January 9, 2009 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[As always, we'll reprint interviews from Gamasutra over here on GSW if they're sufficiently leftfield, different and suitable. Christian Nutt's talk with Tecmo's Team Tachyon is one of those, esp. because Quantum Theory might actually be the most interesting game of 2009 you're not paying attention to. Or another odd Tecmo game - we'll see!]
Tecmo's Fatal Frame and Rygar producer Keisuke Kikuchi has been at the company for years now -- and his team, Team Tachyon, is now looking to increase its profile to the level that Team Ninja successfully did under the leadership of the idiosyncratic Tomonobu Itagaki.
But Kikuchi is a quieter, more subtle man -- and as this interview reveals, his chosen tactic is to challenge his team to produce top-quality titles that counter audience expectations -- most notably, the company's 2009 PlayStation 3 exclusive third person shooter Quantum Theory.
Team Tachyon Producer Kohei Shibata is on the same page -- here he speaks about the inspiration behind his title Undead Knights, which has a surprisingly unrelenting dark theme. The game is also a PSP exclusive -- rare, these days.
Shibata reveals that the current Tecmo has a quietly creative, left-of-center view of how to approach the marketplace, that allows for the balance of business needs and creative inspiration.
Here, we present our in-depth discussions with the two men, who were joined by Tecmo U.S. vice president John Inada and PR manager Kyoko Yamashita.
Keisuke Kikuchi -- Delivering the Unique Tecmo Twist
I really do want to talk about Quantum Theory... Because it really looks like an interesting concept [a recent GamesRadar preview explains its 'living game world' underpinnings], and the genre -- the third-person shooter -- is also unexpected, for Team Tachyon.
Keisuke Kikuchi: I may have touched on this before, so it may be a little bit overlapping, but -- here at Tecmo we've mastered two genres: the action genre, with Ninja Gaiden, and the fighting genre with DOA. We also have Fatal Frame, a great adventure game.
And, looking at the future, and thinking about what our next challenge was going to be, we actually set from the very beginning that we were going to challenge ourselves to the genre of third person shooter.
We know the genre has a very big user base and an audience outside of Japan -- especially in North America. So, it wasn't something that we forced ourselves into; we knew from the very beginning that we were going to go up against some great games out there, but we are very prepared for that.
From even before this team became Team Tachyon, I've worked on several Tecmo products that have had a unique twist. Every game that we put out there, I think, comparing to similar titles in that particular genre, have had something very unique and special about them -- a new discovery. And so, with Quantum Theory, what we wanted to do was continue on that path.
When you think of third person shooter, most people think in terms of military warfare games, the same environment. But the approach that we're taking, as you saw in the trailer, with the visuals -- what you see from the very beginning -- it's very different. It's almost like we want to portray an action film in a game, with a hero and heroine; and we think that that's a very unique point in that genre.
It sounds like a technically ambitious project. It's a high-level next-gen shooting game alongside an evolving world. Can you talk about your technological process, and how you feel it's going?
KK: So, at this day and age, we can't really have restrictions and limitations on who works on a certain process of development, and who works on a certain stage of development.
So Tecmo, just thinking as whole, Team Ninja has already put out a game, Ninja Gaiden Sigma, on the PS3, and internally we've already shared the knowledge, and the know-how, and we're very aware of the technological challenges that they had. So, in a way, we have already been exposed to that.
And moving forward, we think that we can push it to the next level with Quantum Theory. So it's not like we're completely starting from scratch, but the luxury of having a team, internally, that has already worked on a PS3 title, definitely has been a help.
Isn't that something of a rare situation? Tecmo always shared engines for PS2 titles as well, but there's still a dividing line. And in Japan, even contemporary developers hide what they're working on, between teams, which is just unthinkable in the West. So, I'm interested to hear about that.
John Inada: I would say that, you know, a few years back, that's how we were. We created healthy competition amongst ourselves, and separated the teams apart, and they wouldn't share anything. In fact, we had to put them in different buildings so they wouldn't start fighting, you know?
But we're changing our way, and our new strategy allows everybody to collaborate with each other; and sometimes if you're on one team, you might be the recipient of such a new relationship, and sometimes you could be on the other side. And so, you know, I think it's a good thing.
