Koji Igarashi on Setting Kickstarter Records, Evolving Castlevania, and Meeting Expectations

A conversation with the former Castlevania director on the influence of the past, the future, and the supporters on his new project Bloodstained.

When Bob spoke with former Castlevania director Koji Igarashi a few weeks ago about IGA's new project Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on the eve of its Kickstarter campaign, no one could have foreseen just how well the campaign would fare. Its success seemed a given, but who knew that it would smash the service's crowdfunding records for video games?

I had the opportunity to meet up with Igarashi last week as E3 2015 wound down, a chance to discuss the project now that its future (and the enormous groundswell of support for it) had become more certain. Though clearly exhausted from jet lag and the manic pace of his fundraising campaign, he nevertheless seemed in good spirits — and understandably so — as we spoke about his plans for Bloodstained.

Bloodstained draws heavily on IGA's previous work, especially Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia.

USgamer: First, congratulations on your Kickstarter success. What are your thoughts on that? It's quite a milestone.

Koji Igarashi: I never expected it to blow up like it did. I expected it to be a little small thing and hopefully barely slide through to the point where I could make a game for the first time in several years. Then it just got crazy. There was so much support and funding that came in. It made me realize how powerful the desire to see these games again was and just how supportive even a single person can be to try and get you from point A to point B. That Point B being my dream of being able to make another game — so I was humbled by seeing all of that support.

USG: When I spoke to you last year at GDC 2014, this was still very much a dream project; something you very much wanted to do but you didn't know how to make happen. Can you talk about the process that's happened between 18 months ago and now?

IGA: Actually, when I met with you at GDC 2014, that was part of a double-pronged approach. One was to drum up support from a PR perspective to show that I really did have a fan base that would support me, and the other was to, in tandem, to pitch my project to a wide variety of publishers. That started me down the road.

At that time, there was one publisher in particular that was very excited. [Aside from interpreter Ben Judd: "As an agent, I've seen a lot of pitches and I've seen publishers string along development talent quite a ways where it can even bankrupt the company."] That publisher seemed very supportive and die-hard for my concept, but in the end that fell through. I was stuck in a situation where he didn't have any money coming in, I had no salary, and I had a family to feed.

Fortunately, there was a small mobile company named Art Play. The President said, "I want you to come in and be my main man to help me with mobile games." I didn't have any other options at the time. Everyone had said no to my concept; that this would not fly in the console space, so I started working there.

But, I had made a promise to my fans that I was going to try and make another console game. So, I was fortunate enough at that company to do a carve-out to do console games so that they would be mine and I could separately do this thing on the side. As time went by, we eventually found backend funding that would support most of the budget of the base game itself, but not all of it, and it came with some strings attached. They were: You need to show that there is market value in your name and the games that you make it. That pretty much left one option: Crowd-funding. The biggest option being Kickstarter; so that's what got the campaign started.

With Bloodstained having cleared its initial goal 11 times over, the demand for a new "Igavania" seems hard to deny.

USG: You've always struck me as a pretty humble guy, but do you feel any pride to be able to show this success to people that didn't have confidence in your ideas before?

IGA: [Laughs] Yeah, that's definitely how I feel. Told you so!

USG: So how did you get set up with Inti Creates? What brought the two of you together to collaborate on this project?

IGA: This is actually thanks to my agent, Ben. He knew Inti Creates and suggested that they would be a good fit for the game I was trying to make. Of course, I knew about Inti Creates. When I was at Konami, they were known as an independent developer that was really solid at doing 2D action games. When Ben introduced me to them, we were talking and it seemed like every time I would say something they would say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and every time they would say something I would say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." There was this natural, organic fit. It was quite clear that they understood the key mechanics behind important action games and how to make a good action game. The sort of games I made in the past at the core required solid action mechanics. So this really did seem like a natural fit.

USG: The Mega Man games they've worked on always seemed to be pushing that franchise in the direction that you worked on in the Castlevania series. They left behind the eight levels/eight bosses format and started to create more interconnected worlds. Is that something that attracted you to them?

IGA: Yeah, it wasn't necessarily those games that made me feel that they could do the level design and overall world creation that would be necessary for an Igavania kind of game. It was more, again, their core action mechanics were so strong, and those were going to be the base of most of the game's combat... that was the most attractive thing about them.

