Japanese developers weigh in on Xbox 360
Game creators at Japan's top publishers reveal the ins and outs of developing for Microsoft's next-generation console.
Even before the unveiling of the Xbox 360 in May, Microsoft made no secret that it hoped for a better showing this time around in the Japanese market, a region dominated by rivals Sony and Nintendo. Last month at the Xbox Summit 2005, the company unveiled a long list of Japanese publishers that have signed up as third-party game makers for the Xbox 360. Over the past months, some better-known developers, such as Q Entertainment's Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Game Republic's Yoshiki Okamoto, have talked about their commitments to the Xbox 360, but there's been little opportunity to hear from others on the development challenges and opportunities. The latest issue of Famitsu Xbox features a series of interviews with the newly announced third-party developers, who talked in-depth about what it's like to make games for the next-generation console.
"When you consider the essence of video games, you can't take away its graphics, sound, and interactivity. The Xbox 360 is the best solution [to delivering the highest quality gaming] at the current time," said Tecmo producer Tomonobu Itagaki, who is currently developing Dead or Alive 4 as an Xbox 360 launch game, with three more games also under way in the future.
Other Japanese developers certainly agree with Itagaki, especially in terms of graphics. The developers at Yuke's, best known for the WWE SmackDown! series, are working on a new wrestling game called Wrestle Kingdom for the Xbox 360, and the differences in the console's graphic capabilities are, well, striking. Director Koji Ito and chief planner Shunsuke Katsumata commented that the Xbox 360 allows a game's atmosphere to be considerably more realistic than in previous consoles, which is due to the machine's lighting-effect calculations.
"Self-shadowing effects contribute a lot to making a pro wrestling game," Katsumata said. "When it comes to pro wrestling games, trying to render the wrestlers' muscles is really the key point. But up until now, we couldn't even use a virtual self-shadowing effect due to hardware limitations."
But for the game creators, the Xbox 360's graphics are just the surface of the new development experience. They explain there's much more to the console than just high-definition graphics and new rendering formats.
Capcom producer Keiji Inafune, who's making the new zombie action game Dead Rising, said the console offers plenty of potential, but how much of that gamers get to see depends on how developers use its multicore architecture. "I believe that we'll be seeing two kinds of games for a while after the Xbox 360's launch," Inafune said. "Games that feel like something on current-generation consoles and games that feel like they're Xbox 360 titles."
Despite whatever problems the multicore architecture brings up, the Japanese developers interviewed in the magazine all seem to agree that the Xbox 360 is developer-friendly, with one of the main reasons being that the development environment is based on Direct X. The developers also spoke highly of the Xbox 360's development kit for its array of tools, including Visual C++ programming support and flexibility in recycling the programs that they've created.
"For example, if we had two projects going on, [the Xbox 360's development environment] would allow us to take different program components created from the two teams and merge them into a single software [application]. That wasn't possible up until now," explained Cavia chief producer Takuya Iwasaki, who is currently studying the console's hardware for an upcoming project. "Also, once we create a game, we can take parts of it and build it into a new game. So if we make a program to display an ocean wave, we can use it again and again."
But even with Microsoft's development tools and strong technical support (another aspect for which the developers had kind words), there are still a number of issues game makers face. Many developers consider the system's graphic capabilities "double-edged." The Xbox 360 can handle much-better-looking graphics than previous consoles, but it also requires a lot more effort in development.
"We had no intention to make Rumble Roses XX just a usual port. We were hyped, saying to ourselves that we're going to make it a completely new game," says Konami producer Akari Uchida. "But when it came time for the actual development, we realized that the volume of data [for the Xbox 360] would be one digit different [from current consoles]. The number of polygons per character by itself is 10 times larger than current consoles. ... It's as though we need to bring the quality graphics from prerendered movies into the actual game."
What might be an issue for smaller publishers is trying to make 2D games, which are still popular for handheld machines but are slowly disappearing from the home console space. As SNK Playmore producer Soichiro Hosoya explains, "The development tools are meant for 3D games, so it isn't any easier to make 2D games for the Xbox 360." However, Hosoya added that he expects 2D games to evolve with the Xbox 360 as well.
In terms of programming issues, one of the strengths of the Xbox 360, similar to the current Xbox, is the ease of porting Windows programs to the console. But surprisingly, porting programs isn't completely hassle-free, says Square Enix programmer Yasuhiro Yamamoto of his experience with Final Fantasy XI. "Windows PCs and the Xbox 360 have differences, so it'd be a lie if we said there aren't any headaches [in porting programs]. Sound is one example. The Xbox 360 uses a proprietary format, and it gave us a little bit of confusion. A bigger point is the CPU. Windows uses Intel, while the Xbox 360 uses the IBM's PowerPC. Under certain conditions, the two companies' CPUs will display programs in totally opposite ways. Flipping that around took us some time."
From Software producer Masanori Takeuchi, who's been working on Enchant Arm, a role-playing game slated to be an Xbox 360 launch title, said developers will also be running into issues of storage space in the next generation. While the Xbox 360 is a next-generation console, Microsoft decided to equip it with a normal DVD reader rather than give it HD-DVD or Blu-ray reading capabilities.
"The volume of data in Enchant Arms won't fit into a single DVD. It's an RPG, so we're thinking it would be inevitable that we release it on two discs," says Takeuchi. "But to be honest, that's even looking grim."
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