Project Phoenix
Image: Project Phoenix

In the summer of 2013, there was a surge of successful Kickstarter video game-related projects. Keiji Inafune's Mighty No. 9 was funded, Hiroaki Yura's Project Phoenix was funded (to the tune of $1,014,600), and my own The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers was funded. Mighty No. 9 eventually saw release, while Yura's Project Phoenix did not – it was an ambitious action-JPRG which promised much on its budget of over a million dollars and would feature input from legends of the Japanese games industry – including Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu.

Below is my interview with Hiroaki Yura, conducted in Japan for my trilogy of books. It took place in Tokyo on 13th November 2013 and was the only interview I never published – reading it will reveal why.

Apart from a few very astute points regarding corporate culture in Japan, the nearly two-hour conversation was a train wreck of hubris and delusion by someone who meant well but was clearly out of their depth. Hiroaki Yuri might be an extremely talented orchestral musician, but it was apparent he would struggle to manage this project. For a game this complex, the only "gameplay designers" were a guy with minor credits on a few titles and a guy who did QA on L.A. Noire. The musicians may have been world-renowned, but nobody seemed to be steering the actual gameplay part of the game. Plus, they were already planning three additional Kickstarters despite only just starting this one.

I never published the interview, but I felt sorry for the guy. He had a wife and kids, and I hoped somehow they'd pull through. As of 26th March 2019, the project seems abandoned, with no further updates. Now I feel sorry for the backers who coughed up $10,000 apiece for higher reward tiers.

Hiroaki Yura
Hiroaki Yura, Tokyo, November 2013 — Image: John Szczepaniak

However, I would like to absolve myself of any responsibility. My first Untold History book came out late 2014, when Project Phoenix still had momentum. Even though I never published the interview until now, at no point could I have changed its course or saved people from investing money. That ship had already sailed by the time I sat down in Yura's Tokyo apartment in 2013.

On the day, I had a Tokyo film crew with me, who were producing a documentary on crowdfunding in Japan. I would later ask them not to use footage from this. The full uncut interview ran to 12,000 words. What follows is an abridged version for online publishing – I have edited it as lightly as possible, since I do not want anyone accusing me of magnifying Yura's claims through selective quoting. The full interview will be available in The Untold History of Game Developers Volume 5, which I'm hoping to complete this year. It will feature interviews from developers around the world, not just Japan.

(By the way, if you're keen to know more about Project Phoenix, then Reddit user reboot_the_PC has the most incredible write-up regarding its failure.)

Hiroaki Yura: My name is Hiroaki Yura. I'm a video game director and also a music director. Because it's Kickstarter and we show everything that we do, I'm fine with showing you most things. The only thing I don't want to show are things which we are not finished with! <laughs>

John Szczepaniak: Has it been a challenge dealing with the volume of communication from backers?

HY: Ah, yeah! <laughs> It has been quite a bit of a challenge. But I mean, we can't do more than our best. So our policy is to do our best, and that's it. I mean if we can't do everything then we can't, right?

JS: Do you have full-time staff handling communication?

HY: No. No, that's in my mind a waste of people's funds. Everything you see here is gear that I earned from doing music. It's my livelihood. I think it's unfair if we get extra people unnecessarily. Also it's not in the spirit of Kickstarter if people do it for money. I think that's wrong. Kickstarter is there for things which you have to pay for; where you can get something done only if you pay for it. I think it's fair to ask for money for those kinds of things.

We have a PR team of course. We have a guy working for President Carter. Ex-president Carter. We have guy who also has a marketing degree - he's working in LA. We have another person who is assisting both of them with the translation in Sweden. I mean, if these kind of guys can't do it, then I don't think nobody can. <laughs> Well, not at this level, anyway.

JS: With Kickstarter getting popular, there's now Comcept, with Mighty No. 9. Also Yatagarasu by former SNK staff. Your Project Phoenix. It seems Japan is warming to crowdfunding.

HY: Yes! Actually... I haven't made this public, but I have three other Kickstarter projects starting up right now. Two of them are game related.

JS: These are all being headed up by Creative Intelligence Arts, your company?

HY: Yes, yes. When is your book going to be published?

JS: Sometime in 2014.

HY: OK, well, maybe I can talk a little bit about it. Actually, at 7am today - or 7.30 or 8.30 - I had Jiro Ishii-san come to my place to talk about this project. I have a project called Project Pegasus. That's going to be announced after we release Phoenix. I'm not sure when we're actually going to announce it. I mean, some people know of the project's name, anyway.

JS: When do you feel Project Phoenix will be completed?

HY: We're saying May 2015. But the reason why we're vague is, I think, something you already understand. We don't know what's going to happen during the project. And we'll never let go of this project. I mean, we're never going to cancel it. Because I didn't design this project to be cancelled. Nothing can really stop us right now. I hope this is a good thing for backers. That's why we don't want to be money dependent. We only really needed $100,000. We didn't really need a million.

JS: You don't want to pull a Tim Schafer and suddenly run out of budget!

HY: <laughs> Yeah! So, I just wanted to link this to Ishii-san. Ishii-san is from Level 5, and he's the head of the Level 5 Tokyo office. And we're doing several projects together, on his stuff that he did way before he joined Level 5. Yes, so he's got a lot of material on stuff that hasn't ever been released; never seen the light of day.

JS: Half completed projects?

HY: Well, he's completed the story, because he's a storyteller. It's not half completed, it is completed. It's fully complete. I can show you the thing later, I have it just over there. We're trying to make an anime out of it, we're trying to make an adventure game out of it, and also we're doing a sci-fi RTS too. <laughs>

JS: You were born in Japan and moved to Australia when you were six years old. Do you consider yourself a bi-native speaker of English and Japanese?

