Resident Evil 4 - 2005 Developer Interview
This lengthy RE4 interview with producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi (who also worked as a programmer on the earlier games) was originally featured in Nintendo Dream. The main topic of discussion is the complete overhaul that RE4 underwent, transforming the game from survival horror to action shooter. While Kobayashi's comments are somewhat general, they help illuminate the shift from "RE 3.5" to RE4.
—When the Resident Evil remake for GameCube game out, director Shinji Mikami talked about how important it was that the game felt "live." Does that apply to RE4 as well...?
Kobayashi: More than "live" or "real-time", I'd say that "reality" was our watchword here. However, our biggest goal with RE4 was ensuring that it was a fun game. Not a "fun Resident Evil game", but a fun game more generally… a top-class, mainstream entertainment experience.
—You mentioned the "joy of exploring" before, but this is the first time in a Resident Evil game that you can collect money.
Kobayashi: It's all about that "cha-ching!" feeling! Looking for the gemstones kind of makes you feel like a treasure hunter, too.
—I also noticed that if you shoot the weapon merchant, he dies.
Kobayashi: He does, yeah.
—I bet players will immediately regret doing that. (laughs)
Kobayashi: Well, what did you expect… you shot him. (laughs) That's part of the "reality" I'm talking about, though. It's also Game Over if you shoot Ashley.
—What!! You can shoot Ashley...?! That should be off-limits!
Kobayashi: It should be, but there's people who will do it on purpose too. (laughs)
—Now that you mention it, I kind of want to try it once. (laughs)
Kobayashi: If Ashley gets taken, or you shoot her, it's Game Over. The thing is, when you're surrounded by enemies, it gets pretty chaotic, right? It's really easy then to accidentally shoot her. If you get mobbed by the enemies you can lose sight of Ashley and shoot her by accident… it's like, "what just happened?!" I've experienced that. You've got to be careful.
—Yeah, well, it's realistic for sure. The way you're always paired up with Ashley seems to be a major feature of RE4.
Kobayashi: It changes the style of the fights, having Ashley there. You have to defend her while you fight, so you've got to always be vigilant and careful. Also, if you hurry ahead too quickly, she'll get left behind. You've got to maintain the right amount space between the two of you.
—It's a bit different from the zapping system in RE0.
Kobayashi: In RE0 they fought with you, but Ashley doesn't fight. So she's less of a partner, and more someone who you have to protect.
—That really helps draw players into the game, I think.
Kobayashi: Yeah, I think players will feel a lot of affection towards her. She also reacts based on what Leon does, so if, for example, an enemy is going to attack you from behind, she'll alert you to their presence. Then the player may want to duck to steady their firing arm, to make sure they don't hit Ashley. That sense of "humanity" is what we were after in making RE4.
—And it also contributes to the realism.
Kobayashi: Yeah. Plus stuff like, when you're climbing up to a high spot, and Ashley has her arms around you. Or when you jump down, she has to hold onto you.
—When the team brings up all these neat ideas, do you ever worry, "um, I don't know if we can really do that..."
Kobayashi: At first, yeah, I was worried whether the Ashley stuff could be pulled off. But once we got down to it, the programmers worked very hard, and they brought these "defend her!" mechanics to the next level.
—I imagine if you'd done a half-ass job there, it would feel very robotic. You wouldn't feel that emotional connection to Ashley.
Kobayashi: Yeah. I think they did a really great job.
—The technological prowess on display in RE4 is incredible.
Kobayashi: You know, we don't really try and put the "tech" in the spotlight when we make our games. Whenever we're asked about that stuff in interviews, it's like… "we're just doing normal stuff, what you'd expect." In truth, we're doing a lot of different, neat tech things, but we don't make a big fanfare about it.
—To change the subject a bit... in RE4, your opponents have changed from zombies to humans.
Kobayashi: Well, human-like. (laughs) It's a subtle point but one we've been asked about a lot. They aren't human. (laughs)
—And in changing the enemies, the nature of the dread that the player experiences also changes.
Kobayashi: Yeah. In this game, it's "the fear of groups". We gave players a hint of that in previous games with the zombies, but the enemies in RE4 move differently, and they have actual AI. They also don't mindlessly come at you from the front—they sneak around and surround you.
—Right, it's the fear of being surrounded by a horde of unknowns.
Kobayashi: Yes. There's also fear involved in hearing them speak. Zombies just make "UGHHHHH" sounds, but in RE4 the villagers attack while muttering words that you don't understand.
—Is the language they speak from a country in Europe, where the game takes place?
Kobayashi: It's Spanish. RE4 doesn't take place in Spain, but we used Spanish anyway.
—It takes place in some undefined part of Europe, right?
Kobayashi: Yeah. Which is why we didn't base it on some pre-existing town in Europe. We cared a lot about evoking a European atmosphere, so we decided to make the language Spanish.
