When the Project Phoenix Kickstarter launched back in 2013, it was described as the first of its kind. A Japanese indie role-playing game being developed by a team consisting of triple-A talent, Project Phoenix results from a cohesive effort that balances "Western functionality with Japanese aesthetics." The game's Kickstarter campaign finished with over $1 million raised from crowdfunding. Initially scheduled for a launch in mid-2015, the game has since been delayed for a June 2016 release.
Director Hiroaki Yura has worked on various games in the past, including Diablo III, Valkyria Chronicles, and Soul Calibur IV. Yura is currently based in Tokyo, where he is involved in the development of several upcoming role-playing games from Japanese studios.
I sat down with Yura at Smash 2015 to discuss the current state of the game industry in Japan, and the challenges faced in developing Project Phoenix.
GameSpot: You have a unique perspective growing up in Australia, and are experienced with the gaming industry in Japan. What do you think of the current state of the Japanese game industry?
Yura: Well, you know what's happening in the gaming industry in Japan?
It's going mobile.
Exactly. And mobile is not very happy with large data content on the market, because nobody is going to download it. Because it's mobile there are more light users, they're not heavy users, or freaks who just want to play all day. Therefore the game system has to be dumbed down, because that brings much more money and that has less development cost. I think companies are going towards that route, whereas what us gamers want is more in-depth, proper JRPGs. Games like Breath of Fire going to mobile, or Kingdom Hearts which is doing both. It depends on the company.
Do you think that's a good thing for the industry?
It's a good thing for the business of the industry, but not so good for the hardcore gamers who want hardcore JRPGs. But there are always going to be people who want hardcore stuff, and there will always be somebody who's going to make it, like us.
Keiji Inafune spoke to GameSpot earlier this year about the Japanese game industry's culture of fear. Do you agree with his sentiments?
I agree with what Keiji-san said. Keiji is my friend, our offices are very close, and I talk to him about a lot of stuff. I don't believe he truly understands the Western industry. I think he understands the Japanese industry. Whereas I've worked for a few months with Blizzard Entertainment, I've also worked on Halo, I've worked with a lot of developers in the West. I've also worked in Japan. I wouldn't say I know it all, but I've got a good feel for both of the industries. In Japan, to be blunt, the programming side has taken a hit.
Firstly, Japan doesn't share information. That's the first problem. For example, recently a sharp review of what Konami does was [revealed by media]. Things like hiding people's emails, and changing them every year. But we all knew this, that's been going on for ages in the company. Ever since emails were invented. Other companies may take measures so that people don't leave, but not as much as Konami.
The point is, companies don't want to share information, they don't want to share engines, they don't want to share stuff at CEDEC (Computer Entertainment Developers Conference), which is like the GDC of Japan, but really badly run. They just boast about what they've done, not the challenges they've overcome, the secrets they've learned. They don't want to be overtaken by their competitors.
That's almost strange.
No, it's not strange. Because Japan was the only country to have a gaming industry back in 80s. For example, the US industry thinks of themselves as an international industry, which I think is the right way of thinking. But Japan still thinks of itself really as the only people who make video games, which is not true. Their rules only apply to Japanese people. So if they find out something, they don't want to share it. It's also because of company property, compliance, company protocol. They're three very different things, but they all mean the same in the end. So you're not allowed to show stuff, you're not allowed to talk about stuff, and you keep whatever the company owns as company property. Therefore you don't share it.
In Japan, to be blunt, the programming side has taken a hit.
What would you like to see change in the Japanese gaming industry?
The problem is, because of this, the programmers are bad at Unity. They're kind of okay at Unreal [Engine], but they're still not very good. And now they'll say, "Oh, Unity is the shit right now" but in actual fact, Unity's not so hot anymore in the rest of the world. Now Unreal 4 is hotter. And we're just set behind. I think... I don't know. I mean, Japan has very good planning. They're very organised. Also, designing the games, it's very fun. But the problem is the programming doesn't keep up, the animation's not so good. Funny that we have a whole anime industry. But that's based on different technology.
You have to change the society of Japan to change anything, even the culture of Japan. I don't think everybody wants that. I don't even think I want that. But to change the culture of the Japanese game industry, people need to switch off what they're thinking and they need to start embracing how it's done in a better way. Where programmers or people with engineering skills go to companies they want to go to and share information the way they want to share it, without breaking NDA. If that changes, I think the [industry] will change. But there is also the language barrier. It's not easy for a programmer to go overseas and work with English-speaking people if they can't speak the bloody language.
What are some of the most important lessons you've learned from the delays Project Phoenix has experienced?
Delays are inevitable in many projects. I've been in many projects which have been delayed. I don't know if you can call this a lesson, but it's important to keep backers updated with the truth of what's going on, not just something that PR might spin.
There are some times where you literally can't tell them what's going on yet because you don't have a solution, which just aggravates it. I'm not sure if you can call it a lesson but staying honest, and doing your best.
You also talked recently about dipping into your personal resources to finish Project Phoenix. How did it get to that point?
The way you said it isn't true. It's also been repeated on other websites in the wrong way. What I said is, I want to add content to Project Phoenix, but it's not fair if I use money from Project Phoenix for something that it wasn't planned for. I decided to use my own money to make some cinematics. No big deal.
Is Kickstarter ever something you would go through again, given the opportunity?
Maybe. I'm the type of person to do whatever it takes to make a video game, or do whatever I want to do. Kickstarter is not a very stable platform to get funding--you've seen what happened to Red Ash with Keiji. Even someone like him couldn't get enough.
But I get to educate the backers about how hard it is to make a game. It's not easy. A game doesn't just happen like that. The more gamers get educated about how games are made, the more they appreciate it, and the more they understand the industry, and the better the industry will become in the long run.