This article is the third installment of Darren-Kun’s Magical GungHo Adventure! If you haven’t read the introductory piece, you can find it here and the second, an interview with GungHo president and CEO Kazuki Morishita is here.
In this piece, Darren was joined by director Hideyuki Shin and producer Shuji Ishikawa, talking about their work on Grasshopper Manufacture’s free-to-play PS4 exclusive Let It Die. Anyone following the game’s updates will undoubtedly recognize Shin from his developer streams, and I’ve a strong suspicion that Ishikawa-san is the man behind the mask during these same broadcasts.
Kazuki Morishita remained in attendance during this interview, and Tyler Inouye continued his work as translator.
This roundtable was also attended by Darren, Mike Rougeau (Playboy), and Dan Feit (USGamer)
Darren Forman: First off, I’d like to congratulate you on passing three million downloads.
Let it Die’s a pretty brave approach to the free-to-play market which usually targets a large casual audience. Was there ever any fear internally that it would simply be too punishing, too brutal and too hardcore to make a dent in the F2P scene? It’s not a game for those who like to give up easily or who blame their failures on the game itself…
Hideyuki Shin: So in the beginning when we announced at E3 a few years ago that it was going to be free to play, we’re pretty sure the reaction that most media outlets gave us was that they didn’t believe that we would do very well. There were a lot of questions there in that sense. We didn’t think that was going to be the case, and because they told us it wouldn’t do well, we wanted to show them what’s up. So in a way we’re glad that everyone was against us
Kazuki Morishita: So back in 2002 with Ragnarok Online, at least in the Japanese market for PC games, people thought that we weren’t going to do well and look what happened then. So in this case we were bringing something to the market that really didn’t exist, and we didn’t have something that was already standard… indeed, it was a challenge because online games weren’t doing well in general back in 2002. When we made Puzzle and Dragons and brought it into place, it showed a lot of people — nobody had been giving us positive or great reactions at the time either, and that really got us going. We had the feeling, like, “we’ll show you a thing or two!” That’s what happened this time as well with Let it Die.
Dan Feit: What’s the hardest thing in getting players to try out a free game that’s very violent? As has already been said, many F2P titles aim for a broad audience and Let it Die is a very graphically violent title. What’s the challenge of getting people involved in that… I suppose in any country really, but in Japan especially?
Hideyuki Shin: (laughs) I have no intention of inviting new users to play Let it Die. If you’re not a gamer, you don’t need to play this game. If you’re more casual… yeah, probably best if you don’t check it out. It’s for a specific audience. So for those people I say… play Puzzle and Dragons. Please enjoy Puzzle and Dragons! (laughs)
Shuji Ishikawa: So in regards to the free to play market, especially on console and given what type of game this is, there aren’t really a lot of games like Let it Die. To be the first to bring to a F2P core audience-focused game to console was something we wanted to do. If a casual player comes in and becomes a core gamer because of Let it Die that’s great, but it was never meant to be for all users in that casual aspect. It’s a very core-centric game.
Kazuki Morishita: So for example, last year… we went to PAX East, E3 and a few other places. Pax East was the first time we showed a build to the public, so we’d been silent for a couple of years. It was the first time we’d played it live, and the media – especially the media that came to give interviews or covering the game – were saying it was a great game with awesome action, and either forgot or couldn’t quite believe that it was a completely free to play game.
We were extremely afraid of what people would think when bringing it to the public, being developed in Japan and brought over to America for a western audience to try for the first time since we’d announced it, so it was really refreshing and nice to know that what we were going for was how people were perceiving it. They were saying that it looked like a premium product, or a sixty dollar game, but no – it was free, and they couldn’t quite believe it. So what we were going for worked.
Darren Forman: Is there ever a concern in a game with so many moving parts and hooks to the gameplay, that even small tweaks to the balance could send things spinning out of control? For example, there’s been some complaints about Haters with White Steel sets and decals that make them immune to Brainshrooms being sent into low-level player’s games and giving out almost no money when they’re beaten so most people just end up avoiding them. Is this something that’s being looked at, or should players just make a run for it from these enemies?
Hideyuki Shin: When it comes to adjusting the game balance, the things we place priority on are what most players just can’t accept as okay. So of course, that’s what takes priority in game balancing — there’s that sense of risk and return. If it’s high risk, it should be high return. If there’s low risk, it should probably be low return. You’ll see people complain that when something’s high risk and low return it probably doesn’t make sense and they probably won’t accept that, and in that case we try to look at what people are saying and then make adjustments so players won’t be too frustrated.
