Shinobi (PS2) - 2003 Developer Interview
Taken from Shinobi THE WIDE Illustration Archives, this long interview with producer Masahiro Kumono and director Toru Shimizu of former Sega satellite studio Overworks covers the making of Shinobi for PlayStation 2, with their discussion touching upon protagonist Hotsuma's striking design, moving to 3D, difficulty preferences around the world, the pursuit of pure action gameplay and much more.
Masahiro Kumono (Chief Designer)
Toru Shimizu (Director)
—To start with, please tell us how Shinobi was planned.
Kumono: In 2000, Sega spun off their development departments into individual studios, so the project began from thinking about how to best express the characteristics of each studio. Overworks' marquee title is the Sakura Wars series, but aside from that, we also thought about what games and genres would be best for creating an original game for the global market.
Shimizu: On the development side, all we were thinking was, "I wanna make an action game!!" Overworks has been making RPGs and strategy/simulation games, one after the other, so we were really itching to make an action game this time.
Kumono: Once the project was underway, the idea was floated of reviving The Revenge of Shinobi, which was originally made by Overworks president Noriyoshi Ohba… that's pretty much where it kicked off. At that time, we'd been receiving a lot of requests to revive The Revenge of Shinobi overseas, as it had been very popular, and it'd occasionally come up from both Sega HQ and Sega of America, which handles US sales. So, while thinking about what the game might be like if we made it today, the plans for Shinobi came together quite quickly. However, the initial pitch, while not completely dissimilar, was very different from the final game—the proposal at the time leaned in the action-adventure direction, but after a lot of discussions, it morphed into a pure action game, which you can see from the final product.
—So Shinobi was not planned as an authentic Japanese ninja game, but as something with the overseas market in mind?
Shimizu: When it comes to the look of the game, that's certainly true. I thought if we rooted Shinobi in the visual themes of Revenge of Shinobi — a ninja revived in the modern era, with the juxtaposition of the classic ninja against skyscrapers and so on — it'd have its own appeal that would go over well overseas. That said, The Revenge of Shinobi was an old game with a lot of simple and crazy settings: there were no elements of period drama or any real focus on the ninjas themselves, no any real explanation for the "modern ninja" setting, so our project only followed that broad visual outline, and the backstory and "rationale" for the setting was newly created from scratch by the planners. On top of those considerations, we wanted to make something interesting that reflected an "Overworks take".
Kumono: In a nutshell, we planned the game with the premise of, "if ninjas existed today, this is how they'd be".
—When did develoment first begin?
Kumono: The team started work in April of 2001, and we exhibited the first playable demo of the game at E3 in Los Angeles in May of 2002. At the time, because we were showing the game at an overseas trade show, we decided to really focus on the Japanese elements of the visuals in order to stand out in an obvious way. To give an example, for the design of the ninja, we incorporated super-Japanese onigawara into his leg armor, held together with buckled kumihimo and made of lacquerware… actually, I have no idea what the hell they're supposed to be made of (laughs). In the initial settings for the game, we tried to incorporate Japanese touches everywhere, like characters in furisode-esque garb, and even the backgrounds would show things like torii in between buildings, or traditional Japanese houses with expressways running behind them and so on. I wanted to try and express those juxtaposed "modern/Japanese" elements from every possible angle.
—Whose idea was it to add the scarf?
Kumono: Everyone in the team was talking about how cool it'd be if we could somehow create a long, flowing scarf for Hotsuma. The first thing that came to mind were the characters of Shotaro Ishinomori.
Our childhood was filled with hero characters like Inazuman and Kamen Rider, and even now, when I rewatch those old videos, I think to myself, ah, Rider's so cool!"… but then when he gets off the bike, I notice notice how short his legs are, and how big his head is (laughs). Even as a child, he feels cool, but their stubby legs, big round heads and scarves stick out even in silhouette, and I think that sense of "coolness" is actually more like a sense of incongruity about something that could never be pulled off in the real world. When I think about those old-school heroes… like, Inazuman had an awesome design, with the blue face with the red divider, and the lighting cracks on his torso. Those particular design sensibilities are gone nowadays, so I thought, why don't we try to bring them back? If we could create one of those straightforward, easy-to-understand hero-type characters that Japanese people have traditionally latched onto, then adults would find it nostalgic, and kids might see it as fresh or novel.
That said, the initial character designs were quite different. The early versions weren't "ninja-y" enough, so that's when we decided to add the scarf. A scarf that was way too long… we figured, the longer it got, the more interesting it'd be.
Shimizu: I was all for the reddest, scarf-iest scarf possible (laughs). It seemed obvious that it'd be a cool accessory, and a signature befitting a lead character, but I didn't think it'd be that long, and I was a little concerned about whether it was technically feasible to render it in a way that looked cool. However, just before E3, the addition of the scarf had been locked in. The length of the scarf was part of the design, but I wondered just how long it might get… or whether it'd be ready in time for E3 (laughs).
