Hudson CEO John Greiner sits down with Destructoid

For us old, curmudgeonly gamers, Hudson Soft is and shall remain a household name. But in recent years Hudson’s presence in markets outside of Japan have diminished quite a bit — that is, of course, ’til Bomberman: Act Zero came about, at which time angry nerds with torches and pitchforks demanded the heads of whoever was responsible. Not quite the sort of press you want, but hey, these things happen. 

Now, Hudson’s looking to usher themselves back into the good graces of gamers everywhere with Bomberman Live, a collaborative effort between Backbone Entertainment and Hudson Entertainment, the company’s US office in Redwood Shores, CA. During my day at Hudson last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with their CEO, John Greiner, to talk about his company’s ambitions for the US mobile and console gaming markets, the ill-fated Act Zero and future plans of an epic return to glory for the house that Bonk built. Hit the jump for the full interview.

Destructoid:

Hudson — especially its American office — has had a sort of subdued presence in the US as of late. With Bomberman Live, it seems as though there’s going to be more direct attention on Hudson, especially because you’re moving into the heavily-trafficked Xbox Live Arcade market. Is this a new direction for your company?

John Greiner, CEO of Hudson Entertainment: Well, we’ve always had an office here, but it wasn’t as a true publisher. You are right — there was an exodus, there was a kind of time where Hudson, I think, wasn’t really focused on the US market. Part of that was financial; in the Asian financial crisis of 97 and for the next ten years after, Japan was hit especially hard — Hudson had to clean its house, and we had an IPO. We were subsequently bought by — a part of it was bought by Konami. We were kind of figuring out what is the best way to get back into the market, and the first opportunity that really hit was mobile, because Hudson had a very strong mobile division — they still do. It would’ve been a shame not to capitalize on that success here by bringing that kind of know-how to the US and launch that in a way that would give us the advantage of having the Japanese experience.

Dtoid: Have you guys found that the mobile market in the United States is comparable at all to Japan?

John: Not at all, unfortunately. Again, Japanese thing. Here you have many carriers whereas Japan, at the beginning it was only one carrier. That used to be a government company, NTT. DoCoMo was an offspring of that, and they certainly had a monopolistic power that allowed them to do things and allowed them to be really — you know, it put them in a great position and they took advantage of that. In Japan they really can offer the platform an ecosystem that allows us to reinvest in our product. We could get 91% of the retail price out of our games, that’s amazing. DoCoMo and the other companies, they make their money on the remaining 9% plus some other small fees that they charge, downloading, that kind of stuff.

Dtoid: It seems like it would be that much more of a difficult market to penetrate because there still isn’t that much of a dedicated mobile game following. That’s why I was happy to hear that Hudson was getting into XBLA content because it feels as though the downloadable content revolution that’s happening right now is the next big thing. A lot of the games in Hudson’s back catalog seem likely candidates for these particular platforms.

John: It’s funny, because I was just saying — why did Hudson come back here, it was because of mobile. I’ve been working for Hudson for eighteen years and had a close relationship to the president, and he asked me to come back here many times, and I wasn’t that excited because I didn’t see that huge opportunity. With mobile I saw that huge opportunity, mainly because I saw the Japanese market, how they reacted to it, and the need to press a button and get a game within thirty seconds. So the beauty with that is evident, but the beauty with Xbox Live Arcade is the same thing. As a user, maybe not on the go, but you can still get games instantaneously. I don’t know about you, but I quit going to Blockbuster a long time ago.

Dtoid: Some of the other editors and I were just recently having a conversation about that, about how downloadable demos and how handy they are. Piracy’s a big problem but many software pirates usually don’t pirate games so they don’t have to pay, they do so so they can try, because rentals are just so expensive. That sensibility seems to enters into XBLA quite a bit.

John: It’s great sense for the consumer and great sense for the publisher — it’s not costing us $3 million dollars to make an Xbox Live Arcade game. Everyone’s happy, it’s win-win. If you really want a very very deep game with all the bells and whistles and graphics, you can go out and buy your 360 game or PS3 game, but for most of us we just want to relive something, or we’re interested in something at that time, at that moment. That point of purchase is right there, all you have to do is press a button. So we’re in agreement that this is the next revolution.

