Interview: Cave’s Tsuneki Ikeda (IKD) from 2010

Game Developer’s Conference is this week, so I’m going to be busy hopefully gathering material both for here and for assorted freelance outlets until Friday. Seeing as how I’m not going to have time to write new material for a bit, I think it’s time to once again reach into the vault and republish a piece that hasn’t been seen in English before, and one that I’m particularly proud of.

This interview with Cave CCO Tsuneki Ikeda – known to shooting game fans as IKD – was originally conducted for France’s ig Magazine in 2010. A lot has changed since then, and not all for the better, in Cave’s case. Reading through the text now, you can definitely see Ikeda drop some hints of market troubles that would come to have a harsh effect on Cave’s shooting game development. It’s a very interesting read – but also quite heartbreaking.

And, of course, thanks to Jon Rogers for being awesome and helping to set this all up.


Can you tell me how you came to be involved with Cave? It’s well known that they rose from the ashes of Toaplan back in the day – what was the impetus for everybody to get back together and form a new shooting game company?

There were some “sempai” of mine at Toaplan – our CEO, Kenichi Takano (who was the HR guy for Toaplan), along with Tomizawa and Ogiwa. They wanted to start up this new company, and they influenced me to come over to Cave. There was also the fact that I still really wanted to make shooting games – it was really the only experience I had at the time, so there was no question as to what I would be making.

I can imagine that it would have been difficult at the time to form a company primarily devoted to making shooting games. After all, this was right in the middle of the fighting game boom and shooting games simply weren’t as popular anymore. Was there any worry that the company would even survive?

Of course! *laughs* The first location test I saw at Toaplan was completely overshadowed by a popular fighting game. By 1995 the competition was intense. But the strength of the people at the company – Cave’s strength – was shooting games. I think that our CEO at the time was looking at the then-new generation of consoles – the PS and Saturn – and was aiming at making 3D games for them alongside Cave’s core competency of shooting games.

Speaking of which, Cave was making games for consoles like the PS and Saturn for a while, then in the early 2000s, the company stopped entirely until the Xbox 360. What was the reason for this hiatus?

The main problem was the difficulty getting started in doing PS2 development. Early on, it was incredibly tough. We had to build libraries from scratch, as Sony didn’t provide much support and there wasn’t much middleware available. Focusing on making shooting games for the arcade was simply a better proposition at the time.

Is this why Cave’s non-arcade development took a shift towards mobile platforms at the time?

At the time, mobile game development was booming. We decided to experiment with the platforms, and eventually we found more success there than we had with consoles.

Do you think that this sort of diversification among platforms is what has helped Cave thrive while competitors like Raizing and Takumi have sort of fizzled out?

Oh, it definitely helped. I don’t really know how those other guys did things, but arcade development has always been only a singular aspect of Cave. Our primary focus – our strength – is delivering quality entertainment products.

You’re fairly unique insofar as you’ve got a background in programming and game design, yet you have a very high position at Cave itself. Does this sort of game development know-how affect the way you approach business? It seems like you’d be a lot more capable of knowing what is and isn’t possible to develop than the typical business bean-counters, for example.

*laughs* That’s a bit hard to say! *laughs* It’s true that there’s often a gap between the people making the games and management. The developers are very user-focused, but management has the obligation of both satisfying the needs of the company and the users. You can’t always have a strict developers’ viewpoint in management. Cave usually doesn’t dictate how to create a game from the top down – we leave it to people on the teams, and things usually turn out fine.

Cave is often perceived among consumers for having popularized the “danmaku” genre. Do you think that’s the case, or do you think perhaps the seeds were planted earlier at Toaplan?

Hmmm… to a certain extent, yes. We actually never really went for a “danmaku” design philosophy in our shooters. As we built our games, however, it kind of came about.

Well, when you compare the original Donpachi to the later stuff, it really feels different.

Donpachi was very much a Toaplan-style game, which was the request we got from our publishers at Atlus. I should also note that I only made two games before Toaplan shuttered. I may not really understand the “soul” of the company so well…

So what was the business relationship with Atlus? You eventually stopped working with them.

