Something About Japan: Swery, Futatsugi and Cuthbert on E3 2013

At last year’s E3, Japanese games accounted for a dismal percentage of Microsoft’s conference. As far as I can recall it was zero. Sony, a Japanese company, was about the same. So how nice to see a pack of titles at both of their conferences this week.

Microsoft had the better bunch, ironic given the Xbox’s nonexistence here; these were Crimson Dragon, the long-delayed Kinect game developed by Yukio Futatsugi and other members of the original Panzer Dragoon team; D4, the new IP from Deadly Premonition mastermind Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro at Access Games; and of course showings of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and Dark Souls 2, games so eagerly anticipated around the world that it’s easy to forget they are being made in much-maligned Japan.

(Sony, for its part, had Final Fantasy XV, Kingdom Hearts 3, Rain and Knack, while the almost unwatchable Nintendo Direct stream was Japan all the way – Mario, Pikmin, Smash Bros., Donkey Kong and so on.)

Over email, I asked Swery what it is about Xbox One that appeals to Japanese developers such as himself.

“I can’t really comment on behalf of all the creators in Japan, but I can tell you what I like about it personally,” he replied. “For me it’s all about Kinect. I can’t understand why more creators don’t make use of that superb device. It’s loaded with creativity.”

Futatsugi echoed Swery’s opinion on Kinect, and added, “I like the concept of Xbox One as being always online. The fact that a smartphone is always connected has led to interesting new ways to play; that’s how a home console should be, too. I’d like to make things that can be intuitively manipulated with Kinect and that take advantage of the always-on connection.”

E3 is not really aimed at Japanese punters – North America and Europe are its target – but nonetheless Japan is taking note. For one thing, used games account for a huge market here, where frugality is a cultural trait and game rentals does not exist. If Microsoft thought it had trouble selling Xboxes in Japan before, just wait until the One’s DRM becomes common knowledge.

“I have no idea how XBone will do here in Japan, but history isn’t granting them any favours,” commented Dylan Cuthbert, top banana at Kyoto-based PixelJunk developer Q-Games. “I really think they’ll have a bit of a struggle to be honest, as they did with the 360 and the Xbox before that.”

Q Games’ Dylan Cuthbert: “Sony tipped it in favour of indie development pretty nicely, and getting indies up on stage was really cool. It felt that Sony had both barrels loaded too.”

Swery had a different take on the used-games debacle. When I asked him whether Access Games will take advantage of Microsoft’s allowance for publishers to block sales of used games if they so desire, he replied, “That’s not Access Games’ style. I think we have a unique stance: I want to make games that gamers do not want to sell on in the first place. The value of the content does not disappear just because you’ve cleared the game; you want to keep it anyway. I intend to continue making games that people want to own.”

Nintendo of course skipped its usual conference and instead broadcast a public-facing Nintendo Direct and a separate briefing for the media that included Q&As with top development staff Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma. But while there is no debating the success of Nintendo Direct in addressing the big N’s diehard audience, it failed to make much impact upon the wider gaming public.

“Nintendo is having a lot of trouble addressing a new audience right now; Nintendo Direct and never appearing at TGS (Tokyo Game Show), etc., really doesn’t help it escape from its cloud of hardcore Nintendo fans,” pondered Cuthbert. “I think they are going to have to work hard to build up a new audience over the next few years.”

It’s in their interests to say so, of course, but both Futatsugi and Swery told me they were impressed by Microsoft’s conference overall, which featured a pretty relentless barrage of game after game after game – precisely what it needed to do after all the stink surrounding its hardware.

“I thought they showed a lot of great games and made a good impression,” said Futatsugi. “TitanFall looks interesting – I’d love to play that. The depiction of the mobile infantry and of the robots looks cool; I think it will appeal to gamers in Japan.”

“I think both press conferences had a nice lineup of games,” said Cuthbert, whose company has yet to announce any games for the next-gen platforms (though it has never made games for Xbox in the past, sticking with Sony and Nintendo hardware). “But Sony tipped it in favour of indie development pretty nicely, and getting indies up on stage was really cool. It felt that Sony had both barrels loaded too.”

Neither Futatsugi nor Swery would confirm a due date for their respective games, but they did share a few morsels of information.

Crimson Dragon was originally destined for the 360 and was Kinect only, but long delays and a period of silence led some to believe the game might have fallen victim to the poor sales of similar Kinect titles and been cancelled. Futatsugi revealed to me a few months ago in an interview for Eurogamer that it was in fact close to completion.

What he didn’t tell me, of course, was that it had been shunted to next-gen – with control pad support, and looking utterly gorgeous. I asked him this week how smooth the transition between platforms was.

“Since we’re using the same UE3 (Unreal Engine 3) engine, the conversion work was relatively quick,” he said. “But customising it for One is harder, especially because you can now swap between Kinect and controller input on the fly. Making that work instantly was a big challenge.”

Swery, meanwhile, gave a keynote speech at the BitSummit indie developers conference in Kyoto this March in part of which he extolled the virtues of episodic games, holding aloft the example of Telltale Games’ multiplatform smash hit The Walking Dead. It turns out to have been a clue as to the direction he was taking with his own game, D4, for Xbox One. D4 will also have an episodic structure and appears to take influence visually from The Walking Dead.

“I might have taken some influence from that,” he admitted. “But I might not. After all, I started working on D4 before I played The Walking Dead.”

E3 is over, but the next-gen race is only just beginning. The next major staging ground will be Tokyo Game Show in September, where the general public will doubtless get their hands on PS4 demo units and, assuming Microsoft bothers to turn up this year (it skipped TGS 2012), maybe a few will line up to try local Xbox One exclusives such as Crimson Dragon and D4 as well. The games lineups there will be much more Japan-centric all round. Maybe we’ll even get a glimpse of a glorious next-gen Last Guardian.