HY: I think I'm bilingual. I mean, my Japanese isn't perfect in terms of writing, because it's very difficult. I can do business writing, it's not a problem. But when it comes to "writing" writing, you need a lot of practice. So I can speak, and read, and write, both languages. At what would be - I guess - a native level. Yes. So I left when I was six because of my parents. My parents moved to Australia because of work. And I'm the kid, so I get taken with them. That's just right before the Nintendo came out in Japan. And I brought my Nintendo to Australia. I didn't go back to Japan until at least I was 10 or 11. For four years we did not go back. So I was stuck with that for four years. Or perhaps my grandmother sent it to me. My memory is not that clear. We had to bring the TV with us, because the Australian TV can't connect to the Famicom system, because it's NTSC and PAL.

JS: And you returned to Japan when you were 11?

HY: No. I was 28. <laughs> So my primary, secondary, tertiary education is obviously in Australia. I was going to be a solo violinist. But I figured there's many, many people who are talented as a violinist. Although I was competing internationally, and I did win a lot of awards, and was able to play for orchestra, which most people won't be able to play, I thought: there's no point for me to continue because I can't change anything. If I can't change anything, why continue?

So I decided to play music that younger people would be more interested in. And what I am interested in! Which is anime and videogames. It was great. A lot of people came to see our concerts. The first time was in 2003 - it was a test run. We called it A Night in Fantasia - Eminence Symphony Orchestra didn't even exist. And because that was so successful we decided, well, we better take this seriously, because people are taking us seriously! You know, I only paid $100 to everyone, and just said: "Look, this is just going to be fun; let's just have one rehearsal and let's just do this."

It was fun, but it wasn't us. It was not the level that we normally perform at. The score wasn't done properly. Stuff like that. So in 2004 we established an orchestra called Eminence Symphony Orchestra. We got proper musicians and we paid them properly. We actually got proper orchestrators to orchestrate our music, and we performed. And this is where my game industry career started.

JS: You brought game composers on board too?

HY: The thing is, once we started doing this we invited [Hitoshi] Sakimoto-san, who did Final Fantasy Tactics. [Yasunori] Mitsuda-san who did Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, and Chrono Cross - stuff like that. You know, and Kow Otani-san, who did Shadow of the Colossus. Yoko Shimomura from Kingdom Hearts. Many, many composers. Go Shiina from Bandai-Namco games. Junichi Nakatsuru, who did Soulcalibur.

Well, it all started with Hitoshi Sakimoto. He said he needs a recording done. It was straight after Final Fantasy XII. He didn't have a good experience with... This is backstory, by the way. Things people won't answer in public interviews. I do it because I'm not really Japanese. I like the truth to be out.

Sakimoto-san is not a great orchestrator. He's a fantastic composer - I love his work. But he doesn't have any idea how to record music, because he has no prior training. That's nothing to be ashamed of, but he feels embarrassed. He's had bad experiences with a professional company, because he had no idea what was going on. He was working with... <pauses> Sorry, I've forgotten his name; he's bald. Anyway, he was working for a company called Imagine. This company Imagine does Pokémon, One Piece, all the big anime titles. They are also the same agency that orchestrated Final Fantasy for Nobuo Uematsu, with Shirou Hamaguchi.

Sakimoto-san went there and I think he had a bad experience because he didn't know enough. So he needed someone who was younger, and was easier to work with, and cheaper to work with. <laughs> And Australian wages are much lower than the wages in Japan - all those studios in Japan. Plus you get a better studio. Like Fox Studios, where they recorded things like Master and Commander, and stuff like that.

So we actually got Eminence to record at Fox Studios for his first work, which was Deltora Quest the DS game. Then straightaway, we did a thing called Romeo x Juliet, which is an anime with Sakimoto-san. Then afterwards he felt safe, so he brought in a big one - Valkyria Chronicles. This is where everything started to go everywhere. Because people were starting to find out that we actually did things properly, and we could perform. Because we were classically trained and we took everything seriously. Most of all though we were gamers and international award-winning classical musicians. Because internationally award-winning [musicians] don't play video games! But we do. We're just exceptional I guess.

Then Blizzard heard of us, because I spoke to Blizzard about...

JS: Did Sega give you any kind of material related to Valkyria Chronicles?

HY: They did. But it wasn't enough. I thought it was enough then, because that's all I'd seen. But now that I know how much video game development is involved, I think it's way less than I should have known. I should have known much more.

I think Sakimoto-san obviously knew everything, and he's shown me some of the videos, and footage, and stuff like that, and I made a little presentation to my orchestra. Which a lot of other orchestrators don't do - they don't care, they just play the notes and they go home. That's it. We actually put it on a projector and told them what the feel of the game is. World War I or II, but with a fantasy setting, kind of like Europe.

JS: Conveying the sekaikan of the game?

HY: Yes, exactly. But it wasn't enough. If I knew the plot more, and how the Valkyria interacted, I would have done things differently. Also the score wasn't ready. The score was not ready. They were still working on the score the day before we were recording. That is unsatisfactory. We should have been given the score a week beforehand, and the engineers should have all the cue lists ready. They had no idea what we were recording on that day. And then you waste a lot of time. So I'm a bit upset because these things are avoidable problems.

I feel that the Japanese game industry, when it was ahead, up to around the year 2000, or even the early 2000s, I think it was full of itself. I think they were overconfident, especially the composers, because proper composers don't go to the video game music industry. The composers who were there, who were undertrained, thought they can actually do real live-recorded music. But in order to do live-recorded music you need to have real training, like going to a conservatoire like the Royal Academy of Music. To know how to do orchestration, music production, music engineering, recording, performance, performance direction, everything. They don't know anything. And then all they've done, some people, is writing music on Excel! Because that's how the programming is. Or people started and they don't know notes or...

JS: But is that a problem? Some of the best composers started programming electronic music on a PC-88, and it's a fantastic sound.

