[Our own Brandon Sheffield speaks with Patapon 3 director Hiroyuki Kotani to discuss how the team tried to avoid overly complex design, the game's visual evolution, and how music can help attract a worldwide audience.]

The next entry in the eccentric Patapon franchise for the PlayStation Portable hopes to retain the franchise's casual appeal while adding new features to expand on its simple mechanics.

The Sony published Patapon series allows players to control a squad of creatures using rhythm based commands. Well-timed inputs reward the player with bonuses, while incorrect ones confuse the player's troops and throw battles into disarray.

Patapon 3 -- due out in early 2011 in the West -- will introduce new Superhero Patapon units, which build off of the Hero units from the previous title, which posses special abilities and level up to gain more power. While these units add depth to the game's simple mechanics, Patapon 3 director Hiroyuki Kotani aims to retain the franchise's accessibility for players of all types.

We spoke with Kotani to discuss how the team tried to avoid overly complex design, the game's visual evolution, and how music can help attract a worldwide audience.

Since the first Patapon came out, there have been a lot more games that take that kind of simple visual style. Do you have any opinion on why this might have gotten more popular recently?

Hiroyuki Kotani: You think it has changed?

I do. It's not that Patapon itself is a different game; it just seems like consumers have taken to this more simple look, compared to previously. And so other games have taken up that simple style. Or maybe you disagree?

HK: Well, I'm very glad to hear people say such things about the game, first off. When we first started development work on Patapon, we figured it'd appeal to a very refined, high-sense kind of market. However, between the release of Patapon 1 and Patapon 2, I later realized that I was inherently limiting the potential audience for the game before.

The game did have a pretty big audience, but there was a wide range of people that basically never had a chance to even hear about the game. Patapon looks like a very casual game on the surface, but try it and you'll find it's actually a quite deep and full-featured game. The audience for it really liked it, but a lot of people never even heard of it.

I wanted to expand the audience, and the fans we did attract felt the same way, so for Patapon 3, we shifted the focus a bit more toward the Hero Patapon and made the game more instantly attractive toward so-called "gamers." It's quite a transformation, I think.

I feel like Patapon doesn't have a huge fanbase, but it's a dedicated fanbase. I don't think it's necessarily bad to have some dedicated fans versus a whole lot of casual fans. I worry that sometimes small games are made into bigger ones just for the sake of an audience. Sometimes that can be good, but other times it may change the game too much from what it was meant to be originally. How do you balance that?

HK: I certainly love this franchise we've made, and of course I want to approach any new thing we do with it very carefully. The Hero Patapon's design, for example; I spent a good six months working on that. Maybe more, even. We felt we needed something with real impact, and so we spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the character truly memorable to players, how to have them naturally accept the hero as they play.

We did a lot of focus test sessions, and getting things the way we wanted them really took up the first year of development all by itself. So that's what we're hoping for with this game -- that new and old fans are impressed and attracted to what's new, not turned off by it.

How did you come up with these ways to extend gameplay from a simple core in Patapon 1, in a way that would still feel right for you? What was your thought process or design process?

HK: The original concept, certainly, was to create a simple game, and that hasn't really changed. Normally when you make a second or third game, there's a tendency for things to get complex and unfocused, and that's something we deliberately set out to avoid.

Instead of needless complexity, we set out to search for new methods of play, for ways to expand the world while keeping it simple to play. The multiplayer mode is a good example of the variation we're after.

It seems like you can continue to have a simple core and add layers that don't affect the basic play style, but make it a more deep game. The RPG layer is above the main gameplay, for example, so you can continue to add without adding complication.

HK: Certainly. One of the main themes of this project was to take the multiplayer we experimented with in Patapon 2 and make it an integral part of the whole game. So instead of making the Hero Patapon and his friends more complex to deal with and play as, we allow you to play as more types of heroes. We give players more choices of what they can play as, and that makes things more fun. We haven't revealed all the heroes yet, but I think people will find what we have in store for them to be pretty neat.

Comparing the role of music and sound in this game to the role of graphics, what do you think is giving the most feedback to players? It seems like the rhythm and sound is extremely important in this game, more than others. It almost feels like a game you could play with no graphics at all. Did you design with this sort of thing in mind? Or, perhaps, do you feel it's the sound or the graphics that more heavily drive the gameplay?

HK: It's certainly true that music plays an important role in the whole thing, although it's not the entire game. Music is something that's very much "alive" in the world of Patapon, and I've thought at times about making a new franchise that emphasizes that part of it, but really, the game is not about the individual aspects so much as grabbing the hearts of players, doing what's necessary to achieve that. It'd be something interesting to explore, though.

Did you do anything like go to festivals and such for research? It has that Japanese festival feeling to it.

HK: The music package came about because we wanted it to be clear when you were pushing the buttons correctly and when you were doing it wrong. So we stuck with simplicity, basing them off children's folk songs, in Japan and elsewhere; songs with fun and happy rhythms -- songs where the rhythm is the main thing, not the message.

I think that, when you get down to it, the messages that a song's rhythm can communicate work with people all around the world, regardless of race or nationality. If a song sounds fun, it'll sound fun to everyone; likewise if it sounds scary. That was the assumption we worked with during development, and I think that idea turned out to be correct in the end.

The game's really borderless in that way; that's something I really felt strongly about. A lot of Japanese devs are scratching their heads right now, wondering what they have to do to make games that appeal to the overseas markets. I think what Patapon's music proves is that as long as you concentrate on keeping things fun and interesting, you'll be surprised at how easily people from all walks of life will find it similarly fun.

The music certainly has a universal appeal. When you're creating these heroes, what was the base for these characters? Patapon has a very distinct style, almost like tribal tattoos or something. What was the basis for the way these heroes are portrayed graphically?

HK: Well, my internal test department -- well, my son, and some of the women in my family -- they're fans of Patapon, and what they told me was that they wanted Patapon that "looked cooler" to play as, Patapon that looked a little tougher than the norm. This put me in a bind, because they were originally designed to be these cute little guys, of course.

So I made a doodle of a Patapon riding this mythical dragon-like horse. The kids in my family loved it, but I just didn't feel like it was Patapon-like enough. Once we started on this project, though, the consensus among us was "Maybe it's not Patapon, but let's put it in and see if gamers get a charge out of it." That's how Patapon 3 really got its start -- that's how I remember it, at least. This would just a bit after Patapon 2 came out in Japan.

That's a cute story. When you were going through all these ideas, did you have to throw many of them out?

HK: Well, to be honest, I can't remember a lot of the older ideas any longer! The way I remember it, it was just a constant adding process -- we didn't really throw out much of anything. We did wind up cutting infrastructure-mode support from the first one, although it came back in Patapon 2. With this project, it's a bit trickier, because we're running into that issue I talked about earlier -- how to expand the game world without adding needless complexity. So we'll see.

Do you feel that the series should continue forward past Patapon 3, or do you feel there's a point where you've finished everything?

HK: Well, when the first Patapon was completed, my thoughts were "I'd like to make a second one, but we probably shouldn't, really, because I don't want to create this big, complex thing and I'd probably have to." So it's really up in the air right now.

I thought Patapon 1 and Patapon 2 were both going to be the last ones, so it's hard to say yet. I'm willing to bet, though, that once I start chatting with my family around the New Year holidays, I'll probably start thinking up more ideas again.