Talking Game Design with Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji

Talking Game Design with Fukio Mitsuji

This 1989 feature, originally published in Gamest magazine, captures a discussion between some of Japan’s most accomplished arcade game designers, led by fellow developer and regular Gamest contributor Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji (1960-2008). The discussion focuses on the individual and shared work histories of the interviewees and the conception of popular games like Kazutoshi Ueda’s Mr. Do! and Michishito Ishikawa’s Wonder Boy.

Michishito Ishizuka – Programmer
Kazutoshi Ueda – Designer
Hideyuki Yokoyama – Producer

MTJ: Tell us about game development during your days at Universal. What was the working environment like there?

Yokoyama: Well, projects weren’t big like they are today. In the very beginning our entire software development department consisted of just two people. (laughs) We were given projects to do with very little design guidance… they’d just hand over some 2-page planning doc and be like, “here you go, make this.” (laughs) We also had to design the characters ourselves, but we didn’t even have graph paper to draw them on…

MTJ: I also heard you had no sprite editors to work with…

Yokoyama: Hah, no way.

Ueda: We didn’t have any fancy stuff like that. (laughs)

Yokoyama: We did the sound ourselves too, but we didn’t have any sound tools…

Ueda: I feel like we wrote the music on a Casiotone?

Yokoyama: Yeah, something like that. Then we would transcribe the melodies into the game, which is why they came out so plinky sounding. For the kicker, we also had to create the marquee art, instruction cards, and promotional pamphlets ourselves.

A caricature of the late Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji, former Taito employee and later freelance game designer whose works include Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands.

MTJ: That sounds like too much for one person! How did you get started at Universal, by the way?

Ueda: I was a salesman for Britannica Encyclopedias, but I always got into fights with my branch manager. (laughs) Universal had an office near my house, and I had seen a lot of their games. From time to time they put out hiring ads… yeah, there’s really nothing interesting about how I joined up. Just the usual process.

At first, I was responsible for Universal’s leasing agreements (with game centers) for their arcade games, and I helped out with the release of Scratch (a golf game) and Circus Circus (a clone of Exidy’s Circus). Shortly thereafter, Space Invaders came out. This is amazing, I thought, and I told our President “Let’s make an Invaders game!” A copy, of course… as was natural in those days.

But as the Invaders Boom cooled down, our leasing agreements started to suffer, and I thought to myself, hey–if we’re going to be struggling this hard, why not come up with our own game ideas?

I talked with management, and they said “You’ve got a good eye for games Ueda, so why don’t you take a look at what we’ve got in development and give me your opinion.” They had me attend a number of development meetings as well. Yokoyama, I think you were at some of those too.

Yokoyama: Yeah, I was.

Ueda: I had a lot of criticisms for the plans and designs that the dev group had brought forward. I think some of them were outright opposed, too? Anyway, I accompanied my bosses to an expo overseas to scope out and secure new leases, and it was there that I asked them to let me do the planning for Universal’s new games. They said yes, and when I got back to Japan, the team really laid into me. I was teased pretty bad. I won’t say by who… (laughs)

Yokoyama: It wasn’t me. (laughs)

Ueda: No, it wasn’t. Anyway, that team ended up becoming the core members of a certain developer in Kansai, so the only game I worked together with them on (for a short time) was Space Panic. We had our own room for the planners then, for awhile at least. There were 3 of us at first, and we made Lady Bug. It was very difficult because we worked with outside contractors who had never developed any software before.

Yokoyama: We had to compete with the other team on the floor above us too.

Ueda: Yeah, I remember.

MTJ: So you had suddenly become a planner, Ueda… were you someone who had always enjoyed coming up with new ideas?

Kazutoshu Ueda’s second original arcade game, the popular and “very active” Mr. Do!

Ueda: I did like thinking up new things, yeah. I worked on graphics. I loved the feeling of creating something from nothing, and I had actually attended a school where I thought I could learn a lot, but I ended up learning nothing there.

MTJ: I also worked in graphics, and I feel the same way. In the end, it’s something you have to learn on your own. Moving on, I loved the first Mr. Do. How involved were you in the sequels?

