Siliconera recently had an opportunity to speak with two of the creative minds behind ArtePiazza, the studio responsible for developing a large portion of the Dragon Quest series. While ArtePiazza are best known for Dragon Quest, the company also dabbles in its own original games.
We contacted ArtePiazza CEO Shintaro Majima and Planning Director Sachiko Sugimura to discuss the company’s past, their original projects and plans for the West, and other topics of interest.
First, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we talk about ArtePiazza, I’d like to ask briefly about your background. You’ve said that you were inspired by your father, who was a director for TV animation and commercials. Does that mean your family was supportive of you wanting to pursue a career in entertainment?
Shintaro Majima, CEO and Art Director: Yes, they were. Ever since my childhood, my parents were very enthusiastic about teaching me about Disney’s animation techniques, directing techniques and such from a professional point of view. So by the time I entered a vocational school for design, I had already mastered the basics of entertainment production.
You’re an art director and CG artist by trade, and one of the early games you worked on was Jesus, a sci-fi visual novel game released in 1987. For its time, Jesus’ artwork was rather advanced. The character designs were incredibly bright and colourful, but the space station that you explored conveyed a more desolate feel. There was also a section in the game where you could actually directly control your character, and walk from door-to-door in a pseudo-3D scene, which was very surprising to see. What were the challenges involved in creating that game, and how did you overcome them?
Majima: At the time, in order to sell, action or shooting games needed a “high score” combat system, while adventure games needed a high level of difficulty and a lengthy play time. However Jesus’ theme was “an adventure you could experience,” and I wanted to give it a “short but dense play time” befitting that of a 2-hour movie instead.
That was the challenge. To accomplish that, I gave the backgrounds a feeling of realism or a particular atmosphere. As for the scene where you directly control the character, I attached a lot of importance to the creation of a realistic ambiance surpassing anything that had been made so far.
Were you personally interested in visual novel-style games at the time, or did your gaming interests lie elsewhere?
Majima: I was interested in all genres but the “maniac-oriented” (note: hard to clear) adventure games of the time did not interest me. I thought that if I could create something with a story as interesting as that of a movie and have people experience a realistic ambiance, the players would enjoy it. However, [since it was a game] it was something totally different from “a movie or play that you just watch”.
ArtePiazza was formed in 1987. How was the company established, and why did you choose to create it?
Majima: At the time, I was still taking up jobs and projects as an individual; however I felt that the production of games would eventually become a process that required a large team. That is why I founded the company.
Sugimura-san, the first traces of ArtePiazza in the Dragon Quest games is in Dragon Quest IV. You’re credited as a “Scenario Assistant” on the game. You were initially hired as a secretary to series creator Yuji Horii. How did you end up working on the game’s scenario?
Sachiko Sugimura, Planning Director and Scenario Writer: I was the first to work as Mr. Yuji Horii’s secretary, and I was the only one.
As such, I believed that I should help Mr. Horii with all his tasks. As a result, I also helped out with game production, which turned out to fit perfectly with my abilities.
The first Dragon Quest game that Majima-san was involved with was Dragon Quest V in 1992. However, ArtePiazza as a whole was credited starting with Dragon Quest VI. How did that transition take place, from just Majima-san and Sugimura-san to a whole new company being involved?
Majima: We were both personally involved in the development of Dragon Quest. Sugimura took part in the scenario writing and me in CG design. Dragon Quest gradually became a larger-scale project and as the merchandise kept increasing, amazing staff members began to gather at ArtePiazza as well. As a result, we could undertake the production process as a company instead of just personal investment.
Sugimura-san, can you say why you chose to leave Enix and join ArtePiazza instead? After all, you continued to work on the Dragon Quest series even after you’d made the move.
Sugimura: The reason I worked for Enix was to work on the scenario production as a member of Mr. Yuji Horii’s staff. Then, ArtePiazza took up the production of Dragon Quest as a company, so I left Enix and worked my way into ArtePiazza.
ArtePiazza’s website has a motto that states: “The analog within the digital”. Can you elaborate on what this means?
Majima: When you create digital content, you could easily end up focusing on the more technical aspects, such as the latest image creation techniques or the device’s efficiency, for example. However, what we are creating is entertainment products. We are not a high-tech research organization.
A picture is just a picture that cannot be controlled or moved. It’s just to look at. On the other hand, Computer Graphics can move, such as a player controlling a character etc. So it means that the possibilities of CG are limitless because it can do anything. An analog feeling means that something moves as naturally as if it were real. Games are digital entertainment trying to mimic real-life analog things such as a ball bouncing.
We believe that digital techniques are only tools to express oneself, and as such, whatever is expressed has to be interesting to begin with. In order not to forget this, we created the company’s motto accordingly.
