INTERVIEW: Daichi Katagiri of Sega-AM2 (2011)

When I first started gaming.moe, one of the things I wanted to do was republish a bunch of interviews that appeared in foreign-language magazines. That kind of fell by the wayside in favor of the endless fountain of writing ideas that seems to erupt from my brain — republishing old stuff I’d already written kind of felt lazy when there was so much else I wanted to create.

Of course, sometimes circumstances get in the way of actually accomplishing what you want, and that’s exactly what happened this month. So,once again, I find myself going back to the well of interviews to republish.This one, though — this is something I’ve been saving for a special occasion, like a fine wine waiting years to be uncorked. So I say, what better way to top off 2017, a remarkable year for games, than with a 2011 interview with Sega-AM2’s Daichi Katagiri, one of the people I respect most in the industry?

This interview was originally published in IG magazine, a French publication that also ran the IKD interview I posted here a while back. This interview is a little over six years old at this point, so it’s rather amusing to look at some of Katagiri-san’s comments and go “I think I see what he was hinting at there!” So grab some champagne, get your noisemakers ready, and ring in 2018 with one of Sega’s best and brightest.

When did you begin your career at Sega, and what were some of the first titles you worked on?

I’ve currently been at Sega for 19 years. This will be my 20th year at the company. The first game I worked on was Daytona USA in 1993.

Oh, so you must have been working with Toshihiro Nagoshi on Daytona, then.

Indeed I was!

The original VF came out in 1993, as well. Did you also do work on that title?

Well, during the time I was working on Daytona USA, I got a special summons from Yu Suzuki. Suzuki-san asked me if I was interested in helping work on a fighting game, which was the “most popular genre in arcades at the time. That game turned into Virtua Fighter.

I see. So you’ve been working on VF since the very beginning!

That’s right!

So what was your role on the team for the first and second VF games?

For VF1, I took on something of a planning role. I discussed and brainstormed with Suzuki-san as to what sort of fighting game we wanted to create. For VF2, I was a programmer, designing the enemy AI system. I aimed to create something that would adapt and react to players’ styles and movements.

There was a two-year gap between the release of VF2 and VF3, and in that time, you worked on Fighting Vipers with Kataoka-san. The game has a lot in common with VF, but also has many differing elements. How did the core concept of that title differ from VF2?

The goal in VF2 was to use the technology the Model 2 afforded to create realistic human motion. Fighting Vipers, on the other hand, was made with the idea of exaggeration. We wanted the action in that game to feel like some sort of crazy anime or manga fight scene. Make the difference between the strong and the weak feel tangible, you might say. *laughs*

Virtua Fighter 3 introduced the E button for 3D dodging, but it was subsequently eliminated in VF4. This must have been a difficult decision to make, since by that point VF players were already used to using the E button to scoot around the arena. Why make – and then remove – such a big element of the game?

The entire concept behind adding full-featured 3D dodging came about in between VF2 and VF3. Shun and Lion in VF2 had limited dodging ability, but VF3 introduced side-to-side movement. However, we had to figure out how the player would be able to utilize such motion. We came up with two input methods: with a button press, or by moving the joystick a certain way. Suzuki-san was mulling it over, and eventually it came down to a discussion amongst the team. Suzuki-san eventually gave the executive order that it would be a button press, and that settled it.

I’d like to interject here – in between VF3 and VF4, we saw the release of Namco’s Soul Calibur, which famously introduced a full-range movement mechanic called the 8 Way Run. Did the reception of this title influence the change from button to stick dodging movement in VF4?

Actually, that title really didn’t influence us at all. What happened was that we had an internal dialogue about it during development. We’d received a lot of feedback from players who didn’t like the E button at all, so we decided it was time to go back to the 3-button layout. There was another big reason behind the switch, too: the quality of joystick parts had improved dramatically over the years, making it easier to quickly and accurately put in quick directional movements.

VF3 also introduced the concept of uneven stages, which didn’t return for VF4. Would you consider re-implementing stages like these in any future VF installments?

If it would fit with the concept of the game itself, then yes, we would consider doing those sort of stages again. But VF4 and VF5 had different core concepts of what we wanted to accomplish. That’s why we didn’t use those sort of varied stages in those titles. I can’t say what will happen in the future at the moment, but if the possibility arises, I’d love to try it again. I can’t give a definite yes or no answer, though.