JI: The technology is owned by Tecmo, and not by each team, so, it would be silly...
KK: So, continuing on that thought about traditionally Japanese developers -- and even maybe non-Japanese developers -- when you're in a team, and there's a team formation, the staff members, if you're part of a certain team, you were fully dedicated, and there was really no sharing of knowledge, or even switching over, here and there.
But, in the case of our teams,[Team Ninja's new lead, producer] Hasagawa-san, whom you >interviewed earlier, we had already worked on Fatal Frame 2 for Xbox; we worked on it together, collaborated. So, there's a sense of open communication between the teams, and also with some external development teams that we are working with; Grasshopper, for example, for Fatal Frame 4.
Working with Suda-san. You know, we share very similar ideas in how to make a compelling title that has global appeal, and the most respect for some of the ideas and concepts that he has, and his philosophy.
So, yeah, we're at a time and age where shifting ourselves to a certain way may actually work against us -- obviously there are a lot of elements that we want to keep to ourselves. But at the same time, sharing that with your partners will only make something into a better product. So, that's the stance that I'm taking right now.
Something else that struck me is the "inspiration from within" style that Tecmo seems to be pursuing with its creators; to give the ability to have their own inspiration -- we talked at TGS about how Quantum Theory is Makoto Shibata's idea. Is that a key to Tecmo right now? Is allowing the inspiration to bubble up from within allowing the games to reach their potential?
KK: It was said that the idea came from Shibata-san, but that's not 100% accurate. It's not from bottom-up or top-down; it's more great teamwork, and a combination of producers and directors.
So the producers can come up with the strategy of where we should be going next, and what we should be targeting next, in terms of game concept, or genre, or ideas, but without the directors that can implement and execute that, it would be unbalanced and one-sided.
So, I think Tecmo has the talent in both producing the game, and also directing it so that it provides new content, taking it to the next level, and coming up with original IP and ideas. And so, having that from within definitely is something that Tecmo is proud of, and is known for, and we'll continue to work in that manner.
That reminds me of something that you said a few years ago -- we were talking about Fatal Frame 3 -- which is that Shibata-san believes in ghosts, and you do not believe in ghosts.
JI: If they both believed in ghosts then they'd have an unbalanced product, huh?
Yeah, exactly; the idea was that Kikuchi brings an analytical understanding of what's necessary to make the game, and Shibata-san brought the belief and inspiration. Each side is required to make the game work.
KK: Yeah, it's funny that you brought that up, because if both of us believed in ghosts, it probably would've turned into a very unbalanced product, in terms of a game, and providing an experience that was the core idea and philosophy behind the product. It would've been very lopsided if both of us believed in ghosts.
So it's almost like I can be always hand-shaking Shibata, but at the same time we're always arguing and punching with each other. So, you know, it's that balance that's necessary.
There needs to be a party on both sides [of the process]; if you both look at it from the same standpoint, then it's just going to go in one direction. And so, going back to having a producer and having a director that can come from both sides and then meet halfway would make a perfect combination.
Developers are still trying to create characters that have a meaningful function to both story and gameplay. In that context, can you talk about Quantum Theory's action film-style dual main characters, and how they function effectively? As an example, I'm thinking of Dom and Marcus Fenix in Gears of War.
KK: I think it goes along the lines of, how you explained in Gears of War, how that's the really key element in trying to move the game forward. So, in designing Quantum Theory, obviously we have similar ways, and we know that it's very important to balance out both of the elements; if it were strong on the one side and weak on the other, then it wouldn't make a successful game.
So, we're making sure that the world and environment, balance out your character. So while we can't go into details of what exactly the male and female character will do, we know that it's a key ingredient to the success of the game.
America, Watch Out -- It's Kohei Shibata
So, is Undead Knights your only project, or simply your main project?
Kouhei Shibata: My main project is Undead Knights, but I'm working on another, unannounced project.
We talked about how Undead Knights [a zombie-controlling third-person action game] came from your love for the PSP and your desire to make a good action experience on it. But Kikuchi-san was talking about the importance of balanced goals -- how are you managing that?
KS: Well, obviously, I didn't come up with this idea just because I love the PSP and I wanted to make an action game. Action games are available on all platforms.