Ueda: I only worked on the first game. I made that, and then quit Universal. Mr. Do was basically a clone of Dig Dug (obviously!). Management directly told us to copy the game. (laughs)

MTJ: Well, while I certainly feel like your games draw inspiration from the mechanics of many other games, their overall construction is quite impeccable, and I think they stood out from the crowd (especially Mr. Do). I don’t think it’s fair to call it just a copy of Dig Dug; it has it’s own unique gameplay. What were some of the things you felt were very important to game design then?

Ueda: My sticking points were player satisfaction and fairness. No matter what idea I came up with, I always asked: is this going to be satisfying? That was my standard. In doing so, however, the playtime of my games kept getting longer and longer… I often butted heads with management about that.

MTJ: Can you tell us about the relationship between Universal and Tecmo?1

Ishizuka: Yeah, things were just going along at Tecmo, and then one day I looked up and realized over half our developers were ex-Universal! It was something like 20 people. (laughs) We used to joke around the office, “If you didn’t come from Universal, you can’t get promoted here.” (laughs)

MTJ: So Universal must have seen Tecmo as the enemy then, right?!

Yokoyama: Indeed, they did. We were told that explicitly. They didn’t care if we switched companies, so long as it wasn’t Tecmo we were going to! (laughs)

Ueda: I told them I wasn’t going to Tecmo when I quit, and then I did! (laughs) The thing was, I was originally planning to join that company in Kansai I mentioned earlier, when without warning I got a call from a former chief at Tecmo who said he was nearby and wanted to talk about something.

Ishizuka: In my case, I was hanging out at a game center when someone I knew from Tecmo came over and suggested that I come to his office and hang out sometime. When I went, all of a sudden they started talking about salaries and wages. (laughs) Before I could catch my breath, I was hired. What surprised me when I went to work the next day, there was nothing underway, nothing in development! (laughs) I started out doing on-location sales work, and on the side, I helped with the planning for a STG game called Voyager. It never got made, unfortunately.

Ueda: I joined Tecmo right around the time they were developing Guzzler and Senjyo. I was told to “Spruce them up somehow”, which stressed me out a ton… it was really bad.

MTJ: Were there any games that the three of you worked on together at Tecmo?

Yokoyama: Tehkan World Cup, I believe.

MTJ: World Cup was a huge hit!

Ishizuka: Unfortunately, I quit Tecmo before learning it had become a huge hit… (laughs) Ueda and another guy did the planning. This guy was a huge soccer fan. Right away he wanted to do a soccer game, he was fired up about it. His previous game Gridiron Fight, had turned out to be an unusually complex game, so I think this time he was determined to make World Cup as simple as possible. We made it so you could play without having to think too deeply, just running with the trackball controls and pressing a button to kick. I suppose that simplicity was the reason it sold so well.

Tehkan World Cup is perhaps most remembered for its grueling and failure-prone trackball.

MTJ: After playing World Cup, I remember how everyone’s palms would be all red and sweaty. (laughs)

Ishizuka: It was around that time that the word “taikan game” was coming into usage, though of course it meant something slightly different from what we had created. Either way it was a game that made you sweat, so if the shoes fits… (laughs) We worked on World Cup at a pretty laid back pace, and finished it in 4-5 months.

MTJ: Ishizuka, I believe you are also responsible for the Wonder Boy games. Did you create all three of them, or just the first?

Ishizuka: I did about half the programming for the first two, and the rest was done by ex-UPL employee Ryuichi Nishizawa, who had done the planning for Ninja-Kun and had also created the arcade games Nova 2001 and Raiders 5. He’s currently President of Westone. Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair was created by another ex-Tecmo person.

MTJ: I totally loved the first Wonder Boy game!

Ishizuka: Ah, thank you so much. (laughs)

MTJ: The stage design was very polished. How much time did you spend making those stages?