—Would Spanish speakers understand what they're saying?
Kobayashi: Yeah, they are saying actual, intelligible words. The protagonist Leon doesn't understand Spanish either, though, so he's basically in the same position as the player.
—Unlike zombies, these enemies come at you with speed, which is another new kind of fear for RE4.
Kobayashi: Yeah. Suddenly you look over and realize they're right next to you. Also, the sound. The sound of the chainsaw, or an axe flying through the air. And in the latter half of the game enemies actually come at you with weapons. They shoot arrows that whisk by you, and they throw explosives. That's another kind of fear, knowing that threats will be coming at you from afar.
—The sound effects really amplify the feeling of terror.
Kobayashi: It's a different style from before. In the previous games, when you enter a room and the door slowly creaks open, a lot of the terror comes from that moment. But we don't have any scenes like that in RE4.
—Right, all the doors just open normally.
Kobayashi: Instead, when something is about to start, we use the background music to signal that change in atmosphere. We used that in the demo disc too, like after you beat the chainsaw guy, and everything calms down and some gentle music starts playing, and then when another enemy appears the music suddenly picks back up. We also put a great deal of effort into the gun sound effects. We actually used some sounds from Hollywood, and worked in cooperation with a foreign company to create those sounds. It's kind of hard to sample real gun sounds in Japan.
—I've heard people say that Leon is kind of fragile this game. He dies easily.
Kobayashi: Even if you've gotten used to the gameplay from the demo disc, in the real game letting your guard down usually means death. Even if you've played it over and over like myself, if you get careless you're toast. (laughs)
—I suppose players should not be afraid to die, then.
Kobayashi: Yeah. We wanted it to be a game where, even if you're dying a lot, you can quickly jump right back into the action. So we've introduced save points that you can start from, instead of having to use the typewriter all the time. If you die you'll only be sent back a little bit.
—Yeah, the typewriter system in the previous games meant that you always had to re-do sections.
Kobayashi: Originally, we weren't inclined to add checkpoints like this. But as the development on, we realized that you die a lot in this style of action game, so it would be too harsh without them. On top of that, RE4 is divided into chapters, and it automatically saves at the start of each chapter, so there's plenty of save spots even without using the typewriter.
The way we approach saving for this game is completely different. Before, when you entered a room to save your game, some gentle music would start playing and you'd be able to breathe a sigh of relief. In this game, though, it's more of a mad rush through the chapter, and when you see the intertitles showing the end of the chapter, the game will automatically save for you and give you that much-needed breather. It allows us to create a greater sense of punctuation and delineation, you see.
—When did you first start developing RE4?
Kobayashi: Around July of 2000. Code Veronica had come out earlier that year, in February, so it was after that.
—You must not have known it would be for the GameCube then.
Kobayashi: No, it hadn't been announced of course. We actually announced RE0 for the GameCube first. We were originally thinking RE4 would be for the N64, and we switched it over to the GameCube later.
—I see. (laughs) So that means RE4 took about 4 years to develop?
Kobayashi: If you look at the whole timeframe, yeah, but we didn't really get started in earnest until after the spring of 2002, when RE1 was released for the GameCube. So it was a bit shorter than that. Moreover, we majorly overhauled RE4 multiple times in the course of the devleopment, and the version that finally ended up getting released was like our fourth iteration.
—(laughs) You reworked it that much, eh?
Kobayashi: The initial version was what we showed people at the Velfarre announcement in Roppongi. Then the next version was on display the year before last at E3, then there was a version that no one saw, so yeah, the final version that you see today was the fourth.
—How many people participated in the RE4 development?
Kobayashi: How many indeed, hmmm… in total, at Capcom alone there were over 100 people on the team.
—With such a long development, I imagine there were many challenges along the way.
Kobayashi: Honestly, there were times when I thought, "we're STILL not done yet?!" I was unsure about how it would turn out. When we announced it at Velfarre, we couldn't predict when it would be finished. That's why we said the release date was "200X." (laughs)
—I see. (laughs)
Kobayashi: But in our minds that "X" meant 2004. Of course, now it's 2005. (laughs) But we honestly did intend to release it last year. That's why the setting takes place in Europe in 2004—a connection you may have noticed. (laughs)
Kobayashi: The original Resident Evil was released in 1996, and the game takes place in 1998. We felt that setting RE4 in 1998, though, would feel too old now, so we chose 2004. Unfortunately the development spilled over into 2005… perhaps we should have set it further into the future. (laughs)
—(laughs) So the team felt confident about setting it in 2004, then.
Kobayashi: Yeah. And the players, too, I think they prefer a modern contemporary setting vs a futuristic or historical one.
—What was the biggest challenge you faced in the development?
