[Art by OThatsRaspberry]
From mortuaries to millions
Before creating No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, Killer7, and countless others, Goichi “SUDA51” Suda worked in a mortuary. Then, almost overnight, he became a game director. His primary qualification? Confidence. An outsider to the industry, he made waves from the very start, using the otherwise by-the-book Fire Pro Wrestling franchise to tell a story of nihilism and self-destruction.
Twenty-nine years later and he’s still doing things his own way. The biggest difference now is, he’s got experience on his side. And the money probably doesn’t hurt either. Last year, Grasshopper Manufacture (Suda’s studio) was acquired by NetEase, a game publisher with an estimated value of 63 billion dollars.
As a massive fan of Suda’s work, I was afraid that this change in business partners may lead him to make more conventional games. From the sounds of this interview with Japanese site DenFaminicoGamer, (posted here in English for the first time via a translation from Grasshopper themselves), we won’t have to worry about that.
This detailed account of his career — packed with exclusive reveals about his past, present, and future — points to this new “NetEase era” being the most exciting, unhinged chapter in his story yet.
DenFaminicoGamer: The reason for this interview is that Grasshopper Manufacture has become part of NetEase Games, and have started recruiting staff, but what was the original intention behind the founding of Grasshopper?
SUDA51: During my time at Human Entertainment, I thought of myself as a director. I took over the Fire Pro Wrestling series, handling two games. Next, I was put in charge of the Twilight Syndrome team, which was on the brink of collapse, and reorganized it. Which is to say, somehow or another, I would complete whatever work that the company gave me without fail.
However, after Twilight Syndrome was finished, I did things akin to in-game destruction with Moonlight Syndrome (laughs). Human was a company with a lot of freedom, so at the time, I was able to take on a variety of challenges in that manner.
The reason I left Human was that I wasn’t able to make my own IP or representative work. I had the constant dilemma of not being able to create an original title. On top of that, I understood that as long as I stayed with Human, that kind of chance would not come easily, so I had to leave. Around that time, the company itself was in decline. There were things like pay delays, and just bad vibes in the air.
However, after leaving Human, I visited ASCII Corporation, who had previously reached out to me, and I intended to enter their company as a regular employee. Then I was told by the people at ASCII, “Now is the time that you could start a company.” And that’s the story of how I started Grasshopper.
DFG: Was the desire to create your own original IPs and have your own company something that you had been contemplating for a long time?
SUDA51:Everything was a bit all over the place at Human, so I really loved the company itself. The president was eccentric, and he even hated games.
Human also ran the Human Creative School, which was the world’s first video game school. Every year graduates would enter the company, so our development staff was mostly comprised of people in their twenties. I was 24 when I started at Human, so there was a huge number of staff that were younger than me, like around 22 or so. It was a maelstrom of hot-blooded youth that was almost like a zoo (laughs).
I think the great part about that company was the ability to create something from nothing. They were also the originators of pro wrestling games. Ryoji Amano, creator of the soccer games, and Masato Masuda, who was my mentor, were two people who could establish the creative process and create something from nothing. The company was filled with an atmosphere that made it feel like we could rapidly develop new games, and I think we were the top sports game developer at the time. So, I always thought that I wanted to further invigorate the company from within.
However, the president was caught for tax evasion, and when I woke in the morning, I experienced what it was like to have cameras from the TV station all over the place (laughs). After going through something like that, I thought, “I probably need to get out of here”, and it felt like I had shifted gears.
DFG: In regard to the specialist school that you mentioned, how did the recently graduated students create games?
SUDA51: I didn’t come from the Human Creative School, but the incredible thing about it was that the students made games that were actually released. Some examples are Septentrion [English title: SOS], Dragon’s Earth, and The Firemen (All Super Nintendo games).
So, in that manner, the people who join us from the school had created a game as a team in their school days. It felt like they were already semi-professional when they joined Human, so they seemed less like students and more like cocky kids, thick with self-confidence. Like “Hey, we’ve already made a game, you know.”
You had the old timers and the new grads, and there was a lot of conflict. I was just dropped in as a mid-career guy. Those days were pretty incredible.
DFG: You called them old timers, but they were also in their twenties, right?
SUDA51: Yes, they were about the same age. The old timers were in their late twenties, while the new grads were in their early twenties. Even though they were all in their twenties, there was a clash of youth.
As I was saying before, the new grads were at the level where they could quickly become leaders. Upon joining, they became the aces of the team. So new projects were quickly completed, one after another. I think it’s quite difficult these days to create a team of young staff, but at that time, it was common for teams of graduates to quickly come together.
The teams were formed, and games were made rapidly. A game that took one year to develop was on the long side, and we were often told to develop things within three months. Waku Waku Ski Wonder Spur [Super Nintendo] was developed in only three months, and was full of bugs (laughs). I felt bad for the staff in charge.
