Takamasa Shiba is a man out of time. Even if his company bears a familiar name (Square Enix), and the games it makes bear a resemblance to those that Shiba was making when his career started in the ’90s, little about the man or his peers remains the same. Shiba’s career as a producer started back when Enix, the role-playing game company behind institutions like Dragon Quest and cult classics like Actraiser, was an independent entity whose biggest competitor was Squaresoft, the studio behind Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and others. Both companies made single-player epics, games that pushed the medium’s narrative ambitions to new heights.
Today there’s just one Japanese game publisher pumping out Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games, and the Square Enix of 2013 makes far fewer single-player epics than it once did. Console games like Valkyrie Profile have largely been replaced with mobile games like Final Fantasy: All The Bravest and Demon’s Score, piecemeal adventures where iPhone owners have to spend top dollar to buy the games a little bit at a time. Even series’ like the Mana games have been boiled down to GREE-developed social offerings like Circle Of Mana, in which players have to buy individual cards to fight battles. How does Shiba, who came up making very different games than those that fuel the modern game market, feel about the new Square Enix?
“There are casual gamers and there are console, or core, gamers,” Shiba says (through a translator), using the marketing language that’s become endemic in the video game business. Even if that language is useful for executives and retailers to talk about whom they can sell a game to, it carries unfortunately reductive side effects. Just because there are more casual gamers playing games on their phones, that doesn’t mean the old gamers that loved console-style games have gone away.
“We’re making fewer and fewer titles for those old core gamers. So internally at Square Enix, we’ve been asking, ‘What do we do here?’ We are gamers. The people who are literate in games, those are the people supporting us. They spend time playing our games so we have to go against trends and make a game for that audience. So that’s how we decided to make Drakengard 3.”
The Drakengard series is certainly representative of the old gaming world Shiba comes from. Known as Drag-On Dragoon in Japan, the series was Shiba’s baby following the 2003 merger of Squaresoft and Enix. He helped develop Drakengard alongside director Yoko Taro and his studio Cavia. The original mixed the massive medieval ground battles popularized by the then-nascent Dynasty Warriors series, aerial dragon fights like those in Panzer Dragoon, and the dense melodrama of both Square and Enix RPGs. It also had some of the macabre humor, sex, and violence that marked Shiba’s work on Valkyrie Profile.
“We’re making fewer and fewer titles for those old core gamers.”
“Something I’ve learned in my work is that the core gamer audience isn’t actually shrinking. There are actually more and more of those types of gamers. When I was in high school, core gamers were called ‘otaku.’ Guys like that used to get bullied in school.”
“Now otaku culture is mainstream and much more accepted. The definition of otaku is, if you take any culture like pop music, games, what have you, otaku want to find a way to enjoy that culture their own way. Light users can’t really relate to that. Casual gamers and otaku used to play the same games back in the day. Today the casual gamers are off. Only core gamers are console gamers. My plan is to only make games for those core gamers. That’s why I wanted to make this game.”
Reading sales reports and then headlines in The Financial Times about the shifting video game industry, you’d think that Shiba is out of his mind. The growth sector isn’t console games, it’s free-to-play browser games and mobile titles like Puzzles and Dragons. That is, of course, if you only run a video game developer based on sales. There are other ways of judging what players want, according to the producer.
“The internet has changed everything,” says Shiba, “In the old days, we could only tell how popular games were by looking at sales. Now we’re able to look at how passionate, how crazy fans are on social networks and message boards. But I have a unique perspective in the Japanese market. I’m the producer for Drakengard 3, but I’m also the producer for a bunch of arcade games.”
“When I was in high school, core gamers were called ‘otaku.’ Guys like that used to get bullied in school.”
“In working on arcade games, I go to different local arcades where there are a lot of passionate gamers who are regulars. When I go there, they know me and I can talk to them directly about what they’re into and what their opinions are. Before I could only talk to about ten or twenty people in our audience. Now that I work in arcades, I can talk to several thousand users and get their feedback. I found out what these gamers are looking for next. They wanted more than what I expected. They want something different, atypical from what’s available now. They want a JRPG.”
Drakengard 3 fits the profile of a classic Japanese role-playing game, but it is as offbeat as its predecessors. Action-based like the previous series entries, the game places you in the role of Zero, a sword-wielding woman dressed in white and carrying an enormous sword. Zero is an “Intoner,” one of six women who wield magic by singing. She’s out to kill her fellow Intoners for reasons Shiba won’t discuss. Helping her is a group of weird companions, like a teenage boy obsessed with death, an old man who won’t stop talking about his sexual prowess, and a gigantic dragon. Imposing as it is, though, the dragon is actually just a kid and Zero has to constantly keep an eye on it. It’s the same sort of weirdo cast and blend of excess and humor that made Nier so memorable for the few people that played it.
Drakengard 3 also has the similar action. The early version of the game Shiba played through for our eyes-on preview had the characters bantering and sniping at one another as Zero hacks her way through enemy soldiers, switching between other weapons, like a giant spear, on the fly. They don’t take a break either when she mounts her dragon companion and fights against a monstrous purple wolf. While there won’t be towns as there were in Nier, there will be campsites between stages where the characters can continue talking with another, a very similar game flow to the older Drakengard games.
Shiba knows from first hand experience that there’s an audience for the game in his home country. Square Enix USA is banking on American gamers wanting a taste of the old-style console game as well, but it’s taking tentative steps in courting that audience. The game will be localized for North America and released in 2014, and it will even get an English voiceover. However, Drakengard 3 can only be pre-ordered directly through Square Enix’s online store, and it looks like the print run will be limited. Square Enix USA also hasn’t decided if it will localize the short novellas Yoko Taro and the development team are writing to promote the game ahead of time in lieu of various trailers. These novellas will be the only major promotion the game gets. Shiba wants to keep the story mysterious, so previews for the game will be few.
The gamble may or may not work. If it does and Drakengard 3 finds its audience, game makers working with big publishers like Square Enix will be better positioned to justify the development of more traditional, long-form single-player games that don’t necessarily fit the blockbuster mold. If Square Enix USA’s limited distribution in the West is successful, that may also convince companies like Sega who’ve become leery of localizing Japanese titles (see also: Yakuza 5) that there’s still an audience to serve. Whether or not Drakengard 3 is a huge success, Takamasa Shiba is going to keep trying to make games like it.
“I’ve always been a core gamer. At the end of the day, I need to make my own decisions about the games I’m making. I can’t relate to casual games. So I need to make core console games.”