We worked with Atlus for publishing up until Guwange. As to why they stopped… well, I guess they figured that the arcade shooters just weren’t working out so well for them, business-wise.

That’s why you used different publishers for Dangun Feveron and Uo Poko.

Dangun Feveron was something I didn’t have too much involvement with – you might be better off asking someone else about that one. Uo Poko was a game made by one designer and one programmer – in other words, a totally experimental product with very little support staff.

So how did you eventually fall in with IGS and AMI?

Dodonpachi Daioujou was our first game with AMI. AMI is part of a larger company, IGS, located in Taiwan. They had acquired the license from us to make a new Dodonpachi game for their hardware. They wanted to import ESPrade, but that was a completely different sort of PCB, so they just got the license and made their own game – Dodonpachi II.

A lot of Cave fans don’t seem to care for Dodonpachi II.

As it turned out, Dodonpachi II performed extremely well. IGS sold it in Asia and then brought it to the Japanese market a few years later, where we first saw it. That was what convinced us to re-enter the arcade market.

Wait, re-enter? Did Cave quit arcades?

We were strongly considering it. We had reached a point where we were doing mostly contract work, people weren’t interested in publishing our stuff, and the risks for doing publishing ourselves were way too high. We planned to stop after Progear, which is why there were no new arcade games from us until DDP DOJ.

But then Dodonpachi II changed your minds.

After we saw how well it performed, we figured we could make our own new DDP installment and it could likely do just as well.

On the subject of DDP DOJ, it’s probably the toughest game Cave has ever made. The contrast between the relative “friendliness” of DDP2 and DDP DOJ is huge.

We didn’t intend DOJ to be that insanely hard, honest! *laughs* It just turned out that way.

Maybe it’s partially Arika’s fault people see it that way. They created the Death Label mode, after all.

It puts the second loop to shame, for sure.

So how involved do you get with the coding of all of the games?

I’m not as involved now as I used to be. Up until around ESPGaluda and Mushihimesama, I was a lot more involved, creating the ships, the game system, the bosses, enemies and enemy positioning. Now I do a lot less – for example, with Akai Katana, I only did enemy positioning and planning attacks for 2 of the bosses.

That’s interesting. I think a lot of people still perceive you as the driving force behind all things Cave.

Of course. *laughs* We’ve actually got a veteran programmer in Ichimura – he’s been with us since Dodonpachi. He’s mostly in charge of the bosses these days – he did 70% of the boss work for Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu.

If we’re talking about programmers – how did Yagawa come into the Cave fold? Raizing used to be a big competitor.

*laughs* He came here of his own volition. He left Raizing after Battle Bakraid was finished, and I knew him from drinking meetings and whatnot. He came in for an interview, and we wound up working together to create Ibara. That sold well, so we brought him onboard – he was a contract employee originally, but now he’s here full-time.

Is he still working on new stuff for you?

Indeed! After Muchi Muchi Pork, he was still in the game development division – he just wasn’t working on shooters. His most recent shooting development work is the ESPGaluda II arrange mode on the 360 version. He’s been making games the whole time he’s been here though.

It really seems like the thematic material of Cave’s games has changed over time. For a long time, with was mostly ships and mechs as the player-controlled units, and now it’s mostly human characters with a “moe” aesthetic.

The shift really started at ESPGaluda. Junya Inoue had wanted more human characters before that – you can see that in ESPrade and Guwange – but some players weren’t too fond of it. After we began work with AMI, they wanted us to use more human characters in our games. Character-based shooters weren’t all that common at the time, but after ESPGaluda was a hit, we noticed that the market really seemed to like that direction. We’ve been doing more character-driven stuff since Mushihimesama onwards.

I assume it helps out a lot of the whole merchandising aspect of things. That seems to be about the time the Cave Matsuris got started.

It does. *laugh* We didn’t think the characters would get to be so popular. We just saw it as a way to bring people in playing shooters.

It doesn’t seem like the shooting game is the ideal format for developing game worlds and stories, though. Do you ever feel restricted?

