The rumored collaboration between Parappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura and Elite Beat Agents designer Keiichi Yano came to light last week. Despite an awkward start for its Kickstarter campaign, the duo's venture—currently known as Project Rap Rabbit—nevertheless seems promising.
After all, how often do two masters of a genre team up with the intention of pushing that genre to its next evolutionary step? If Project Rap Rabbit pans out, it could well bring a languishing game format back into vogue. I was fortunate enough to speak to Yano as the first day of the BitSummit independent games festival wound down, a welcome opportunity to learn more about this ambitious but somewhat mysterious project.
USgamer: I'm curious to hear the genesis of Project Rap Rabbit. How did you and Masaya Matsuura get together?
Keiichi Yano: Yeah, so, it happened last year, actually. The publisher P-Cube — they're based in the UK, an independent publisher — they and myself, we got together and began discussing the possibility of maybe creating a new rhythm action game. We started going down that path, and we had the idea that... well, they're a small publisher, and they don't have a ton of money. So we turned to Kickstarter to see if our fans would support something like this.
I've had lots of dialogue with Matsuura-san about what the next version of a rhythm action game could be. We've compared and exchanged lots of ideas over the years, and I thought, "It would be really great if I could work with him and we could do something new to reboot the genre." So I called him up, and said, "Let's try."
At first, it was all sort of noncommittal. We just threw some ideas at the wall to see what we could come up with. But after about maybe a month of talking, we found that there were a lot of similarities in what we were thinking about the state of the world: The environment, the political climate, all those kind of things. We thought that we could tell a really good story and have a really good message in a story-based music game.
After about a month of that, we decided, "Yeah, let's do this." And then we started thinking about what these stories could be. The concept for the world would come... that's where we came to the idea of the history of Japan. We had this phrase in mind: "History repeats itself." If you think about the protectionist state of the world right now, we really felt it important as artists to have a message of acceptance and inclusiveness. But obviously not to be so political.
USG: I feel like that message of acceptance is something I saw in Elite Beat Agents. Is that something that's really important to you?
KY: It is. One of the things I try to do with every one of my rhythm games is to include a ballad. The human psyche, there are a lot of emotions there. Some of those emotions unfortunately create negative undercurrents. I like people, in general. I'd really like for everybody to just get along. So I always try to put messages of love and inclusiveness in my work.
USG: So the idea is to have a game with a message without being too on the nose with it?
KY: Yes, yes.
USG: You mentioned the history of Japan. How does that factor into it? The game seems steeped in Japanese tradition... but it's also a sci-fi fantasy future. What's the high-level concept here?
KY: The story takes place in the 16th century. The protagonist— his name is Totomaru—has been instilled with the power of rap to do greater good. The story is a kind of adventure, a coming-of-age story. We're going to take the story through a very long period of time.
The reason why we took a lot of the history of Japan angle is because Matsuura-san and I... he actually has been studying it for a while. One of the things he's found about the history of Japan is that a lot of it is unknown. There are a lot of stories that are not well-documented. Lots of things that took place, but nobody knows about them. You look at certain traditional paintings, artwork, architecture, and you think, "How did this get there? Oh, this must have been influenced by something that isn't even recorded." We thought that was an interesting concept — to take some of that unrecorded history and bring that up into a more fantasy kind of setting. Of course, that wouldn't jibe with the rap mechanic, so we brought in a lot of modern elements to make it a little more of a fantasy. Our characters, as you saw, are animals, but all inspired by and derived from the history of Japan.
USG: In terms of game mechanics, the idea seems to be taking the Parappa/Guitaroo Man style and evolving it to the next step. But what does that mean, exactly?
KY: Matsuura-san and I have talked a lot of about rhythm game mechanics in the past. Most of them amount to press the button to the beat—practically every rhythm game does that. That's fine, and we do that, too. But we want to bring something new to the table. With Guitaroo Man, I had an element where you played with the melody, for example. As we were talking about how to convey the message of what we want to do, rap quickly became a strong avenue for that. There are always strong message inherent in rap. You're always really concentrating on what they're saying rather than how they're saying it. And that really seemed to fit well with our desire for a rhythm game mechanic and another element.
We started to think about, well, when rappers go into a rap battle, what are they thinking? How do they come up with these phrases? And that's how the game design evolved.
The main mechanic is actually a rap battle. There's a call-and-response element. Your opponent may do a call to you, and there's a listening phase where you can pick up on certain words that the caller has sent to you. You can take these words and use them in a revenge-style response. Then that turns into revenge bonus points. It's a dialogue, not just about the rhythm, but also about the content of what's going on. And you're doing that all through a dialogue wheel—akin to the Mass Effect dialogue system where there are these basic emotions and you're moving through them to respond. So what we have is like a rap dialogue tree. There's no right or wrong answer, but there are some answers that are better for a situation. Depending the status of your opponent, what kind of parameters they have, what they're strong at, what they're weak at... you have to tailor your actions accordingly and be strategic about it, because there are rules about, say, how many times you can do a revenge. It's more about the content of the message rather than just simply hitting the beat.