A good friend of mine plays the Dead or Alive games, which feature similarly layered and multi-tiered arenas – though to a much more exaggerated degree. He pointed out that, in those titles, sometimes even where you begin in the arena can put you at an inherent disadvantage – for example, if one of you starts on lower ground or closer to a wall/precipice than another.

Well, I think, in a competitive game, it’s important that you start at an even position, so taking that into consideration when designing those sort of levels is important. Arenas like that do add a certain degree of strategy as far as positioning games, though, and that’s something I like about them.

When VF2 and VF3 were released in arcades, they were considered to have the most impressive graphics on the market. In recent years, however, graphics technology has advanced quickly, and arcade games are no longer superior to consoles in the visual department. Does not having the leading-edge visuals anymore make it more difficult to draw consumer attention to the VF games?

Right now… hmmm, I’d say yes, perhaps. I think display quality might actually be one of the reasons people go to arcades here in Japan. Even if you own a PS3 or X360, if you’ve got a crappy little SDTV, your games aren’t going to look so hot. Your local arcade, however, might have games on nice, big special HD displays.

But that varies from arcade to arcade too. VF5 doesn’t look nearly as good in an Astro City cabinet as opposed to a Lindbergh unit.

That’s true. But yes, though graphics might be similar on both arcade and console games, the display quality can be a big draw. In that line of thinking, maybe further specialized cabinets would be good, as well. Perhaps we could do something with air pressure regulation or lighting. We still have ways to increase the draw of arcade games as a whole and VF in particular. That’s one distinct advantage arcades still have.

As a big Fighting Vipers fan, I noticed that Fighting Vipers 2, which released between VF3 and VF4, had a lot of experimental elements that were implemented into VF4 in certain ways – things like the tech rolling ground recovery, varied stances, and the different types of staggers you could inflict on opponents. Would you say that FV2 was something of a “testing ground” for VF4 in that sense?

Well, FV2 is really its own thing. I wouldn’t say it was a testing ground. After all, I did work on both games. I think it’s more the case of, we had these good ideas that we put in FV2, and when we looked at them, we thought they would also work well in the framework of the new Virtua Fighter title. That’s why these concepts show up in both FV2 and VF4.

How do you and the team decide what sort of gameplay changes you want to implement when you design a new VF title or upgrade, then?

It varies a bit from title to title. For example, with Virtua Fighter 4, we really wanted to increase the overall speed of the game over VF3, which was perceived as being somewhat slow. We tested numerous concepts to try to achieve the speed boost we wanted. We went and cherry-picked the best concepts out of the ones that seemed to work, and I think the end product shows that we made good choices!

Among the big new elements introduced in the arcade edition of VF4 were items for character customization and the VF.net ranking and socialization network for players. These were untested concepts at the time, and I’m sure that VF.net was an incredibly risky endeavor. Was it difficult to convince the higher-ups at Sega that implementing these ideas was worth the time and money investment?

Between the release of VF3 and VF4, internet-enabled cellphones became a huge part of life in Japan, so we wanted to create something that players could access and use on their phones. However, there was a big roadblock to getting it up and running: We first had to convince arcade operators across Japan to invest in an internet connection, which wasn’t terribly common for arcades to have at the time. It was tough to explain how this would benefit their bottom line.

But it certainly seemed to pay off well! Now every arcade has an internet connection, it seems, and ALL.net’s infrastructure is used across the industry.

That’s… about all I can say. Indeed! *laughs*

So what goes into creating a new character for VF games? How do you match a design with a fighting style?

There’s a few big things to consider, actually. The character has to be good-looking – I don’t mean that necessarily in a sheer “physical attractiveness” sense, more that they have to be eye-catching. There’s also how the fighting style, movements, skills, et cetera will fit into the overall game. Things like body type and size are also key – small, tall, big, short. When adding new characters, we think of it like a matrix – what sort of character isn’t yet represented in VF? How will our ideas fit into the existing character matrix? For example, with VF5, we introduced two very small characters, El Blaze and Eileen. We didn’t have tiny fighters like them before that. In R, we brought in Jean and resurrected Taka-Arashi, two taller, larger characters. In Taka’s case, the largest character. *laughs* In that way, they fit well into the overall character balance.

How do you match a character’s “image” with a fighting style?

We first consider the fighting styles we want to add. Then, we decide the appearance of a character who would likely use that sort of style. For example, if we decide on a karate fighter for a new VF title, we talk among the staff and develop the character movement. The actual character design is applied after we figure out how we want the character’s motion to be implemented. It’s not really a process of matching a character design with a style so much as it evolves naturally from the fighting style itself.

