Judd and Plenty: An Interview With Capcom's Ben Judd
Judd stares pensively into the distance.
Fifty percent of the way through Capcom's one-two punch Bionic Commando renaissance -- Bionic Commando Rearmed is out; the next-generation relaunch of the series is due in Q1 2009 -- Producer Ben Judd seems to be the same old Ben Judd we knew back when he was still localizing games like Resident Evil: Outbreak, God Hand and Onimusha 3.
Drawn in by his penchant for sarcasm, his ever-expanding patch of facial hair and his self-deprecating demeanor, we cornered the elusive Mr. Judd in the Capcom suite at Tokyo Game Show 2008 and wouldn't allow him to use the bathroom until he satisfactorily answered each one of CG's questions.
Crispy Gamer: Bionic Commando Rearmed is done, it's out, it's being consumed by the public. And it's doing well. Are you surprised at all by how well it's doing?
Ben Judd: [Laughs] Uh, yes, actually. You know, we do a podcast. [Whispers] Just don't tell the Japanese.
Crispy Gamer: Let me guess: in which you don't always say flattering things about the company you work for?
Judd: That could be. Producers have a tendency to do this producer double-speak when they talk about what they do. But I'm a country boy from Ohio. And I figure the way I treat people is the way I want to be treated. Gamers are not stupid, so I say just give it to them straight and honest.
Crispy Gamer: Gamers may have been stupid 30 or so years ago. Back then, you could feed them all kinds of shit.
Judd: True. Many of them did buy the Atari 2600 version of E.T. ?
Crispy Gamer: So what exactly happens on this "underground" podcast?
Judd: We have a bunch of translators there, so we can do interviews with [Jun] Takeuchi and all the creators who are the bread and butter of Capcom. But again, that's only until the Japanese hear about it. Then they'll probably kill me.
Crispy Gamer: So what you're saying is that the Japanese attitude is a bit different from the American attitude when it comes to how things are presented?
Judd: [This is] the biggest problem that I face right now: I'm supported by the Japanese side. But in order to get the game sold, I need to market it ? to U.S. gamers. Right now, the thing that U.S. gamers seem to respond to is a community approach. They like to connect, to be a part of the process. It's 180 degrees different from the Japanese approach, where they censor information; they lock it down, and keep it away from the public. So I often find myself in a place where I let too much information get out. And I find myself getting in trouble for it.
Crispy Gamer: You mean like now?
Judd: Like now, yes. Every time I do an interview I go, "Man, I could get into deep crap for what I'm saying." But in the end, it's for the good of the product, and as long as I keep believing that, I'm going to keep doing it.
Crispy Gamer: We seem to be entering a new age where game developers are becoming minor celebrities. People are listening to what you have to say.
Judd: You think so?
Crispy Gamer: Yes. The public is starting to really recognize developers for their achievements. Seriously, man, you should have your own table at Spago.
Judd: [Laughs] I should.
Crispy Gamer: You're pleased with Bionic Commando Rearmed and how it has been received by the public?
Judd: Yes. Absolutely.
Crispy Gamer: Which of the three platforms is it selling best on?
Judd: The 360, by far. It came out a day earlier [on the 360], so fans who have multiple platforms and needed to get it immediately got it there first.
You want to get jaded about something you love? Try working on it for three years straight; working from 8 am to 2 am every night.
Crispy Gamer: Looking back over the game's development, is there one particular thing that you're really proud of?
Judd: One thing you might not be aware of is that ? submissions, especially [for] digital titles, are delayed a lot. That's because the submission process is not easy. There are only so many spots that can be filled by submissions at one time, and the reality is that there are many more games being produced than they have slots for.
Crispy Gamer: It's like virtual shelf space.
