The Past, Present And Suda51 – In conversation with Goichi Suda

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[This interview was conducted just prior to the release of Let It Die. you can read our review here]

We’re running late. Goichi Suda – that’s Suda51 to most of us – has taken refuge in a difficult to locate room at MCM, London Comic Con. He’s hiding behind an array of security doors and staircases, though we wouldn’t expect anything to be easy when it comes to chasing an audience with such a legendary and enigmatic creative force. But all pretences were dropped as soon as we had arrived, the familiar medley of a chest opening from The Legend Of Zelda rang out as we finally opened the door – we still aren’t sure whether this was by design or merely fate intervening.

But none of that matters now, because there he is, quick to greet with a smile and a handshake. Flanked by a translator from NIS America, games™ sat down with Suda51 to discuss a career that spans over two decades, one noted for its creative and imaginative output – games fraught with financial risk and vocal detractors. But there’s no better time to speak with the creator. He has one foot in the past, remastering his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture’s first title whilst simultaneously ensuring he has a future, working on his first title for the current generation. If ever there was a time to reflect, to understand the magic and madness, now would be it.

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Your studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, is currently working on two titles, PlayStation 4 exclusive Let It Die and a remaster 1999’s The Silver Case. How does it feel returning to the studio’s first game?

I’m super happy! One of the things that’s kind of stuck in my mind was that The Silver Case was the only one of my games that never came out anywhere outside of Japan. For the longest time I’ve really wanted to make sure that Western fans got to play it, and so now, with the remaster, [they have] the chance to revisit it. Knowing that it is going to come out for fans in the West, it just makes me super happy.

In a sense, you are acting as a producer on the work of your younger self, that must be kind of strange, right?

That’s amazing, because it’s exactly like that! It really does feel like I’m the producer for the past version of myself, overseeing a version of me from when I was in my thirties as this young indie creator. That’s what it was like revisiting this title.

Do you think you’ve changed much as a creator in the years since?

You know, at the very beginning I was putting in my heart and soul, my anger and everything else that came with it into the games I created. But, gradually, after working in the industry and after making more games, I think I have loosened up – let my hair down, as it were. I think more humour has crept into my work after that, as I got used to the industry and the business of developing games… I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not necessarily.

Was that down to confidence? Or did the story of The Silver Case necessitate a serious tone?

Maybe not a lack of confidence, but just a restriction of what I was trying to create. It’s a crime suspense drama, everything I put into the game had to fit that mood. I had this story and this idea within me, and as I was writing it that’s what came out – I wanted to be faithful to that.

There is a little bit of humour in it but, by and large, due to the themes, it is one of my more serious titles and that’s the way I wanted it to be. I definitely had a sense of tenseness to me back then, I put that into the game and it didn’t really leave a lot of opportunity or areas to inject humour into.

It’s clear that there was a lot of passion and emotion in your early work, does returning to The Silver Case now make you miss those days of small-team game creation?

Creating big budget games with a huge team is a cool thing, it’s really fun, but that said, working on The Silver Case again – seeing the emotion that I felt – has made me want to go back and create games in a ten… maybe not even a ten-person team. That’s one thing I definitely feel now, when I speak to young indie creators [that are working in small teams], I see the same passion and energy that I felt coming from myself when I first created The Silver Case. It’s inspiring.

How does development differ transitioning from a project such as Killer Is Dead to a remaster of The Silver Case?

When you get to something like Killer Is Dead, because the project is so large, you can only take care of parts individually, whereas with The Silver Case everything was fine-tuned by me. I went through it frame by frame, I was the one taking care of it and looking out for it. That’s one of the reasons it’s a deeply personal project for me.

In a way, you have the games that I made while I was at Human – the Fire Pro Wrestling games – but this was the first game that I made on my own, the first one that I was completely responsible for by myself. So I put everything into it, my heart and soul, so this would be the starting point for everything that came afterwards.

Do you think then, that perhaps more so than any of your other titles, The Silver Case best reflects and represents you as a creator, as a person?

Yeah, at the core, The Silver Case is absolutely a game that represents me. Though another would be Killer7, those would be the two that really speak for me.

Killer7 has always been lauded for its creative strangeness, where did you draw inspiration from?

I tried as hard as I could to block out everything else. I wasn’t trying to consciously take in any inspiration from anything else that was out there.

In this situation, I was all by myself, but the person that was overseeing the project was [the creator of Resident Evil] Mr. Shinji Mikami and he put me in an environment where I was completely free to do anything that I wanted to. He just said, ‘go to it, this is all yours.’ I had tremendous creative freedom to do exactly what I wanted, to just take what was inside of me and turn that into a game. Consequently then, the biggest influence on Killer7 would have been Shinji Mikami.

Is it terrifying to go from working as part of a larger team to be then solely responsible for working on everything yourself?

It was absolutely scary. In a sense, when you work for a company you are protected, but when you go into development on your own you are responsible for everything, you have nobody to turn to. Even though we were working with ASCII at the time [for The Silver Case] I was still the president of Grasshopper Manufacture; I felt a tremendous responsibility to pay my employees, I was responsible for making sure that they could live out their lives too. It was scary, a huge responsibility… I was impressed, honestly, at the beginning by just how much of a change it was compared to before.

At first, I actually tried to make somebody else be the president of Grasshopper because I didn’t want to do it [laughs]. But I built up my courage, because I knew that unless I was the president I wouldn’t be able to do exactly what I wanted to do.

The Past, Present And Suda51 – In conversation with Goichi Suda

Grasshopper is simultaneously developing its remaster of The Silver Case alongside Let It Die, your PS4 exclusive. Do you prefer one style of development over the other?

