to create a role-playing game.

You see, at heart I'm a Dragon Quest guy, so I'm not very inclined to make expository, overly talk-y characters like in Final Fantasy. But that doesn't mean I can just dispense with story entirely: and what I hit upon as a way to get players emotionally involved, was the idea that "you are witnessing someone else's life play out." So in creating Red Wolf I think I grasped the most suitable form for me, for how to write an RPG.

—So there was a different approach to Metal Max and Dragon Quest, then.

Miyaoka: Well, I basically approach things in the Yuji Horii style, so the overall flow is almost the same. But our tastes are different. Horii likes to intertwine the past and present, but I don't. One often see dramas where two people who kill each other were once actually good friends, and there's scenes showing how used to play together, eyes glistening with tears as they recite dialogue like "But we're friends…" Those kind of stories are very common. And I understand that people live by their memories, so I get the appeal, but I wanted to create something different, and that's how Metal Max was born. Probably the reason people often call it a "bleak world" is because I tried to eliminate those sentimental things as much as possible.

Yamamoto's alternate design for the MM2 cover.

—It is true that the human relationships are rather dry in Metal Max.

Miyaoka: That was also done to be different from Dragon Quest, but in retrospect, I think it was unnecessary to be so particular about it. (laughs) That said, at the time we were making the game with the intention that it would be a million-seller smash hit.

—I think this was the enthusiasm that led Shoji Masuda to propose that infamous catchphrase, "竜退治はもう飽きた". ("I'm bored with dragon-slaying now!")1

Miyaoka: I tried to stop him. I thought Horii would get angry with me. (laughs) Besides, as an avid RPG lover myself I wasn't bored with dragon-slaying. (laughs) But Masuda was characteristically nonchalant about it. "What's the problem? It's funny!!"

—Tauchi, of the characters you created yourself, who are your favorites?

Tauchi: I like X-Elle from MM4. I wrote everything about her to my own tastes, all the way down to her thighs. I love pro-wrestling. Especially when Mitsuharu Misawa was in the AJPW (All Japan Pro Wrestling).

—You don't see "Wrestler" as a class in many RPGs, do you.

Tauchi: She was actually a "sumo wrestler" at first. (laughs) I was going for a full-on Japanese sumo wrestler vibe, but when I created her abilities, I realized "these aren't really sumo moves…" After that she became just a normal wrestler, with a pro wrestler outfit. Her "Typhoon Chop" is lifted wholesale from Kenta Kobayashi, and her elbow moves are my nod to Misawa. Also, "The Ring" area from MM4 was another of my little inserts.

—What specific aspect(s) of X-Elle do you like so much?

Tauchi: I like her story with Drumcan, the self-parody was really fun to write. Also, I didn't like the design of the female wrestlers in MM3. Because there were so many female characters in that game, we decided to make the wrestlers more muscular, but I'd originally wanted them to be a little more feminine, like Diva from the WWE in America, with a kind of "race queen" look.

—Please tell us about your favorite type of female character.

Miyaoka: I was most moved by Marilyn from MM2. At the end, she says something like "I wanted to know more about love…" which brought tears to my eyes when I wrote it.

In Terminator, the characters ask whether a robot can become self-aware. The T-100 was programmed to protect the main character. Likewise in MM4, Sasha talks about being ordered to act this way, but there's a similar element of ambiguity. It's a black box, impenetrable to humans. I made the choice not to put it front-and-center in the story. There's your typical trope where "the machine gets a heart", but I tried to skirt that line, going right up to but not past it.

X-Elle from MM4.

—There's also Marilyn from MM1, is there any connection there...?

Tauchi: I have a hard time answering that question, of whether they're the same person. I think players like it when we name other characters Marilyn though. Like the announcer in MM3. Or in MM4, in UngaUnga there's a man who falls in love with an android, and that android was originally named Marilyn.

—Looking at the Metal Max series as a whole, it makes me wonder if you like stories where the woman betrays the man...

Miyaoka: I think deep down, maybe I have a desire to be betrayed in love. Maybe it's related to the longing for a burning passionate romance, I don't know. Of course in reality no one wants to experience that, but the game allows us to experience it safely. I was something I'd wanted to put in a game for a long time.

—What is your favorite female character, Tauchi?

Tauchi: In MM4, it would be Seira. She is pure, innocent, and has a good personality. But in reality, I would probably date a girl like Karin. A girl like Seira is like an eternal ideal, and she'd probably never confess her feelings. Karin is more the kind of girl who is fun to be around, and who eventually goes out with you. That's why it's easy to write scenarios for girls like Karin. I can understand their feelings somehow.

With a pure character like Seira, the truth is you don't know what she's really thinking. (laughs) I think that's why characters like her often come off as superficial, you can't really relate to them. "Oh yeah… I guess there's girls like this too."

Miyaoka: "Good girls" are hard to write, aren't they.

Concept art for "Mad Broiler", a joking riff on Ted Broiler, the Grappler boss from MM2.

—By the way, who came up with those creative song titles like "Bang Bang in a Tank" and "Tears of a 7mm Machine Gun"...?

