Treasure – 2001 Developer Interview
Conducted just before the arcade release of Ikaruga, this interview with Treasure’s founder/president Masato Maegawa discusses some of the challenges of designing that game, as well as industry trends and observations about the STG genre generally. Maegawa has some especially heartening (and pointed) words at the end; it’s not hard to see why Treasure is so beloved by gamers, with their games-before-profit philosophy.
—Zanac x Zanac is finally going to be released today—as a fellow STG lover, it seemed like a good occasion to talk with you!
Maegawa: I hope Zanac x Zanac does well. I think that now, especially, it’s important for STGs to be released. Is there any other kind of game that can give you that real-time, heart-pounding excitement like STG? It’s a genre that matters. Kyuukyoku Tiger, Sega’s Fantasy Zone, After Burner, and Space Harrier, Tecnosoft’s Thunder Force series, Hot B’s Steel Empire, Compile’s Zanac and Aleste… most of my favorite games are STGs, to be sure.
—Is that so? Treasure has made a lot of STGs too, so that makes sense.
Maegawa: Yeah. From the beginning we intended STG to be one of the cornerstone genres of Treasure. But I’m also not one of those truly devoted fans who will play any and every STG that’s released.
Xevious was my first, and I still play it on the Namco Museum disc today. I was in high school when it came out, and it stood out to me from all the other arcade games. I played it everyday after school. I learned to get all the Sol towers, which I called “mukumuku.”1 I think Xevious really formalized what we consider a “STG” game to be.
Many different games have come out since then, but for me the simple system of dodging and shooting is more than enough. Then people started adding bombs, which I’m not saying are bad, but the fundamentals of STG are still dodging and shooting.
After Xevious, STG developers tried to add items, power-ups, and all manner of gimmicks and contrivances to their new games. Some went the route of making STG games more flashy and outrageous, filling the screen with intricate danmaku patterns that were fun to dodge, or having awesome bombs and explosions, or an interesting backstory and gameworld. But for vertical STGs, even by Xevious we see many gameplay elements perfected. I would say the same thing for Gradius, also, as a horizontal STG.
With STG games, it’s not about the system: it’s the level design and enemy placement that really makes them what they are. As for Treasure, we asked ourselves: “I wonder how far we can push the envelope in this genre?” We wanted to try something with a new perspective. When it comes to your traditional STG, other companies had already released very high quality games there, so if we were going to make any inroads, we’d need to add something to the “dodge and shoot” formula I mentioned above. With Radiant Silvergun, that something was the color-affinity system.
The plans for Radiant Silvergun had been brewing in the director’s head for a long time. Those concepts—color affinity, combos, and a 3-button system—all began with him asking what he could do to distinguish a new STG from all older ones. Radiant Silvergun received mixed reviews from players, but the large amount of praise we did receive showed us that even if we take STG to new places, there will be fans eager to follow.
—Which leads us to Ikaruga.
Maegawa: Yes. Ikaruga began, in secret, as Radiant Silvergun 2. (laughs) Somewhere along the way it became its own unique game. It inherits the color (black and white polarity, this time) and combo system from Radiant Silvergun.
Of course we were also trying to make something unique and different from other companies. Even in action games there are certain fixed conventions, like you move with your left hand, and you jump and attack with your right. Our new game, Stretch Panic, also has tricky controls: you use the same stretching motion for movement, attacking, and everything… the first time people play it, they’re like, “what is this, what am I doing?”
Likewise, one criticism people may have of Ikaruga is that the polarity system makes the game too sluggish and ponderous. That was intentional, though, and part of our underlying concept: to create a fundamentally new kind of action and STG. We’ve also thought about doing a more traditional, mainstream game someday at Treasure, though.
—How about the difficulty in Ikaruga, how have you handled that?
Maegawa: Our games are often called difficult, so it’s something we pay special attention to. But take Sin and Punishment on the N64, as an example. People said “this is so hard!”, but the problem really is where the difficulty lies. We could just make the game stupid-simple, but for Sin and Punishment, at least, the problem was that some people couldn’t understand the controls. “I can’t fire and move at the same time!” Once I saw people saying that, I knew it was over for Sin and Punishment. (laughs) Many of Treasure’s games feature unique controls, though.
—Well, Sin and Punishment did come with a tutorial.
