Exclusive Interview: Dragon Quest Creators Talk Game Development (Part I)

Exclusive Interview: Dragon Quest Creators Talk Game Development (Part I)
01 February 2017 Izanau Staff Pop Culture
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Note from the Editor-in-Chief: Starting today, we’re featuring a multiple-part interview between Kōichi Nakamura, CEO of Spike Chunsoft, and Kazuhiko Nakanishi, co-founder of Chunsoft and longtime friend and colleague of Nakamura. While this interview (originally published in Japanese on our sister site, AUTOMATON, and translated into English by me) is a bit of a departure from our usual content, we feel that video games and game development are a huge part of Japanese pop cultureas well as one of the main elements that ends up drawing foreigners to Japan in the first placeso we’ve decided to share this insightful piece with our English-speaking readers. Enjoy!

In 1983, Nintendo released the “Family Computer (ファミリーコンピューター)”―known in the West as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or “NES” when it was released two years later. Up to that point, “video games” were generally considered to be something one played in the arcade, but the release of Nintendo’s console changed that perception forever.

Kōichi Nakamura (中村 光一): Current CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Spike Chunsoft Co., Ltd. Founded Chunsoft together with Nakanishi in 1984, and since then has created and produced numerous classic games and game series, including Dragon Quest/Dragon WarriorBanshee’s Last CryMystery Dungeon, and more.


Kazuhiko Nakanishi (中西 一彦): Currently belongs to the President’s Office at Izanau/AUTOMATON parent company Active Gaming Media Inc. Became friends with Nakamura while they were in college, and managed Chunsoft after founding the company together with Nakamura.

Nakanishi:
Today we’re mainly going to talk about “back in the day”, when Nakamura and I were in school and in our 20s.

――Cool.

Nakanishi:
First off, Nakamura―how did you come to start developing video games? How did the opportunity com about, and was there anything in particular that left an impression on you?

Nakamura:
The biggest reason is that I simply loved video games. But when I was little, video games―and the concept of “plugging a computer into your TV and playing a game”―didn’t exist, so those things in the recreational facilities on the top floors of department stores, like... I don’t know. [Laughs] The game-like things where you drop in a 10-yen coin and shoot a little ball, and you get points depending on which hole the ball lands in. Those driving games where there’s a stick attached to the handle you use to control this little model car on the far end of it, and the road and background roll by underneath the car on a sort of conveyor belt and you get points for driving along the road and whatnot. Also, pinball. I loved that kind of stuff, but at the time I was still in my first years of elementary school so I was too short for the pinball machines and couldn’t actually see what was going on. [Laughs]

Nakanishi:
I can picture it now. [Laughs]

Nakamura:
I used to borrow a chair from the guy at the shop and hop up on top of it [to play pinball]. That’s how much I loved those kinds of games.

Then, around the time I was in eighth grade, Space Invaders became really popular. Even then, I had basically zero interest in computers themselves, but then when I got into high school there was a mathematics club that used computers, and in the club introduction they put on they showed off a demonstration of a game similar to Heiankyo Alien, which had just come out. At first, I joined the club sort of on a lark, thinking “If I join up then I can play video games for free every day,” but the club actually turned out to be a pretty serious thing and my upperclassmen taught me about programming from scratch.

Anyway, I gradually started getting really into programming. Once I actually learned how to program, of course I wanted to try making games. I borrowed an upperclassman’s own personal computer, called a TRS-80, and made a game using BASIC called Space Galaxy in which you’d shoot rockets at spaceships to rack up points. I really wanted to make Space Invaders, but there were too many “invaders” for the program to be able to process running on BASIC, you know? Anyway, I started out making stuff like that and that’s kind of how my life with video games started off.

Nakanishi:
When we were in elementary school, going up to the top floor of a department store [to play video games] was one of the few things we could do to entertain ourselves, so I totally know what you mean. What sort of clubs were you in when you were in junior high?

Nakamura:
In junior high? It actually has nothing to do with video games; [I was on the] tennis team. When I entered high school I sort of switched over to humanities.

Nakanishi:
Does that really count as “humanities”? [Laughs]

――Were there any other childhood experiences that you feel led you toward game development?

Nakamura:
Do you know what a “latchkey child” is? When I’d get home, there was nobody else around, so after coming home from school I watched all the TV I wanted. I probably watched pretty much all of the animated shows that were on at the time. So I think maybe I had this sort of foundation I’d subconsciously constructed inside myself that was linked to video media. I didn’t necessarily study or learn it anywhere; I think it’s just that something like that has always been working inside me.

