This interview was originally conducted by Active Gaming Media in autumn 2010.
Whether a matter of circumstance or a tactical business decision, the true identity of development teams out there responsible for the better part of the creation of many games are often concealed from the player. Publishing and distribution models operating in fixed formats for a number of decades tied the hands of many of the industry’s talented content creators, resulting in little opportunity for further exploration of market potential.
While the relationship between developer and publisher is often a complex, and occasionally delicate one, in many cases smaller development houses may be free to create as they please alongside contracted or commissioned projects should they have the time and resources, making them technically “independent” to a certain degree.
Now, digital distribution and years of cumulative and diverse development experience are disrupting these traditional models, and System Prisma, a small studio operating under Nippon-Ichi Software with roughly a 20-year history, having previously worked with the likes of Capcom, SNK Playmore, and others, is setting out to explore the potential to exist and act symbiotically as a division of a larger entity while establishing a degree of independence.
In this interview, System Prisma president, Kenshi Kimura, as well as Shinichi Ikeda, lead developer of the recently released Dot Defense, the company’s retro-flavored Tower Defense-style downloadable title for the PlayStation Portable, discuss the game representing the studio’s foray into publishing and a first-step toward developing a collection of original IP, setting out to reconfigure traditional patterns of publishing and development for small studios in Japan.
Could you begin by sharing a bit about how System Prisma got started?
System Prisma president, Kenshi Kimura: I started the company about 21 years back when I was 23 years old, a period when PC’s still weren’t all too common. Ultima and Wizardry were popular, and titles like Gradius were big in the arcades. I felt [at the time] like this was a viable market, so two other classmates who graduated ahead of me and I started the company after finishing school.
We actually didn’t get into game [development] until after we had spent about 5 years developing business-related system software. Our first job [working on games] was porting a 2D fighter from SNK over to the Sharp X68000 personal computer. I lucked out because I happened to be a programmer as opposed to a game designer or planner, and porting was a job that really only a programmer could do. The work on the port was very well received, which resulted in us continuing to get similar jobs. At the time Capcom’s 2D fighters were incredibly popular and we were lucky to be able to work on [a number of] the console ports of various titles [from the arcade] over to the PlayStation and Sega Saturn.
So you weren’t involved with games at all at the beginning.
Kimura: Not at the start, no.
Did you not have a particular interest in games at the time?
Kimura: Oh yeah, I was very much interested. Business-related software [development] wasn’t particularly interesting [for me] as a programmer, the reason being that the whoever was in charge of the project would basically chew you out if you made any effort to do anything clever with what you were working on, since the job was basically just to code in accordance with what had already been laid out on the spec sheets, all of which were drawn up in advance.
So, yeah, not so interesting. Working in the realm of games however poses much more satisfying challenges, competing against memory constraints and trying to get all you can out of a program, not to mention having to create something that processes efficiently and doesn’t force the player to spend [his] time waiting [for something to happen]. All of this is very appealing. As a programmer, the greater the number of obstacles and challenges, the more enjoyable [the project]. That’s basically how I ended up here programming games.
How many people are there on staff at System Prisma at present?
Kimura: We’ve got 17 employees and 5 part-timers. Depending on the project and the time of year, the number of part-time employees fluctuates. For the most part, I think it’s safe to say 17 on staff year-round plus a few part-time people.
What’s the proportion of programmers and folks working on art or design?
Kimura: I’d say it’s about half-and-half, slightly favoring programmers.
I’d like to delve into Dot Defense a bit, and start by congratulating you on its recent release. Would you mind explaining to our readers a bit about what the game is? (Ed. Note: Dot Defense was released on Sept. 22, 2010)
Lead developer, Shinichi Ikeda: It’s a Tower Defense-type game, somewhat similar to what you often see done in Flash, with its marked characteristic being, for one, the super retro-style visuals, another being the music sounding like something straight from the Famicom. When putting together the game’s system, we sort of assumed that the retro feel would drive sales from the hard-core market, which is why the game’s systems are skewed toward being somewhat complex. [The game] can actually get pretty complicated (laughs). In a lot of past tower defense games you didn’t always have monsters directly attacking player units, whereas in Dot Defense you have enemy units actively attacking player units, making for a rather intense gameplay experience with a bit of a unique twist.