There was also a game called Yakyuu Ou [‘Baseball King’; Planned for release on the Super Nintendo, but was cancelled]. It was a legendary game where the batter would run straight toward third base after hitting the ball (laughs). At the time, Human would hold stand-alone events, and they held one at Sunshine in Ikebukuro where they played Yakyuu Ou on a huge screen. When the pitcher threw the ball and the batter got a strike, the umpire yelled, “Ball!” and there was a commotion in the crowd (laughs). They had made quite a mischievous game.
DFG: From your point of view, do you feel like those kinds of mischievous games aren’t around these days?
SUDA51: There certainly aren’t any like that.
DFG: What do you think the reason for that is?
SUDA51: These days, we don’t play the numbers game anymore, or rather we can’t. Up until the Super Nintendo era, it was a period where if you just released a game, it would sell. The sales staff were very skilled, and it was as if, no matter the game, they would sell 200,000 copies to stores just to begin with. The sales staff would travel all over the country to entertain, and wine and dine with their clients. It was a rather vulgar time in those days, where regardless of a game’s quality, as long as you had something, it could be sold. I think that was a major part of things.
In regard to judging a game’s quality, there really wasn’t anything other than Famitsu’s cross review. However, it was a time where even if the score was low, the game would sell anyway. So, as long as you had enthusiasm, you could make anything and everything. In a way, I think it was a time where even if you made a dud, you still gathered experience. These days, your career could be finished after even just one failure.
Fire Pro Wrestling was also a proclamation of my creative ability
DFG: I believe that there was a period where you started to show your individuality as a director, was that intentional?
SUDA51: Yes, it was intentional. I brought my individuality to the forefront with Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special.
I felt like with the game I made before that, Super Fire Pro Wrestling 3 Final Bout, I was trying to precisely follow in the steps of the previous game, Super Fire Pro Wrestling 2. It was around then that there was a major incident within Human, with the section manager at the time, Shuji Yoshida, quitting the company. I received strong backing with Yoshida-san’s parting words, “I’m quitting, but you’re free to make the next Fire Pro as you see fit, Suda-kun.” My mentor, Masuda, also said to me, “You can do it however you want to, Suda-kun.”
I thought that if I could do whatever I liked, then I would throw in all the things I wanted to do. I think adding a kind of story mode to Fire Pro Special was the catalyst for me to start expressing my creativity. I think that was both a beginning, and in another way, a proclamation.
DFG: I see, so that’s where it began. By the way, how was it that you came to be a director?
SUDA51: To tell you the truth, I actually once failed the interview section of Human’s entrance test (laughs). However, by chance, that was right around the same time that Daisuke Asako, my predecessor in the Fire Pro team, handed in his letter of resignation. There weren’t any people left in the planning department who had deep knowledge of pro wrestling.
That’s when someone who remembered me called me in for another interview, and I was hired by the company. My predecessor, Asako-san, was only at the company for three more days, during which he handed things over to me before leaving the company. From that moment on, I was already a director.
DFG: Wha…?! You were a director as soon as you started? What kind of experience did you have prior to that?
SUDA51: I had done a variety of different jobs. As for what got me involved in the game industry, it was during my time as a graphic designer when I made company brochures and advertisements for Sega as a contractor. Since I was to make advertisements for Virtua Racing, Yu Suzuki invited me to the AM2 offices. That was my first time seeing a game development environment, and I was shocked.
Up until that moment, I had thought that games were made by professors. I always thought the games were made by computer experts who wore white lab coats, but they were actually just ordinary young men and women. Not to mention, they had stacks of things like Nirvana CDs on their desks.
I thought, “Huh, they’re just normal people.” It gave me the naïve idea that even I could do it too (laughs). It was then that the game industry, which seemed so very far away, suddenly felt like it entered my field of view. Or maybe you could say it suddenly felt more realistic. I thought to myself, “Making games as a job. What could be better than that?”
DFG: So, you had never studied programming or anything like that before then?
SUDA51: Not at all. I had no skills at all. If I had to pick out one thing as a skill, it would have been that my pro wrestling knowledge was without peer. That was what I really focused on.
DFG: Before that, was there anything that made you interested in games?
SUDA51: My interest in games comes from always hanging out at game centers when I was a kid.
DFG: So, since the arcade days?
SUDA51: It was the height of the arcade era. After the release of Space Invaders, game centers popped up all throughout the city. There was a place just beyond the highway where one play was 20 yen. I would hang around there during my days off when I was a student.
DFG: You said that you worked as a graphic designer. Did you always have the desire to do some kind of creative work?
