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Cross Talk with Game Desingers

March 01,2010

Communication Intensity

          We have three representative game designers assembled here to talk a bit with Itagaki-san.
Everyone Hello.
          Please introduce yourselves one by one.
Ehara My name is Ehara, and I have been the chief of game designers under Itagaki-san's direction for 17 years.
Katsunori Ehara (Game Design Lead)
Representative Works:
- NINJA GAIDEN 2 (Xbox 360 / 2008) Action Director
- NINJA GAIDEN Dragon Sword (DS / 2008) Supervisor
- DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 2 (Xbox 360 / 2006) Producer and Director
- DEAD OR ALIVE 4 (Xbox 360 / 2005)Game Design Lead
- DEAD OR ALIVE Ultimate (Xbox / 2004) Game Design Lead
- NINJA GAIDEN (Xbox / 2004) Action Director
- DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme (Xbox / 2003) Action Director
- DEAD OR ALIVE 3 (Xbox / 2002) Game Design Lead
- DEAD OR ALIVE 2:Hardcore (PS2 / 2000) Game Design Lead
- DEAD OR ALIVE 2 (PS2 / 2000) Game Design Lead
- DEAD OR ALIVE (PS / 1998) Game Design Lead
- DEAD OR ALIVE (Saturn / 1998) Game Design Lead
- DEAD OR ALIVE (Arcade/ 1996) Game Design Lead
(All works developed and published by TECMO)
          So what kind of work have you been doing?
Ehara In the beginning, I did everything, I created the internal structure of the game and wrote specifications and proposals, thought up the world values, and wrote the story. As more people came, my work increased. So I gradually focused on the inside of games, especially the mechanism. Also, because I liked battle games and action games, I put my efforts in designing systems and skills, and also creating battle engines.
          I see.
Ehara In the past few years, I have been managing designers and taking a comprehensive, panoramic view of the status.
          I see. Next please.
Harito My name is Harito , I am a game designer, and I take part in level design. I used to create nurturing games but I started to want to create action adventure games, and since then I have been working with Itagaki-san.
Kohei Harito (Level Design Lead)
Representative Works:
- NINJA GAIDEN 2 (Xbox 360 / 2008) Level Designer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 4 (Xbox 360 / 2005) Test Manager
- Monstar Rancher 4 (PS2 / 2003) Game Designer
- Monstar Rancher 3 (PS2 / 2001) Game Designer
(All works developed and published by TECMO)
          How long have you known him?
Harito About 5 years.
          What is level design?
Harito It's creating a stage, designing the stage and installing game events into the stage. Also, I work with art designers to create the visuals in accordance with the world view.
          So are you making progress balancing with art design?
Harito Yes...ah... I am so nervous... I am not used to with this kind of situation.
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki What makes you so nervous though?
Ehara Beer. Drink a beer!
Harito It turns me red, is it okay?
Itagaki Sure, sure, bring a glass of beer for him.
Everyone (giant laughter)