Out of curiosity, which VF character is your personal favorite?

I like Lau a lot. The reason is mostly because he has all those fast, charging multi-punch combos. When you just send a flurry of those punches flying, it’s really satisfying! *laughs*

Along similar lines, which character do you feel has changed the most over time?

Well, all the characters changed pretty significantly from the first to the second game in terms of looks…

I mean more in terms of their fighting style.

Oh! Definitely Sarah, then. She used to be all about knees and elbows, a very simple style. From 4 on, however, she’s like a completely different character. She has a much bigger variety of attacks.

I would agree! I played Sarah up until 4, actually.

Then I apologize! *laughs*

Are there any martial arts you’d like to implement into VF that we haven’t seen yet, like Tae Kwon Do or something similar?

Well, I think Tekken has a lock on the portrayal on Tae Kwon Do in particular. They *did* get to it first, after all.  *laughs* So I don’t think you’ll be seeing that. But we’re always looking for new styles to implement. We just can’t talk about any plans at the moment.

With so much attention to detail put into every character’s motions, how many staff members does the typical VF game’s motion development team require?

I think maybe compared to other teams, our staff size is rather limited… The ending credits of VF5 only have about six or seven people listed, and this is pretty accurate. But there are actually more people involved than that, since that doesn’t include the motion-capture actors.

In total, how many people work on the typical VF title?

I think maybe 50 in total. We’ve got programmers, designers, the aforementioned animation team, people designing network infrastructure and character items, 2D art design, and so on. There are also a lot of temp workers, so it’s hard to estimate a concrete number.

Both VF4 and VF5 went through a series of three upgrades throughout their life. Were these upgrades planned in advance, or was their development a spontaneous decision?

None of them were planned from the beginning, actually. We wrapped development on VF4 and had a few ideas lingering about, and thought that maybe we’d want to save those concepts for a new VF installment. But the management actually wanted us to do an upgrade to VF4, so that’s what wound up happening. VF5 was a bit different. Unlike VF4, VF5 cabinets aren’t actually sold, but instead leased to operators. This means we have a much stronger obligation to operators to update and keep the software fresh. VF5R and VF5FS weren’t laid out from the beginning, but they happened in response to the needs of arcade operators.

On April 1 of 2010, AM2 posted a “VF5 Final Showdown” trailer that was… well… rather interesting. I mean, with those fireballs and hyper-jumps and massive chain combos and everything… But I’m wondering if you’d actually even consider making a game like that.

*laughs* The idea there was to contrast with the perception of VF as a realistic fighter. But, you know, maybe some R&D staff goofed around a few times, and maybe… maybe it wasn’t entirely made specifically for April Fool’s Day… I’ll leave it at that. *laughs*

It would be nice for Fighting Vipers 3!

Well, if people want a FV-styled Virtua Fighter installment… who knows what could happen! But really, I try to keep as many ideas on the table as possible. Even if I’m working on a different title at the time, I might come up with ideas that would suit another hypothetical game. Maybe that trailer was born from concepts like those. I’m just saying, is all…

Crossovers between franchises seem to be popular as of late. Have you ever considered working with another company to create a crossover title involving VF?

You mean along the lines of Street Fighter X Tekken? We’d actually brought it up with Harada-san from the Tekken team in the past. The problem is that if we couldn’t live up to users’ expectations of what a Tekken game or a VF game would be, it could turn out to be disastrous. Like, a series killer. I’d personally rather do an unexpected crossover, something surprising to players… if we did decide to attempt it.

On the subject of crossovers, I’m a little surprised there aren’t more item or clothing tie-ins to other big Sega franchises in VF5.

Hmmm, that’s a bit difficult. If you’re thinking about, say, Shenmue… well, don’t you think Akira resembles Ryo already? You can make him look a lot like Ryo with the right customization set. But every different Sega title has a lot of different concepts associated with it. Sometimes R&D staff between games have completely different “visions” that aren’t compatible with each other. So far, we haven’t heard a lot of demand from players for these sort of items, so we haven’t really given it that much thought, and thus we haven’t approached the other development teams at Sega about it.

What are your thoughts on Virtua Fighter outside of Japan? Would you like it if the game had a better international reception, or are you mostly concerned with the Japanese audience?

Personally, I think fighting games shouldn’t be geared towards one specific territory. I don’t consider things like “made for a Japanese audience” or “made for an international audience” when I’m working on VF. I think that if a game is sufficiently interesting, it will have appeal to players across the world. Tailoring a game to fit a specific market isn’t my goal – I want to create a great game first and foremost.