HY: Oh, that's good. That's fine. But if you do a live orchestra, and you don't know how to do it... <laughs> Then that's a problem! Right? And everybody loves live orchestra. This is what makes music big, because there's a hundred musicians sitting there at your command, and this makes good publicity. Great music - or it should make great music.

But if you don't know how to control this, then you're in big trouble. Because three hours of hiring an orchestra, you can buy yourself a cheap car. Three hours. They only take three hours. Imagine wasting one minute. OK, to fix a problem it takes five minutes. So that's fives times... Let's say a standard patterned orchestra of 86 [people]. That's five times 86. You do the maths! That's a lot of money. <laughs> And people aren't ready for it. The way it should be done is you need to have copyists, people who edit music, with running laser printers already warmed up, ready to do anything if anything goes wrong. If you can get that five minutes mistake down to two minutes, that's three minutes times 86 people's time you've saved.

This is basic business, or easy maths, and Japanese people don't know how to be professional.

JS: Obviously, you have a lot of experience with music production...

HY: Now I do, yes.

JS: ...which will help with the music side of development, but this is your first video game?

HY: That's correct.

JS: So couldn't it be argued you're lacking experience in games production, level design, programming, and so on?

HY: I'm very much lacking. I'm very much lacking and I know that. Which is why what I've done is cordon each group with a leader. Let's say art. It's led by [Kiyoshi] Arai-san, from Final Fantasy XIV. He's had 12 years experience on huge titles and he knows what to do. So I trust him to do everything, and then he submits a final piece of work, and he asks me whether I like it or not. That's it. I trust them to do everything the right way, the correct way, and they will show me so I learn the process. Same with Steffen Unger. He has a company in Berlin that does modelling, and they do like Halo 4 and Crysis 3 and stuff like that. And he teaches me every day what's happening. He doesn't need to teach me, but he teaches me so that I understand and will be able to direct better.

JS: So you coordinate the leaders who are in charge of various departments?

HY: Yes. They are little cells. So they are self-sufficient cells, basically.

JS: Regarding games design, Vaughan Smith is in charge. I believe he's an old classmate of yours?

HY: Yes, he is.

JS: Is he the sole designer?

Project Phoenix
Image: Project Phoenix

HY: No, he's not. The guy who is also game designing is called Cristian Fagundo. Can you please note that I'm under obligation that he is to be protected. Because he has a job.

JS: So there is a second gentleman involved in the game design.

HY: Yep. And he's from a very, very big French company, which did a particular pirate-y assassination game. He's also been doing a particular commando-like game, which was popular a long time ago in Spain.

He is also helping in the games design department. But actually, a lot of game design is from me. Because, I don't know, I used to play in a very high-end World of Warcraft guild, and we dissect everything. In terms of swing timers, movement, haste, whatever. And I know what I want. And these guys are just trying to help me achieve and balance what we want. So I'm very confident with game design. Although - truth be told - I've never done it before, but my theory is I'm taking the best of what other companies do, and mixing it, and making what I think is the best mix I guess. And sprinkling a bit of my own into it. <laughs>

JS: Because I look at the list of Project Phoenix staff, lots of skilled staff in various areas, and it just seemed slightly concerning that the only person credited under design was Vaughan Smith, whose highest profile role previously was Quality Assurance on L.A. Noire. I thought to myself, an RPG needs more than just one person helming it. So there's three: yourself, Smith, and Fagundo?

HY: Oh, and this guy, we call him Cronus. He's my assistant producer, but he also cannot be named. So there's four guys working on game design.

JS: Collaboratively coming up with ideas, bouncing ideas off each other?

HY: Yes. But it's mainly my idea. It hasn't been challenged that much because my ideas are very simple, and it's already been proven, so there's no need to change much I guess.

JS: You went down a career path of music first; did you ever have the inclination, maybe when playing Famicom, to make games?

HY: Absolutely not. No, no, no. I enjoyed playing video games. And they were good, until recently when it started getting bad. Well, not bad. Not interesting. Not something I would want to play. Before it was something that I would be very excited to play, but now I don't feel the rush and excitement. That's when I take action - it's the same with music. When I play music and it's just pleasing old people, I just go, OK, I'll do something to make everybody happier. The same with this game. Nobody has thought of a real... Well, some people have, like Baldur's Gate and stuff, but it's not JRPG. Nobody really thought of a JRPG with RTS mechanics because Japanese people don't like RTS. So I said: "Why not? I'm sure some people might like it." And Project Phoenix is it.

JS: So your urge to create games was quite recent?

HY: Yeah, yeah. So it was like the end of last year [2012] when I... Well, you know, to be honest, the first idea was Pegasus. First we wanted to make Pegasus, a sci-fi RTS. Why sci-fi? Because Japan is very well known for mecha. Space Battleship Yamato. Macross. Gundam. You know. We wanted these kinds of worlds to be out there for video games. I thought it would be fun. But Pegasus is a huge project. It needs to be done very well, or it's going to fail.

JS: Bigger than Project Phoenix?

HY: Much, much bigger. And much riskier. And that's why we're going to take two years. When we announce this game, when we release it on Kickstarter, we're going to have a vertical cut that everybody can play with.

JS: So a demo?

HY: Yes. Because it's much higher risk. In terms of Project Phoenix, it was supposed to be like a tower-defence get-rich-quick project. We were like, oh, let's just make a tower defence game, and have JRPG characters instead of towers.

JS: Didn't Square-Enix do that with Final Fantasy...

HY: <interrupts> Yeah, but that's... That's not a good game! <laughs> Crystal Defenders or something. But it was not a very good game. We have much better ideas than they did. But when we started thinking, putting our heads together about tower defence, the get-rich-quick project, we were like: we're not these guys. We're not doing this so that we can get rich quick. We're doing this because we like it. If we're going to get rich, let's get rich by doing the right thing, by making good games that are going to last.

