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Grasshopper Manufacture: 25 years and still hopping

CEO Suda 51 talks rough patches, longevity, and encouraging newer talent at the studio

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As Grasshopper Manufacture hit 25 years of operations, CEO Goichi "Suda 51" Suda insists to that the studio's motto of 'Punk's not dead,' a message that its creative works will shock and or stimulate people is "still alive and kicking."

Suda notes that the studio's name is an homage to both the song "Grasshopper" by British rock band Ride and a reminder to himself of how it feels like working in game development and constantly hopping between tasks.

Grasshopper gained international recognition with the 2005 release of Killer 7 on the Nintendo Gamecube. The action-adventure title received a visibility boost thanks to a publishing deal with Capcom, and gained further notice for its unique and convoluted story about a group of assassins fighting a supernatural terrorist organization.

Goichi "Suda 51" Suda

Suda explains, "Until Killer 7, we had mainly focused on titles for the Japanese domestic market. My interest in the overseas market was sparked when I went to E3 for the first time. I experienced what I felt was the true 'home' of video games. With Killer 7 being produced by Shinji Mikami and sold under the Capcom brand, it was like the door to the rest of the world was suddenly opened for me. Having Capcom distribute our game was a really special experience."

Speaking of the studio's portfolio, early on, it featured titles with narratives that didn't shy away from using politics. For example, The Silver Case is a mystery that involves the police chasing a criminal who's seen as a hero among the public for murdering corrupt politicians and criminals who were unpunished by the legal system.

Suda explains these narrative choices weren't necessarily a matter of simply making the games political; it was a creative choice the studio used to flesh out its characters with robust backgrounds to match the overall story.

I'd think about how these characters would feel about and deal with said politics, their governments...and we'd go from there

"There wasn't so much of a conversation with the team when we created these games; as I started writing up the scenarios for these titles, I would think about the main characters and come up with what would become their 'backbone' and their 'surroundings' – why these particular characters existed, why they are here in this specific place," he explains.

"I'd work out details such as their actual locations and social standings, how to make the story feel like it was occurring in the present day or at least in a time close to it, the politics of the specific time and place, relationships between countries involved in the story, etc. I'd also think about how these characters would feel about and deal with said politics, their governments, and other related elements, and we'd go from there."

The Silver Case, a 1999 visual novel title originally released on the PlayStation 1

But the studio is perhaps best known for No More Heroes, a series fronted by Travis Touchdown, an assassin inspired by the host of MTV's Jackass, Johnny Knoxville. A rare M-rated Wii exclusive, No More Heroes became a Grasshopper franchise that spanned numerous platforms and four games across a decade. Suda explains back in 2007, he and the team had a strong sense that the first game would do well.

He says, "I felt that it would be a great fit for the [Wii] console, but it also felt like it would be a huge challenge for us as well. Not only did we want to realize this big city of Santa Destroy and include all these ideas we had for the game, but it was also a time in which a lot of other studios had been planning and also releasing many action games that were doing really well...When the game was finally finished, it felt like a brand new start for Grasshopper Manufacture as a game studio, especially since it was a different game from Killer7."

Suda continues, "It was my first time properly appearing in overseas media, and they went with the angle of 'this game was created by the guy who made Killer7,' and each media outlet we talked with spoke highly of both Killer7 and No More Heroes, which really made me feel like we just might be accepted outside of Japan after all. It was the same thing in the UK, France, and Spain."

The studio head notes it doesn't receive much in royalties, but the No More Heroes and The Silver Case franchises have been Grasshopper's most successful titles in terms of sales performance.

"Regarding financial successes, we don't have any games in our portfolio that would count as 'financially successful.' The reason for this is that we're game developers, and we've developed many of our games on contract, so we don't really receive much as far as royalties go," Suda says.

"Even if we develop a game that sells a million copies – which we've achieved in the past – we only receive [a tiny] percentage of the profits from that. The two series in which we currently make the most money are No More Heroes and The Silver Case. These titles continue to sell to some degree, so they've provided a slow but steady stream of income over the years."

He adds, "Unfortunately, game developers don't really make as much money as people tend to think, especially in the case of independent developers. It's just not as simple as 'making a good game that people like = big money.' That's why many independent developers aren't doing it for the money alone."

The mental and emotional hit you take when you have a game canceled is pretty intense

As hard as it is to see others become the greatest beneficiaries of your work, Suda says the most difficult part of game development is when the work never gets the chance to be completed.

"The mental and emotional hit you take when you have a game canceled is pretty intense, and it's actually hard to put into words the things you feel when you find out that this thing you've put so much work and care into is just going to sort of disappear into the ether, forever. The sense of loss is huge," he says.

"I'm super thankful for every title we manage to ship, and really happy to be able to feel that all the hard work and hurdles we had to overcome to create and develop the game and get it out into the world was worth it in the end."

However, Grasshopper has also seen some rough patches during its 25 years of operations. Suda 51 notes that the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 was a difficult period for everyone in Japan, and he and his colleagues were no exception.