And of course, they had done Mega Man ZX, and we had discussions and they told me they had done some exploratory work with designing one single world that was all interconnected. That made me feel they would be perfect for supporting Bloodstained. However, building out maps that of the type you seen in an Igavania game is a very specialized skill set, a specialized knowledge base that you need to have. My core team will probably lead that with Inti Creates supporting and enhancing on their end, but again, drilling down on the core action mechanics that will make the game fun to play.

USG: So you have a group that works closely with you on the overall design, and Inti Creates is really about the execution in that sense.

IGA: Yes, that's correct. I don't know if I would call it a team necessarily, but there are key core members that have worked with me on previous games that will come in and form the knowledge base that's necessary to have the specialized features that people commonly relate to when they feel it's an "IGA game."

Inti Creates are no strangers to non-linear, interconnected game worlds, as this fan-made map of Mega Man ZX demonstrates. [Source]

USG: On one hand, I always felt there was a simpatico between your GBA and DS games and the games Inti Creates did on those platforms. But at the same time, you both create very different kinds of games. They're both very deep and very dense, but with Inti Creates the complexity comes from the play mechanics, the combat and the action. In yours, it comes from the underlying systems, and the weapons, and the hidden little secrets throughout the world. Can you talk about how you're bringing those two philosophies together?

IGA: It's the basic concept of, "Two heads are better than one." Inti Creates brings to the overall development puzzle and project puzzle. Again, they're very strong with action mechanics, but they're also very good at the back-and-forth of when you're fighting enemies, whether you've got an attack pattern and you dodge it and there's an opening. And the same thing with legendary boss battles. They're also very good at basic core systems of a game. Whether that's a fighting system or an animation system or whatever.

Whereas we, my core team, are going to bring in the know-how of building out the special maps, the secrets, taking enemy drops, melding them, forging them into new items, skills, etc.

USG: So let's talk about the word "Igavania." What does that really mean to you exactly? When you adopted that name, what were did you have in mind?

IGA: [Laughs] This may not 100% answer your question, but... it's me using my name as if I'm a god of sorts. [Laughs] It's very awkward and makes me feel very shy and kind of humiliated. But at the same time, the reality is "Metroidvania," which was the largely accepted term, has got the name Metroid in it which is a trademarked name. I didn't want to risk that legal stepping stone and I certainly didn't want to potentially anger Nintendo. So I tried to take as many steps as possible to come up with a better alternative.

I'm hoping that maybe in six months I'll get used to the sound of hearing my name used as a sub-genre of action games. If in the end, it really takes hold as a new terminology, a new way to refer to this sub-genre, that would be pretty weird - it would mean my name would continue in the annals of history of different naming in games. People would associate Igavania with the sub-genre, and that is actually my name in there, so that would be very strange.

USG: To elaborate on that, what mechanical elements does that term describe specifically or is it more like a philosophy of design? That's what I'm curious about.

IGA: From my perspective, it's a system. You've got your 2D or 2.5D side scrolling games with exploratory aspects. That is what this subgenre conjures up to me personally.

It's also about goofy details, like demonic vacuum cleaners.

USG: In terms of underlying mechanics, the Castlevania games you worked on varied pretty wildly. Symphony of the Night was very much an action RPG, while some of the other games didn't have as much emphasis on statistics. The Sorrow games had the soul system, where you were gathering power that way. Order of Ecclesia had the spirit glyphs that you captured, and that was really the emphasis on the game. What are you looking at in terms of the behind-the-scenes workings of this particular venture? Have you thought that far ahead?

IGA: Right now, we're leaning more toward the Sorrow games, the Sorrow series. There will be enemies that have telegraphed attack patterns or magics or whatever. You'll defeat the enemies, and there's a random chance that they'll drop a magic-imbued crystal or material that then you take back to a different location where alchemy is applied to it, creating a magic crystal. Then you take that magic crystal and clip it on your body, giving you that potential enemy's ability, skill, or whatever.

However, right now that's still just a concept, and we may try to build it out and find the pacing is too slow; that people will want to use that thing right away and having to take it somewhere else and the risk/reward of potentially dying without getting it into your body could be something that people find annoying. So we don't right now. Right now we just know anything you obtain from the enemy later allows you to use that skill set.

USG: That raises an interesting question, which is, you said that it's been several years since you were able to work on a game, and here is your opportunity. At the same time, there's this groundswell of support through Kickstarter; people who have committed to the game, pledged to the game, given money upfront. How do you balance the desires you have as a creator to invent something that really expresses your thoughts and where you are in your current career and personal development versus what fans want, which is probably just more of the same?