Dtoid: So, I hate to ask, because I know it’s a sore spot around here, but after Act Zero are you in a position where you’re considering leaning more towards XBLA over traditional disc-based content?

John: No, we’ll keep doing both. We’re still a full publisher and we had a few titles just before the end of our fiscal year which were Wing Island, Honeycomb Beat and Kororinpa Marble Mania. Those are our first three, but we’ll be bringing more out this year, nine titles coming out this year. These are basic titles we’ll be bringing over from the Japanese side — the difference, why I’m mentioning that is because XBLA is — I don’t want to say non-existent in Japan, but it’s a small market. So it becomes our responsibility in how we make games — we want to take the good things about Hudson — that core development, that core AI, that core game polish, great QA and all the great things the Japanese do well and meld that with the great things the Americans do well — better graphics, more relevant characters, that kind of thing.

Dtoid: It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a back catalog of some of the most classic games and iconic characters in the video game industry.

John: Right. All these things — it’s kind of like a treasure box. I think that’s why it’s actually really easy to recruit people for Hudson because they’re gamers who know what the company’s about. It’s unique, there aren’t a lot of companies who go for that. I think the basis of that is that Hudson is basically an engineering company versus a marketing company. You remember Acclaim — they had some big hits, but those hits never made it over to Japan. Mortal Kombat never saw the light of day, not even in the arcade — why? Because it wasn’t the game, it was just a bloody game, and that appealed, but that blood is marketing. It’s not polish, it’s not gameplay. So that just gives you an idea of how Hudson approaches the gaming world which is, you know, user first. How do we make a product that doesn’t tarnish our name — and you can tarnish a name by putting a bad product out or over-marketing something, but you can’t tarnish a name by putting out good-quality stuff, even if it doesn’t sell well.

That brings me to Act Zero. I think this was a case where Hudson — and we cautioned against it, we said “don’t call it Bomberman, you might piss people off.” They didn’t quite get that, and said “we want to make Bomberman new”, you know. People don’t want that “new”, they want new features or something like that but not a new character. Their point was to make a game that looked new but also had some of the fun features of —

Dtoid: Maintained some of the gameplay sensibilities of Bomberman.

John: Right, but also internet access and things like that. So that idea was correct and as an engineering company — [Hudson Japan thought] “okay, we’ll put this one out first, and then we’ll go to the second one, and really hit hard on the third one.” This is a logical — Japanese are always logical — a logical approach to putting out a very good, long-life product that has multiple iterations. Here’s your first step, here’s your second, here’s your third — but it bit them in the ass. America’s different, and we’re trying to teach them about that, and trying to again take the good things, meld them with our good things, and hopefully come up with some pretty outstanding products for the US market. There were good things in Act Zero that everybody ignored because they were so pissed about the character.

Dtoid: Especially nowadays with XBLA and the Virtual Console, it seems as though there’s a movement towards nostalgia — gamers are getting older and have more disposable income and have more opportunities to spend their money to recapture games from their youth. It seemed to me that the biggest mistake was just not releasing — like you are now with Bomberman Live — not releasing another quality Bomberman title for one of the updated consoles. Does nostalgia play a big factor in what games Hudson develops or publishes?

John: That really depends on what platform you’re talking about. Mobile is totally up to us, XBLA — we borrow what we want, we build what we want. Console business is basically taken from Japan. We ask them to do this or this or this, but it’s their product. We kind of have three different models and most of the middle model which is XBLA is us. We’re just starting, so it’s hand in hand — making sure the games are up to their standards of quality. We do development here, but like any licensor you want to make sure they’re happy with the product, we do extensive testing. You remember Donkey Kong Country, how Rare worked with Nintendo — that’s kind of the model we’d like to follow. Give it all the American firepower with all that great Japanese subtlety. If you mix those, the results can be very successful.

Aaron Linde