USG: It sounds like a complicated system. Are you concerned that it's going to overwhelm players, or do you think it'll be OK, because it's music, and music is universal...?
KY: I think when we release our target gameplay video in a couple of weeks, we'll see just how... I'm searching for the right word. It's definitely a new experience. It sounds complicated on paper, but when you actually see it in action, it feels very natural. There is a learning curve in terms of picking up on what they're saying and using that. But the method through which that's done is very intuitive. Based on our current mock-ups, we feel it should come pretty easily after one tutorial stage.
USG: You're still trying to hit beats, but also selecting dialogue options? How does that work in terms of the interview — when you're playing with a controller?
KY: The analogue stick is actually what's selecting emotions. Once you've got your emotion locked in, the phrase comes out and you're playing against that phrase. Now, most of the time, you're going to just be doing that. So every time after a call you'll select your response and then play against that response. At its core, it's really that simple. Think back to Guitaroo Man, where you were tilting the stick to go along with the phrase. It's similar to that, but a lot simpler.
We started to think about, well, when rappers go into a rap battle, what are they thinking? How do they come up with these phrases?
USG: You mentioned you were inspired by the desire to understand what rappers are thinking about during a battle. Are you drawing on your own experience for that, or have you actually sat down and consulted with rappers to pick their brains...?
KY: It's a little bit of both. I'm not a rapper by any means, but I think it was a combination of what I've heard over the years, and I've done some new research. How do you come up with a phrase? Typically, they have a vocabulary of words they like to use. And basically it's a matter of, where can you fit certain words and certain phrases into certain types of responses, based on what the opponent does? And then there's a little bit of ad lib on top of that. It's an amazing process—I couldn't do it myself! But that thought process is what we've tried to emulate. My sense of it right now, from what I've seen so far internally, is that it's pretty amazing. It feels like you're rapping, which is what we're trying to do. And it's not just about rhythm, again. It feels so good to be able to revenge rap — like, yeah, I got you.
USG: So as you pick the dialogue selections, the keywords, and hit the rhythm, the game is fleshing out the rap for you?
KY: Yes, in that sense, it's very virtual. You're not doing the rap or anything like that.
USG: That's good. I wouldn't do very well with that.
KY: Yeah, that's most of us. It makes you feel like you're a badass. You watch a rap battle and you're like, "How did they come up with that? That's such a good response!" You feel very empowered because of the way we've virtualized that process.
USG: How many different tracks do you have planned for this, and who will be performing them?
KY: Currently for the base game we have six songs. There's some DLC planned as well, depending on which stretch goals we hit, so we'll have additional songs as well. We don't have any artists announced, and truth be told we're really thinking about... When we design these games, we don't just randomly think about songs. We approach it as if we're creating an album. So we have to think about the flow of the story, the flow of the songs one next to the other, and once we have that phase generally complete is when we start thinking about the artists. Right now we're in an early concept phase where we have concepts of the music, and you'll see more of that when we release that video.
But we're still in that phase of experimentation. We're coming up with new — well, I wouldn't say completely new, but not derivative, either. They're fairly iNiS in their sonic qualities.
USG: You mentioned you're working with P-Cube. I think there's some distrust on the gamer side with Kickstarter in general, and when people see you already have a publisher—
KY: They're like, "Why do they need the money?" Right, right.
USG: So what is your response to that?
KY: P-Cube is not a large publisher. They're what I would consider an independent publisher. A lot of wisdom would say, "Well, why doesn't a developer go out and do all that?" The reality is that having multiple platforms — and you still have to market games. There's community outreach. There are a lot of things that have to be done with marketing and selling a video game beyond just selling it. Neither Nana-On-Sha nor iNiS are publishing it, so therefore it made a lot of sense for us to have some partner, regardless of their funding situation, who would want to partner with us. They seemed a good fit, because they publish a lot of Japanese games... they've published a lot of Japanese games for the U.S. audience. I've had a dialogue with them for a while, and one of the guys over there is an old friend of mine.
It just seemed to make a lot of sense that, you know, we didn't think we could get a project like this to happen with a large publisher, or any of the single platforms. We needed a partner who would believe in the concept of the product and would support it. But I knew the money might have to come from somewhere else. So we essentially called out to the community for their support in this. People need to understand that a publisher sole function is not to provide money... it's about a lot of other things that have to do with selling.
USG: I assume that if the Kickstarter somehow doesn't succeed, that won't be the end of the project.
KY: I hope so! We'll see. We're not thinking about the "fail" scenario yet, though I understand that some people are disappointed about where we're at currently. I'm sure, yeah, in an ideal world we'd be in a better situation. But there are still a lot of things about the game we haven't exposed yet, and I think a lot of people are saying, "Well, there's no demo." And that was one of those things... we just couldn't get it ready in time for the beginning of the Kickstarter campaign, which was probably our bad. But I think when people see it, the proof will be in the pudding, and they'll get it.
USG: Have you ever worked with Matsuura before?
We've had a couple of occasions where we came close, but I've been friends with him for a long time. We came close on one project that didn't actually happen, but now seemed like a really good time. I've been having a blast, working with him. It's creatively very, very exciting.