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Cross Talk with Programmers

March 01,2010

Communication with staff

          We set this place up to get a form of communication with the programmers. Itagaki-san, do you do this often?
Itagaki Ah, you mean, talking with my staff?
          Yes, do you often talk with them?
Itagaki Definitely, yes. I talk with them daily. It's quite natural.
Everyone (laughs)
          So do you communicate with the developers every day?
Itagaki It's not like we are working in separate rooms, and we are all on the same floor.
          I see. So you talk a lot when you're developing games.
Itagaki Yeah. I believe that talking about stuff besides business is important. If you are obsessed with business, things will not go well, right?
          Stuff outside of business?
Itagaki Yeah, stuff like hobbies. The common topics bring us closer and if you do not get along, work does not go well. You can't create good titles without going through these types of communication.
          Okay, then, please introduce yourself one by one.
Sasaki My name is Sasaki. I manage the whole programming team. I use shaders (*1) to design the graphics.
Takuro Sasaki (Lead Programmer)
Representative Works:
- NINJA GAIDEN 2 (Xbox 360 / 2008) Lead Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 2 (Xbox 360 / 2006) Graphic Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 4 (Xbox 360 / 2005) Graphic Programmer
- NINJA GAIDEN Black (Xbox / 2005) Graphic Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE Ultimate (Xbox / 2004) Graphic Programmer
- NINJA GAIDEN (Xbox / 2004) Graphic Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 3 (Xbox / 2002) Graphic Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 2:Hardcore (PS2 / 2000) Graphic Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 2 (PS2 / 2000) Graphic Programmer
(All works are developed and published by TECMO)
*1   Shaders are used to program 3D graphics processing. This enables beautiful picture expressions.
Maeda My name is Maeda. I am a programmer. I am doing...well, what exactly am I doing?
Yasushi Maeda (Lead Programmer)
Representative Works:
- NINJA GAIDEN 2 (Xbox 360 / 2008) Lead Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 2 (Xbox 360 / 2006) Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 4 (Xbox 360 / 2005) Lead Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE Ultimate (Xbox / 2004) Lead Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme (Xbox / 2003) Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 3 (Xbox / 2002) Lead Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 2:Hardcore (PS2 / 2000) Lead Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 2 (PS2 / 2000) Lead Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE (Saturn / 1998) Lead Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE (Arcade / 1996) Lead Programmer
- ANGEL EYES (Arcade / 1996) Lead Programmer
- Tecmo Super Bowl (MD / 1993) Programmer
- Final Star Force (Arcade / 1992) Lead Programmer
(All works are developed and published by TECMO)
Itagaki I believe you are a designated hitter.
          A DH !?
Maeda I am working on networks at the moment. And, well, I am basically an adviser?
          It's like "Abusan" isn't it?" (Abusan is a famous character in baseball manga.)
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki That's why you are the designated hitter.
          I got it. Okay, next please.
Kosuge My name is Kosuge. I used to work on a wide range of things, but recently I came to have a heavy workload and it's getting hard even to create one module, so now I only handle a limited field. I am working mainly on internal issues that do not appear on the surface.
Kazuhiro Kosuge (Programmer)
Representative Works:
- NINJA GAIDEN 2 (Xbox 360 / 2008) Programmer
- NINJA GAIDEN Σ (PS3 / 2007) Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE Xtreme 2 (Xbox 360 / 2006) Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 4 (Xbox 360 / 2005) Programmer
- NINJA GAIDEN (Xbox / 2004) Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 3 (Xbox / 2002) Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 2:Hardcore (PS2 / 2000) Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE 2 (PS2 / 2000) Programmer
- DEAD OR ALIVE (PS / 1998) Programmer
(All works are developed and published by TECMO)
          What do you mean by internal issues?
Itagaki Graphics and sounds are the parts of program that appear on the front. On the other hand, the inside systems such as "this kind of command creates this", are also the part of game program he is talking about.
          I see. You are currently holding that post.
Kosuge Yes.

