Ico designer Fumito Ueda on emotion, missing deadlines and parting ways with Sony

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“More than a moving scenario, to really affect people you need a moving and credible story.” Fantastical elements aside, Ueda says that games need to explore more relatable themes if they’re to carry emotional weight with players

Fumito Ueda really can’t talk about The Last Guardian. It’s in his contract. The designer left SCE’s Japan Studio back in December 2011, but returned as a freelancer to see his game to its conclusion. Still, his creative work on the project is now mostly complete – interpret that as you will – so the Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus designer is able to find time to give us a rare interview about the mechanics of emotional interaction and the shape of SOTC’s map.

Whenever the notion of games as art is mentioned, your games are among the first to be referenced. Why do you think people regard those games in that way?

I think the three reasons might be that I chose universal themes, that we made games that we ourselves genuinely wanted to play, and that we made them with great care. It’s vital it rings true. More than a moving scenario, to really affect people you need a moving and credible story. The difficult part was that, in pursuit of credibility, I had to eliminate anything that seemed unnatural. That’s the reason the games appear so minimalistic. [But more] broadly speaking, I think it’s because those games are less mainstream than other titles. From a business point of view, artistic [value] is something that can increase a product’s longevity. But, to be honest, while the potential videogames have for even more artistic expression is endless, without popular appeal, [making games] will not hold as a business.

What made you focus on designing games around emotionally resonant themes?

When I started working on Ico, I didn’t set out to make such an emotional game; it just happened naturally. Whether or not I aim to make something emotional, it inevitably becomes so. I wanted to make a game where multiple characters onscreen weren’t fighting each other, but rather you could touch them directly. With this in mind, and also taking into consideration the hardware specification at that time and the skills of the team, the best way to represent that idea seemed to be holding hands. And as the team’s skills increased, I introduced the idea of ‘clinging’ as an extension of that hand connection in SOTC. Then, rather than invent a new mechanic, we started production of The Last Guardian to make use of the mechanics we had created so far. To create a system that lets you hold hands or grab onto a gigantic creature and move around, we had to fuse technology, mechanics and design in the closest harmony possible. There are lots of things [that I’d like to improve], but it would become endless, so I try not to think about that. The way I see it, that was the limit of what I could do at the time.

On the topic of Shadow Of The Colossus, where on its map had you planned to place the eight cut Colossi?

The map in the game is designed to house 16 Colossi. In other words, because the placement of those 16 Colossi determined the shape of the map, it would be a completely different map if we’d included all 24. The intention was to choose the 16 best Colossi and focus on making those ones even better. I think we were halfway through production when we decided to reduce their number. Oh, there’s certainly leftover test data and half-edited [areas], but it’s a bit like the Minus World in Super Mario Bros: I think it holds more romantic appeal if you don’t know the specifics.

Do you ever feel your ambition is too big for the reality of studio budgets and deadlines?

Rather than my own ambition, I try to imagine what kind of game it is that people would want to play. There are restrictions on the production, of course, but that does not deter me from aiming to satisfy what I imagine to be the player. It’s hard to say that my productions so far have found that balance, but I think I’m always trying to do right by the player. The part of me that is impatient [lets me down]. When I have an idea, I want to see the output quickly. On a long production, it is inevitable that your ambition will disperse from time to time. In those cases, I look at a great work – like a film, a game, that sort of thing – to remind me of the wonders of art, and that restores my momentum.

Ueda says that he is “terribly sorry” for the delays of The Last Guardian, but doesn’t feel his ambition outstripped the team’s capabilities

Can you give some examples?

Recent games that inspired me are Beyond: Two Souls and The Last Of Us. As for movies, rather than any specific film, it’s the experience of an audience gathering at the cinema, the way the atmosphere of the movie combines with that of the theatre, [and] being part of a group of people who are in search of entertainment – this is a great stimulus for a producer of entertainment. It is encouraging to tangibly see a piece of entertainment touching people’s daily lives. In recent years, I’ve found much more influence in films and art than in games.

Given your impatience, how taxing have the past eight years been on you as a creator?

Putting aside the short-term output, more than anything I feel terribly sorry that for various reasons I have kept my audience waiting for such a long time.

How do you keep your team motivated over a production cycle of five years or more?

Maintaining motivation is all about producing something great. A hobby or alcohol might help to refresh you temporarily, but they won’t motivate creativity. Also, the original staff members on Ico and SOTC are just as fussy over details as I am. I always want to create quickly, and I always want to increase the rate of production. In the case of The Last Guardian, my creative work was mostly finished a long time ago, but the details of when, where and how it will be completed are beyond my control.