Looking at the Xbox 360, yes, you have the core action gameplay elements that can be executed very well; and then, going to the portable experience, with the PSP versus the DS, it just seems like the DS lends more toward the casual gamers, and I'm not sure if the real gamers are there [wanting] an action gameplay experience.
So, from that, we looked at the market, we thought that the PSP was the way to go for this project, so that's one of the main reasons why we came to this project.
And the most important thing, I think, is to be able to deliver a gameplay experience that's not just your typical action hack-and-slash, "kill your enemies and move forward" game; there needs to be some sort of twist to an action game.
There are plenty of action games out there that offer that experience, so it's going to be very important that we have something that's more appealing than that.
Undead Knights' main character [trailer] seems really demonic and evil looking, whereas it seems more common for Japanese games to feature a sympathetic character, while Western design seems more outside-in.
JI: I don't know if you know that the Tecmo U.S. office now has a small group of producers. So, in fact, I think it's okay to say that our Tecmo U.S. studio, and someone specifically like [producer] Ray [Murakawa], worked closely with them on character design, and back and forth, and that's probably where the American influence is coming from.
KS: Because the game will obviously also come out in Japan, you know. It's not going to be entirely, "Okay, this is what we think is going to work for America!" We're coming up with ways to balance that out, as well. But that'll be something that we can talk about later on.
I have to say, and you can tell me I'm completely crazy, but it reminds me of [older Tecmo series] Deception. Not the gameplay, but the fact that it's so evil.
I was wondering if there was any connection. Because I remember that I talked to Kikuchi-san about Trapt, the last Deception game, for the PS2. It seems like Tecmo has been returning to this "evil main characters" situation.
KK: Well, both Shibatas like evil; Makoto Shibata and Kohei Shibata, they like evil. I balance it out because I'm the good. Kohei is evil! American gamers watch out!
Of course I'm kidding.
Where did the idea come from, to make an evil main character? Because, obviously, just like we were saying, it didn't just come from trying to appeal to a Western audience? It's not a cheap idea; it's obviously your inspiration. I think, even in a Western game, it's still pretty rare to have a full-on demon main character.
KS: Well, obviously, you always want to stand out when you want to create something. In gaming, you're in the same genre, competing with other action games, and if you don't have an element that's going to really stand out, how are you going to be able to compare yourselves with other games?
And so, in that case, we thought that making the biggest difference with your character that you control would step up the gameplay experience. And we may have a thing about wanting to be known for making something quite different, even if it's within the same genre. So, we do want to keep that element going -- so that we're known for something different. And we will continue to push that.
This is just a personal preference, but playing a good hero, and doing the good... It can be okay, it's pretty much just okay. I mean, you expect that from a hero. But when you have an evil character, and you can do good and evil, and being able to manipulate that shines well, and it stands out better than just an ordinary hero doing good.
Something that you just said reminded me of something: At the 2008 D.I.C.E. summit, the director of Pirates of the Caribbean movie series, Gore Verbinsky, spoke. What he said is that Disney wanted him to make a very typical movie, and when they first saw the first dailies of Johnny Depp's performance in the movie, all of the executives started freaking out: "What's wrong with him? Is he drunk? Is he gay? What is going on there? You're making a movie!" But, of course, it turned out to be the key; the success of the entire franchise is Depp's performance.
So, saying that you have to have an item that stands out, to make the game have meaning, or "ties it together" is the way that he put it. Is that a concept you're relating to here?
KS: So, you playing the evil and dark hero in Undead Knights -- we're pretty confident it's going to add flavor, and it's going to be quite unique for an action game. But we still are making an action game, so we will make sure that this game executes as a very good action game -- but, adding that unique twist is definitely going to help in pushing that perception of what an action game can actually do.
And, in a way -- I may be exaggerating a little bit, but -- if the game didn't even have a Team Tachyon or a Tecmo label on it, I'm hopeful that people will thinking that this does feel like a game that, "Maybe I've had a similar feeling or a similar experience of in the past." Like, it has its own Tecmo flavor to it.
So, that being the ultimate goal, we'll integrate and use elements that will give it that flavor. But, yeah, the analogy that you used is something that is agreeable; I agree to that.