We do have that feeling sometimes, but it’s something that tends to happen with games. It’d be nice to be able to make a big licensing business with all of our characters and settings, but shooting’s our big specialty, so that’s probably a bit out of reach.

Isn’t that what some of the doujin shooting games are trying to do, though? Touhou is a big example. Some people don’t even play those games, they just like the settings, stories, and characters. Do you see this stuff as competition, or is it just an evolution of the market?

I don’t think of them as competition at all. Doujin games are focused on the individuals who make and buy them. It’s different from industrial game development. It’s fantastic that people are doing it and making some great products, but our approach to making games is very different.

Why do you say that?

Games that companies develop are made primarily with the consumer in mind. With doujin games, the developers are making games of their own accord primarily for a sense of self-satisfaction and creativity. They have more freedom to develop, so the direction is quite different. You’ll see some people trying to court the doujin market and fall flat on their face, and I think that’s the reason why.

You hear about manga and anime companies recruiting from the doujin scene a lot – do you, as a game company, ever scout out promising talent in the doujin scene?

*laughs* No, we don’t do that. The manga and anime industries are different beasts, where a single individual can really make a business just by themselves. The thing about doujin games is that the people who make them find the process of creating and building a game to be fun – it doesn’t really matter too much if the game sells well. I think the people who are applying here for a job have a different outlook and sense of motivation.

On the subject of illustrators, you used to have an in-house illustrator in Junya Inoue. Since he went freelance, you’ve tended to use different illustrators and designers for the characters and promo illustrations for each game. For example, Tomoyuki Kotani did the art design for Mushihimesama, but HACCAN did Mushihimesama Futari. Why exactly does Cave do this?

We aren’t trying to make sequels look drastically different from each other. Rather, after we make the game concept, we look for someone who we think would fit with the design philosophy. We planned to change illustrators in Mushihimesama Futari from the outset, for example. It really depends on the current market tastes and the style of the artists.

So out of all the games you’ve worked on, what was the most difficult title?

Deathsmiles II. *laughs* That one was really trying.

Was it just the move to 3D, or something else?

Indeed, it was primarily the stuff related to 3D. Our staff simply didn’t have the right development environment and the necessary know-how. Things that were easy to make in 2D proved difficult to do in 3D. It was just a mess. Bottom line: We didn’t have experience in making this sort of game with polygon graphics.

Cave games in the past have used a lot of pre-rendered CG sprites, though.

Well, there’s a big difference between a game running everything in 3D all the time and making 3D renders that get flattened into an image on a 2D plane.

That’s another thing, too – a lot of the Cave arcade hardware has been quite low-res compared to other systems on the market at the same time.

That… was actually why we did what we did with Deathsmiles II. *laughs* AMI and others were saying similar things. We figured DS2 would be a way of making hardware capable of supporting a higher res. What we failed to account for was the fact that arcade operators tend to put shooting games in low-res cabinets. *laughs* They saved their better cabinets for the more flashy games. They didn’t need the hi-res capabilities of DS2. You actually still need to have some form of low-res support if you want your game to survive in the Japanese arcade market. This whole experience reinforced that point to us.

So you weren’t getting your stuff in the $10,000 Viewlixes. *laughs*

*laughs* Most of our games don’t even work right in a Viewlix – the resolution is too high! It actually has to use a downscale converter. Our games wind up getting cut off on the top and bottom as a result.

Is it a matter of the smaller game centers not being able to afford expensive new hardware, so they have to make the most out of the cabinets they already have?

That certainly helps keep costs lower, yes. But they also want to use cheaper equipment for games that a customer might play for a longer amount of time. The goal is the keep the cost-to-income ratio as good as possible. If they knew for sure it would make a lot of money, they might buy a new cabinet.

It seems weird, then, what Taito’s done with Darius Burst.

Oh, we’re quite envious! *laughs* That is a crazy, elaborate cabinet. In the past, you saw a lot more specialized cabinets. I have to wonder how that project got approved… *laughs*

On the topic of Taito, what are your thoughts on the NeSica download system for arcades? Would you want to use it in the future?