Then all these people started coming together. It was just like a biological thing. It wasn't... I didn't go out and give them presentations, they just kind of all came together. <laughs>

JS: Let's talk about Pegasus. You said you had three other projects; two are games.

HY: Hmm, one is anime.

Project Phoenix
Image: Project Phoenix

JS: Regarding the game projects. What can you reveal?

HY: Well, all I can say is Project Pegasus is in the works. But I don't want to release the details just yet, because we're not ready. But we can do correspondence and I can tell you when it's a good time to tell you.

Jiro Ishii from Level-5 is using his older works from before all of this. Before he had joined Level-5 or Spike Chunsoft. For Pegasus, which is a sci-fi... It's like StarCraft, except you're dealing with ships and fleets, and there's three factions. The basic story, without going into too much detail is that it's a post-apocalyptic.

How can that happen in a space environment? It's not people nuking each other. It's people having lots of wars. So there's actually an asteroid belt. People think it's an asteroid belt but it's not. It's an asteroid belt full of broken-down warships, and what you have to do is you need to salvage these ships to wage war. Because this technology is so advanced it's "lost technology". You need to salvage and you make your fleet, and then attack. But the story is much more complicated. There's a lot of human drama that goes on - and each faction has a hero, which you get to control.

JS: What about the second game project?

HY: Uhm... That's quite tight. But I can tell you that it's... Well, actually we were thinking of releasing at otakon next year. So it should be July or August, that's in Baltimore.

JS: When you're ready to reveal it, let me know.

HY: OK. I think I'll let you know later, because even I don't know what's going on! <laughs> I mean it's not ready. It's not ready at all.

JS: How did you discover Kickstarter? A lot of people credit Tim Schafer.

HY: I think it was a Pokémon symphony. <laughs> Because I was trying to figure out ways in which to gather funds for my orchestra. Because orchestra is so expensive. We've done so many concerts where we've just lost so much money, and it was nearly a full house, and everybody enjoyed it except for my wallet. <laughs> I'm not an NPO - you know, a non-profit organisation. So it just got really hard on me and my family, and my work. So I was looking for ways to fund my orchestra and Kickstarter seemed to be the way. Except I got a better idea. <laughs> Which is Project Phoenix.

JS: You've mentioned Japan versus the West. I wonder if that's not a little unfair. The West includes Australia, all of Europe, Canada, America, and so on. It pits the combined output of a dozen or more countries against just Japan. So when I hear someone say Japan is struggling against the West, what they really mean is Japan's output struggles against the combined output of the world.

HY: Yeah. But we probably had the most experience, even against twelve countries put together. We've had a huge head start with Nintendo, Sega, 3DO. <laughs>

JS: Wasn't that American developed?

HY: Yeah, but we had lots of games coming out on 3DO. What I'm just saying is, we've had so much experience with making video games. We've got no excuse to be like this. But the Japanese corporate [culture], the way we work here, gave us declining creativity.

JS: So corporate policy - decisions from the top - caused a decline?

HY: Yes. I'm sure Inafune-san must have said the same thing if you've already spoken to him.

JS: Yes. He said one of the things he wanted to do with Mighty No. 9 was make Japan the leader again.

HY: But I think I have to disagree. <laughs> I think Japan was the leading country, and I do bring up Japan versus the West often. But now we've had the internet for a very long time - good internet for at least 15 years now. I think it's about time that we go international. Like, forget Japan. Forget the West. Have everybody trying to make a good game. Like our team. The reason is, it's not efficient. This is my personal thing. Everyone has the right to their own opinions. But I believe Japan has one of the best designs in the world, in terms of art design. It's very funky, and I believe it's a few years ahead of many of the Western designers. I know lots of good Western designers, but as a nation Japan is very high standard. Probably because of anime as well, because nobody makes anime like we do. But it doesn't mean that we can program well. It doesn't mean that we know how to make game engines - which we suck at. It doesn't mean we can make good 3D models all the time. It doesn't mean we're good at 3D animations. So my philosophy is: get the best out of everybody. That's what I'm doing for Phoenix.

JS: The skills of one improving those of another?

HY: Exactly. So I'm trying to create The Avengers! <laughs>

JS: You mentioned losing interest in modern games. Are there any which interest you?

HY: I've lost interest, but it doesn't mean I don't play. I play a lot of games. I don't think I have the right to say I know modern games without playing them, right? I mean, I won't mention any names, but I know one particular, one of probably the biggest RPG creators, who told me that the RTS concept won't work. And I asked him: have you played Warcraft? Or any Blizzard games? And he said no. <short pause> Point proven. How could you say that without playing it?

I think a lot of my philosophies in game development comes from music. How could you know piano, if you don't know forte? Or if you don't know loud, how do you know soft? Right? The basic philosophy for anything is essentially the same. I've lost interest but I am hoping with games; there are some good games. I liked Gravity Rush very much. I'm not too interested in stuff like The Last of Us, but it's a fine game. Call of Duty I've played because I like military stuff, and it's very well made, but what do you expect from a team that's good?

JS: But haven't they just recycled the same formula over multiple iterations?

HY: Yeah. But I play it nonetheless because I'm just a military nerd! <laughs> Right? But it doesn't mean that it interests me. It just interests me because I like shooting games, but it doesn't mean that I think it's a great game that changed my life, no. It's absolutely not the game that changed my life.

Project Phoenix
Image: Project Phoenix

JS: Did you play Valkyria Chronicles?

HY: Of course. I thought it was a great game. I think it was a great first attempt. But it lost the plot after the first game. It's because everybody left. Everybody who was there at the beginning, who spent years of their lives trying to make Valkyria Chronicles, had to leave. Like the producer! <laughs> It's actually a big tragedy. I'm very sad about that.

JS: The series went in a strange direction after the first, seemingly as a result of the anime adaptation being so successful.