Majima-san is an art director and CG artist, while Sugimura-san specializes in scenario work. ArtePiazza, which has 40 staff members, is described as a “place for art”. Does this mean most of your employees are artists?
Sugimura: Director Majima being the art director, a lot of applicants are graphic artists. About half of our employees are artists. For game creation, in most cases, it is the number of artists that becomes the largest, so I don’t think it is so different from a typical development team configuration.
ArtePiazza has worked on a number of original titles as well, most of these being created for Nintendo DSiWare. Accel Knights in particular looks very interesting and I was disappointed that it was never released outside Japan. Why is that, and can we expect to see these games released in the west at some point?
Sugimura: Thank you very much. We are thinking more about the overseas market and which games we can localise for release overseas. In order to do so, we’ve built a partnership with a producer.
We’re planning to release one game overseas before the end of this year and will announce information about the game in the near future.
While so much of your history is associated with Dragon Quest, can you talk about what your goals are as a company, going forward? Are you interested in pursuing more original games like Accel Knights, or maybe establishing an IP of your own?
Majima: We are always thinking about developing ArtePiazza’s own IP. We are also really attached to the Dragon Quest series. It being an immensely popular series makes it a big responsibility and it is also fulfilling [to work on].
However, we are working hard everyday as we would like to create a work that would make people think “this is ArtePiazza’s work,” not only because of the graphics, but also because of the planning and programming.
You’re currently working on a tower defense game for the Nintendo eShop for 3DS, titled Arrow of Laputa: A Shadowless Teacher and the Key of Chiron. How many staff members do you typically devote to these smaller projects?
Sugimura: For our smaller original projects, the basic team is composed of 1 planner, 2 programmers and 2 designers. To this, based on the work’s trend and progression status, from 2 to at most 10 assistants are added.
In 2012, you released a game called Erloser for GREE, but since then, you haven’t worked on any original mobile titles of your own. Arrow of Laputa is being made for the Nintendo eShop instead. What are your views on the smartphone and social games market? I know you’re keenly aware of the fact that players get bored more easily with consumer games these days, and tend to lose interest more quickly if they get stuck.
Sugimura: On April 17th, 2014, we released the smartphone version of Dragon Quest IV. We have been releasing [the Dragon Quest smartphone games] ever since. Moreover, there is the production project of the “ArteMinitcha” smartphone application, which was developed with several of ArtePiazza’s programmers as core members. So far we have released 3 applications.
In order to be able to release works befitting the needs of the era on every existing platform, we will continue to research new techniques.
A lot of studios talk about passing the skills of the senior designers onto their younger staff, but each studio has a different way of doing so. What are ArtePiazza’s thoughts on this? Is it something you actively think about and try to do?
Majima: We are always telling them not to only look at games but also at a large variety of other entertainment as well, to discover or try out things that are completely unrelated, in order to grow their own abilities. Also, including myself, we organize study meetings with experts from all sorts of genres. We want to create opportunities for the staff to grow by thinking for themselves.
Sugimura-san, there’s been a lot of talk about female designers in the games industry, and how it’s, unfortunately, largely still a male-dominated field. Why do you think that is, especially in Japan where there actually are a lot more games that appeal to both men and women?
Sugimura: The Japanese game industry has been mostly composed of male staff since the old days, so I believe that the graphics or difficulty levels of the games created so far have for the most part been developed with male players in mind. I think this is one of the reasons for the small number of female staff. The fact that there are very few “console” designs fitting female tastes is probably another reason.
However, with the recent increase in smartphone applications that are enjoyable for female customers, too, the number of female developers is increasing. This means that, as the number of female users goes up, with a delay female developers will also increase—or at least I think they will. Isn’t this trend going to strengthen from now on?
ArtePiazza has 33 male employees and 7 female employees. Do you try to encourage more women to join your staff, or maybe try to provide a way for the existing female staff to be more actively involved in the design process?
Sugimura: Compared to male staff, the female staff’s ability to solve problems in the development team is higher in my opinion. Could it be that one of the causes for this is that, most likely, “taking care of other people” is their forte ever since childhood?
I believe that game development is definitely a service industry. Moreover, ArtePiazza is an easy environment to work in for female staff, so I want to actively employ more female staff in the future.
[Note: “Taking care of other people” in this case refers to women in Japanese society, where they’re more used to looking after others than men. From an early age, girls often look after their siblings, or cook dinner for the family and so on.]
ArtePiazza was founded in 1989, which means that this November, you’ll officially turn 25. Do you have any plans for the company’s 25th anniversary? A special game or something along those lines?
Majima: As we were busy with game development, we did not have the time to plan any anniversary event, however, we definitely want to organize something for our 30th anniversary. A special game could be a nice idea. (laughs)