This article is the second installment of Darren-Kun’s Magical GungHo Adventure! If you haven’t read the introductory piece, you can find it here.
In this column, Darren sat down with Kazuki Morishita, President and CEO of GungHo Online Entertainment. Known for taking a very active, hands-on role in game development, Morishita-san was kind enough to set aside several hours for interviews with us to get his thoughts on a wide range of topics ranging from GungHo’s particular approach towards creating entertaining videogames, the differences between developing for mobile and console gaming, and the challenges involved with targeting global worldwide releases for their IPs.
This roundtable interview was translated by Tyler Inouye of GungHo Online Entertainment America, and was also attended by Darren, Mike Rougeau (Playboy), and Dan Feit (USGamer)
Mike Rougeau: We were discussing this in the lobby, but where did the GungHo logo come from and what does it represent?
Kazuki Morishita: It’s in the shape of a person’s mouth. The first thing you notice is the shape of the mouth, how it’s smiling. Then comes the laughter, because we’re a game company. As a game company we want people to have fun, and that’s why we have the smiley mouth as our logo.
Initially it was going to be red, but then we realized that with the red coloring it might have been a little too similar, or not able to stand out against other companies’ logos, so we decided to make it purple. Depending on the country of course, there’s a differentiation as to whether purple’s a good or bad color, but here in Japan it signifies a high class or quality and that’s why we chose it.
Dan Feit: I’m just curious, what games have you been playing recently? And do you have a preference in regards to mobile, console or PC?
KM: Good question… I’ve been playing a lot of the Switch, and a lot of Zelda. Out of the systems you mentioned, I personally prefer consoles. To tell the truth, as far as mobile games go I’m only playing GungHo’s games. Not so much in the traditional ‘gamer’ sense, more in a debug or quality assurance style. I’m looking for potential things that we might need to fix. That sounds better, doesn’t it? (Laughs)
Darren Forman: What’s GungHo’s overall philosophy on making games? What is it that really sets GungHo’s games apart from other companies?
KM: Whether it’s something that’s good or bad compared to other companies, from the very first steps of development during the initial design stages of new titles I’ll take a role in creating them personally. So after I make the basis, or the beginning stages of what kind of game I’d like to create next, I’ll then see what staff are available, or not too busy with other projects, to come in and then help brush up the ideas I came up with to see if we can make it even better.
It’s a very top down style, how we make games here at GungHo, because I make the basis of it first – the original design document. That’s where a lot of the games come from. Maybe Level 5 does something similar in that sense. It’s kind of like Hino-san who has the idea and then creates the game from the top all the way down to the lower levels. At least in Japan, this isn’t really a common style of game creation here.
So I guess our philosophy is not to have a philosophy at all. If you have a philosophy you tend to stick to it or try to stick to it too much, and if you try to stick to it too much then you’re kind of ‘stuck’ because that’s it’s like, ‘oh well, that’s the philosophy’. That’s why we don’t have one – so that we can be openly creative.
Something close to a philosophy that we have however is that we want our products to feel new and fresh, something that hasn’t been done before and not just do the same thing again. We’re always looking to make new things, continually taking on new challenges and results. Of course, there are still a lot of other titles that never saw the light of day in the middle of development.
MR: What do you feel are the perks of being a game developer in Japan versus in other countries? What do you enjoy about being a game developer here?
KM: I think it’s mainly a question of how work is done here. So for example, I’m not necessarily saying that it might be a good or bad thing but in Japan, being very detail-oriented here, it’s the way that we work. I think it helps us and I think I enjoy doing things that way. You know, paying attention to a lot of the detail. So for example, a lot of action games have come out of Japan, and our offices as well, but if you look at Puzzle and Dragons, for example, it’s not just a puzzle game. We never made it to be just a puzzle game. Here’s a very important example…
(Morishita-san starts up Puzzle and Dragons on his smartphone and shows it to us)
So, for example, you’re looking and can see the drop. You can touch it and move it, but you can move it freely. Now, this is a very important detail here that we’ve been paying attention to, keeping our focus on. So if you look to see when I moved it, it looks and feels really good moving it anywhere that you want to, and there’s no real delay that stops you from doing so or gets really ‘sticky’ here, right? So when we were planning this, to plan that part in general, it took a lot of work and effort and we really stuck to these details.
Another example is with Let it Die. One of the things we agreed on in the very beginning, in the early stages of development, was that it was going to be sixty frames per second. For the most part it was always going to be sixty frames. It’s an action game, so all the actions that you do such as making contact with characters, there’s a lot of detail that really needs to be put into it that we had to focus on so that it looked and felt really good, and this is all very necessary – especially for an action game like Let it Die. We had to pay attention to a lot of detail there.
