Breaking the Language Barrier
Team Ninja on the disparity between Japanese and Western development
Team Ninja is a studio which knows its strengths, hitting a devoted core audience with regular improvements to its winning franchises. That audience may be niche, but it's also loyal, representing a business model which flies in the face of the current movement towards larger, more casual audiences.
It's also a studio which seems to make games tremendously grounded in Japanese culture, certainly in both of its flagship series, Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive. Localisation producer Peter Garza's role in that team is to bring those games to a global audience, but, as you'll read below, it involves a lot more than straight translation.
Q: So what does localisation production involve?
Peter Garza: Well... I herd cats. I need to make sure that a game is in English so I oversee the translation. I don't do all of the translation myself, a good chunk of it I do - we work with external agencies as well to get English translations, then I'll go over those translations myself, try and spice them up as best I can.
I oversee voiceover recordings as well, casting and voiceover recordings.
I sit with the development team, which I think is fairly unique in Japanese industry, in Japanese game companies. In general localisation is something of an afterthought. A separate section. I actually sit really close to the director and the producer, all of the game designers. I'm embedded with them.
I get to participate in concept meetings, game design ideas, I get to throw my ideas out there too. We can talk about games we've played. It's a very collaborative atmosphere - I've been very lucky to be part of Team Ninja.
I guess being part of the actual game development there, as well as making sure that the game is in English, and French and German and Italian and making sure we have packaging in English, French, German and Italian and making sure that the ratings for all of the different areas are going through, keeping things on schedule for that.
I also talk to marketing people in the States and Europe to make sure we're all on the same page, marketing and messaging, shows like this, whether it's doing interviews directly or interpreting for the producer.
I guess that's all the stuff that I do!
Q: When you talk about translation, presumably that's about much more than just changing the language. There must be signifiers and points of reference which need some cultural translation too...
It's a Japanese development team and I certainly don't want to take that away from them - I'm certainly not the voice of the Western God in the office.
Peter Garza: Oh absolutely. One of the things that's unique in my position now is that I'm seeing things fairly early with the development team so I can see those things early and... I don't know about steer things away from that, but at least be able to offer the Japanese developers an alternative viewpoint on things.
It's a Japanese development team and I certainly don't want to take that away from them - I'm certainly not the voice of the Western God in the office. Team Ninja knows actions games, they know how to make these games, I don't expect to be the face of the West.
But there are definitely some things that don't translate well. For Ninja Gaiden 3 specifically, one of the core concepts is trying to get across the feeling of cutting a person down with a sword. In Japanese there are multiple characters for cutting. One of the most commonly used ones is for cutting things. You could cut a watermelon using this character.
There's another character specifically for cutting with a sword. It has much heavier connotations. When you see it in writing you know what they're talking about. In English, both of those get translated as 'cut'. So it was sort of a challenge trying to figure out some way to get across that heavier feel and connotation. So we tried to make the English clear that it was about cutting someone down, not just a watermelon.
Q: So, during the process of development, is the Western market borne in mind much, or is it primarily aimed at Japanese audiences?
Peter Garza: Well there's definitely consideration there. Tecmo, and Team Ninja specifically, their games are more popular in the West than in Japan. We probably have much more name value and recognition in the West. So the fact that we have much more recognition in the West, means that the producer is going to be much more attuned to that.
But they got popular, not because they were thinking of the West, but because they made a cool game. We don't want to lose that. They need to make the game that they want to make. Games being creative, if your heart and soul isn't in your creation, it'll tell. So we want the creators to use their creativity and be passionate about the games they're going to make.
That passion in the past has paid off. Ninja Gaiden one and two have been really well received. So it's not so much that they're focused on the West, they're focused on making the games that they like. Hey, if Westerners like it too, cool!
I think you do see a bit more of a split now between Japanese games and Western games, because in the past Japanese games were Games. At least for console. Now that you've had more Western games and Western developers making extremely good games on consoles, there is a little more conscious attitude paid towards what gamers in the West are playing and what kind of games are being made.
So the director and the producer, they've played Dead Space. They've played Portal, Portal 2. They have discussions about how it's really cool when GlaDos is talking about this or that in Portal 2. They're aware of Western games. We've definitely tried to use what works in terms of game designs - trying to make a more immersive experience. With Ninja Gaiden 3 that's definitely one of the goals.
So it's not just taking Western games and saying, okay, we're going to make this game for the West. We're looking at Western games and saying, okay, they're making more immersive games, they're making a more mature game. How do we do that as Japanese developers, how do we bring that to the games that we're passionate about.
I definitely see a split between standard Japanese game developers and Western developers. It's going to be hard for them to completely merge.
Q: You've sort of pre-empted another of my questions there actually, about whether you think that Western and Japanese games are becoming more or less similar...
Peter Garza: I definitely see a split between standard Japanese game developers and Western developers. It's going to be hard for them to completely merge. Seeing and hearing both sides sometimes I wonder about how this gap is going to get closed. Games in Japan exist in a different space for entertainment than in the West. Games in the West are very much going for that cinematic experience. Games in Japan are pretty much equated with toys. They're playthings.
