One of the more outspoken game developers in the world, Team Ninja’s Tomonobu Itagaki, has broken his silence since leaving Tecmo and speaks to 1Up about gaming, fighter planes, his advice to lesser known developers in Japan, why the famicom is harder to develop for than the Playstation 3, and his message to Okami’s creator all while drinking at a local japanese bar. Seriously.
In this, his first interview since going underground, we literally talked with him underground, in a small but well-appointed bar in the area of his alma mater. In our chat Itagaki opens up to us about a number of topics, such as the stagnating (or not) state of Japanese game development, what Western developers do better than Japanese developers, what Japanese developers do better than Western developers, and how he feels about other action games. He also offers up a hell of a lot of analogies about World War II fighter pilots. It might have had to do with Itagaki being drunk.
Tomonobu Itagaki: So, what are you doing here?
1UP: I know you like to hang around here because of your alma mater at Waseda University, so I thought I would check in and see if you were here. And look, I found you! What a coincidence.
TI: Yeah, I don’t know if that means you’re lucky or unlucky.
1UP: I’ll deal. So, I wanted to ask you a couple questions. You know, Japanese game development hasn’t been in such good shape these days. Only the top-tier teams, you know, the very, very top tier team seem to be able to produce cutting-edge projects. While the bottom 80 percent of Japanese development seems to have to continue to put out 2D, sprite-based, turn-based RPGs for next-gen systems that look like they could run on PS1. Or they have to do downloadable content only. What do you think about the state of Japanese development?
TI: Yeah, since I’ve had a lot of freetime recently, I kind of I thought I would stop by and see what was going on at my alma mater, have a few drinks…I’m glad I bumped into you, but now you’re asking me some pretty deep stuff all the sudden. I’m kind of drunk right now, so I’ll speak my mind, but I think that the overall theme is just kind of the passage of time, right? As time passes, things change. Obviously, there’s a lot of times to why that happened. Yeah, I think I’ll be speaking a lot in metaphors. I hope you don’t mind that.
You look at, for instance, back in World War II. You had aerial dogfight battle with 600 planes on each side. And then, as we got into say the Korean War, and now it’s say maybe 50 or 60. And in modern times, with modern jet planes, you only need one or two to fight a battle. So you certainly see a progression like that. So, I do look on it as someone who likes fighter planes and thinks that they’re really cool. The fact that fighter planes themselves have dwindled in number is certainly something that is somewhat regretful. But I still like fighter planes, and I think they’re the coolest type of plane there is
One thing I will say is that, definitely, you have to have at least some fighter planes. Any country that doesn’t have fighter planes is destined to be extinct. In that metaphor, I think that game companies that aren’t able to do high-end development, or don’t have developers who can work on high-end hardware are destined to ultimately be obsolete in the market. Make sense?
1UP: Yeah. I imagine a lot of this has to do with arcades dwindling because Japanese hardware manufacturers like Sega, with their Model 2 and Model 3 boards, used to set the precedent for visual quality in games. Even during the 32-bit era, Japanese game developers were still dominant, but nothing could still approach the level of the Model 3 hardware. But once the Xbox and Playstation 2 came out, or even the Dreamcast, things started to tilt in favor of many western developers. Because PC developers moved over, the genres that are popular in the US — first-person shooters, etc. — suddenly came to even greater prominence because companies like Epic could suddenly make console games. And so could Bioware with K.O.T.O.R. and whatnot. So western gaming has not only caught on and caught up, but has surpassed Japanese gaming in many ways. Bioware RPGs are much more progressive than standard the Japanese RPG formula. How do you feel about the rise of western gaming?
TI: Well first of all, I think that you’re a little bit confused with the differences in some of the markets. Because, for instance, the arcade market in Japan and the arcade market in the US are two different animals. Just like the arcade market in the US and the PC market which kind of originated gaming to begin with in the US are two different things. So I think we have to make that clear to start with. So, I would offer that the difference in the technical strength and ability of America and Japan to make good games respectively is not directly connected with the differences in those markets, as you stated. It is important to note here that the way the Japanese arcades are set up, at least back during the time when they were at their peak, was a kind of unique setup where the companies that made the games also owned the arcades. So they developed games to put in their arcades which they also owned to bring in customers.
So you would have companies who would make a game, then they would sell it to one of their subsidiaries who was in charge of running the arcades that have that company’s name on them, and then they would bring in customers to play that game, then the proceeds would go back to the parent company who would then use that to make more arcade games. So it was like this closed money-generating loop, if you will. So game companies back in the heyday of the arcades had three responsibilities. One was to make compelling arcades. Two was to make sure that they built arcades in places like near train stations or near universities where they would be profitable. And three was making sure that they kept customers coming back and got the funds they needed to make new games. So this was a very closed-loop system that existed in Japan. So in the US, back in the heyday of arcades, you had a very different business model where you had people who basically just built an arcade, bought boards, you know — arcade machines from Japan — and just used that to make money period. So it’s much different from the system that was within Japan.