SUDA51: Hmm, not a clear desire or anything like that. I worked every day in order to keep living in Tokyo, and I also got married quite early, so it felt like the next thing was to look for a job with better pay. With that in mind, working in the game industry wasn’t among the types of jobs that I was looking at.
However, I received encouragement from my wife. After working as a graphic designer, I worked as a temporary employee at a funeral parlor. Undertakers make really good money. People my age were going independent and starting their own companies, and the managers would all drive to work in foreign cars. Being able to drive dream cars like a Renault 5 Turbo was pretty cool. I gradually rose in rank while I worked as an undertaker, and a number of companies even asked me if I would become a full-time employee.
I also thought that I could make a good living in the industry, so I accepted my fate and told my wife that I intended to become a full-time employee. My wife said to me, “Is this why you came to Tokyo? There’s something else that you want to do, isn’t there?”
“Is there…? I guess I want to work on games or something like that.”
“Then you should go for it.”
Then I just happened to see job advertisements for both Human and Atlus in a magazine that I bought. Only those two companies were willing to accept applicants with no experience. I sent in my application, but I only managed to catch on with Human.
DFG: Why did you come to Tokyo?
SUDA51: I simply wanted to go to Tokyo and get away from the countryside. That was really the only reason.
DFG: Did you continue to play games even while you worked as a graphic designer and undertaker?
SUDA51: Yes, but games were really expensive in those days. One game would cost 7,000 to 8,000 yen. But once the price gradually dropped to around 3,000 yen, it became a choice to either buy a game or one CD. However, I would buy Weekly Famitsu almost every week.
DFG: Why was that?
SUDA51: Because I loved games, of course. If possible, I wanted to play some good games. I also used it to try to convince my wife. I wanted to play the games that got a good score in the cross review (laughs).
By doing work that went beyond my own scope, I was accepted as director by the staff
DFG: When you interviewed at Human, you didn’t have anything specific in mind like director or graphic artist, right?
SUDA51: Yes, that’s right. If they hired me, I was prepared to do anything that they asked me to.
DFG: And then you were suddenly made director as soon as you joined the company. Did it feel like fate?
SUDA51: It felt like a gift from the pro wrestling gods. Things were handed over to me in only three days. I also had one of the planning staff assigned to watch over me. In the beginning, it felt like he was the director by proxy, but midway through, everything was entrusted to me. It was like, “Suda-san, you can already do this on your own.” From that point on, I handled things by myself.
DFG: Looking back at it now, did you ever think “Why was I put in charge of all this?”
SUDA51: Since I was put in charge, I was aware that I had to persevere and get through it. There were about twenty staff members in the planning department, but only around half of those worked on the actual development. The remaining half were like jobless wanderers, every day they would do things like write proposals and submit things to the section manager.
I wanted to protect my own position, or you could say that I wanted to survive in this industry. After a few days, I had a hunch that this was the right path for my life. I also thought that I would be able to utilise the know-how from the other work that I had done up until that point.
The manager handed me a cardboard box containing materials for the previous game, Super Fire Pro Wrestling 2, and said, “You have one week to look over these and put together a specification document.” I read through all the materials in one day, and I submitted the specification document in three days. At any rate, I completed the task faster than I was told to. I’m not the Red Comet [Char Aznable from Mobile Suit Gundam], but I knew that I could do the work three times faster than other people. I wanted to succeed and continue to survive within the planning department.
DFG: So, is the work of a director to look over those kinds of materials, and then start by following the example of others?
SUDA51: Yes, that’s right. However, I think that I was more skilled than the other staff at things like inputting data and designing layouts. I also felt that I could compete well by using the difference in my past work experience. And then just speed, I guess. I thought that I would be in trouble unless I could thoroughly show that I was able to work faster and complete more work than others.
DFG: I believe that the role of a director is the kind of thing that can’t be taught, even if you try to teach it. Therefore, they’re incredibly valuable. When you look at those working as directors these days, many have been directors from the beginning, or some incident caused them to be thrust into the role, and upon which, they managed to succeed. In that sense, how do you think your sensibility as a director took root?
SUDA51: The first thing that I was conscious of, was just trying to survive at the company. Rather than the idea of “I want to be a director,” it was more “I want to make games at Human,” and “I want to become the best in the planning department.” It may have been that I had a clear sense of wanting to achieve the goals in front of me, one by one.
DFG: Were there any things that you did to differentiate yourself from other people?
SUDA51: Hmm, rather than doing anything special, I feel like it was just about gaining recognition by completing things step by step.
DFG: In your current position, I’m sure that there are times you assign others to the role of director. At such a time, is there a certain something that a person has that prompts you to put them into that role? Or are there times where you think someone is lacking in something and that they would struggle as a director? How do you feel regarding those aspects?
