In the mythology of the Castlevania series, Count Dracula was fated to come back to life once every hundred years. Well, plus frequent reappearances in off years, as the whims of his more ambitious supplicants dictated.
Meanwhile, former Castlevania lead producer Koji Igarashi disappeared from the public eye several years ago, around the time of 2008's Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, the last traditional game in the series he produced. Thankfully, unlike his favorite villain, he didn't stay missing for a full century. After years of leaving fans wondering where he vanished to, he finally reappeared earlier this week to announce that like so many overseers of franchises abandoned by their corporate overlords, he's gone solo. We caught up with him at Game Developers Conference to talk about his departure from Konami and what we can expect now that he's no longer limited by bean-counters....
USgamer: First of all, congratulations on your news and your future plans.
Koji Igarashi: Thank you.
USG: Now... what are those future plans?
IGA: If you look at where the Japanese market is right now, a majority of the development dollars are being spent on mobile experiences and social experiences. Now that I'm independent, I want to be able to focus on my fans, and my fans obviously are expecting a certanin type of game. I want to think about how I can possibly provide that.
USG: So your next project will be skipping mobile and social platforms in favor of a console and handheld focus?
IGA: Being 100% honest, we'll be focusing on those fans who primarily are on the console and are looking for console experiences or your traditional handhelds. Those are the people that we're going to focus on first and foremost. If I get to a position where I absolutely have to do mobile like the rest of everyone else due to funding issues, then I'll do what I have to to survive.
USG: Mobile and social are big in Japan, but you're best known for Castlevania, which seems to have a lot more traction in the West. This this mean your new project will be geared more toward Western players, then?
IGA: Yeah, so, to be 100% honest, when I made games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, I meant for them to sell in Japan. Of course, I did listen to what the Western fans were thinking about and did take some of their advice, but it was never about a, "Hey, let's make this something that does well in the West" or "not in Japan," or vice versa. First and foremost, I was trying to make a game that I thought was fun, and apparently my natural taste as a creator is something that Western gamers like more than Japanese gamers. And since I'm still the same creator that I've always been, I suspect anything I do in the future will naturally tend to gravitate towards that sort of fan base.
USG: I noticed you did seem to focus on appealing to Japanese gamers in some ways. The anime art style of Dawn of Sorrow, for instance...
IGA: This is actually a common misconception that occurs. And that is the anime style chosen in Dawn of Sorrow - it wasn't to make it appeal more to the Japanese market, it was to make it appeal more to the DS market...
USG: Ahh, I see...
IGA: ...and the rationale there was that people who were gaming on the DS continue to get younger and younger versus previous handhelds. And if you, with the franchise, don't continue to try and get new fans and new customers, then you just end up with older and older gamers that sometimes stop gaming or peter off. So that was pretty much us trying to appeal to new, younger users, to try to get them interested in that series. Though it didn't really work.
And any time I've made a game – even Symphony of the Night, with an art style and a world that really appealed to me... I feels, as a creator, if you don't make what you want to make and you try and make it for other reasons like what the market says or what the higher-ups say, then ultimately you're not going to be hitting your best strengths. So in the future, the game I'm going to make is going to be something that I want to make, and as such that will hopefully end up being what the fans want to play.
USG: In the past, have you really been able to create the games you wanted to make? You inherited the Castlevania series, which had a lot of preconceptions and baggage attached. Were you ever able to find balance between that legacy and your own ambitions?
IGA: If you look at the Castlevania games before I was attached to the series and after, there's a clear gap in between their different styles, and so I think definitely that I added and created and forged the path, the evolution of that franchise to a certain degree. That being said, yes, if you're going to create something new from the ground up, you don't get to bring over any of those things that you get from an existing franchise, like art assets and character designs and stuff like that. In those areas, I'm going to have to rely on myself to fill out. That being said, you know, it's a worthy challenge, it's something I want to do, it's something I feel like I'm capable of doing. So it's not something that's, per se, scary for me as a creator.
USG: You've said you're looking at ways to bring your game concept to fans. How much of the plan and design are actually set in your mind?