HY: They needed to go in that direction, because PSP was cheaper to produce. Japan only cares about domestic sales, really. That's really stupid - they only care about domestic sales and if it does well they get promoted, that's it. Fire the old producers, to go to the next or other projects. Because they [the producers] didn't want to make it an anime.

But it's this huge corporate cogwheel which is destroying our culture and our ideas. And I'm sick and tired of this. That's why I created this video game too, because we can control our own IP. If people want to draw our characters and put it online - god, of course they can! If they want to copy our music and share it with their friends, I'm fine with that.

JS: Encourage a fan movement?

HY: Yeah! Why not? If they really like the music, please buy it. But if they want to share it with their friends, share the MP3s, why not? If you really like something, anybody is going to buy it.

JS: You mentioned that you were considering bringing it to PS4 and Vita. I know a lot of Kickstarter projects start on PC and there's stretch goals, where they try to bring it to other platforms. What is the process - what stipulations do Sony impose to become a licensee?

HY: Well, they just have to like you. <laughs> Yeah, I think so. I mean, I can't really comment on the small bits, because our main contract with Sony hasn't been signed. Or you can't really mention right now, until we... <pauses to reflect> OK... Let's just say we can't or you can't just mention that we're actually working with Sony. But the thing is, there's not some kind of criteria or anything. Because they're just trying to get indie games out there, and they're making it very easy for us to do it.

JS: I've heard from multiple devs, including yourself in previous interviews, that Nintendo does not have any kind of set-up to work with indies.

HY: Right. In order to understand Nintendo's psyche, you need to understand where they are from. Nintendo are from Kyoto. In the video game industry Nintendo is an old, old company. But in Kyoto, they're very young. <laughs> In Kyoto there are companies which have lasted more than a thousand years. There's many restaurants which have been around for over a thousand years. It's a matter of pride I think. They are very proud of their heritage, and what they've done as a game company. I mean Nintendo didn't used to make video games.

JS: Hanafuda playing cards.

HY: Yeah, and Japanese chess boards, and stuff like that, right? So Nintendo I think is very proud and they have this narrow vision of thinking videogames are like this, and it needs to be made like this, and it needs to have our criteria, because we made video games. That's not the spirit of indie development. It's a pity because they have very funky hardware, and we'd like to play with it, and we'll probably have - with everybody put together - we'll probably have better ideas than Nintendo in the first place. But yes, it is a very hard market to crack. The "Nintendo indie" market, especially in Japan. I think in the US they allow indie games.

JS: I'd heard the Japanese setup for WiiWare publishing was very different to the US and Euro markets.

HY: Recently there was a bracket - Japanese developers cannot do indie games. But that's been taken off during our Kickstarter, when I criticised Nintendo for their lack of vision for indie games. <laughs> There was a bracket: Japanese indie game developers cannot apply to develop games for Nintendo. But that's been removed.

JS: Yes, I read about that, regarding the Wii U.

HY: During our Kickstarter - I'm not sure if I had anything to do with it - but I openly criticised the fact that people wanted our game to be on the Wii U [and Nintendo would not allow it]. So it's not about the platform, it's really about how the companies operate.

JS: What was the last JRPG you enjoyed playing?

HY: You ask very dangerous questions! <intense laughter> The last JRPG which I enjoyed, the last one... Probably Secret of Mana.

JS: And the most recently released?

HY: I slightly - slightly - enjoyed Bravely Default. Just slightly. <laughs> The Last Story, hmmm... People love it? But it didn't grab me. But I love Secret of Mana.

JS: On the Super Famicom, three players.

HY: Yes! Fantastic. Don't know why nobody else does that. But we are.

Project Phoenix
The world of Project Phoenix — Image: Project Phoenix

JS: Multiplayer RPG?

HY: Yes, we are going to do that. But we are planning a spin-off from Phoenix, and it's going to be exactly like Secret of Mana. Where we can just sit down and play in the same world together. Just three of us, or maybe four, but not World of Warcraft. I'd love to do something... I mean we are doing that. But yeah, Secret of Mana... <long pause>

JS: Have you played Xenoblade Chronicles?

HY: We did the music.

JS: You're personally credited, I know, but did you play the game?

HY: Oh yeah, of course. I only played a little bit. Because my Wii U was kind of dead. I was in, I think... No, I had an Australian Wii U, and I think it wasn't compatible with the Japanese disc I was given. <laughs> So I only played a little bit at my friend's place. Yeah, I think I should play that.

I think that was when I got really busy with SoulCalibur V. So there's some periods where I can't play video games. I was the music director for Soulcalibur V. So there was about seven months of time where I just couldn't play video games.

JS: As someone who speaks both Japanese and English, let's talk about sekaikan. It's usually translated as "world view" but speaking with Japanese developers, there seems to be more depth to the word. For example the language a fictional people might speak or...

HY: There's a direct translation for that. There is "world view", but there's a better translation. It's lore. But the thing is it's quite the opposite. Western developers are much more intricate with their lore than Japanese people.

JS: You think so?

HY: Yeah, oh it is! Because I've spoken to the lore masters at Blizzard. There's two librarians. Because we did projects together and we also worked for Blizzard. The amount of lore they do before they start the game is incredible. It's just off the charts.

I don't know how the Japanese do it but people find the Japanese world so cool. But a lot of these projects are just done: "Well, let's do this!" And it just happens. And I asked them, why is that like this?

And they go: "Oh, because we felt like it."

That does not happen with Blizzard, because they think about "why is this?" <gesturing with hands> Because this is that. They have a reason. They have functional design. Whereas Japanese people, they don't have functional design. They just have aesthetics. It's not just sekaikan, it's not just lore, it's also aesthetics and design as well. So why does Cloud have a big sword? Because it looks good.

