-[So, this Brandon Sheffield-conducted interview is a couple of things - firstly, it's a really interesting window into the thoughts of a small/midsized Japanese console developer - Tenchu creator Acquire. Secondly, it might be our most-edited interview ever, due to audio and translation issues - but luckily, you can't tell now.]

Formed after a Sony Music Japan PlayStation game design contest that eventually birthed the Tenchu series, Tokyo-based studio Acquire Corp. has over a decade’s worth of history developing ninja and samurai-themed titles.

Acquire recently finished Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida, an offbeat RPG released for the PSP December 2007, in which players defend their dungeons against invading heroes.

Manager Kazuhiku Hirose sat with Gamasutra at GDC's 'Game Connection' publisher/developer meetingplace to talk about its ninja games and stealth-based titles from other titles, such as Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid.

He also shares Acquire Corp’s philosophy behind Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida and the company’s future plans for casual titles and targeting different audiences for releases on different platforms.

Collaborating with U.S. Publishers

So, first of all, why did you decide to come to this GDC?

Kazuhiku Hirose: Our main objective is to attend Game Connection itself, because now we have development work in Japan, internally. But we would like to take our business worldwide because our most famous title, Tenchu, is very famous worldwide, so we need to create good IP in association with foreign publishers.

In a lot of the content we make with Japanese publishers, the IP is not good for use, worldwide. So we need to considering doing deals with big publishers like EA.

I see. So you're looking to collaborate with U.S. publishers. And do you want to develop games based on their IP, or do you want to give your IP to them?

KH: We always make our own IPs, but when we make our IPs, the IP often still doesn't belong to us [rather to the publisher], because who pays the money? That is our problem. (laughs)

Yeah. As you mentioned, a lot of Acquire's games are very Japanese-oriented; do you think that it gives you more or less appeal in the Western market?

KH: Hmm. It's a difficult question, because some Japanese styles of game, like the ninja or samurai genre, are very unique compared to other games. But on the other hand, those titles are sometimes poorly managed by publishers.

For example, according to some publisher promotions, ninja games tend to be centered around the bloody, slashing aspects.

If we would like to play up the story in our games, we will need to make more unique content, like in the fantasy genre. So I think we will make more unique content if we cooperate with foreign publishers.

Do you think that the fact that it's ninja or samurai is more appealing because it's different.

KH: Yeah, I think ninja and samurai are very attractive - but the most important thing in those games is the action itself. So we can easily use those game components on other titles.

Right. It seems that now there are only two major -- well, I guess three major companies doing like ninja-style games: There's Tecmo, Acquire, and From Software. Yeah?

KH: You're right.

So, by comparison, it seems that Acquire's games are more like actual ninja, whereas Tecmo's games are more like fighting games with ninja. So what are Acquire's rules for making a ninja more ninja?

KH: First we made Tenchu, but that was based on stealth games. I think the difference between Tenchu and Ninja Gaiden is very big. I think we understand foreign people like both games, but we like to make good stealth games.

We made a good, more realistic ninja game... we made our gameplay system so that the user can easily control ninjas, hide, and kill people from behind, and so on.

Well I was also wondering if Acquire has specific rules for what ninja should do in games. Because, yeah, it's much more stealth, and more similar to what a ninja might actually do; whereas in Ninja Gaiden, for instance, he's just basically any kind of warrior, just fighting anybody. So do you have specific kinds of rules at Acquire?

KH: Yes, but sometimes we talk to people who are training ninjas now. So they can teach us the moves that work for real-life ninjas.

In the original Tenchu days, the action was not so realistic, but we're working on that - because I think stealth games are more attractive in U.S. and Europe - there are good stealth games without ninjas, in the form of Splinter Cell and other games.

So those games have really good animation and graphics, so we need to learn from those titles.

So do you consider Splinter Cell, and Metal Gear Solid to be similar to ninja games?

KH: I think those titles are very nice to play, because they're easy to get into, and the animation and action are of a high quality.

But, ninja game have some specific aspects, because users need to play chiefly through hiding. So we try to make a game with a free, open play style.

