Thinking Rabbit – 1983 Developer Interview

Thinking Rabbit - 1983 Developer Interview

This early interview with Thinking Rabbit founder and amateur-turned-pro developer Hiroyuki Imabayashi first appeared in the 12/83 issue of LOGiN magazine. Thinking Rabbit is probably best known in the West for venerable puzzle game Sokoban, but they were prolific in many other areas, notably adventure games. The original editorial commentary is closely woven into the interview text so I've left it in.

With the release of puzzler Sokoban in May, and the detective-adventure Kagiana Satsujin Jiken in August, Thinking Rabbit has established themselves as a software developer dedicated to creating highly polished games that appeal to the unabashed computer hobbyist. The company was founded by Hiroyuki Imabayashi, a game designer who is on a slightly different wavelength from the prevailing "pc syndrome" we often see today.

Thinking Rabbit's offices are located in the Bedtown district of Takarazuka in Hyogo Prefecture. The staff members, all friends of Imabayashi, all have separate careers but continue to work on software planning and game development from their homes.

Despite being a brand new company (established only six months ago!), the work contracts have been flooding in, and their business has been a success so far.

Imabayashi: About three years ago, a friend brought his new Sharp MZ computer over to my house. He'd just bought it and wanted to show off. When he went home, he decided to leave it at my house because it was too heavy. Little did I know, but that day would mark the beginning of everything for me.

Hiroyuki Imabayashi

Though Imabayashi didn't know a thing about computers back then, he had taken the first step on the road to becoming a game designer. This new machine immediately captivated him, and he spent the next 3 days and 3 nights glued to the screen, holding the manual in one hand as he typed away. The result would be the first game he ever programmed: a simple action game where you try to maneuver a parachuting character to his landing coordinates. Imabayashi had quite literally been sitting on his tatami in front of his computer for three days straight; when he tried to get up, he found his legs couldn't support him. Soon after he went and bought a PC-8001 for himself. He created five or six games for it.

Imabayashi: Even now, when I turn on my computer I feel like a vast alternate dimension is expanding before me. (laughs) I love how computers ask you to use both your right and left brains. When I first touched a computer I realized right away: here was a hobby I could lose myself in for my entire life. I had no idea I'd end up being so swamped with work like this, though! (laughs)

One of the first games Thinking Rabbit made for the PC-8001 was an early version of their first commercial release, the smash hit Sokoban. The content is almost the same, but it had only five characters and used plain circles, squares, and Xs. It was shared privately among Imabayashi's circle of friends, who would gather at his house to play it. An amazing sense for game design was already on full display at this early juncture, just three years ago.

Imabayashi: My wife's family owned a record shop down the street, and they brought up the idea of setting up a little computer corner in their store. I didn't have any direct hand in it, but once they had it going, a customer saw Sokoban and remarked, "This game would be a hit!", which encouraged me.

The original cassette tapes for Sokoban (PC-8801), which were hand-made and packaged by Imabayashi himself.

Using the PC-8801 which had been set up in the shop, Imabayashi finalized the design and improved the graphics of Sokoban, creating a total of 20 levels. Today the "software contests" held by various magazine publications are quite popular for new and aspiring programmers, but Imabayashi had something else in mind: he decided to do everything himself, dubbing the tapes, creating the software packaging, and handling the sales too.

Imabayashi: I don't think leaving the entire sales side to someone else is a good idea. In my case, I figured I'd only ever be selling this single game, so I decided to do it all myself. I wasn't thinking at all about starting my own computer software company. Well, starting a company of my own someday had been a long-held dream of mine--though I didn't particularly care what kind of company. (laughs) But yeah, I never talked about starting a software company specifically.

Sokoban was a new type of puzzle game that didn't fit into any of the vaguely defined genres at the time. It was and continues to be a hit. And today Thinking Rabbit is incorporated as a limited company. It was this one brave plunge that made Imabayashi's dream a reality.

Imabayashi: This business is unique in that you don't need much capital to get into it. It's relatively easy. I was able to start out using my own savings. It's far better to put that money to use and have unique experiences than to just let it sit there in a bank, right? It's not like the amount of money you can make before you're 30 is some massive sum anyway… it can quickly be replaced later in life.

After making some games on my PC-8001, I replaced it with an Apple. The Apple impressed me, and the games were amazing. It's had a big influence on me. For adventure games, I like stuff like Wizard and the Princess, and Cranston Manor. The strategy games I find boring and tedious though. I just can't enjoy games without graphics. Kagiana Satsujin Jiken has over 80 images.

These simple concept drawings for Kagiana Satsujin Jiken were converted into white-line (inverted) graphics for the game. As Imabayashi boasts above, having lots of graphic images was a mark of distinction in an era where text-only adventure games were still the norm.

Kagiana Satsujin Jiken is a "locked-room" style murder mystery game, where you try to find proof of who committed the murders and get them to confess. Originally, Imabayashi wanted it to feature an open-ended text input system where you would interrogate the suspect, but he kept running into memory problems. What's more, without visuals, he didn't think it would be fun. So rather than using up all the memory for a text-style adventure, he decided to use that space for graphics instead.

Kagiana features an original mystery scenario with clever foreshadowing and hints. Imayabashi put a great deal of effort into making sure the story guides the player in the right direction.

Imabayashi: The Japanese vocabulary can be something of a stumbling block in writing these games. But there is a middle school student who managed to solve it in just 4 days. Our telephone hint line gets about 10 calls a day. It's not an "official" part of our business yet so I sometimes give out the hints myself, which I enjoy. (laughs) It's a lot of fun for me to hear what players couldn't figure out.

