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Interview: How Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin’s Devs Grew Their Own Rice for Research

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Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin has been in development for over five years, but if you go back and watch its very first trailer from 2016, it looks astoundingly similar to the game we’re getting today. Not from a visual standpoint, of course—Sakuna has seen a great deal of polish in the interim—but it’s plain that developer Edelweiss knew exactly the kind of game they wanted to make at the outset.

That game is a combination of action-platforming and rice-cultivation. It’s an activity you don’t often see represented outside of farming sims, and certainly not depicted as meticulously as it is in Sakuna. Early in development, Edelweiss’ Nal and Koichi found themselves visiting agricultural universities and researching old Japanese farming tools and techniques to get a feel for the mechanics they wanted players to engage with. Nal and Koichi discussed their development process on Sakuna and growing rice on their own balconies with us, and XSeed Games Executive Vice President Kenji Hosoi talked about how the Nintendo Switch version of the game came to be.

Ishaan Sahdev, Siliconera: All of Edelweiss’ games feel well-rounded in a way that many doujin games aren’t. You’ve almost always made games that look visually appealing and also have a sense of polish in how they play. How is it that you’ve consistently been able to do this, right from Fairy Bloom all the way up to Sakuna?

Nal, Edelweiss: One thing I enjoy about creating video games is the process of combining so many mutually interacting elements together in a single work. Artwork, sound design, story scripts, game systems, engineering—I’m interested in everything. The creator’s interests greatly influence the balance of power in a smaller team’s work, so I think knowing a lot about all these elements allows us to develop well-rounded games. (You could say that I don’t have a single specialization.)

Although you work with other people, Edelweiss has two main members—Nal and Koichi. Nal is a programmer and Koichi is an artist. How do you each feel your work has improved most with Sakuna?

Koichi, Edelweiss: Compared to our previous titles, the world, setting, and game design had a lot of depth to them, and handling all those elements at once was quite the task.

Nal: This was my first time developing a game that combined RPG and adventure elements with rice cultivation, so it was a huge learning experience skill-wise. By incorporating a real industry like rice cultivation into the game, I had the opportunity to reach out to people who work in that industry for research and review purposes, which really broadened my horizons. We could go in so many different directions for our future games, so it will be hard to pick just one.

An organization known as Japan Agricultural Cooperatives distributes rice growing kits for free. You can grow the rice in a bucket, so I tried growing some on my balcony.

Photos of the rice Nal grew in his balcony as part of the research process.

For modern agriculture, I did research on the internet and borrowed academic papers from the National Diet Library (the largest government archive in Japan). We used this research when simulating how the rice grows in-game.

Because this game is based on Japan from long ago, we also needed to research old Japanese households and historical farming tools used for manual labor. I made my way to public archives of agricultural universities and the historical archives of rural regions (these exist all over Japan). To research traditional Japanese homes, I visited Kyoto and Shirakawa-go (a sightseeing village famous for old-style homes).

It was after the game was completed that we were able to speak with people from different industries. I had the chance to meet and talk with professional rice farmers, and I was interviewed by rice wholesalers and agricultural co-ops. I learned a lot and was able to broaden my horizons by speaking with people in industries that I don’t normally have any interaction with.

Nal, you mainly worked on fighting games prior to forming Edelweiss, and traces of that genre can be found in a lot of your work. What elements of fighting games do you feel can be used to make other genres more interesting?

Nal: The fighting game genre specializes in smooth, tight character movement, and I think you can use that to improve the basic foundation of pretty much any other game. Some of the fighting genre’s strongest aspects include systems where the character’s actions reflect the player’s input; clear character animations that vary in speed; and character movements that respond to changing circumstances.

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You’ve been part of the Comiket scene for a long time, and you routinely highlight other doujin games by putting together these very well-edited showcase videos and publishing them on your YouTube channel. How do you solicit entries from other developers? Do you have any specific requirements or types of games that you like to highlight?