Kobayashi: Definitely the fact that, although we decided to completely overhaul the game midway through, we didn't have a clear image in our heads about how that would ultimately look. It was "does this look right? does this look good?" over and over. Though I think it was much harder on the staff than me personally. There was a lot of disagreement. Each person on the team has their own idea of what Resident Evil is supposed to be, so coalescing all that into one vision was quite a challenge.
—Yeah, I can see how there'd be a lot of things to get hung up on.
Kobayashi: If not for that, I think we'd have finished a lot sooner. On the other hand, in a way all that conflict served the purpose of raising the quality of the game. And doing a "full model change" was one of our development premises for RE4.1 While it didn't go as smoothly as I'd hoped, once we brought Mikami in as a director, that was when I felt the design overhaul really came together.
—Since Mikami was one of the original creators, it must have been tough for those who were tasked with succeeding him. You can tell them, "hey, we're changing everything", but there's got to be a lot of stuff they don't feel comfortable changing.
Kobayashi: That was definitely part of it. Too much change is bad, but so is too little.
—It sounds like a delicate balance.
Kobayashi: I worked as the producer, and while I generally thought things were going well, whenever we'd hit a snag—even a little one—we'd have to re-do a bunch of stuff… so in that sense, it was a big turning point when Mikami was brought on as director. He tuned everything up and got RE4 into the state it's in today.
—Was that also the same time you pivoted to the "version 4" of RE4?
Kobayashi: Yeah. That was when I really felt, "this is looking good!"
—I imagine there was a lot of back-and-forth between the staff to reach that point.
Kobayashi: We went through a lot, yeah. People came and left too. There was also a period where the development was just totally stagnant. It felt like we were stuck in a vortex of darkness.
Kobayashi: Capcom had multiple different development teams working on the same floor, but only the RE4 team seemed to have this cloud hanging over it. But after that period of being in the doldrums, when the path forward opened up, it was like a switch flipped and everyone started working energetically again.
—So it all changed when Mikami joined?
Kobayashi: Well, I wouldn't say it was immediate. What sticks out in my memory, was last January in Las Vegas when we announced RE4, and it was the newest fourth iteration. I was feeling extremely confident in our work then: it was being praised in America, and we'd received full rounds of applause at our presentation. However, when I returned to Japan, and the team asked what the response had been, I remember there was a sense of unease amongst them. Was it really a good idea to go and change everything like this…? Was the overall quality good enough…? It wasn't until the Tokyo Game Show last year that those fears were finally quashed, and the whole staff started to feel confident about RE4.
—You received an award too. But hearing all this brings home to me, once again, how difficult game development can be.
Kobayashi: Yeah, when you're holed up and isolated in the development room, you can lose touch with what the general public thinks. But I also think that's precisely what leads to a good game being created. Unquestionably, RE4 is on a higher level of quality than other games, but at the same time we can't allow ourselves to become too satisfied. People expect a lot from the Resident Evil games, so as a team we must always be aiming higher. And in turn, high-level conflicts are inevitable.
—By the way, why *did* you decide to change everything?
Kobayashi: We'd been making Resident Evil games for so long, part of it is just avoiding boredom. That said, we want this franchise to continue long into the future, so we decided this was a good point to make a fresh start, and if we just kept doing the same thing over and over it threatens to make the experience stale. Also, Resident Evil has always been a very intense, shocking game—the first game stunned players. In the same sense, we needed something like that in RE4 or people would think we're just copying a formula. It is true, though, that established series don't usually take big gambles like this. (laughs)
—No, they don't. (laughs)
Kobayashi: Overhauling the game did end up being a bigger task than I thought, and it took so much time, but I believed that ultimately it would turn out OK. "When you're trying to make something this ambitious," I thought, "it can't be helped that it takes a long time." And I think the time and care we spent shows fans that Resident Evil is in a healthy place. We want players to see RE4 and think, "yup, Resident Evil always delivers"… and I think we succeeded.
—You mentioned that RE4 went through four iterations... did the story also change with each version?
Kobayashi: Yeah. In fact, the version we had before Mikami joined had the Umbrella Corp, and zombies too. (laughs)
—I remember when RE4 was first announced there was talk about "the birthplace of Umbrella" and so on. (laughs) Those aspects of the story disappeared, then?
Kobayashi: The original story was going to bring things to a conclusion with Umbrella. But instead we went in a completely different direction, with Umbrella being destroyed in the prologue.
—Wow, I don't think it's very common for developments to make such a dramatic change midway through.
Kobayashi: Normally you'd salvage and re-use some things, yeah. But if we'd done that it would have meant a major detour in the rest of the story. Sometimes it's faster just to tear everything down and start from scratch. We kept Leon as the main character though.
—So Leon was always in, from the beginning.
