Game Arts x Chunsoft – 1998 Developer Interview

Game Arts x Chunsoft – 1998 Developer Interview

In this lengthy interview from the GSLA, the two founders of Chunsoft and Game Arts, Koichi Nakamura and Yoichi Miyaji, share their views on the present state of gaming with a focus on RPGs and the ever-expanding, “epic” playtimes that were becoming increasingly common then. Yoichi is not as well known as his brother Takeshi, who passed away in 2011, so this interview offers a rare insight into the other creative half of Game Arts.

Casual vs. Hardcore

Miyaji: “Recent games are boring.” I was feeling that the other day, so I decided to dust off some of the older games I loved and give them a go. And what I found is they weren’t fun at all. (laughs) I was so into them in the past, but playing them now, I kept wondering what I even liked in the first place? We only remember the good times, right? When I actually played them it was like, “huh? what the hell is this?” (laughs) Everything is more beautiful in our memories.

Nakamura: Comparing old games and new games, today I think it’s less about “is it boring or fun?” and more about “will it sell or not?”

Miyaji: Yeah, whether you find a game fun or not is highly subjective, after all. I was obsessed with Space Invaders, so much that whenever I heard the invaders sound effect, I’d be overcome with the urge to reach into my pocket for a stack of 100 yen coins!

I mean, it was almost a mental health problem, but then one day the feeling just suddenly disappeared: “man, this game is boring.” And even playing it today, it still feels boring. I still wonder what that was all about, you know? I think players change. To wit, today in the game market we have “casual players” and “hardcore players.” The hardcore players are dyed-in-the-wool gamers, and what they find fun differs greatly from others, I think.

Yoichi Miyaji

I’m a hardcore gamer myself, so I’m already one of the corrupted. The structure and “syntax” of RPGs is second nature to me. But to a casual player picking up a recent RPG, it’s full of things that make him scratch his head: “what am I supposed to do here?”

Nakamura: Today’s casual gamers are likely to be Playstation owners, but I think the core of the Playstation userbase is older people, teenagers and above, who lived through the Famicom and Super Famicom eras. It’s hard to imagine a person who experienced those eras and never played an RPG! I suspect it’s more likely that those “casual” users have played them before, but don’t feel particularly inclined to play them anymore today.

It’s like with movies: a hardcore movie buff will know and follow certain directors, might watch some French films, etc… while everyone else just sees the big summer and holiday Hollywood blockbusters. I think it’s the same way with gamers. Casual gamers don’t spend a bunch of time playing everyday, they own a few titles that they’ve heard are fun and not too difficult, and they play those simply as a way to pass the time.

Miyaji: Yeah, and hardcore gamers will play a new RPG every month, but casuals don’t keep up with new releases like that. I think games have evolved too much, and developers are struggling with the gameplay element. Yet if you try to make your game easier, the hardcore gamers will get pissed! Making games really is a difficult thing.

The STG genre is the best example—it’s terribly difficult to set the right difficulty in a shmup. If it’s not difficult it definitely won’t be popular, but if it’s too difficult you’ll leave behind a whole class of users. In actuality STG and action games should be easily approachable for your average player, but when you watch someone play a new action or STG today for the first time, they die almost immediately. Even at Game Arts, our employees couldn’t make it longer than 56 seconds the first time they played Gungriffon. (laughs)

Nakamura: Lately, rather than playing myself, I’ve had more fun watching other skilled gamers play. I don’t think I want to take the time to reach their level of skill.

Koichi Nakamura,
Chunsoft founder.

Miyaji: For all genres, the threshold of entry for new players has risen sharply. If you look at why RPGs were so popular in the past, I think it’s because anyone could make progress if they just put in the time. But with recent RPGs if you don’t already understand the “rules” you won’t get anywhere. Take the Final Fantasy series: if you’ve played the previous FF games, then you know what the magic does, and you know what spells work on which enemies. You have to know it to make progress. And you can see that problem in a lot of genres today: should they be more inclined to veteran players, or newcomers?

Nakamura: I think a lot depends on the style of the genre, too. The only way a STG game develops, for instance, is by getting more difficult as the stages progress. But new RPGs are fun just by changing events in the story: the overall difficulty doesn’t have to change. You can almost just set it at one level and be done. Of course, even the new players today will eventually “graduate” from that level of difficulty, and will be expecting more challenges.

Miyaji: I think Dragon Quest’s difficulty level is as far as you can go, if you want the average person to come along for the ride. Dragon Quest did a really good job of balancing the difficulty so that hardcore players and casual players alike can enjoy themselves. I feel that way about Mario too. It’s a fun game to go super deep on, but it’s also fun to just putz about in. How is that so? It’s mysterious to me. I think it’s a masterpiece… games like that are wonders.

Nakamura: Nintendo seems to have a lot of games like that, don’t they.

