Sometimes, good things just sort of land in your lap.
You might be walking down the street and see a dollar just laying in your path. Maybe a barista asks if you’d like a drink for free that she made and nobody wanted. Other times, it might be something more substantial, like visiting a foreign land to attend a game convention and getting to interview some of the most important and well-recognized names in the Japanese games industry.
In my case, that last one is exactly what happened to me.
GungHo Online Entertainment recently offered GameCritics the chance to to visit its Japanese corporate headquarters and sit down with some of the creative minds behind games such as Let it Die and Puzzle and Dragons. While there, why not attend the final stage of Gungfest 2017 at the Makuhari Messe near Tokyo? Toss in some karaoke and drinks, and that would be a great trip, right? Naturally, they wanted the best writer for this event, but it turns out that Brad Gallaway was unavailable, so the offer trickled down to me instead.
Now, it should be mentioned that I did give some serious thought to this offer before accepting. Since it was an all expenses paid trip, would anyone be able to trust a single word I said in regards to GungHo’s output ever again? Or should I just tattoo the words ‘corporate shill’ to my forehead and be done with it? I pondered the implications to my future trustworthiness for somewhere in the region of five whole nanoseconds before accepting the offer, and almost blasted a hole in my keyboard as I hit ‘send’ with great velocity.
Darren-kun was going to Japan!
It’s important to note that at thirty seven years of age, I’m officially a gaming dinosaur and mobile gaming has a hell of a lot to prove to me. Since GungHo’s bountiful fortunes are primarily tied to the runaway success of mobile hit/ridiculously successful cultural phenomenon Puzzle and Dragons in its native Japan, I thought this would be a good time to educate myself a little on the matter and see if maybe – just maybe – some mobile games deserved their acclaim. Even if they failed to convince me, the promise of a visit to Grasshopper Manufacture‘s studio was enough to get me salivating at the prospect. The free-to-play Playstation 4 exclusive Let it Die seriously impressed me when it released at the end of last year, and the opportunity to get some face-to-face time with the minds behind it was simply too good to pass up.
After a day of travel, things really kicked off for me in Japan. This was when the GungHo Festival was scheduled to take place at the Makuhari Messe. A celebration of all things GungHo related, Gungfest promised to be an interesting experience full of live music, stage shows and a colossal crowd of fans moseying around soaking it all in. We got up early, met up in the hotel lobby and swiftly headed on over, arriving in plenty of time to get set up to chronicle the event.
I’m no stranger to the Makuhari Messe, having visited multiple times in the past to attend the Tokyo Game Show. Needless to say, it’s a pretty big venue – and this was only further emphasized when viewing the exhibition center for the first time without a ton of massive, overbearing videogame booths scattered throughout its rooms. It soon struck me that there were a hell of a lot of people here for Gungfest.
Whilst walking through the corridors connecting each of the large main halls, one of the guys walking in our direction suddenly caught my eye for some unknown reason. There was something familiar about him that didn’t quite click initially, so when he stopped and greeted us I rapidly tried to determine just who this mystery man was.
My guide, Tyler, beat me to it. “This is Akira Yamaoka“, he said as he introduced us for the first time.
‘Holy Fucking Shit,’ I replied. Not out loud, thankfully, but the surprise was real. I’d be interviewing Akira in the days to come, and as much as I enjoyed the music and sound design he’d worked on in the past, when it came to music as a whole I had no real clue about what I should be asking about. I resolved to give the matter some additional thought.
Whilst walking around the event, I saw plenty of interesting things. There was a Virtual Reality spinoff of Puzzle and Dragons which seemed to involve grouping as many bubbles together as possible before casting them into the face of a gigantic drooling hellbeast, the player being cheered on all the while by a cute mascot. There were also ‘tainted’ bubbles, however, so it’s important to maneuver around them or they’ll burst all the bubbles currently collected. The project looks a little limited in scope right now, but it’s clearly aimed at younger players and seems like it could still be fun for a while – or perhaps there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, and that was only what they were showing on the show floor.
Other games and attractions were in attendance too, including merchandise for something called ‘Divine Gate‘ which I’d never heard of but has some pretty cool artwork. I grabbed a couple of Let it Die T-shirts and snagged myself a neat Uncle Death poster at the same time, then hopped over to a UFO catcher dispensing – yes – Puzzle and Dragons merchandise. I opted to try for the Arbiter of Judgment Metatron figure as she looked the coolest one out of the lot, and I triumphantly walked off with my prize! Mainly because after one failed attempt the attendants reshuffle it so that it’s almost impossible to lose on a second attempt, but what the hell. A winner is me!
In this merchandising area I heard that around 5000 fans were initially waiting in line to go on a spending spree before it opened, and it was an easy figure to believe. The place was bouncing with people aiming to snaffle up game-related goodies, but not quite so packed that we had to force ourselves through the glut of humanity pressing against us – it wasn’t as hellishly busy as the Tokyo Game show could be, and it seemed like Gungfest was better organized than TGS traditionally is.
The finals of the Puzzle and Dragons championship also took place during the afternoon, though my unfamiliarity with the title somewhat crippled my ability to relay the events in a coherent fashion. The finalists were all given the same problem to solve, speedily moving their bubbles around onscreen to set up massive combos that would wipe out a pretty substantial looking boss character lurking at the top of the display. Bubbles sped around the screen faster than I could follow, and an extremely large and responsive audience cheered as the contestants on stage did their thing. I resolved to actually give the game a real shot once the trip was over just so I could make sense of what it was all about.
While the rest seemed great, the Let it Die section was naturally of most personal interest to me, given that it’s one of my favorite games from the past few years. I snuck up as close to the stage as I could without being physically on it, and fortunately one of my interpreters was on hand to provide translation for what was being discussed.
As anyone who’s ever watched an E3 developer conference will know, these things are usually little more than sordid public circus acts hell-bent on seeing which studio can fellate itself the hardest in front of a crowd of whooping, hollering onlookers, but this Let it Die panel was remarkably different from that sort of self-congratulatory nonsense. It was a relatively relaxed affair with a ton of guests from various corners of the industry cosplaying as characters from the game discussing the things that pissed them off about it. Make no mistake, it takes some guts to publicly laugh at the aspects of your game that turn its player base red in the face.
Whether they were chortling over the intentional control choices that cause sprinting players to dropkick the air instead of speeding up an escalator to safety (somewhat inconvenient whilst being pursued by a howling mob of lunatics armed with machetes) or discussing the finer points of heading into the wrong lavatory in the waiting room, it was clear that they were all having a good time talking shit about a game they genuinely adored.
The major news out of this stage event for Let it Die was that it had a few upcoming collaboration pieces up its sleeve which they showed off in trailer form. One of these collaborations was unexpected to say the least – only a madman would ever imagine Gravity Rush and Let it Die would be doing crossover content, though there weren’t many details yet. The other announcement involved a Japanese band called My First Story creating an exclusive song for the game, who were also the band scheduled to close out Gungfest 2017. I’d already seen a bunch of their fans walking around on the show, so it seems safe to assume that they’re reasonably popular.
The third day was a little less busy, so we took time to go sightseeing in Tokyo. Despite the excellent efforts of our GungHo guides, I wound up breaking away from the group after some decent tourist shots in Akasuka and the Tokyo Skytree since I was slowly but surely burning to a crisp. It was hellishly hot, though — I’d say it was sweltering at somewhere in the region of five million degrees and many of the stores seemingly had no air conditioning.
After spending an hour or so convalescing in some shade, I made my way to Akihabara for souvenirs then headed off to Shinjuku – perhaps it’s because this is the first place I stayed in Japan all those years ago, but the plaza and immediate area off the main Shinjuku station is easily my favorite spot in Tokyo, especially at night. It’s close to an awesome Club Sega location and some damn good eating, so by the time I was ready to leave I was in high spirits for a visit to GungHo’s offices the next day.
It turns out that GungHo’s corporate headquarters are located in a massive skyscraper in the heart of Tokyo, not that far away from the grounds of the Imperial Palace. The main reception area has a couple of figures and trophies related to GungHo’s past games and achievements, but the rest of the office complex is almost clinically sterile. The hallways connecting the various rooms reminded me on nothing so much as a slightly glossier hospital, though the place where we conducted our interviews -CEO Kazuki Morishita‘s office, I believe – is a more impressive affair with a substantial central table of treated wood, brickwork walls and various knickknacks that set it apart from the rest of the building.
I won’t go into the meat of those interviews here — the lot’s been lovingly transcribed by hand and will be available in their entirety on GameCritics.com very, very soon -so check back for those shortly.
Soon after this batch of interviews were concluded, we were invited to check out Grasshopper Manufacture’s development studio. Although this was one of my most anticipated moments, it turns out that their studio is certainly less off-kilter than might be expected from the minds behind such games as No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned. It opts for pretty standard office design with lines of tables all packed in together so that the staff can be in close proximity to one another – staff who eyed us curiously for all of three seconds before getting back to work.
That’s not to say that there was nothing worth checking out, mind. As someone who gets into the artistic and world building aspects of games, I spent a couple of minutes soaking in the concept and key art they had on one side of the room. There’s a particular piece there of Let It Die’s Jackals that made me start drooling uncontrollably, horrid fanboy that I am. It was totally badass, Senpai.
