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Music Man

PaRappa's creator on what's next for the music game genre.

It's been more than a decade now since PaRappa the Rapper was released to global critical acclaim. Since then developer NanaOn-Sha has gone on to produce a sequel, several games in the Vib Ribbon series and most recently, DS title Tamagotchi Connection: Corner Shop - which went on to sell more than a million copies.

But it's music games which NanaOn-Sha and its president, PaRappa creator Masaya Matsuura, are still best known for. Following his speech at the Nordic Game conference last month, caught up with Matsuura to find out more about his latest plans. Do you think there's enough attention given to the music in games these days? Is there too much emphasis on graphics?

Masaya Matsuura: Videogames are getting better at exploring graphical systems, and graphics are very important. Everybody is buying a bigger screen for their living room so higher graphical qualities are needed.

But also audio is very important... I feel that sometimes audio is neglected by the industry, so I have to appeal to people to reassess the importance of audio and music.

Why do you think the industry neglects audio?

Good question. Basically to make a good game system the graphics take a lot of people, especially with the Xbox 360, the PS3 or PC. This means that you include a lot of people in the decisions about graphics, asking questions about what will appeal to what demographic.

That makes graphics a hot issue within the team; music is a more personal creation. If I write a piece and ask you to listen to it, you probably won't ask me to change one precise note. Music creation is very private so the creators are often very distanced from the team.

Also a game's musical creator will start his composition after the game design has been done. This makes it much easier to write appropriate music. Were a composer to start writing music at the very start of the game design process, [this would take a] much greater talent.

What do you think about the evolution of the music game genre now we have games like SingStar, Guitar Hero and Rock Band?

I've been waiting for things to happen in the West that we have had in Japan for the last 10 years.

Why do you think it's taken so long for Western developers and gamers to catch up?

I started my career as a musician in the early 90s. I was an exclusive signed artist for Sony. I worked to release my album in the UK, but unfortunately the Japanese music market is very specialised and I didn't generate any foreign interest.

I was frustrated to have to stick to the local market, so I started to think about worldwide activities. I wanted to move a little further afield, away from the conservative music business.

I think that a lot of musicians in Japan wanted to appeal to the wider market by using new ideas - games, for example. Music sales are shrinking, it's a worldwide tendency, so maybe soon they will have to appeal to a wider market. This helps music games succeed.

What do you think about the growing trend for self-composition and customisation?

It doesn't interest me. Customisation is a very good idea, but there are already many choices. I choose music to work to, music for my iPod but should I have to choose the music for the game?

So there's too much choice?

Yes... Many successful developers tend to focus too much on the micro, and it's an important approach, especially now that we have the processing power to spend on it, but we have to remember the macro too.

Do you think it's a mistake to create a console that's designed to offer choice in terms of music and movies as well as games? Would it be better to stick to the kind of strategy Nintendo's following and say, this machine is just for playing games?

I don't think so. Nintendo also faces difficult problems. Wii is a very good piece of hardware. Many talented people from Nintendo make great ideas for game hardware, of course.

Already I've been starting to think about Wii software, but it's very hard sometimes. Because can you keep shaking the controller for hours? Players cannot spend a long time on gameplay, so this can be tough.

But you will be developing a game for Wii?

I have already started. I respect Nintendo's activities but for software designers like us it's very hard. I have to change my mind and aspect to approach it.

What about the PS3? Are you concerned that it's lagging behind?

Currently. Of course, they have a chance to recover over time.

Is the problem the price?

It's too big for the Japanese.

Is it the same problem with Xbox?

The problem with Xbox is not the size of the hardware, it's the AC adapter.

Will we ever see another game in the Vib Ribbon series?

Many European gamers are asking me that! Unfortunately we couldn't do it. It's quite a subtle issue. Vib Ribbon used audio tracks from CDs. The use of audio CDs for customisation is a little touchy.

Were music companies unhappy about the first game?

No, but we can never know [which] CDs will be exchanged. Currently everything of this nature has to happen online - if you want to exchange this song then you have to buy that audio from the net, so the content provider knows what the player has bought.

These kind of things are touchy because record companies can say, 'You've earned money from using our audio track.'

What about games where you create your own music, like Electroplankton?

I don't like that. Sometimes a music based game is used to advertise the launch of hardware because it's good to have that kind of real-time creation. It appeals to the public; music is very powerful.

Many hardware companies use these music based games for their launch but then don't release any more. Electroplankton was released, but it has an alternative way of recognising how music works. I know the creator very well, he's a very talented guy.

So why don't you like it?

We can't make our own music using it. It's very good being able to listen to the Super Mario track, to have the gorgeous crystal characters, it's very pretty, it's cute - but I can't play my track there.

What about games like Rock Band? Are you interested in making a game for use with the drum kit, for example, or the Guitar Hero controller?

It's passed already! I had that interest in 1997 or so!

So do you think these games are old-fashioned?

No, no; they are much more advanced and sophisticated than the ideas the Japanese developers had, so I appreciate that and respect their activities.

So what's the future of music games?

I can't say precisely. Maybe a collaboration from the music industry would be interesting. Sales of CDs are decreasing; they need to find another way to appeal.

One of the ways could be games, I don't know. Maybe in 20 years, 15 per cent of the music industry will earn their money from games.

Masaya Matsuura is president of NanaOn-Sha. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

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Ellie Gibson avatar
Ellie Gibson: Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.