Nal: Traditionally each team makes their own trailer. I was wondering how to repurpose these trailers to help hype up the event, so I started making compilation videos to highlight these games. I generally begin collecting them about a month before Comiket. I use all the videos sent to me so long as there’s no copyright issues involved. So rather than seek out something specific, I continue to collect them in the hope that, if someone has a game they want to show the world, someone who’s looking for a game just like that will see it.

By now, you’ve released a bunch of your games overseas and attended a few overseas events as well, including PAX and E3. Do you get the sense there’s a difference between the western and Japanese audiences?

Nal: I was impressed to see that at western events people don’t hesitate to play game demos. (In Japan people are reluctant to play if nobody else is, and often watch over somebody else’s shoulder.) I’ve also noticed that the male-female ratio is closer at western events. But while there are subtle differences, overall I don’t think the two groups are fundamentally different. It’s reassuring to know that gaming fans exist all over the world.

Sakuna has two distinct elements that affect each other. There’s the rice cultivation, which is very elaborate. And then, there’s the combat and platforming. How did you begin work on the game? What was the first thing you built and tested when you started development?

Koichi: The rice cultivation element makes this game unique, so it was difficult for us to find other games for reference. It took a long time to decide how to design the gameplay around it. On the other hand, this was an action game at its core, so we had to get that right first. While researching rice cultivation and experimenting with trial-and-error we worked out the details little by little. We began figuring out the gameplay cycle over five and a half years of development, and we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel during the last two years.

For the first three years, we were focused on just getting all the controls and gameplay for rice growing correct. At this stage, we hadn’t yet decided specifics like the details of how rice growing would affect Sakuna’s abilities or what kind of value to assign to each action in the farming section.

When the action and story progression were taking shape as we continued development, it was time to stop postponing the details of the farming section and get to work. We laid out the farm work and all other aspects of the game and asked ourselves, “how should progression in each aspect affect the others?” It required thinking about various aspects of the game in parallel before we could finally get the details just right.

You’ve mentioned that Sakuna controls like a fighting game. Could you explain that? What options and approaches are available to the player in combat, and how do the controls tie into this?

Nal: Sakuna has weak, strong, and combo type attacks, can move quickly by jumping, stepping, and grappling, and also has the ability to parry. Instead of mashing buttons to execute a series of combos, you automatically set up combos by cancelling movements. Because of this, I think Sakuna has more fighting game mechanics than your typical action game.

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There are invariably going to be people that get super-obsessive with managing their rice farm and will want to focus largely on that aspect of the game without getting into the combat as much. Is that something you’re looking at allowing for, even if it happens after release?

Koichi: Since this game asks players to make progress in both of those things in order to move forward, it would be difficult to focus on combat or cultivation alone. To put it another way, if a player works hard at one of those things, they’ll be rewarded when they return to the other. We realize that some players may find this stressful due to personal preference, so we took that into consideration and tried to balance the two elements as much as possible. That being said, I think Sakuna’s unique charm and merits shine through when these two elements are combined together.

What’s your on-paper development process like? At what stage did that process begin, and how much of the scope of the game had you planned out from the start?

Koichi: Compared to the normal development process for console games, our style is to scrap and build repeatedly, as opposed to spelling out every last detail. In terms of documentation, we outline our goals and concepts, discuss the reasoning behind them, and then the programmer comes up with specific ways to implement those ideas in-game. The core pillar of Sakuna’s development wasn’t a story as a script, but a story in the sense that we considered how the playstyle would change as players experienced the game’s beginning, middle, and end. We reviewed every element, including the script, in that context and then implemented them in the game itself.

I remember the trailer that was shown at Comic Market 90 in 2016, and you already had the grapple ability with the scarf present both in combat and traversal. What kind of cool stuff are you trying to do with the grapple?

Koichi: There are lots of ways to use the Divine Raiment. For example, you can use it to weaken enemies that are more powerful than Sakuna. There are also skills that make it even stronger, so you should have fun experimenting with them. Besides being a useful item, it also plays an important role in advancing the story.

Sakuna is almost the polar opposite of Astebreed, which felt a little more male-oriented with the mechas and sci-fi backdrop. This time, you’ve got a game that looks much cuter, maybe more approachable, and we already know that the farming genre tends to be very popular with women. Was that something that factored into your decision-making?

