[Disney's original IP Spectrobes for DS has surprisingly sold over a million units, with a follow-up imminent - and was really pleased that Chris Remo went off the beaten track to hunt down producers Kentaro Hisai and Tim FitzRandolph - talking about the Jupiter (The World Ends With You)-developed title, its genesis, and why it, perhaps puzzlingly, is not yet a big Japanese success.]

There's a first time for everything -- even for major companies like Disney Interactive Studios. Next month, it launches Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals, the second game in the publisher's monster-collecting RPG series -- its first franchise not based on any existing Disney works.

The Spectrobes IP was created explicitly for the international video game market as a collaboration between Disney's American and Japanese offices. Development has been handled by independent Japanese studio Jupiter (The World Ends With You).

Though the first game sold over a million units worldwide -- a relatively impressive feat for a third-party Nintendo DS title -- it underperformed on its home turf of Japan, as international producer Tim FitzRandolph told Gamasutra in a recent interview, and the franchise is being essentially "relaunched" in Japan with the follow-up.

FitzRandolph was accompanied by Disney Interactive Studios Japan producer Kentaro Hisai, whose Japanese-language comments FitzRandolph interpreted.

The two developers spoke on the genesis of the Spectrobes IP, the impetus to create a game-specific project, and the challenges of developing a game concept with studios located on different continents.

It seems unusual for Disney to develop a game not already tied to a known Disney quantity. How did the project start?

Kentaro Hisai: Long ago, the basic environment in which Spectrobes was originally created was that first Disney started investing more in games, and Disney Interactive Studios became a larger part of the company, and we started instead of just being a licensor, being a publisher.

The next step was to create our own IP as part of the company, a creator, as opposed to just taking contents from other parts of the company. Inside that environment, we wanted to make new IP in the game space.

It started organically from, "We want to make a new IP. We want to make a game that kids would like, something that's a game first." Kids love monsters, they love creatures, they love collecting things. We wanted to make this a boys' franchise, so things like battle and action came up.

When we started to combine these elements together, that was the early stage where Spectrobes started to come together. We knew we wanted to start on the handheld platform, particularly the DS, so when we were originally looking around for developers, Jupiter's name came up as one of the strongest handheld developers in Japan, so that was the original main reason we contacted them.

Disney also worked with Jupiter on Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories; was that prior to the idea for Spectrobes?

Tim FitzRandolph: There was actually a Disney connection prior to Chain of Memories between Jupiter and Disney with Disney Sports, some games that were done I think in the GameCube time frame. Then, Chain of Memories was Jupiter's first step into RPG games. At that time, Spectrobes didn't exist yet.

But right about the time Chain of Memories was finishing up was when Spectrobes was starting to form. There has been a relationship that had existed over a few titles at that point, so it seemed like a good fit. They had just taken the step into making full RPGs for Square, and that was a really well-received game, so it seemed like it would be a great fit.

How did you go about creating a new IP between the North American and Japanese arm? What were the challenges?

Kentaro Hisai: The challenge of making a new IP is certainly a big one. Just taking an idea and making it into a game is comparatively not so difficult when you look at how difficult it is to pick something that's right, and work through the whole process of making sure you're making something that's appealing. Coming up with the idea for Spectrobes was a pretty complex, involved process.

Actually, the interaction between the U.S. office and the Japanese office to work together to make sure what was being created was something that not only the Japanese team and the Japanese market felt was appealing but that we felt would be successful in the U.S. as well was extremely difficult.

It was the first time our company had done anything like that. The office in Japan is not particularly large, so it was a very big project to be working on.

Originally, the U.S. side didn't have a lot of support, because it was the first time we had done this. Actually, throughout the process, a lot of times there was communication trouble just with working with a team across the ocean.

Actually, throughout the whole process of the game, every time it seemed like we were hitting walls, a new member would be added to the Japan side or the U.S. side who would fill that missing gap, and now we have a team that works quite well.

So the Spectrobes 2 development has gone much, much smoother than the first one. The first one was pretty long and involved, a difficult process with cultural differences and communication problems.

Were there lessons you learned between the first and second game, or was it more of a systematic improvement?