We can’t say what may happen in the future, but right now we’re not planning on doing anything with it. We have to consider things like how many game centers would shift the screens on the cabinets vertically, whether it would need to be low-res or hi-res… things like that. There’s a lot of potential in the concept, but we can’t say if it’s in Cave’s arcade future right now.

We’ve been seeing a lot more horizontal shooters from Cave as of late. Is this due to a sort of market shift, or just a desire on the part of Cave to make more games in this style?

There is a market shift, but there’s also the home market to consider. Arcades work well for vertical shooters, but for a wider audience, horizontal is the way to go. For a while, horizontal shooters all but disappeared from arcades, but as we found out with Deathsmiles, the alignment doesn’t matter if the game’s quality is good.

Is there a difference in the overall development approach between vertical and horizontal shooters?

Vertically-aligned shooting games can be primarily about bullet-dodging and still work well. But with horizontally aligned games… you need an extra hook. For Deathsmiles, we integrated the way the landscapes work into the gameplay and score system. When we first tried a horizontal game back with Progear, there weren’t really any horizontal “danmaku” games on the market. We felt the limitations of the scroll format when we were designing it, and it was really tough. As a result, Deathsmiles and Akai Katana have different systems that don’t revolve just around pure bullet dodging.

From everything you’ve said so far, it seems like Progear was a rough project. Can you elaborate on it a little bit more?

So horizontal games usually make use of the landscape, right? We decided to get rid of that for Progear. We just straight up took the vertical shooter format and stuck it into a horizontal game. This turned out to not be the best idea. There were elements of the game’s presentation that were difficult for the player to understand at a glance. Dodging bullets was already pretty hard in the format, so we wound up being unable to make the sort of edge-of-your-seat bullet patterns we wanted to.

I’d imagine by that time the CPS2 hardware was severely outdated, as well.

Oh, yes. *laughs* It was REALLY hard. *laughs* We were all pretty distraught with it. But as bad as the CPS2 was, the hardware for DDP DOJ was even worse. A real nightmare. *laughs*

It was seriously that terrible?

Yes, yes it was. *laughs* Those were dark times, indeed.

But you used that same hardware later, right?

Indeed; for Ketsui and ESPGaluda as well.

Well, if the hardware sucked so much… why was there never a PS2 port of Ketsui? I would think crappy hardware would have made that task easier.

Arika simply wasn’t interested in doing the port. The porting business in general – particularly for shooting games – isn’t a big moneymaker. The big problem with a potential port, as I recall, was a memory issue.

Cave recently published a book about the company’s shooting game development history. Included in the book is a timeline of all of the company’s developed games, and it lists two which were cancelled: Oni Death and Danmaku Tengoku. Fans are curious about these titles – do you remember anything about them?

*laughs* Oh wow… I really don’t remember all that much. *laughs” Danmaku Tengoku, eh? That was a game where we first tried to use pre-rendered sprites. There was a bit of a boom in games using that graphic style, and we wanted to try a shooting game with it. We planned to use a PCB with new specs to make the game look better. Atlus’s PCB didn’t have the color depth we needed. We got to about the halfway point and realized… this game really wasn’t looking good at all. *laughs* We didn’t really have the right tools and know-how for this hardware. “How do we make this look good?” We struggled with it. The large graphics looked alright, but they looked awful when they were scaled down. Since most of the graphics in shooting games are smaller… that was a big problem. The graphics looked bad and the hardware was a problem, so eventually we cancelled it and decided to just focus on Dodonpachi instead. As for Oni Death… *laughs* to be honest, that was one I wasn’t involved with at all. It was another department doing the work on that one… we were doing Dodonpachi at the time. Hmm… I actually haven’t the foggiest idea why it was cancelled. The graphics and the concept seemed good… and then one day, *poof*. “Where did it go?” *laughs*

So you could say Oni Death… died. *laughs*

*laughs* Yes!

Did any of the concepts or systems for these games wind up getting repurposed later down the line?

Nothing from the two games ever made it elsewhere. *laughs*

It seems like Dodonpachi was really where Cave’s popularity began to surge. What was it about that game in particular that made it such a big hit?