Miyaji: So many. How do they do it? I think it’s because there’s no one else making games like them, that can be enjoyed by all levels. There are other good action games out there, but they’re all very difficult. That’s why I think Nintendo is the one company making the most “game-like” games today. It’s true that the N64 didn’t sell very well in Japan, but I would recommend that system to a light user without hesitation.


Miyaji: Lately I feel like there’s been a lot of “full-course meal” games. I think 15 minutes is a very important concept for a game. 15 minute increments. It’s key that the game be able to satisfy you in that time. What I loved about the Famista (overseas: RBI Baseball) series is that you could play a single game in 15 minutes. However, looking at baseball games today, there’s no way you’ll finish in that time. It now takes some gumption to start a game: “oh, if I start this, it will take about 30 minutes…” Then you get caught up thinking whether you should even play or not. It’s like, Parasite Eve is a great game and all, but it takes determination to say “I’m gonna sit down and play this!” There’s so many “heavy” games like that now.

Nakamura: Yeah, I know what you mean.

Miyaji: I loved Torneko, but the inspiration for that game, Rogue, was one that you could finish a session in 15 minutes. The very fact that it was so easy to pick up and play actually made it hard to put down. There really aren’t a lot of games like that today, that you can play in 15 minute chunks. Nowadays I have to steel myself up to play—and I’d better pack a lunch for the longhaul!

Nakamura: Well, that’s true, but I think these really long and involved games have their own value, too. Dragon Quest was like that in the past: people would skip school or take a day off from work just to play it all day.

Torneko no Daibouken,
one of Chunsoft’s roguelikes.

Miyaji: Yeah, but back then there was a wealth of games you could enjoy in short increments. Dragon Quest was actually unusual for its time in that regard, and that was a good thing. Sometimes you want to get deep on a game like that.

And if you wanted, with Dragon Quest you could say “Today I’ll just spend 15 minutes and level up”, right? But it’s different today. The story is the main focus for games, so stopping after 15 minutes usually feels abrupt and weird.

Nakamura: I think the pace of human life has quickened. Haven’t you noticed in tv dramas, too, how fast the drama unfolds? Since people get bored if you sit around explaining things, right from the start someone has to die or get killed. I think games are going to be forced to adopt a similarly uptempo pace. On the other hand, I think if games aren’t sufficiently long people won’t be satisfied. If a super-fun game ends in just 2 hours, it will be called a kuso game.

Miyaji: Yes, the rythym of life has changed, yet the time you have to put into a game is going up. Long ago a session of gaming would involve switching cartridges pretty frequently; today, games are so time-consuming you can only play them on the weekend. Your average strategy rpg takes 50 hours to complete! If you play one, you won’t have time for any other games. If you start Machi, you can say goodbye to your other games for awhile.

Nakamura: Hey, it’s only 1/3 the length of Grandia! (laughs)

Miyaji: Hah, well, that’s because when we released Grandia there were no other RPGs on the Saturn, so it was fine. Still though, once you begin Grandia, you’re not going to have time for a game like Shining Force 3—and it’s a really amazing game. This April, Super Robot Taisen F and Gihren’s Ambition both came out at the same time, and any poor bastard who tries to play them together is going to start confusing them, I’m sure! It’s sad. The balance is off in the market right now—I mean the balance of light, casual games and big, epic games. There’s too much long, heavy stuff now… every developer has caught “epic-itis.”

Although originally known for their work with Enix and Dragon Quest, by the late 90s Chunsoft had released several sound novels to critical acclaim. Machi is virtually unknown here but was very popular in Japan.

I think more diversity would be better, you know? When you look at the games released today, it feels like they’re all trying to make everything huge and bombastic. I want more stupid, light games! Along those lines I’ve recently really enjoyed Human’s Dekotora Densetsu. When I heard the enka music in the background, I was like, “Whoaa!” In the midst of all these race games, suddenly a game like Dekotora appears. (laughs) But yeah, I want to see more lighthearted stuff like this.

Nakamura: Yeah, there are definitely times when, as a developer, I would rather be making something a little lighter, something that isn’t so overwrought.

Miyaji: Getting tired there, Nakamura? (laughs)

Nakamura: Hah, no. But I wonder if a lighter game wouldn’t sell just as well, or better. You know, a game where you can sum up the appeal in just one word or phrase. That makes it easier to communicate to people, and easier for them to recall. Something like, “in this game, you get to drive a train.” (laughs)

Miyaji: Yeah—that already sounds fun.

Nakamura: Or “you get to raise a pet”… a premise you can explain in 3 seconds or less. Then the person who hears it gets to fill in the details with their imagination. If someone asked us to explain Grandia or Machi in just one sentence, we’d be in trouble, right? But I think how easily you can convey the appeal of your game is very tied into sales.

