An Audience With: Keiji Inafune and Yosuke Hayashi, the duo behind Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z

Keiji Inafune and Yosuke Hayashi 2

Comcept’s Keiji Inafune (left) and Team Ninja’s Yosuke Hayashi are working with western studio Spark Unlimited on the new Ninja Gaiden game.

Early showings of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z have received a cool response from Ninja Gaiden players – the Miss Monday trailer in particular has been criticised for its misogynistic tone – but there’s no doubting the talent behind it. Comcept’s Keiji Inafune has been in some way involved with every major Capcom game since the early ’80s, from Mega Man and Street Fighter to Dead Rising and Lost Planet. Yosuke Hayashi, the younger of the pair, rose through Tecmo Koei after directing DS title Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword and the PS3 remake of Ninja Gaiden. Together they bring a world of experience to a title that’s being handled half a world away by Spark Unlimited. We ask them about the value – and challenges – of international collaboration, and about how the expectations of core players can burden a developer’s creativity.

Ninja Gaiden has always been a serious and challenging series – games for connoisseurs of action titles. Has that limited your audience over the years?
Yosuke Hayashi I don’t think it has necessarily shrunk the audience or made it a niche. I feel with the action and fighting games Team Ninja makes, [the] difference between core players and players who are just starting in the games has become more pronounced. But I also understand that we need to make games that are more accessible to both ends of that spectrum. One of the things with Yaiba is that it’s different and it’s a new Ninja Gaiden, so it’s a chance for us to try some new things and to think freely about those issues. Of course, we’re going to make a solid, responsive game that will feel good to action fans, but it perhaps needs to be open to a different, wider audience.

Team Ninja tried a number of experiments with different styles of play in Ninja Gaiden 3 in an attempt to broaden the audience for the game. They weren’t well received by longterm series fans – at least the most vocal of them. How successful do you think they were, given what you were trying to achieve?
YH For Ninja Gaiden 3, we did try new things. We thought it would be important to try some different things in the numbered series. We knew that we should try to get new fans into the series who hadn’t played it before, so we tried some different takes on previous Ninja Gaiden action. I think we were able to [earn] some new fans, and people who had never played Ninja Gaiden before were able to enjoy Ninja Gaiden 3. But at the same time, I think we were not able to give the core fans the experience they expected, and it really struck home to us what it means to be a Ninja Gaiden game for the core fans. Luckily, we had the chance to make Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge and we put those lessons into Razor’s Edge. I think that’s been widely accepted by the core fans, so I’m pretty sure they’re back in the fold. We know moving forward where we need to go with the series, and what we need to keep as a Ninja Gaiden game. For Yaiba, it’s a completely different game, so the challenges are in a completely different area. For us, it’s a good challenge to have – to be able to think freely about all kinds of different ideas.

“We were not able to give the core fans the experience they expected,” says Hayashi of Ninja Gaiden 3. You can read our review of that game here.

What ideas did Team Ninja, Spark and Comcept each bring to the table, and how did the collaboration address some of the challenges you’re talking about?

Keiji Inafune Team Ninja has always made very good action games – very high quality, high playability – and we knew that [it could] make a strong title on its own. But there are also aspects of Japanese development that are weaker, and teaming up with Spark Unlimited in the United States allowed us to supplement or complement the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Western developers and westerners in general are a little more accepting of zombies, and they have some very different ideas about what’s cool and what’s not; listening to those ideas and working through them has really made this a very strong title. We’ve had good reception so far and are looking forward to finishing it up.

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of western and Japanese developers? What have you learnt about the east and the west?
KI One of the strong points of Japanese development is an attention to detail, and I think that comes across in [both] action games and the battle systems you see in Team Ninja titles. You see it in the quality of the responsiveness in the systems and the gameplay, and that’s really something Japanese developers – and Team Ninja in particular – are very good at. They can handle action, but zombies to Japanese people in general are not something they are very familiar with, or particularly enjoy, and it’s… they’re kind of disgusting, not something you want to touch. And adding a humorous element to zombies? It’s just completely out of the question.

