Sega developer Smilebit has been making a name for itself since the release of Jet Grind Radio for the Dreamcast in 2000. The game's assured sense of style and unique gameplay brought the developer to the public's attention. We recently had a chance to talk with project leader Masayoshi Kikuchi and senior programmer Kazuhisa Hasuoka about Smilebit's Xbox follow-up to Jet Grind Radio, Jet Set Radio Future.
GameSpot: Jet Set Radio Future was set for Dreamcast once upon a time. Tell me about how the game found its way to the Xbox.
Masayoshi Kikuchi: When we were deciding on what we were going to do for the sequel, we took a look at when we wanted to release. We knew that by then Dreamcast probably wouldn't be a viable platform and that there would be three next-gen hardware platforms we could develop for. So at that point we decided, OK, we'll put it on one of these three. Then it was just a matter of deciding which of those three. One of the main deciding factors for Jet Grind Radio was that the US market was a lot more accepting of the game in terms of the media and overall user reaction. So we wanted to focus on the US market rather than the Japanese market, and our thought progression from there was to release it on the Xbox.
GS: Did you experiment with the PS2 or GameCube hardware?
MK: It would have been too difficult to try and develop on all three platforms, so we didn't branch out at all. We just picked one and stuck with it.
GS: How long was the Xbox version in development?
MK: Everything came together last February, so it took about 11 months or so for the whole project to go from start to finish.
GS: Once you settled on the Xbox, how did you approach following up Jet Grind Radio?
MK: The overall feeling we wanted to keep was that we didn't want to be restricted by the previous game. Instead of making a sequel that started at the end of the first game, we wanted to start all over with the same general feel and the same game concept, but start over from the beginning. And rather than just jump 10 or 20 years into the future in the same timeline, we wanted to take a few steps back and say, "What if this were to happen at some time in the present?" and create a whole different future. And from there it created a kind of different feeling for the world. We also wanted increase the speed of the game, which is why we added the dash boost and a quicker graffiti style. We wanted to add a more surreal feeling to the game, which is why we added the vertical grinds and such.
GS: How big was the Jet Set Radio Future team? Did any of its members work on Jet Grind Radio?
MK: The core group--the head programmers, lead designers, and so on--was pretty much the same. In terms of the rest of the team, about 20-30 people, they came and went and were interchanged with other groups, but the heads of the project were pretty much the same.
GS: Did Jet Grind's reception affect Jet Set Radio Future's development in terms of issues players had with the gameplay?
MK: Well, it's not that we didn't think about that, but the main reason we did this was because we wanted to try something fresh rather than do the same thing over.
GS: So this is what led you to make the changes to the character design and gameplay, such as getting rid of the time limit?
MK: In terms of getting rid of the time limit, it was all part of the package of wanting to make the game easier to play for more users, which is why we changed the graffiti style as well. We wanted people to focus on playing the game rather than being frustrated. As far as the character designs go, we just wanted to create a whole new feeling for the world.
GS: How did you manage the character roster?
MK: Well, there were so many characters, we wanted to give people reasons to choose certain characters. I wanted to add another layer of strategy to the game. For example, certain characters are better suited to certain tasks. This also carried over into the multiplayer mode, which means players will have to pick the right characters for certain competitions.
GS: How did you find developing for the Xbox hardware?
Kazuhisa Hasuoka: Because I had a chance to develop on something new, it was exciting and fun. The Xbox came with a hard drive and had sound and graphics capabilities that were so much more advanced [than what we've worked on before], so I really felt like I could accomplish a lot more. The fact that I could use Visual C made my job much easier as well.
GS: How much R&D did you do on the hardware before starting?
KH: There's a technical research and development group within Smilebit, so they handled all the research first. Once they figured some stuff out, they handed it over to us.
GS: How are you doing cel shading on the Xbox?
KH: We're using a completely different method than we did for the DC--we had to pull a few tricks off to get it on the DC due to technical limitations. But cel shading on the Xbox is a more orthodox method.
GS: How did you manage level data? Did you stream it from the disc or are you using the hard drive?
MK: [Laughs] Um, we're not sure if we're supposed to go into detail. But, generally speaking, we're streaming data off the hard drive to improve loading times.
GS: Did you ever think of letting people rip their own music into the game?
MK: We thought about it briefly, but we didn't think it would match the feeling of the game. We were hoping to create a certain atmosphere in the game, and allowing users to import their own music kind of destroys that and the feel of a radio station as well. So we wanted to keep our own atmosphere.
GS: How did you approach the level design?
MK: In Japan, Jet Grind Radio was categorized as a "street action" game. Jet Set Radio Future is a "street action-adventure" game. That in itself really changed the flavor of the game. Instead of having an action game where you select a level and then it ends, we wanted to create futuristic Tokyo and allow the player to explore anywhere around that reality. Let's say you have to go to a certain area to defeat the next rival, but you don't have to do that--you can just go ahead and spend your time practicing your grinds anywhere you want. That was what we really wanted to do with the levels.
GS: You've incorporated a lot more pedestrians and activity in the levels this time around. Did it turn out how you wanted?
MK: Actually, it's something we'd wanted to do with Jet Grind Radio, but there were polygon count issues. But now, with the Xbox, we have so much extra horsepower we were able to make things more lively.
GS: In terms of the poly count, how is Jet Set Radio Future pushing the Xbox?
KH: Hmm. It's a bit of a tricky answer. If you were to ask, "Have we extracted all the power from the Xbox?" we'd have to say we don't know. That takes more time and research and optimization. But, using the tools that we currently have, we've pretty much maxed out what we can do with them. It's not so much an issue of polygon count because the processor takes hits from other areas. But with our current tools and what we can do with them, we're pretty much milked it for all it's worth. There's still quite a bit of untapped power to deal with, though.
GS: How did you settle on the gameplay structure of Jet Set Radio Future?
MK: In terms of design, I didn't want to build a really linear kind of game. I wanted to allow players to go out and play in the world like the Jet Set team would, which is why we put out those items for people to collect. We wanted to reward players who wanted to explore and try new things. Without time limits, people could go out and perfect and hone their skills and get more out of the game that way. I wanted to do that with Jet Grind Radio, but there were technical limitations that didn't let us flesh that out enough.
GS: So, if players collect all the items and get 100 percent on all the tags they'll be rewarded?
GS: Are you happy with how the game turned out? Is there anything else you wish you could have done?
MK: As you go through the development process, you always start thinking of new ideas that can't always be implemented in your game at that moment. While I'm satisfied with this game, you never know--two or three years from now, we'll be able to get more out of the hardware and those ideas will find their way into a future title.
GS: Have you given any thought to doing any online modes of play? In a Jet Set game or for an online game?
MK: In terms of scheduling, Jet Set Radio Future was a launch title for the Japanese market, and in those terms weren't able to do much because Microsoft was still fine-tuning its network, so we weren't able to implement anything network-related. So we weren't able to do anything this time around. If the timing had been better, we definitely would have loved to include an online mode in the game.
GS: Now that Jet Set is done, what are you working on now?
MK: I'm just hanging out in America, hitting the reset button and letting the next ideas come.
GS:Thanks for your time.