SUDA51: I think that those who go beyond the tasks that are assigned to them are suited to being directors. Like wanting to do more than you’ve been given, or getting more involved on your own, and doing all the unreasonable things that are asked of you.
For example, I’ll do something like ask the staff who have never written a scenario before, to try writing one. Some of them will happily complete such a task, and those are the kinds of people that I think could be suited to directing. Also, take people who are skilled at drawing. There are those who will just draw things on their own when the designers aren’t making progress. I think they too are the kind of people suited to directing.
To put it another way, it’s the attitude of doing work for the sake of the project, even if it goes beyond the scope of your own abilities. It’s likely that the people around you will see that too. So, you could also say that you’re earning their recognition. I think it’s difficult to be accepted just by saying that you’re the director, but there’s merit to having the staff around you think, “If it’s for this person, I want to give it another go.”
At first, there were a lot of programmers and such that wouldn’t speak with me at all. Which is exactly why I would stay with them as we worked through the night, and when they took a nap, I would go and buy McDonald’s for them in the morning. After they woke up, we would engage in small talk as we ate together. I feel like it was a build-up of things like that. Then they eventually acknowledged this strange guy who came out of nowhere as a director. That’s how, one by one, I got them to accept me. It was truly like a grassroots effort.
DFG: I see. So, in other words, you would do whatever it took to fulfill your role as director?
SUDA51: Yes, that’s right. Even handling chores and odd jobs without complaint.
Being able to work with Shinji Mikami on Killer7 became an asset to Grasshopper
DFG: In your own mind, when was it that you felt that your games began to receive a strong response? Looking from the outside, I feel like it was with Killer7 that you received worldwide recognition.
SUDA51: Killer7 was definitely the turning point. I think that being able to work with Capcom, and thoroughly create something with Shinji Mikami was a considerable asset to today’s Grasshopper. The reception from around the world was greater than what we were expecting, and when we completed it, there was a sense that we had made a game that no one had ever seen before. I thought that we had made a game that really fit the word ‘new’, and that it was something that would become synonymous with me.
The response was much greater than I expected. While traveling overseas for the promotion of No More Heroes, I heard the praise for Killer7 directly for the first time, and I was a little surprised by it. Also, it was from a different media outlet, but a certain editor-in-chief once said to me, “I was thinking of quitting and giving up on this industry, but when I came across Killer7, I thought that there may still be a future for video games. I’ve decided to keep at it.” That person may have forgotten all about it (laughs), but I was elated to hear those words. I wondered if I had really made a game with such power.
DFG: I think that Killer7 was a completely different kind of game to what was popular at the time. Why was it that you wanted to make that kind of game? Did you try to go against the trends, or was it just something that happened naturally?
SUDA51: When thinking about Grasshopper Manufacture in the long term, I kind of had a vision of how I wanted to proceed. Since we didn’t have a large number of staff, I wanted to start with an adventure game, then a 3D adventure game, then action-adventure… That was the progression that I was thinking about how to achieve.
Killer7 was right at the time when we wanted to do an action-adventure game. Since we were doing an action-adventure, and teaming up with Shinji Mikami, the creator of Resident Evil, I also felt like I had to invent something new. I decided on my own to carry the heavy burden of such a responsibility. So, with the mindset of wanting to newly conceive all aspects of the design, Kiiller7 was what I created.
So that’s why, from the story to the art to the controls, I wanted all of the design choices to be things that had never been seen before. I felt like I was building up the things that I invented, one by one. More so than aiming for a specific thing, I was conscious of Mikami-san while making the game. The whole time I thought to myself, “I absolutely have to make something that Mikami-san won’t be ashamed of.”
DFG: What was it that led to you working with Mikami-san at that time?
SUDA51: He suddenly called me out of the blue. Kono-kun [Hifumi Kono, creator of Clock Tower, Neko-zamurai (PS1), Mikagura Shojo Tanteidan (PS1), and Steel Battalion], a co-worker from my Human days, had introduced me to Mikami-san. So, I went to see Mikami-san, and he said, “Suda-san, do you want to make a game together?” My reply was, “Yes, of course.”
DFG: So, it was a request from Mikami-san?
SUDA51: Yes, that’s right. Mikami-san had a high opinion of Human itself. He said, “That company released some outrageous games, but I wonder what kind of people were in the planning department.” It seems that he had been paying attention to us for a long time, and that was also part of the reason he called me.
DFG: Were there things that you learned by working together with Mikami-san and Capcom?
SUDA51: Yes. For example, when we had completed the prototype version, I brought it over to Mikami-san so that he could play the first stage. I was startled when he said to me, “Suda-san, can you increase the speed of the running motion to three times this? Next time I want to see it at triple the speed.” The sensation that I got from playing was the feeling of an adventure game. By tripling the speed, the game became incredibly fast, as you would expect. However, by making that change, suddenly it felt like the rhythm of an action game. “Oh, this is it!” I thought. The feeling or sense of speed was different when creating the game.