"At the time, we had a little over 20 foreigners working at Grasshopper, and I think about 20 of them ended up going back to their home countries. Somehow, I had to keep things going and make sure everyone was OK, and I think acting as CEO at the time was extremely tough," Suda explains.

"Immediately after the disaster, a lot of social/mobile games started doing really well in Japan, and while we at Grasshopper are just game developers, companies known as 'SAP' (Social Application Provider) – like Gree and DeNA, for example, generally really large companies – started coming up to the forefront. There was a period of several years when we also acted as a sort of SAP, making games for smartphones and old-school flip phones, as a company we established in collaboration with DeNA called Grasshopper Universe.

He continues, "At the time, I was acting as CEO of both Grasshopper Manufacture and Grasshopper Universe simultaneously, and that was probably the roughest time I've had yet. It was totally different from a traditional consumer/console game developer role, and for a little while, all the knowledge and know-how we'd accumulated over the years as game developers felt like it was going to go out the window and become pointless. I feel it was a really tough experience for all of us."

There was a period of several years when we also acted as a sort of SAP, making games for smartphones and old-school flip phones

The executive also says that experience has helped him feel more confident in both his leadership capabilities and ability to focus on the task at hand.

He explains, "Thanks to all the experience I've built up, I can make snap decisions now. There are many things that I always make a point of avoiding while making a game, which I've been doing since I was younger, to more fully allow myself to create whatever I personally find interesting and fun.

"Stuff like the market, or various trends, for example; if I pay too much attention to things like that, then I feel like my games get unconsciously influenced, making it more difficult to come up with original ideas. I feel that preventing yourself from being too influenced by things while creating a game is important, so I make even more of an effort to avoid that nowadays."

Then, in 2013, Grasshopper was acquired by GungHo Online Entertainment. Suda declined to discuss that era in detail.

By 2018, it separated from the firm. This resulted in forming what Suda 51 calls a new developer unit. The studio shifted to independent operations and developed and released Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes in 2019.

"We started the 'new Grasshopper' with a very small team of about six people, and of course, I had to decide to act as director and provide direction for the studio. But as for the rest of the team, there were a handful of veteran staff members who told me that they joined the studio because they wanted to create games together with me. This was why they wanted to stick around for this next chapter in the studio's history," he explains.

"This really resonated with me, so at that point, I felt even more strongly that I wanted to [create games freely] for the sake of the staff members who'd worked so hard to get to that point...I also felt truly happy being able to work with people like this."

No More Heroes 3, the 2021 Nintendo Switch action-adventure game

Not long after this new chapter, in 2021, NetEase acquired Grasshopper and it moved into a new office in 2022. Regarding the current landscape for the studio, Suda says that working with NetEase will allow him to focus on "properly completing and shipping each individual game" that Grasshopper works on. The now 53-person team is developing a new IP; Suda says it is brimming with energy and youth.

The CEO says, "We've got a lot of new members who have just graduated and joined the workforce, as well as a number of more seasoned members, and we've got a relatively international roster going, with staff members from China, India, Spain, and more…"

Suda also emphasizes that being readily available to younger staffers has become critical as the studio maintains a more welcoming and healthier work culture.

"I want to encourage open communication, so I don't have my own private office in the studio; my seat is down at the end of these long desks we share, so I'm always right there, sometimes just kind of staring out into space or messing with action figures or whatever, and a staff member will come up and say, 'Hey Suda, can you check this or that out for me real quick?' And I'm really happy to be able to work together in this sort of environment," the CEO says.

I try to hurry up and go home as early as possible, which hopefully makes it easier for everyone else to do the same

"I'd really wanted to take the studio back to the way things were [in the old days], so I'm really happy to see this style of working environment making a comeback here in the studio. On the other hand, it also makes it more difficult for me to go home each day, but that reminds me of the old days, so it's not so bad. I'm glad the studio maintains such a healthy work culture.

"I try to avoid overtime as much as possible. I try to hurry up and go home as early as possible, which hopefully makes it easier for everyone else to do the same."

Reflecting on the studio's success over the years, Suda chalks it up to Grasshopper being distinctively Grasshopper, even if that isn't to everyone's taste.

"As a studio, we're only known for the work we do that makes it out into the world, and these works are received and judged by players and by the industry itself, and I feel that the key to our longevity is being able to make the people we work with feel 'I'd like to work with Suda and Grasshopper again' due to the way we approach and work on our games.

"Of course, I'm sure there are publishers out there who are thinking, 'I never want to work with Grasshopper again,' and people in the industry who think, 'I just can't deal with creators like Suda anymore.' I feel there's at least as much 'love' out there as there is 'death' if that makes sense, and I think how we approach our work and the people working on and around our games is the main key to our long lifespan."

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Jeffrey Rousseau avatar
Jeffrey Rousseau: Jeffrey joined in March 2021. Based in Florida, his work focused on the intersectionality of games and media. He enjoys reading, podcasts, staying informed, and learning how people are tackling issues.
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