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“I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”
That’s a line from Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s cult TV series from the early ’90s, which enjoyed great success not only in the west, but in Japan too. It’s a show that Grasshopper Manufacture founder and CEO Suda 51 has a great fondness for, a fondness that’s clear as soon as you enter Grasshopper’s new Tokyo headquarters.
Not only does the office’s collection of models and toys include a magnificent Dale Cooper statue, the studio’s reception room is based on the show’s Red Room – albeit in a more Grasshopper-friendly green – something Suda made sure to point out to VGC when we visited recently.
As he discusses his previous and upcoming projects, and life working under NetEase, Suda drinks from a mug sporting the logo of the Double R Diner, the famous restaurant from Twin Peaks. In a way, Suda’s love for the show should come as no surprise, given its surreal nature.
That line – “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange” – not only perfectly sums up a lot of Grasshopper’s games, it’s also a fitting summary of the studio’s current position.
Ever since Suda founded Grasshopper a quarter of a century ago, the developer has been defined by its fiercely independent nature and the unique, offbeat, eccentric games it releases.
Now that it’s been acquired by an enormous Chinese tech company in NetEase, Grasshopper finds itself in unknown territory. But, as Suda explains to us, it’s territory that – for want of a better phrase – is both wonderful and strange.
We just wanted to talk about the current state of the studio and your career so far.
Well, as you can see, we’re in a new office now, and it’s a lot bigger than before. We’re currently working on a new title and some other stuff, and our staff is somewhere around 50 people.
The studio used to be full of dope fiends, but now everybody is completely drug-free. [laughs] I’m just kidding about the “dope fiend” thing, obviously. We’ve got more women working in the office, it’s a much healthier environment than it used to be.
You’ve described the recent changes to the studio, including the new office move, as graduating to Grasshopper 5.1 – what can you tell us about what’s changed, aside from the office move?
Thanks to the support and backup we now get from NetEase, not only do we have a bigger studio and more people, the environment itself has become much easier to work in, it’s become a lot easier to express my creativity and put more energy into being creative in general.
We didn’t just get really big all of a sudden, we’ve brought a lot of new people in over time. We’ve brought in a lot of newer and younger staff members, and each of these staff members joined just at the right time, right when we needed them. So I feel that it’s a much healthier environment, and one that’s much more conducive to creativity than it used to be.
We’ve also made it so it’s a lot easier to communicate among staff members – between the staff members themselves, and between staff members and myself too.
Covid-19 has previously prevented you from physically going to China and visiting NetEase, but I understand you did this in July. What did you learn from the experience in being able to go and actually meet them as opposed to working apart?
For one thing, its building is huge – it’s not so much a studio, it’s more like a campus. It reminded me of the EA campus in San Francisco back in the day, it’s hard to tell exactly how huge the place is until you go and see it for yourself.
It’s not only huge size-wise, but there are a lot of people there too. A lot of young staff members, a lot of younger people working there, everybody’s really energetic. It was impressive to see the scale everything’s done on, and how much effort they’ve been putting into growing the company. I’m really looking forward to working with them going forwards.
NetEase’s previous games seem to complement Grasshopper’s titles. In past days, they were more focused on online mobile games, while you tend to focus on single-player console games. What experience have you gained from working with them?
As you said, from the start we were pretty much working together remotely because of the pandemic, but even then one of the main things I felt was really huge was the fact that they let us work how we want to work, the amount of freedom we’re allowed.
They let us work on games the way we want to work on them, and make the games we want to make. One thing I’ve felt both in terms of working remotely and finally being able to meet them face-to-face, is that I feel they’re a company that’s really interested and eager to learn new things, from not just us but other studios as well.
They’re really interested in how we do things, they ask me stuff like, ‘hey, could you give us some ideas and some pointers on how you create games, how to make better games’.
So it’s not only the freedom they allow us to work with, but also the passion and energy you can tell they put into their work, and help us put into our work as well. It’s something that’s been really impressive.
“It’s not only the freedom they allow us to work with, but also the passion and energy you can tell they put into their work, and help us put into our work as well. It’s something that’s been really impressive.”
You’re now part of a small network of Japanese studios under the NetEase umbrella. Is there much collaboration between the studios in the group, or are you all just focused on your own projects?
We’re pretty much all doing our own thing. There hasn’t really been anything we’ve all done together or gotten together for at this point. Like us, everyone’s probably just focusing on their latest titles just now.
In the future, there may be some point where we may be able to collaborate with some of the studios, but up to this point it’s pretty much just been everyone working on their own stuff.
You’ve hinted that you want to make a game with younger staff in a brand new style. Did you mean a change of game style (as in a new genre), or did you mean a different work approach?
We do have a lot of younger staff now, and what I’d like to do most with them is allow them to make the games that they’d like to make, how they’d like to make them.
Right now our main focus is working on a larger main title all together, but I’d like our staff – particularly our younger staff – to be able to put their passions they have into making something I guess you could refer to as private titles or personal titles, the sort of games that really resonate with each staff member themselves.
So while right now we’re mainly working together on a larger title, allowing the staff members to work on more personal projects and things that are closer to their own hearts is something I’d definitely like to do.
But just to clarify, that’s something that’s down the line, and hasn’t actively started here yet?
Yeah, that’s for future projects, nothing we’ve actually started yet.
It’s now been nine months since No More Heroes 3 was released on PlayStation, Xbox and PC, ending the series on every major platform. Now that the dust has settled and you’ve had time to reflect, are you happy with how everything went?
