Akira Ueda, CEO of Audio, Inc.: My favourite moments relate to many of the episodes where the viewpoint changes from the main game to that of the cat. I especially like the episodes that focus on various ‘adult circumstances’ in the latter part of the story, with it being aimed at an older audience. The emotions conveyed in the game’s storyline help to make it a very 4D experience!
AR: What features of the DS hardware does it use? Why can you not control the main character with the touch-pen?
AU: I believe that the DS hardware is an ideal piece of hardware because depending on the idea you can make regular style games, or can use all the new input features to create completely new games, and express new ideas - it is up to the developer. However, I think that the DS hardware doesn’t need to have all of its features utilised in every game. For Sakura Note we decided that it would work well without all the gimmicks of a new input scheme. We believe this game is a “story experiencing device” and wanted to keep it as simple as possible. We do think that the use of the touch-pen is good, but only for the operation of menus and not ‘the classic style’ of gameplay where a more conventional scheme was chosen.
AR: There are scenes where players can control a cat or dog. What is the reason for this? Is there a special meaning behind the idea?
AU: There are two reasons for this. The first originates from the idea of “I want to be a dog!” and “I want to be a cat!” When you return home from work, sometimes you will see your cat lying on the sofa without a care, and surely you envy it? The second is related to the enjoyment of looking at events that have already happened to review the same aspect of the storyline from various viewpoints. If there was ‘cat’s point-of-view camera’ mode for the replays of FORZA 3, wouldn’t you get excited? *laughs*
AR: The game appears to focus on nostalgia. Where did this theme come from? Does it relate to your personal history, or someone else’s?
AU: Actually “nostalgia” was not a main theme that we focused on! We got hints from the real life experiences of when our staff as young boys and what they felt during childhood. We did not focus specifically on the theme of nostalgia, though, and the theme was always on ‘Now.’ By comparing childhood and adult ways of thinking, we hope we were able to bring out an interesting story line. It is a very universal theme to compare childhood and adulthood ways of thinking so we believe it will be easy for players to understand the storyline. Sakura Note we wanted to convey the following message to the outside world, ‘the heart is important at any age.’
AR: Why did you choose to keep the 2D visual style of Contact? Is this a personal choice because you used to do background art and map design for games?
AU: Above all, the choice of 2D was automatically made thanks to the limitation of the budget and the deadline for the task at hand! *laughs* On a more serious note, we believe 2D is an amazing way to express emotion and we all love dot (pixel) animation.
If you ever come to Japan, please try eating ‘Una-jyu’ (grilled eel on rice) - it is a traditional type of Japanese food. The sauce used in Una-jyu is also the same one that has been added for the past 100 years as part of the recipe. Throwing away the recipe that we have perfected with sense and experience, and then switching to a new 3D recipe simply cannot be consented to if it means game players are not surprised by the use of technology and the game’s atmosphere.
That and 3D would increase the costs ten-fold. We need to ask ourselves if a graphical boost is worth that much investment. We cannot say for certain that a 3D environment would make the game more enjoyable. For example, a jazz musician may choose to use analogue synth and acoustic guitar for a song, not because the instruments may be better than newer electrical instruments, but just to get a different sound.
AR: Only 2,000 people bought Sakura Note in its first week, according to Famitsu. Why do you think it failed to sell in high quantities?
AU: We were hugely disappointed by the sales, especially since this game received some review scores of 10/10 in the hugely popular gaming magazine, Famitsu. A lot of regular people and gaming fans hardly knew anything about the name “Sakura Note” at all. This is actually more regrettable than the sales figure of 2,000!
If the 2,000 sales figure was due to reasons such as the gameplay not being interesting in the eyes of people that already knew about the existence of Sakura Note, then we could blame ourselves for the failure. However, I’m glad to see that the positive evaluation from people that clearly appreciated the work I have done on projects that I have directed.
What I liked the most about this title is that out of all the games I have directed, this was the one that was most divided in opinion. Those who liked it continued to play it after completion and some fans even made blogs dedicated to the game. Our wish with this game was to achieve feedback from the real world, and we managed to achieve this. Sakura Note was disliked by teens, however, maybe because the story was too real. I hope those people will play it again maybe 10 or 20 years in the future.