Kazuki Morishita: So in the game, because a lot of things are connected to other resources, we do try to look at it overall and it’s a little bit hard to take that and completely change it on a large scale at once. So we try to look at what can be done within the current ecosystem as it is and the return on those adjustments. There is inflation and deflation in that sense.
Of course, there will be times when players give us comments or complaints, and we hear their opinions and say ‘yeah, that makes sense’ – that’s something that we do take priority on to see if we can adjust. On the other hand, if we have something that’s a core game design aspect and we’ve decided that’s just how it is, we probably won’t try to ‘fix’ it in that sense. We won’t make any adjustments to the game that goes against the core design. I think one example is that a lot of western action gamers, when they see an enemy in the game, they want to kill it. They want to kill everything. In this game however, part of the strategy is… well, you don’t have to kill everything.
Another example is when some players were saying that when you go up an escalator after clearing an area, having killed all the enemies, and you go back down the enemies will respawn. And these players are saying that it’s too hard, and that the enemies shouldn’t respawn so that it’s easier to get a character back home intact. When it comes to complaints like that, we’re like… nope! (laughs) That’s part of the game, and there are certain things we will not adjust because it goes completely against the design of the game itself. If we change it up too much, Let it Die is no longer Let it Die in that sense. On the other hand, when users say certain things and we agree, we may adjust things to be more acceptable to these players.
Mike Rougeau: Cool. I imagine that the answer to this question will be different for the GungHo vs the Grasshopper people, but what is it like working with Suda (Suda 51, real name Goichi Suda) who’s well known in the industry but not necessarily involved in the day-to-day development? What’s he up to right now?
Kazuki Morishita: Well, Suda was involved in the initial stages of Let it Die, the world setting, characters and all of that, but as we hit live ops, post-launch and new content creation, he hasn’t really been a part of that at all. What is he doing right now? Well, there was the recent launch of The Silver Case which he’s mainly been focusing on.
Suda-san and myself, we’re two different types of game designers. For example, someone who focuses on the game systems – how you play the game and how you enjoy the game – well, that’s where my creativity flows, in that direction. That’s what I do. Suda, on the other hand, is someone who focuses more on the world settings, characters and design. I guess, in a more visual sense. We’re two very different types of designers in that regard.
Since we’re so different, we don’t really butt heads anywhere and that’s a good thing. I’m busy focusing on the game system and he focuses on how it looks, so we’re not really in each other’s hair too much. Sometimes people working on the same thing will clash, but it rarely happens to us because what we’re working on is so different. That’s why it’s interesting, working together in the same direction.
What we like, and what we prefer, don’t really overlap. I’m more into the a fantasy type, settings with dragons and having a young man grow… not really dying, or anything to do with death at all. Suda’s all about killing, violence, that kind of crazy stuff. So again, we don’t really butt heads. So when we decided to work together, GungHo and Grasshopper, I got into the gameplay systems and Suda launched into the world design.
So I was invested in the action, gameplay systems, PVP – as an example, there’s this manga about delinquents called Crows. It’s a rivalry between high schools, and they’re delinquents. Kids from one school head to the other and try to beat the shit out of them, and that’s how it was when I was in high school. So when we saw them out of school, we’d be like ‘hey’ and try to beat them up and stuff. We got banned from that McDonald’s (laughter). The closer you are to other schools, the more they piss you off, so that’s how we wound up with the Raid system. So if someone comes into your base and messes stuff up, you’re like, ‘fuck, I’m gonna go mess this guy’s shit up in return’, right? That motivation? (taps desk) Straight out of my high school days.
Mike Rougeau: So where does Shin’s role fit in with Suda? If they don’t clash (Morishita-san and Suda-san), do the two of them clash?
Hideyuki Shin: Nope! (laughs) We clash a bit more, if anything (pointing to Ishikawa-san) Even on twitch streams!
Shuji Ishikawa: I like to mess up Shin’s hair, y’know… he doesn’t listen to me sometimes, so I have to show him who’s boss. (laughs)
Dan Feit: I guess talking about what we talked about at the very very start, the kusoge comment up on stage at the Gungho Festival, that guy in the white suit (a Jackal Y cosplayer) described Let it Die as a kusoge, which obviously has negative connotations but can also be used to talk about a game that’s so bad that it’s good. Is everyone okay with their game being called kusoge like this? Is it possible to make a kusoge on purpose?