I wonder? *laughs* Huh. Hmm… Well, if I had to say… I would wager the fact that the game had so many bullets on screen. *laughs* There wasn’t anything like it at the time. Maybe that’s it.

Cave made ESPrade after that. It’s a game that’s well loved in spite of some serious issues, like the ability to drag out boss encounters to increase your score. If you had the opportunity to port the game now, would you fix these problems or leave them as is?

*laughs* I think we’d have to leave it the way it is. We’d have to put everything in – the good and the bad – or else players would get angry with us.

On that subject, have you ever designed a game system and then found that the players were utilizing it in a completely different way than you originally expected?

*laughs* Indeed there have been times where that has happened! Daifukkatsu Arrange A is a perfect example. I personally don’t really mind if a player doesn’t approach the game the way I had in mind. What I am worried about, however, is if a potential player was to, say, watch a replay of somebody using a particular exploit and would then become discouraged to play the game for themselves.

We were talking to Clover-TAC earlier, and he mentioned that he believes some of the more devout players actually understand shooting games better than the designers do. Do you agree with this?

Don’t you think so? *laughs* We make these games around certain design elements, but it’s hard to predict the effects these elements will produce sometimes. Perhaps there’s an element which, when used at a certain time, causes an unexpected consequence. We wouldn’t know that when we’re making it, but they figure out those sorts of particulars.

As far as game systems go, I heard that Guwange went through a lot of different iterations before the final product came into being. Can you elaborate on the development of that game a little bit more?

Hmmm… well, originally, the “option” – your Shikigami – moved on its own, was onscreen at all times, and you led it around. It kind of worked more on its own whims, but you could make it do what you wanted if you were skilled enough. It wound up not working out so well in gameplay, though, and the initial location test for it wasn’t very good. *laughs* We remade the concepts behind Guwange several times. There were tons of changes from the original concept to the final product.

Did it resemble the 360 Arrange Mode at all?

It was a lot weirder than the 360 arrange version. A LOT. *laughs* You’d cock your head at it and go “huh?” if you saw it. *laughs*

A lot of Western fans really see Cave as a shooting game maker, and some are very vocal about Cave “wasting time and resources” on anything that’s not a shooting game. How would you respond to that sort of criticism?

Hmmm, well… *laughs* We have to consider the relative importance each of our projects as far as their benefit to the company. I can’t exactly request a ton a resources for a shooting game if it’s not going to pay off… even though I want them! *laughs*

So what sort of games do you personally enjoy? Would you want Cave to start expanding the game genres they work with?

I really enjoy action games and racing games. I actually don’t play too many shooting games. I say it at the Cave matsuris, but I really like games like God of War and Forza Motorsport. For Cave working with new genres… hmm. I think that, while it would be nice, it’s better for us to stick with our forte and look to try and expand the shooting game fanbase. Reaching a broader audience is very important. Even though I don’t intend for it to happen, a lot of the games I work on come out feeling very similar. I think there are new ideas and new formats for shooting games out there, and the most important thing for us to do is find those. There are plenty of other folks out there willing to work with different genres.

So, uh… to put it bluntly, arcades are in a pretty bad place right now. A lot of the smaller game centers are dying off. Are you worried about this, and do you think that there is any way to reverse the trend?

As a person who helps produce arcade game, I feel a sense of duty and responsibility towards the situation. It’s a very difficult situation, and I don’t want to point fingers at anyone in particular to take the blame. As it stands right now, though, just having a single hot game isn’t going to revolutionize the arcade industry anymore. Perhaps it’s not software that’s as important; it’s simply getting people into arcades. The issue, I think, lies within the structure of the arcade itself. The arcades aren’t changing enough with the times, and so people aren’t coming. I think that industry organizations could do more to help with this situation. In terms of what we can do… well, we can keep on making the best games that we can. The worst-case scenario would be if we couldn’t put out arcades games at all. We’re not at that point… yet.

So what do you think can be done to get people back into arcades, and playing shooting games in particular?

