Something about Japan: Suda 51 on selling Grasshopper Manufacture

The past few weeks saw news that GungHo Online Entertainment had purchased Grasshopper Manufacture, the studio behind No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, and Lollipop Chainsaw. While GungHo are somewhat lesser-known in the west as the publisher behind Ragnarok Online, they are a rising force in the Japanese industry, especially in the mobile gaming space where their match three game Puzzle & Dragons has made waves in the past year. Nevertheless, the news came as a surprise, as Grasshopper was one of a small number of studios operating independently in Japan.

In order to explain to fans who might be worried the studio has sold out, Grasshopper studio head Suda 51 and president of GungHo Kazuki Morishita, sat down with 4Gamer to talk about the ramifications of the acquisition.

Morishita began the interview by allaying fans’ fears. “I’d like Suda-san to remain focussed on Grasshopper rather than GungHo as a whole. Of course now I’ll be involved in Grasshopper’s creative output, but since Suda-san is there, in a lot of ways it actually equates to a taking load off my own work. Basically, I’d like Grasshopper Manufacture to continue to make games in the manner they are accustomed to.”

Suda explained the genesis of the takeover. “Around 2011, I was thinking about what I should do with the company, groping about in the dark to try and figure out the real purpose, the real value of Grasshopper Manufacture,” he said. “So, while we were deciding our next project, I was too absorbed in the management side of business to really focus on the creative. Morishita-san said ‘isn’t that my job?’, and it put me back on the right path.”

Indeed, the rapport between them seems strong, forged apparently by regular drinking sessions until the wee hours, and a shared fondness for grilled chicken, says the 4Gamer interview.

“Up until now, we’ve been lucky enough to have worked with big name clients, and I’m very thankful to have learned all I have from them. However, at the same time, it’s also true it was difficult to truly grasp the creative reigns of a project, which is a situation I’ve been trying to rectify,” continued Suda. “That’s not the main reason though. For example, in our latest game, Lollipop Chainsaw, the back and forth between us and the client was ultimately a good thing I believe. But I believe as a developer, to stay in this kind of environment is stifling. We really want to go all out in the future, and I think it’s necessary for a closer relationship with the publisher in order to do so.”

“For example, if we wanted to make a title that was focussed on online play, we wouldn’t be able to if publishers weren’t interested in funding such a game,” Suda explains, “But equally, since we’ve been focussed on single player experiences, we wouldn’t have the resources and knowledge base to make such a game on our own anyway. I’ve always wanted to make use of the strengths of online. It’s a layer I’ve wanted to add to our repertoire.”

Although mentioning no plans directly, Suda did have also have lot to say about the mobile gaming space. “The first time I thought of smart phones as in competition with traditional gaming devices was the release of Puzzle & Dragons. I think a lot of people in the industry will have felt the same. It’s GungHo who put out that game, they’re a big voice in that market, which is only going to grow bigger.”
Asked to address his fans directly, Suda added: “I’m going to work up a hell of a sweat for the enjoyment of the players of our games, trying to make the most creative games I can.”

In financial news, MSN Japan has reported that Square Enix is in the red after failing to meet sales expectations for the period of April to December 2012, the first time the company has reported a loss since the merging of former rivals Square and Enix in 2003. Square Enix’s business in the mobile market seems to have performed well, in particular their Sengoku IXA game and their Final Fantasy social games, but they haven’t had a real smash hit in their core home console market in some time.

“The slump is reportedly down to the company’s new online RPG venture, Dragon Quest X,” reports MSN. “While the disappointing financial turn for the company can be partially attributed to the burden of running the new online service, it is also down to game sales not meeting expectations. The Wii (and soon to be Wii U) game is however, making ‘steady progress’ according to Square Enix.

On the other hand, none of the other major Japanese publishers are reporting debts, with Namco Bandai having reported a 71.7% increase in profit for the April to December 2012 period. Tecmo Koei reported profits 3.9 times as much as the same period last year, but Capcom and Sega Sammy are struggling somewhat. Although forecasting a profit of double the previous years’ figures, Capcom has had to revise its yearly forecasts due to Monster Hunter 4 being delayed from spring this year to summer, taking the original figure down by 3.3%. Sega, meanwhile, is reporting a 91.1% decrease in profit.

In an age where a lot of Japanese industries are still experiencing difficulties from the global depression forcing up the price of the Yen, and the continuing after effects from the tragic tsunami of 2011, its good to see it’s not all doom and gloom for the industry. It will certainly be interesting to find out if the stellar critical reception of Ni No Kuni in the West will aid Square Enix’s ailing fortunes at all. Although it seems unlikely the company will be in trouble too long anyway, as Dragon Quest VII, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix- and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII could all be found around the top of a recent Famitsu user poll of games their readership was most excited about in 2013.

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