JS: But that's just one example. In the Panzer Dragoon series, as a counter example, the creator's hobby was languages, so he created a functional language for the game. Sure, in Final Fantasy VII a guy unrealistically has a gun for an arm, but there are counter examples.

HY: I mean, they work. It's a video game, it's supposed to be fun. But the way Western people weigh lore, and the way Japanese people weigh lore, and how they value it, is different. I'm not saying one is correct or one is wrong. Actually I like to take, try to take, both good things. Some of them just don't work together, but I like to take the best out of both. So our ideal motto is: "Functional design with Japanese aesthetics." So that we can take from both.

JS: Regarding the lore of Project Phoenix, do you have a bible?

HY: It's huge. I make the lore.

JS: So when artists or others do things, you check to make sure it adheres?

HY: Of course. Yes.

JS: With team members all over the world, is it a challenge maintaining consistency?

HY: Oh, no. We've got Skype, we've got Chatwork, that's all we need. There's no miscommunication. Everything is typed down and then when we need to discuss something we just talk on Skype. The time difference is a bit difficult for Skype meetings. But then if we need to get a message across we'll just leave it on Chatwork. Or even Skype messaging.

JS: Is there any difficulty with the language barrier between staff?

HY: But Steffen [Unger] can speak English. So that's OK. Between the animators and the artists, there are some bilingual staff, like Gontaro, who does art design and is our lead artist. He used to work for Marvel comics. He's bilingual - he grew up in New York and came back here to work on Bushido Blade and stuff like that. He can speak both Japanese and English, and understand what I am trying to get to. Which is the most important thing. I explain to him the world, and he understands, and he just pins it down, and I'm fine with that. Now, when it gets to translating that into a model, Gontaro usually talks with Steffen, or sometimes I talk to Steffen, and we make it into a model. Then when it comes to animation, we have a guy called Kamiya-san who also lived in New York and who is proficient in both languages as well.

JS: Related to sekaikan is the word jiyuudo which means...

HY: Freedom.

JS: Japanese developers have various unique terms to describe games. Do you use these words or think of them during development?

HY: Sekaikan we obviously do because of our lore. But jiyuudo I think is a very ambiguous word. I don't agree with using it because, firstly, having it as a game, that's already not jiyuudo. You're working within the boundaries of a role. Then having an open world and stuff like that, is that really freedom? <laughs> I don't think so.

I like to concentrate on what people want, rather than giving them freedom. What people want, I think especially for RPGs, is a good story. Especially in JRPGs, which are not known for jiyuudo. Because we're not Skyrim. We're not World of Warcraft. Even World of Warcraft has proper places to go to at certain levels, right? Do you call that freedom? No, I don't think so. You can go to too high a level area and you just die in one hit. That's not freedom. Well, you can go there, but you just die in the beginning of the area. <laughs>

So I don't know, there's a huge debate on, obviously, how Skyrim is - you can roam the Earth. Same with Fallout 3. That's fine, there's a time and place for those kinds of games. But Japanese developers talking about jiyuudo? Please! <laughs>

JS: Freedom is an undulating concept and mechanic. Linear bottlenecks which open up to free exploration, converging onto narrative focal points.

HY: Well, let me tell you more basic stuff. You know we're racist, right?

JS: Sorry, who is racist?

HY: Japanese people in general. I mean, we don't intend to be racist. We want to be nice. But we have a really racist mind. We don't call ourselves Asians, do we? Have you ever heard of us calling ourselves Asians? In the Japanese media, when you look at the news, when you hear "Asia-jin" it's not Japanese. We say Nihon-jin.

I think we're racist. We lost the war, and the Americans came, and we now like white people, especially Americans. We want to be like Americans. We think we have very much [a sense of] individualism, but we don't. There's an underlying thing that we've lost, because we lost the war. I'm not saying we losing the war is a good thing, or winning the war was a good thing. But there's some bit of us that we've lost. And through that I believe that we have a tendency to like what the West is doing. You know, whether it be the British people, or Europeans, or Americans. We have "akogare". And akogare is we like them; we don't idolise them, but we respect them a little too much, maybe.

The word jiyuudo I think came from America, for the games that Americans did. Because Americans are the game creators who actually first developed games which had a lot of open field. Because that became successful the Japanese felt they need to do it. The Japanese are like that all the time. You know they look at something, something successful, "we have to do the same thing!"

It's like Toyota, except Toyota is very successful! <laughs> You know who they copied, right? Mercedes. They copied the great German cars, and then we made it our own. And they're successful, it's fine. We made an identity for Toyota; games, not so successful.

So I kind of smirk at them when they talk about jiyuudo, because really, I dare Japanese game developers to make something like Fallout, or Skyrim. Like, they're doing things for the sake of fashion. Not because they really want to do it. Like when Rockstar really want to make all those games, where you can drive around the city and do whatever you want, it's because they want to make that game.

For us it's like: "Look at what Rockstar is doing, that's awesome! Let's do this!"

JS: But if you look at Platinum Games, or Suda 51, their games are unprecedented. They throw caution to the wind, they ignore publisher wishes - there are several Japanese devs that create passion projects. I think you're being unfair.

HY: I can't say too much, because I don't know how this game is going to turn out. But from a very critical player's point of view... You've seen a musical, right? A stage musical. You know, those people have to sing, they have to dance, they have to act, there's music, there's a conductor downstairs, there's somebody who is writing the music, there's lighting, there's costume design, there's background design, there's small special effects, right? Everything has got to be good. I feel video games are too lenient on their criticism. Sure I enjoyed FTL very much, and it has its place in indie. I guess I'm doing indie too, because I'm a bit of a coward as well. Because I don't know if I can make everything perfect as I want it to be. But if we're staying indie, we won't get criticised as much, and they will be like: "Oh you've done well for an indie!"

JS: Do you feel indies are protected from criticism?

