Legendary developer Tomonobu Itagaki is well-known for creating Dead or Alive and for the Ninja Gaiden series, but as of late, he has been out of the spotlight. That may be about to change.
Not only he talks about his relationship with Microsoft during the early years of the Xbox brand, but he also reveals that he’s ready to make a new game and he has formed a new studio named Itagaki Games for that purpose.
He also clarifies that the new studio is not related to either Tecmo or Valhalla Game Studios.
Below you can read the whole Q&A.
“Bloomberg: How did you meet with Microsoft first?
Itagaki: The timing was immediately after that prototype of Xbox was complete. I think it was about 13 months prior to the product launch, and that was when Microsoft began talking to Japanese studios, and Tecmo was one of them. Microsoft wanted to meet me, probably they believed I would be able to prepare a game that maximizes the machine’s full capabilities.
Q: I bet 13 months to make a game was very tight in terms of schedule?
A: Yes, was very tight, but I was so used to such things. I am a developer but also a commander, so when I decide to do it, I do it. There’s no meaning not to have a game ready on Day 1 otherwise you can’t help Xbox make the first wave. I took it as a mission to complete the job in 13 months. I thus poured resources to make it happen.
Q: Your first thoughts when you heard about MS coming to the industry?
A: I welcomed it. Microsoft is a computer company after all, and back then, a lot of companies were making hardware…NEC, Sega, and so on. you know, more hardware, it’s better. My image on Microsoft was an OS company, so I was interested in knowing their thoughts on the hardware and the industry.
Q: Your first encounter with Seamus Blackley?
A: I was waiting at a reception room, then he walked in, all by himself. We exchanged business cards, but he barely looked mine, rather put it aside quickly, plumped down on a couch, then he was like, we are making a game console, are you joining or not. you know, he’s big, and was like a marine soldier. Then we talked about a lot of things, like, horsepower of the machine, other technical specifications, launch date, planned installment base at the launch. All verbal, no papers at all. We talked for an hour or so, and my mind was set. My team’s mission was to create the world’s best fighting game, and we needed the Xbox for that. Xbox was four times to six times more powerful than the PS2, and yes, we were on.
Q: If all verbal, and was the first meeting with Blackley, I’m surprised you could believe him that much.
A: I met a lot of people, and you know, you get a good sense of that person if you meet in person. You spend one hour, and by the time you get a good sense of what that person is saying is true or not. As for Seamus, to every question I had, he answered very clearly. Not just machine specifications and dates, but things like, what would you do if this kind of trouble occurs. He was very clear and solid, and even if he couldn’t answer me right away, he promised he would get back to me immediately after he’s back in the U.S. and check with his teams, and he actually did. he was very solid. I am that kind of person as well, so we got along very well quickly.
Q: Still, DOA was such a valuable IP, and I was amazed you made such a bet on a new platform.
A: You know, everything got a risk or two, but you can minimize it by managing them right. As for DOA3, I was so sure we can make this a big success, if we manage risks right. with this machine, and with this passionate guy sitting in front of me, and that Microsoft is saying it would do its best after all, I had no doubt.
Q: I heard some skepticism among Japanese companies about Microsoft, a software company back then, doing hardware?
A: Well, an attitude toward how to build hardware was clearly different from Nintendo and Sony. Nintendo and Sony were both making hardware on their unique chips and unique architecture. Microsoft, on the other hand, didn’t spend time and budget but rather assembled existing components, but made the best possible one out of these components. That made some Japanese game companies an impression that Xbox was just a version of PC.
Q: Ah! That sounds like PlayStation today.
A: Indeed. Well, Nintendo is still pursuing its own way, and has made a big success on it, so you can’t really underestimate that. But as for Sony, they have changed the way and doing a thing like Microsoft was doing from the beginning. I hope Xbox and PlayStation continue to have a good competitive relationship and I wish both to be successful.
Q: How was work was like with Xbox team?
A: You know, Seamus really likes to make a fuss just on anything. He e-mailed me, called me, once every week and asked what’s going on, are you ok, do you need any help, if you need anything do reach me out, that sort. On one occasion, he called me and asked what’s going on, and I was like well it’s just been a week we talked last, no big progress is made since then. So he said, okay I am coming to your office at the end of this month, and I was, you can come, but there’s not much I can show you by then. He then, ok, then I would be able to see something, I replied maybe three months later. He then I would check back then, the call was ended, but only a month later, I get a call from him again and he said what’s going on. But on every note he made to me, at the end was always a line saying do reach out to me if any troubles, I am here to solve your troubles. He was very true to the pledge. One example was he put DOA3 on a fast track in terms of approval process. You know, there are some platform holders that make the process slow by complaining about a tiny thing that no one would care about, but as of Microsoft and Seamus, there was no such thing.
Q: So working with Xbox team was good?
A: Very much. Very comfortable. All the main Xbox team, including Seamus Blackley, Ed Fries, Kevin Bachus, their leader Robbie Bach and George Peckham who often played golf with me, provided me full support on me. I visited Redmond once every two months, and they introduced me a lot of tools and support that would help speed up game development.
Q: Do you think they understood Japanese way of making a game?
A: I can’t speak on behalf of all the Japanese studios, but my team’s approach was clearly different from Bungie. Seamus let me see Halo twice while the game was still in development, saying this is super confidential. I was worried about Halo back then because its frame rate was very low. I told Seamus that the Halo game was really worrisome, are you sure that is going to ok, and Seamus was like it’s fine so you do your own part. Halo ended up very great game, so how to land a game was very different from my style to Bungie’s style. Did Seamus show understanding to my style? Well, he didn’t care much about the process. outcome, outcome, outcome. That’s all he asked. Are you ok, what’s coming, you need any help–that’s the loop we walked through continuously, and that’s how we made the DOA3.
