--Tomonobu Itagaki Interview--
--XBox Nation, Winter 2002--
With the breast of intentions, Team Ninja's Tomonobu Itagaki has set out to create "a gamer's paradise". XBox Nation sat down with the outspoken creator of Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball to talk about it.
It's a dark October evening, and Tomonobu Itagaki is already 20 minutes late for his interview. Tecmo's public relations manager starts to look nervous. Finally Itagaki strolls into Tecmo's board room, plunks himself down, and orders the manager to get us a round of beers.
Itagaki models himself as the bad boy of Japanese gaming, and today he is wearing a mud-colored leather jacket, suede cowboy boots that he casually props up on a table, a silver studded belt, and his signature black Armani sunglasses. His shoulder length hair obscures a weathered, mischievous face.
Itagaki lights up the first of probably 80 cigarettes he will smoke tonight, and says, "So, shoot".
XBox Nation: Thanks. What's the exact nature of your involvement in Dead or Alive XTreme Beach Volleyball?
Tomonobu Itagaki: I'm not the producer of this game.
XBN:Then who's the producer?
Itagaki: Me. [Laughs] But really I'm the chief planner. I'm the chief architect. Chief tuner. I'm the chief.
[Itagaki abruptly gets up and walks over to the back of the room. He unsheathes a shining, three-foot katana blade from a display case and point sit directly at us.]
Itagaki: You like this?
XBN: Um, very nice. Was it true you conceived this game with former XBox guru Seamus Blackley, and that you two originally called it "Hentai Ballet"?
Itagaki: [Laughs, slapping his knee.] No, no, no, no!
XBN: So the main selling point of this game is sex?
Itagaki: No, no. The key word for DOAX is paradise.
XBN: But it's been rated an 18-and-over game in Japan. It's adult entertainment.
Itagaki: Let me tell you what entertainment is: Violence. Sex. Friendship. Death. Surprise. Betrayal. Dancing.
XBN: Is all of that in this game?
Itagaki: No! Not all of these things.
XBN: How do you classify the entertainment value of this game?
Itagaki: Several things here: First is beauty. Second is sex. Sexual content is there, right? And there's humor.
XBN: Is it true that Beach Volleyball can be played with one hand? Leaving the other hand, um, free?
Itagaki: Yes. But that's more to do with keeping the control simple. I have a 5-year-old daughter. I want her to be able to play the game easily.
XBN: You want your daughter playing this game?
Itagaki: Okay, not literally. DOAX has a great depth of playability. [It uses] two buttons, but you can just use one if you like it simpler. And the D-stick.
XBN: A lot of men will buy this game because of the attractive chicks. What is the most risque element you've included in Beach Volleyball?
Itagaki: You'd be surprised, but this is not really a sex game. The girls are beautiful, but I think of them like daughters. They're my babies!
XBN: So there's no nudity at all?
Itagaki: Never! I ask you now, what kind of father would want to show his daughters naked?
XBN: I don't know. Do you happen to know any?
Itagaki: Here, look. I'm going to show you the latest trailer. No one else has seen this yet.
[Itagaki dims the lights and plays a new trailer for the game. It's similar to the previous trailers, set to the new familiar theme song, "How Crazy Are You"? Scenes are shows of Hitomi and Kasumi rollerblading in bikinis, playing together in the shallows of the beach.]
Itagaki: Does that look sexy to you?
Itagaki: But even if we show nipples, that doesn't necessarily mean sexy. The real entertainment value of this game is in the beauty of the environments, the characters... it's paradise!
XBN: A men's paradise.
Itagaki: Maybe. But when I see this, I feel beauty. I feel the love of the characters. I want players to feel the same way as they play.
XBN: Are you planning to have a booster disc for Beach Volleyball with extra costumes and such? Or downloadable extras? How about letting players create and swap their own bikinis?
Itagaki: That's all just a little too Pokemon for me. I'm not a big fan of online gaming just yet. When people buy DOAX, I want them to have the whole thing. I don't want to force people to buy new skins or whatever. We may consider a booster disc down the line though.
XBN: Roughly what percentage of the game is actually volleyball?
Itagaki: Okay, let me break it down. About 30 percent of the game is the volleyball. About two percent is the pool-hopping side game. Another 30 percent is very beautiful, interactive computer graphics.
XBN: Interactive CG? How does that work?
The player can control certain aspects of the CG. Like when characters dance, or relax... there are various other activities on the island where the player can control the camera, [and] feel involved.
XBN: How many minutes of CG are there in total?
Itagaki: About 10 minutes of pre-rendered CG like the trailer you just saw. And maybe 2,000 seconds of interactive CG. What is that, about three hours? We're still making that actually.