IGA: First and foremost, the fans need to be the most important thing for me because they've made this opportunity happen. That being said, I believe that you can build on a foundation that everybody knows, feels comfortable with, knows that this is the Igavania that they were looking for... and then apply a different coating of icing on the cake, so to speak.

I'm a firm believer in "if it isn't broke, don't fix it," and the plus-one or the plus-two when it comes to adding the new systems to the core experience people know they already love and obviously want. So one of the things we're thinking of adding is a sub-parameter, a status adjustment system in which depending on that magic, what you combine it with, you'll get different bonuses to your base parameters. This is something we haven't done before.

Separate from that, being able to craft weapons. Obviously, there was crafting of the soul and a weapon in some of the previous games, but this is just crafting materials to create an even wider variety of weapons in the game with different parameters. So the idea is it's going to feel like there's a lot more to do in this game, but still as soon as you're playing it, you're going to know it's an Igavania game.

USG: I feel like the games you have developed, the Castlevania series especially, tend to vary pretty wildly in terms of difficulty. Some of them have been quite easy and some of them have been quite difficult. Inti Creates makes mostly difficult games, though. Where are you looking to fall in the balance for this one?

IGA: Honestly, in my previous Castlevania games, we had a lot of team members who were just naturally inclined toward making difficult games. So, maybe that's a reason for the spike in the difficulty for some of our other games that we've made in the past. But I'll say this, my key philosophy on these sort of games is it needs to have a natural organic curve for difficulty versus time spent so that if you're somebody that just wants to try and rush through it, but challenge your natural skill as a gamer, you can. However, if you're someone who doesn't naturally have that sort of skill set, you can beat more enemies, level up, get to the point where it becomes naturally easier the stronger that you get. So that players of all difficulty and skill types can beat the game.

I feel that you don't really understand how a great a game is unless you're able to clear it. And the last thing we want is for people to play it halfway through, feel that they can't beat it, and then walk away.

USG: Clearly you've decided to make a Bloodstained an Igavania game because that is what people want. Do you feel like that is limiting to you? Do you feel there are still fresh ideas to be explored in this niche? Do you worry about being pigeonholed?

IGA: Just to look at it very dryly as a business, your business engine moves forward because you have consumers, and you've got a product that they want. My fans exist because they want to play an Igavania game. So, as a business, I need to give them what they want. That needs to be the most important thing for me, certainly as an independent developer.

That being said, I'd be doing no one any favors by saying, "I'm going to do an FPS game," when I know they really want this other thing. That would not be smart as a business. However, if I really feel that I need to branch off creatively and do something different... if I really get tired of doing the same thing, then I guess that's a challenge to myself to make the sort of game that people want to the point that it makes me so much money, I'm rich enough to make the game that I want to make - if it's different.

IGA's gruesome and bloody PS2 action game Nanobreaker went over poorly, but even missteps have their value.

USG: You have worked outside of the Igavania genre in the past, of course – everything from Nanobreaker to Castlevania Judgment to Leedmees. How did those experiences, branching out beyond this core style of game, how will those give you inspiration or experience that you can bring to this project?

IGA: So there are games, and then there's succeeding and/or not succeeding. Video games are a tough business, and a lot of games don't succeed. The smart man will try to learn from his mistakes.

When it comes to Castlevania Judgment, the one thing I learned was from the production side – how to make the best game I possibly can with a variety of different limitations: budgetary, time, etc., thrown on you. Obviously, that wasn't the best game ever, but it was the best game that I think anyone could have made within those limitations. And the game did get out the door.

The second, Leedmees, I learned that trying to sell an original game without an IP or strong franchise attached to it... I learned just how difficult that can be. So I learned a lot about sales, marketing, and PR techniques that you need to very seriously think about in order to make a game successful if it doesn't have an existing IP on top of it.

And then finally, when it comes to Nanobreaker, I learned, don't forget the basics. Ultimately, you need to make sure there's lots of explanatory text in the game so people understand the basic game and what's going on and make sure there's enough Save Points. [Laughs]

USG: Have you been playing anything lately yourself? Have you played any games or seen any games that you found really inspiring and have made you say, "Oh, this is a great idea," or that you took some great feeling away from?

IGA: Rather than saying a specific game, I'm going to say a type of game: Mobile device games that have social features or social game play. I know that's going to get a lot of groans from people for what it unfortunately represents, which is attached to monetization for free-to-play games. However, it doesn't need to be that way. It doesn't need to be tied into monetization. It can merely represent the concept of some feature or something occurring in the game play that makes you come back to it on a daily basis.