Doing something like this has really made me want to go back and work in a small team and create games like [The Silver Case] again. Working on big budget titles there are things that you can only do because of that budget; in terms of gameplay, in terms of systems and graphics, right? But on the other hand, going to smaller titles like The Silver Case, I realised that after revisiting it once more that there are only things you can with that. The amount of passion contained within that game that really, really allows users to completely enter that world, that’s the real charm point and the great thing about smaller games like that. You are able [to do] that when you have that small team, which is not necessarily something that you can when you’re working on a big title.

Do you foresee a lot of developers leaving the triple-A space to go independent?

I have a feeling that the guys that have made triple-A games might find it really hard to go into a small team. For me personally, I’ve never made a triple-A game… Let It Die is probably an A – one A. It might be easier for guys like that to go back, rather than the triple-A guys.

Where do the other As come from then, you’ve at least made a double-A game?

There’s no such thing really as a double-A game [laughs]. For me, it has more to do with the budget. Single A is like 15 million and then [for triple-A] you’ve got 20 or 30 million, really big budgets.
If [a publisher] is going to spend 20 million to make a game, then they are probably going to want to go the extra distance to make something triple-A, which usually pushes the budget up towards 30 million. It’s more of a budget thing; a lot of people in the industry have that feeling too.

Aside from budget, are there any other big problems within triple-A development?

One thing about triple-A development is that the staff can get incredibly exhausted, putting them through a development experience like that takes a lot out of them. An answer would definitely be to scale down and tackle more indie-style projects.

What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned as a creator over the last decade?

One thing it just boils down to is that making games is difficult [laughs]. Let me put that another way, it isn’t easy to make a game. What that means is, that in these ten years Grasshopper has had a period where they had over 100 people working in the office. In that time period I wanted to try many different things, we had many production lines going and I tried to give young staff a chance, I also tried to make mobile games. But the thing I saw within all of this, the things that I learned, is that you need to have certain people within teams, within specific roles and they need to be able to actually perform those roles.

In other words, the people that know how to make games actually need to be the ones making the games; that might seem very self-evident but it is not. Let’s say you have a core team – a director, a planner, a lead artist and a lead programmer – having a core like that is incredibly important, having the formation is incredibly important. That’s what I’ve learned over the last ten years.

Seeing as we are looking back, do you have any regrets over missed opportunities?

Yes, there was one game called Yoni which unfortunately never came to market and that one was a big regret of mine, that we were never actually able to get that one out.

Was that because of creative differences or publisher interference?

In all, there’s been about five titles [that were never finished] – there’s lots of different reasons why, but issues with publishers is definitely one of them. There’s been games that have gotten to the beta phase that never came out, there are some that we made prototypes of that never got publisher approval… that [are greenlit] from a publisher to go ahead and continue making the title.

There are definitely regrets, they are kind of like scars. I want to get revenge, as it were. I haven’t actually given up on those titles! [Laughter]

Are these titles always hidden away in the back of your mind then?

I have them locked away pretty safely in the back of my head, though they happen to come out again in interviews like this [laughter] and also when I go to make a new title, then they have a tendency to pop out. It’s actually a really important thing, remembering the titles I had these ideas for in the past.

It surprises us that you would face difficulties in getting publisher approval, you’d think they would know what they were getting into by hiring Grasshopper! Do ideas get cut because they are just too strange?

Yes, yes. Especially in the case of Shadows Of The Damned, there was so much that got cut, so much… I’m really happy that it not only got through debug, but it didn’t get cancelled [laughter]. Honestly, I was really impressed with how much EA actually put up with. I also surprised myself, actually being able

to take their demands too… I was very long-suffering, but so were they on the other hand! [Laughter]

Was there anything that you really pushed back on?

Okay… so, you know the gun, The Johnson, right?

Yes…

Okay, so originally, when you pulled the gun up to shoot, the plan was that this little screen would pop up and then you’d see this small girl, named Paula. She would come up and she would talk to you. Usually, you know, as you’re aiming a gun the sight would come up, right? But here, the gun is Paula, it’s her. But because she’s a little girl and she loves rabbits, the idea was that you’d have this little rabbit in a field bouncing around in the sight, right, all happy. I [loved] that idea.

As soon as we set that up, almost instantaneously, EA came in and were like ‘what’s this rabbit? You need to explain what’s going on with this rabbit… why do you have a rabbit in here?’ They could just not understand, at all. We had this big old discussion about it, I told them ‘you guys are wrong and this is why…’ [Laughter], they said: fix it. There have been lots of things like that. 

What’s next, then? Has returning to The Silver Case reignited a fire within you, as it were?

One thing I really appreciated, looking back at my younger self, was the passion. Back then, I could spend every waking moment pouring everything into creating a game, though now that I’m older I can’t really do that [laughter]. What I recognise from that is that I just can’t make games like that anymore. Now that I’m an older game creator, I’m trying to use the know-how and experience that comes with my age to make games that are on the level with my younger self.

If you could go back in time to 1999 and teach yourself one lesson, what would it be?

I’d have to say just keep believing in yourself and keep doing what you’re doing and it’ll pay off. I’d want to encourage my creative vision. At the time, the only person I had to believe in me was myself… well, there was my wife, and she gave me a lot of encouragement, but apart from that there was nobody. To have my older self go and tell my younger self, ‘hey, go believe in yourself’ that would have been a big thing for me.

If you love Suda51 games then you’re bound to enjoy out WTF: The Weirdest Games Ever Made special. Download it now!