With 2.5 million copies shipped, glowing reviews, and a host of awards and nominations, last year's Nier: Automata was an undisputed success. It was also the result of a first-time collaboration between series director Yoko Taro and development studio PlatinumGames.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at last month's Game Developers Conference, Taro and PlatinumGames lead designer Takahisa Taura talked about the game's success, and what lessons they think others can take from it.
"Employ Yoko Taro to work on your game," Taura joked. "But in all seriousness, there's nothing I could say. We did succeed this time, but I don't think it's a given we'll be able to create another successful title next. We are constantly challenging ourselves to do something [better], so I don't think there's anything we can take out of it to tell someone else to take out of it as well."
So why did it succeed, in his estimation?
"I do think there were probably a great amount of people interested in the collage of different brands: the Square Enix brand, the PlatinumGames brand, and the Yoko Taro brand all put together," Taura said. "I think that created something people wanted."
That combination of brands wasn't present when the first Nier game was made in 2010. That game was panned by critics and disappointed at retail, results that gave Taro some guidance on what not to do when it came time for Nier: Automata.
"With our previous Nier, we catered it toward the Western audience," Taro said. "But when we released it, it so happened that Square Enix fans actually wanted more of a Japanese type of game, even in the West. That spoke for itself when we saw the sales numbers. But this time we realized we don't need to think in a global sense to cater to the global market. So when we were creating this game, we ended up thinking we should just create something we like ourselves instead.
"I think wherever the Western market gravitates toward is what everyone will try to gravitate towards and create, and that will become the next red ocean. So I want to do something that's not in there"
"For example, 2B the protagonist is agile, thin, small and tiny. She's wearing heels and flinging this sword around. When we first designed her character, we weren't really sure it would work in the US or in a global sense. But a lot of people did end up liking her. With that experience, I don't think it's necessary to try to cater to a specific part of the world."
Not only is Taro wary of catering to the Western market, he's consciously distancing himself from it.
"I think wherever the Western market gravitates toward is what everyone will try to gravitate towards and create, and that will become the next red ocean," Taro said. "So I want to do something that's not in there."
While PlatinumGames wasn't involved in the original Nier, the studio has clearly arrived similar conclusions through another path.
"At least at PlatinumGames, we don't really think of a global reach," Taura said. "We want to create games that cater to fans of Nier, a previous title, or action games in general. It's not about regions. It's not about reaching out to a global audience, so that's the approach we took."
One aspect of Nier: Automata that would be familiar to fans of the original but perhaps alien to action game fans is its length. Many of PlatinumGames' most acclaimed action games--Vanquish, Bayonetta 2, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance--can be completed in 5-10 hours. According to the self-explanatory gaming website How Long To Beat, Nier: Automata takes about 20 hours to finish the first time through. That gets the player one ending, but they must go through the game multiple times to unlock more endings that significantly further the story.
"I don't think 100% of players will reach the ending of any game," Taura said. "That being said, I'm sure there will be people who just go to the A ending in Nier: Automata and that's it. That would be their Nier experience, and I think that's fine by itself. But I don't know how to react when someone regards our game a certain way when they only played to the A ending, because there's so much more to it."
Taro agreed, to an extent.
"The first part of how I feel is the same as Taura-san," he said. "I feel it's fine if people only play up to the A ending and are satisfied. I think that's one way of playing style and that's great. But from here on, my opinion is the complete opposite from Taura-san.
"When there are multiple endings, you tend to feel like you've missed out on some portion of the game if you don't see all the endings. So that's one of the issues I find with a multi-ending. With this game and all my games, I do want to create in a way so you already feel like you got the most value of the game, even if you just play through the A ending. I want players to feel they got the value they wanted similar to those who finished the entire game and saw all the endings. In the current state with this game, I don't think I succeeded in that. I think a lot of people still feel like they missed out if they haven't played through the entire game. That's something I want to take back with me and try to improve on in the future."
Nier: Automata's length aside, 3D action games of the sort PlatinumGames produces have settled into a familiar groove. Taura himself suggested the fundamentals of the genre seen more evolution than revolution of late.
"In a core essence, I don't think much has changed [in 3D action games] since Ocarina of Time or Devil May Cry"
"Of course the visuals have evolved," Taura said. "They're gotten more beautiful and more pristine. But in a core essence, I don't think much has changed since [1998's] Ocarina of Time or [2001's] Devil May Cry."
Though Taro cautioned his knowledge of action games is limited, he also saw a plateau in the genre's advancement.
"Looking from the outside, I feel that where 3D action games have tried to imitate real life as much as possible, we've reached kind of a limit to do that," Taro said. "We've reached a point where it's so real now it can't become any more realistic than it is right now. So we would have to think of creative ways to showcase 3D action moving forward, like maybe changing the appearance of it so it's not too realistic, or things like that. From the era of Pac-Man to now, we've kind of reached the climax of what we're able to achieve in terms of realism."
If that suggests the genre is due for a shift to something more bizarre, stylized or abstract, Taro may be well-suited to take it there. However, he would likely need a collaborator well-versed in the field to help. And while he's open to collaborating with another external studio as he did with PlatinumGames on Nier: Automata, Taro clearly has some reservations about the idea.
"There is potential," Taro said. "I'm not going to say no to everything. But at the same time, because everyone at PlatinumGames was so highly skilled, it's kind of like eating something very good. The next thing you eat won't taste as good. So I think it's the same thing with me and PlatinumGames. If I worked with someone else, I would have such a high expectation already set it would be a little difficult for me to work with them."
From Taura's point of view, the feeling is mutual.
"Having someone come from outside, being a director and taking hold of the steering wheel, it's actually very difficult to do," Taura said. "We end up following that person, and this time we succeeded, but I don't think that's going to happen every time. It's something we have to be very careful about. I do think there's a possibility that we would work with an external director, but at the same time, I don't think it's something that would happen very frequently."