Yosuke Hayashi is a long-term Tecmo employee, and first came to prominence as the director of the unusual but lovely Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword for DS. Following Tomonobu Itagaki’s departure, Hayashi was elevated to head of the studio, and has acted as director on some but producer on all of their subsequent titles.
I had the chance to sit down with Hayashi to discuss Nioh, Team Ninja’s boldest gamble in a long time - and began by asking what responsibilities lie behind that ambiguous title of ‘studio head.’
“Well I’m really responsible for putting together the team that will work on each of our projects,” says Hayashi. “And of course there’s an overall directorial element to it at the working level, but my focus is often on things like, you know, the management aspect as well as in this case our partnership with Sony.”
In terms of that overview of what Team Ninja does, Nioh obviously marks a change in the kinds of games the studio makes. This seems to me to be because games in the style of Ninja Gaiden are declining in popularity, perhaps best-seen in disappointing sales for Capcom and Ninja Theory’s great Devil May Cry. Is the hybrid RPG-action structure of Nioh the future for action games – and more specifically, the type of tough action games that Team Ninja specialises in?
“You know, there are many different types of action games, and for Nioh it was really about maximising Team Ninja’s knowhow to develop a game that was relevant for 2017. There are still a lot of action elements, but yes those RPG elements as well, and I think those mean that it’s not just about how good you are in operating a controller. I hope that Nioh becomes a genre in and of itself in terms of, you know, what an action game is.”
In terms of looking at the switch from Ninja Gaiden to Nioh, however, it’s surely possible to be a little more specific - the former is linear, with levels that funnel you through encounters and have to be completed in a certain order. Nioh is not an open-world game, but the individual environments are more open and the structure seems designed to encourage replay and re-visiting locations. This isn’t just about the fact that development is more expensive than ever before, at the AAA end, and so studios have to get maximum value from their created assets - but I would suggest it also reflects something of a change in player behaviour and appetite.
“We actually talked a lot about this during the development,” says Hayashi. “And with something like a linear game that you can clear in ten hours, you know, we thought about whether or not you can really be fully satisfied with a game like that. In this kind of YouTube age where everyone is posting their gameplay online, we felt that people did want to kind of rechallenge certain levels. We ourselves made Ninja Gaiden which is, as you say, more of a linear style and so, with that experience in mind, we wanted more freedom to revisit past levels. And so we’ve made Nioh that way, because we think it meets the desire of current players.”
It reflects a wider change with Team Ninja and how Nioh has been introduced over two public demos, both of which led to significant changes based on feedback. “My responsibility as the studio head is in management, but of course I am also overseeing the game-making part of things. And game-making is evolving. Nioh is a new IP so, you know, from the get-go we had this notion that we wanted to make this game with gamers. We always intended to release it this way.”
Before we get too far away, though, Ninja Gaiden is still an influence here, most notably for me in the way that Nioh classifies its weapons into types (five melee, three ranged) and encourages you to invest in each distinctly. This idea of choosing to master a given weapon, and improve with it both in terms of stats and your own play, seems like the studio’s heritage coming through.
“Let me answer that directly. So Nioh is a challenging game and we want people to really think about what weapons to use, or perhaps to consider removing their armour so they can get a little more agility to defeat a certain enemy, or a certain boss, to always be trying to figure out what kind of weapon is the most appropriate or most effective. With respect to the idea of locking yourself into a specific category, you can of course select a katana and go down the path of advancing your ability with the katana – but along the way in your journey you may find a very strong spear.
And so, again, this kind of goes back to leaving the decision in the hands of the user. We want to to give users the freedom to make decisions, choices like that. ‘Do I keep the katana that I’ve enhanced? Or do I switch to this strong spear that I’ve randomly found along the way?’ So, you know, it’s not just about locking yourself into a particular weapon, it’s about the choices that come from that.”
When we’re talking about strong spears, are these weapons acquired as loot semi-randomised in any way, or fixed?
“They’re both. Some things are deliberately placed in certain parts of the game, some things are collected at random. And by the way, even if you obtain certain weapons it’s not necessarily the case that it’s the same weapon for everybody. So for instance, you may pick up, you know, a spear in a certain area, and someone else might pick up that spear in the same area, but the attributes of that spear might be a little bit different.”
Semi-randomised loot with a combat system like this? Beam me up Scotty. But hold. One of the few things that does give me pause about Nioh is the RPG emphasis, because storytelling is not an area where Team Ninja has traditionally excelled - nor to be fair has it really tried to. The Ninja Gaiden games are overblown hell-demons-are-coming setups, while the less said about Dead or Alive the better. I wonder how a studio changes its attitude towards something like this.
“Really the strong RPG components or characteristics in Nioh are more from a character-building perspective, and so it wasn’t as much about storytelling per se. Having said that we definitely incorporated, you know, story elements, historical elements in an incidental way that doesn’t interfere with the actual play. What I mean is, for instance, when you’re playing the game there aren’t many different instances in which a cutscene will play. The focus is on getting through the battle, getting through the level, killing everything. Then after you clear that there may be things to notice, or a video that adds to the story.”
One aspect of Nioh that’s been impossible to ignore is the Dark Souls comparisons - which seem to me a little overblown. How does Hayashi feel about them?
“We anticipated the comparison. I have a lot of respect for Dark Souls. I don’t think it’s wrong that there are comparisons being made, but Nioh also has enjoyment and originality that is different from Dark Souls, and we want gamers to enjoy that as well. We’re not trying to necessarily compete with them or put them down, one-up them or anything like that. It’s just that we want gamers to know that our kind of game is different.”
These comparisons come largely from the fact that Nioh has a recovery system after death that’s identical to the Souls bloodstains, and it also allows players to summon help to face these tough challenges. How does the summoning work, and is the revenant system tied-into other players also?
“You pray at a shrine and there’s a possibility that someone who is in the same area with you is able to help you. With respect to accessing the Revenants, as you mentioned, they are a kind of zombie of people who’ve actually died. So once you defeat them you’re able to get their weapons and equipment.”
But are the revenants NPC characters created by Team Ninja, as we’ve seen in the demos, or other human players who have died in that spot?
“It’s a combination. Sometimes the revenants have been placed there by Team Ninja. Sometimes, depending on how many people have died in a particular area, you may find a revenant there.”
I end on a point that may seem minor but, for a long-time fan of the studio, simply has to be raised. Team Ninja unsurprisingly often makes games about ninjas, and is now making one about the ninja’s great enemy. Nioh focuses on a samurai rather than a ninja, and boy do you end up killing a lot of ninja. How does that feel?
“The concept, the idea for this game was conceived 11 years ago at Koei-Tecmo, and a central part which we’ve maintained was always the blond blue-eyed Westerner as protagonist,” says Hayashi. “When we settled on this concept we really wanted to accentuate the, sort of, tension or perhaps the right word is nervousness, basically the nature that exists between two samurai in battle. So we did that.”
I’m about to say that doesn’t quite answer my question, but Hayashi finishes with a simple flourish that puts all the chin-stroking to shame.
“This time, we just wanted to make a game in which a samurai killed ninja.”