Also, when I was a little kid, I used to pound nails into a wooden board and attached a bunch of rubber bands to make these pinball games. I’d attach pieces of paper rolled up with pencils to each side and use the rubber bands to shoot pachinko balls. Obviously it wasn’t electronic so there was no automatic scoring system or anything, but I’d decide how many points you’d get for getting the ball here or there, and I made a whole bunch of those. The bigger ones I made where from here to about here [spreads hands about six feet apart].

Nakanishi:
W- wow. [Laughs]

Nakamura:
I made them when I was in second and third grade. I bought this huge box full of rubber bands. [Laughs]

――And you and your friends would play with them?

Nakamura:
Yeah. It was really fun making those and having my friends play with them.

――That’s pretty much the same thing as making games: having other people play something you created. [Laughs]

Nakamura:
When you make a really big one, it gets harder to shoot the balls all the way across the board, so I’d say “You get X amount of points for getting it all the way over there,” you know? But yeah, it was a lot of fun.

――Its pretty impressive that you made so many of them. Were you a really inquisitive kid?

Nakamura:
Designing the face of the board was really fun. Making parts that swung around, and parts that spun around on paper, etc. It was a lot of fun thinking up new mechanics.

――
Its like pure game development.

Nakamura:
Also, another thing I remember from board games was The Game of Life. You know, where the player with the most money wins. Right around the same time that game came out, there was a game called Destiny Game [運命ゲーム; Unmei Gēmu] that had really realistic-looking money. The money in Life is sort of childish-looking, but the money in Destiny wasn’t like that; it was played with super realistic fake money. This older kid in my neighborhood had the game, and I can’t remember if by the time I decided I wanted the game it wasn’t available anymore, or if my parents just wouldn’t buy it for me, but I really wanted it so I decided to cut up some paper and make it myself... [Laughs] Anyway, I cut out a few bills and realized that it was gonna be totally impossible so I ended up giving up partway through, but I cut out the paper and drew up the board, and decided that it would be boring to make an exact copy, so I made up my own rules about what happens when you stop here, etc., and wrote this stuff all over the board.

――So it was fun to create your own fun, right?

Nakamura:
Yeah. Also, everyone has probably done this, but I’d roll up long pieces of paper and write stuff like “go right”, “go left” on them, and made these things sort of leg a Ghost Leg where you’d [follow the directions and] end up “winning” or “losing”. Once I made this super long version of that. I don’t even know how many feet long it was. [Laughs] Most people who tried it out never made it past the halfway point.

Nakanishi:
Everyone used to do that, but Little Nakamura was the only one to make them multiple feet long. Definitely. [Laughs]

Nakamura:
I just really liked making that kind of stuff.

――I was trying to figure out what I should ask about your origins as a game developer, like what titles or people influenced you, etc., but I guess you’d been doing it on your own since the very beginning, huh?

Nakamura:
My father worked as a plasterer. Do you know what a plasterer is? Guys who apply plaster to walls. My grandpa was one, too. There were mallets and nails and all kinds of tools around my house. So I never had trouble when I’d decide to make something like that, as I had as much wood as I could cut, and I knew how to use the tools from watching and copying my dad. But we weren’t a very “electronic” household, so I didn’t really have any interest in computers and the “unseen world” and the like. So until I got into high school, I didn’t really care much about computers.

Nakanishi:
I never knew your dad was a plasterer. But there weren’t many people in our generation who had computers at home back when we were in junior high.

Nakamura:
Yeah, not really. But there were kids who were into those “denshi block” things, right?

Nakanishi:
Oh yeah, denshi blocks! How nostalgic...

Nakamura:
Yeah, also, later on in elementary school, I was really into building plastic models, too. I’d make some really serious dioramas and stuff. I was also into model railways for awhile, but I didn’t have the money to buy [the trains] so I just kept redesigning the layout. [Laughs] I’d think about the designs I wanted to build once I grew up. [Model trains] were really popular at the time, and I saw people in magazines who would have them running all through their houses or coming down from the second floor, etc. I thought that was really awesome and I always wanted to do that when I was an adult.

――So do you have model trains running through your house now?

Nakamura:
Nope. [Laughs]

Nakanishi:
Yeah, I’ve never seen Nakamura playing with model trains before. [Laughs]

Nakanishi:
The time between you joining that club in high school and your 20s, after you started making games, includes games like Torneko no Daibōken: Fushigi no Dungeon (トルネコの大冒険 不思議のダンジョン) and Banshee’s Last Crygames with which we’ve both had some great and trying times, so it makes it a bit difficult to ask, butare there any “secret” stories about this period that you can tell us now that it was so long ago? Or any specific episodes that really sort of stuck with you?