Koichi: Since this is an action-RPG with a strong female protagonist, we knew from the start that this game would have wide appeal, and Murayama-san’s involvement as an artist certainly had a dramatic effect. We didn’t even think about how popular farming sims are among female audiences, as we were committed to creating a game that had wide appeal. I would say that we’re a little concerned about the difficulty level of the action segments for some players, since it can get pretty high at times, but you can solve most combat-related problems by gaining levels, so please don’t give up if you run into a difficult enemy. Keep planting rice and try again after you’ve leveled up some more.

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The game has seen a full extra year of development time. What’s changed or improved most in the interim? (I remember Astebreed changed dramatically during the latter half of development)

Koichi: This is true for any game, but when you look in from the outside, a game’s development progress is neither linear nor easy to grasp. Many titles seem to undergo drastic changes near the end of their development. If most of a game’s eye-catching elements won’t appear until basic development is complete, then they won’t be apparent to anyone, and you can’t even start working on them. For much of a game’s development you can’t see the actual result, and in that sense, we start adding the final touches when we’re on the verge of hitting the finish line. I think the amount of time and commitment you invest in the game at this stage determines the quality of the final product. We probably could have released Sakuna earlier if we’d fixed up how the game looked and forced ourselves to push it out in a hurry, but we knew we’d regret releasing something we weren’t satisfied with. By working on it for another year, we finally reached a level of quality that we were happy with.

Edelweiss is a small team, but now you’re developing an action-heavy, console-quality game. How do you handle things like game feel and testing?

Nal: When it comes to the action parts, I personally prefer to test them multiple times. Since I have a strong attachment to side-scrolling action games, the aspects I came up with and implemented in-game came out as I expected for the most part.

Do you feel you’ve turned a corner with Sakuna? It looks so much bigger in scope and more polished than any of Edelweiss’ prior games. Have you thought about what you’d like to do next?

Koichi: Compared to our previous titles, Sakuna has received a great deal of positive attention in advance of its release, so we ourselves don’t know what lies ahead. It’s exciting and worrisome at the same time. We ended up depending a lot more on outsourced staff for this project, and I think we need to spend some time rethinking Edelweiss’ core principles. In any case, we’d like to consider all that at our leisure while taking a nice break.

Are you looking to continue working with publishers in the future on these larger, more ambitious games, or do you want to take a break and do something smaller?

Koichi: I think focusing on a single title for so long would cause our technological advancement to plateau after a certain point. We’re currently eyeing the possibility of reforming our development environment and working on something very small as a learning project. Our future plans have yet to be set, but we’re not originally aiming for large-scale games. So even if Sakuna has a positive reception, we don’t feel that we have to keep expanding and expanding. Regardless of what happens, we’d like to move forward with our core principles in mind.

You’re collaborating with a well-known publisher for the first time. How is the process different from your prior games, and how did it change things once they got involved?

Koichi: XSEED Games is an amazing publisher, and we really appreciate that they closed the distance between themselves and the development side of things. They worked closely with us from start to finish. In the middle of production, we decided on a multi-region, multi-platform simultaneous release, which led to technological difficulties and really limited our schedule, but they pushed back the release date multiple times. Ultimately, having a deadline allowed us to speed up the process of finishing the game. When I look back on the whole process, they respected our position all the way to the very end.

Do you feel being a doujin (indie) developer in Japan is a viable career? In the west, the indie scene has grown enormously over the past decade, to where a lot of people have been able to make it their full-time career. And while they work long hours and don’t make a lot money, they get to do what they love and it keeps a roof over their heads. What do you think it would take for Japan to get there?

Koichi: In the case of Japan’s indie scene, I think it’s less about having a career that pays the bills and more about being able to share a common hobby with a close-knit community. I think most people who want to work in the indie business brush up their skills first, then after getting their name out there, they move into the business side of things. I don’t think being an indie developer, per se, puts you in a position where you have to make a living doing it. On the other hand, due to the success of all sorts of people, in recent years “indie” itself has become more common in the overseas sense of the word. If it would help even a few more ambitious developers turn this into their career, we should provide such people with the support they need to make and showcase their titles. This will lead to more success stories, and I think that the indie scene will become more active than ever before.