Splinter Cell makes a stage, and the player can learn how to go to A to B, but with Tenchu, and our PS2 title, Shinobido, we make only a space, and how to play the game is based solely on the user's thoughts.

Deka Voice And The Future For Voice Controls

I see. So, Acquire did work on SCE's Japan-only detective game Deka Voice, right? [Ed. note: "Deka" is Japanese for "detective".] How was this created? I think it was one of only two PS2 titles that used only voice to control the character.

KH: At first the producer at Sony and our director talked about how to use the function. We are trying to create another style of content, because we made Japanese style games for so long.

So we tried to make something in a Western style -- like our game Samurai Western before this. So we thought we'd write a hard-boiled game. And I think Acquire has a mind to challenge new platforms of function, so we made Deka Voice.

Why were there no more voice games after that?

KH: (laughter)

That may be a difficult question.

KH: Yeah. The biggest problem is the game itself. The sales are not so good. Users want to play a game, but if we want to use the newest interfaces, like voice, the UIs need to be more good to control.

So I think it is very hard to use voice - but on the other hand, the controller is very easy to use. But sooner or later, voice control will come back.

Do you think that you could do that kind of game on the DS, with the microphone?

KH: Ah... There are some titles using voice, but I think it is very limited in function. So I think that it's so good to use. If we tried to use voice again, we'd need to do more research on how to use it well for gameplay.

So do you not think the DS microphone is sufficient for voice input? Is that what you mean?

KH: I think occasionally using voice recognition is OK, but I think that recognition needs to be better for using it in complicated games.

So if, for example, on PS3 or Xbox 360 -- if we try those platforms, we can use a more complicated system for the recognition, and then we have a chance to create some interesting gameplay...

Expanding Its Vision Beyond Sony

Acquire seems to have been very Sony-focused for a long time. Will you ever branch out into other platforms?

KH: Yes... of course Tenchu was originally released by Sony Music Entertainment, so we have a very good connection with Sony itself.

But we do not have any binding financial relationship with Sony, so we can work with other platforms. And at this stage we cannot say any other things, but in a few months, we can talk more about this...

I see. And I assume that if a U.S. publisher wanted to work with you on a different platform, that would be OK.

KH: Yeah, so, big publishers are focused on multiplatform gaming, so in order to get work we need to create our title on Xbox 360 and the PS3...

With those platforms, has Acquire had any difficulty working on those new platforms?

KH: We are developing our newest title, Way of the Samurai III, and we used Gamebryo technology, so the middleware supports the Xbox 360 and the Wii.

We have a relationship with that technology, because Gamebryo will be sold and supported by Emergent Technology Japan, in Japan internally, and Emergent Technology Japan is a subsidiary of Acquire.

Oh, I see. Oh! Well that's useful then.

KH: Yeah.

So I guess it should be easier for you to get into next-gen, there's a relationship there. OK. How much does the engine help? I mean, obviously there's a lot more artists needed, because it's a much bigger game...

KH: Middleware helps to develop the game in some notable aspects. For example, in multiplatform development, it's very hard to port to another platform, but Gamebryo will help to port the title between PS3 and Xbox 360.

We can use tools in Gamebryo, like the level designer or something. But if we want to use more complex parts of [the PS3's] Cell function itself, that is more difficult to control in middleware. That is a problem, but by using middleware... we can reduce our risk to develop the title, and development cost itself.

Have you had to hire more people within Acquire, to move to next-gen game stuff?

KH: We will hire more people, but the reason is not to make a big project. We will would like to add more simultaneous projects into our production schedule.

So you want multiple projects pipelined, then.

KH: Yes.

Trying New Things With Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida

So, I'm curious to know where the idea for your recent PSP title, Yuusha no Kuse ni Namaikida [an offbeat RPG released for the PSP December 2007, in which players defend their dungeons against invading heroes] came from.

KH: Did you play it?

I have not gotten to play yet; I've seen video, and know what it's about, but I haven't played it yet.

