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A Musician in a Visual World

Masaya Matsuura, a musician who pushed the envelope of computer music in the 1980s, is widely credited for inventing the music/rhythm genre with PaRappa the Rapper on the original PlayStation. He went on to create games such as UmJammer Lammy and Vib-Ribbon as well as PaRappa and Ribbon sequels on the PS2. Most recently, he created Tamagotchi Connection: Corner Shop for the DS and released Musika for the iPod.

Following his presentation at this year's D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, had a chance to sit down with Matsuura-san and talk about the popularity of Guitar Hero/Rock Band, the future of the genre and the interplay between the music industry and games industry. We understand that this was the first year that you have attended the D.I.C.E. Summit. What were your thoughts on the event?

Matsuura-san: This time my speech included a live performance, so it required a very...dangerous rehearsal. (laughs) So, I was just focusing on how my speech was going.

I think it went well. The Aibo didn't fall of the stage...

Actually, we did a similar kind of presentation at another event. The first time we did it with Aibo we used a special table. It was actually a Coleman camping, outdoor folding table. We carried that kind of a table as Aibo's stage. It was at a college or somewhere. Students couldn't see it on the ground, so we set up the table.

We put Aibo on the table, but unfortunately...(makes hand motion) Aibo was falling.

These kind of experiences make me feel alarmed in unknown situations, and showing a much more sophisticated presentation to inspire the people in this industry to have greater and smarter ideas by listening to my speech.

You probably saw the flaws that we didn't see, but I think it went really well.

I really want to appeal to this industry's people to progress much more [towards] something new. Currently everybody is focusing on, for example, gorgeous graphics or HD things. But maybe this is not so important for the customers. Maybe customers want much more to be entertained by us.

Two of the games in the awards ceremony last night - Rock Band and Guitar Hero - seem to bear that out. People are focusing on the experience. It is fun to play. Guitar Freaks came out in Japan in 1998, however. Why do you think it has taken so long for this type of game to catch on in the US?

That's a very difficult question. For me, the feel of the [music games] in Japan is too loud. (laughs) Some of them are, of course, great - but not so many actually.

I think the Western developers kept watching what was happening in our country, maybe analysing the situation and the results.

So it isn't that American gamers wouldn't have liked it ten years ago, but maybe that the game developers themselves were hesitant to try something new?

Mmm. (nods in agreement)

It just strikes me as odd that guitar games started in Japan some ten years ago and have only recently become popular here [in the US].

The directors from Harmonix and I have been very good friends to each other for a long time. I really think that Guitar Heroes and Rock Band are very understandable for me. They are very...They have a sense of respecting the original sound in music. By having this kind of sense, Guitar Heroes and Rock Band look fancier.

I think Beatmania or something like that doesn't have [the same respect]. They are cutting, chopping the music into sashimi or sushi or something like that (laughs) and making up an order as though the accompanying music pieces make some new gameplay. But I really don't think those kind of games made great music.

Would you include the Dance Dance Revolution games in that criticism?

Dance Dance Revolution is a difficult category. It is really based on the music, but the promise is dancing. It's a little different from the musical experience. Of course, I'm very bad with dance... (laughs)

So, it's a little different. But I think Dance Dance Revolution is a good game - for dance.

Do you think the future of these type of games is only going to be about releasing new music every year versus evolving the actual gameplay? Or can they do both?

It's a good question.

Basically, the current success of music-based gaming in the West is based upon licensed music. This is different from my style. I am a musician basically. I compose original tracks for my game. This means that the game and the music are coming simultaneously. No licensed or franchised [music] or something like that. This is a very important thing for me.

But the [companies] already have music resources. So they can use a lawyer to get the license and they can make the product of the game. So, already they have done the first set, but in the future I think maybe they should open the format of the audio to the public so that everybody can make their own tracks for Rock Band or Guitar Heroes - publishing in some way using the internet, exchanging their own game code, including the songs, with each other.

If they can sell that kind of data, some people will be on the money. These kind of ideas would be nicer for that environment.

At what point, though, would you be moving away from the game? If the future is that users will use Rock Band and Guitar Heroes to create their own songs, why wouldn't they just go to a guitar, keyboard and drum machines and make music with real instruments?