The specialists working on the inside of a video game

Itagaki It's hard for programmers to work on the inside. Only experts can do that kind of work. If there is a visual expression error, it is easy to tell. But on the inside, even when the system is infected, sometimes the symptoms aren't apparent and the bug could be left inside without being found.
Maeda Yeah.
          Extreme precision is required, right?
Itagaki Completely right. You know, creating an operating system (OS) is even harder.
          The OS is the base, right?
Itagaki Maeda and I have been programming OS's for a long time. Well, we started on hardware that required writing an OS from scratch.
Maeda Actually, it's because I'm working on a hardware that I have to write its OS.
          Wow, really!? How long have you been working in developing video games?
Itagaki You mean as a pro? Or can I talk from when I was still an amateur?
          Of course.
Itagaki Talking about when I was amateur, I started when I was in my 2nd year of junior high school.
          What kind of games did you create?
Itagaki Around junior high school, I created a Gundam video game. By the time I became a university student, I created a gulf war shooting game with the Dynabook. Oops, am I talking too much?
Everyone (laughs)
          How long have you been working with Itagaki-san?
Maeda It's been 18 years since we first met, I was 25 then.
Itagaki Maeda was one year my senior when I started working, and he was always working on 68 systems and I was a huge fan of 65 system. 68 series means the Motorola 68000, etc. The 65 series compose of stuff like the Famicom (NES) 6502 and Super Famicom (SNES) 65816.
          Name of a chip?
Itagaki It's the name of a CPU. He had been working on arcade games and I worked on home computer games. DEAD OR ALIVE (*2) was an arcade game and I asked him to come over, and we've been together ever since.
*2   DEAD OR ALIVE is an arcade fighting game published in 1996. Then it was ported to HD home consoles, and became a popular series with more than 10 titles including sequels. (Developed and published by TECMO)
          It's been a long relationship isn't it? What left an impression on you? What was your most difficult experience?
Maeda I'm not the type who experiences hardships much, but when I was working on a network bug, I was alone, lining up so many TVs and hardware.
Itagaki We put 8 sets around Maeda and it looked like a control tower.
Maeda And created a bug on purpose by connecting simultaneously.
Itagaki I was helping you out, and I remember I was told to "PRESS IT NOW!!"
          Was that when you were testing online matches?
Itagaki Oh yes, this is the internal stuff we were talking about.
Maeda It's a matter of network, so the timing is crucial.
          Which means you were using multiple controllers, not only hands but also your feet?
Maeda Yeah, something like that, but I didn't use my feet.
Itagaki What I am so proud of is that he is the first person who created a virtual game arcade that allowed 8 players at the same time.
          When did the hardship come?
Maeda Xbox.
Itagaki And no one has gotten ahead of him in terms of skill. That's the kind of guy he is.
          So he is a DH but plays like a cleanup hitter.
Maeda Well, I just do what the others have not done.
Itagaki Something like that. I haven't seen anyone who is better than him. If you know, please tell us.

