Grasshoppper's Suda 51

The Killer7 and No More Heroes director on the Japanese games market and the importance of unique games

This year's Nordic Game last month was notable for a good international line-up of speakers, with Grasshopper's CEO Suda 51 among them.

Here, the iconic developer of Killer7 and No More Heroes talks about the games business in Japan, his philosophy of game design, and the importance of creating something that stands out in a crowded market.

Q: What brought you to Nordic Game, and what are your thoughts on the cultural shift in videogames for designers working in Japan?

Suda 51: I've been invited by the Nordic Game conference organisers for the past couple of years, but I wasn't able to make it last year - so I came this year. I was also keen to visit a couple of studios located around London, and I wanted to learn what people are doing now - it's so hard to go back and forward to Europe from Tokyo, so it was a good opportunity to come here, and stop over in London at the same time.

Q: Square Enix president Yoichi Wada has told in the past that it's increasingly important for Japanese companies to appeal more globally - how do you feel that events like Nordic Game help to bring different communities together?

Suda 51: Well, actually, Grasshopper is probably better-known in the Western market than in Japan, so these kind of events are really good for people in Western countries to understand us more. We released No More Heroes and Killer7 in the Western market so far, which also helps.

And then the people from GDC and Nordic Game give me the opportunity to speak, so I can talk more about the company, which is great for working in the global market.

Q: Does the Japanese videogames business need to appeal more to the West, do you think?

Suda 51: I've heard that a lot of the big publishers in Japan have already started working on how they can sell more games in the Western markets - they need to figure out how they can do that.

Q: Hardware and software sales in Japan have been very slow this year - why is that?

Suda 51: I think there are a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is that Western gamers and Japanese gamers prefer different content in their games. Maybe 2009 is showing us the reality of that.

Also, while the developers in Japan are really good at creating action games, they're trying new genres. For example, role-playing games is one genre, although Western gamers seem to prefer different types of RPGs to those in Japan.

It's not just RPGs - there are tonnes of different genres in Japan - but I guess Western gamers just aren't quite so keen on those RPGs.

Q: When you design games, who do you think of? Is it a Japanese audience, a Western audience, or a global audience?

Suda 51: When I design a game, I imagine that people all over the world are playing it. We're basically targeting a global audience.

Q: The Japanese market is more mature, more complete - but in the West it's still growing up. Do you have a particular age range, or type of gamer, in mind?

Suda 51: I was actually here early last year for the promotion of the first No More Heroes, and I realised that the UK, France and Germany are the mature markets, while Italy and Spain are still growing. There are still new gamers there and they want to know more - so there are good opportunities.

In Japan there are still core gamers, but since Nintendo released the Wii and DS a lot of people who never played games before are now playing. Those people that are playing the different types of games are growing, which is a good thing for the Japanese market.

Q: Yet while the market is growing, sales are quiet - is the market in Japan in decline, or is it a blip?

Suda 51: Well, there are a lot of core gamers, and a lot of lighter users playing on platforms such as the DS - but there's nothing in-between. I think it's going to be very important for games to be created for that middle audience, and that will help bring the market back on-track.

Q: Your games have a very particular style to them - how important is it to create a specific style, with the sheer number of games on the market today?

Suda 51: The first thing I'd say is that Grasshopper's vision is about creative ideas - it's not just about me, there are a number of core members from the company that input the main ideas. We try to create games that don't yet exist in the market, and that's what we're thinking about when we're making a game.

I play a lot of games that sell really well, and I realise that each different game has its own style and core elements. Sometimes you can't really see that, but when you play the game you can feel it.

For example, Call of Duty, LittleBigPlanet or BioShock - you can feel different core elements in each of those games. Burnout Paradise is my favourite [smiles]

Q: There's a very rich mix of hardware platforms in the market now, particularly the next-generation consoles. What are your thoughts on that mix?

Suda 51: Until now there was really only one kind of console, so there was only one real direction for making games. But now there are different kinds of games, which is great because different types of people can try different things.

Culture probably reflects on sales - for example, in Japan a lot of people use trains for their commute, and you see a lot of people using their DS handhelds there. Then there are people using their PSPs in bars, and places like that, to play games against friends. It depends on what kind of life they have.

Maybe in the future people's lives will be influenced more by what kind of console you have.

Suda 51 is CEO of Grasshopper. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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