I think that Mikami-san’s skill is a result of possessing the ‘sense of action games’ that he must have somehow inherited through his genes. Really detailed things such as the way the first step is taken after input, the feeling of speed while running, and noticing the one frame delay in the moment you aim. Maybe you could call it the play feel. He pays detailed attention to the subtleties of the reaction that occurs at the time of the button input. I truly learned a lot from that, and realised how different action games were.
DFG: So, it was more about looking at those hands-on aspects in elaborate detail, rather than things like planning?
SUDA51: That’s right. I received a lot of advice.
I also had asked a number of people to help out with the writing, but I was found out by Mikami-san straight away (laughs). “This isn’t your writing is it, Suda-san? That’s no good. You have to write it all yourself.” Then I said, “But it’s fine if I don’t write this part, right?” to which his response was, “No. You have to write everything.” That’s how much faith Mikami-san had in my scenario writing ability. It was such high praise that I got a little carried away.
So, I thought to myself, “If the things I write have that kind of power, then it would be wrong of me to not pour all of my energy into my writing.” You could say that Mikami-san was truly able to get everything out of me. I think that’s how much he wanted to draw out the full potential of Grasshopper. In that sense, I think that he’s also an amazing producer.
DFG: The development period for Killer7 was quite long, but would you say that you continued to rally together with Mikami-san?
SUDA51: That’s right. The development period was extended, sometimes little by little, and sometimes in a big chunk. Mikami-san was the one who shouldered all of that, too.
I personally see Mikami-san as my second mentor, and I even received official approval. He once said, “I guess it’s okay if you’re my apprentice, Suda-san” (laughs).
The invigorating feeling of an action game is born from devotedly making adjustments over and over
DFG: You previously mentioned the long-term outlook of Grasshopper, but had you already decided in the beginning that you eventually wanted to be making action games?
SUDA51: Yes. I love action games, so it’s natural to want to make the kind of games I like, right? RPGs don’t really suit me.
DFG: It’s difficult to put the essence of action games into words, but I think there’s a certain value in that. What are your thoughts about it?
SUDA51: The development of an action game has the feeling of making repeated adjustments as you search for the sweet spot.
In Mikami-san’s words, “In action games, there are moments when you are rewarded by the gaming gods.” In fact, I’ve also had a number of those moments. There are times I’d be sitting at a programmer’s desk feeling something was strange as I played. We’d continue to tune it, until all of a sudden, everything just clicks in an instant. For example, just by increasing the hit stop by 10 frames, or expanding the hit detection range by up to 1.5 times and extending the effect, suddenly there’s just a moment of “That’s it!” It’s a feeling of building it up like that.
By adhering to, and repeating the process of adjustment and implementation, you gradually get closer to your mark. I think that’s where the invigorating feeling of action games is born. There’s no way that you could make anything interesting by only inserting things just as they are in the planning and specification documents. Things are pretty boring when you are at the stage where you have just put things together for the first time. I think that how much more interesting you can make it from there, is truly the result of steady tuning. So, you can’t really put it into words.
DFG: Did you also check all of those hands-on elements for your latest game, No More Heroes 3, yourself?
SUDA51: Yes, that’s correct. This time, I paid particular attention to the timing of moments of silence, and to how music plays in the moment you defeat an enemy.
DFG: I think that the combat in No More Heroes 3 has improved remarkably, and I wondered if that was influenced by your return to the forefront as director.
SUDA51: Yamazaki (Ren Yamazaki) and I were both directors, and there were parts that we developed as a pair. Programmer Hironaka (Tooru Hironaka) created the framework for the first boss fight. I think Hironaka is probably the best at making boss fights in the industry, and it was our job to take what he had, and gradually tune it, making it feel even more enjoyable and interesting.
DFG: Did you work remotely, even up to the final touches for this game?
SUDA51: Yes, we worked completely remotely.
DFG: I’ve heard from many different developers that remote working is fine when you are developing the core elements, but that it’s very difficult to apply the finishing touches remotely. What are your thoughts on that?
SUDA51: We tinkered with things remotely as much as we could, right up until the very end of the schedule. As you would expect, I wanted to adjust things as soon as I got my hands on them.
DFG: Did you attempt to recreate the feeling of sitting right beside a programmer by keeping connected via Zoom the whole time?
SUDA51: Yes, we did that, and also, I would give instructions in the middle of the night, which would be implemented during the day, and then I would check them again. It was like returning to the development style of ten years ago. In particular, things like motion and programming are things that really need to be done side by side, so that’s why it was important for the staff to stay connected via Zoom. We would have our screens up together so that we could work in sync.