So for us paying extremely close attention to detail, we really kind of get ourselves into a spot where we have to stick to it, ‘it has to be this way and can’t be any other way’, and we get into this kind of mode where it has to be that way for the end product. Ultimately it doesn’t mean that this is going to be the most efficient way to do things, so this is also a style of work but it’s also something we take pride in doing to work towards an ultimately great end product.
So being here in Japan, this kind of work style and work ethic… because it’s Japan we feel that we’re allowed to pay attention to detail and stick with it even if it’s not the most efficient method, because that’s how we work here in Japan. So even when we have deadlines, or have to have things created in a specific amount of time – for example, even the drop moving that we showed you earlier – we’ve revamped that so many times.
Recently that work style in Japan… we’ve been told that it’s not efficient and not very good. It is in our minds that we hear that and we do understand that it might not be the best way, but we do things the way we want to. We are trying to get things a bit more westernized in that sense, with the way we’re trying to do our work style. It is in our minds, so…
For example, Japan is known for quality and for NASA there is a small company, and small factory that makes these very important cylinders for their spacecraft. With an excruciating amount of detail and quality… I feel this kind of product could only be made in Japan due to this work ethic, these professionals that just make amazing quality.
So for the iPhone, you see that round area for the touchpad, the touch button. Apparently, Japanese people are making this part of the phone. Just this little small round section. Why in Japan? Because it has this extremely small area for what it has to do, and you have to make a lot of these. Without making mistakes, to make a lot for mass production, and we don’t hear about a lot of problems regarding this part of the phone. Especially for the amount of detail, we’re very detail oriented and get our way of focusing on even the smallest things. It’s kind of that professionalism, that all that focus has been put into, something that’s Japanese working style. Not to say that if it was America or another country they wouldn’t be able to do it as well, but I just feel that in Japan where we’re so detail oriented and very proud of the work that we do, we want to give the best products and greatest quality there and pay attention to all that detail here… I think it’s something that we can be proud of.
I’d love to work in Hawaii, actually. I could make games, and I would love to do it in Hawaii… but I think if I went to Hawaii I probably wouldn’t get anything done, so… (laughs)
DF: At Tokyo Game Show 2013 you were one of the keynote speakers that year and you said that console and mobile games should complement each other, and I just think that now we’ve had a few more years to look at console games and mobile games, how things may have changed, do you think that what you said still stands, or do you think that they’re moving further apart?
KM: So in that statement I said that they should support each other. I still believe that this is true. As the years have gone on they’re still on very different paths since they way you play console games and the way you play mobile games is completely different, so the opportunities for them to complement each other still exists, but in regard to gameplay they’re completely different, so they’re still on a split path if anything.
So, console games are like breakfast, lunch and dinner. Smartphone games, mobile games, they’re more like snacks. Like potato chips, and people go back to them for more. Dinner, you won’t just eat it and leave it, you’d rather sit there and have a nice meal, right? So mobile games are more for killing time when you realize you have some free time.
We have heard from our users, in Let it Die for example, that it would be possible to raid or send your fighters on expeditions from your phone. I guess it’s more like a pending app where you could be away from your Playstation 4 and do certain things on your mobile that would then be applied to the game. That sort of thing would be supportive, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be making a mobile version of Let it Die. Even if I thought it’d be good to have something like that, it’d be a pain in the ass to make, so I’m not gonna do it. (laughs)
MR: What about the Switch though? The Switch is both…
KM: So, you know, we love Nintendo – I’ve said so many nice things about them that I’m pretty sure I could be confused as a spokesperson for Nintendo! How the Switch is able to fit within your everyday life is amazing. This piece of hardware is amazing. So, for example, you have your living room. At least a Japanese living room. A lot of time games on console are played in the living room, but if you have your kids there you can’t always be playing specific games there. With the Switch though, I could pick it up and hold it out of view, or take it to my bedroom and play it there. That’s why I have two AC adapters for my switch, on in the bedroom and one in the living room.
From a development standpoint for a games producer there are things you’d like to stick to and of course there are technical differences for the hardware, so if you want to stick to something like, say, 60 frames a second then that’s when things become a little more difficult based off the different hardware that we already have things on, if we’re looking to make a port Maybe you’d want us to, but we just can’t bring it there, so…
MR: It’s just that Dan’s question was about the differences between mobile and console but the Switch is kind of bridging that gap, so I just thought it be interesting to…
KM: We’re in agreement, it is kind of in that space, I guess… So we’re looking at the Switch. It’s an amazing piece of hardware. It’s not fully mobile, for taking everywhere, because mobile games have their own limitations, and it may not have the strengths of certain other consoles like the PS4 in regards to technical specifications. It lies in between, but it definitely provides new ways to offer players new experiences while playing games. And speaking of the Switch, we are developing some things for it. Of course, we’re still making things for PS4, and the Switch, and mobile.
