This week's interview features one of the highest profile Japanese game producers who, sadly, is not as renowned outside Japan for one reason: Ever since mid-1980s Ouji Hiroi's games have mostly remained Japan exclusive, and if they were published abroad, it was never in North America or Europe, but rather in Taiwan or China. Nonetheless, Japanese fans and import gamers alike revere Tengai Makyou (Far East of Eden) and Sakura Taisen, the two critically acclaimed series Hiroi has masterminded. For this Tokyo native and industry veteran with two decades of experience in creating not only games, but also manga, animation, novels and theater plays under his belt, 2005 will be a special year. This year will see the highly anticipated releases of Tengai Makyou III: Namida as well as Sakura Taisen V - Saraba Itoshiki Hito yo.
In today's interview, Mr. Hiroi was not only kind enough to talk about his impressive career as a producer and the status of Sakura Taisen V, but also shared with us his vision of creating games and in particular, the Sakura Taisen series in what amounts to the most in-depth interview of this entire feature.
Q: Mr. Hiroi, we have many questions for you, but first could you tell us about the impetus that made you enter the game industry?
A: I started as a planner and developer for Kis Toy in 1979. By 1983, I had contracts with various companies, but since I wanted to become a story writer I rejected the terminations and changes of contracts and entered the anime business. I was involved in the production of Mashin Eiyuuden Wataru. In the same year, NEC and Hudson approached me saying "let's develop software for the next generation console (the first home console with a CD-ROM drive) together." In 1987, Wataru became a big hit and 1988 saw the release of the world's first CD-ROM-based game, Tengai Makyou. At that point, I still did not feel like entering the game industry. I only realized that in a game stories and characters come to life in an interesting way. However, I supposed that CD machines would become mainstream media in the future. At that time, I guess, I said something along that line, for instance, in interviews.
Q: Sakura Taisen V - Saraba Itoshiki Hito yo will be released in Japan this summer. How far has the game's development come along by now?
A: There is still some fine-tuning left to do, but the game's development is 90% complete. The [development team's] main staff has already commenced work on the next title. Slowly but surely, the PR staff will get busy.
Q: For Sakura Taisen V you have replaced the popular protagonists of previous installments, Ichirou Oogami and Sakura Shinguuji with a new cast led by Shinjirou Oogawa. What was the reason for changing the prequel's popular cast?
A: This is getting difficult. When I first planned Sakura Taisen (ten years ago), there was still no boom about Japan like there is today, in Japan. People thought traditional Japanese culture was just an antiquated thing, much less a topic for the newest medium known as games. Since game makers could not anticipate any sales for this topic, they didn't offer me any funds. I, however, was convinced [about it.] Since nobody worked on it, it was interesting. Then, I took modern Japanese history (which is not taught very often in Japanese schools) as the story's background and after having met girls from a lot of countries with different values, I envoked the soul of the Japanese people [truly called the soul of Yamato (editor's note: ancient Japan) or samurai spirit]. Protagonist Ichirou Oogami grew up, and later (in Sakura 3) meet new girls in a foreign land, Paris; the Paris of the year 1920. In Paris, which was called the Flower of the World, the Japanese Ichirou Oogami suffered a culture shock. Honestly until that point, I was worried as to what I should do in Sakura Taisen V's New York episode. The development of cities around the world (Tokyo, Paris, New York and many other cities as well,) holds an enormous energy and there is also no good and evil. Hence, to protect the people living in those cities, a garrison equipped with spiritual power was required, but that is a side story of Sakura Taisen. Well, what should be done about New York? America is a young country. Young means magnificient. That being said, on the other hand, values are being left behind as well. The new protagonist surely believed that a garrison was required for a new country. This new protagonist has a small Asian stature and has been living with the burden of a century-old traditional culture. One could say, that this conflict between [different] cultures, the understanding and the handshake are [also] themes of the 21st century. Since, of course, in [the world of] Sakura Taisen, time is passing by in Japan as well, while the new protagonist Shinjirou Oogami is living in New York, Oogami and Sakura are definitely up to something in Japan as well. I will probably tell this in form of an anime or novels, rather than in a game.
Q: How long will it take to play Sakura Taisen V from beginning to end?
A: The time will differ, depending on what style of play you choose. However if you just aim to play through the game, it probably will take about 40 hours.
Q: Do you think there is a chance that Sakura Taisen or Tengai Makyou will be released in the US?
A: Well, I'm not in the position to answer that question. There are the thoughts of the maker as well as the thoughts of the American market. In particular, my titles have a very strong Japanese coloring, there is an opinion out there saying they would not fit overseas [markets]. However, I believe it is natural that they are Japanese titles, since I'm Japanese. Because Japan is a society with weak external pressure, I really hope, Americans will voice [their support] for releasing the games [in the US].
Q: Mr. Hiroi, you are known as the mastermind of both Sakura Taisen and Tengai Makyou. From the standpoint of planning, development, setting and atmosphere, how do the two differ from each other. Also, which series do you like better?
A: First of all, both are my children. When the son is behaving nicely, the daughter is angry, and when the daughter is behaving nicely, the son is probably causing trouble. Both are equally cute beings. The many stories and characters I have created are my family. However [only] after Tengai Makyou, Sakura Taisen came into existence. But since the age when using voice acting in a game became an advantage, times have changed [to the point where you only ask yourself] how to direct the voices. As [someone] working on games, my thoughts clearly are [also] evolving. (Based on the audition), I had counted on the direction and special quality of voice [acting] with Sakura [Taisen] from the very beginning. Also putting songs into games is no longer an experiment (currently, the number of Sakura [Taisen]-related songs exceeds 300). After that, I thought about the song show stage right away and believe it was an innovation. The development method of mobilizing and developing for these media was an experiment with Sakura Taisen. I think, [with this experiment] I have created a new business model.
Q: Mr. Hiroi, apart from games, you are also serving as producer of the Sakura Taisen song show. What is your favorite kind of work?
A: As far as Sakura Taisen is concerned, games are important in the sense that they are one unit, but since as I play within a complex of various media, it becomes deeper and can be more fully appreciated. Grasping these points with compound eyes will be important for the next generation of producers, I believe. For me, work is playing as well as a friend and a festival. As I don't like every aspect of it, my work is probably not [yet] complete.
Q: When looking at the game industry right now, one can observe a trend towards the continued spread of MMORPGs. Mr. Hiroi, what are your thoughts on this issue? Also, how do you think the industry and in particular the RPG genre will evolve from here on out?
A: First, I'm a packaged software guy. I believe MMORPGs are the ideal type of game, [but] I won't work on them. That is because until the very end I want the worlds I create to feature stories and characters. As far as the future of the RPG [genre] is concerned, there are a few [different] thoughts. When people grasp that they are adventures, and the language barrier could be overcome, there is the possibility, that people around the world could possibly even build a new world (country).
Also in the future, more and more RPGs will be placing a heavy emphasis on puzzles and strategy or games [where players] can freely walk around in a movie-like real virtual world will be developed. The blockbuster titles among them might be mainstream for years and probably create a style [of their own]. Currently, it feels like a chaotic experimental stage.
Q: Mr. Hiroi, what games are you playing yourself?
A: Originally, I like[d] simulation games. Now I'm also playing board games. I don't like to sit in front of the screen alone. I prefer to play with colleagues. Also, you can think of game development as being something like a real RPG, too. You think, assemble colleagues and capital, face certain difficulties, use various items and clear it. And after receiving the reward, you prepare to embark on your next journey.
RPGFan would like to thank Ouji Hiroi and Yuki Suzuki for their cooperation and support in enabling us to present this exclusive interview to our readers.