AR: Are you disappointed it sold less than Contact DS?
AU: I was just disappointed that most of the gamers that we really felt this game was meant for have never heard of this game. Even though all the staff made an effort to make the game known to all of their friends…I don’t mind if people play it and then dislike it, be I’d be happiest if more people at least acknowledged the game. When I hear positive feedback from customers who bought our game, it makes me very happy. So I am glad we made this game as it is.
AR: When Yasuhiro Wada-san was still at Marvelous Entertainment, he said the company does not have the same gamer trust or strong brand-association as Nintendo and Square Enix in Japan. He believes this could explain the low sales of Marvelous games. Do you agree? Or do you think there is a problem in the Japanese gaming market?
AU: Yes, I believe that branding is a problem, and I also believe there are problems with the Japanese gaming market. I believe this problem has been allowed to grow over the past 10 years and is very deep rooted. For better or worse, I believe Marvelous has not been able to ride the wave of the gaming industry. I often think Marvelous is clumsy, but instead of thinking “How much we can earn today?” it is a publisher that is saying “Let’s sow seeds for the future.”
Video gaming is a very established culture, and just like the music or film industry, it is a business. In Japan, publishers only think of it as a business, and there is very little acknowledgement of it being a culture. Again, I believe there needs to be more emphasis on the creator who creates an egg from nothing. A culture has to follow various waves that may come and the Japanese gaming world needs to advance from its current state otherwise in 10 or 50 years the industry will run dry! It’s suicide. Wada-san also has similar views on this, and we often discuss this matter over tea.
AR: You have previously said that you want people to relax and play the game before sleeping, like when reading a book. A lot of people like to play on DS whilst travelling. How can you spread the word of a game like this?
AU: Wow, you know me well! Thank you very much. Sakura Note’s target audience is 30-40 year olds. This generation was raised on the NES with games such as Super Mario Bros., Xevious, Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. This generation is also often made up of Internet users. They use Twitter, Facebook and blogs, all of which can be used to spread word of our game without cost. It may be harder to upload images or sounds to these sorts of websites due to copyright issues, but bit-by-bit I hope that I can ‘advertise’ Sakura Note as much as possible by word of mouth.
AR: What lessons were learned for the development of Sakura Note after working on Contact?
AU: Based on tips we received from Contact, we were able to improve on the lighting and shadows in our animations. In US and European games on the Xbox 360 and PS3, lighting and shadows are used abundantly. These games have a realism that is not present in Japanese games and it much more impressive. That is not just down to the hardware power, but also a show of the designer’s sensibility and power of expression. For example, imagine a screenshot of Uncharted was shown on the Nintendo DS. The resolution and colours may fall a bit, but if it’s just a still image the DS can show visuals on par with high end devices. With Contact and Sakura Note, we wanted this level of expression in our game. By using old school character movement and laying that over realistic backgrounds, we were aiming to reach our realistic and ideal image.
AR: Nobou Uematsu, Kazushige Nojima and Hideo Minaba all working together - it is a very strong team! Everyone must have a very busy schedule. How did you arrange for this team to work together?
AU: We also had Kazuyuki Kurashima as a special support member. He works for LOVEdeLIC, Inc. and paired with us to make Moon and UFO. I asked him to draw various creatures and monsters for us. Do you recognise his fine, comical animations? I also asked Uematsu-san and Nojima-san, respectively, to compose a lot of music and write many of Sakura Note’s scenarios. Game production is a job very close to human taste. No matter how hard a project is, at heart we all love original game productions, and so we were able to go into this with high motivation. This should be the norm, but sadly in the current game production scene such a natural process is more of a rare case, which is very disappointing.
Audio Inc. and I have stuck strongly to the belief that it is a privilege to be able to make games in such a ‘natural’ manner. We got all other members of staff to look back at why they started making video games, and they enjoyed the sessions.
AR: With so many talented people involved in development, were there any conflicts or disagreements when making the game?