When I first picked up Dot Defense, I found it to be very easy to get into, but as we touched on a bit earlier, there are definitely mechanics in there that were built with avid game players in mind. How did you approach creating such a balance?
Ikeda: I sort of assumed that those who would end up playing and enjoying the game the most in the end would be really hardcore gamers, which was the player that I kept in mind when designing the game, making a point of having strategy play as much of a role [in the game] as possible. I put a good deal of effort into creating a rather complex balance and game system, integrating randomness as a key element and creating something with a good deal of replayability. There is the chance that the game might prove to be a bit too challenging for less experienced players, so we made sure to put in a relatively long, hand-holding tutorial in order to help players get acquainted with [the systems]. (Ed. note: tutorial is optional)
The player has a rather large number and variety of units at her disposal, each with its own special skills and qualities. I have to think that balancing all of those must have been a formidable challenge…
Ikeda: We spent a good deal of time balancing. The game was made with very few people, not to mention being done on a low budget over a short period of time. The end product may reflect that to a degree, however with regards to balance, I feel like we were able to put as much care into it as a similar sort of game which might be 3 or 4 times larger in scale. In the end, I don’t think that there is any totally worthless character, or any one character that is overpowered, or anything like that.
Kimura: Development actually went really smoothly up until the point where we had the game in a playable form. It was then that we noticed how incredibly unbalanced it was, with some stages so difficult that they couldn’t be cleared, or stages so simple that there was no value in even having them in there, so we ended up having everyone on staff play the game in order to help us with balancing. Since everyone on staff’s gaming ability is quite varied, we were able to hone the balance of the game to a point where skilled players would feel like their skills were being put to good use, while those who weren’t so good were still able to pick of the game and play through [it].
Ikeda: We balanced the generally more popular characters, soldiers and elves, to be a bit on the strong side so that your average player could pretty much clear most stages by making use of those characters. For many of the other characters, we balanced them to be a bit more extreme, so that carefully [selecting them] based on the situation would result in being able to take advantage of their unique qualities.
About how long was the game in development?
Ikeda: The game itself was completed in 1 month.
Using all 17 staff members?
Kimura: Actually, only 3 people.
Ikeda: We were told to “Get started right away,” and to “Come up with something new”, and we were given a month, so we just made it happen. After that we spent about one month on debug and balancing.
Kimura: Balancing took about a month. At the peak of the debug and balancing stage we had everyone, all 17 and the part-time staff helping out.
Ikeda: Had we been making it for Windows [platform] we could have done it faster, but since there are a lot of regulations and things we have to comply with on the PSP platform it ended up taking about a month.
The number of Tower Defense-style games coming out overseas has skyrocketed as of late, with a number of them seemingly being able to grab both the more casual and core gaming audience to some degree, however I don’t see too many of such games being released in Japan. What was it that made you decide to make this particular variety of game in this genre?
Ikeda: Basically we were ordered to make something completely new and to do it fast. Under those conditions you’re relatively limited as to the genre that you can work with. While I’d never made a tower defense game before, I felt like maybe it was something that I could pull off given only a month [to do it].
Were there any particular titles that you looked to for reference or ideas?
Ikeda: I played about 4 or 5 different titles, of course having played the original Tower Defense as well. I’ve played a fair number of titles in the genre, also playing a number of somewhat more casual titles, like those distributed in Japan as freeware, but I made a point of making sure not to spend too much time playing too many of these types of game in fear that the game [I would make] might wind up turning out to be too similar to [one of these]. Once I felt I’d grasped kind of the key element of the game, that’s where I stopped and set to work on actually creating.
Was integrating ways for players to create content something that you decided to add after you had already set to work on making a Tower Defense-style game, or was it something that you wanted to integrate from the beginning?