Maegawa: It did, but people who couldn’t handle the controls just couldn’t handle them, period. The controls take some getting used to—most action games use your left hand for movement and your right for actions. By flipping that, having ABXY control movement, it made it so no one knew what they were doing.
You have to get used to the controls. And telling players that is always tricky. What test players have found difficult about Ikaruga, by the way, is not that it requires amazing reflexes for bullet dodging. They find it difficult because of the polarity system, which means you have to use your head.
—It’s kind of like a puzzle.
Maegawa: That’s right. It also has a robust scoring system that is very puzzle-y, where you have to destroy three enemies of the same color. It’s fun to try and figure out each section: ok, do I kill these black enemies first, then use my homing laser to quickly take out the remaining white enemies?
But because Ikaruga is a type of game that hasn’t been seen before, many people called it “difficult.” With games that you can clear by reflexes alone, everything turns on how well the pacing and difficulty are balanced. But with a game like Ikaruga that requires thinking and strategy to clear, if we make it too easy then it defeats the whole purpose of it being a fun puzzle to solve.
So Ikaruga wasn’t a game where we could just arbitrarily make it easier in places. There’s also the fact that with STG games, if you don’t set the difficulty high enough, the hardcore fans won’t like it.
—And at the location tests, what has the response to Ikaruga been from those hardcore fans, so far?
Maegawa: As with all Treasure games, opinions are divided. It was immediately praised for having beautiful graphics and music. But there were many people who just couldn’t get into the system. If I had to say, I think Ikaruga is not a game for people who love STGs mainly for that carefree thrill of dodging a screen full of bullets by their reflexes alone.
That wasn’t what we tried to achieve in Ikaruga. If so, it would have been a failure from the get-go. But for the people who find our idea fun, we have shown them a brand new kind of STG, and in that sense I think the concept has been a big success.
—STG really is one of the pillars of Treasure’s foundation as a company.
Maegawa: It is. And I hope we can keep making arcade STGs. Another thing I’m thinking is that we will probably have our development teams at Treasure specialize and focus on specific genres. We make a lot of different types of games, but I think it may be best if the STG team continues to refine and make STGs.
—I see. But STGs have been having a hard time lately, haven’t they?
Maegawa: Yeah. Many people have remarked to us, with some surprise, “you’re making a STG now?” In fact Ikaruga is something of a risk for us… people say you can’t make money by making STGs. But in my view, making STGs isn’t some insane risk, nor is it a completely unmarketable genre either. Even if we have to foot the entire development bill ourselves, we still intend to make them. And if you have a good concept and maintain a high level of quality, the STG player fanbase will definitely buy your game; for that reason, you can sell more copies of STGs early on than a lot of other genres, so its easy to set profit goals.
—It’s true that no matter what game center you go to, there will be at least one STG there.
Maegawa: Yeah. And that’s why I think there’s no way STGs will ever disappear from game centers. People say, “well, look at the FTG scene, and the decline there.” But I think that’s nonsense: there’s still plenty of STG players out there. And when we do location tests, lots of people still come out. In a sense, because you can rely on this fanbase so much, its an easier genre to develop for than others.
Imagine, for example, that you’re trying to make something like a big RPG. There are actually more restrictions when making a game like that, one which needs to appeal to over a million people. There’s all these things you can’t do because they’re too risky, and things you have to do to appeal to a mass audience. Then there’s the commercial side, trying to maximize sales.
There aren’t many of those restrictions when making a STG, and the fact that there’s many “specialized” aspects to this genre makes it easier in some regards. It’s similar to how, for a time, we made all our games for Sega hardware, and that specialization made it easier for us to understand Sega’s users, too.
That’s why I think it’s odd when people say STG games don’t sell. Sure, you won’t sell a million copies. And even 300,000 might be hard. But if you keep the development on-time and on-budget, then for a console STG you might sell 50,000. In some ways a number like that is easier to achieve with STG than with other genres.
—Yeah. That kind of development almost seems to fit these times better.
Maegawa: I think so. That’s why we’ve dedicated so much to the genre, and why we plan to continue doing so in the future.
—How is the console business for STGs, by the way?