HY: Yes. Yes. I'm just generalising. I think leniency is OK, but I think because I'm a video game creator now, I need to make video games better than they are right now. That's my job. I'm a servant to video games now. I was a servant to just music, but I'm a servant to video games, and I need to make everything better as I know it. So not just the graphics. Of course we're not going to make Final Fantasy or Call of Duty levels of graphics. But even with graphics, the design, the music, the story, everything has to be good. Everything has to be as perfect as we want it to be. Things like Journey are fine, but if you look at the overall thing, if you don't think about the fresh idea Journey brought, and the fresh experience, if you look at the other stuff... The other stuff is solid. That's something that needs to be worked on, every single detail. And why was Japan good at making video games? Because we looked at every single detail up to our capacity.

JS: You asked if Japan could ever make Fallout. My counter argument would be, could the West ever make Bayonetta? Could the West make Valkyria Chronicles with its watercolour graphics? Or Okami?

HY: Prince of Persia.

JS: Sorry?

HY: Prince of Persia was earlier than Valkyria, slightly. Was it? In 2009 or something? Where you jump around.

JS: I wouldn't necessarily compare that to Valkyria Chronicles.

HY: The one where it was all pastel colours, just like Valkyria. It's a very good game, it's very well done. Not the one which is the same as the movie, not Sands of Time. The other one. They did it better than Valkyria.

I mean, no. Japanese people have very interesting things. I'll give them that. But I think before, because it was 16- or 32-bit, because there's not much detail we can do, even if we wanted to, then you work hard to make everything perfect. Right? And Japanese people are very good at doing that - or were very good at doing that. But now so much money and the corporation is involved, you'll be lucky if you get one good idea. Like, I'm friends with [Keiichirou Toyama] who did Gravity Rush, and he's a very great thinker, and a great creator. And he knew he had to concentrate on one, which was the Vita.

JS: Have you played Demon's Souls?

HY: Yes. <pause> I think it's a good game, but I think it's an attempt at trying to be what they're not.

JS: Attempt at being...?

HY: Like Western games. The same with Dragon's Dogma.

JS: I'd say Dragon's Dogma and Demon's Souls are vastly different. With From Software, it's like an extension of their King's Field series. In terms of raw, pure mechanics, I think the West would struggle to replicate Demon's Souls.

HY: Right.

JS: Obviously, the aesthetics borrow from Medieval European imagery. But the way the game functions, with its refined high difficulty, combat, tight controls...

HY: I understand what you're saying.

JS: I play games from all over the world. I think America and Europe even have very distinct styles of game, both aesthetically and mechanically.

HY: You look at Gears of War and Killzone.

JS: Exactly - the latter was a Dutch game. It's important to distinguish the origins. People talk about GTA, but that's made in Scotland. I feel Japan is still creative and producing great games.

HY: I'm not saying Japan is making uninteresting games. I think Japan can do far better than what is happening right now. I'm not going to mention - because this is too dangerous to mention - the name of the company. But I know a particular multi-million dollar company, that is working on software, for example particle effects. These guys are making particle effects on something they can't check until they actually make a build and export it onto their PS Vita systems. How old do you have to get? That's incredible! I have a lot of respect for these particle effect artists, because they don't even get to see what it actually looks like.

JS: It's not possible to demo them?

HY: Not with their system set-up, no. But Unity can. <laughs> Right away you see everything, as they make it. It's stupid and ridiculous. I don't understand, and I don't know why they don't make that little change to make people's lives more... You know, artists can really concentrate on making the effects better instead of waiting until it's exported, and seeing the effect, and then going back and saying, OK we'll fix this bit, and then coming back and exporting another build. That's stupid. These are the things that are holding Japan back. The secrecy.

JS: Yes, developers not wanting to share knowledge.

HY: Do you know the Soulcalibur V team and the Tekken team [at Bandai-Namco] do not share experiences?

JS: Right, I've read articles on Gamasutra which talk about how in America they have conferences, things like GDC, and share knowledge on overcoming difficulties.

HY: And then the whole industry gets better. In Japan, even if you're from the same company, they don't even talk about what they've gone through. That's stupid.

JS: Secrecy between divisions?

HY: Even within divisions. That's Bandai Namco Games. I worked for them, and I just had enough. How they find out about what they're doing, is by checking each other's contracts with their outsource companies.

JS: It seems a bit...

HY: Extreme. Yes, but it is the way it is right now. Did you go interview Konami?

JS: No! Because they don't like journalists talking to their staff.

HY: Well, let me tell you one thing. At Konami, everybody has a business card, obviously. These have a telephone number which goes to the front; no email. Why? Their email changes every year.

JS: Yes, I've seen! And it's a bizarre alpha-numerical email.

HY: Yes, so they don't have their staff taken away by another company. It's crazy. Things like that are holding development back, and people are getting fed up really. The artists should not have to put up with this. Neither should anyone else. That's why I think if I start this movement, and say: guys, you don't need to put up with this anymore. We have Kickstarter, we can make our own games, and you can live decently and probably get paid better than you do right now, if it's successful. And you get to keep your work. What would top creators of Japan do? They will leave their company.

JS: Mid-tier games have fallen away and the industry is polarising into triple-A or shovelware. Do you think indie games could bring back diversity?

HY: It could be a saviour of those games, but not a major force. As long as Famitsu is around. <laughs> As long as Famitsu is working and functioning as a business, I don't think indie games will ever succeed in a major way in Japan. But it will change the mindset of the companies that we work for.

JS: Does Famitsu not cover indie games?

HY: Yeah, they don't really cover it much. Like, we had a thing called Indie Stream, in Tokyo, after the Tokyo Game Show.

JS: At Sony! Yes, I was there. Were you there too? It was busy!