The important thing is...Only yesterday, this guy doesn't have a purpose to be a musician, but fortunately he has the chance to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band and he realises - "Oh! I will be a musician!"

So, he has a chance to download what other people have made and starts to create something and publish it. After that, he realises a much deeper expression is needed. Maybe he will start to learn the actual guitar playing or something like that.

Maybe Guitar Heroes or Rock Band needs a game layer, but an actual musician's layer is underneath. Some [players] can dive into the harder situation, and someone who doesn't want to can keep going on that [game] layer. Both of them will be okay.

So, do you think some day a famous musician will be interviewed and reveal that his or her interest in music came not from the radio or from a concert but from playing Rock Band or Guitar Heroes?

Yes, I think so. I really think so.

The music industry is sometimes seen as being in competition with the games industry for the same customers - especially lately as the games industry has grown and the music industry has declined. However, it seems that the music industry is slowly embracing games as a new source of revenue.

Continuing into the future, is it possibile that the music industry will start to place data on CD releases to allow tracks to be used in games such as Rock Band and Guitar Heroes?

Yes, but maybe the style will be a little different. Maybe soon CDs will be gone. No one will buy CDs. Everybody will buy the data for the audio by using iPod or something like that. If you download the track, certainly you can play the game with this track, but you can also choose the game - so I will choose Musika from NanaOn-Sha or Rock Band from Harmonix, for example.

This will be very soon, I think.

But if the music originates with a certain game, this will be a kind of an affiliate scheme or something. It will be work in that kind of a situation.

So for example, if one record label has a catalogue of 30 titles this month, and if you want to play one song without paying the money, the record company allows you to play that one track but during the playback you have to watch advertisements for other titles for example. This kind of thing will be work.

One of your games, VibRibbon, provided a very unique interaction with the game and the user's own music. It never came to the US, however. But with the ability of modern consoles to store and play music files, it seems like this game would be a perfect fit. Is there a chance that we could see something like it?

Now is only the start [of PSN]. It keeps getting easier to have older titles in the downloadable catalogue. So, we have just started the possibilities of doing something for it.

I seem to recall reading an interview where you thought that music companies didn't want their songs to be used with your game or they wanted money for it or something...

Yeah, yeah, yeah...

...But that seems odd because consoles have music visualisation programs that put graphics on the screen to the owner's music.

Yeah. That is a very...Subtle things, I think.

In the pre-iPod age, it was definable, very easy to define what is music. The music was on the CD. Not so many people were capturing the CD audio into their computer. In that kind of environment, it was secure.

After iPod and iTunes became a big explosion, the record companies and artists started to think that their audio data was not secured. So, maybe the record companies were getting very tight in allowing people to use the audio data. External music games were shut out for a while.

But after time passed and studios announced non-DRM titles, the music industry and Apple realised that audio data had to be open again for the convenience of the customer.

So, the external audio games are back...This is a new chance.

Is the Musika game that you created for the iPod something that could technologically be ported to a handheld such as the PSP or even to Xbox Live?

Basically, Musika was made in the PC environment. So, this means that Musika is portable to any kind of computer environment.

Has anyone approached you about such a possibility?

Some are saying something...(laughs)

Does that mean you can't talk about it?

No, I mean Musika is published by Sony BMG exclusively so they are controlling the publishing. So I don't know what their plans are.

You were quoted in a recent Gamasutra article...


You're already laughing? You got a little heat for saying that the bubble has burst for DS software in Japan. Did you want to clarify that?

It is not a simple bubble. The DS successfully launched in many territories simultaneously, but maybe at the end of 2006 to 2007 many titles - sequels - lost [money]. Very few titles are getting much better.

This means, especially for the Brain Training titles or non-gaming content, it is getting difficult right now.

Is there a similar situation going on with the Wii?

Wii's case is much more difficult. It currently looks as if no third-party title is successful in Japan. So, this means to make a good Wii game requires longer time to make the interaction better.

At the awards show last night, the only Nintendo titles to be recognised were Mario Galaxy and Zelda: Phantom Hourglass - both first-party games. Most of the games with the big accolades - BioShock, Mass Effect, The Orange Box - weren't Wii games either.

So, even though the Wii itself is selling tremendously well, perhaps the software as a whole isn't as impressive?