DFG: How much of that kind of hands-on tuning do you do when the game is still in the prototype stage?
SUDA51: For No More Heroes 3, we did it surprisingly early. The fight with Henry was the first one we completed, and since that was essentially a fight between two human characters, we could use it as an extension of the previous No More Heroes games. With that, we had created one of the main loops of combat, and knew quite early on that we wanted to continue in that direction.
From there, we continued to develop the other boss fights, but as the fights were against aliens this time, each fight ended up being completely different. We had to adjust each fight individually, and that took a lot of time. We barely finished prior to the game going gold.
DFG: So, the general framework of the game was already completed in the prototype version?
SUDA51: This time, yes. For No More Heroes 3 it was on the relatively early side, but for other titles, there are times when the game structure is still unfinished in the prototype stage.
DFG: Was it due to things that you have cultivated throughout the series that you were able to complete the framework so quickly?
SUDA51: I think so. However, I had mostly forgotten No More Heroes 1 and 2 (laughs). You start to forget after so much time has passed, so you need to play them again. With 3, there was a mindset within the team that we wouldn’t lose to 1 and 2.
This time around, the team was almost completely new. You could probably say that it was the team from Travis Strikes Again. However, there were a number of staff that had been involved with the series since 1.
DFG: How many people were in the team?
SUDA51: For Travis Strikes Again, we had less than ten people. There were external staff that also contributed, and we somehow managed to finish it. This time around, for 3, we had 20 core members. Thanks to Bee Tribe also helping out with a large portion, we were able to finish the amount of content that was in the game.
Grasshopper-ism is the continual creation of original and inventive games
DFG: Does Grasshopper intend to continue focusing all effort on developing one game at a time, rather than being spread across two or three projects?
SUDA51: Yes, that’s what we’ve done up until now, and I think it’s also the basis for us moving forward.
In the past, there were periods where we were working on multiple projects, but at those times I thought that there weren’t enough directors, which is something you touched on before. Even if you establish multiple development lines, the responsibility falls on us as the developers. That kind of burden would loom large if we were unable to deliver in the end.
Based on the experiences from those times, and since I am the face of Grasshopper, I wanted to first focus on making my own games. Recently, even overseas, they have started calling them ‘Suda games’, though I have mixed feelings on that (laughs). But I think it’s clear that the most important thing is to first strengthen the team that creates my own games. That then becomes a foundational pillar.
Of course, I would also like to make some indie games as a way to have the younger staff acquire more experience. I’d like to do both of those things together.
DFG: In that sense, do you see it as something different to simply increasing the scale of development beyond what is necessary?
SUDA51: Yes, that’s right. Right now, we are looking to increase the size of the team to 30 people. Within the next three years, we will first increase to 50, and then carefully add more people up to a maximum of probably around 80. At that kind of pace, and considering the training of staff and new graduates, it would probably be a little difficult to have a core team of over 80 people. If you go beyond that, you start to lose the ability to function as a team.
DFG: When looking at people who create things, I think there are those that have their own evaluation standards and those that don’t. So, what are the evaluation standards that you have? What kind of decisions led to the creation of games like Killer7 and No More Heroes?
SUDA51: On a serious note, since long ago, I have thought about what the word ‘kaihatsu’ [Japanese term for development] really means. I think that the ‘kai’ in kaihatsu comes from the word ‘kaitaku’ [to pioneer; break new ground], and that the ‘hatsu’ comes from the word ‘hatsumei’ [invention]. Therefore, the work that we do is to pioneer and to invent. That idea lies at the foundation of my game creation.
So, it’s the same when I evaluate things. The idea of invention is very important. It isn’t very easy to do nowadays, but I want to invent or create one thing every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s only something small. For example, if I think up a button combination that hasn’t been done in any other game, that’s one kind of invention. If I create a new image for a character, that’s one invention. I believe that if you do that every day, then it will lead to the completion of an overwhelmingly innovative game.
It’s good if that creativity can come from within yourself, but I also think that it doesn’t matter who it is that invents something new. No matter if it’s a veteran or someone new, if an idea is inventive and interesting, then we use it.
That’s very important to me. In particular, with ideas, people who are interesting have the best ones. So, it’s better to not worry about things like pride. If someone presents an idea, it doesn’t matter if they are from completely different departments like a programmer or a composer. If the idea is interesting, then you should use it. I suppose that would be my evaluation criteria. The fact that you are a veteran means that you should do away with useless crap like pride.
It is the job of a director to make the most of all of that, and put everything together. Direction is being able to catch the ball, no matter the kind of pitch. To be able to handle them all with ease, no matter what kind of monsters come your way. For example, even if you are working with someone outside of the games industry, you should properly work together with that person, and manage it appropriately. In the end it’s about the experience of somehow bringing it all together with your own power.