Miyaoka: That was me. Satoshi Kadokura would send me his songs with simple numbered titles like "Dungeon 1". But when we used those songs for somewhere other than a dungeon, for example, it would be too confusing, so I gave them those fanciful names.

—Who comes up with the unique monster designs, Miyaoka or Yamaoka?

Miyaoka: Both of us. I give him my corny storyboards and sketches, and he makes them even more whackier.

Part II: The Lost Metal Max Games

—There was a Metal Max 3 being made for the Playstation that never came out. Was it different from the MM3 we know today?

Tauchi: It was different. It looked very interesting. Recently I got to take a look at the development materials, and I saw how they were trying to do crazy things like battles that take place across rivers, and something with driftwood. (laughs) There were also a lot of things written in those docs that probably never would have made it into the final version, like battles that would have taken place on mine carts. (laughs)

Miyaoka: We were trying to create battles where you moved while you fought.

Tauchi: There were various "moving-while-fighting" scenarios, like a battle that takes place while you're being chased by a yama-uba. If I brought that to the team that made MM4, they'd probably look at me like, "are you serious…?" (laughs)

—Did this MM3 development not make it to production then?

Miyaoka: No, it didn't. Back then, we didn't know who would win out in the console war between Nintendo and the PlayStation. So we decided to take it easy until a clear victor emerged.

—I heard that Metal Max: Wild Eyes, which was being developed for the Dreamcast, was a love story.

Miyaoka: I haven't completely given up on that project yet, so I don't really want to reveal the whole plot. (laughs) At that time, I felt that game stories should be like Hollywood movie scripts, where the plot is decided over meetings, by consensus of the best planners. Our scenario team was like a big family back then. We would do things like rent a conference room in a Tokyo hotel for a whole night, and hold scenario writing all-nighters. We spent a huge amount of money and effort on this. Unfortunately, the story we had originally envisioned was so grandiose that we essentially had to cut the story in half during development.

Thankfully, some gameplay footage for Metal Max: Wild Eyes, the lost MM game for the Dreamcast, has been preserved.

Tauchi: Along with the story, we had to cut out entire maps. We fought a lot. Big fights. I mean, cutting 10% is hard enough… but we had to cut almost half. It really threw everything out of whack. For example, by cutting the maps, we were short on the WANTED monster and tank locations, and the monster locations we'd planned got messed up too. It was so difficult to keep everything consistent after that.

Miyaoka: I remember there was a great scene where the hero and heroine, chased by the enemy and separated from the rest of the party, get naked in a cave in the winter mountains and embrace each other. Did you have to cut that out too?

Tauchi: With today's hardware we could really go to town on a scene like that, though it might get us an X-rating.

—I heard Wild Eyes was originally called "Heart of Gold."

Miyaoka: It's the title of a song by Neil Young. It became a hit when I was in junior high school. It's a great song.

Tauchi: It was a play on the name of the heroine.

—How far did the Wild Eyes development get?

Miyaoka: About 70%. But once we started debugging, it took a long time, so I guess we were still in the Alpha stage.

We'd planned for the game system to include "obstacles"—the player's own tank would become an obstacle too once they disembarked from it. In the Metal Max games today, when you get out of your tank, it doesn't have a hit box, right? But in Wild Eyes the tanks remained on the battlefield as obstacles, which you could use strategically for cover (the Soldier could dismount and use a curved attack, for instance, from behind his own tank). You could do the same with the debris left on the battlefield. The debris had HP and would gradually break down as it was attacked, leaving you with no place to hide.

Tauchi: There was no "warp movement", for enemies or allies. Now you instantly move, attack, and return to your location, but in Wild Eyes you would go to hit someone, then have to turn around and come back. (laughs) I remember the rat horde enemies had very cute movements.

Miyaoka: In Wild Eyes, you'd get hit at weird timings, like while you were trying to return to your original position. We were trying to make it so the maps had no load times at all. But it would take about 8 minutes to move from one edge of the map to another; things were so far away you couldn't find them.

Metal Max Wild Eyes concept art of the main character and his Mother, from the Metal Max 25th Anniversary Memorial OST.

—I heard that the staff got hooked on EverQuest during the development.

Miyaoka: Yeah, and it was deeply resented by the people at the company who didn't play it. (laughs) I got yelled at once by a female employee. "Stop screwing around!"

Tauchi: It was mostly male employees who were doing it. Most of them took the last train, so right around midnight, like clockwork suddenly everyone would log in. (laughs) There were about six of us, just enough to form a party, and we would play until about 6 or 7 in the morning.

—Did EverQuest have any influence on Wild Eyes?

Miyaoka: Wild Eyes came first, so we weren't really aware of it when planning the game. One thing I really wanted to achieve for Wild Eyes was a seamless world with no loading times, but when I played EverQuest, there would be these sudden loading screens that appeared without warning. But the scenery changed so you didn't really mind it much. Seeing that made me think, OK, maybe we don't have to be so hung up the whole seamless thing for Wild Eyes.

—Are there any scenarios from Wild Eyes that were re-used in MM4?