Kazuki Morishita: It’s totally on purpose! All the calculation that went into making it a shitty game.
So when you talk about shitty games, there are different types of shit. One type of game is so fucking shitty that you can’t do anything about it. It’s just shit, right? Versus another kind of game where people will play and get frustrated and call it a shitty game out of frustration. So a lot of people up on stage have a passion for the game and show their passion through their frustrations, yet they still continue to play because that frustration fuels their desire to play. To not be frustrating in the sense that this game is complete shit and sucks, but to frustrate you to that point, to that very interesting line where you want to play more. Like, you got beaten up and you wanna get your own back.
A lot of games recently, especially on smartphones… people play mindlessly. Mindless entertainment, easy, just turn your mind off… you know, you don’t really use your brain so much and just kind of play. And you enjoy yourself, but it doesn’t really bring out any emotion. What we were going for was to really pull that emotion out of players and get them involved, y’know, deep into the game through this emotion. That’s what we were going for with Let it Die.
Not only were we trying to pull out the emotion in our players to the point where they were, like, ‘FUCK!’ or ‘GOD DAMN IT!’, all that kinda thing, that’s really important to get that emotional response, but on top of that we do want to make sure that when you get past that point of frustration, and you do overcome what you were trying to get past, you have much more joy and a sense of accomplishment than you had before. That’s the emotion that we were really going for. So yeah, we don’t want it to be so frustrating that people don’t want to play it. It’s enough that it drives them to keep on going and that when they get past that point it feels so great. I’m sure you can relate? You’re one of those people (points at Darren) so is that what it’s like?
Darren Forman: Yeah, it’s like going up against Jin Die on floor 26 with inadequate equipment.
Kazuki Morishita: That’s the point right there, right? We know you’ve been playing games, has any game just sort of pissed you off and got you really that frustrated recently?
Mike Rougeau: Let it Die.
All: (Uproarious laughter)
Kazuki Morishita: That’s where it is, right? So saying that it’s a ‘piece of shit, fuck this’ kinda game is really an honor. It’s exactly what we were going for, so I guess this brings into context calling it a shitty game – it’s not really just a shitty game, more the emotion where people would just say ‘shit’ a lot out of frustration. We really have a lot of love for this game. It’s dissing the game with love, and passion.
Mike Rougeau: It’s really kind of refreshing to see developers being so self-effacing. A lot of others in the West wouldn’t take that kind of tone, everything has to be very self-congratulatory, or very serious.
Darren Forman: Yeah, they’re never about ‘fun’, they’re about ‘experiences’.
Kazuki Morishita: If you look at the game itself, we put so much work and so many things into it, from the amount of detail to the amount of activities that players can do, and we’re continuing to add to it… you don’t see a lot of games at this scale, and on top of that, being free-to-play. So in realistic terms, the shitty games angle aside, we really have put a lot of work and care into this game to make it into a proper product for people to enjoy. We of course mentioned about the new floors coming soon . (points at Darren) You’ve cleared the game, right?
Darren Forman: Yep, waiting on the new floors.
Kazuki Morishita: Well, congratulations on clearing the tutorial. (laughter)
So the update which we’ll be sharing more information about soon will be something to look forward to and we’ll be unveiling the real stuff right there. That’ll be the real Let it Die. It’ll be a lot better, awesomer and a lot more fun so look forward to it!
Darren Forman: This is about the free-to-play model. I’ve played a lot of the game, and I do have to say that a lot of the things you can buy right now aren’t what I would pay for personally. Mobile gamers are used to paying for consumables, or to cut down on certain in-game timers, but console gamers are more used to purchasing permanent items that never expire or at least items that can be recrafted if they break.
Were there discussions to perhaps increase the items available on PSN to include, say, a portable radio player for within the tower or cosmetic blueprints based on other Grasshopper IP? I’d definitely pay for a medium strength armor set based on Shinobu Jacobs or Travis Touchdown, even if they do go against the world’s sense of place.