If two different users are looking at games, they're looking for different things from those games. Even outside games, entertainment in Japan and the West is very different. If you look at the writing for TV, movies - the diet of entertainment in Japan is different from the West. Even the hardest core Otaku in the West can read all the manga and watch all the anime they want, they're not going to get the full Japanese experience.
In the same vein, even the Japanese gamers who are playing Battlefield and Call of Duty, the environments are different, so they're going to have a different take on the games. So when you get creators who have that different diet, who've grown up with different entertainment, they're going to create very different games. I think what I would like to see more of is what the top people at Team Ninja have done, which is to look at Western games and try to work out why things are moving in that direction. What is cool about that immersive experience.
What I worry about is whether that would be accepted in the West, because for users in the West there seems to be a perception of Japanese games: Japanese games are X. You shouldn't be trying to do this immersive stuff, we want numbers and gauges and combo hits and all fun stuff that we've grown up with. That's what you make because you're Japanese.
If a Japanese creator doesn't want to make that, because their passion is somewhere else, then hopefully Western gamers would be open to seeing that kind of approach and being more open minded.
Q: There were some interesting comments last week from Inafune. He was talking about his experiences at Capcom and saying that collaborations between Japanese developers or publishers and Western counterparts often leads to conflict and each party blaming the other for any mistakes. Is that an assessment you'd agree with?
Peter Garza: Yeah. You're gonna get cultural disconnect - that's going to happen. If we're going to be collaborating more, we need to think about that upfront. It's very important that both parties are aware that there will be culture shock. There will be culture shock on both sides, you've got to be ready for that. You need to be able to see ahead of time where things might happen and act early to make sure they don't snowball and get completely out of hand.
When you're dealing with companies, and not just people over a beer, that can easily devolve into politics and that nasty infighting. Japanese companies are structured differently and personal relationships within the company are very different than a Western company, it's just a matter of different cultures.
Hopefully when a collaboration goes well people will be able to understand those differences and work with those different structures and find the good that's there as well. Focus on making it work rather than saying, "we don't do it that way, you need to do it our way." If both sides come to the table like that then there's obviously going to be difficulties.
Q: One of the areas which has been perceived as a bit of a negative cultural difference, particularly in Team Ninja's Dead or Alive, but also in Ninja Gaiden, is the portrayal of women. There's been some perceived misogyny there. I think that's a bit hypocritical, given that objectification of women in games is just as prevalent in the West, but it is perhaps more pronounced in Japanese titles. Is that a fair judgement, do you think?
Peter Garza: I think that's a cultural issue. Specifically with some of the creators. There's an idea of playful beauty, and not to defend misogyny at all, but I think that's where they're coming from. That's their perception of creating a beautiful woman. They're not trying to belittle them, they're trying to show this ideal woman.
We're trying to deal with beauty, and violence for Ninja Gaiden, in a more mature way. Less of that 13 year-old sneaking nudie books under the bed away from his parents.
That being said, I think attitudes are changing somewhat. In the latest Ninja Gaiden 3 trailer there's a female character that is fully clothed and doesn't have enormous breasts. We're trying to deal with beauty, and violence for Ninja Gaiden, in a more mature way. Less of that 13 year-old sneaking nudie books under the bed away from his parents. More of an adult's perspective. We make mature games for adults.
We're all grown ups, so trying to come from that. We're trying to grow up a bit. A little bit. [laughs]
Q: I think that's an important distinction. For many years, mature games were anything but. It was that schoolyard sniggering titillation, whereas now we often have very mature subjects being dealt with in grown up and sensitive ways.
Peter Garza: Yeah, one of the things a few years back that hit me as a really mature game was Braid. Braid to me is a mature game because it's pitched to you at a mature level. My children can play Braid, but they wouldn't get it. That is a completely different kind of rating than you get on the packaging.
That's a kind of maturity which you definitely see coming from the West. It's something I really hope to see coming from Japanese developers as well, because the gaming population is not just 13 year old boys. The evolution of maturity and the attitude towards it is definitely changing in the West. Personally I'm trying to work on that in Japan as well.
Q: Obviously Itagaki-san was a huge personality and influence behind the team. How has his departure affected the way that you work?
Peter Garza: Well I have to preface that by saying that I was never part of the team whilst Itagaki-san was there, so I've only seen the after effects. I've talked to people, and there are several people who did work with him, in talking with them he's very respected. He knows games, what makes a good game, the risk and reward. The right challenge to bring it to that level where, if you fail, you want to try it just that one more time. As a game creator he's very well respected.
Obviously with the games that he made, that shows in the results. The people who are at Team Ninja were raised in that culture. Last year in E3 I was in an interview with the current Team Ninja leader, Mr Hayashi. He got a similar question.
He phrase it like this: If you cut down the grass, the soil remains, so you're still going to get the same kind of grass growing back. Even with Itagaki-san's departure, the foundation that he laid is still there - his attitude towards action in games, the quality of animation and combat, the feel of combat, the controller input, all of that is there.
I think now it's their time to shine. To say, okay, we've got that base but now I'm going to put my own spin on it.