Ikeda: Last year we made Cladun: This is an RPG (referred to below as Cladun), a game with a character creation feature where the player is able to use pixel art in order to design his own character. We got a good deal of positive feedback from players saying that they really enjoyed this feature, so at that time I thought that, given the opportunity, I’d like to integrate some more creation features into [our] next game, so we tried to come up with things that would work for a Tower Defense-type game. Essentially, we had to create tools in order to design maps which were generally created in Windows, so I thought, “What if we were able to stick these tools on the PSP and let players make use of them?” We ended up making all of the tools right there on the PSP as well, so we went ahead and made them available right there in the game [for the player].
Kimura: Another factor was working on a rather low budget. If you take that into consideration, having the development team spend a bunch of time constructing maps becomes a cost. So instead, we prepare fewer maps on our end and then leave it up to the users to make more. In an ideal situation, we were hoping that we could then get players trading and sharing the material that they make, turning it into a game that can be played for some time to come. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that maybe we tried be a bit creative in finding ways to cut a few corners here and there. (laughs)
AGM: The inclusion of MML (Music Macro Language) as a creation tool is interesting. What made you decide to include this feature as well?
We actually had a bit of a break after finishing up Cladun, a game with really retro-style visuals, and we got to talking about how it would have been great had we been able to integrate some really retro feeling audio as well, seeing as how we went to so much trouble to give the game this really Famicom vibe. We starting thinking that it would be great if we could create some sort of system that would allow us to produce tunes reminiscent of the 8-bit era which we could use in different games. MML has been used for composing PC music since way back in the day and there actually exists a great deal of music out there already scored and accessible [in this format]. The player can use this music to input the score right into [the game] and then they’ve got it playing right then and there. Since there’s just such a massive supply of music out there in this format, it just kind of made sense to add MML as part of the experience.
Recently, and particularly over downloadable channels, we’re seeing a good number of new creations making use of very retro styles. Does that inspire you as a designer, in some way?
Ikeda: It’s very appealing, mostly due to the fact that with 2D, on the screen you’re able to construct a world where each and every pixel is clear and defined. A 2D plane allows the player to interact in a direct fashion which is in line with the player’s expectations. This becomes problematic, often resulting in a less precise interaction when you’re forced to create depth on a 2D plane in order produce a 3D experience. No matter what you do, you’re not going to be able to escape some degree of the interaction or experience feeling unnatural. With older games, every interaction was a clear and direct one, I mean, consider even something as simple as a Pong-style game. Game functions themselves were superior in older games simply due to the nature of their visual composition. For Dot Defense, the entire game is constructed using individual sprites, making for a game that’s easier to both play and comprehend than had we constructed it entirely of polygons.
There were so many more [technical] restrictions on gaming hardware compared to what we’ve got to work with nowadays. I get the feeling that there’s something exciting about being able to make a “retro game”, but at the same time do things that never could have been pulled off back in the day.
Ikeda: Precisely. For example, in the latter half [of Dot Defense] we’ve set up situations where something like 100 enemy and ally characters swarm the field all at once in a sea of bullet chaos without any drop in framerate, something which was entirely impossible years back. The game may have retro visuals, but processing is super fast, allowing us to do a lot of interesting things that we had never previously been able to pull off.
So is there a certain “style” of game or certain quality which defines a “System Prisma game”?
Kimura: (To Ikeda) Is there? (laughs)
Ikeda: You tell me. (laughs) I don’t know, we have a pretty spirited office environment where everyone gets along and enjoys one another’s company. I think that probably comes through in our games. We’ve got retro-style games, but we also make a lot of adventure games. You could say we do adventure games, but that doesn’t really portray what it is we do, so I guess [our work] reflects sort of the nature of the company.
There really aren’t any games like Dot Defense on the PSP. Why this particular game on this particular platform?
Kimura: Why is that I wonder. (laughs) Through a series of events that’s just how things turned out, I guess.
At first we set out to create something new that would allow us to make use of the engine that we used for Cladun. That, combined with that fact that a good deal of our creators and designers have the most experience working on the PSP, making it the hardware that they are most confident working on, which I guess is how we settled on the platform.