VF5R and Final Showdown weren’t released beyond Japan, though.

Yes… in a perfect world, I would love players abroad to be able to play those games in arcades. Sadly, that was not my decision to make. Again, I haven’t ever considered restricting a title to one specific national audience. I think the lack of availability for VF5FS worldwide is a decision made by the sales department.

I’m wondering what the rationale was behind the simplification of a lot of existing systems (like throws and throw escapes) for VF5FS was.

I actually still think that it’s pretty complicated even with the changes. We wanted to have something that would be playable by new fans, but would streamline things for the core players as well. Do you think it was overly simplified?

Well, when I first played Final Showdown, it took a lot of getting used to. I’m still adjusting, actually. I’m not used to such lengthy combos, and now all my throws are different! *laughs*

Maybe some of the core fans might see the changes as taking some options away from them. But looking at the system as a whole, it’s appropriate for both the core players and for beginners.

VF is perceived as the most complex fighting game on the market. Do you find it difficult to attract new players to a game that has such a reputation?

I don’t think simplicity is what’s needed to attract new players. The opposite, actually – the game needs to be interesting, to have depth and longevity. Otherwise, those new fans won’t stick around very long. I’d never think to create a game that didn’t have complex functions and depth to it.

So you don’t want to sacrifice complexity for accessibility.

I think that the core game has to be interesting first and foremost, and that depth and complexity are facets that make a game interesting to players of all skill levels. If you look at the ways you input the individual commands and moves for each character, it’s really quite easy. That was one of the core concepts behind VF. In terms of being able to execute moves, you could even say that VF is actually the easiest fighting game. But maybe that’s too easy for devoted fighting game players, so the simple command movements wind up being the top layer of a game that has a lot of interesting depth underneath.

But some of the commands are difficult. Akira’s knee springs immediately to mind.

Oh, that… that was actually a bug. *laughs* It showed up in VF1, but we never intended it to be in the game. It was discovered by players, and they thought it was pretty neat. So from 2 on, we made it an official command. *laughs* That’s why it’s so difficult to pull off – it was never intended to exist in the first place!

Are you satisfied with the reception Final Showdown has received among Japanese arcade players?

The players are still very interested in Virtua Fighter. Whether the feedback they have to give is good or bad, the fact remains that they are still interested and invested in the series. As long as we’re getting any sort of feedback, we know we’re in okay shape.

So what are your personal favorite games? I mean, besides VF.

I… really love World of Warcraft. *laughs*

Wait, there’s no Japanese version of that, is there?!

There isn’t! I’ve been playing the English version for four years now. I’m also really interested in the latest Gears of War, though I haven’t bought it yet. Right now I’m also deep into Dark Souls.

In terms of fighting games, which do you like?

Oh dear! *laughs* That puts me in a spot. I’m a guy who really loves games, you know? I play a lot of games for very long periods of time. Once I really understand how a game works, I can say whether I like it or not. I’m definitely a heavy gamer. *laughs* If one looks at a game from the level of a “typical” player, maybe I could say Street Fighter IV or Tekken. My problem is that deep down, on a highly analytical level, I can’t really say that. I overanalyze these games too much! So I can’t give an answer to this question, I’m afraid.

Which of the VF games was your personal favorite to work on?

Definitely Virtua Fighter 4. We had more creative freedom on that particular title than any before it. We essentially created many of the concepts that went into that game almost from scratch, and the final product turned out wonderfully.

In a little less than two years, we’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the original Virtua Fighter’s release. Does AM2 have any plans for this occasion?

We haven’t really thought about it much, actually! I think anniversary celebrations tend to occur more with consumer games than arcade titles… Personally, I would love to do something. As of right now, it’s too early to say.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming console release of VF5FS?

The main thing I’d like to say is “sorry it took so long!” *laughs* I kept on getting so many questions from players asking when a console version would be coming. Even though I knew things, I couldn’t say anything about it for a long while. So yes, thank you all for your patience!

When you look back upon the entire history of Virtua Fighter and what AM2 has accomplished with the series, what are the things that you are the most proud of?

Overall, I’d say I’m most happy with the way the system turned out in VF4. But as a whole, VF2 really was where the series reached its peak in popularity. Even now, you’ll see a lot of fans of VF2. But personally… VF4 is where I feel my pride lies.

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