Disgaea: Hour of Darkness caught most RPG fans by surprise in 2003. Its irreverent, cartoon-like veneer masked a deep and difficult tactical RPG, and while developer Nippon Ichi Software previously failed to win over western audiences with similar offerings--La Pucelle Tactics and Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, both on PlayStation--Disgaea became a surprise hit.
In fact, its success was so unexpected, and publisher Atlus' initial manufacturing run of the game so small, that increased demand due to word of mouth caused prices in the secondhand market to skyrocket months after its initial release. Realizing this, Atlus printed more copies, getting the game into more people's hands, thus kickstarting the future for the series.
When we spoke with Sohei Niikawa--the President of NIS, Executive Producer, and writer of every Disgaea game--he reflected on the series' past with enthusiasm. Disgaea's anything-goes spirit isn't an accident; it's Niikawa's way of differentiating NIS from its contemporaries.
GameSpot: If you can recall, what was the RPG market like back in 2003, and why do you think Disgaea captured the people's attention?
Sohei Niikawa: We had no idea what was going to sell, so we tried to include everything in the game that we thought was fun. We accepted the fact that the title might be our last project, so we didn't hold anything back and packed it with everything we could. The concept of "grinding," which has now become the idea that goes hand-in-hand with the Disgaea series, was not premeditated. It was simply a result of doing everything we could have done at the time. The initial order [for copies] was low, but through word of mouth after the release, sales grew past 100,000 units in Japan, as well as in North America. Even now, we don't always know what's going to sell well, but we stick to the basic concept of "never holding anything back and giving it your all."
What has been your personal highlight while working on the series?
The highpoint was the fact that I got to meet fans from all over the world. For example, so many fans always gather to meet me every year at the Los Angeles Anime Expo. I feel so fortunate to be able to feel this connection with people from around the world through gaming. I'd like to express my gratitude to all the fans, press, and retailers. Thank you very much, everyone.
What are the defining elements of a Disgaea game? And how has that definition changed, if at all?
It's about nonchalantly doing something completely ridiculous, but, at the same time, being completely serious about doing it. Like leveling to 9,999 or dealing 1 billion damage; it's about having the spirit to do something so stupid and ridiculous that other companies wouldn’t. The level of ridiculousness has become worse over the course of the series. But, in a good way, of course.
What's more important: making a game that pleases existing fans, or altering a pre-existing idea to capture a new audience?
I think the greatest importance is to take care of the current fans. However, rather than providing the same things to our current fans each time, we need to provide them with new surprises and experiences. When we are able to do that, fans will become bigger fans and “leaders” who will bring in new fans.
How have new staff members influenced Disgaea over the years?
Within our staff, there are people who have played the Disgaea series when they were in school. The things that these former fans bring to the table--what they felt was fun or what could have been improved--are a great contributing factor to improving the series. As long as we keep the same "Disgaea spirit" alive, we will always welcome new staff to the team.
How has the evolution of technology influenced Disgaea over the years?
It's not something people pay a lot of attention to normally, but having a frequently long loading time during lengthy gameplay sessions is a very critical issue. Thanks to the advancement in technology, it's become easier to provide a pleasant environment to the players in that regard. Also, the pixelated character art in Disgaea 1 through 3 has been improved to high-res animation from Disgaea 4 and on. I believe seeing the characters, drawn by character designer Mr. Takehito Harada, move around is an improvement that our fans really enjoyed.
When do you think Disgaea become a global franchise?
When Disgaea 1 was released in North America, we were so worried. The title was originally developed to market toward the hardcore Japanese game and anime fans, so we didn't think it was going to be accepted overseas.
However, once it was released, it was highly reviewed by Western gamers; even the story and characters, which we were most worried about. That's when I realized, "There are so many people like us outside of Japan!" Ever since then, we've been able to release our products outside of Japan with confidence.
What's been the most popular game in the series to date, and to what do you attribute that success?
Even after more than 10 years have passed, the popularity of Disgaea 1 is still deeply rooted. Lately, there are some who say that they like Disgaea 4 the most, or Disgaea 5 the most. The reason behind this is probably the characters’ personalities. Because of the fact that this series is a type of game you play for many hours, we believe how much players fall in love and become attached to them are extremely important factors.
Looking back, what, if anything, would you have done differently?
I can't tell you that. I'm going to keep it on the backburner until we start developing the sixth one.
Where is Disgaea headed in the future?
It doesn't pertain only to Disgaea, but any serialized titles should grow and evolve with the fans. Once the fifth installment is released worldwide, we'll listen to what our fans and customers have to say, and then start brainstorming the next title. I'm hoping that we can provide something fresh and surprising to our fans.