When considering whether to [release the game] on an actual disc or go downloadable, the downloadable channel was clearly more barrier free. There’s a good deal of initial cost involved with getting into disc media, a risk we felt we could avoid by going the downloadable route.
We did consider going with the PS3, however SCE seems to have pretty particular ideas about what it means to “make use of the hardware”. The idea of going back and forth with SCE trying to pitch a relatively simple title in a pure retro-style for the PS3 seemed like it could quite possibly turn into a rather time consuming affair, so we decided to just go ahead and get started by making the game for the PSP. Originally we did want to do the game for PS3, however.
Ikeda: The online infrastructure for the PS3 is much more fleshed out, making it easier to share data, and whatnot.
Kimura: That, and there still aren’t a great number of titles available on PS3 for download, whereas the PSP space is jam packed. The PS3 was definitely a more attractive option given the fewer number of titles in that space.
We kind of touched on this before, but do you have any plans to port the game over to the PS3?
Ikeda: Maybe if SCE would be so kind as to grant us permission. (laughs)
Kimura: Yeah, but it would be tough to just do a simple port.
Ikeda: We’d have to tweak it in some way, add a little something more…
Kimura: Since it’s the PS3 we’d have to add some sort of additional functionality, a little something extra. Each of those pixels would be pretty massive in HD. (laughs)
While there are a lot of games that are available for download on the PSP platform, a good number of them cost 4,000 yen or more, often demanding the same price as their packaged counterparts. I kind of felt like Dot Defense was a really ideal title for platform, actually…
Kimura: When it comes down to it I think that the platform decision was the right one. At a 1,200 yen price point, it still isn’t really clear how sales numbers are going to translate into actual profit, but I think the price together with downloadable sale approach was probably the right choice.
With regards to that, are you able to share any sales figures?
Kimura: [The game] ranked 3rd with regards to sales during its first week out on PSN. That actual number of downloads however was rather shockingly few… Let’s just say “shockingly few”.
Looking at it from another angle, making the game in only a month with only 3 people, has it proven to at least be profitable?
Kimura: We haven’t yet been able to cover the [development] costs. Even if the game continues to sell at its current pace it’d probably take us about a year to make up the development costs. In about a year it might be profitable.
Then there’s also the fact that [the new] Pokémon hit the market right in the same period. It’s probably safe to say that there were a few people preoccupied with that one.
A few publications were running articles on the game during a period which also happened to be right smack in the middle of all of the Tokyo Game Show hype, where lots of big titles were being blown out right alongside Dot Defense. It was kind of an environment where our title was easy to get lost in the shuffle. On the flipside, the ranking being so high on the sales charts could have also been the result of other companies electing to avoid releasing games during that particular window.
How did you approach promoting a game that was only available via direct download on a single platform, that being the PSP? I get the impression that there are a fair number of users out there who are still relatively unfamiliar with getting their hands on content in such a way…
Kimura: Dot Defense was our first foray into publishing a title ourselves, so a major consideration for us was how to get the word out about our game, because if the player isn’t aware of its existence, there’s obviously no way they’ll be able to buy it.
We initially sent out press release-type content to a number of [game-related] information and news sites, following that up with a trip to Tokyo with loads of press material to hand out as we made the rounds to different outlets. We then sent out media [to those various outlets] once prior to the game’s release, again the day of release, and then one last time 1 week following the game’s release. Of course, our hope was that this would raise user awareness to the point where it would transform into sales.
We also worked out a deal with our parent company, Nippon-Ichi, to at least put a banner up somewhere off to the side of their home page, which they agreed to do, getting a link in the company’s news release section. It just so happened that they also announced Disgaea 4 during that same period, which apparently managed to pull in a fair number of players visiting for Disgaea 4 details and then stumbling upon our game as well.
What really shocked us was the amount of influence that a particular blog seemed to have, that being Hachima Kiko.
Ikeda: The number of visitors who accessed our site skyrocketed after Hachima Kiko ran a bit of info on our game following a posting that we did on our blog. The site is basically a blog focused on game-related content, run by only one guy.
Kimura: One guy?