Kumono: We really did settle on it right before E3, so that whole pre-show period, I was constantly checking on it and wonder whether it would or wouldn't work in time. Actually, the length of Hotsuma's scarf in the movie where he's falling down the skyscraper is different to the length of his scarf in the game — his scarf in the game was much longer, but we thought it'd be bad if they didn't match, so we changed it later.
Shimizu: At first, it wasn't planned to be that long. I really didn't think it be that long!
—Please tell me which elements you were most important to you in terms of making an action game.
Kumono: We've gone from the 2D format of Revenge of Shinobi to a 3D game, but if that's all we did, it'd be a rather ordinary action game, so we added new elements like the stealth dash and execution moves. We aimed to make an action game that you could play over and over again and really sink your teeth into.
Shimizu: The hardware specs have improved and our methods of visual expression have become more detailed, allowing us a variety of new methods when it comes to presentation, but there's something about the "action-adventure" games being released by other companies that doesn't sit right with me, so I wanted to respond with an "Overworks-style action game". It took about half a year to settle on the basics, like solidifying the core concept and deciding whether or not to adopt the stealth dash.
—What were you particularly focused on?
Shimizu: For me, I'd say the overall responsiveness of the game—above all else, I wanted to elicit a sense of exhiliration by having the player-character zoom around at the touch of a button, by having the character move perfectly in unison with the intent of the player and by making sure the delay between inputs and movement was no longer than a few fractions of a second. Of course, we also emphasized on making very ninja-esque movements—there's no point in making an action game devoid of personality. We had some trouble considering how to incorporate those sorts of ninja-style moves people have seen in movies, like the stealth dash or execution moves from behind.
—Why doesn't the character power up?
Shimuzu: Because I was insistent that the only thing that got powered up was "the player's own skill" (laughs). When it comes to Shinobi and character upgrades vs. no character upgrades, there are a lot of pros to going the no-upgrade route: if the character's going from weak to strong whenever they change maps, they're going to resent having to control the character in that weaker state, so in that sense, a power-up system is just a nuisance.
No matter where or when a player might jump in, they can enjoy the game with the same sense of play… in Shinobi, it's important that players intrinsically enjoy the moment-to-moment operation of the character as this is an action game, not something you play for a long time and clear just once after the story ends. At this moment, fighting this enemy on this map, the player needs to be having fun! I wouldn't accept otherwise. We wanted to make the style of game where players would replay the same stage over and over, or immediately start the game over from the beginning after a clear, or just casually pick it up and play through when they felt like it. Power-up systems are a necessary element in terms of providing assists for beginners, but when it comes to making a pure action game, I thought it'd be better to cut it altogether.
I wanted to create a game in which the player is fully-equipped from the very beginning, and once they sharpen their techniques and reach a certain level of skill, they can reach some sort of climax within five minutes no matter where or when they start: that was our goal, and I think we achieved it.
—So time-attack is viable, then?
Shimizu: Because there's no character-strengthening elements, it's very easy to set up competitive rules; everyone's competing on the same playing field, so it's, "give it all you got!"
Kumono: Eschewing any sort of leveling/experience system inevitably meant that the overall game time would be relatively short, so we were forced to be creative in some areas when it comes to providing volume. Anyway, I want players to practice, make improvements and play until they have fun at whatever skill level they reach. That sort of motivation might be a little different from your typical game.
—The lack of character-strengthening systems must mean that each player will hit a different roadblock, right? How hard was it to strike the right balance in terms of difficulty?
Shimizu: Game balance… that was the hardest part of this project: We were conscious of the North American market, but Japanese and overseas markets have different needs. Overseas, players are very familiar with action games played from a first-person perspective, and their degree of spatial awareness is massively different to that of Japanese players. It seems like most Japanese players have experienced 3D motion sickness, but overseas players rarely experience that same sensations, probably because they have a better intuitive sense of space; I'm sure their semi-circular canals are well-developed. Therefore, from the beginning, we had a lot of trouble trying to figure out how we could get the player to acclimatize to this 3D space, and one of the answers we came up with was to have the player manipulate the camera as they progress through the game, without adding any sort of system for strengthening the character, with the reason being that we wanted the player to come to terms with moving in the 3D space.
Kumono: Back in the era of 2D action games, European players tended to prefer games with a high degree of difficulty; at the time of Shinobi III, we even received feedback from some players that the game was too easy. So, I thought that we should simply crank up the difficulty for overseas players, but when I looked into it, I was surprised to learn that there was no difference when it comes to skill—the only difference is their preference for difficulty level, but the actual level of player skill is largely the same. Therefore, when it comes to simple, straight-ahead action games, I don't feel that there's a huge disparity in terms of challenge level between players from Japan and elsewhere.