Trust relationship with programmers

          How long have you been in this industry?
Sasaki 11 years. I started with NAOMI (*3), which is the arcade PCB of SEGA, and then worked on PlayStation2, Xbox, and Xbox 360.
*3   NAOMI is the arcade PCB of SEGA. DEAD OR ALIVE 2 for arcade was created with this.
          Anything you would like to mention about Itagaki-san?
Sasaki Well, Itagaki-san loves cameras.
          Do you like cameras too?
Sasaki I really do. I came to love it when we introduced "image shooting mode" in DEAD OR ALIVE 4. Our goal was to program a real photograph by including F-value, depth of field and so on. The shaders were about to reach their best, and I thought it was the best job for me. I had been working and trying at the bottom of the heap, but after that I felt like I had come to better enjoy the job of creating.
          You mean, your camera hobby and your expression at work gradually synchronized?
Sasaki But I realized its greatness when I bought the single lens reflex after that.
Itagaki You know, I was directing him to make it as optically natural as possible, stuff like imitating how an image is taken through real lenses, so he tried to catch up with me. I bet he had to try very hard to understand what I wanted when I said "the front Bokeh does not look like that" or "make the back Bokeh more realistic".
Sasaki Well, I finally understood that through DEAD OR ALIVE 4.
          I see. Thank you. What about you, Kosuge-san, how long have you known Itagaki-san?
Kosuge 12 years, I think. I was not in the DEAD OR ALIVE team during the first year. I first saw Itagaki-san during the freshman training, and my first impression was that he was a very strict man.
Itagaki (laughs)
Kosuge At that time, I doubted if I could continue working under him.
          And after that...
Kosuge Well, I ended up working with him for more than 10 years. After the first post, I was suddenly assigned to the DEAD OR ALIVE team and I got involved in the DEAD OR ALIVE titles after the Play Station and NINJA GAIDEN (*4) series.
*4   NINJA GAIDEN is an action-adventure game released for Microsoft Xbox in 2004. The game was a masterpiece that implemented all of the know-how of action systems developed for DEAD OR ALIVE. Despite its difficulty, it created avid fans. (Developed and published by TECMO)
Itagaki He is incredible.
          Incredible?
Itagaki He was the last programmer standing, after all the others fell.
Everyone (laughs)
          Amazing. What is most important for you when you develop video games?
Kosuge Well, sticking to it till the end is most important. Itagaki-san... well, recently he got better, but he used to bring us directions until the very last minutes. Regardless of the last spurt we were on, he used to come in and say "Hey, I came up with a great idea. Shall we?" We were like. "NOW?!"
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki Haha, it's becoming a real story of hardships.
          Despite those hardships, what got you through it until today?
Kosuge Well, I was sure adding the idea definitely create a better title and this kind of injection is really important.
Itagaki That's right.
          I heard that Itagaki-san was once a programmer; how do you direct the programmers?
Itagaki The most important thing is that I replace my entire device drivers according to the person I talk to. When I talk to Maeda, I use the device driver for Maeda, and the same for the other sections. People are all different, I use the easiest words for them to understand and that's my way. Therefore, I believe communication other than work is important. If someone is not happy, it is impossible to create a good title. Sure, the directions and orders are sometimes great hurdles and they may often think the task is too much for such a short term, but above all, it is important for them to be willing to work, right?
          Yes.
Itagaki That's why we need to know each other, need to know things like "You're getting married soon." For me, I am happy with working 24 hours. Without knowing about him/her, you cannot ask for work, and more importantly, touching their hearts is impossible.
          Great. There is a wonderful trust relationship built between you guys.
Itagaki Creating a video game is impossible without it.
Sasaki Yup.

Gambler

          ・・・ This may seem a bit sudden, but Itagaki-san doesn't seem to be wearing sunglasses today?
Everyone (giant laughter)
          It feels a bit unbelievable.
Itagaki Is that so? I had a few moments of "eh, it's alright" last year, and didn't bother wearing them. Besides, we're in the office. If I wore sunglasses inside, I wouldn't be able to work.
          That may be so, but I've heard that you wore sunglasses even inside the office in the past.
Itagaki Really?
Everyone (Laughs)
          I also often see you in sunglass in magazine interviews and articles...
Itagaki Well yeah, but that is that. Besides, I'm not the main point of this interview, and I thought it would be best to wear what I usually do in the office.
          So that's why. I thought you wouldn't be able to live without sunglasses...
Itagaki No way! (laughs)
Everyone (giant laughter)
          Sorry about that. (laughs) So really, why do you wear sunglasses?
Itagaki I think it's because before I became a game developer, I wanted to be a pro gambler of Mahjong. If you let someone read your eyes, you may lose many chances to win. So I came to wearing sunglasses outside. Basically.
          Basically?
Itagaki Yup. Where you're looking is incredibly important information.
          Did you originally aim to become a pro Mahjong player?
Itagaki That's right. Then, I checked how much I would be able to earn per year if I became No.1 Mahjong player in Japan, but it was less than I expected. Well, it was probably more like what they earned on the surface. (laughs) Moreover, I also met with disapproval from every side.
          Has anything from being a pro gambler found its way into your game development?
Itagaki Why don't you ask them? (laughs)
          What do you all think?
Sasaki He makes his decision quickly on making a game interesting with no hesitation as if I'm seeing a confident gambler in front of me. Moreover, seeing Itagaki-san succeed at it every single time is quite unbelievable. That's the amazing part of him.
          Specifically how?
Sasaki Like the final game level tweaking, he gives accurate instructions that make a game interesting.
          And that's similar to a gamble?
Itagaki When people talk about gambling, they hold an image of people leaving all their luck to dice. But when I talk about gambling, I'm referring to the process of predicting the results of the thrown dice in a certain phase.
          I see.
Itagaki This is because it lies within the essence of math. If I can't analyze the merits and demerits of a certain decision as "Expectation", it doesn't matter whether it's Mahjong or developing games, no wallet will be able to hold the losses. (laughs)

