A Nicer Ninja
It's true. Ninja Gaiden kicks our butts. So why has Team Ninja's head ninja Tomonobu Itagaki decided to play nice this round and make Ninja Gaiden II accessible to a more casual set? How does the team decide on Achievements with their games, and what sort of downloadable content is planned for this highly anticipated sequel? Itagaki-san speaks ? and we listen.
Crispy Gamer: First off, I wanted to ask how far you are in development with Ninja Gaiden II?
Tomonobu Itagaki: We wrapped up a little less than a week ago. So now we're just waiting for it to get out of certification.
Crispy Gamer: Are you happy with how it turned out?
Crispy Gamer: As you guys know, my Ninja Gaiden skills in the past weren't too hot. I am more the Ninja Dog level of gamer, but I am progressing. How are you balancing the game as far as difficulty, with different difficulty levels?
Itagaki: As you well know, Ninja Dog mode was kind of a joke to make you feel bad about choosing that. That was really because of how the first game was structured. There was no better way to make it easier, other than throwing you healing items on a regular basis. What we've done with our game design this time around has given us more bandwidth to accommodate more casual gamers all the way up to the same type of crowd that played the first. We have all different difficulties that span the gamut. If you're choosing the lower one, you're getting a more accessible experience, but you don't have to feel bad that you're playing it, so it's more fun this time around.
Crispy Gamer: So there's no making fun of the player for playing it at a lower level?
Itagaki: No. Yeah, I feel really bad about that in the past. You get the same exact experience, just tweaked for your skill level.
Crispy Gamer: Are you varying Achievements depending upon your difficulty level?
Itagaki: Of course, just like most other games that are out right now. There are a certain number of Achievements that you're only going to get playing it on the harder difficulties. What we have done is we've paid attention to look at a nice happy medium, so even if you only play through the game once on one of the standard difficulties, you're going to get enough Achievements to feel like you've accomplished a lot.
Crispy Gamer: Figuring out the Achievements for this game -- since this is the first Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox 360 -- is that a fun thing to do or is it kind of one of those things like, "Oh God, now we've got to figure out what the Achievements are going to be?" Or is it a mixed thing?
Itagaki: The important things about making games is you can never make design decisions based on something you feel you have to do, so it's always the former. If not, then you're not doing your job right. Making a game is a game within itself, and a challenge within itself. I'd say that's a good measure whether you can be a good game developer or not -- whether you can enjoy that process.
Crispy Gamer: One of the big additions you're adding to the game is the ability to record when you're playing through the game. Are you planning on doing anything with a Web site to show which gamers are really skilled?
Itagaki: Well, you know they'll be linked to the leaderboards, right? You can see who's number one and download their clips and see how they play.
Crispy Gamer: Are you thinking about doing any contests in relation to that?
Itagaki: We've obviously up to this point been so focused on getting the game done. I think we're going start to have time to think about stuff like that, but I think regardless of whether or not we do an official event or contest, people are going to be looking to see who's number one. We've made the leaderboards much more specialized than in the previous game, so you'll be able to look at different categories to see who's number one in each.
Crispy Gamer: Are there any plans for downloadable content?
Itagaki: I'm thinking about some bonuses to add on. No major game changes. Of course, we announced something about downloadable costumes today.
Crispy Gamer: So you're thinking arena challenges and things like that?
Itagaki: Yes, that might be something interesting to do if we could do it well. Personally I think -- we had something like Mission Mode in Ninja Gaiden Black -- that was really for the hardest of the hardcore, so I really didn't think it was all that fun. If we were going to do something like that, it would have to be more compelling.
Crispy Gamer: Something more well-rounded so hardcore players and players like me will be able to enjoy that kind of content?
Itagaki: Yes, definitely. The point is, the first Ninja Gaiden didn't have the bandwidth to support all sorts of different skill levels, and that's an important concept of this product.
Crispy Gamer: Obviously, violence in videogames is a constantly brought up thing -- especially with Grand Theft Auto IV coming out. You've got limbs being lopped off, there's a lot of blood. When designing the game, do you balance that so people don't bring it up, or do you just say the hell with it and do what you want to do?
Itagaki: I feel it would be stupid to approach this completely ignoring and throwing all caution to the wind and doing anything that we wanted. I think it's important to follow the rules and regulations that have been set out by each ratings organization, right? That's what allows us to sell the game in the first place. Something that I've been talking about is saying it's not just looking at the rules and saying that we can do this but we can't do that. It's also looking at the morality aspect. The one thing that I feel about this game is that even if you took it to a region that had really strict ratings, the people in that country wouldn't have morally objected to it because it's fighting to the death. Yes, there's blood, but you're not involving innocents, or children, or anything like that.
The key is, is someone who is playing the game going to feel uncomfortable or not, and I think that we've been able to treat violence in a way that it doesn't cross that line.
Crispy Gamer: Is there an option in the game to cut the blood?
Crispy Gamer: Was there ever a point in development of the game where the blood in the game was even more prominent than it is now, to the point where you guys were like, "Okay, this is getting into Monty Python territory, here. We've got to dial it back just a bit?"?
Itagaki No we've always had a target level that we said, this is the amount that will make a visual impact without going over the top.
Crispy Gamer: What are you most proud of with this game versus other games in the series?
Itagaki: It would have to be the actual combat, and all we've done to make it more fluid and more dynamic, and more organic. Every encounter is different depending on the actions that you take -- that's really the core of what makes this game fun and the biggest improvement over previous iterations.
Crispy Gamer: In a lot of interviews that you do with the press, they always ask you about different action games or fighting games to get a response from you that's rather negative about those games. What have you played in the last year that you actually enjoyed?
Itagaki: GTA IV was good -- pretty fun. As you guys know, in terms of just graphical quality, it's maybe not as a high quality as other things out there. There's so much you can do, and so much interaction, I think that it's a pretty incredible achievement. Yesterday, I stole a motorcycle and drove it into the ocean -- that was what I did yesterday for fun.
Also, I thought Burnout Paradise was really good. It was done well.
Crispy Gamer: This is the third game you've done on the Xbox 360, and I'm sure there's things you've learned programming-wise on the Xbox 360 that's helped you with this game. Is there anything that you guys learned working on this game that will help with the next DOA -- or whatever you're working on next -- that will make it even better?
Itagaki: I think with Ninja Gaiden II, it was less about learning about the hardware and more about going back to the fundamentals of game design -- going back to square one and looking at what we wanted, and incorporating that into our design philosophies.
I think that people who have played all my games in the past are going to be really surprised when they play this, because it's really more user-friendly in a sense. It incorporates a lot of new ideas in terms of game design. I think you can extrapolate from that that my next project is going to be completely different -- it's not going to be related to anything I've done so far.
Crispy Gamer: Are you still overseeing multiple teams?
Itagaki: No. Bringing this game to completion required the resources of the entire team, so now that this is done, everything is going to be reset. We're starting a new cycle then. I'll have the opportunity to talk about my future plans later on this summer -- maybe around July timeframe or so . Hold on until then to find out more.