E3 2018 Interview With Tak Fujii

23 Jun 2018

We can always count on XSeed to be showing off at least one unusually interesting game at the E3 booth, and at this year’s show, I would definitely give that prize to Gal Metal. It’s a game about defending the Earth from aliens with the power of metal, played by swinging around the Switch’s Joycon controllers like drumsticks.

The game was created by Tak Fujii, a man rather infamous on the internet for a presentation he gave during Konami’s E3 2010 press conference. Now out from Konami and on his own, Gal Metal is his first game to come westward in quite a while.

I was offered the opportunity to speak with Fujii about his upcoming game, but having not heard of it before, I decided to swing by the XSeed booth a day early to try out the game. I would up talking a bit to one of (who I though was) the PR reps at the booth, and he coached me through the demo and cheered me on through the game’s first level. As it turned out, this guy cheering me on was Fujii himself, and he continued to be a presence at Gal Metal‘s demo station throughout the conference, cheering on attendees who stopped by to play his game.

The next day I came by the booth, I took one more shot at the game, and then sat down with Fujii to find out a bit more about its background and development.

[Note: We have made some minor grammatical edits to the original interview recording to assist with clarity]

Gamer Escape: For those in our audience who might be unfamiliar with you or your work, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about yourself?

Tak Fujii: My name is Tak Fujii, producer for DMM Games, which is maybe not familiar to the western audience. We are a platform for games…well, we do lots of venture stuff, and games are one of the businesses over there. And here we are bringing Gal Metal, a brand new music game, to the west. Thanks for the metal fun, west!

Gamer Escape: So your game, Gal Metal, is definitely a rhythm game at heart, but as you were telling me yesterday, it doesn’t have the rigid structure that you usually see in the genre. There’s definitely more freedom. So what prompted you to break from the regular mold and do something like this?

Fujii: Well, the music game was invented like twenty years ago, with Bemani or DDR or any of the other great games out there. It’s the 21st century, why not try something new for once? A new era of the music game? I know a couple games tried to break those gates open, but it’s not really accepted in the market. There’s a bunch of reasons, but this is my try to make one really metal! Rock!

Gamer Escape: Now your body of work is quite varied, but despite your background in audio, this is the first time that you’ve tried your hand at a rhythm game. Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating and developing a game like this?

Fujii: Fortunately the team has a great background and history of making music games. They’ve released a couple music titles already. So, that was minimum guaranteed[…]Me, myself, being a music player, the most fun part of the music is creating your own music, or building your own music. Maybe not from scratch, however, you may have some reference from the greatest piece ever in history, that you improve by your word, your skill, your expression, your motivation, to bring something new to the world. I wanted to bring that feeling, what a band is, what music is, what you have to do as a musician. That is something that I want to introduce to the game player, what a band is about, what music is about. So that was a challenge to get started.

Gamer Escape: Well, I can appreciate that personally as a musician myself.

Fujii: Oh, what do you play?

Gamer Escape: Keyboards, piano. I use to play in a metal band a few years ago myself.

Fujii: Let me ask a question. What is the main role of the keyboard in a metal band? ‘Cause you’re always fighting with the guitarist, right?

Gamer Escape: It was interesting, uh, we were more an experimental band. So, usually supporting the guitars, but sometimes they’d let me do my own thing here and there!

Fujii: That’s great, really nice to know that! Like, you talk to the guitarist, “Hey! Here’s your part you play, and here’s my part, don’t disturb me!” But you respect each other as band members, right?

Gamer Escape: Yes, of course!

Fujii: So, in Gal Metal, there is a story. It has like a silly story. The aliens come to the Earth for revenge for hurting their species with a sound from Earth, which is metal. But the story doesn’t only contain that, it’s really about the communication between the members. About the culture of the band. Do you like a movie, do you like TV, did you like your last night or something? [These interactions] make synchronization between the members, and that reflects good music. Talk, right? Talk is play itself. If you play this, I will counter with this phrase, and he’s going to respond with that phrase. Those feelings are also the theme I want to integrate with games as well, as a band man.

Gamer Escape: Speaking of the story, I know story is a very unusual thing to have in a rhythm game. You were already saying you were trying to enforce the idea of a “band culture.” Is that one of the main reasons you decided to do a story, or was there another reason you decided to create a full story for this game?

Fujii: Well, first of all, I really wondered what a band is. What is the fun factor of being a band member and playing with others? It’s the 21st century, and thanks to all the latest high-tech musical instruments, now if you have a computer, you could be the one standing on the stage. Having a big wave of twenty- or thirty-thousands of people. Ok, yeah, it’s the 21st century, it’s the new way of music. I appreciate that and respect that. However, for my age, and I think your age, you know, we play specific instruments and we respect other instruments. Even the heavy metal band, the main focus instrument is of course the guitar, or vocals. But a bass is needed! “Sorry, Mr. Bassist, you are not really in our picture, but we need you,” right?!

So that feeling, respecting each other in a band, and what is respecting other members? What is a band? What is music? To understand that concept[…]maybe people, or kids, will go through that story mode and learn the culture. “Hey, a band is great! A band seems fun! Or maybe me and my friends try to make a band and make some noise!” So if the game could be the one step for them to be a musician, it will be a great goal for me.

Gamer Escape: I definitely like the message behind the game!

Fujii: Well, we are getting old!

Gamer Escape: Now correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like Gal Metal is your first game that’s coming westward in quite a long time?

Fujii: My last title for the west was around, uh, 2013 or 2014 for the PlayStation 3 and XBox. So it’s been about four or five years.

Gamer Escape: So what about this game specifically do you hope will connect with western audiences?

Fujii: Well, to be honest, this is not designed for the western audience. When I started this project, I was directly aiming to the Japanese domestic market. DMM only has Japanese distribution and Japanese publisher functions. We don’t have any North American or European branch. So even if I make any AAA title for the west, we have no way to sell it. So, my initial goal was to make a game for the Japanese market. But since we released last February, we’re hearing so many voices saying, “Hey, is this going to be localized for the west?” “What are the English versions going to be?” “It looks fun, but it’s kanji, so we can not read it.” “Is there any help? Google Translate doesn’t help much!”

That gave me an opportunity, since we heard lots of voices. So it’s maybe a good chance to think about releasing to the west as well. So we looked for a publisher, and XSeed and Marvelous had a good understanding of this game and my feelings about culture. And we love XSeed, what they are doing in America, so we both agree! So it gets going, it’s rolling, and we decided we’ll bring it to the west!

So, again, it’s 100% purely made for the Japanese market, and we never thought about the western, but now I’m keen on the western market. Trying to figure out what is the best way to do this. But, I assume, lots of those yelling and waiting for Gal Metal wish for the game as it is, with the manga or cartoony style and the funny, silly story. With heavy metal! So, I didn’t change that much. A minimum localization, it’s the way to go.

Gamer Escape: The game has you using the Switch’s Joycons as drumsticks to play as a drummer in a band. Were there any plans or ideas back during development of trying to emulate any other instruments?

Fujii: Well, initially, we had the discussion, “How about the bass,” or, “How about the guitars?” Yes, we did come up some great ideas to emulate the guitar and maybe do a multiplayer mode. However, again, this is going to be an entrance for non-music players, so we decided, why don’t we go for the simple straight rhythm game by using Joycons. We also though about making unique sounds by holding [the Joycon] this way, and that’s a tom-tom, or in that way, swinging it backward to make a cymbal sound. However, it was too complicated. Maybe lots of players want to just play the rhythm game, but if it’s way too complicated, they may give up.

So we stay focused on this, the gate to open to be a musician! It is the first stage to be a musician! Make it simple, like when you tried to play the first instrument in your life, right? You don’t want to go for metal yet! You need to practice! So we stayed simple, but on the core of music, which is the rhythm, right? And we decided not to go further from there. There are a lot of players who love this franchise, waiting for different instruments to be integrated. For the next sequel title, or the update, we can decide, but first of all, I need to hear, “Hey! Tak! This was a great game!”

Gamer Escape: Knowing many other consoles have some kind of motion control, what made you decide to develop Gal Metal for the Switch exclusively?

Fujii: This is the type of game you play with your mates. I don’t expect some player sitting in the dark with pop and chips alone in front of the TV, swinging the Joycons, thinking, “Hey, I can’t do this,” or thinking, “Hey, stupid game, it doesn’t detect my beat!” It’s not the way to go! Have your friends with you, share control with your friends and have fun by watching your mates play! They’re going crazy, doing tricks for you! So, to do so, take the console out in the field, to a barbecue party or a friend’s party or maybe school or anywhere. With the controller, you don’t need any special peripheral, like a guitar or any kind of drum kit. [The Switch] is here to take anywhere and play with a group! This is a perfect combination for me to make this kind of game.

Gamer Escape: Would you say you consider it as a kind of party game then? Intended to be played with a bunch of people?

Fujii: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a music game. Music is about making somebody listen, making sound for the audience, right? It’s not for just you. So, take the console out and show your tricks in class or at a friend’s party! That’s how music is supposed to be!

Gamer Escape: So the soundtrack of the game in particular is rock covers of classical music. Is there anything specific that made you decide to do that, rather than writing your own original music or licensing more modern music?

Fujii: There’s a choice, of course, or if the executive says, “Why don’t you talk to this major band so the fans will love the game,” blah blah blah blah. But the concept of Gal Metal is building your own rhythm. So, if I license any major track from a heavy metal band, it already has a drum track. So that gonna be the answer, that’s gonna be the proper combo of the drumming in that particular piece. It means, it’s gonna have the same function as the arrows on the screen, or the notes flying at you, that you have to play in that moment. It’s not the way I want the player to play this game! I want to player to think about what is the best rhythm on each particular song.

For original songs, it’s quite tough. I mean, major bands make great pieces, and of course freelance people make great pieces. But people may like it or not like it. We’re all human, if half of people like it, half won’t like it. It’s quite risky to have original music. If we say there’s that theme, we might lose opportunity for some people, some market, I don’t know.

[With classical music], these are the greatest pieces ever, because they’ve lasted about 400 years already. It must be good! And also, when you’re building the rhythm itself, you already know the song. You already know it starts, how it’s going to be crazy in the middle, and it ends slowly. So you have an idea of how the song goes, so you may start slow, then go aggressively in the middle, and the song will end great. So it’s much easier to get started! And each piece is a great piece, so why not use that theme?

Gamer Escape: When I was playing the demo out there yesterday, when you were showing me the different patterns you can play, they seemed to have a lot of references to different bands or different artists, different songs. I wanted to ask if there were any certain bands or artists that influenced the style of the covers?

Fujii: Well, it’s not really me who composed all the music. I just showed the way of how it goes. So there’s no specific band for the references. However, I mentioned [to the team], “Hey guys, it’s the 21st century. So don’t do 80s metal! Or I might accept 90s, but late 90s!” Kids nowadays, it’s not the same as old 80s hairy yelling heavy metal! I still love it, but sorry, it’s not the way. So there is no specific band for reference. But era is a reference.

Gamer Escape: Are you planning to continue working on music or rhythm games in the future?

Fujii: Well hopefully yes! This is not perfect for me yet, ’cause it’s brand new. We are not sure if this is acceptable for the market or not yet. So, yeah, if the market accepts this method, this way to play the music game, why not make other ones?

Gamer Escape: We touched on this briefly earlier, but how has it been working with XSeed in bringing this Japanese-focused game over to the western market?

Fujii: They keep my busy. But it’s good! They are really passionate to sell all the Japanese games to the West, which we used to do that back in the 1990s. We were the king of the console! But nowadays it’s changed. Those days aren’t going to happen again. We have to change by ourselves. Lots of Japanese publishers gave up making console games for the west, more concentrating on mobile games for the Japanese domestic market. ‘Cause it’s easy, and it’s good business for them. I’m still focusing on the global titles, and accidentally this one happened to be global! But they do have a good understanding of importing Japanese games to the western culture, how it’s supposed to be, how it sells in the US, and what the US market is. So, it’s a good partner, and they give us tough decisions sometimes. But I do appreciate it and I do listen…a little bit. Only if I really need it!

Gamer Escape: To wrap things up, is there anything specific you’d like our audience to know about Gal Metal?

Fujii: It’s a metal game, metal rhythm game, metal music game, so why not America? It’s a home of metal music! You guys should love it! So, it’s quite hard to get started maybe for some people, but once you get it, it’s hella fun! It has a deep, deep, deep level of rhythm building, so just enjoy, and save the Earth from the Octoids!