Attraction of a new environment

          Well then, please tell me about Valhalla Game Studios as your new environment.
Maeda Since we teamed up in the last company, we tried to do away with strange sectionalism and personal areas, and instead create an environment that thickens the X and Y axes. But, as the project got bigger and bigger, you started to not know anything about the guy at the other end of the building.
          Yeah.
Maeda So, now that we have concentrated our numbers in a new environment, it feels like we're progressing really well.
          How about Kosuge-san?
Kosuge Well, it's a freshly baked company. Having a long history can be both good and bad for your work. There are times when customs and rules come into play, and with this, I think it's a good time to create our culture from scratch.
          What do you think, Sasaki-san?
Sasaki The previous development was about 1 game per year, but since we have a new company, the programs are all cutting edge, so right now is our 'ripe' time.
Maeda Wrong, we're going to be 'ripe' the entire way. (laughs)
Everyone (laughs)

Programmer Image Wanted

          You're currently looking for programmers, right? Perhaps you can share with us the image of the programmer you're looking for?
Maeda Well, let's say we have something that needs to be done. We want someone who can design a module that meets our requirement. However, when we are making a game, we will always run into places where we say "change this", or "can't it be done this way?" after picking out the solution.
          Always?
Maeda Always. Normal programmers can only think of 1 object and class to make, and then say "I don't know about anything else". But such attitude won't be able to cope with "can it be done this way?" cases. So, someone who can say "what if this happens?" and then be able to dirty his module in order to meet new, but more interesting requirements would be nice.
Kosuge It's not limited to programmers. Having fun with your work is an important thing. I think such a feeling will affect what is to be made. Moreover, solution is not fixed as one and there are always many solutions. So, someone who doesn't get disappointed even if his solution wasn't adopted would be good.
          Those feelings are really important.
Kosuge Indeed. I think it's usually referred to as passion.
          What about Sasaki-san?
Sasaki My motto is "swift and accurate". Although I've created a lot of games as a programmer so far, a cycle of one game per year is actually extremely hard. It means the code has to be finished quickly, and the feeling of speed was very important. Someone who can provide code that works correctly and is wearing an atmosphere of speed around him would be my pick.
          Is that spoken as someone who's managing programmers?
Sasaki I think so.