Tauchi: No. Some of the characters were similar to those in Wild Eyes. Also, when we were creating the regular and WANTED enemies for MM4, we realized that Chikara Mikaze Queen and Mecha Mantis from Wild Eyes were really good, so maybe we should use them. So in that sense we did re-use some things.

—I heard that Kadokura composed the music for Wild Eyes... were any of his songs re-used later?

Miyaoka: Yes, they were. It's not always 100% clear to me what songs came from where, but there were ones he presented to us later that made me think, "Ah hah, this was from Wild Eyes, wasn't it!" We spent a lot of money then on the music side, so for Kadokura as well, it would have been a waste to see them go unused. The music for Wild Eyes was ambient, songs that would start out kind of amorphous and gradually take shape over the course of the composition. That was another similarity to EverQuest I suppose. The music would be kind of airy and indistinct until an enemy approached, then more high-tension music would start playing. It was linked dynamically to the enemies' approach.

Concept art from Metal Max: Wild Eyes, courtesy of Unseen64 (they have a nice write-up on Wild Eyes with more images here)

—Were you planning to have voice acting for Wild Eyes?

Tauchi: Only for the C-Unit on the tanks, so basically just the computer giving you status updates: "Engine systems inoperable!", stuff like that.

—Switching gears here... even today there are strict regulations on expression in video games, but in the Metal Max series we find depictions of things like corpses, vagrants, drugs, and so on.

Miyaoka: When MM2 was released, we suddenly got complaints from Nintendo, and it was very difficult.

Tauchi: In the opening scene, the town is destroyed by Ted Broiler and bodies are scattered all over the place, and originally they were charred black. When we first had Nintendo check the ROM, we didn't include that detail, and when we later submitted the master copy with the burnt bodies, they were furious. "You can't show charred bodies like that!" So we had to censor it to the version you see today. I don't think anyone at Crea-Tech really cared that much though, right?

Miyaoka: It's another one of our "Dragon Quest antithesis" points, but traditional fantasy has a clean image—it's all about dreams, right? But ugly things like trash dumps exist. And when people die, they become corpses. Why hide that reality? I think the current regulations do just that: they try to push away the reality of ugly things, dangerous things, dirty things… for the children's sake, I suppose? But that's precisely why I intentionally use abusive language like "asshole" and "die you bastard!" When a kid gets into a fight with a bully in real life, if they're just trembling with fear and unable to do anything, that's pretty pathetic. I think you should at least have enough morale and guts where if someone curses at you, you can curse back at them!

—Metal Max" also had a unique sense of humor, with enemy names like "Ippatsuya" and "Tamagon".2 Whose sense of humor do we have to credit for these gags?

Tauchi: Miyaoka came up with most of the names.

Miyaoka: The naming in particular reflects the influence of Bill, The Galactic Hero. I love comedy. I love making people laugh. I think the emotions of fear and laughter are actually quite close in nature. As are beauty and ugliness. I don't want to artificially separate the two; I want to show both, and from the center something interesting might emerge.

Tauchi: Yeah, like when you get killed by Broiler's Mohican Slugger ability. Scenes like that… players would ask us, "Am I supposed to cry here? Or laugh?" And the answer is, both. (laughs)

The humorously named "ippatsuya" (one-shot wonder).

—The scenarios in Metal Max are also notable for containing a large number of irreversible decisions. When you realize a character you met earlier has died, it evokes this feeling of ephemerality, of being unable to return to the past. It's one of the series' strengths I think.

Miyaoka: If every choice leads more or less to the same outcome, it can't really be called a "choice" can it? Ideally, we'd allow the player to experience the consequences of failure at any given choice or juncture, and then be able to rewind time back and return to that spot… but that would be hard to realize in game form.

Tauchi: In MM3, there's a subquest in Shieruta with an impoverished girl selling mosquito repellant, and if you don't buy it, her family will die. Shieruta as a town was written to show the harsh divide between rich and poor. Maybe it was overdoing it, but players were shocked to find her siblings had starved to death. For a game, it traumatized people.

Miyaoka: It probably seemed like you were deliberately trying to depress people.

Tauchi: That wasn't the intention, but after that I was very careful about including scenes that could be taken that way.

—There's also a lot of sexual content in Metal Max, with lovers and girlfriends. What were you aiming at there?

Miyaoka: I haven't given it a ton of deep thought, but as human beings we are beholden to our five senses, and lust is one of our strongest desires, so I thought including that would get people's attention. In that sense it was just natural.

—If one goes too deep into male fantasy, it's easy for things to turn into male chauvinism. Was that something you consciously tried to avoid? I feel like we see a lot of very strong female charcters in Metal Max.

Miyaoka: We did take care not to be discriminatory. Making the women strong was one line of defense against that. That way, even if you're making a male-fantasy oriented game, if the women are stronger than the men it can't ever reach the point of chauvinism.

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  1. This jab at Dragon Quest was used in a TV commercial for the first Metal Max on the Famicom.

  2. "Ippatsuya" is the name of a big cannon enemy and means "one-hit wonder." "Tamagon" is a combination of tamago (egg) and dragon, and refers to the big egg enemies in MM4.

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