Darren: Okay. GungHo’s not actually tied down to any platforms and I’m just wondering how you determine what the best format for any given game would be. I mean, mobile games are obvious because they have certain touch capabilities. Something like Let it Die though, I could see that working on PC, PS4, Xbox One… even the Switch so long as it has access to wifi. So I’m just wondering how you determine what the best course for a game would be.
KM: So back when we’re talking about game design and development, bringing it from the very early stages of thinking ‘all right, let’s start putting this together’, of course the platform is not decided then. So after considering what kind of game it is, and what kind of experience we would like the player to have, then we decide what kind of platform we would like to put it on.
After we figure out which platforms we’d like to consider, we than have to move on to a business standpoint and determine what platforms make sense from that perspective. That’s when the final decision is made. Say we’re thinking about making a game for the PS4, but then a new piece of hardware comes out like the Switch. We’ll consider whether or not it would play better on the Switch due to the new features and capabilities that may match more of the ideas for the game that we had. So things like that certainly could happen, and do happen, when new things come out while the game is still in development.. Not so much when we’ve released a game, see a new piece of hardware and decide that we want to port it.
So in the end it really depends on what kind of experience we want our players to have. That’s what mainly determines what platform we’d like to bring it to.
DF: Just going with your analogy of the console as a meal and mobile games as snacks, because you’ve got so many games out there how do you avoid competing with yourself? If you’re selling potato chips, and Puzzle and Dragons in this case is the potato chips, how are they going to have room left for the Let it Die… hamburger? (laughter)
KM: For example, Puzzle and Dragons has a very specific way that we decide how we’re going to develop it as a brand. For Let it Die, that sort of thing really hadn’t been decided as much. So if you’re worried about us competing with ourselves or having any overlap in that sense, that doesn’t really tend to happen. Puzzle and Dragons tends to have somewhat of a younger audience, even elementary students play – if you saw the tournament at GungFest, one of the competitors at the finals was a sixth grader, so you can see the range at which Puzzle and Dragons reaches. Then Let it Die goes for more mature audiences so we had it in mind that it aims more at a higher average age of users.
As an example, you can see that Puzzle and Dragons Cross has a TV animation aimed more at twelve-year-olds, the average age that it’s targeting. I help out with the production, and oversee a very important part of development for the scenarios in that show. Then when I have to swap over to Let it Die, I have to switch over to a very different sense of self that I have when going into the development process of that because they’re so different. No one will ever die or get killed in Puzzle and Dragons, and in Let it Die… people fucking die. (laughter)
I think you can see that the stress of coming up with scenarios for the Puzzle and Dragons anime was released in Let it Die. In the lines for the Puzzle and Dragons anime I would never put the words ‘die’, ‘kill’ or terrible things like that on the show… so that’s kinda stressful! (laughs)
MR: So, what do you think accounts for the kind of differences in the kinds of games that people are attracted to in Japan versus the West? Like how Puzzle and Dragons is big over here but not so much in America, or how shooters aren’t as big in Japan?
KM: Shooting, for example… Japanese people don’t really have any familiarity with that concept. When I was in junior high school, airguns were hot. Futons, Japanese bedding, people would hang outside their windows. So when we saw this across the street we would aim at it and shoot at it with our BB guns. Sometimes we would reload these guns and they were the type that would… well, burst. and stain them with color… yeah, paintballs! We got into a lot of trouble.
So yeah, back then we’d have a lot of fun, but I think a lot of kids don’t really play with airguns these days so I don’t think there’s a lot of familiarity with shooting and guns. If you’re talking about Japanese steel though, y’know, katanas? That’s a different story. Or with their fists.
If you look at the users who are Playing Let it Die for example, when you look at Japanese users they’ll have… well you know how the left and right hand has three weapon slots? They’ll have physical striking weapons , but when you look at western users they’ll have all six slots just full of guns. So when we’re looking at that we’re thinking ‘oh, okay, that makes sense’ due to a lot of Japanese not having familiarity with shooting and guns.
Looking at things like Call of Duty and Halo, which are much more popular in the West, when you look at something that comes from Japan that’s a shooting game, you’d be looking at something more like Splatoon which is a lot more… I guess it’s not quite as graphically intense but it’s something that came from Japan and maybe gave them a little more familiarity with shooting from a Japanese aesthetic.
