Interview: CyberConnect2 CEO Hiroshi Matsuyamaby Heidi Kemps & Christopher MacDonald,
Anime fans scarcely need an introduction to game developer CyberConnect2 – the company's game releases have been synonymous with anime for years and years now, having handled the ambitious – and at the time of its original release all the way back in 2002, groundbreaking – RPG series for .hack, as well as the enormously popular and well-received Naruto Ultimate Ninja fighting game franchise.
Licensed tie-in games aren't all they're known for, either; back in the mid-90s, the company launched with what would become the first installment in the classic Little Tail Bronx series, the quirky cult success Tail Concerto, an action-adventure game with a wildly dedicated fanbase that they've returned to for a new original project every 10 years since. In 2018, the company seems to be setting their sights on even more original projects. Not just one but three original games are in the pipeline at CyberConnect2 – the high-speed action extravaganza Tokyo Ogre Gate, an ambitious new entry in the Little Tail Bronx series, and the gothic Lolita-flavored Cecile. There's never been a more ambitious time for the company – which means it's the perfect time to sit down with CEO Hiroshi Matsuyama, who took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about all these new projects.
ANN: How have the last few years been for CC2?
It's been 22 years since our company was established – coincidentally, last year, 2017, was the 15th anniversary of the .hack series. For that, last year we released .hack//G.U. Last Recode, a remaster of the original series with a bonus chapter. Another one of our most popular series, Naruto – which has also been around for 15 years – had its first release on Switch in 2018, which was sort of a milestone for our company as well. For those two works I just mentioned, we're purely the developer, but when it comes to marketing, it's Bandai Entertainment who handles that.
You already know this, but those two titles - .hack and Naruto – those are licensed titles, but right now – for next year – three of the projects we're working on are our own IP.
Can you tell us a bit about CC2's shift to an IP-based company? Does this mean we won't be seeing as many CC2 games based on existing licenses like Naruto and JoJo?
It's not necessarily that the licensed works will decrease, it's just that now we have our own independent titles. We're also going to increase our staff to work both on our own IP and the licensed titles.
Anime fans all over the world will recognize two of CyberConnect2's earliest titles
Will you be handling the marketing for your independent productions?
Bandai Namco handles marketing and distribution for their licensed titles. For our titles, there are certain packages, exclusive deals that we leave to the international companies who handle distribution for us, but when it comes to marketing, that's specifically handled by us.
You recently opened a Montreal studio. Can you tell us a bit about why you opened a Western branch, why you picked Montreal for its location?
We chose Montreal mostly because it's the biggest hub for game developers internationally – you can see plenty of other game companies here. For us to expand from Japan, we chose Montreal as our first city.
How important is the Western market for your company?
For us, specifically, for the games sold in Japan – that's only 5% of our total sales. The other 95% is the rest of Asia, Europe and America.
You're returning to the Little Tail Bronx world for the first time in almost a decade. Can you tell us about the new game and why LTB as a whole is important to CC2?
So 22 years ago in 1995, the very first project with CC2 – the first project we started was Tail Concerto. That was a very significant project for us, and we'd like to continue that. Our newest project in the LTB series is called “Fuga” – it's different from the previous LTB games in that it's a simulation RPG instead of an action game. Basically we want to create a world where players can enjoy the story from beginning to end, and also enjoy the world as a whole too, which is why we diverted from the original.
Fuga looks darker in tone than other LTB games. Why did you opt to go this route?
It's true, it might seem a bit darker than the other projects. We're trying to create a world where it's a war-torn universe, but we have these children who are setting out on adventures to save their parents. They try to find their way around the world, and though they start out depressed due to the war, they start to come together as a family, and they find a way to a better, brighter life. So yes, it's dark in the beginning, but in the end we wanted to depict a bright world.
The first two titles in the Little Tail Bronx series
The Little Tail Bronx series remains an important IP for CC2, even though there have only officially been two games released. How do you keep interest in the setting high even with so few games?