As for Grasshopper memorabilia, I came perilously close to pocketing a No More Heroes 2 Sylvia Christel PVC figure made by Yamato. Sadly, the figure was too big to squirrel away without even the most oblivious passerby spotting it jutting out from my pockets, so I wound up buying one for almost a hundred bucks on ebay instead. Dammit.
Something very unexpected happened on the way out too. As we all hopped into the elevator to leave, we descended a couple of floors and then – boom! A wild Suda 51 appeared! Goichi Suda, one of the most recognizable names in the industry and a man known for making some of the most batshit crazy stuff in gaming just happened to hop into the same elevator as we were leaving.
Now, this certainly didn’t seem like a scripted moment for our amusement during the trip — it was more like a random encounter, and he seemed as surprised as we were. In just a few moments, the elevator doors blew open and he quickly escaped back into the wild almost before we could process his presence. It was a surreal, thrilling occurrence, and a curiously beautiful and poetic end to my trip to the offices of GungHo Entertainment and Grasshopper Manufacture.
Certainly more poetic than the rest of the night, where I promptly got smashed on half a bottle of Japanese whisky before belting out terrible karakoke that bordered on being an international incident in the company of Kazuki Morishita, Let It Die director Hideyuki Shin and Akira Yamaoka. In retrospect, this would have been a pretty good time to coax information out of our gracious hosts, but for some reason I decided that bellowing out The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 miles) like a drunken Scottish stereotype was preferable instead. Then, my brutal and unprovoked assassination attempt on that song was loudly applauded (out of politeness, I’m sure) and so, like a complete bastard, I sang some more.
As we ate, small talk continued throughout. Morishita-san casually mentioned that the Koi carp in the pond outside our room were worth somewhere in the region of a million dollars apiece. It’s a pretty sobering thought to consider that a fish swimming around in circles is objectively worth more than you are, but maybe not quite sobering enough to actually keep me sober given how much whisky and sake was heading down my gullet. I’m not gonna lie – the lack of sleep over the past week was starting to catch up with me by this point, and the booze was only making it worse. Or better. Much, much better.
Even in my state at that moment, Akira Yamaoka did a seriously good job of keeping the conversation going. I’m pretty sure that I failed to convince him to check out the delectable Scottish cultural cornerstone known as Haggis, though — it’s amazing how difficult it can be to convince someone how delicious a sheep’s liver, heart and lungs boiled in its own stomach can be. I asked Shin-san about his favourite goretastic execution in Let it Die, and it turns out that he’s quite keen on blowing opponents into tiny little chunks via sustained bouts of machine gun fire.
At the end of the night (actually the early hours of the morning) we all gathered in the lobby of the watering hole we wound up in to say our goodbyes, clambered back into our taxis, and that was effectively the end of my time in Japan. I made some brief considerations towards ‘accidentally’ missing my flight and hunting for more videogame paraphernalia in Akihabara, but finally decided against it.
My final thoughts on the trip overall? As might be expected, the GungHo staff were unflinchingly awesome throughout, and there were certainly plenty of interesting things to be seen at the GungHo Festival. It certainly drove home just how big Puzzle and Dragons is in Japan, and cements GungHo’s status as one of the premier gaming brands in the country’s industry.
While it was disappointing not to get any hands-on time with the upcoming Let it Die content (new floors, bosses and weapons are scheduled to be landing shortly alongside the ton of smaller updates that are continually added to the game) it was great to get some insight into the thought process of how it was designed, the approach to creating a free-to-play game that could easily pass as a full-priced title, and their plans to expand upon it substantially.
In fact, discussing the future is where I got the strongest sense of GungHo’s ambitions. It would have been easy for them to simply ride the wave of Puzzle and Dragons popularity until it finally became a desiccated husk some years down the line, but their willingness to take risks on all manner of new projects and a laudable refusal to bank their fortune on one single IP convinced me of one thing. Even if GungHo never again achieves the breakout success associated with Puzzle and Dragons, it seems clear that they’re just getting started.
The chance discovery of a muddy, burnt out copy of '50 Shades of Grey' in a hunting pit gave him an appreciation for complex plots, characters and overarching narrative, and the unexpected gift of a Spectrum 48k allowed him to indulge in these newfound sensibilities with intelligent, highbrow games such as 'flee from the badly animated spinning turquoise dolphins' or 'avoid the deadly glowing bricks of doom'.
The fusion of both these interests finally culminated with Darren teaching himself how to write by basically guessing at what words might look like when jotted down on paper as opposed to being howled inarticulately at the skies.
Now others occasionally get to read his scribblings. Lucky them.