The people sitting around me at the awards ceremony said "Oh, it looks very biased." But, maybe it is because of the AIAS awards system or something.

I think Capcom has said that they didn't like the awards because they are not a member and only members can have games nominated - and they do not want to pay to become a member.

Yes, that's true.

Still, the awards are what they are. For the members.

I think that...For example, for us, we are a very small company. So it is very hard to keep joining these kind of societies by paying money. But I don't understand a company like Capcom, already in the stock market...Why...(trails off)

Let's talk about the game you recently announced: Major Minor's Majestic March. (jokingly) Did you choose Majesco as a publisher because the company's name also starts with an M? To give us a tongue twister?

(laughs) Ha! Just a coincidence...

Seriously, though, I saw that THQ has announced a game called Band Mashups, I think, for the Wii. Miyamoto showed off the Wii Orchestra game, I think he said coming this year. Are you familiar with those other games?

I saw Miyamoto conducting an orchestra or something on the website, but that's it. I don't know about that game.

So you aren't worried that three games that sound fairly similar are coming out? Especially if Wii software isn't selling that well, it might be hard to distinguish yours from the others?

Maybe our game is different. I don't worry and care about that. Now is a very early stage, but it already looks very unique for me.

Do you have a release date for that yet?

Not yet, but maybe...

Dewi Tanner: By the end of the year. I've heard that there are more than three first-party shooters in development these days, so...

Good point. That doesn't seem to bother anyone.

Do you think that kind of [baton] gameplay could translate to what Sony is doing with motion detection via the PlayStation Eye camera? That your game could work other ways to become multiplatform?

Possibly. We are just focusing on the [Wii] environment first.

You are partnering with Rodney Greenblat again. He's obviously known for his unique visuals. You're a musician, and yet the game is relying upon the visuals...I wouldn't say more so than the music, but people focus on the characters .

Videogames are a visual media. How hard is that for you as a musician realising that, as good as your music may be, people are still going to look at the visuals first?

Yes, I understand your question. You are coming from the aspect that...the knowledge you have is based on video first.

As I said in my speech, a video artist is not so great at recognising the audio things simultaneously by drawing or making the computer graphics. I feel this is because video designers are always listening to an unknown track or their favourite track all the time. Just the atmosphere of the audio isn't very important for their designing work.

But from a music standpoint....As I said, music doesn't exist without connecting to something in the physical world. But as a composer, in my brain, the imagination of the music is completely independent from any kind of other materials.

So if I think about a song, I just imagine the phrase or chorus or rhythm or something like that instead of imagining that "Oh! I really want that beautiful girlfriend!" or "Oh! I really want to drink that Starbucks!" - I never think about that.

But after my composition has been done, and this is my new track and you listen to it and think "Oh, this reminds me of Starbucks coffee..." (laughs) This is a mysterious thing about music.

Musicians can't control that, the existence of the music, but we have to be very careful to set certain music with other materials like, for example, the characters or visuals.

So these kind of connections between the two - going correctly, as I designed - I don't worry which one goes faster. But nobody is so careful about these combinations and relations - the controller's real-time input and visuals and characters and various kind of things have been well-designed simultaneously. It is a very difficult job.

Since you've worked with [Greenblat] before, it that an easy collaboration? Do you think he represents your work well? Do you ever find that a visual artist doesn't always draw what you had in mind?

I really don't make the music for the game at first. I draw the rough image of the game idea and discuss with the designers about the images, for example, making the prototype or sketch - back and forth many times creating certain images.

Do you think anyone will ever dare to make a videogame without little or no visuals at all? A game could use the Wiimote as a sort of radar or sonar, for example. Players would have to rely entirely upon audio clues, reacting to unseen objects or hidden characters. Or will videogames, by their very nature, always be about visuals?

That's possible. Actually, a game like that would have visuals. So, what you meant was without "video" visuals, but...(taps side of his head) Music doesn't exist without visuals.

I didn't really like to perform on the stage for a long time. Now, it is okay. Now I don't care about that. But why I didn't like to perform on the stage is because I did not want to show myself to the audience. I just wanted to make them listen to the music.

Masaya Matsuura is president of NanaOn-Sha. Interview by Mark Androvich. Special thanks to Dewi Tanner, NanaOn-Sha's overseas business manager.

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