Mizuguchi headlines TIGRAF fest in Tokyo

[UPDATE] Game creation gospel according to Space Channel 5, Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Exclusive video from the event inside.

TOKYO--At this year's TIGRAF conference (Tokyo International Computer Graphics Festival), held last Thursday in Japan, a group of top Japanese game developers came together to talk about the game creation process. The biggest name was former Sega designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who not only made an elaborate presentation, but also participated in a panel discussion afterwards. Mizuguchi was also the only guest speaker at the show who did not represent a single company--he had left Sega just last month and was now independent.

During his hour-long presentation, Mizuguchi looked back on his work done at Sega, emphasizing that high-quality graphics aren't the only important elements of games. Mizuguchi started off by talking about his first project at Sega, the production of a CG movie used in an amusement park ride called Megalipolis Tokyo City Battle, in 1992. The movie worked with the most highly-sophisticated graphics of the time and was developed on three Silicon Graphics workstations at a cost of around 40 million yen.

Mizuguchi then went on to develop the arcade games Sega Rally Championship, in 1994, and Sega Rally Special Stage, in 1996--always pursuing a greater and greater sence of realism. As the graphics became more realistic, so too did the game experience, with Mizuguchi seeing the creation of arcade cabinets that moved as the player drove around.

However, after developing Sega Rally 2 in 1997, Mizuguchi hit a wall. Despite the games' increasing realism as a result of better graphics chips, richer sound, and better controls, Mizuguchi realized that the arcade games he was developing weren't fundamentally changing in terms of gameplay. He says he realized that while arcade games offered a physical form of entertainment, it had limits as as emotional experience, unlike movies and home games. Mizuguchi blamed the format, since arcade games were meant to be played for only a few minutes per game--while consumer games could be played for hours.

From that point, Mizuguchi decided that he wanted to move into the home game market and produce something different from his previous projects. Mizuguchi emphasized that his early goal for the home console platform was to develop a game that was played casually, but had a tangible impact on people’s emotions.

Mizuguchi's first project was Space Channel 5, which he says didn't turn out the way he wanted--at first. Showing a clip of the game's prototype, Mizuguchi commented that the main character Ulala's fighting style was too cool and stylish. What he wanted was a game that was fun to watch, and played a bit like a musical. The developers on his team responded that the game just wasn't going in that direction.

In order to have his developers understand what kind of game he wanted Space Channel 5 to be, Mizuguchi created a six-month comedy workshop at the Sega offices and had everyone on his team attend it. The workshop consisted of a number of clasees and excercises. In one session, he had the team hop around the floor in a group while looking and pointing a finger in different directions. In another, he had the team pretending to break through a glass wall and then say something funny.

One of the main objectives, according to Mizuguchi, was for his staff to acquire some understanding of the psychology behind making people laugh. He said he believes there are systematic ways to get people to feel different kinds of emotions.

Mizuguchi also put a lot of energy into the character model and personality of Ulala. He wanted the get female gamers into the game, and he wanted them to enjoy playing. Searching for a way to create a female character that could be liked by both men and women, Mizuguchi realized that men and women looked at female characters from completely different points of view. While men tended to prefer female characters based on looks, women tended to judge them on personality, favoring characters that filled the role of a big sister or a good friend.

On the other hand, Mizuguchi also found that women also didn't like seeing characters that were too appealing to men, since it often created feelings of rivalry or jealousy. Keeping those points in mind, Mizuguchi had Ulala's CG model redrawn a number of times to make sure she didn't look too seductive, and gave her a somewhat male-like, casual, and care-free personality. For example, she just didn’t care if her underpants showed a bit while she danced.

The game was a success and was appreciated by a wide range of gamers, over many boundaries--exemplified by the fact that MTV picked up the character for use in its MTV Awards commercial some years back. (There were also talks for Ulala to appear as a virtual newscaster for MTV News Now, but the project was canned at the development stage.)

After Space Channel 5, of course, he went on to develop Rez, which was inspired by a visit to a techno club on a trip to Europe. He also was influenced by footage he saw of an African dance which featured dancers performing to a beat created by using common objects, such as scratching a glass bottle or even sawing a piece of wood.

Mizoguchi defined Space Channel 5 and Rez as music games, but they had some major differences. Space Channel 5 was based on playing with people's sense of humor, while Rez was based on delivering a direct sensation to players with abstract rhythms and the visualization of those beats. Mizuguchi commented that Rez didn't do as well as expected in the marketplace, but that is was a challenging and satisfying project.

Mizuguchi ended his session by joking that while it may have sounded like he was retiring, he has no plans in doing so. During a short press conference after the session, Mizuguchi made comments outlining his future. While he made no direct mention of upcoming projects, he did say that he still has big ambitions, and hopes that he will be able to make something worth talking about soon.

When asked by the audience if he thought games were in danger from declining sales (in Japan), Mizuguchi replied that he thought games were still selling fine, but that they are no longer the only interactive entertainment option, citing PC, cell phone, and digital TV.

While cell phones may not be a major game platform in America, Mizuguchi believes that the platform will grow substantially in the U.S. market if the pricing infrastructure improves, and that the situation will eventually become similar to the current Japan, where keitai culture (mobile phone culture) is the norm.

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