Judd: Except you have many stores worldwide. In this case, [it's] as if you only have one store in the entire world [for] your title. We took a huge gamble about when we were going to release the game, because we didn't know if the slot we wanted would actually be available. We aimed for mid-August because that's when Microsoft does their summer campaign and offers a huge amount of support. But a lot of other people were saying that we should play it safe and aim for mid-September. Ultimately, I stuck with August, and even though we weren't 100 percent [certain that we would get the game into the August lineup], we took a gamble, we got in there, and it paid off. And I think that's why we saw the great sales numbers we've been seeing. On the podcast, we all guessed how many units it would sell in the first week. I picked 80,000 and we blew that number away.
Crispy Gamer: What did you get?
Judd: Over 100,000. So that's the one part of the process that I'm most proud of.
Crispy Gamer: Now give me the one thing that you're least proud of. What's one thing that you would have liked to change?
Judd: Well, it was my first project, so I was pretty green. Ultimately, I didn't know a lot about what I was doing. Again I got into trouble for being too honest [with the press], specifically about the game's price point. I was pricing it too cheap [Editor's note: $10 on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network; some thought the game should have been priced at $15.] and I had already announced it on our podcast, so going back and changing it would have caused bad PR. The company allowed the price point to go forward, but I probably should have had more conversations about that internally before going forward publically. They easily could have fired me for that.
Crispy Gamer: Instead, they just sent you to the Capcom torture basement?
Judd: Well, I'm already in the salary torture basement.
Crispy Gamer: With the next-gen version of the game due out early next year, you've been working on Bionic Commando for, what, three years? You must be completely Bionic Commando-ed out, no?
Judd: [Laughs] Man, you want to get jaded about something you love, try working on it for three years straight, working from 8 am to 2 am every night. I love pizza, cookies and cream ice cream, and sex. [Editor's note: Hopefully not necessarily all at once, Ben.] If I did any of them for that many hours during the day, I would hate them.
Crispy Gamer: The sex you would still love. But things would get sore.
Crispy Gamer: What did you do to keep it fresh, to keep yourself from burning out?
Judd: It's tough. Sometimes I want to go running from the office and curl into a ball, and weep. It's just so much hard, hard work, and you feel like you're the only one going through it. And to make things worse, I always feel like I'm the meat in a Japanese-company and Western-buyer sandwich. But the thing that has kept me solid was when we announced the new games, and the community site went crazy. There's so much passion there. In the end, the one thing that really pulls me back is the fans. I'm working myself into oblivion, and not making great money. But seeing how much the fans love the games is what it's all about. For all the crap that games get for being too violent, they obviously bring so much joy to people. So if my hard work can make people a little happier, even for a minute, then it's worth it.
Crispy Gamer: You started out in a small town in Ohio, and here we are sitting here, on a balcony in a Tokyo hotel, getting massages from geishas and drinking $400 bottles of champagne. [Editor's note: Those last two details are pure fiction.] How do you go from that humble beginning to where you are now?
Judd: I got very lucky. I started with a short-term goal; it started in college, really. I wanted to learn Japanese. I liked Japanese, but I wasn't sure how I was going to make that into a career. I thought, OK, so let's move to Japan. And I still didn't know what I would do to make a living -- be an ambassador, maybe? I had no clue. I tried the videogame industry, and got hired at Capcom as a marketing specialist. Then I decided that I wanted to try the production side, and here I am. I've just gotten very lucky that those little mini-goals have led to something bigger.
Crispy Gamer: But there does seem to be this niche role that you fill, where your larger job seems to be translating Japanese culture, and a Japanese point for view, for the West.
Judd: The money that's being made in the West forced the Japanese to make a decision. They could either start localizing their products, and getting their stories on the same page with Western studios, or not. They had to do that to survive. The Japanese market is shrinking; the Western market is growing.
Crispy Gamer: Enter Ben Judd.
Judd: [Laughs] Exactly.
Crispy Gamer: Next steps for you?
Judd: Well, it's a brave new world for me. We'll have to see. I definitely need a break after this. But after that, the world is my oyster, baby.