IGA: So, really I decided to make the jump around the end of last year, and that was because I had certain people telling me I really needed to consider it. I have a background and a support group that helped me make that leap. My last day was the 15th of March, so really jumping into my own company – that was two or three days ago. As far as the concept, I've put the ideas on paper. I now have it in the format that I want to, and the idea is at [GDC] to actively to talk publishers and see if there is a fit for finding a potential partner in the future. And that's, of course, only one of several options that I can pursue, but in the near future that's the first thing I need to focus on.
USG: How much influence has the success of your colleague's Kickstarters had on your decision and plans? Between Keiji Inafune's Mighty No. 9 and Yasumi Matsuno's Unsung Story, there have been some high-profile developers striking out on their own to make the games they want to create, but which publishers won't support.
IGA: In order to make a jump like this, a person has lots of different inspirations. It's never just one idea or one thing that gets them to do it. That being said, certainly Might No. 9 and watching it – it wasn't the money, it was seeing the sheer number of fans that wanted that sort of a game that were willing to put forth money in order to make it happen. So I realized that, yeah, I have a lot of fans that want me to make a certain kind of game. And those fans, they're power. They're energy. They're motivation to get you to move forward and take that risk.
USG: Why do so many creators have to go independent to make the games they want to create? Why do publishers seem so willing to ignore the evidently large number of fans who are begging for these classic style games and franchises?
IGA: You can call it capitalism. You can call it standard business practices. But in the end, businesses exist to make money. That's their main goal, and so, looking at games and development as far as "how can we make the most money possible?," it is a pretty standard notion in all businesses of all types. So while it may seem very logical to think, "Hey, giving the fans what they want equals getting money," they don't really think in that fashion as a company. They think, "How can we make the most money possible," and then that leads to a different sort of game being made, not necessarily what the fans want.
USG: You explored a lot of avenues for low development costs with games like Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth and Harmony of Despair. Why do you think those ventures fell to the wayside?
IGA: Honestly, because resources are limited. Your staff, the people who create, are limited. Why spend those resource on something that makes some or little money versus the social market which, in Japan, Konami had already has several successes with and shown that could make huge amounts of money? So that's where you're naturally going to assign your people to try and go for that big money rather than go for middling amounts of money.
USG: So the classic style of Castlevania died off because of social gaming, not because Konami wanted to focus on Lords of Shadow?
IGA: Honestly I mean, those sorts of decisions were made in upper management, above my head.
USG: Of course.
IGA: So I can't really comment on exactly what the rationale was for why the company decided not to move forward in making classic Castlevania games. But, you know, without a doubt, it's impossible to suggest that social didn't make the company money. It made them lots and lots of money. Naturally, putting resources on that side of the fence while maybe trying a different approach with the Castlevania series – that was probably their thinking.
USG: Lots of console-centric publishers explored low-cost downloadable games last generation – not just the downloadable Castlevania games, but things like Hard Core: Uprising, Capcom's franchise revivals. But they didn't seem to have the same traction that many indies have experienced recently working on similar titles – Rogue Legacy, a Castlevania-inspired action game, has sold something like 100,000 copies. What do you think you need to do in order to see the kind of success so many indies enjoy?
IGA: Honestly, numbers like 100,000... when you're looking at them from the perspective of a publisher, a big publisher – they're just like, "Eh, it's a drop in the bucket. Why would we chase after small numbers like that?" So, in order for a publisher that owns IP that the fans really love to pursue that style of game or those more classic sort of games that the core fans seem to like, that market needs to explode again like it did. And unless it does, then, really, the only people that I think are going to be able to focus on those sort of game experience are going to be independent developers. Because they don't care, they're not always trying to go for the biggest money. They're trying to go for what makes the fans happy and they're also trying to go for something that, you know, makes a little money, that's fine with them.
USG: Actually, I wasn't talking about Castlevania – I meant for your new venture. How can it be as successful as Rogue Legacy?