HY: Oh, I was there. I was on stage. So Famitsu would mention Inafune-san, because he's a company guy. And Mighty No. 9 is essentially company made. It's not really an indie project, I feel. They will concentrate on Inafune-san, because he's already big, right? But everybody else, Famitsu would not care. I was in the photo that Famitsu posted, they didn't even mention me at all.

I don't mind, but that's the way or how they think. If you look at Sony you will understand that they know what's going to happen in the future. They know they need to be friends with these guys, because of all the big names that are going to move. People don't know that the director of Pegasus - I'm the producer of Pegasus - the director is a huge name from a very, very large particular company. When people realise this it might be too late for the companies to regain their status towards how they treat creators.

JS: There's been high-profile examples of creators leaving the companies they've worked at for years. Inafune-san is just one example. Sakaguchi-san, when he left Square...

HY: But with Sakaguchi-san... Sakaguchi-san, he left Square because he lost $92 million. <laughs> Anybody would leave. But he's still getting royalties. He's a very rich man. He only founded Mistwalker so... He thought he could start something with Microsoft, but Microsoft screwed him over.

I learned a lot from Sakaguchi-san, and I really respect him. The time he's taken off for me is... Yeah. But there's a lot of negative encouragement. <laughs> He really smashes you. He does not do that physically, but, you know. <laughs> He'll say, you've made the game too big for yourself, for your own good. Or he'll say you should just quit, because it's now or never! <laughs> And it feels like, oh my god, why is he telling us now?! <laughs> Yes, he's a fine gentleman.

JS: Now that your Kickstarter has succeeded, does it still feel as daunting? Or does it feel more daunting because you've received so much more money than requested? People's expectations go up, don't they?

HY: Yes, but I mean... We will make what we want to make. And we'll be successful in making what we want to make. But I'm worried if this is what everybody wants. And I know it's not what every single one of the 15,000 plus backers wants. I'm worried about that. And I'm worried about the time as well. I said mid-2015, but we could be late by three or maybe five months. But we're not going to release it until it's ready. But again, we're not going to not release it. We will definitely release it, whatever happens. It's my job to make sure that happens.

JS: Yeah, you don't want this to turn into another Duke Nukem Forever.

HY: <laughs> Well, we can't let it last for that long. The problem that we have specifically is how long it takes for us to make the event sequences. Because RPGs are about event sequences. And that's the longest thing. Getting the battle system done up, getting the music, getting the art, getting the models. That's all fine. Most other genres that is the whole game. You know? But for us there's a lot of worlds that we have to make, and it takes time to make maps, and then time to make event sequences. So that's what I'm worried about. If that takes too much time, then our localisation staff is going to get their deadline kicked back. Then the QA staff are going to get kicked even more back.

JS: And costs go up.

HY: Oh no, costs won't go up.

JS: No? You're not hiring an external QA team?

HY: No. Internal. All internal. The QA team is also free. These guys are my friends. Also, there's a separate QA team that Sony provides for free as well.

JS: But we don't know if it's coming to PS4 yet.

HY: Yeah. So that's not a problem. The problem is doing all the event sequencing. Because we want lots of side quests, we want lots for people to explore. That's jiyuudo! <laughs> A lot of optional stuff, that when people do it, they will be rewarded. But if they don't have time, they can just go right to the end and that's it. They get to enjoy the whole story and they get back to work, or whatever. But we want lots and lots of side quests, lots of stories, lots of lore about the world that they can explore. Lots of hidden items and hidden playable characters that they can find - like Yuffie, if you can find them you can play with them.

JS: These extra quests - when your budget increased to well beyond what you asked for, did you feel the need to add extra content to justify it?

HY: No. We were going to have those anyway. We did mention we were going to have extra side quests for higher tiers. But that's just to make the kickstarters [people who use Kickstarter] feel that we're putting in the effort. But the money itself is actually going to things that actually cost. Like orchestra musicians. I can't ask them to play for free. They're really poor. Or I can't ask for the assistance of Steffen, ask him to work for free. Because they're not in it for us. Steffen is, and he gets royalties, but he runs a company. He needs money to run the company. I work for free, but I need computers.

JS: I'm not judging how you intend to use the funds.

HY: No, no, no. I'm just explaining how the funds are. I could work forever and it won't cost the project a cent, right? And the artists don't get any money until it's sold. We all know that it's going to sell, because we know how much effort we're putting in. We also trust that each division is very sturdy.

JS: Do you feel there's any danger having backers involved in the creative process? Some of your tiers involve creating bosses and player characters. The cost is much higher, $10,000, so one hopes said backer would put the effort in. But what if they create something at odds with your lore?

HY: Well, we have a disclaimer saying that it needs to fit within the sekaikan, or obviously we can't put it in. Also, we don't have a deadline as to when they have to reply, but if we contact them on the email they gave us, and after a reasonable amount of time they don't get back to us, then we're just going to make the character, or the boss, or whatever, that it was slotted in for. Another thing is, these characters and monsters were originally going to be there anyway. The cost is going to be the same.

JS: Has anyone already gotten back to you with any interesting ideas?

HY: Oh yes! Somebody made us a menu system, and we're going to use some of the ideas. They gave us good feedback on some of the story, and some of the mechanics. Yes, I really value our backers. I think it's the way it should be. Somebody even got back to us about our contract, our NDA. And I felt that was a better NDA as well, so I'm actually having my lawyer look into it.

JS: We're coming past five o'clock. Is there any final message you have?

HY: The whole world is rescuing Japan. I think this is what's happening with Kickstarter. We are being rescued. I think we need to listen to everybody. Also, we need to work with everybody. This way I think Japan, as a country, will become stronger in video game development. I think we can contribute back to the world, because we believe that the world has given us so much. They've bought many of our games, and they've loved our games. I think it's our duty that we give back what they gave us. So I think Kickstarter is going to be a very important platform in which the Japanese industry opens up to the world.