Kentaro Hisai: Rather than a big lesson learned, it was a natural progression as we improved the team, and got more people. It takes quite a long time to make a game, so throughout that process we picked up a lot of improvement and learned better ways to do things, and get things done.

In Game Developer magazine we're running a postmortem of Jupiter's The World Ends With You, and the Square Enix designers said they often had development incongruities and communication issues with Jupiter -- and that's with no language barrier. Did you have similar experiences?

Kentaro Hisai: Now, we're finally in a position with the relationship not only between the [Disney] offices, but also between us and Jupiter, where we've done this for so long now, [with] so many years getting through the differences, that we're finally at a point where we can appreciate and enjoy the differences between the company.

It's much easier now when we have a conversation with Jupiter maybe listening to Disney's request, and sometimes from Jupiter's point of view, it's a ridiculous proposition, but when they try it, it turns out well.

Sometimes it seems like the kids would think it's stupid, but when you try it, it makes sense. We've had the opposite quite a bit as well. We can actually appreciate and enjoy the differences between our companies.

Tim FitzRandolph: From the U.S. side, I can also give you a little bit... When I first joined the company, I was hired to work on Spectrobes. We were lucky that a lot of our executives were really understanding of a lot of the differences between the way games are developed in Japan versus the U.S. -- I'm sure you're familiar with the biggest difference being that the U.S. is about planning ahead, making milestones, so we know exactly how much of the game is left to make, with a very detailed schedule.

The culture in Japan generally doesn't tend to be that upfront about it, because there are a lot of things you don't understand about a game until you make it, so what's the point of planning all that out?

I think a lot of times that's how it actually ends up in the United States too, they just don't figure it into the schedule. (laughs)

Tim FitzRandolph: Yeah! (laughs) We keep fooling ourselves into making a schedule. But we had a lot of trouble with that, where there was a milestone scheduled on paper, and Jupiter struggled a lot.

Jupiter was very good about being as accommodating as they could to change their style also to give us deliverables sooner than they would have liked, or things like that, to make the relationship work well.

But also the team in Disney U.S. were quite understanding, trusting the managers whether they actually delivered everything they said they would in the order they said they would a year and a half ago when we first started the project. That was a big thing we've become much better at, and we trust each other more, so we don't have as much friction.

When making a game explicitly targeted at kids, how do you get accurate and useful feedback between the first and second game?

Kentaro Hisai: The first step was to ask the game creators to take a look at the finished game, and just analytically see what we felt could have been better, or where we didn't do as well as we could have, or what could have been more appealing. We took that and created a concept for the second game.

Luckily, we had about a million copies of the first game worldwide sold, so we were able to do an extensive test of the concept for the second game, with the actual consumers who had played the first game and new players as well.

After that test we got a lot of feedback, and that helped us focus the direction. We used that feedback to build an early prototype of the game, and then we did focus testing with real kids playing the game.

We thought we had answered everything and we had made a perfect answer to all their requests, but there were a lot of problems with the game, we found. It wasn't as friendly or as easy to play as we thought it was, which I think is often the case. We had a lot of feedback on how to make the game easier to play, easier to understand.

A million is pretty good for a third-party DS title, isn't it?

Tim FitzRandolph: Yeah, I think we were in the top three or top five third-party games when it came out overall. We might still be. It was definitely a success; we're certainly looking forward to even more.

You said you were explicitly targeting the Western and Japanese markets; did you find the first game performed to your expectations in all markets?

Tim FitzRandolph: We actually had the result we anticipated before the game came out, which actually is unfortunate, because Kentaro and the team making the game in Japan obviously wanted to make a game that would work well throughout the world. We had excellent sales in the U.S. and Europe.

They were actually quite concerned about the sales in Japan, because of the way the market is right now, and they weren't sure we had enough momentum in the market in Japan to break through and get good sales.

As they expected, we weren't able to get the sales we would have liked in Japan from the first game, which was a big surprise to some of us in the U.S., but the team had been quite concerned about it.

So we've gone back and we're researching how we can do better in Japan. We're basically relaunching the franchise in Japan, making a lot of changes to the way we're communicating what this game is and why it's fun.

It is a fun game; it's not necessarily the problem with the product, as much as the way we were presenting it. So that's one of our challenges with Beyond the Portals, to make sure that it's as successful as we know it can be in Japan.