Nakamura:
Let me think... Something I can talk about now...

Nakanishi:
It’s been about 30 years since you started making video games. Just over 30 years since the “Family Computer” was introduced to the world, and now Dragon Quest has had its 30th anniversary, and Famitsu started running 30 years ago as well.

Nakamura:
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, as for “secret” stories, there are actually too many... I’m not sure where to even start.

――For example, what’s something that pops into your head often, even now?

Nakamura:
Hm... Well, I’ve been involved in the video game industry since the very beginning of the period when they started to really take off, and at the time we didn’t really take things like games’ copyrights into consideration. Everyone pretty much ripped each other off all the timelike that Invaders game I mentioned; I believe it was Taito who first made the actual game, but then a whole bunch of companies made their own boards for it. When I was in high school, there were these magazines called I/O and ASCII, which were the two major software-related magazines at the time. I/O was more game-based, and each time I’d make a game I’d send it in, but most of the games were similar toor simply copies ofthe ones already in arcades. At the time, there was a side-scrolling shooter called Scramble, which I remade into a version for the PC-8001 and submitted to I/O. About a year ago, when I was being interviewed about a particular game, the game music composer Yuzo Koshiro asked me how I managed to copy the map for that screen, and I was like “I just kept trying till I figured it out.” [Laughs] He was really surprised.

Nakanishi:
So you basically just copied it by sight.

Nakamura:
Yeah. The timing at which the characters pop up, everything was copied by eye. If we’d had smartphones back then like we do now, I could’ve just taken a movie and that would’ve been it, but that wasn’t an option. In fact, at the time, I don’t think video... yeah, I don’t think household video cameras were even a thing yet. Were they?

Nakanishi:
That was right around when they started becoming available.

Nakamura:
They’d just started coming out, so it was basically like home-use video cameras didn’t exist as far as I was concerned. I remember working really hard to copy all that stuff. That’s one of the things I remember.

Nakanishi:
Video cameras were really expensive, too. They were like 200,000~300,000 yen.

Nakamura:
Yeah. VCRs were expensive, too.

Nakanishi:
So that was when you were about 15 or 16?

Nakamura:
Yeah. I submitted Door Door to the contest Enix was holding [the “First Game Hobby Program Contest”], and got first place. Actually, at first I planned on making a copy of Namco’s Dig Dug, not Door Door. I was really into Dig Dug at the time. It was super fun, so I decided to rip it off and played the game as much as I could, learning the screen structure and drawing up character designs. But at one point, I was wondering if it was even going to be OK to submit a ripoff, and when I checked the contest rules I found that submissions had to be original. [Laughs]

Nakanishi:
Original? [Laughs]

Nakamura:
So I went so far as to actually call in for confirmation. I was told, “Yeah, it has to be original,” so I suddenly had to scrap Dig Dug and think up something on my own. But you know that thing in Dig Dug where you pump up the monsters that chase you and make them explode, and you get lots of points, but if you just fill them up a little bit and stop them for a moment, and wait for other monsters approaching from behind to line up with the first monster, and you can drop stones on them to kill them off all at once for extra points? I loved that mechanic. So I thought really hard about how I could keep that element but in a different form, and one day at school I was watching my friends come and go from the classroom during recess, and I had a sort of “Eureka!” moment, at which point I thought up the idea for Door Door. So there’s a little development backstory for you.

Nakanishi:
I don’t think a normal person would’ve seen their friend opening and closing a door and come up with that idea. [Laughs]

Nakamura:
[Laughs] But the whole “expressing the fun of Dig Dug in a different form” thing was set as a theme inside my head, and I was constantly thinking about how to make that happen. And then I had this moment where it all sort of came together for me.
The other day, there was that NHK show with Kawakami from Dwango, right? He was saying that he comes up with solutions for problems during unrelated meetings later on, and I totally get that. When I’m doing something totally unrelated, I’ll be like, “if I try this and then this, it just might work.” You can’t just try really hard to think straightforwardly; sometimes these things just come to you from a totally different angle.

Nakanishi:
So you made Door Door when you were in high school, and then after that you moved onto college, where we were in the same class, and we first met because our student ID numbers were only one digit off. There are a few things I still remember about that time; one of them is the “copy protection” thing. At the time, game programming code was contained in cassette tapes, so making copies was really easy. I remember being asked by a certain someone to do some copy protection work, but it was cracked, like, right away, and I have a faint memory of going out with that person to drink our frustrations away afterwards.