That’s why I want everyone to pitch their balls freely. I choose the best pitches among those, and eventually, I complete one game. I feel like I have always continued to repeat that process.
DFG: How do you judge whether those ideas are good or bad?
SUDA51: It’s whether I find them interesting or not.
There are staff within Grasshopper that have had long careers, including my co-director Yamazaki. So, opinions like “Let’s do this”, and “I think that’s good”, tend to fit together nicely. You could say that makes things easier.
Thanks to the studio having been around for so long and having so many veterans together, I think that everyone has a certain ‘Grasshopper-ism’ within them, which can’t be put into words.
DFG: How would you define ‘Grasshopper-ism’ or the Grasshopper style that you just mentioned?
SUDA51: I have no idea (laughs). What I kind of thought by listening to what the staff has said during other interviews, is that Grasshopper specializes in developing original games. It’s a company where it’s normal to create unique games. Looking at it the other way, I guess that means we’re not very good at creating licensed games or working on existing IP.
So, Grasshopper-ism is the continual creation of original games. I think Grasshopper is a group whose specialty is being able to constantly create unique things. That’s a little vague, but I think that’s who we are.
Also, we can relate through things like B movies or cult films, as those are my interests. That’s where Gundam comes into things. For example, if I make a reference to Gundam, but we have younger staff who haven’t seen it, then we watch it together. That’s the kind of culture we have. As another example, I love John Carpenter’s film They Live. So, if I make a reference to They Live, then we all watch the film together. That’s the kind of company we are (laughs).
So, I think that everybody gets to enjoy some of my interests, or at least they’re a group that doesn’t find doing that too painful.
DFG: In Japan, there are many game companies that do subcontracted work. They all say that they would like to create original games, but I think it’s become a situation where not many actually have that ability. To put it another way, are there not companies who, like Grasshopper, have the resolve needed to create something original? I think that more so than a technological issue, it has more to do with the mindset.
SUDA51: Rather than simply having resolve, I believe that it is impossible to create original games unless you change your routine. At Grasshopper, making original games has already become our routine.
DFG: What do you mean by ‘originals have become your routine’?
SUDA51: I guess it’s an atmosphere where you’re not afraid of what kind of pitch may be thrown your way. You wait, ready to catch it no matter what. The thought, “We’re making another strange game, huh?” becomes an everyday thing, and as those days are prolonged, I think that is where you get that feeling of original games.
I often hear that if you continue only creating licensed games and working on existing IPs, then you lose the ability to create original games. If in the moment that you suddenly have some freedom, you think, “No, we can’t do this unless they tell us to,” then that has already become routine. On the other hand, when people who normally work on original games are involved in a licensed game, they often think, “Why can’t I make it how I want to.” It almost feels as though that’s something that gets decided in the early stages of your career.
“From now on, we’re going to take a full swing at each and every ball, and aim for a home run.”
DFG: What do you think are the specific benefits that you gain by becoming a part of NetEase?
SUDA51: When you are running an independent studio, you can’t help but consider a title to be a single point. The publisher and fanbase differs for each individual game. Since you are creating things as a studio, you have the desire to connect these points into a line. From a long time ago, I’ve been told by various people that since we are a studio known by our name, Grasshopper Manufacture, it’s a waste to not connect that with the fanbase. However, that’s something that isn’t so easy to achieve.
When we were in discussions with NetEase, we were told, “We don’t want to talk about one or two games. To begin with, let’s look at around three titles in ten years. If possible, we would like to continue working together long after that.” I felt that they truly wanted us.
As I said before, I want to create a line with our works, so it was important that this relationship lasted a long time. We will create our own new IPs, develop our fanbase, and continue to expand. One of our goals is to eventually have the capability to create AAA titles.
As we aim for our ideal image of creating AAA titles with a core team of 80 people, NetEase is greatly supporting Grasshopper in our efforts to strengthen the studio.
DFG: I think that when you join a large company such as NetEase, there are often misconceptions like, “They got purchased,” or “They’ll get pressured from above,” but it’s actually a little different, isn’t it?
SUDA51: Yes, it’s different.
DFG: The relationship between developers and publishers is fundamentally one of order and supply, but in contrast, the relationship between Grasshopper and NetEase is actually closer to that of a venture company and an incubator, right?
SUDA51: Yes, it’s close to that.
DFG: I don’t think that this relationship was properly conveyed to the world. It would probably be better to more clearly explain how it is because of this relationship, that you can continue for the next ten years.
SUDA51: I agree. That’s an aspect that I want to carefully communicate.
The desire from NetEase was, “We are not investing in you just so you make games that will sell. We want you to be a fascinating studio, and we want you to create engrossing games.” As a creator, it makes you happy to hear that kind of thing.