Ikeda: Yeah, he runs it entirely on his own. He was originally in Hokkaido, but I guess he’s in Tokyo now, from what I hear.
I was looking over your developer blog and a lot of players seem to share very detailed and honest opinions [about your game(s)]. Have you found that input to be beneficial on the development side of things?
Ikeda: We’re lucky in that a good deal of the players taking the time to mail tend to be extremely kind. Aside from merely offering input on our games, for example, if I decide to post something about how we’re really busy or struggling with development, readers will come back with advice, “How about trying this,” freely throwing out a bunch of ideas in support, which kind of ties back into what we were discussing earlier about finding ways to appeal to players as well. Honestly, the people out there playing are games are really wonderful, so knowing that those players are out there really serves as a motivation for us, pushing us to do all we can in order to providing [gaming experiences] that live up to those players’ expectations. Of course, even on the blog it’s impossible to respond to every posting, message or whatever, but the blog space is something that all of our players can share and make use of together, so utilizing that space has proven to be a great way to respond to the community.
Can you talk at all about what you’ve got lined up in the way of DLC?
Ikeda: Right now we’re working on the second batch of DLC and we hope to have the first batch available before the end of the year.
We’ve got an array of content that we’re trying to prepare, but right now we’re not in a position where we’re able to make all that we’d like since we’ve currently got our hands full developing [for other projects]. We’re looking at more monsters, player units, random maps, as well as music that we’re putting directly up on the home page.
You mentioned previously that you’ve got about 17 on staff, I’m curious as to how many different titles you’re developing at once with that number of people.
Kimura: We’ve got a lot right now. With development just wrapping up on some and only inklings of early starts on others, I think we’ve got maybe 4 or 5 titles going at once.
Ikeda: We’ve got more than that, don’t we? We’ve got to have… (pauses to count on his fingers) something like 8 titles at some stage of development or another right now.
Are some of these projects like Dot Defense, a small team trying to put something out in an extremely short period of time?
Kimura: I’d say just over a year would be on the long end of the spectrum, with the short-term projects running around 6 months or so. We’re trying to get things done with relatively few team members on [each project], just moving staff over onto different teams during development periods when a few extra hands are needed, getting kind of a rotation going.
Could you discuss a bit about the cooperative relationship that you have with Nippon-Ichi? Are there more instances of you guys putting together design documents in-house and then pitching those to your parent company, or are they coming to you with jobs, where you are then working on games that they’ve already come up with and would like to get made?
Kimura: In the case of Cladun, that was a game that we came up with and then pitched. That sort of “parent-child” relationship on the contract side of things really incorporates a lot of different degrees of cooperation. Irrespective of all that though, there are times when we help them out with projects when they’re understaffed on a certain job, like we might just do graphic work or assist with localization. There are a good number of cases like that.
Lastly, could you maybe give readers a hint as to what they might be able to expect from System Prisma in the near future?
Kimura: We’ve always been kind of behind the scenes, working as a developer taking on various projects, the one’s working the levers and pulleys. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, and I’m sure that such work will continue to serve as the foundation of the company.
That being said, thanks to the experience we’ve gotten having self-published Dot Defense, we’re seriously considering the idea of trying to put a new title out on PSN about twice a year, something completely new about every 6 months or so, something more “compact”. We’d like to create fun and intriguing titles on lower budgets without expending too many resources, nothing of too large a scale, but plenty enjoyable, adding DLC to the equation as well for each of those respective titles. The goal is to create a real substantial product line-up, where we’ve got a good number of titles readily available at all times accompanied by DLC.
I mentioned earlier that Dot Defense has yet to prove profitable as a stand-alone product, but if we’re able to gradually grow and diversify our offerings… Over time, for example, let’s say we release a brand new “Game A”, and then the player who stops by to pick up that “Game A” also sees that Dot Defense is right there, and decides to pick that one up too. That’s sort of the arrangement that we’re hoping to develop. Then after a few years, it’d be fantastic to have this really diverse, solid foundation. That’s what we’re looking forward to, and so we really hope that developing something like that will give players something to look forward to as well.