Nakamura:
Wasn’t that at the time of floppy disks, not cassettes?

Nakanishi:
Oh yeah. [Laughs]

Nakamura:
You worked out a solution to prevent copying, but it was broken through pretty easily.

Nakanishi:
Yeah. You said you were lining up in Akihabara the very next day. [Laughs]

Another thing I remember is that back in the day, load times were really long with those tapes, but to help prevent the user from getting bored they used to display images on the loading screens, right? I always thought that that was a really good idea.

Nakamura:
I think it was on the PC-6601it was that platform’s version of Door Door. I was able to cut a music program into the load program, and sort of branched off from there.

Nakanishi:
Those two things really left an impression on me. So it was around then that you decided to become a pro game developer?

Nakamura:
Oh no, that was back when I was still in high school. The computer shop called NEC had started cropping up all over the country, and there was one right by my high school. They used to sell so many games on cassette. They even had some kinda dirty ones. [Laughs]

Nakanishi:
Aah. [Laughs]

Nakamura:
I remember getting my hopes up pretty high. [Laughs] They were about 4000~5000 yen at the time, and I’d buy one and bring it home and try it out, only to find that it totally sucked. [Laughs] But really, I felt that I could make much better games than those, so I wanted to hurry up and graduate high school so I could go to Tokyo and start a game company. Most of my friends were taking their [university entrance] exams at the time, so while everyone was doing Math IIB and Math III [Note: These are standard math classes in Japanese high schoolsed.] I was the weird high school kid reading a book called How To Start A Corporation. I was a pretty weird dude.

Nakanishi:
I was just doing Math IIB and Math III. You’re weird. [Laughs]

Nakamura:
I didn’t mean to be weird; I was just trying to keep my goals prioritized. [Laughs]

Nakanishi:

This isn’t really my place to say this, but I don’t think a normal high school student could’ve done it. But yeah, you got into college and after just a year, you managed to start up your company.

Nakamura:
Yeah. That was thanks to you as well, though.

Nakanishi:
I actually used to go hang out at Nakamura’s house a lot during my first year in college, and I’d help out sometimes. But I didn’t want to leave it at just “helping out”, so I was always like, “Let’s hurry up and start up this company,” while also reading the same book. During spring break between our first and second years of college, we started Chunsoft Co., Ltd. Our first job was porting Door Door, wasn’t it?

Nakamura:
Yeah. I think it was the PC-6601mk2 version I mentioned earlier.

――I can’t even imagine you considering starting up a game development company while still in high school. How did you get your hands on the sort of information that would require?

Nakamura:
I found a bunch of books on “how to start a company” in the economics section of the bookstore, so I tried to find one that I felt even I’d be able to read. Nowadays you can start a company with just a single person, and you don’t even need much startup capital, but at the time, how many people did you need again...?

Nakanishi:
It was five people, I think. No, seven people.

Nakamura:
You needed seven people [to start a company], plus you needed something like 5,000,000 yen or 500,000 yen for capital. So first you had to be able to clear those hurdles to start a company back then.

Nakanishi:

Also, we were still minors, too. On top of that, it’s probably unimaginable to us now, but we were students and we looked young, and since we started the company in a single apartment, it was really tough when we had to actually go rent that apartment and meet with banks and everything.

Nakamura:
Nobody would give us the time of day. I mean, of course notif I had some teenagers come up to me and be like, “We want to start up a company, so could you rent this apartment out to us?” I’d be like, “What the hell are these guys talking about?” [Laughs] Almost nobody took us seriously.

But we were somehow able to rent this one-room apartment close to our school. That’s where everything started. Then the room next door opened up, so we got that one, too. We’d show up in between classes at college and get work done. I mean, I guess you could flip that statement, though. [Laughs] We were going back and forth between work and school; it was sort of like being in a school club. So we got some of our friends from school together, hired them part-time, etc. At the beginning, there were five employees. But we started getting part-time workers right away, and it quickly grew to ten people.

――As far as founding a company and developing games are concerned, did you guys have any sort of mentor?

Nakamura:
As for game development, we were basically the first generation doing that, so we didn’t really have anyone to ask for advice and stuff. We may have been able to get advice if we’d joined a normal company, but as far as creating games on personal computers goes, we were pretty much the first generation to be doing that “professionally”, I guess. So yeah, we didn’t really have anyone we could ask for hints and such. We learned almost everything on our own.

********** 

Next up: Part II features more game development stories starting from the days of Dragon Quest, which Chunsoft helped develop, leading all the way up to the present day, with stops at each of their other world-famous titles in between.  Read it here !


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