Ishizuka: To be honest, we originally had a lot of time to work on it, but one day we suddenly were informed that we’d be exhibiting Wonder Boy at an upcoming game expo… we had less than a month, and everyone rushed to finish it, pulling consecutive overnighters. We had to finish all the data assets in that one push, as well as most of the programming re-writes and revisions. The stage design was done with Nishizawa at my side: he’d sit there and say, “ok, put this here… now put this over here…” Then we’d try it, and if it felt good, that’s how we left it. For the more difficult stages, we deliberately placed them at the end. Then the story was made up and imposed upon the game after the fact. (laughs)

Wonder Boy, Westone’s first arcade game and a smash hit that spawned a six-game series and a plethora of ports.

MTJ: You mentioned that satisfaction and fairness were themes for your developments. What aspects of your games do you feel reflect those themes, specifically?

Ueda: “Satisfaction” in a game means having some kind of mechanic that you can gradually get better and better at. I also think good, responsive controls are a big part of that too. When I made Lady Bug, I made some mistakes there. The hit detection was pretty bad for opening the gates, so that if you weren’t very precise, they wouldn’t open. I had intended for them to be very easy to flip, but when the game was released, regular players told me how hard it was. “I’ve failed!”, I thought.

As for “fairness”, I think that hit box/collision detection is also a good example of that. It means making the player feel strong like he’s got an advantage, while the enemies, in contrast, are at a disadvantage.

Yokoyama: In a lot of those early close-quarter karate type games, they’d make the enemy hitbox tiny, and simultaneously give the player all these different disadvantages.

Ishizuka: In that case, to be fair, I think you’d want to include a couple conditions in the game whereby the hit box changes and the enemy becomes easier to hit.

Ueda: Well, why just 2? I’d want to add 10 different ways. Another thing, I also make sure not to include “bad” items that only damage the player when he picks them up. All these things contribute to a sense of fairness for the player.

Ishizuka: I try to design my games so that when you take damage or die, you don’t simply think “the enemy killed me”, but rather “I made a mistake here, and that’s why I died.” That’s why, for example, I try to include lures in my games, places where if you just waited patiently everything would go fine, but I’ll dangle out this little carrot in front of the player, and if they rush ahead and take it and die, they’ll realize, “oh, it was my mistake.”

Ueda: Of course, I would add that if you go overboard with that kind of design, it could have the opposite effect and annoy players…

MTJ: That’s true. Balance is always the key.

Ishizuka: Yeah, we’re really talking about the carrot and stick here, right? Players will endure the lashes of the stick to get that carrot… that kind of balance. With a proper reward, there’s nothing to complain about.

MTJ: I use those methods myself, even now.

Ishizuka: If you put something in a really dangerous, hard to reach place, the player is going to want to try and get it. Then he goes for it, thinking he might die… and in fact he does. But that death feels fair because he knew the stakes.

MTJ: Yeah, I think game development really asks us to think hard about basic human psychology. A long time ago, I made a number of games with the theme of “thrills and pleasures.” What I learned then, was that to make the game interesting, you needed a wave-like variety–the thrills can’t all be at one level, they need highs and lows for you to appreciate them.

The three interviewees: Kazutoshi Ueda, Michishito Ishizuka, Hideyuki Yokoyama.

Ueda: Yes, that variety of tempo and contrast are very important to video games.

MTJ: Our philosophy with games might appear to be different at first glance, Ueda, but on the this deeper point, I think they’re aligned. Satisfaction is connected to pleasure, while thrills–that is, moments where you know precisely why you took damage or died–are interconnected with the notion of fairness.

By the way, Ueda, do you have any plans for new arcade games at Atlus?

Ueda: We definitely want to make them.

MTJ: Someday I’d like to play another game designed by you, at a game center. My personal hope is that you’d avoid being influenced by the current crop of games, and make something in your old style, pure and simple.

Ueda: Yeah, I’ll do my best!

MTJ: Ishizuka and Yokoyama, I hope you also continue to give us great work.

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  1. Known as Tehkan until January 1986; the tenure of Ueda, Yokoyama and Ishizuka falls almost entirely within the Tehkan era, but the Tecmo name has been used in this interview for the sake of familiarity.

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