IGA: Well, honestly, I haven't played that game. I don't think it's been localized in Japanese yet. But as far as that... the fact that it was a smaller team who made it and it seems like they're making it for fans, it seems like it's a game that fans really appreciate. That in and of itself is going to be a very big hint for me, because that's what I need to do from here on out. My future endeavors are to make sure that I make the fans happy, and to make sure I give them kind of game they want.
USG: I'd be curious to hear what you think of Rogue Legacy once you play it. They said they were really inspired by your Castlevania games – in fact, their prototype used Rondo of Blood sprites as placeholders.
IGA: I'll let you know, if I ever play it. But you know, putting in placeholder graphics like that, of the game that kind of inspires you when you're making a new offshoot title or something like that, is pretty common in the game industry. I don't know if I can say this or not, but when I was making Tokimeki Memorial I was thinking of Princess Maker, and so we had some temporary graphics in there of that game for a short period of time. [laughs]
USG: A lot of indies have been inspired by Castlevania, actually. Have you been in contact with any of those teams?
IGA: Unfortunately, no, I haven't talked to any of those companies. Within the game industry it's pretty famous that I'm kind of a recluse and don't have a lot of friends. Sorry. [laughs]
USG: The title of your panel this week uses the fan term "metroidvania." How do you feel about people pushing that onto your work?
IGA: Honestly, in my heart, I really wanted to make something like Legend of Zelda. However, if you make Legend of Zelda a 2D side-scrolling game, then it naturally turns into Metroid, or naturally the game mechanics resemble a more Metroid experience. So, when I was making Symphony of the Night, I was thinking more of Zelda, and it's strange to hear people say "metroidvania." But when you think about it logically, it's like, yeah, the different hooks and the fact that you go back and forth in different areas and things like that, that is Metroid-style gameplay for sure. So, I get it.
USG: I think the term came about because the map in Symphony of the Night resembles the map from Super Metroid.
IGA: Oh, I thought it was because they had a super jump mechanic in Symphony of the Night that was very similar to Metroid's, and that the person that came up with the term was thinking about that game mechanic when he made it.
USG: It's interesting that you've embraced the fan term.
IGA: Yeah, actually, when I left Konami, they were like "Don't say the word Castlevania a lot." So, being able to say Metroidvania is good! It gives me an option of a word I can use.
USG: There's a trend these days of classic game developers going independent and getting the band back together, so to speak. Do you plan to work with people like Ayami Kojima and Michiru Yamane, who are so closely linked with your Castlevania games?
IGA: Obviously I worked with a lot of talented people on a wide variety of Castlevania games. So, yeah, probably the core people that fans will associate with bringing the band back together for a Castlevania game will include names like Yamane and Kojima. There are lots of other really talented people that maybe aren't as high profile but are absolutely necessary to create that kind of experience. And I know lots of different artists, of course, as well, that have helped make the franchise what it is. So, knowing those people and potentially being able to work with them is defintiely something that I'm looking into. Because I want to work with talented people that really make the games the gamers like. With Kojima, I don't talk with her as much as I used to, but with Yamane, I go out drinking with her a lot, so... [laughs]
USG: I interviewed her a couple of years ago and she seemed like she'd be pretty interested in working on another Castlevania-style game.
IGA: Oh, really? Whenever I go drinking with her, she always talks about all the times I screwed up before on the games that we worked together, so it's nice to hear that she's interested in that sort of game, working with me again. [laughs] 'Cause the only image I have is all the times I screwed up.
USG: It's clear from your comments that you're looking to make another game in the DS Castlevania mold. But where do you find the balance between rehashing familiar ground and coming up with new material?
IGA: That ratio of how much original or innovative ideas, new ideas, versus the comfortable gameplay that people want, the nostalgia gameplay that they want... finding that blend is not easy. But where that needle lands is going to ultimately determine, first in foremost, whether I can make the experience that the fans want. So I first, while I know that sounds like I'm doing the same thing over again, I absolutely must give them what they want. And after I give that to them, then adding on new innovative ideas and features, that will be the second pillar that I focus on. But it's really impossible to say where that needle will fall, just that that needle must fall first and foremost on the side of giving the fans exactly what they want.