KH: So I am very curious, because how have U.S. or European users seen the title, and what do they think of the title? Because the title is very domestic market-oriented.

Well, it's interesting to people because it's the opposite of a normal dungeon RPG, so people just find that concept very interesting. And as for how they find out about it, well, it's just through websites and things.

KH: So the title was born in a very curious situation, with our director, and the producer - who is the same as on Deka Voice.

I see.

KH: They were thinking of a new concept for a game, to help energize the PSP in Japan. So the project is not so big -- like a next-gen platform title or something -- so we can easily try to do new things.

But in this case, new things do not mean functions. In a typical RPG, the user can use the hero - but in this game, the user can control the enemies and beat up the heroes. So that is a very funny thing, and we encapsulate that in "yuusha".

Yeah, "hero".
[Ed. note "yuusha" means "hero", typically in an epic sense. The title of the game translates to "Brazen, in Spite of Heroes."]

KH: In the game, Yuusha talks to characters... and that text is a parody of other RPGs in Japan.

Like Dragon Quest?

KH: So that is a very attractive point to Japanese gamers. But usually, those elements are not so suitable for the Western market, though.

Where did the idea come from originally?

KH: So, the base idea itself is gardening. So people plant some grass, or make a pond, a little pond, in a very small place.

In Japan, students usually create environments to put ants in, and we put in soil, and put in some ants, and we can see everything from the side.

So the cage looks like a dungeon - so if we put the monsters in the cage, that's very funny. So we make a dungeon game underground with that style.

Do you think this game will ever come to the U.S.?

KH: (laughter) That will depend on Sony, so we cannot say. But they probably think this game is not easy to understand in the U.S. or Europe... it seems a little difficult.

Acquire has started doing some more small games like that, and doing Flash games and stuff, like for Shinobido -- is there any interest in making downloadable games, like for PSN, or WiiWare, or Xbox 360?

KH: Yes, we will try more -- we try to make smaller games, because the market is changing. Big games are still important, but on the other hand, different users have other needs in the market. We will not switch to Flash games, because we need a more significant business model, but we will try to make downloadable titles, and PSP games, and so on.

Entering The Casual Market

How do you think the market has been changing in Japan?

KH: It's very difficult question, but... now, in Japan, next-gen platforms, specifically the PS3 and Xbox 360, are not off to a good start. But Wii is very successful in Japan too, but the popular titles... are only Nintendo.

So third parties have to sell titles in Japan's market, and they go to smaller platforms like DS and PSP. I think it is not good for our industry. So we need to make a good content for each platform, like smaller handheld titles, and big titles for the PS3 and the 360.

Acquire has some content to release on each platform, so at this time we make some experimental titles which will be released on handhelds like PSP.

And we have good know-how to make action adventure and stealth games, so we will make good and larger titles which will be released on Xbox 360 and PS3.

Is good content the answer for selling more of the big consoles? It seems like a very difficult situation now, even here. Here, big consoles sell still, but even so, Wii and DS are the biggest. What do you think is the solution?

KH: (laughter) We need to learn about users. Because users' needs are changing between Wii and DS, sometimes we make good games, but for only the hardcore gaming market. I think that is very dangerous to make that kind of game, because users are changing, and the average age is getting older.

Older players may know Tenchu and those titles, but the teenage players nowadays, they didn't know Tenchu. So we need to devise a new angle to get people to play the newest stealth games.

Will Acquire be making more casual type titles?

KH: It is a difficult question, because casual games are easy to do, but we can't really differentiate between our content and that of other companies. For example, Sudoku is a very good puzzle game, but if we make Sudoku, what is the difference? So that is the problem with casual games.

But one problem is that many people think: OK I'll make a casual game; I'll make Sudoku! They don't think: Oh, I should make a casual game; here's something new.

KH: Yeah, but I think if we make a good idea for a casual game, that is a great thing - but that depends on the game design itself. So our company, now we have 50 staff, so we cannot depend on only those ideas.

So if we make a more casual game than Tenchu, we will try to make good story or good graphics, because designs need to be differentiated compared to other casual titles.