AU: I took leadership for the development, and there were no real disagreements throughout the project. The reason that there were no conflicts was because before any conversations started, we each first stated ”These are the things we definitely don’t want to do.”
In this day and age, what message can we, who take pity on the current gaming market’s state, send out to the world? Also, what can we do to ensure the video game culture never dies? I often discussed these two points with Wada-san.
AR: What was your plan for the end of Sakura Note? Did you simply want to reach the conclusion of the story? Or did you want to give the player a specific message?
AU: I wanted to give the player a specific message. We didn’t intend to make a piece of game software that would be forgotten after a few months of clearing it through from the beginning to the final credits. We weren’t too bothered about whether the story would be happy or sad, but we wanted to make a story that will have a lasting impression on the player.
We also believe this time spent thinking about Sakura Note is another part of the gameplay. We recently can see the gaming market shift from a hardcore market to a more casual one, where players want to be able to complete games with little skill, and are not interested in improving their game technique. We feel if a game is not easy to complete then it will not sell well. That is why we made it relatively easy in Sakura Note so that everyone could see the ending of the story.
We wanted players to think about the story and world of Sakura Note even when they were not playing the game. I also wanted players to enjoy new discoveries in the “dogs, cats and bonus” episodes. The storyline and message we wanted to convey may be targeted at a Japanese audience and harder for Westerners to understand, but in a similar way to Japanese people watching and enjoying The Simpsons, we hope anyone around the world can understand the message that we wanted to share, that “Adults are just kids that have aged a bit more.”
AR: Did you influence Uematsu's music compositions? Did your ideas inspire him and did you say ‘no’ to any music?
AU: Maybe yes, I influenced him slightly. I want players to try Sakura Note like some adults who have just returned from the work, read a paperback novel and drink a beer before sleeping. While we wanted to make the game feel like a light novel. We also wanted to keep a “game like” feel to it.
We used the D-pad in hope it would remind them of their childhood days playing on the NES, and I asked Uematsu-san to create battle music reminiscent of the SNES music that we lost ourselves in as a child. This old school game-like theme was the reason we made the story based around a young boy longing to become a hero to fight evil. Uematsu-san also had a go at developing minimalistic music for the first time with this game. The game music has a very Uematsu-san feel to it, with his new and unique sound running throughout.
AR: Will Sakura Note ever be released in Europe (via Rising Star Games) and the US (via XSEED)?
AU: It is hard to say about the release because Audio Inc. doesn’t have the rights. I used to request that Yasuhiro Wada-san release it abroad (when he was still at Marvelous) *laughs* I think as this game has a very Japanese theme, it would be interesting to see how the world reacts to it. Do Americans relax, drinking on a sofa or lying in a bedroom when playing games? I’m very interested in the different lifestyles in each country.
Music Samples from Sakura Note
AR: If Sakura Note is released in the US and Europe, would you like the soundtrack CD to be available as well?
AU: Yes, in similar fashion to the Japanese version of Sakura Note, I’d hope we can bundle the soundtrack with the game. If we manage to climb through the various loopholes needed for a foreign release, I’d be very glad to help make this happen.
AR: How do you begin the game-making process? Do you start with a specific theme, an important message, personal life experiences or something else?
AU: Sakura Note was a special case, because it was made by various members all with a lot of experience in game development. Firstly, Nojima-san came up with the scenario, and from there we made the pictures, movement and sound. My game development style comes from passion. Firstly I’ll create a rough idea of genre, concept art, and from there I decide on the story. I don’t particularly spend time thinking about a story closely, but ideas suddenly come to me, and are normally accompanied by a piece of background music in my mind. I don’t like thinking of whole stories, but rather individual scenes.
In Contact, I didn’t think of using the Professor as a navigator until later. When gathering my thoughts on the story, the ending came to me first, so that was one of the first things I finished off. However, I don’t like thinking up or using unusual battle systems or control schemes.
AR: Can you tell us more about Space*Agency? The idea sounds very interesting. Will it definitely be developed?
