Interviews// Ridge Racers and Vacations: Masaya Kobayashi

Posted 13 Dec 2011 16:01 by
Masaya Kobayashi isn?t very adventurous when it comes to his holidays. It?s kind of a surprising admission for the man behind Go Vacation to make, but the Namco Bandai producer takes it all in his stride. ?If I go somewhere nice, say South of Japan, I?ll usually just sleep on the beach enjoying the peace and quiet,? he chuckles.

There's a fair number of high-energy activities in Go Vacation, the family-friendly resort game that was released in early November. Bungee jumping, scuba diving, miniature golf... But that?s not to say there?s a lack of slower-paced events either. ?I remember the development team testing the horseback riding in the mountain resort,? Kobayashi said. ?Watching them was really relaxing. I was at ease and felt like I was on vacation when I was watching them play.?

Of course, before Go Vacation and previous casual sports title Family Ski, Kobayashi and his team were responsible for the Ridge Racer series. How does a developer launch himself from one end of the gaming spectrum to another like that? With some field research, and a little bit of management persuasion, it seems.

"After making three Ridge Racer titles, my team was asked to make a new title for the Wii," Kobayashi recalls. "Since it was the first time we made a game for the platform, we had to get some research data - when we looked into it, we realised that the target audience for the console was families. So rather than make a really hardcore game, we wanted to make a family-based game."

Hence, Family Ski. But Kobayashi wasn't under orders to create something original. "They didn't specify to make a new IP - in fact I think the company was probably asking me to make a Ridge Racer for it! But I thought that if it was for the Wii, the target audience is obviously different so I didn't want to make a Ridge Racer for the Wii. I told the executives that if we were doing a Wii title then Family Ski would go down better than Ridge Racer. I presented my research, and the bosses trusted me to go ahead with it.?

That level of creative freedom is something that makes Kobayashi feel privileged to work at Namco Bandai. The producer notes a work culture that puts trust in developers if they feel confident enough about a particular project. The side-effect of this is that, should you bring the management around to your way of thinking, there?s a lot more pressure to succeed.

Luckily, Kobayashi?s field research led to his team working on a genre that was pretty well-established on Nintendo?s white box. He recites stories about mothers who used to play tennis but don?t any more, who have easily jumped into Wii Sports because of the natural method of motion control. ?Skiing seemed like the natural choice as the interface for the Wii is a good match for the motions of the sport,? he said.

?The dev team?s goal with Family Ski was to provide people with the experience of being on the snow slopes, rather than simply present a bunch of mini-games,? Kobayashi said of the differences between his first casual foray and other sporting titles like Wii Sports. ?At that time I felt that Family Ski would be very good in that regard because players could have that grander experience, which was not what other mini-game titles were providing.?

Having worked on Ridge Racer in the past had its advantages too - because Kobayashi?s team was already familiar with portraying speed on screen, they were able to do the same thing for Family Ski. These small core gaming undertones are apparent in Go Vacation as well, in the form of a vast - albeit directed - hub world that players can explore in between activities. To present something like this to casual gamers who are used to navigating mini-games from a menu proved to be a challenge for the producer.

?It was actually very difficult,? he laughs. ?For skiing, it?s easier to present - you just start from the top and go to the bottom. Nobody usually got lost. But for Go Vacation, since we have a vast atmosphere, players could go wherever they wanted to on the island. A lot of people actually got lost during the initial stages of development! Players had trouble understanding where to go.?

As those who have played the game will know, a Stamp system was introduced along with an island tour guide who would advise players on what is required to reach the next zone and what kind of mini-games they can play. Kobayashi said that his team went to great lengths to ensure that each activity had a lot of depth to satisfy core gamers - and that the developers themselves ended up having a blast playing it.

?There?s a lot of games in Go Vacation, and each of them was really fun to make, so there weren?t many of us who felt that working on the game was a chore. It wasn?t boring for us at all. Everyone was having fun with it, so I was happy to see that,? the producer exclaimed.

?Everyone?s really into the water gun battle game. One day we started playing it and the next thing we knew we had lost three hours! We get really competitive in the beach volleyball or tennis games... there?s one staff member who?s really good at the sword battle game - so much so that he gets challenged all the time in a game of ?winner stays on.??
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