Do deadlines make your work easier or more difficult?

They make work much easier.

That being the case, how did Ico miss PlayStation and The Last Guardian seemingly miss PlayStation 3?

No comment.

Enemy Zero on Saturn was a difficult project for you, too. Were you able to learn much from the experience?

As I recall, the development period of Enemy Zero was nine months [long], and on underpowered PCs. I had to use 3D applications that could make a maximum of three character animations a day, which included facial animations, and do all the lighting and camera work by myself. I learned that the speed at which you rush the work and the final quality are proportional.

At what age did you decide you wanted to make games?

There were two events that made me want to make games. One was watching an anime that had a ‘video background’ – that was the name of the technology – which impressed me. Then, at the age of 13, I bought an MSX computer. However, it frustrated me immediately. After that, it was pretty late that I joined Warp at 26 years old, and that set me on the path to Ico. I [was inspired by] Eric Chahi, Shigeru Miyamoto and Yu Suzuki. For a generation like mine, which has grown in step with videogames, you cannot escape their influence.

What do you consider to be art in a videogame?

That’s a difficult question. I think ‘art’ is a product or notion produced by an ‘artist’. As a commodity, it has low mainstream appeal but high long-term appeal; [it’s] a thing for the future, like an F1 car. The definition of art is so ambiguous that it’s hard to say, but I don’t think the production time has anything to do with artistic value. By the way, I don’t consider myself an artist, but a designer.

Why did you decide to go freelance?

It’s difficult to explain, but in a nutshell it was because I felt a sense of crisis within myself about a lot of things. It’s hard to [say exactly what], but in terms of my own growth and career and so on.

Were there too many technical or creative challenges working at a large publisher?

This is not specific to SCE, but in general at companies where I’ve worked, I’ve never been told to make a game in this or that genre and so on. I’ve been able to propose the kind of games I’ve wanted to make. So aside from available budget, you might say there’s not much difference in that respect from an indie company.

One of Ueda’s dreams for the future is to make a zombie game – but only if he can find a way to make the zombies more than “convenient enemies to shoot at”.

What effect has going freelance had on your lifestyle?

For now, it hasn’t changed significantly, but I have less of my time taken away by unnecessary meetings and so I am able to concentrate more on creative work.

What did it feel like to leave a company where you had worked for so long?

When I worked at SCE, I was on an annual contract, so it was not as much of a change as those around me might think. Recently, I’ve been working at my home office and often at SCE’s Shinagawa office in Tokyo.

What was Sony’s reaction?

It was not easy, but I can’t go into the details just yet. It will be good to be able to discuss it along with a post-mortem of The Last Guardian someday.

What are you working on now?

The Last Guardian and the rest is secret. Outside of games, well, just for a hobby, I’d like to try my hand at art.

Do you think development processes will change significantly with next-generation platforms?

Videogames and technology are inextricable from one another. It will be like that for the next few years at least. Compared with the early days, game engines’ creation and editing tools have given the artists and designers [greater]control. You will be able to control expression in finer detail. And I hope the speed of iteration will increase.

How do you feel about independent development?

I think that it has become more important than ever to choose your method of expression in relation to the budget. That is, I think the people who best judge the cost-effectiveness are getting the best results. It’s easy to understand why players are attracted to big-budget games.

What are you playing right now?

A game I recently played through to the end is The Last Of Us, but there are others that I dip in and out of. I also bought myself an Oculus Rift, so I’ve been playing games compatible with that. This is, of course, for the sake of study!

You’ve wanted to make a game for head-mounted displays since as far back as 2002. How would you use virtual reality to advance your mechanics and themes?

I think there are many ways in which games are superior to other forms of entertainment, but more than anything it is the level of immersion that draws my focus. And what can enhance that sense of immersion better than virtual reality?

Speaking in terms of mechanics, I think, rather than playing as a character that can move around freely, it is best suited to a character with movement that is somehow limited. As soon as Ico was finished, I told my boss at the time that I’d like to make a game that uses a head-mounted display, so now I’d like to research doing that. Also, this may be surprising, but one day I’d like to make a game on the theme of zombies. I’d like to try making a low-threshold game for hardware that is based around a touchpad. That’s if I can come up with a well-suited idea, of course. There are many other things, too, but they’re secret.

We’re not short of zombie games. What’s left to try?

With a zombie motif, in terms of AI and motion technology and the operability of the player character, there are many elements that interest me and that are suited to in-game expression. Especially if there is a way to use [zombies] not just as a convenient enemy for the player to shoot at, but in a way that allows me to express a character in a lyrical way. There are always possibilities.