Kobayashi: Leon and his companions speak in English, but the Japanese subtitles are more liberally translated. Leon's little catchphrase "nakeru ze",2 those are all different lines in English. It's Mikami's translation. (laughs) Leon says "nakeru ze" in three different place. That, along with the scenario written by Mikami, are definitely selling points for RE4. (laughs)
—I'm still curious about why you decided to have Umbrella go down, though.
Kobayashi: We were kind of sick of Umbrella. (laughs) And since we were re-doing everything anyway, we also wanted to challenge ourselves with a new story. We chose Leon for the main character, though, because he was one of the characters from RE2 that fans had been hoping to see again. From the very start, we knew we would use him.
—It seems like, in not bringing Umbrella back, you were attempting to mark a line between previous Resident Evils and RE4.
Kobayashi: Well, we weren't trying to completely breakaway from the past games, but if Umbrella is the enemy, that means having zombies and creatures like lickers and hunters. It would be hard to create something new if we were constrained by those elements. Zombies would feel like we were just mimicking the past games, and we'd end up with the same style of combat. So we wanted to change that.
However, as I mentioned, in the beginning of the development, there was an idea to include zombies. But then we started making new types of enemies that would attack you in groups. And we created that giant enemy, and the lake monster… all things we couldn't do with Umbrella center stage, and all quite different from the previous games. So there was a feeling in the staff, I think, of excitement, like… what will we come up with next?! And precisely because it's not Umbrella, no one can predict it. That's one of the big draws of RE4, not knowing what the enemies will be.
—By the way, when you re-designed the game from survival horror to action shooter, were there any models or inspirations?
Kobayashi: Lately there's been a lot of interesting games coming out of the west, haven't there? We pulled a lot from there.
—Oh, you were inspired by Western games?
Kobayashi: Mikami plays a lot of Western games, and even looking on from the sidelines, I could tell which parts of which games he'd taken from. We didn't draw and inspiration from Japanese games, though.
—That's a little sad. (laughs)
Kobayashi: It is, but with Japanese games now feeling the pressure of competition from the West, it instills a fighting spirit in us. RE4 has been getting rave reviews in the West, and that was something we had banked on. However, what's popular overseas often performs poorly in the Japanese market today. In our case, thankfully, we received high marks at the Tokyo Game Show, and had extremely good press before that too, so I was confident it would be ok.
At the Tokyo Game Show, I was very surprised by how good everyone was at the game despite it being their first time! I stood off to the side watching for awhile, and all I could feel was, "Damn, you're all too good." (laughs) There are some things we changed between the overseas and JP versions of the game, but I feel like Mikami did a great job fine-tuning the difficulty for today's gaming audience.
—What kind of players do you hope will try RE4?
Kobayashi: Well, because of the CERO rating of 18+, I unfortunately can't say "everyone who owns a GameCube" should play it. (laughs) But I think normal adults will find it to be a very fun game.
—What about for people who get scared easily?
Kobayashi: Resident Evil is often called "horror", but RE4 is different. I can't say it has zero horror elements but it's not that strong. If you really want to enjoy a horror game, that would be RE1. It's quite scary. RE4 has much more action, so… I mean, that said, if you're really a scaredy cat it might not be a good choice. (laughs)
—How would you explain Resident Evil to someone who had never heard of it at all?
Kobayashi: I probably… wouldn't explain it? (laughs)
—How about for someone who just knows "its a scary game"?
Kobayashi: Well, as I said, RE4 tones down the horror, it's more of a lively shooting action game. Also, you should play it because Leon is really cool. And I would add, I want players to see it as a kind of 007 style game.
—007, that's easy to picture.
Kobayashi: Yeah, you get to use all these weapons, and there's all these action setpieces.
—Kobayashi, you originally worked on the first Resident Evil as a programmer, correct?
Kobayashi: Yes, a lifetime ago. (laughs)
—You've been involved with Resident Evil since the beginning then.
Kobayashi: Yeah, when I joined Capcom I got assigned to Resident Evil, and I've been working on it ever since.
—What's that been like, to see it grow across the years?
Kobayashi: It's evolved a lot. Personally, the hardest time for me was probably RE2. But the series has grown in a good way, and despite each game being high quality, the staff always finds a way to reach higher still. I think Mikami and myself are the only ones who have been around from the very start. When you think about it that way, people who were players for the first games are now working on RE4, and there's also people who come from other dev teams within Capcom, and that turnover helps ensure that we keep surpassing and reaching higher with each new Resident Evil game.
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Kobayashi frequently uses this term "full model change", which comes from the automotive world and denotes a total overhaul of a vehicle design. What's odd is that he says it was a premise of the development, yet clearly the development started out as a more traditional survival horror...↩
Something like "you're gonna make me cry." It has a funny, concise ring to it in Japanese, but I guess the translators thought it would be too cheesy, wordy, or contextually weird in English.↩