Maegawa: Well, we’ve only released Radiant Silvergun for consoles… ah, wait, there was also Bangai-O. (laughs) That was another game where we worried, is it a good time for a game like this? And indeed, it received very mixed reviews: criticism like, “why are you releasing this now?!” But also praise, “I’m so glad there’s still someone putting games like this out today!” I think STG games can be fun just from that simple joy of blowing things up. So we wanted to make a game with lots of enemies, lots of bullets, and lots of crazy explosions…
—There’s fewer and fewer “simple” games you can enjoy like that, nowadays.
Maegawa: Yeah. Bangai-O began as a tech demo by the programmer, who wanted to test the new N64 hardware and see how many sprites he could have on screen with active hitboxes. But in trying that out, he realized he’d hit upon something interesting, so we developed it as a commercial game. It was experimental from the start, you see. I like it when games are developed that way.
Take Ikaruga, on the other hand. We know there’s players who would say, “I don’t want to play a STG where I have to use my head and figure out puzzles to advance.” I personally don’t think that having thoughtful mechanics makes the game any less fun, though.
—Have you thought about what you’ll develop after Ikaruga?
Maegawa: Well, we’re actually in the very final stages of finishing Ikaruga right now, so it’s still too early to think about what’s next. To be honest it’s crazy over at Treasure right now. (laughs) I only have to do bug-checking—it’s the other developers who are in crunch-mode. Though it might be more accurate to say they’ve been having too much fun thinking up different puzzles and strategies!
We do have an idea for our next game. It will be an arcade STG, and the Ikaruga team will develop it… that’s all we’ve decided for now. (laughs)
—I see. Are you choosing the arcade route because consoles are more risky for STGs?
Maegawa: No, I didn’t mean it that way. Though you could say that right now, games and the entire game industry itself are ailing. (laughs) I don’t think we’re going to see some major downturn though. If sales were down by 30% or something, I’d be worried, but the number of players seems only to be growing, so I don’t sense a lot of danger.
On the other hand, it’s becoming clearer which games will sell and which games won’t. That’s why one of our development themes for Ikaruga was “low budget.” That way we’re sure to recover a profit.
I often say to our employees, “The development budget needs to be small enough so that we can make a profit by selling only 30-50k copies.” Of course that always elicits some complaints, “how are we going to grow our business with that model?!” But I think that’s exactly how you build a business with a solid foundation. What’s wrong with that idea? I find the objections strange.
—Yeah. Creating a good product within your budget—shouldn’t that be enough?
Maegawa: When we make a game like that, we don’t use very much money for advertising either. We try to make our gameplay concept as solid as possible, and communicate that to players, the players who “get us.” Of course, we also know that we can’t only make games that appeal to our fanbase, so we also work on titles with more mass commercial appeal.
As you know, at one time there was a bubble in the video game industry. And I think people who joined this industry at that time with money in their eyes, thinking “wow, I can make a fortune selling games!”—those are the people that are hurting now.
We’re not doing this because we want to be rich; we’re making games because we love to.
—I would think that with such a clear philosophy as that, players would be able to trust Treasure and their games.
Maegawa: Well, there’s no question about what kind of company we want to be. The tricky part is how to work with publishers. Sin and Punishment only sold about 100,000 copies, so from a business perspective, I can’t say it was a success. But Nintendo felt that they needed that genre to be represented on the N64. The fact that we were able to have the Nintendo brand backing us there was huge.
Our games have been critically recognized, I think, so we now need to really turn our attention to our business with the publishers. We’re seen as a company that primarily makes original games–games that other companies don’t make–and while that’s good, I think we also need to undertake more “traditional” game development. I think it’s important to find a balance between the two.
—Please share some final words about Ikaruga.
Maegawa: Its appeal definitely lies in the black/white combo system. It will allow you to experience a kind of strategy that you can’t get in other STGs. Even after you clear it the first time, there’s much more to do with the combo and scoring system.
I’ve personally not cleared the later stages yet myself, but it’s very fun. Shoot two whites here, don’t shoot that black, then shoot the next white… dodge this part, only shoot white enemies here, turn your ship white here, turn black and move to the right there… there’s just so much to think about—my head feels full of Ikaruga these days!
You can always watch someones replay to figure things out, but I think it’s even more fun to try and come up with your own strategies. In that sense I think Ikaruga offers something very new. It scheduled to hit the arcades on 12/20. As a “concept-heavy” STG, I recommend it to all STG fans, and to anyone else who wants to try something a little different.
—Thank you for your time today!
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