—Did the balancing process require a lot of subtle adjustments?
Shimizu: Just talking about the basic character actions, we weren't able to decide on the distance of the jump and dash. What's more, while the maps were under construction, we weren't even able to place enemies inside them, so test play was impossible; in situations like those, we weren't able to address the balance at all. It took us a long time to settle on the balance and to get the controls feeling really good, and I think all that hard work paid off: I feel confident in saying that if you play Shinobi, you'll be fine playing any 3D game from here on out!
—For a long time, we've heard stories about Japanese creators releasing their games overseas and being told they're too easy, but how was it for Shinobi?
Kumono: Quite the contrary—they told us it was too hard! (laughs) The American version was released with a higher level of difficulty than the Japanese version, and we thought people would be still be able to clear it even at that level of toughness, but we were surprised to receive feedback from people saying, "this is way too hard, I can't beat this!". We're currently developing the European version, but we're trying to bring that version's balance more in line with the Japanese version.
Shimizu: The overseas user base has shifted somewhat; in the past, you'd hear more opinions from PC users, but nowadays it seems the market is more favorable towards easy, mass-appeal software.
—Kumono-san, what kinds of hardships did you face during development?
Kumono: My role is to oversee the entire development process, including the "external staff" employed outside of the company. Of particular note is that, for this game, we asked Japan Action Enterprise (formerly Japan Action Club/JAC), a company that performs action stuntwork all over Japan and also works in TV and stage production, to perform the actions required for motion capture, so I also managed their progress alongside my other work; for that reason, the motion capture process was difficult in many ways.
I think this is the first time Sega has collaborated with Japan Action Enterprise. We told them what kind of movements/choreography we wanted, went through rehearsal with them, and then did the motion capture… keeping everybody coordinated and in-the-loop was very difficult, but if there were any slip-ups, then the schedules for post-recording, sound recording, etc would all be affected, so it was nerve-wracking work. That said, I was working with staff from the Virtua Fighter and Shenmue teams, so we did have a certain amount of accumulated know-how.
The performances from Japan Action Enterprise that were shot during those sessions were fantastic—they were so great that when I recorded some reference footage of the actors performing and delivering on very specific instructions, I received high praise from Sega HQ for choosing to work with them. Oh yeah, this was also my first time requesting aerial wire work, and they told us, "this is out first time doing wire work in this studio". We used wire work for a lot of the motions—we had the actors put on a harness and pulled them back, and instead of simply running, we had them perform as if they were running through the air. The one problem was figuring out how to have them run on a wall, so we ended up actually building a 45-degree wall and filmed them running across it for about three strides.
Shimizu: I asked them to do a lot of out-there stuff (laughs) Still, I learned a lot from watching them execute on the many actions we had them before. The sense of tension you could feel while we were filming the fight scenes was just like that of watching a stage rehearsal.
Kumono: Yeah, when your shoots include potentially dangerous scenes like sword fights, you're required to work with a specialized action director. In this case, we asked the director of the movie Battle Royale to handle those shoots; however, the fact that we were recording motion capture for a game meant that there were a lot of restrictions that complicated matters. The execution scene involves slashing several foes at once before sheathing the sword, but we could actually only film two people simultaneously, so we were forced to compartmentalize the choreography of the shoots and then composite them later on during the CG process. However, the end result means that the characters in Shinobi move more realistically than ever, especially when it comes to portraying the correct center of gravity.
—Were there any other difficulties you encountered?
Shimizu: The schedule wasn't too bad… but, I think the most difficult part might have been deciding on a name for Ageha. At first, her name was Kasumi (laughs). I was like, "this needs to change", and I was trying to come up with other names, but it took months to settle on something.
—You seem to have a real emotional attachment to Ageha, huh?
Kumono: Maybe he has feelings for her! (laughs)
Shimizu: Every character has a backstory contained within their concept documents, so the reason why there are so many materials for Homura is because he's the character everybody most wanted to know about. (laughs)
Kumono: Within the tone of the Shinobi universe, Homura's the polar opposite of Hotsuma, so he really stands out. On the other hand, Hotsuma's a taciturn character who's weak when it comes to women… straight down the line, ain't it? (laughs)
—Hotsuma doesn't dress like that in his day-to-day life, right? Some people seem to think that his superhuman abilities are granted to him by his costume...
Kumono: No, he doesn't usually dress like that (laughs). There is a line, albeit a very fine one, between physical skills and those enhanced by science, but ninjas are supposed to hone their skills via training.