AU: Thank you for your interest! Space*Agency is definitely in development. Space*Agency is a culmination of all my favourite parts of a game, and brings together the key parts of my previous creations. There are five main aspects to Space*Agency;
1.) This game is an Action RPG with survival aspects to it;
2.) I will not only adopt swords and sabres for the close combat, but also guns;
3.) It will also track many unique skill points to train outside of battle, which are not normally monitored in RPGs;
4.) One of the story’s points is that after fighting pirates on a small southern island, the player will be flown into space, and I hope this huge jump will be interesting.
5.) Players will experience space travelling by spending long periods of time alone in a dark deserted space ship. You can turn on the radio while riding through space, in a similar way you will turn on your iPod in the car, and hopefully can have an experience not too dissimilar to travelling around the world.
To be honest, though, there are no specifics or release date decided for this game yet. During the development of Sakura Note I met a lot of veteran developers, other than Uematsu-san, and am now confident of assembling a team of developers even stronger than the current one at Audio, Inc. The only problem is funding. Someone reading this please become the patron for our dream!
AR: Do you have ideas for a game on Wii or WiiWare?
AU: Yes, I do. I would want to challenge myself on Wii, or any hardware, if I had the chance. When it comes to developing packaged games for retail, I hear that unfortunately most publishers don’t approve the necessary budgets easily anymore. This is a great concern due to the current condition of the economy around the world and the general poor state of the game market, too.
I think it is easy to reach an agreement on the business side for downloads because downloading software can be done at a low cost. Therefore, it might make more business sense to develop Space*Agency for the download market instead. I think we might also make an original game for the WiiWare service, but the problem is what to do in terms of office and staff costs in the meantime.
AR: Do you think Contact would do well if you released it on a download service? Would this idea be possible?
AU: Maybe…Actually, yes, I do, as it will allow a lot of people to try Contact for the first time. I think that the first time round, many people played Contact and truly enjoyed it. I can’t imagine how successful it was in the long-run, but I think Contact gets an increasing amount of positive responses because people’s recognition of it has significantly risen now compared to when it was originally released, so a new version would get greater attention.
AR: Will you work with Goichi Suda-san again to make a Contact sequel in the future?
AU: Yes, I will. I’m always ready to work with him! But Suda-san always looks busy *laughs* As for my personal feelings in general towards a second game, I hope that I can indeed release Contact 2 someday. The world of Contact cannot be represented without the Professor and Mochi! Regardless of the business aspects of making a sequel, I think the world would be a better place if there was another Contact game in existence!
AR: Yoshiro Kimura-san has expressed a desire to work with his former LOVEdeLIC colleagues. Would you like to work on a project together again?
AU: Recently, we have increased the amount of times we have been in contact with former LOVEdeLIC members. It has been more than 10 years since I worked with them. Each member has plenty of experience in various positions and now...what will happen at the meetings between LOVEdeLIC members now? I’m very interested in finding out!
AR: Did you help with PostPet DS, working with Kenichi Nishi (Route24), Vanpool and AlphaDream?
AU: No, I didn’t help them this time. The publisher was the same, Marvelous. They had helped develop Sakura Note at the same time as that game, so I think it was a busy time, with Wada-san directing each of the projects.
AR: Last question! What graphic adventure games did you play in your youth? Did you play American ones?
AU: First of all, the Japanese game Star Cruiser from 1990 on the SEGA Mega Drive was my childhood. I have never before experienced such feelings of adventure or solitude in my house! The music is marvellous, too! This game has had a great influence on my standard game-making process, including the upcoming Space*Agency idea.
Secondly, yes, I did! I still play games from overseas. I have been playing Battlefield: Bad Company on Xbox 360 online for nearly two years. I think that the sense of colour in the imagery for all overseas games is truly wonderful. There is also a lot of charm in the sound department. It is natural, yet peculiar, and feels good. Here are some of the Western games I played and enjoyed in the past: Paper Boy (Arcade), Maniac Mansion (NES), A Boy and His Blob (NES), Alone in the Dark (3DO) and Equinox (SNES). As an aside, I really love the music of Tim Follin! < Ed: Tim Follin has worked on SNES games such as Equinox, Rock ‘N Roll Racing and Plok!>