Right now Imabayashi is preparing to work on some new games, and also helping out with ports of Sokoban for the PC-6001mkII, the MZ-2000, and the X-1. Imabayashi is also planning to release a "Sokoban Part II" for sale as well.

Imabayashi: The "Part II" is really cool. When I made Sokoban, I created all the maps myself, but this time I had a friend create them. Sokoban is sort of like Tsume Shogi, so I think it's great to have multiple people making their own problems up. Part II will also include a utility program for users to make their own levels.

Imabayashi designed the Sokoban levels on graph paper before programming them in.

There was a programmer I know who works for a certain developer, and he was telling me how much of a "culture shock" Sokoban was to him when he first saw it. You see, the programming on Sokoban is exceedingly simple. And while programming requires a certain level of technique, that technique can also get in the way. If you don't use it right, you can get lost in the labyrinth of technology. To be perfectly honest, I'm not the best programmer. I consult with our staff a lot. But technology is something you can buy with money, so I'd rather people focus on developing their ideas-- and enjoying themselves, that's the most important thing.

Thinking Rabbit currently has employs five people, including Imabayashi. There is an expert in assembler, a person very good with hardware, another programmer, and a designer. They get together on Saturday nights to share ideas, and then work late into the early hours of the morning refining their plans and designs.

The most striking feature of Imabayashi's games is their distinctive atmosphere. They have a simplicity and an unpretentious individuality not found in commercial games. They somehow feel a bit different from products of the Television Generation.

Imabayashi: Even back when I was creating games just as a hobbyist, I didn't pay much attention to other games. Now I keep tabs on them, of course, but it depresses me. (laughs) There's so many good games out there. When I get a phone order for one of our games though, my spirits are lifted again. It's that pattern, rinse and repeat. (laughs) I don't read computer magazines at all either. Or any magazine, for that matter. Almost all of my reading is dedicated to novels. I love science fiction, and Arthur C. Clarke. His book Rendezvous with Rama is excellent. I also like Masaki Yamada and Colin Wilson. Robert Heinlein too.

Imabayashi poses in front of the PC-6001 and PC-8001 computer corner at his wife's family's record store (which incidentally was located near Thinking Rabbit's offices). The caption to this picture explains that Imabayashi is now really into Culture Club.

I was surprised to hear that magazines and mass media have little interest for Imabayashi; he lives a life dedicated to his own individual passions and pursuits. Imabayashi also explained his passion for board games and card games. He enjoys the bargaining and strategizing, and it would appear human psychology is another big interest.

Imabayashi: The world of the mind, inner psychology… since high school I've wanted to go to India, and I've always been interested in Buddhism. I get passionate about things easily, I guess. I've read the books of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) too. There's a lot about Indian culture that I'm interested in. You only get one life, and while I'm here, I'd like to spend it learning about all the other ways people live and exist on this planet.

Imabayashi explained that he wants to create a game that would stimulate the deeper parts of human awareness. Ideally, it would be software that induces a state of autogenic training in the individual. It wouldn't be explicitly guided meditation, but merely by playing the game, you would subliminally ascend to a higher state of consciousness.

Imabayashi: Personally, I'm a very incomplete, imperfect human being. But I'm always striving towards an ideal. I like to think of computers as a fulfilling the role of a conduit for basic knowledge. Despite such a lofty goal we still haven't ventured far outside the realm of video games, though.

Next year Imabayashi plans to release a mystery game called "Doukeshi Satsujin Jiken". It's an ambitious work on floppy disk, and he wants it to have 150 images. Like the "Challenge to the Reader" found at the end of Ellery Queen's mystery novels, Doukeshi Satsujin Jiken will feature a system at the end where the player is asked to input the name of the killer and the murder weapon. If he answers incorrectly, he's booted to a maze, but if correct, he gets to hear the confession.

Imabayashi has also finished writing the scenario for an epic sci-fi / romance / mystery game, tentatively titled "satsujin wa jikuu wo koete" (The Murderer Beyond Space and Time). It's a complex murder mystery that includes time travel. The development will take a great deal of time, so Imabayashi does not have a release date scheduled yet. He's also planning to create a new brand called "HOPPING RABBIT" to market and release action games (nothing scheduled as-yet).

I'm completely stunned at how energetic and prolific Imabayashi is: and what's more, these aren't merely pie-in-the-sky plans, but are well on their way to being real releases.

Imabayashi: There's this card game I love called DRAGON MASTER. Stuff like that, and novels too, they're the root of my inspiration, but I don't want to just convert them as-is to computer games. That would be boring, and I'd rather make full-use of all the computer's various powers and functions.

After leaving photography school, Imabayashi worked a variety of different jobs. But it seems he didn't last long as a salaryman, and instead decided to pursue experiences more in-line with his own hobbies and interests. As Imabayashi talked, I was left impressed by the mental fortitude he showed in overcoming timidity and doubts.

Imabayashi: There's that phrase, "anything is possible, if you truly want it." I want everyone to try new, different things. If you have an enterprising mindset as you go through life, then trying new things is a form of studying. With commerce too, say your business fails and you lose 20,000 or 30,000 dollars… well, that too was an invaluable lesson. You can always make the money back; it wasn't a waste. But you've got to get passionate about something. If you've got the passion, the money will follow.

So I think that, by using your money, not hoarding it, your path will become clear. If you do nothing, nothing will happen. Don't get too hung up on one thing though. I don't get let myself get fixated on computers either. Who knows, I may someday end up doing something else. (laughs) At the end of the day, I only want to do what I find fun.

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