XBN: We're only up to 62 percent. What else can you do in the game?
Itagaki: I guess about 15 percent is gambling. You can play roulette, blackjack--a number of things in the main hotel. You need to be careful though, the casino is always counting your winnings and you don't want to piss them off too much. Just like in real life! You can win money, but also prizes, extras for the girls.
XBN: Right. Now we're at 77 percent.
Itagaki: Another five percent is the special trailer archive. This is a special opportunity for fans of Team Ninja games to check out a variety of unreleased footage from not only DOAX, but also the origin of Ninja Gaiden, DOA. We have stuff pulled out of our archives from way back in 1996!
XBN: And the rest?
Itagaki: And the last 20 percent or so is for shopping. Gift motivated stuff. There'll be other ways to get extras for the girls than just the shop.
XBN: Who is your personal favorite DOA girl?
Itagaki: Kasumi, for sure. I feel responsible for her. Do you know that some hackers made a nude code for her in DOA3? It broke my heart. I feel very close to her after that event. It was an attack on her.
XBN: Kasumi is the youngest, right? She's 17. Are you okay with sexualizing with a 17-year-old?
Itagaki: Why not? In Japan, that's okay. Maybe it's 20 in America. Remember though, I was 27 when I created Kasumi. I'm older now, but 17-year-old girls are still gorgeous. Still, I'm not the kind of creator that lets my own tastes overwhelm the game. I make games for the player, not just myself.
XBN: Would you be comfortable featuring, say, a 15-year-old girl as a sexy character?
Itagaki: In Japanese tradition, people become adults at the age of 16. I think the legal age is 20. But there are cultures in the world where girls get married at 13. I guess the current status of society will limit what we can or can't do. But when we design characters, we design them for the Japanese cultural standard.
XBN: Let's talk about your other projects. How do you think Ninja Gaiden compares to Sega's new Shinobi game?
Itagaki: Honestly, I don't see it. I glanced at it at TGS, that's it. I was a fan of the original Shinobi, but I'm not really interested in the new one. It isn't an influence.
XBN: Has work begun on Dead or Alive 4?
Itagaki: Of course.
XBN: For XBox or another system?
Itagaki: I'm looking at a fairly big change this time. In fact, I might look at a next generation system for DOA 4, but it's not decided yet. I don't want to alienate current XBox owners, though.
XBN: You've made some harsh comments about Tekken. Do you regret saying these things?
Itagaki: Tekken 1 was good. Tekken 2 was better, and Tekken 3 even better than that. My family are big fans of Tekken 3! But Tekken 4 just did not push the genre at all. Such lazy development. I do respect what the AM2 team did with Virtua Fighter 4. I am a fan of simplification, and I liked that they tried to increase the mass appeal of the game by cutting out one button. But DOA 3 is still a better game.
XBN: Do you consider it normal practice to slag off your competitors?
Itagaki: Okay, let me tell you the real story with that. Back when the original DOA came out, Namco aired a radio commercial insulting the series. As the father of DOA, I will never forget an insult to my family. I will get them back with nuclear missiles more than 100 times for that. I will never forget it.
XBN: Was the original Dead or Alive based on Virtua Fighter 2 code given from Sega?
Itagaki: No, no, no. that's just a rumor. We did study that game, and Sega was very helpful. But the code was all ours.
XBN: Do you think Dead or Alive 3 would have sold more if you'd made it for PlayStation 2?
Itagaki: DOA 3 couldn't be done on PS2! What I call fat companies need to hedge their bets with PS2, but Team Ninja has the freedom to get the best-looking game out there.
XBN: What similarities does the XBox Ninja Gaiden have with the original?
Itagaki: Practically none. Team Ninja originally developed the concept for a new action game ground up. Tecmo management begged us to call it Ninja Gaiden, so we did. The origin of the game is actually not the old games.
XBN: What games and films inspire you?
Itagaki: My name is Gladiator! Great movie! But I think my favorite movie is probably Leon [The Professional]. As for games, Zelda: Ocarina of Time was fantastic. I didn't like Majora's Mask that much though. My current favorite is Pikmin. A work of brilliance! I really feel for the little Pikmin. Halo also impressed me recently. I'm stuck on Level six... it's just so intense.
XBN: What else recently? Itagaki: I liked Onimusha. Metal Gear Solid 2 didn't impress me, neither did Final Fantasy X. Not games for me. I don't like games with low-interactivity.
XBN: With the huge success of games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Halo, do you think Japanese developers should be worried about Western developers taking over their turf?
Itagaki: I'm not worried myself, but I do think other Japanese developers should be. It's natural that Western developers are catching up and developing their own style. Japanese developers should be more aware of gaming tastes outside of Japan.