They even said that they had no problem even if we strike out each time at bat. That means that I can swing as hard as I want (laughs). So, I intend to take a full swing. That’s a blessing for a creator.
I think that I will be able to create about ten more games before I die. So, for each of those ten at bats, I’m going to take full swings and aim for home runs. I don’t quite know what the definition of a home run would be in this instance, but that’s what NetEase is expecting of us.
DFG: Grasshopper has collaborated with a variety of different creators in the past. Do you think there will be any change now that you have joined NetEase?
SUDA51: Even for No More Heroes 3, we collaborated with people outside of the games industry. Nobuaki Kaneko participated with the music, and illustrator Masanori Ushiki created some incredible artwork for us. In the future, we intend to be even more active in pursuing collaborations with such artists. They will provide creative energy from a completely different place to that of our games, and give birth to something new. I’d like to keep these waves rolling.
DFG: I get the impression that you are always finding interesting things outside of games and then skillfully incorporating them. I think that it must be quite hard to blend such elements into games.
SUDA51: I actually find that a rather fun thing to do. If we only do things on our own, it starts to become familiar practice or a habit, right? However, if you work together with new people, you break from those habits and must once again take things on with a more serious attitude. In that way, I think it has the beneficial effect of creating a sense of tension.
Also, it’s incredibly fun to work with some of those fiendish people in other industries. There’s enjoyment in being able to handle them, and I have a sort of confidence which never wavers.
For me personally, The Silver Case was a game where I attempted dealing with that. I incorporated a variety of film techniques into a single game. Though, I guess you could say that work is much easier now when compared to those days, as filmmakers would flatly refuse requests related to video games. There were times when I couldn’t convince them to film anything.
Thankfully, these days they often already know me, so it’s become easier to work without even having to introduce myself. In other words, it would be a waste to not do more. There are many interesting people throughout the world, so I think that it would be a shame to not come together with these people as a family and create things.
DFG: You spoke about the confidence that you possess, but what is the reason for that confidence? When people are young, they have a kind of baseless confidence. However, as they age, that kind of confidence fades and is replaced by a confidence with a solid foundation. I don’t think that in itself is necessarily a good thing, but what do you think is a good balance between those two different forms of confidence?
SUDA51: I think confidence that has a basis is born from experience. It’s a result of all of the different things you go through, including development or management experience.
The baseless part of confidence is kind of like you can no longer throw a 160km/h fastball, but you can still throw a sinker, and you’re more deceptive (laughs). I can’t really handle the large amount of work anymore. I have less time to write scenarios. Even with No More Heroes 3, I was able to write it because I knew I had to do it in a short time. In the old days, there were times when I wouldn’t be able to write anything, even if I worked through the night. However, with my current lifestyle, I have to write within the limited time that I have. I suppose that I’m adapting to it, or maybe my abilities are becoming more specialized.
DFG: What kind of things do you take in and learn these days?
SUDA51: I don’t think that I really take much in. It’s been a long time since I’ve really dug deep and explored for the sake of making something. If I decide to tackle certain genres in the future, then I think I’d have to delve in and do some research.
These days I don’t think that I really have to push myself too hard. Right now, I think it’s time to take all the things I absorbed while pushing myself in my youth, and think about how I can thoroughly put it all on display. Also, I think it’s natural for me to observe and discover things that I see or feel during everyday life, like the scenery or atmosphere of the era.
DFG: When creating something, I think that there are around 100 decisions that need to be made, and that it’s the director who makes those decisions. If around 90 of those 100 decisions are correct, the result is an amazing game. However, there’s a very low probability that you would make all of those choices correctly, so it’s important to have evaluation standards that are very precise. That’s why directors are so vital.
SUDA51: Yes, it’s about judgement. It’s how you decide if something is the correct choice.
DFG: So, by making judgements based on your own standards, games like No More Heroes 3 are born. Today, I’ve once again realized that your games owe everything to the fact that you are the one making them. I’m greatly looking forward to the next game that you create.
SUDA51: Thank you. For that purpose, we are actively recruiting, though it’s nothing large scale. I think there are a lot of people in the industry burning with the desire to create new games. Though, there are probably many people who might think Grasshopper seems a little scary (laughs).
We’re opening an incredibly cool office in March 2022, and I think there will be a surge of applicants once they see it. So, I think you have a better chance of being hired if you apply now (laughs).
DFG: No More Heroes 3 was the first time in a while that you worked at the forefront in the role of director. What do you intend to do in the future?
SUDA51: I’d like to continue on our current course. I don’t think I need to act in an executive role anymore. Of course, if our younger staff were to create indie titles, then I would serve as producer.
From now on, I’d like to carefully create games, one at a time, so I’d like to encourage like minded people to apply. Now is truly the time.