Over the holiday weeks an authentic pachinko game appeared in an unlikely place, the iPhone store. When I got an e-mail about Sho Chiku Bai I contemplated why a new studio would take a risk bringing a pachinko game to North America. I decided to ask Marc Cellucci, the Founder of Mission One.
The story begins back at Sega, involves a canned Dreamcast VMU RPG, and meeting a composer from the Metal Gear Solid series at a party. Follow the journey of opening an independent video game studio in Japan below.
Before starting Mission One you used to work at Sega? What did you do over there?
Marc Cellucci, President of Mission One: My career with Sega started in America, back in the Dreamcast days. I initially did web work for the Dreamcast Network, and then moved on to content writing for Sega.com, SegaSports.com, and SegaNet. After three years, I left Sega to come to Japan and study the language for two years. Then I spent a year at Koei doing marketing stuff, then went to Sega of Japan in the AM3 arcade division, acting as co-producer on the Dinosaur King franchise.
There were plenty of canceled projects, but very few I can talk about! The one I think I can mention is one I was working on in the Sega.com days — it was an RPG for the VMU. It was a side project being done by about three of us, and we had a full world map, scrolling engine, and game design all fleshed out, when the plug got pulled from on high. In retrospect, they were probably right… I don’t see a VMU RPG changing the fate of the Dreamcast! We still wanted to make it, though.
What do you think of Sega since you left the company?
I am a tried-and-true, die-hard Sega fan, and I always have been. My blood bleeds blue, man. In the history of the Japanese game industry, no company has taken more risks and has been more innovative than Sega. Unfortunately, they’ve been burned by many of those risks, and are still trying to find an identity that works in today’s industry. But I will always consider myself a Sega man (and I still get work from them, so I still feel like part of the family).
After you left Sega you decided to open your own game development studio in Tokyo. What was the toughest part about going “indie”?
Money, or the lack thereof. I set a goal of trying to run the company self-funded. The moment you get outside investors on board is the moment things get complicated and you have people to answer to, which goes against why I went on my own in the first place! That said, game development (even on small games like ours) is really expensive, and if our first couple of titles don’t do well, you may see me at one of many banks in Tokyo begging for money!
How did you start Mission One?
Basically, all I did was get some seed money together then fill out some paperwork, and Mission One was born. I’m using the “virtual office” setup, which means that my staff and I all work from home, which saves me from renting office space and such. My only startup costs were the seed money, paperwork, and accounting fees. The hardest part was probably coming up with a name for the company!
What tips can you give young developers hoping to start their own development studio?
I might not be the best source, since I’m learning as I go right now, but the best advice I can give is to learn about the business side of games as much as possible. This probably makes me sound like a suit or something, but if you want to start a studio, you need to know about things like publishing, distribution, budgets, marketing, and human resource management. Making a killer game is what it’s all about, but getting the game into the hands of as many people as possible, while getting stacks of cash back in yours, is what’s going to keep you alive.
Do you find that it’s difficult running a studio in Japan as a foreigner?
Not especially. If I hadn’t spent the years learning Japanese it’d be a lot harder, but since I can read and write, and have experience producing games in Japan, the only difficulties I’ve faced in founding Mission One were things like tax laws and such, which I farm out to professionals anyway!
It seems that you have some high profile contacts since Norihiko Hibino (ed’s note: one of the composers who worked on the Metal Gear Solid series and current Ninja Blade composer) composed music for your iPhone game Sho Chiku Bai. How did you get in touch with him?
Hibino-san and I met at a party a few years ago. (The game industry is a small one, and usually the best way to make “high profile” contacts is to go to lots of parties!) We chatted a bit, and got along well as people. We kept in touch here and there, and when it came time to make Mission One’s first title, I thought it’d be a great chance to work with him. He (thankfully) wanted to work with me as well, and told me that the sugary-sweet J-Pop of Sho Chiku Bai was actually a welcome release from the cinematic type stuff he usually does.
Our goal was to create an authentic pachinko simulator, so to that end we didn’t really scale down anything as far as functionality or gameplay go. That said, in order to make it work on the iPhone, we had to squeeze lots of things (physics engine, animation, sounds, lights, etc.) into a limited amount of memory, and we had to implement touch-screen controls. The handle was hard to do, because if it’s too big you obscure the playfield, and if it’s too small it becomes really hard to control. We worked on it until the very last minute, but I think we finally nailed it in the end.
Why did you decide to make a pachinko game for the iPhone?
It’s a funny story, actually. When I formed the company, another former Sega guy wrote me asking if I could help develop a pachinko game for the PC. When I saw the mail, I think I made the Gary Coleman “What you talkin’ ’bout Willis?” face! Asking the foreign guy to make pachinko was definitely out of left field. But being hungry for pellets of nourishing work, I started researching pachinko, playing various machines and such. Once I understood the rules, pachinko became a lot more fun, and the challenge of being (probably) the first foreigner to make a realistic pachinko game was one I couldn’t pass up.
Assembling the team was sheer serendipity. The artist had just left a pachinko maker, and was looking for a job where she could work from home. The engineer is a guy I actually went to middle school with, lost touch with for nearly 20 years, then ran into at a party in Tokyo! (There again, the party thing.) Then there was Hibino-san wanting to work on this sort of thing. It all came together pretty magically.
Mainly because not releasing at least an English version of an iPhone game is business suicide! iPhone games are distributed worldwide, and since it was easy to make an English version anyway, we went ahead with it. And since nobody’s really localized pachinko before anyway, I thought it would be a good test of the market.
This is more of a business question, but how do you expect it to sell outside of Japan considering the West’s lack of exposure to pachinko? How can you overcome the exposure gap?
I don’t expect it to sell well at all, actually! Pachinko is a very Japanese thing, and the gameplay itself probably won’t appeal to your average gamer… it’s very much a glorified slot machine, and most Western gamers prefer more skill-based games. That said, there’s a lot of people who are interested in Japan, and have wondered what pachinko is all about. Sho Chiku Bai is a good way to find out, and it’ll only set you back five bucks.
Have you considered developing games for Xbox Live Arcade, Sony’s PlayStation Network, WiiWare or perhaps even DSiWare?
In the future, I’d definitely like to release games for those platforms. I believe that digital distribution is king, and packaged games are going the way of the dodo and game consoles with simulated wood grain panels. Hopefully, you’ll see our games on those services sooner than later!
Images courtesy of Sega / Mission One.