Shimizu: Let me clear this up: Hotsuma learned all his abilities through training—just as his predecessor Joe Musashi learned to do things like double-jump, Hotsuma's moves are learned through training.
Kumono: That said, there weren't any mecha elements in the game, so we did want to include a little something.
Shimizu: The shuriken holsters on his arms have a mechanical touch, don't they? We could've changed his Shuriken Burst into a full-on mecha move—he has them on both hands and everything.
Kumono: Those parts shift just a little bit when he decides to engage in a fight, and they also shift when he clings to a wall. I guess it's a mechanism that opens and closes based on emotions..?
Shimizu: Maybe there's some sort of arm grip that lets him adjust it at will, or something. (laughs)
—Is the stealth dash something Hotsuma learned through training?
Shimizu: Yes, it's a physical technique known to ninja. The afterimages are rendered so that the players out there can see them, but the backstory is that they're originally only visible to his enemies. You know how shining a bright light in a dark place creates an after-image? It's the same principle: those blue afterimages are static light.
Kumono: Hotsuma's distinctive emblem is the Oboro clan mark on his back… that mark actually glows (laughs). His scabbard hangs low so as to not obscure his mark.
Shimizu: I'm sure it's something that has passed to the heads of the family for generations. (laughs)
—Moritsune also wears that four-eyed mask—is that something reserved for brothers?
Shimizu: It's gotta be some sort of Oboro tradition.
Kumono: I do wish that we could've explained the deal behind the four-eyed masks, but, well, they're ninjas, so they're equipped with all sorts of tools with secret purposes...
—Once you created Hotsuma and the other characters, did the story naturally develop from there?
Shimizu: One of the planners wanted to come up with the story, so I told them to write something with an emphasis on ancient Japanese traditions, onmyoji and buildings; later on, we traded ideas and fleshed it out. The story was nailed down in January of last year.
—I have a story-related question: is Hiruko an onmyoji who went down a dark path?
Shimizu: Onmyoji have served as soothsayers for the Japanese government since the Heian era; originally, an onmyoji would take an apprentice in a familial-esque arrangement, train them and bring them to the rank of full-fledged onmyoji. The Ubusuna clan is a legitimate family line that trained onmyoji but had since fallen into decline over time. Hiruko, an orphan, turned out to be a genius-level prodigy; this led to a revitalization of the clan, but Hiruko, who always harbored dark intent, used his abilities to cause the Great Kanto Earthquake with the intention of overthrowing the government. After that, Hiruko sired many children, using concubines spread here and there to guarantee many descendants. Kagari is one of them, so she's really related to Hiruko.
—Is there any backstory to the Oboro Village?
Shimizu: Yeah, a little more than zero (laughs). The Oboro Village is a pretty typical ninja village, common all over Japan. In the game, it starts and ends with "the ninja village has been attacked!", but we did initially draw some environments.
—Were there any game systems or other elements that you weren't able to include in the game?
Shimizu: As far as the game system goes, we challenged ourselves to really bring the action to the forefront without throwing in the kitchen sink. There were a lot of ideas we would've liked to do, but for the purposes of this project, they were deemed unnecessary and cut. There's no reason why Hotsuma only has a double-jump—3-step or 4-step jumps would have been perfectly okay, but I purposely limited it to a double-jump. When it comes to the wall-running, I've heard some people ask, "why can't you move up and down?", but if that kind of movement was possible, the game wouldn't work. It's not that we didn't have the time to implement these things, but rather that we consciously used our time to carefully select the actions present in the final game—like forging a sword, we carefully carved every inch of this game. This game doesn't have the "variety" of a typical action game: it's composed with the bare minimum essences necessary for an action game, without a single drop of anything superfluous.
Kumono: That's a raw way of putting it, but yeah.
—That's why that finely-honed sense of touch is so apparent.
Shimizu: There are no extraneous touches in the way the characters move—whether or not a move can be cancelled into another move, whether or not a move can smoothly transition into others, whether or not to adjust the recovery on a move by a single frame… every one of these choices will affect the game feel, and I made many, many adjustments.
—What are your future plans for Shinobi?
Kumono: Shinobi was released first in North America, then domestically the month after. Right now, we're preparing to release the game in Europe and South Korea.
Shimizu: The PlayStation 2 has only been available in Korea for around a year so, the game library is still quite small, which adds strategic factors to investing in that area.
—Once the game's out globally, should we be looking forward to your next work?
Kumono: We're obviously thinking about it (laughs). Now that the world of Shinobi has finally been revived, I want to expand it even further. I also think making multiple games would help to cement the Shinobi brand.
Shimizu: There'll be another game, I'm sure. Overworks' Shinobi has revived one of Sega's classic action games; I want to work on more action game series in the future, and from here on out, I want release games one after the other that reflect everything we learned making Shinobi.
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