The cross talk was stopped for a moment

          Okay, let's restart the cross talk, Harito-san, do you drink a lot?
Everyone (giant laughter)
Harito People say I am good at drinking.
          Do you often go for a drinking?
Harito Only when we are having a party after the work settles.
Itagaki Well, then maybe every week?
Everyone (laughs)
          Do you have a party every week with the whole office?
Itagaki Not the whole, but drink lovers have a party every week!
          It sounds fun, doesn't it?
Itagaki It's okay to have a drink in the office after hours as long as you don't bother others.
          Do you drink at the office?
Itagaki Well, there is no bar at the office, but something like that is attached to the office.
Everyone (laughs)
          Ah, ha. So you relax and take away the stress from work?
Itagaki Yeah. We have a recreation room and there are non-digital games in there.
          That's wonderful, isn't it?
Itagaki You know it is pointless to watch a video game and copy that video game. A game designer is the one who has a deep understanding in diverse traditional games. And it is important in their job to feed back the essence of it.
          I see. Now, next person please introduce yourself.
Matsumoto I am Noboru Matsumoto. I have been working with Itagaki-san for just around five years.
Noboru Matsumoto (Game Designer)
Representative Works:
- NINJA GAIDEN 2 (Xbox 360 / 2008) Action Designer
- DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 2 (Xbox 360 / 2006) Test Manager
- DEAD OR ALIVE 4 (Xbox 360 / 2005) Action Designer
- NINJA GAIDEN Black (Xbox / 2005) Game Designer
(All works developed and published by TECMO)
- Director, Deputy Director General at Sarugakucho Co., Ltd.
- Tecmo Co., Ltd.
Itagaki It's more than that.
Matsumoto Is it?
Itagaki Why don't you consider the density of your time? (laughs)
Matsumoto Yes, right. I started the actual work in development five or six years ago. If I count the previous working years then it becomes a little longer, about 10 years. On top of that, if we include the square table...
Itagaki (giant laughter)
Matsumoto If we're thinking about the total time that we spent together, we probably spent eight years on the table.
Itagaki No, it should be about 30 years. (laughs)
Matsumoto Well, we probably have done that much. (laughs)
          What's the table for you?
Matsumoto Table? It's crucial for game designers. Great creativity, judgment, and thinking skill can be brought out through playing this... So the Mahjong table...
Everyone (laughs)
Matsumoto It is called the 'holy green field'.
Everyone (giant laughter)
Matsumoto There is something important in that. One who wishes to become a game designer needs to understand it.
Ehara Really?! (laughs)
          Rather, this is something that you should not miss...
Matsumoto Yeah, I think I was hired for that reason. (laughs)
Itagaki Oh, that's true. (laughs)
Everyone (laughs)
          Other than Mahjong, how is your work relationship with Itagaki-san?
Matsumoto The business part?
          Well, for Mr. Matsumoto, Mahjong is all we need.
Matsumoto Oh, really? (laughs) The main order of business is to use the brain actively. One time after work, we thought about a business that can make full usage of our brains... At that point, the efficiency of my brain reached the highest point.
          Oh, sorry. But how about real work?
Everyone (giant laughter)
Matsumoto How about actual work? In general, I am a game designer too, I mainly do action tuning and adjusting planning and creating.
Itagaki Stop talking, guys! (laughs) The genre of the game we are making might get leaked.
Everyone (giant laughter)
Matsumoto Oh no! We're leaking the level design and action stuff!
Harito No no, it might be an RPG (laughs)
Itagaki Yeah, right! (laughs) I love Crystal Chronicle too. We all want to make a game like that, right?
Everyone (laughs)

Soft work

          Would you like to share any specific episode or any difficulties in your work with Itagaki-san?
Harito He once got mad at me when I was still new, although I had nothing to do with him then.
          Why's that?
Harito I just called out my colleague working for Itagaki-san to go for a drink, but they were very busy then, I got yelled at. That was all.
          So you were insensitive? That's like admitting you're the insensitive guy ...
Everyone (laughs)
Harito Itagaki-san probably doesn't remember, and I didn't think we'd end up working together either..
          So the fearsome Itagaki-san back then, what's your image of him now that you've actually worked with him?
Harito Now he's not scary at all. In fact, he's more like a dependable big brother.
          And how does Itagaki-san approach the game designers?
Itagaki Well, sensitivity is important. (laughs)
Itagaki Yeah. Like I said before, if programmers are the carpenters, then game designers are the guys who make blueprints. They are raw materials.
          Raw materials?
Itagaki It's a soft kind of work. Blueprints drop out from the soft parts of the brain, so if the brain isn't soft from the start, you'll find yourself looking at a game that's been done by someone else already.
Ehara Yeah, what we start off with, the majority doesn't make it into the final product. The spec sheet is more like a guideline with which we work upon. We think of the game in our heads, play it in our heads, then after building it and playing it, we always come up with "that's not good", "this doesn't feel good anymore" and "that doesn't fit the rest of it".
Ehara How we use these raw ingredients to cook up a game is our job, and our senses are tested. It's what makes game design interesting.
          I see. Then, you redesign a goal ・・・
Ehara We reset our vectors.
Itagaki We call it "reverse thrust" in our technical terminology.
Everyone (giant laughter)
Itagaki Sometimes we say "Let's not land now. We change the landing point". (laughs)
Matsumoto That is a common case among us for making our game better. 
Ehara Sometimes we even throw away the entire spec sheet.
          That actually happens?
Itagaki That's why everyone works fast. The way of thinking isn't a "a la carte" dinner course, but rather a Viking buffet, bringing favorite ideas from different tables.
Ehara The important thing is to make sure your feelings are satisfied. It's something for you to feel what a player feels when he plays the game as well. It is very important how you arrange and cook what you perceived and that's the interesting part of the process.
          So what is it like when you reach a goal; is it a "this is it!" moment?
Ehara We do tweaks all the way up to the deadline, right?
Itagaki We do.
Ehara So because we do things right up to the edge, even if we reached a point where we say "hey, this is good", some things will always be behind. So, there's a case we never actually reach a "this is it!" moment before the master-up.
          I see. You guys are driving yourselves to the limit until that last moment.
Ehara Yes, we are.
          All for the purpose of creating something to make your customers happy?
Ehara That's the point. We want to bring out a game that we've put our very souls into, so we cannot compromise for anything less.