I believe one of the selling points for the Little Tail Bronx world is that it's very centered the beast-human charaters; another is that we release one every 10 years or so, and it isn't that we're selling it to the general public, it's mostly that the audience for it, the players, they always come back for more. So that's why we release one every 10 years, to answer our fans' prayers, so to speak. But they're also able to enjoy a new world and a new concept every once and a while.
So specifically you've avoided flooding the market with Little Tail Bronx titles.
The reason we have the 10-year wait in between each project is because we do know that if we were to release them more frequently, it won't sell as well. So our strategy is, in between each project, we build up the community of fans who appreciate beast humans, more people who would enjoy these games. But before that community gets bigger, we can't release those games more frequently.
In the current market of expensive “AAA” games, do you find that games like the LTB series have a hard time standing out?
Broadly speaking, it's not easy for sure. Our strategy is to gather the fanbase in between projects to ensure that when we do release one, it has the audience it deserves.
So the focus really is on having a core community of hardcore fans of that franchise, maintaining their interest, growing that interest, and then delivering something new when they most want it. Is that it?
We do put a big focus on creating a fanbase. So this year we're going in to the kemono (beast-human) communities and spreading our news, that Fuga is coming out next year. Then, we basically respond to our fans' interests, their passion for the game. That passion grows as we release preview material for it, and next year it'll be a success for us.
Do you do anything special to interact with that community of fans?
So in these communities, we show not just pictures or text announcements, we also give little clips of animation. From that we gather everyone's responses, and try to learn from their expectations to improve our product.
Tokyo Ogre Gate is a fast-paced action game. That's a pretty crowded market nowadays. Can you tell us how you plan to make this game stand apart from others on the market?
We agree that's a crowded market, but for Tokyo Ogre Gate we're focusing more on character, story and worldview. We wanted to create the best story there could be and compete in the market with that.
Speed is said to be an important part of gameplay in Tokyo Ogre Gate. How do you plan to keep the game's action and movement fast without overwhelming the player?
Right now we're in the middle of creating the gameplay system, and I can tell you it's not just the speed. Attack movement will increase as speed increases – animations change, you'll see all the different attacks they can do. For example, as the character runs faster, you'll be able to see her float off the ground. That animation will shift as you progress – please look forward to the final project!
The main character – Towako - the one you'll be playing the game with, instead of a regular heart, she has a mechanical heart, called the “ogre engine”. As you progress through the level and go faster, the ogre engine will upgrade, and she'll discover new powers.
Cecile looks like a really interesting concept. What inspired you to make a game with a gothic Lolita theme?
For Cecile, the concept came up, like other projects in the pipeline, came about as the vision of an individual game director. The director wanted to create a world in which there are witches, exploring the concept of witches. They came up with this gothic Lolita world to explore a story that's fitting for this world.
Basically, for the gothic Lolita genre – the word “gothic” originated in European folklore and was brought to Japan, where it was made into a unique worldview and fashion movement. That genre and style was exported internationally, so people all over the world are familiar with it. Right now there are no other international game titles that use the gothic Lolita genre, and that's why the director wanted to explore this.
Some of the characters in Cecile have features that you normally wouldn't see in action game characters, like Aristel's bound head and hands and Lezaria's wheelchair. How will these affect gameplay?
So we can't tell you much about the gameplay yet. Right now we're exploring the world of witches and what we can do with that, and we're not ready to release that yet. Basically their appearance – that's very important to their backstory, and it will impact the entire game.
Can you give us some hints on what else we might see from CC2 in the future?
For everything we're releasing next year – from Little Tail Bronx to Cecile to Tokyo Ogre Gate, we're not releasing just games. We're also releasing manga – and that manga will be localized and released internationally as well.
This hasn't been announced yet, publicly, but there's a fourth title.
Will the manga be bundled with the games, or released separately? And if they're released separately, will you be handling localization and publication yourself or will established manga companies be handling that?
For the games, we'll have a downloadable version and a package version, distributed separately. The manga will be completely separate releases from the games; right now we're in conversation with the manga publishers, but nothing is decided yet.
Our thanks to CyberConnect2 CEO Hiroshi Matsuyama for this opportunity.
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