For Resident Evil, for example, you can get the gist of it across pretty quickly: “it’s &$%^* scary!” This is key I think. If you just say, “it’s a cool game” or “it’s interesting”, it might seem like you’ve explained something, but in reality those words are too broad and convey very little. Once you tell someone Resident Evil is scary, then someone can ask how, and you can say, “there’s zombies!”… and the conversation about your game has just ballooned. There’s surely a connection there, with how well a game will sell.

Cult or Conventional

Miyaji: Yeah, a clear, simple message is very important. With Grandia, we decided to go full-on “orthodox” or “old-school” RPG, because there wasn’t anything simple like that being released at the time. I think of it like Mito Komon—that kind of simple, classic, conventional style. If you ask yourself what’s the appeal of Mito Komon, I think that it’s always a morality tale, a good vs. evil kind of thing. I would say Hayao Miyazaki’s works are similar in that regard. So yeah, I understand what you were saying, that it’s best to have a simple concept for your game that you can explain to people, but with Grandia we wanted to go the old-school RPG route.

Nakamura: I think it’s true in movies too, that all the big hits have extremely simple plots and premises. The story of Titanic, for example, is super simple. From our perspective as creators it feels really shallow, and watching it is boring as hell. But that level of simplicity, as a commercial product, does reach a wide audience.

Miyaji: But I don’t think you can really tell whether something conventional like that is going to be a hit, or a total bust. Dragon Quest, you know, has the most utterly conventional story. But Dragon Quest is amazing. It’s that feeling of relief you get at the very end, you know? Coming away from the experience with those warm, good feelings is really important I think. That’s the advantage of a good vs. evil morality play. The hero beats the bad guy—that’s enough for me! Man, now I want to go play Dragon Quest again. (laughs)

Square’s games, on the other hand, I’d have to say they’re more cult. 1 But lately there’s been a lot of cult-ish movies too. Stuff like Starship Troopers—that was totally cult!

Nakamura: When you think about it though, Resident Evil seems that way too.

Miyaji: Yes, definitely. The thing is, I think whether something is cult or conventional, it can find a large audience. In the world of games we have Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Whichever becomes more popular, the other will play a supporting role and balance it out.

I mean, nowadays the world itself is getting kind of cult. Crazy things that you’d expect to see only in movies are happening in the real world. In that kind of a society, I think the masses will want something conventional. What I think gamers want most right now, therefore, is Dragon Quest. That’s what I hear from everyone whenever the question comes up, “what game are you looking forward to?” “Oh, just Dragon Quest.” I think we’ve all had enough cult for the time being.

Grandia sums up a lot of Game Arts’ philosophy and is the subject of another interview I translated here.

The Appeal of Games

Nakamura: There’s different genres, so I can’t say this will be true for everything, but with scenario/story based games, I think the important appeal is this: when you played it, did it make you feel like you got to lead another life? As game developers we must strive to capture that feeling. It’s a lot of trial and error.

Miyaji: Yeah. “Appeal” is something different for everyone. There’s as many tastes as there are people.

Nakamura: Very true. I think of “appeal” as the feeling, “I don’t want to stop!” (laughs)

Miyaji: I think appeal changes throughout the years too. Sometimes conventional, sometimes cult. It’s good if you can ride that wave, and hook up other media trends. For example, no one’s going to enjoy a game about the Olympics if it’s released when the Olympics aren’t actually being held.

Another thing is that games must have love in them. There are games where you can tell the creators didn’t have any love for what they were doing. Those games always suck.

Nakamura: That’s a part of it, yeah. You want players to think that you, the creator, were really into it yourself. I think “love” is a good word for what players feel in that moment.

Miyaji: Yes, it is love! When you, Nakamura, pour your heart into a game you’ve made, that love comes through. The players really can feel it. It’s like “Nakamura, wow, he’s so awesome, what a guy.” It’s your stamp of personality.

Nakamura: (laughs)

Miyaji: I would call that love.

Nakamura: I’ve received a lot of influence from anime and movies myself. Of all the different things that have influenced me, the ones where I felt the “love” you’ve described have had the biggest and most lasting influence. As game creators, we’re the ones now who are in a position to pass that on to others.

Miyaji: That’s why now, with games occupying such a big space in the media universe, if some kids play Grandia and it leaves an impression on them, maybe it will have a positive impact on their lives. I know it was like that for me with manga, “What would Ashita no Joe do here? What would the Samurai Giants do?”

My feeling with kids today is that they need safe spaces, somewhere to escape and relax. Games and anime should try and create those spaces for children, where they can find peace of mind. People are simple creatures, and even if something bad happens, if they can escape into a game for a little bit and feel “ah, that was fun”, then they can know happiness again. When you think about it that way, our work as game developers is very beneficial. It’s the business of the heart.

Nakamura: You sound like Fukuzou Moguro. (laughs)

Miyaji: We’ve got to fill the holes in people’s hearts. (laughs) But that’s what I’ve come to in the end: love. The appeal of games is love.

Nakamura: I think your conclusion is correct.

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