That's one of the things console games don't do well. You start at one point, you finish at another, and you're done. While you're playing it, you have a lot of fun, but when it's over you're kind of sad, you wish there were more. That's why there's DLC and stuff, but still you're going to play that and eventually that's going to be done. So the idea of ongoing game play - the idea of having someone, having some feature or some item in the game that makes people come back to it on a regular basis and just play it for as long as possible.

Again, that doesn't need to be attached to monetization, it can merely mean retention... or from the gamer's perspective, can merely mean a longer game. I think there is a lot of learning that can happen for the console space that about how that's done with mobile. Again, so long as that's not necessarily tied to monetization, which is usually the thing that people dislike about it.

Animal Crossing has proven to be one of the few console-based games to create a compulsion for daily play. [Source]

USG: I think Nintendo does a good job of realizing that philosophy in packaged retail games like Animal Crossing, but obviously, that's a very different type of game than Bloodstained. Do you have any thoughts on how you can create that sort of ongoing addictive appeal within the confines of what is presumaby going to be a finite, start-to-finish action game?

IGA: Honestly, it's not something that I've fully thought through yet. I'm just throwing out some ideas. At $5 million, we cleared the roguelike mode that of course will randomize different key rooms or setpieces together to form its own random castle. Potentially, there's something like where... say, on Wednesdays, the castles will be more likely to have "this" piece to it or potentially "this boss" or "these parameters" appear. Or on Friday, the odds of this type item or drop occurring is higher. So there's certain ways that you can add in daily bonuses or parameters attached to the randomness as a rule set towards the roguelike mode of the game.

USG: Have you spent much time with the Dark Souls series? I know that's something that they did, especially with Demon's Souls – the servers would have a different "tendency," that is, they'd be inclined toward different kinds of things happening. And you know, you talked earlier about difficulty and putting too much demand on players. That series has kind of proven that some players really get into having a lot of stress and a lot of demands placed on them.

IGA: I have never played Dark Souls. My wife has been playing Bloodborne, though, so I'm very familiar with it. I've got some people around me, some people that I trust, who do love those sorts of games and who are playing those games. I'll be able to freely exchange ideas for what could help flesh out the roguelike piece of the puzzle: Obviously randomness attached to daily rule sets could lead to some very interesting things that would make people want to come back on certain days. Again, none of this would necessarily be attached to the monetization, it could really expand the game play and keep people playing this for a long time, which would be great.

USG: The Metroidvania/Igavania style of game has become a mainstay. It's really exploded in the independent game development space. Lots of people who are inspired by your games have looked to Symphony of the Night and found inspiration from that. With such proliferation happening in that genre and so many good things happening around it, do you feel extra pressure to make sure Bloodstained stands apart and isn't just overshadowed or retreading those other games?

IGA: So, the reality is this, when you've got a game that has a core fan group of followers that love that sort of game, you are always fighting against pressure. So even when I was making Igavania games at Konami, every time I would release the next one, there would be a lot of very passionate fan eyeballs on it to see if it really was the next sort of game that they wanted to play. So I'm familiar with dealing with pressure.

Obviously, backer pressure is a bit different, since it's a straight punch versus a roundabout kick, and that means you're going to be in a situation where you're going to have to explain that you're listening the feedback: "I understand what you think is good, but on top of that, this is what I feel is the right direction to go in." The challenge is when to choose the fan ideas and when to choose your own concepts and where to find that balance. That will be a new challenge, but I certainly feel that it's the sort of pressure that makes a game better than worse.

Probably not the direction IGA's next project will be going.

USG: Thank you for your time. Out of curiosity, what is the most exciting thing you saw at E3?

IGA: As far as games that were exciting or made me excited in both the good sense and bad sense of the word... I finally got a chance to go around the show floor today, and I would say as far as things that were good... For me, personally, a game that I'd want myself would be Star Fox Zero, because I love that series, so it's exciting for me. As far as just looking at a game in general, not from my own personal perspective but just bird's eye view, Star Wars: Battlefront just looked huge, massive, and rich, and that's going to be a fantastic game, I think.

As far as the "I'm excited and sweating from my brow" sort of way, it would be Summer Lesson: The VR game where you play a tutor teaching a young girl. I am very surprised that that was shown at E3 and not shown at Tokyo Game Show. It seems like opposite thinking to me. [Laughs]

Tagged with e3 2015, Interviews, Kickstarter, Koji Igarashi.

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