Game and Business

          Finally, something from Itagaki-san please.
Itagaki All three said different things, but each of them are extremely important. What Maeda mentioned was about the capacity of a module. We are very flexible about the target point where we guide our missile at the beginning stage, and the final guidance measured in centimeters is to be done before it hits target. We need a program that is flexible enough to cope with all of this.
          Flexibility is important then.
Itagaki Many programmers and technicians who are not familiar with the game industry and entertainment often mistake this. Let's take the development flow for example. Traditionally speaking, at the very first stage, designers fix the specifications, then engineers design algorithms and draw flowcharts, coders write codes, typing is set, test team tests codes, engineers clean up bugs, the code gets approved at the final stage and then application products are released. Roughly speaking, this is the software development process.
          Yes.
Itagaki There are software industries that absolutely do not allow going back to a previous step in the development flow that I just outlined. When I decided to get involved in software development as a pro, I studied the way of making applications that is totally opposite to games. I did this to learn from the reverse, so to speak. But games are quite different. When it's not interesting, we go back to any stage of development without hesitation.
          You go back even in the middle of construction?
Itagaki We go back. If doing it that way is more interesting... and well, if we can meet the deadline.
          And even looking at the risk of going back...
Itagaki We go back precisely because we think there's no risk.
          I see.
Itagaki In contrast to this, office software, spreadsheets and word processors generally do not go back. You don't get thoughts like "maybe this is better". If you took the idea to your superior, he would make a bitter smile.
          Is that so?
Itagaki Let's say a word processor version 7 is being worked on somewhere, and during development, "doing it this way will definitely sell better!" inevitably becomes "that's a great idea, but you don't understand this line of work." The conclusion is "Save it for version 8!". That's the business software industry these days. This is a true story that happened here in Japan, in the early 90's. On the other hand, games are about taking in all of those ideas and interesting stuff at the point of time, which is what makes it the game designer side.
          So, you mean your game designers also work flexibly?
Itagaki That's right. After this, we'll be talking to the game designer staff as well, so hear it from them too.
          Okay.
Itagaki Also, Kosuge said something that seemed incredibly obvious, but the Japanese game industry has been bended in such a way that the obvious thing becomes impossible.
          Customs and rules?
Itagaki That's why strong men who simply wanted to make a good game got together here. This overlaps with what Sasaki said, but the people here have all churned out million-sellers every year in average.
          Meaning that it became something like a duty to do so?
Itagaki Not a duty. That was just our mission.  
          Surely that was very hard on them?
Itagaki If there's someone who can do so, I would pay him handsomely.  
Everyone (laughs)
Itagaki This is about the economy, but I make it a policy to not talk about the economy or business matters when I appear in media. In fact, I was really fed up with the fact that so many of the articles in game magazines were business articles. That was why I talked only about games and my philosophy as a "Game Designer." Gamers want to know how the game will be interesting, or what the developers were thinking when they made it.
          I see.
Itagaki Today I'll be speaking as an "Employer", so I'll have to touch upon it. The simple reason as to why a game had to be made every year is because a company's settlement of accounts for the fiscal year is made once a year.
          So it's about calculating the worth of public companies...
Itagaki Exactly. Listed companies need to meet expectations. However, when we make games, we must first be able to enjoy it. If we didn't think the game was any fun, if our lives weren't any fun, we wouldn't be able to provide anyone with fun. 
          That's true.
Itagaki We have to be able to let the customers have fun. In addition, if the game was not selling well and sitting on the shelves, it would bring trouble to retail stores, distributors, publishers, and game media. The ultimate answer is to be able to satisfy all three of the "developer, gamer, party who circulates games all over the world". I call such a concept as the "happy-3".
          I see.
Itagaki This isn't something that can be accomplished easily. I think I've managed to make everyone happy maybe 2, 3 times. It's challenging, but also something 'I can do'. Everyone's related to games in some way, and bringing out a good game makes everyone happy. Since we're all facing the same direction, the responsibility of making it as enjoyable as possible falls within our hands. However, shareholders include many of those who hold no interest in the games.
          You mean such shareholders may have an influence over that happy-3?
Itagaki A 4th person comes along, and with them a guarantee by the law that they be able to control us. I'm not criticizing the stock exchange market itself. But, especially in Japan, there's a case where these kinds of money games destroy the ideal situation and cast a shadow over the all-important Happy-3. And that's why we went independent.
          Valhalla Game Studios was created for that purpose?
Itagaki Yes. We have no use for creating a 1-million seller every year. In fact, there might have been a chance of creating a 4-million seller if we spent 2 years instead. (laughs)
          That's a wonderful thing. So by spending 2 years instead, you can satisfy the conditions of appeasing all 3 perfectly with something interesting.
Itagaki Absolutely.
          Please say something to the programmers you're currently hiring. I hear that you can't realize good projects without good programmers?
Itagaki Hmm, I wonder about that. We can't build houses without people in the wood industry. We can't build it either without people who make nails. Programmers are essentially carpenters. This isn't about carpenters being almighty, but rather, the artists could be the wood workers. We also need a support team who makes various tools, right? Like hammers. You can't build houses without hammers.
          That's true.
Itagaki Those gathered here are all like carpenters, and I'm the lead carpenter. So the people we're looking for are those who hold pride in being there.
          I see.
Itagaki Currently, how many Japanese development teams are there that can fight with the world?
          Not very many.
Itagaki We've been fighting the world on good terms so far.
          On good terms?
Itagaki In the nice sense, training each other up as rivals. So we want people who can say "I want to use my skill to entertain the world" or "I want to influence the world through entertainment".
          Understood, thank you very much for today.
Everyone Thank you very much.



Photo: Ryuga Shinno (C)Itagaki Productions.