Shoot the core: How Takamasa Shiba plans to preserve the old ways with ‘Drakengard 3’

shoot core takamasa shiba plans preserve old ways drakengard 3 screenshot b

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.

Takamasa Shiba, Drakengard series producer
Takamasa Shiba, Drakengard series producer

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.”

The action in the original game, as Shiba admits now, was subpar, but the story captured a small, obsessive audience that helped spur the development of a sequel, and eventually a spin-off called Nier. By the time Nier released in 2010, though, this type of long form, single-player RPG had become far more expensive to produce on consoles. Games of its ilk sold dramatically fewer copies than action games like God of War III, which came out that same spring. Apple’s iPad also debuted the same month as Nier, opening yet more players to the sort of mobile games and classic re-releases Square Enix would increasingly rely on. Nier was the last new Japanese-developed RPG released on consoles by Square Enix that didn’t bear the Final Fantasy name, and the last game ever produced by Cavia. If any series represents the past, it’s Drakengard. Contrary to popular market beliefs, though, people still want games like those Shiba produced 10 years back.

“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.”

Shiba is responsible for Square’s successful Japanese arcade card game series, Lord Of Vermillion. Unlike console or mobile games, the infrequently practiced art of making arcade games requires creators to actually go out into arcades to see how people play the games in person. That experience let’s Shiba get his finger close to the pulse of what gamers want.

“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.”

Movies & TV

‘What We Do In The Shadows’ turns Jemaine Clement into a creature of the night

With a career as unique as the man himself, Jemaine Clement’s star is still rising. From his HBO show (and band) Flight of the Conchords to his TV spinoff of What We Do in the Shadows, we dig deep into the funnyman’s many roles.

‘Diablo Immortal’ is just the beginning. Mobile games are the future

Diablo fans were furious about Diablo Immortal, but in truth, mobile games are the future. From Apple and Samsung to Bethesda and Blizzard, we’re seeing a new incentive for games that fit on your phone.

Tesla appoints Robyn Denholm as chair, Elon Musk steps down

Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk agreed to step down from his role as chairman as part of a settlement deal with the SEC. Tesla has named a 55-year-old Australian businesswoman named Robyn Denholm as his successor.

Martell Webster's Ferrari 458 Spider is big and fast enough for former NBA player

Former NBA player Martell Webster loves his Ferrari's 458 Spider. It's not his daily driver, but in this episode of Behind the Wheel, he tells us why he always dreamed of owning this ride.

The best Nintendo Switch deals and bundles for November 2018

Looking to score Nintendo's latest hybrid console? We've smoked out the best Nintendo Switch deals right here, including discounts on stand-alone consoles as well as bundles that feature games like Fortnite and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

Got an NES Classic? Here’s how to hack it to play more than 700 games

The NES Classic is terrific for what it is, but Nintendo's discontinued device remains limited in what it can play. Here's how to hack your miniature console and render it compatible with more than 700 games.

‘Fallout 76’ day one patch is 52 GB, bigger than the 45 GB game

Fallout 76 is a 45 GB download, but its day one patch is even bigger at a hefty 52 GB. The contents of the patch remain unknown, but it will likely incorporate feedback from the game's beta testers.

Fired Treyarch tester spills ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Zombies’ secrets

A former Treyarch employee revealed numerous Call of Duty: Blacks Ops 4 Zombies secrets. Among the unraveled mysteries were the Viking Boat puzzle in IX and the purpose of the Engine Room valves in Voyage of Despair.

Get your gaming on the go with this list of the 25 best Android games

The Google Play Store is loaded with both terrific and terrible gaming titles. We vetted the store to bring you some of the best Android games available, whether you're into puzzles, shooters, racing games, or something else.

Sony could be working on a screen-equipped PlayStation controller

A patent recently granted to Sony seems to point to the company creating a controller with a touchscreen. The patent was filed in 2017 and granted in October 2018, which could mean it is planned for the next PlayStation.

Xbox gaming chief has sights set on improving Microsoft Store experience

Xbox chief Phil Spencer acknowledged that the Microsoft Store still has a ways to go to become a solid platform for PC gamers. Microsoft promised to work toward improving the frequently buggy experience with gamers in mind.

The plug-and-play PC Classic joins the retro console bandwagon

Gaming company Unit-e is creating the PC Classic, a plug-and-play retro console that will come bundled with around 30 of the best DOS games. The system will support gamepads and keyboard setups.

Everyone’s favorite Pokémon turns gumshoe in ‘Detective Pikachu’ trailer

The first Detective Pikachu trailer has arrived, and it looks like a video game movie could actually be good? Voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Pikachu is undeniably cute in what is shaping up to be a family-friendly buddy comedy.

Here are the best Black Friday deals you can get for Xbox One, PS4, and Switch

If you're in the market for a new video game console, there's no better time to pick one up than Black Friday. These are the best video game console deals for Black Friday 2018, including PS4, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch.