Hitoshi Sakimoto Interview

(Notes: This interview is originally from GDC 2010. It was published in Russian in the magazine Strana Igr/GameLand. This is the first time this interview is available in English.)

Hello Mr. Sakimoto, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Can we start off by asking you a bit about your background?

– Certainly. I was born in Tokyo, but from age 3 to six, I lived in Florida. I moved back after that, and I’ve lived in Tokyo since.

So how did you develop an interest in video games and game music?

– The interest really started to build around my middle-school years. Computers were a really big thing then, and with an interest in the machines, naturally, came an interest in games. The next step was the music from the games. The music in titles like Dig Dug, Gradius, and Mappy was very unique and distinct. I actually wondered why people didn’t see what I did in many of these tunes!

Can you tell us a bit about your first work, Revolter?

– Revolter was an NEC PC-8801 game, the first game I did music for. It was a project myself and my friends undertook in our spare time. It wasn’t really something we did as a job, it was a case of us getting together, looking at some of the stuff on the market, and saying “Hey, we can do better than this!” Of course, we greatly overestimated ourselves compared to the pros, but we were full of youth and ambition then, so it was a good place to start in retrospect. We had gathered a group with great technical know-how, but we soon found out that it wouldn’t be enough to finish the project. Some people weren’t the best at keeping up with their responsibilities. It was only through sheer willpower that the game wound up finished. But in the end, it was a good experience.

How did you get into doing “professional” work from there?

– We originally sold Revolter at Comiket. It might have received more attention had it been sold through standard distribution channels. It actually wasn’t all that rare back then for high school kids to be programming these games as a hobby. Perhaps it wouldn’t have received a very warm reception if we sold it as a professional product, though… I mean, it’s not like we had a huge budget and team to work with, but reviewers wouldn’t have taken that sort of thing into account. There was also a prevailing attitude among “scenesters” at the time that a more “underground” means of distribution was preferable.

However, game developers are more apt to dissect a game and look at its separate parts, and recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each. This was how my contribution got recognized, and it’s what lead me into freelance composing.

Most of the other members of the original Revolter team also wound up getting into the games industry in one form or another, and many are still there – though as to precisely where and what they are doing, I’m afraid I don’t know.

Some game music composers have actually said that they preferred composing for the older machines, since, due to the limitations on the sound hardware at the time. As a result, this forced them to use what limited resources they had more creatively. Do you feel the same way?

– Well, my answer wouldn’t be 100 percent yes or no. When you’re composing, you have a goal that you want to achieve. The hardware restrictions – you had no choice, you had to deal with those. As long as you achieve your goal, you do whatever you can within the limitations of the hardware. I don’t necessarily think it was a better environment. I can understand the feeling, though. In a lot of older game music, the melody is really clear. There’s no complication to it at all. But that’s not entirely due to hardware limitations. Game music is quite different compared to film and animation soundtracks – there’s more freedom. I think that’s part of the reason why we could work with hardware limitations, as well.

Speaking of hardware limitations… Some people are particular fans of certain computers or systems simply due to their very distinct sound hardware. Many composers would take advantage of the, how-you-say, “peculiarities” of each piece of hardware when doing compositions…

– I actually keep all those old pieces of hardware as something of a memorial! *laughs* I don’t use them anymore, though. I feel like plug-ins for current generation technology can produce the same sound types as the old systems did.

You’ve mentioned before that back when you were making those systems, you had to program the sound drivers as well. Do you miss having so much control over the sound programs, or does this give you more time to focus on the compositions and music itself?

– I feel it’s much better now, not having to do the programming. Being able to spend more time working on the compositions is a blessing.

I’ve spoken to Mr. Yuzo Koshiro in the past, and he described to me how each system had its own quirks in terms of creating sound and music, and how he worked around a lot of them. Have you ever had problems arise when you were doing sound programming?

– I’ve always been fighting a prolonged war against memory size. It’s been a constant on every system I’ve worked with. But even before the SFC era, back on things like the PC-8801, we were only able to get 400 bytes of memory for the song data, which was quite troublesome. Sometimes we had make make clever use of repeating melodies to save space.

Switching gears over to the composition side of things, people tend to associate your work with big, bombastic orchestral scores. When I’ve had some of my friends listen to Gradius V, they kept on saying “This can’t be Sakimoto! This doesn’t sound like his stuff!” Are you worried about being a little typecast, in terms of composition style?

– *laughs* I actually come from a techno background! To be recognized as an orchestral-based composer is really surprising to me.

It might be more of a Western thing, actually. Most of your early stuff wasn’t seen over here.

– I don’t really mind what peoples’ perception of me is. I do realize that what I became recognized for over here is only a small portion of what I’ve done across my whole career. Regardless, wether it’s US or internationally, people tend to become famous based on only a small portion of what they have done. Something’s a hit, and it gets recognition.

In terms of your compositions, do you have anything that stands out as a particular favorite?

– The one I’m actually most happy with is one of my most recent projects, the Druaga anime. I was particularly happy with the music in the last two episodes. I was also recently involved with the Valkyria Chronicles anime – I’m really happy with that, too. There’s a piece in that, a cabaret-style song, which I love.

Can you tell us how composing for an anime series is different for a video game?

– For me, it honestly isn’t too different.

I would think, for video game music, you have a big restriction that that you have to make a tune that sounds good even when repeated – it has to loop.

– Actually, that’s completely right. For anime, though, you have intros and outros. In games, the music has to repeat.

Over the course of your career, you’ve done work for many different games, a few of which were never actually released. Do you find yourself disappointed the people were unable to enjoy your work on these games, or were you simply more concerned about moving forward with other projects?

– Yes, it is quite disappointing when these games get cancelled. In terms of scheduling, though, there’s time in-between when I’m done doing my part for the game to the title’s final release date – or, in some cases, its cancellation. Right now, I already have 3 or 4 unreleased projects that I’ve finished my sound work for. To me, when you hear the news, it’s already over and done for me.

Have you ever considered finding a way to release some tracks from these cancelled games?

– Hmmmmm! *laughs* I think my time and effort would be better spent invested in a new project, actually.

A specific game now – Final Fantasy XII. It’s pretty notorious for being a troubled project. Did you find yourself having issues with the music composition due to the development problems?

– Well, in total, that game was in the works for five years. After I joined the project, two years had already passed. The troubles on the development side actually didn’t affect me much, since I was working on it in “gaps.” I’d work a bit on FFXII, finish up something else, then come back to it. It was time-consuming, but it didn’t have me pulling my hair out or anything. The content of the game actually didn’t change majorly, it was more of the small details that were affected. But yes, the producer and director did change over the course of development.

I noticed on the soundtrack that some music was unused.

– There weren’t that many, though. That’s pretty usual for game soundtracks. If a composition doesn’t get used in the game I made it for, then I don’t go around recycling it for other games or anything like that. The album producers just put them on the discs for completion’s sake.

You seem to work with certain companies in particular – you did a lot with Raizing back in the day-

– Eighting, you mean?

Yeah, Eighting/Raizing. You do a lot of stuff with Treasure, with Square-Enix… do you tend to work mostly with people you already know, or are you trying to branch out as much as possible?

– It’s really exciting to work with new companies! Of course, you feel more secure with companies and people that you already know, but it’s not really a question about new or old business partners. I feel that there is a reason for me tending to work with the same groups of people, though. The relationships we’ve created are very good.

You were previously employed by Squaresoft as an in-house composer for a while, though. You mentioned at your GDC keynote speech that this allowed you to be involved with creation of the gameplay systems alongside the soundtrack. Can you give some examples?

– Vagrant Story was one. During some dialogue scenes, we had parts where dialogue would display, but the game and conversation wouldn’t continue unless the player hit a button to move to the next bit of text. We had to make music that would manage to work with these uncertain periods of idling. Working with the programming team, we were able to develop such a system together. It doesn’t sound like a big deal from the way I just described it, but at the time, it was a very difficult process.

We had a big release last year – Super Smash Bros. Brawl – that featured musical contributions from many different artists. I know that you weren’t involved in that, but you’ve certainly heard the music…

– Yes.

Could you see something like that – a huge soundtrack with a lot of different musicians contributing – working for another game?

– It is do-able, but I think it would lack uniformity. You’d have a lot of disparate styles in a single game. It could be done, but the idea has limitations to it, creatively speaking.

For many of your titles, you’ve worked with Masaharu Iwata. How far back do you two go? How did you get into working together?

– We got started when we were both in high school. We actually met at the arcade! *laughs* We never really planned to start working together, though. Things just kind of naturally happened.

Compared to when you were getting into game music composition, would you say it’s harder or easier now for people to break into the business?

– In terms of making a living, the business seems more difficult now than it was then. I think it’s easier to get into, though – the entry level is lower.

Do you think that’s because of the internet, or just because there’s more awareness of this sort of material?

– Easy access to communication is certainly a boon, yes. There are a lot more people out there wanting to do this sort of thing as a career, as well. That’s why – in terms of pay, at least – it’s harder nowadays.

Outside of your own compositions, do you have any particular favorite pieces of game music or anime music?

– Recently, I’ve really liked the music from the God of War games. EVE Online is also a soundtrack that’s really stuck with me. I don’t know the composers’ names offhands, but they did a wonderful job.

I find that quite interesting – some Western game music fans tend to shun non-Japanese artists.

– Really?! *laughs* I really like first-person shooters and sci-fi themed games, so I hear a lot of music from those. Maybe that affects my perception.

Those genres really aren’t popular in Japan either, though.

– Yeah, I agree. It’s a shame. But I like them! *laughs*

To wrap things up – can you tell us anything about any new projects you might have in the pipeline?

– I can only tell you those that are officially announced, unfortunately. But I would like to ask everyone to check out Muramasa The Demon Blade, from the Odin Sphere production team. There’s also the Valkryia Chronicles anime. There’s a game called Resort for the Nintendo DS that was released early this year, but I think that might be a Japan-only thing.

OK, I lied. One last question!

– *laughs*

One of my personal favorite genres are shooting games. My favorite works from you are things like Radiant Silvergun, Gradius V, and Soukyugurentai. Are you sad that aren’t as many shooting games coming out to compose music for?

– It’s pretty sad, I agree. Times have changed. I really loved shooting games when I was growing up. Do you know one called Tatsujin? It was by a company called Toaplan. I single-credit cleared it. I was quite proud of that. I love those games, but they just don’t seem to sell well. I think Cave is the only company right now that is really doing well with them these days.