Itagaki Going back to the "how I approach game designers" question, communicating with the people who cook the raw ingredients is very important. I said this in the programmer crosstalk as well, but I talk differently according to each person. When I talk to Noboru (Matsumoto) , Harito , Ehara, they're all different.
Ehara Yeah.
Itagaki When I talk to game designers, I'm very soft ・・・ wait, I'm talking hard. (laughs) But, if you don't have soft matter to put in a hard place, you can't get back something good. That's why it's sensitive.
          I see.
Itagaki So, for example, if I have something to talk to Noboru, and seeing him makes me think "oh, he's a bit irritated at the moment", then I walk right past him into the bathroom. (laughs)
Everyone (giant laughter)
Matsumoto Being sensitive. (laughs)
Itagaki So, my perception is tested, and I used my profiling so far to see how the Noboru 5 minutes later is faring.
          From passing through to the bathroom?
Itagaki From time passing. How he is after I'm done inside. "His irritation should be gone now", something like that, I have to think of what irritated him while I'm doing my business.
          Itgaki-san has to do that for each and every person ...
Itagaki That's right.
          Isn't it hard to look at so much?
Itagaki Not really, if doing so will bring about better result, I'll just optimize myself that way. And as a gambler, I like doing this.
Ehara Plus, we've known each other a long time. There's a huge file in his profiling.
Itagaki That's right. (laughs)
          I see. (laughs)
Itagaki So, after I'm done with my business, I see Noboru giggling while playing a game and think to myself, "just as I thought". (laughs)
Everyone (giant laughter)
Itagaki And from that begins talk of work. "Hey that looks cool, what are you playing?" He replies, "Look! This game is fun. But this part could be ... What do you think, Itagaki-san?" and I go "I see. Oh, by the way ...". This is my way to communicate with my staff.
          Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves in a fun workplace.
Harito People are close to each other, plus since we are compact, it's almost like a family.
Harito Yeah, though it might resemble a Mafia family... (laughs)
Everyone (laughs)

Cycle Speed

          Harito-san talked a bit about the new workplace, but what about the other two?
Ehara First, it's easy to work in. It's easy to work in physically and mentally. For example, the space between the desks, people density, and the way we spend time in a relaxed manner. And our personal relations, everyone knows each other.
          I see.
Ehara There isn't much of a difference between above and below. The environment is harmonious and doesn't care much for positions. There's a lot of 'this is better, that is better' from under, and the guys above them try to incorporate them flexibly. From this, the product becomes better all the time, and it's quite amazing.
          A very lively workplace.
Ehara A work place where you can speak freely.
Matsumoto It's easy to speak your piece even if it's just an opinion. When we make an actual proposal, opinions fly in. There's immediate discussion, new suggestions and improvements that speed up the cycle and creates a high mobility.
          That's a great thing. Does the mobility go through the Green Sanctum as well?
Matsumoto It sure is. Quickly judging and making decisions. Those feelings must be held by the entire game designer team or it won't work well. If someone is prejudiced and hold back his feeling, thing won't move forward. So, quick snap decisions are needed ・・・ and for that, the ring with the four corners is needed as a simulation!
Everyone (giant laughter)