You wouldn’t be able to think about that. We don’t have the knowledge and the skills to deal with that. Given time, I’m sure you can explain things to people and they’ll come to know what a zombie is and what’s fun about it, but it’s going to take time and effort. In order to shrink that time, to have the game come out, it’s good to partner with a western studio that knows that side of things very well, and has that instinctual “this is what a zombie is, this is what’s cool about zombies, and this is how we make that more fun”. I think you see that in the design of the zombies that are in the game, in the look and feel of the game; that’s something that would only come about through making this game with a western game development studio. It shrinks the time it takes to make the game because you’re playing off each other’s strengths. And while you’re doing that, creating the game, it’s also important that we learn, see what those strengths are and learn from each other to strengthen our own development practices and our own creativity. That collaboration is very important, and will hopefully lead to even stronger games in the future.

The collaborative process “shrinks the time it takes to make the game because you’re playing off each other’s strengths,” says Inafune.

You run Inafune Academy, and have been involved with encouraging new talent. How important is it for you to foster new creatives, and how important was that experience when you began collaborating with Spark?
KI It’s a tough answer, and a long one, so I’ll do my best. Not only do I have [the academy] but I give speeches, lectures in different places as well. I don’t want to see fewer game developers in Japan; I want to see new game developers come up. It doesn’t do us good to have the same group of people making games the whole time. Even though I’ve been in the games industry for 27 years and I’m still trying to work as a game developer myself, I do feel it’s important to give back to new developers who will keep making games in the future. There’s a desire to do things for myself – everybody wants to work for themselves and say, “Hey, here’s this awesome game; I did that” – but there’s also a certain energy that you need to give to others. And the ability to give that knowledge, to pass that on to others [is something] I get from these kinds of collaborations.

It’s one thing to do things myself, but it’s another to tell someone the lessons I’ve learned and have them understand them and grow from that. In having conversations, it’s not just for me but also to teach Spark a little bit about Japanese development and how things are done here, the lessons I’ve learned in game development. It’s communicating that to Spark and having it grow as a developer. There are a lot of inconvenient things, of course, when doing these collaborations – the time difference is there, it’s a ten-hour flight to Los Angeles – so there are problems that arise, but you work through them, and in doing so I learn myself. What I hope is that I can give these lessons to a younger generation so they can become even stronger creatives themselves, and I hope when they’ve been in the industry a while and accumulated their own experiences they can then give those experiences to the people after them. So it’s the effort to give back to them, to raise them, [and] hopefully they’ll raise the next generation after them – and through that good, virtuous cycle we’ll have even better games and a future for game development.

Was Team Ninja able to teach any lessons of its own about the things it holds as so important?
YH The director on the Team Ninja side is looking very closely at the combat and the responsiveness of the game; something that’s very important for action games – and especially for us – is to have the button input be very responsive, so the instant you push a button, something happens. That is a very important aspect for us, for action games, and the director on the Team Ninja side has worked very closely and been very critical with the action we see in Yaiba, giving feedback to make sure that aspect of a solid action game comes across.

Hayashi (left) says that Team Ninja is overseeing the combat and the responsiveness of the game – “something that’s very important for action games.”

It seems core Ninja Gaiden players would prefer something more traditional. Will they find much to love about Yaiba?
KI From the beginning we wanted to share the same universe as Ninja Gaiden, but Yaiba is its own thing; we don’t really compare it to Ninja Gaiden or say we’ll keep something or leave something of Ninja Gaiden. The battle system is completely different from Ninja Gaiden, and the look and feel is completely different. We don’t think about comparing it to Ninja Gaiden. It is what it is: it’s about ninjas and zombies.

With that in mind, what value does the Ninja Gaiden brand have to you if you’re so eager to start afresh?
KI If we didn’t have the Ninja Gaiden name in there, then of course one thing we couldn’t do was have Ryu Hayabusa in the game. To have this major character as a rival to the new Yaiba character is an important part of the story, and if there was no connection to Ninja Gaiden then that would be thrown out the door. Without having Hayabusa in there, there would be no Yaiba. So for us to not have Ninja Gaiden in the title was never an option. The fact that we even get asked “what if it wasn’t in the title?” is really hard to believe because it’s just so core to Yaiba.

Spark hasn’t had a breakthrough success in the west yet, either critically or commercially. What made the studio a good match for Yaiba?
KI At the end of the day, games are made by people. So it’s really hard to judge the development staff by Metacritic scores or sales of a past game, because if you have a dedicated staff you can get a good game. There are a lot of developers in the west who have created hit titles and would say Japanese game development is weak and [they] don’t want to be a part of that, even though we’ve made hit titles. What was important was to find a studio that was willing to learn and has staff willing to learn. Spark is willing to do that.