I think that the biggest issue with arcades right now is a lack of infrastructure. Every place has an internet connection now, but the cost of obtaining and maintaining these connections falls entirely on the shoulders of the arcade operators. Things like this lead to a lot of useless arguments between companies over slim profit margins. With better internet connections, you could streamline the PCB updating process, as well. If this changed, and games would get frequent updates, you could get rid of the impression that arcade games are unchanging and arcades always have the same games. Just look at online games – you have frequent special events and updates that keep players interested. Arcades don’t have that. We looked into internet functionality for our titles, but it wouldn’t make sense financially due to the lower income ends of shooting games, so we have to sell our games on PCBs. But yes, I think the internet issue is the biggest hurdle right now. Hmmm… I wonder if I should really be saying all this? *laughs*

Isn’t that essentially what NeSica is attempting to do?

Yes, they are attempting that. As I mentioned before, the NeSica just isn’t technologically compatible for us. Maybe if the system had come around earlier, we could have made the shift. I don’t think the end-user is going to see much benefit from it as the operators and publishers, either. You get the ability to download quality games, you’ll have online rankings and updates… it’s hard to say, but that doesn’t seem like enough. It’s a limitation of software and hardware… I think we’re going to need a bit more “oomph” to get people coming back to arcades. Like I said, had this concept germinated a bit earlier, the situation for downloaded arcade games may have been very different, but for right now we’re still stuck primarily with PCBs.

I know that the very concept of downloadable arcade games fills the PCB collection niche with rage.

*laughs* I bet they would be angry! We don’t really know just how big that particular market is, though, so it’s a bit hard to say.

You did sell a specially tuned for home use Akai Katana PCB, however. What was the impetus for creating and selling that?

To be honest, sales of Akai Katana were a bit disappointing – we were expecting more. But we knew there were people buying the PCBs for their own use. We heard about it from one of our distributors, so we decided to experiment and see what would happen if we made a home-use PCB, and if there really was a market there.

So… was there a market? *laughs*

Hmmmm…. More than we thought, but… *laughs* I don’t know if it’s something we should continue with.

What do you think about people willing to spend that sort of money on your games?

Well, I’m flattered that people are willing to pay that much, but… *laughs* It kind of hurts inside, seeing people spend so much! It’s really complicated.

For a bit of a touchy subject – what are your thoughts on emulation? A lot of Western Cave fans received their first exposure to the company through arcade emulation, and from there, they started buying retail games and PCBs.

You ask really tough questions! *laughs* We’re not doing just arcade games so much anymore, since we’ve got our games for iPhone and 360 now. But it’s a complicated situation. For example, years ago, we’d get fan letters from overseas. We’d be scratching our heads about these, because our games weren’t being sold in the territories these mails were coming from! It was so weird! *laughs* Youtube wasn’t around at the time, so it wasn’t that, either. After puzzling it over for a while, we figured out that emulators were the reason. We didn’t really know what to think at the time. Nowadays, however, it causes some real problems. It’s a very difficult subject.

There was a rumor that various companies in the West approached Cave to release Dodonpachi for Playstation and Dodonpachi Daioujou on PS2. Is there any truth to that?

I’ve only heard about it in regards to Daioujou – I wouldn’t know about the original DDP. Mihara over at Arika had a lot to say about it, but it’s not my place to speak for him.

What do you think of the value perception of shooters between Japanese and Western players? Most Western gamers seem to expect shooting games to have a much lower price point and more features.

There’s just not quite as a big an established base for shooters overseas, I think. Here in Japan, we’ve maintained a market for these games – and a loyal fanbase – for quite some time. That’s really all there is to it. I guess it can’t be helped.

In that respect, how did making some of the 360 games region-free work out for sales? Has this affected Cave’s ability to license games to Western publishers at all?

We did pick up some additional sales from overseas, which was a nice benefit. We predicted that it would have an effect on the appeal of our games to licensors, but that turned out not to be the case.

In terms of development for the future, what are Cave’s goals?

Well, I can’t name any specific titles yet, but… *laughs* Right now there’s a big shift in the mobile sector towards smartphones. We want to keep abreast of market trends. We also want to continue arcade development as much as we can, but it’s a difficult situation that’s giving us plenty of headaches right now.

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