As for Puzzle and Dragons, yes it is a puzzle game, but when you look at it a lot deeper, because of the motions you’re able to do with it, with this extra range of motion you can make combos. And when you think of combos, you usually think about an action or fighting game. In most puzzle games I guess you just move things and try to figure it out, but in this one it requires skill for you to play and get good enough to get further in. So in that sense it’s a lot more action oriented, and not just a puzzle game.
So that concept, I believe, is worldwide. Anyone in any country can play it and enjoy that aspect, but if you’re looking at it when it comes to the art style and how it looks, it is a bit more Japanese. So from now on we’re thinking of changing it up a little bit, because until now we’ve been making our titles to be aimed at a Japanese audience first. So for example, from Let it Die and onwards, we’ve been looking to make our titles more global. So… global first! Focus on a worldwide audience, and you may have noticed that some of our largest announcements have been aimed at or done in the US, not in Japan.
So now we’d really like to look at a worldwide initiative to release our titles at the same time. Not released in Japan, then released in North America and then Europe. We’d like to release in all regions at the same time, but if anything we’d like to release in the Western markets first and then release in Japan after like we did with Let it Die. On that note, the games that we’re developing in house right now are definitely global first, global oriented titles.
So in regards to these new titles that we’re working on right now, the game’s setting, world setting, character design and all the art is to be less for a Japanese audience and more for a global audience, a more universal aspect.
Darren: So when it comes to Lily Bergamo changing into Let it Die, was that a big part of that decision?
KM: There were a lot of reasons, but that ws one of them. So even though Let it Die does take place in Southern Tokyo, it doesn’t really mean that the game is very Japanese oriented. As to your question, there were many reasons, and that was one of the many reasons.
Darren: I’m wondering what your approach to acquiring a subsidiary company is, picking up another game studio? Because in the West, quite a lot of acquisitions end up with anything that makes them unique getting squeezed completely out of them. You’ve definitely not done that with Grasshopper, so I’m just wondering how you approach buying a new studio?
KM: So for example, the reason that I guess you’re seeing in Let it Die that it’s still pretty Grasshopper-esque is if we’re looking at the main parts of making a game you have the game design, and then you have the world setting and characters. These are two different things, quite separate. So a lot of Grasshopper games have very distinct characters and world settings, and we wanted to make sure that we did not ‘kill’ any of that or put on restrictions on it because that’s what makes a Grasshopper game a Grasshopper game.
However, in regards to the game design, I took the lead of that to make sure that the game systems and whatnot were specifically like this or like that, and worked with Grasshopper to keep those world settings and characters together and made something quite incredible, as we’re sure you’ll agree – a kind of Grasshopper game that has never been seen before. It’s like we’ve come together and created an all new chemical reaction that no-one has ever seen and it’s quite an amazing game from Grasshopper – nothing like what they’ve ever made, but it still ‘tastes’ like Grasshopper, right?
So that’s how I approached making Let it Die. I didn’t want to remove everything that made it Grasshopper, but I did want to make sure that the game systems were to my liking, to make sure that this game was great.
Let it Die itself… the team that created and brought Let it Die together was not only the Grasshopper staff, we pulled in staff from Game Arts as well. So apparently the level design and a lot of the level balancing… we got a lot of help from the Game Arts staff. We have someone in there who can tell the difference per frame in a fighting game. He might be one of the top three in a very specific fighting game that I won’t mention – and yeah, I could never beat him. (laughs)
In regards to the network capabilities, connectivity and settings in Let it Die, that’s definitely all GungHo. So we made Let it Die with mainly Grasshopper staff and then we added in GungHo and Game Arts staff as well for this initiative. So the flavor that Grasshopper has, that edge that they have, we didn’t feel that we ever had to smash that or get rid of it.
For me personally, Puzzle and Dragons, it’s something that even kids can play and enjoy, so… all ages, right? That’s something that I’m more in tune with. So for me, approaching Grasshopper, I wanted to do something new and challenge myself and if you look at what Grasshopper does it’s completely different from anything near Puzzle and Dragons, the kind of things that they do. So that interested me and I wanted to take on this new challenge for myself, and that’s when I approached them. Even the director Shin, we’re pretty close, pretty tight, and we hang out in our own time outside work and get some drinks, play some golf… so we got a good relationship there.
At this point the current interview wrapped up, a short break ensued and Hideyuki Shin and Shuji Ishikawa were brought in for the Let it Die interview. (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.