Image of the desired game designer

          In addition to what matters to you all as game designers, what's the image of the game designer you're looking for?
Harito Someone who is "One for all, all for one." You can't make a game alone, and someone who values both team work and individual personalities would be great.
          Do you pay attention to this every day?
Harito I played rugby in the past, so I hold these feelings. I think our staff is the same.
          How about Matsumoto-san?
Matsumoto I think so too. Definitely so for Mahjong.
Everyone (giant laughter)
          That means what you just said about judgment speed also applies?
Matsumoto When we talk about game designers, one must know a lot of things. But at the same time, someone who mixes well, thinks well, and holds the power to judge would be our top pick.
Itagaki That's true. Mahjong is a game of math, but it's also a game of character judgment training to predict his behavior in the next moment, like "if it's Noboru then he falls often to some tricks". (laughs)
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki Judgment speed is as important to us working in this industry as a fighter pilot.
          Fighter pilot?
Itagaki Yeah. If you fly in a straight line, you could be shot down the next instant. So you can't have 100% confidence in anything you do, and must constantly focus on maneuvering, thinking about how to react to anything. We don't need such a stiff fighter pilot who can maneuver only when he has 100% confidence in what is happening.
          I see.
Itagaki It's the same with games. Like what Ehara just said, our jobs have no answers. With 100 cases, 90 of them will have immediate answer. Mathematically. But the remaining 10 might deal with originality. Or they might reside in Ehara's, or even my black box. There also are black boxes still unknown to oneself. There can't be answers for everything. 9.5% at best. In other words, someone who has something unknown is more interesting as a human being. The same thing applies to games.
          Is that so.
Itagaki Therefore, honesty is important. If you think "this is more interesting", even if it contradicts what you proposed yesterday, it's important to be able to say "hey, this really is more interesting".
          One must be able to feel that way then.
Itagaki Yes. After that, you need to analyze it, and quickly figure out a general answer. When something more detailed is requested, then you go into details. Of course, you also need the speed to be able to do so.
          I see. I apologize for not being able to see how Mahjong theory affected so much.
Matsumoto You finally understand.
Everyone (laughs)
          So, how about Ehara-san?
Ehara Game designers have to talk with artists and programmers, then negotiate, so we want someone who can communicate. To put it in detail, someone cheerful, easy to interact with, stuff like that. And personally, someone who loves games. Not to say someone who doesn't love games won't fit, but rather that someone who loves them would enjoy the process a lot more.
          Someone who loves games.
Ehara Yeah. Going further, not just games. Someone who's experienced in an area. For example, someone who's really toured the world, watched a lot of movies, read a lot of books. Someone who's dipped his hands into stuff other than games.
          Something from Itagaki-san as well.
Itagaki Someone who can read between the lines like I've said so far. Someone who doesn't just take things literally. Instead of reading the meaning, I want someone who can read the context.
          Sensitivity, reading between the lines, they all point to the same thing.
Itagaki Yeah, someone who can think in both straight and curved ball paths. In essence, competitive.
          In other words... the Green Sanctum?
Itagaki That's more like 'One of' the other words.
          So it's not just limited to the Green Sanctum but everything else...
Itagaki Well, it's the most important 'One of', though. (laughs)
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki Also, Backgammon, I think. You can't win at that without Math. After that comes poker. You learn to predict the future.
          I see.
Itagaki What we want isn't really just someone who gambles. It's not about putting money on the line, but rather someone who's gone through various type of games. Because every developer and gamer already knows about video games very well.
Itagaki The passion of moving people through video games as Ehara said is extremely important. However, there's no helping it if the person's black box is rooted in video games. Even if it's tourism, or a fanatic love for Italy, something that matters to the person is important. It's fun drinking with them, just think if you had to talk about games while drinking...
          You don't?
Itagaki Not about anything other than Dragon Quest 9 (laughs)
Everyone (giant laughter)
Itagaki I really played that through. Dragon Quests...
Matsumoto Indeed, you played it too much. (laughs)

Flexible Development Management

Itagaki An important thing to talk about is that while programmers separate modules to work on to be more efficient, our programmers help out each other frequently. However, game designers have no such partitioning.
          No partitioning?
Itagaki Like, switching work around in a good way. "It would be more interesting if you worked on this instead", stuff like that.
          So instead of appointing, a flexible management is better?
Itagaki Of course. Let's say "if it's this plan, you do it" and you give it to someone from a different section. 'Game designers' aren't just people who are here, but teeming everywhere else. Our programmers also take part in the designs.
          The project is built with everyone's ideas.
Itagaki As a programmer, there may be technical opinions like "with this current technology, we could do something interesting", and an animator might say "the motion technology nowadays can do this, so let's do it this way". Even audio works this way.
          I see. That really is flexible development management.
Ehara It's said before, but sources of ideas are already there around us. Everyone's able to give their opinions freely, and if someone offers an idea based on his expertise that is really good, we incorporate it in the design and we'll ask him to make blueprints too.
          It really is an attractive workplace. Well, that's it for the crosstalk. Thank you very much.
Everyone Thank you very much.

Photo: Ryuga Shinno (C)Itagaki Productions.