It's been more than a year now since GungHo Entertainment acquired Grasshopper Manufacture, but Kazuki Morishita and Goichi Suda (popularly known as Suda51) can hardly seem to contain their giddy excitement at working together.
They are totally relaxed in each others presence, giggling (yep, giggling) over private jokes while waiting for their translator to finish speaking. They are in the U.S. to promote Let it Die (formerly Lily Bergamo), which Morishita initially proposed as a way to leverage the "inherent flavor" of the two companies; namely, GungHo's mastery of the free-to-play genre and Grasshopper's creative approach to game design. It's easy to see their respective influences in Let It Die, which is described as an asychronous multiplayer action game in which dead player data is uploaded to the cloud and turned into enemies in other games.
The gonzo creativity that Suda brings to the table seems to have energized Morishita. Many of the personal touches in Let it Die that one might attribute to Suda are in fact his ideas.
"The idea of gathering resources was my idea," Morishita smiles, referring to the fact that player characters start out wearing only their underwear and a gask mask and must slowly cobble together equipment. "And the reaper riding a skateboard at the end of the trailer? That was my idea, too."
Suda likewise has reason to be happy. Known for his penchant for experimentation, his games have always had the benefit of being unique. But Grasshopper's last few efforts have been critically panned, with Lollipop Chainsaw, Killer is Dead (which kicked off development in 2011), and Black Knight Sword all averaging between 65 and 70 on Metacritic. Let it Die is an opportunity for Suda, and Grasshopper Manufacture as a whole, to make a fresh start.
His partnership with Morishita goes back to 2011, when Suda was seeking to partner with a company with a strong track record in the online space. His search lead him to GungHo, which had an extensive portfolio that included the long-running Ragnarok Online. Morishita and Suda became fast friends, with the deal to sell Grasshopper to GungHo being made over drinks.
"We were eating Korean food at 2 AM, and we decided that we wanted to work together," Suda remembers. "Our core vision is similar, we've always had kind of a mutual respect for each other's work, and it felt really natural for us."
Morishita likewise professes a fondness for Suda's work: "Killer 7 is obviously a very good game. But my favorte is Flower, Sun, and Rain [which was first released on the PlayStation in 2001]. It was really unique and played like the movie Groundhog Day. When I first played it, it inspired me to feel like, 'Oh, there are people who make games like this? This is really unique."
Upon partnering up, Morishita encouraged Suda to leave the day-to-day of running the business to GungHo's specialist and focus all of his energies on game development.
"What you're good at and what you want to be doing is what you should be doing, which is why you start a company in the first place. That's what I told Suda-san," Morishita says. "I wanted him to focus more on the creative side and use his time to make the games he feels passionate about. It's good for him."
Suda, for his part, seems relieved. He admits that he was looking for a way to relieve himself of some of the responsibility of running the studio so he could get back to making games: "You only have limited time a day to focus on development and creative, and back when we were independent, I had to think about things like cash flow. Now that space gets filled with game development. Is it easier? Not entirely. But I like that I can focus on just making games. And now that we're part of GungHo, I can make 100 percent original titles rather than work-for-hire games."
Suda's comments reveal the other side of running an independent studio. Many developers dream of being able to make their own games, but unless their studio is wildly successful, reality inevitably sets in. Many studios are one flop away from major financial difficulties. Even historically well-regarded development houses like Crytek aren't always immune.
With the security afforded by the continued success of Puzzle & Dragons, and the help of a man who has lately become a close friend ("We get along," Morishita says in what might be the understatement of the year), Suda is now in the ideal position to succeed.
Of course, now the real test begins. With the woeful Killer is Dead behind him and the resources of GungHo Entertainment at his disposal, Suda no longer has any excuses for the quirky but ultimately poor releases that have lately come to define hhis games. If Let it Die doesn't live up to its unique concept, one has to wonder if this is just what we should expect from Grasshopper going forward.
In the meantime at least, Suda can rest easy knowing that he's in a good situation with a partner that he trusts: "Two years ago, we were completely independent, and we didn't have a place to settle in."
He pauses a moment, then smiles, "I feel like we have a home now."