Q: I heard MS was sort not that polite to some Japanese developers?
A: I don’t think so. If there were such attitude by Microsoft, it was Japanese developers’ attitude that made Microsoft act that way. I am very machine-oriented guy, but many other Japanese developers are business-oriented. Even before Microsoft has a chance to explain their machines, Japanese studios would ask them, what’s the benefit for us and what you can do to us. I don’t think anyone would be happy to be given that sort of attitude from the beginning.
Q: What was your impression that a U.S. company is coming into the industry largely occupied by Japanese companies?
A: Very welcome and very natural thing to happen. This is an analogy, but a game console is a fighter jet. Every fighter got unique aspect, like, this is very fast but can’t load up many missiles. Software companies like us can’t build a fighter jet on our own, but we have a choice from many available, and you make a decision based on things like specification and support budget they provide us. What if there’s only one jet available in the world? That’s very bad because you can’t really negotiate. So it was very welcoming, and the Xbox was designed to be more powerful than the PS2 and machine was hitting the market soon, so i had no other options but to bet on.
Q: Any episodes with Seamus?
A: It was two weeks before DOA3’s master is up. Seamus called me suddenly, like he did all the time, and said, I got machineguns on both of my hands and i will go and attack Nvidia right now, you coming with me. I was like wait, what’s going on, I have no time for that as I’m busy finishing up DOA3, what happened. Then he said. Nvidia promised me that the GPU they provide us will be at 250MHz, but just called me and said there would be 10% reduction from that. That’s not what we’ve agreed on, so I am getting into Nvidia, are you with me or not. Then I was like, calm down Seamus, think what we need is to make sure games work at 225MHz. then he was like, yeah you right, ok, please do your part to make the game run at 225MHz, leave Nvidia up to me.
You know, this is really typical Seamus. If you were just being apologized and said, sorry, GPU’s clock is going to be 10% lower, nothing is exciting and fun. but he’s really good at making a fuss about and put people on his pace, and when you realize, he make other people work for him to let him accomplish what he wanted to do. He’s really good at it. Oh, I complained Xbox’s first controller is bad. Button was tiny, response wasn’t good–you know, the button doesn’t return to the original position once pressed, and that’s a big headache for us because you can’t mash buttons. Seamus was initially not with me and said the controller was great, so I just passed it on him and ask to hold it and mash a button. Since his hands are also big but buttons are small, he had trouble doing mash too. See? I told you! It was like that. Ah, I also complained the console itself is too big. The Console is too big and cable is too long. I guess that’s a fit to an American house, but for Japanese homes, it was weird.
Q; You happy with DOA3’s sales?
A: We sold more than 2 million copies of the game worldwide, which was a lot better than the company’s projection, so was a big success. But it came with one big problem: Japan. Microsoft first told us they will prepare 500,000 units of the console at the launch, so our sales team piled up orders for 262,000 copies from retailers. I still remember these figures clearly. And then, soon before the launch, Microsoft Japan apologized and said they were only able to secure 250,000 units.
Wait a second, that’s fewer than the planned dispatch copies of DOA3. There was nothing we can do by that time, and the launch date had come. Xbox console itself got sold out quickly for sure, but not every gamer that purchased the Xbox likes a fighting game. I think DOA3 in Japan sold 170,000 to 180,000 copies. Then retailers get some leftover, and they just want to clear inventories quickly because it was a busy season for them. What happened was DOA3 went into a wagon from shelf and marked down to as low as 300 yen ($3), just a month after the release. The game got an unfair reputation and called “a $3 game,” and i was so sad about it. You know, when gamers see a cheap game in a wagon, they tend to judge it’s a terrible game. It was frustrating and sad. And that promoted other software companies unwilling to publish games on Xbox.
Look, DOA3, which bet on Xbox, is now sold only for $3. Japanese game companies tend to be more passive and want to see how the first penguin would perform, rather than they being first to jump off. So they moved away, and since seeing not many games from Japanese companies, Japanese game fans also faded away. If Microsoft was able to prepare 500,000 units at the launch as they promised, the thing could be much different and Xbox might have gained a whole different market position in Japan. That was a real watershed for Xbox in Japan. I have to say the first Xbox’s launch in Japan was a massive failure.
Q: Xbox’s contribution to game industry?
A: As I said, Microsoft introduced an architecture that is very similar to PCs, and made that style as de-facto standard in the industry. That is a huge contribution because it made game development much easier. Anyone can make a game if they have a PC. That led to the birth of indie creators, and huge indie market we have today. That’s really a Microsoft’s contribution–enabling anyone to make game easily, at low cost. I hope Xbox remains outstanding, as it has always been, and I’m sure Xbox can remain so for time to come.
Q: Tell me your recents.
A: For the past four years, I’ve been teaching job to foster juniors, but now I feel like I want to make a game again and just established a company for that purpose.
Q: Oh! That’s great news. I am sure a lot of Xbox fans are awaiting for your work!
A: You can count me for that. Otherwise I wouldn’t have accepted an interview for this Xbox article.
Q: What if, Microsofts said they want to make your company one of Microsoft studios?
A: Haha, I would start again with questions that I made to Seamus two decades ago. Back then, I asked him, are you confident that you will beat PS2? He said yes. Xbox is called “Project Midway” and I’ll gain the supremacy with it. That’s why I trusted him and actually created Xbox-exclusive games for about 10 years. 20 years have passed since then, and I established my own company, Itagaki Games, which is not Tecmo, nor Valhalla. I know Microsoft is still aggressive. If they reach out to me, it will be an honor for me.”