Kazuki Morishita: An example being, for example, collaborative items? We mentioned one collaboration with Gravity Daze, and we’re looking to see what else we can do in that vein, with armor pieces and whatnot, so that may not look like it fits in the Let it Die world but more like that actual IP in that sense. We’ve been talking to quite a lot of IP holders to see what we can put in Let it Die for future collaborations. So feel free to put this in your articles – if you know any IP you’d like to see in Let it Die, you know, hit us up and let us know!
Darren Forman: Continuing, the only stuff I’ve bought in the game has been to support it – I’ve never had to buy Death Metals for example.
Hideyuki Shin: So what would you like from a personal standpoint? What would you spend money on?
Darren Forman: Like I said, the ability to play the radio music while inside the Tower of Barbs, cosmetic stuff, even things like sprucing up the waiting room. A couch in the waiting room, I’d pay for that.
Hideyuki Shin: You want to show off your base, right?
Darren Forman: Yeah, exactly.
Hideyuki Shin: It has been something that’s been on our minds, actually.
Darren Forman: Yeah, you could get a collaboration going with Animal Crossing, y’know?
Kazuki Morishita: (laughs) If that ever gets approved I think it’d be quite a miracle.
Dan Feit: I’m an experienced game player, and I downloaded Let it Die when it first came out, played it once and… I dunno, I just didn’t go back to it. So I’m gonna ask you, what would you say to me at this point to try and get me to go back?
Kazuki Morishita: Don’t come back! (laughter) Don’t ever come back! That said, if you wanted to… if you really did want to give it another shot again, please give it a shot again. It’s always great when we have more users playing our game.
On a more serious note, for those who played in the beginning back in December and haven’t played since, the game has become a lot easier in the beginning, the connectivity has improved and a lot of the bugs have been squashed, the loading times have been shortened, we’ve added a beautiful sorting option to inventories, and a lot of things have been adjusted so that it’s easier to play and get further in the game now. It’s not that we broke it, just made a lot of improvements. So if you really wanna come back, check it out!
Darren Forman: I know you’re not yet talking about the new floors and what they’ll entail, but I know that some people have finished the game and still been unable to defeat White Steel on Nightmare to get the new blueprints for gear. I’m wondering if it’s possible for players who’ve finished the game and put it aside to jump right into the new content or if they’ll actually have to gear up first. Does his equipment act as a ‘gateway’ of sorts?
Hideyuki Shin: So, for those who can’t beat White Steel, they should be able to take on the new floors… but it’s gonna be hard. Those that have the White Steel armor and weapons, because of their durability, will likely have a higher chance of surviving on the higher floors.
So no, it won’t be impossible for those who haven’t taken on White Steel, but for those who’ve put in the time to really upgrade their weapons, like yourself, to defeat White Steel… within the new floors and the updates to TDM (Tokyo Death Metro) that are coming in the future, there’s a lot of things that will rely on these new weapons and new armors that will be coming out in future. These things will be even stronger but players need to take the time to upgrade them. So for someone like you, having this White Steel armor right now is strong and good, but there’ll come a time when you’re really glad you have it because of how much things will be changing and how many new challenges will be coming out in the future.
So is it a necessity? No. Will it make life a lot easier? Yes. Those who put the time in will really feel the difference over those who don’t upgrade their weapons. So they’ll have access to the new content, it’s just… whether they’ll survive or not? That’s a different story.
Kazuki Morishita: So in regards to the 42nd floor and above, the tower is going to be expanding. We’re not saying too much right now of course, but TDM’s also being updated and it’s going to become TDM 2.0, and that’s where it’s going to take a lot more planning and strategy compared to right now. So yeah, having White Steel armor and weapons will definitely come in handy there. More details with new video and the like will be revealed at E3. We’ll also talk about, and show, the next of the Four Forcemen.
Darren Forman: One last question. Why does the Jackal armor have the durability of wet toilet paper?
Hideyuki Shin: (laughs) Well, the Jackals might be getting an update soon. They’re even scarier than before, and they’re sick of being killed by all the mushrooms – so what happens when mushrooms don’t work on them?
Darren Forman: Just to clarify, it’s more about when players make their blueprints, you get hit twice and they melt off your body. Y’know… the actual durability.
Hideyuki Shin: (laughs) New Jackal stuff. Look forward to it!
At this point the interview wrapped up, and we headed off to get a quick tour of Grasshopper Manufacture’s development studio before having a chat with Akira Yamaoka. (Coming soon!)
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.