[For XSEED] XSEED has been involved as Sakuna’s publisher going as far back as 2017. I believe you approached them during Bitsummit and asked if they wanted to work with you. How far along was the game at that point?

Kenji Hosoi – XSEED Games, EVP: Yes! The first time we talked to Nal at Edelweiss was when he was showing Astebreed at BitSummit in 2014, I believe. Our President, Ken Berry, was visiting the show in Kyoto and was super impressed with how great Astebreed looked and felt, so he ended up chatting about Astebreed and future projects that Edelweiss had planned. Business cards were swapped, and we kept in touch until they started working on Sakuna. When we first met him, Sakuna was still just a rough concept in Nal’s head.

What happened after the initial conversation between you and them? How did Marvelous get involved, and what has the role of Marvelous and XSEED been on the project?

The initial conversation ended after business card swapping and that was it for a while. Nal later reached out, letting us know that he had a build of his new game he wanted us to check out, and here we are. Initially, XSEED was the only one involved, but when our Japan head office saw the game in action, they fell in love and asked us if they could become the publisher for Asia.

In terms of developer involvement, neither Marvelous Japan nor XSEED has been involved with the development side. XSEED handled the English localization of the game (BIG shout out to translator Elizabeth Bushouse and editor Derek Heemsbergen, as well as our awesome internal localization staff!) as well as the English voice recording. Marvelous Japan handled the Japanese voice recording with Edelweiss and the Chinese translation (Korean translation was handled by the Korea publisher, Arc System Works Asia Branch.)

It’s interesting how the game was initially announced for PC and PlayStation 4, but nearly every major showing over the last two years has been at a Nintendo Direct or Treehouse Live stream. How has that increased exposure impacted sales expectations?

Initially our plan was to release on PC and PS4 only, but after Sakuna was announced as being in the works, our Nintendo contact at the time reached out to us on more than one occasion to consider releasing the game on the Nintendo Switch as well. We were initially hesitant on the first few reach outs as it just was not part of the original plan and we would have had to reschedule everything, but after multiple talks with Nintendo and hearing how passionate they were about the game, we ultimately decided to release the game on the Switch as well.

That wasn’t an easy ask for Edelweiss, but we all agreed that Switch would be a great platform for the game. In hindsight, we’re glad we took their request seriously as we have nothing but appreciation towards Nintendo for actively showcasing the game, and in terms of sales impact, we’re seeing great launch orders on the Switch—about a 2-to-1 over PS4.

Finding good development/publishing partners can be difficult. Now that you’ve established a working relationship with Edelweiss, have you talked about the future at all? Whether they’re interested in doing another project with XSEED/Marvelous, or if you would be interested in funding/publishing their next project?

We would love to work with Edelweiss again on future projects! We’ve been amazed at their passion and skill, and have immensely enjoyed working with them over the last few years, especially our hours-long meetings in our usual café when we visited them in Japan. We’ve been completely focused on getting Sakuna ready for release and haven’t talked much about anything post-Sakuna, but if Edelweiss and their team members pitch us a new game idea, we’ll definitely be interested as they bring a lot of talented people to the table.

Given how well this has worked out, are you going to be looking at other independent developers in the future? Is that something XSEED or Marvelous is interested in—receiving pitches or proposals from indies?

XSEED has been very fortunate in being able to work with a pretty amazing list of talented indie devs in our 16 years of business. From Team GrisGris, GalaxyTrail, Magnetic Realms, WayForward, Ankake Spa, and now Edelweiss, as well as our recently announced partnership with Voracious Games, we’re always happy to support super passionate indie devs. Every indie title we’ve worked on has been very exciting and we learn something new with every project. Our love for indie games is still going strong, so would love to hear from more developers directly. Currently, the best way to reach us is still via our general public-facing e-mail of [email protected], but we are looking to create an indie-dedicated way of reaching out to our key people directly.

Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and PC. This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.

Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.