As you know, No More Heroes 3 came out on the Switch first, then took some time to get to all the other platforms. When it first came out there seemed to be a lot of people who really enjoyed the game, and the staff here who were playing the game really seemed to enjoy it, so we were really happy with how happy people seemed to be with the game.
We do regret that it took as long as it did to get to other platforms, but I think this is probably something everybody in game development has to deal with these days but it’s always ‘if only we had more time we could have made this better’, ‘if only we had more time we could have done this instead, or we could have improved this a bit’.
There are some things like that, that we wish we could have done better, we wish we’d had more time for, but that’s just how it goes. All in all, I’d say I’m pretty happy with the way it went, but I do wish we’d had more time to make some more slight improvements and fix some other things.
That’s something we’re keeping in mind for future titles – making sure we have the time we need to make the game we want to make.
Does your new relationship with NetEase give you that time? Is that one of the big incentives, that you don’t have to push games out the door any more to a certain extent?
Definitely, yeah. I mean, we do have a schedule and a budget and everything, but it’s not like anyone’s saying ‘okay, the game has to be out on this day’.
There’s nobody [at NetEase] who thinks that if you get a game out as soon as possible, it’s going to be good – they understand that’s not how it works.
They give top priority to creativity and quality, so it’s great that we’re able to have the freedom of time and schedule to really put the work into the games that we need to put into them, and they’re really understanding about that.
Are you slightly relieved that the No More Heroes series is over, because now you can focus on other things and perhaps ensure fewer people mainly associate yourself and Grasshopper with No More Heroes?
Obviously I’m really happy to be associated with the No More Heroes series, it’s something I’m really proud of. In recent times, both myself personally and Grasshopper as a whole, we’ve spent about five years altogether working mainly on Travis Touchdown, first with Travis Strikes Again then with No More Heroes 3, both back-to-back.
The series and the characters are something we’re really proud of and I’m obviously really happy to be associated with it, but yeah, there’s definitely a lot more things I’d like to do, a lot more ideas I have.
“[No More Heroes] and the characters are something we’re really proud of and I’m obviously really happy to be associated with it, but yeah, there’s definitely a lot more things I’d like to do, a lot more ideas I have.”
It was less a feeling of relief once it was over, and more a feeling of accomplishment. It wasn’t like, ‘oh, the series is finally over, I can go and do something else’, more like, ‘we finally finished this, we’ve finally finished this’. And in a way that allowed us to take the next step creatively, to move onto something new and start new things.
So, again, while it’s great to be associated with the Travis Touchdown character and the No More Heroes series, we’re definitely looking forward to doing more stuff and putting out more ideas that hopefully people will know us for as well in the future.
Speaking of what’s coming in the future, you’ve got Shadows of the Damned Remastered coming out next. When the original version came out in 2011 it was reported that you had some clashes with EA which resulted in multiple redesigns, and claims that your original vision had to be compromised a bit. Now that the remaster is coming are you planning to put some of those ideas back in?
If we were to make Shadows of the Damned in the way I’d originally planned and used all the ideas I originally wanted to use for the remaster, we’d basically have to remake the entire game from the ground up.
So this time it’s going to be a faithful remaster of the original game, so it’s the game fans got before, only remastered and improved.
Hopefully some time in the future I might get a chance to actually use the ideas that I wasn’t able to use in the beginning – I’ve got them stocked up for possible future use, so hopefully maybe someday we can see something closer to my original vision for the game.
You had a Shadows of the Damned level in Travis Strikes Again and now there’s the remaster – is this an attempt to build a new audience and expose more people to the IP in the hope that you can make a sequel in the future?
Yeah, I really love the characters of Garcia and Johnson, and Fleming in particular, and with the remaster coming out now and the stuff we had in Travis Strikes Again… there’s nothing concrete that we have set in place or anything, but I hope that we can use this remaster as a sort of jumping-off point for fleshing out these characters more and maybe putting them to a bit more use.
It may be a sequel or a future unrelated game or something, but I want to use these characters a bit more freely. I’d definitely like to revisit them again and do something with them in the future, so the idea of a collaboration like that in the future wouldn’t be an impossibility.
Do you think you could get Mikami-san involved in that, now that he’s a free agent again?
Yeah, if possible I’d like to have Mikami-san’s help on that as well.
Since we’re talking about collaborations, Swery65 registered a trademark for Hotel Barcelona last year. I know you’ve been talking about this for a number of years and saying you’d like to work together to make this game – is the trademark an indication that it’s getting closer in any way?
Actually, I’m not really sure. I’m not really that filled in on the details at the moment. I haven’t had much contact with Swery recently so I’m not really sure what’s going on there, to be honest.
When I try to get hold of him, he doesn’t really get back to me. Sometimes one of our staff members will try to talk to him, and he’ll just take off. [laughs]
It’s been announced recently that Lollipop Chainsaw is getting a remake. Is there any particular reason why you’re not involved?
One of the big reasons we’re not involved is it simply isn’t our IP. I believe it’s owned by Warner Bros and Kadokawa, or at least it was, so we aren’t really in a position to comment on the remake, about whether or not it’s going to happen or how it’s going to be done or anything.
It’s the same thing with James Gunn, who was also involved in the original. Neither of us have anything to do with the upcoming remake. That’s something I wanted to make clear – it’s not our IP, we don’t really have the right to say anything about how it gets done or whether it gets done.
Were you disappointed not to be asked to be involved?
Not really, that’s just how IPs work. It’s true that it’s a game that came from ideas I had and presented, but again, it’s simply not our IP, so I don’t really have the right to say anything about it.
So, understanding that this is simply how IPs work, and how things like this go sometimes, I wasn’t necessarily disappointed or anything, it was just like ‘oh, okay then’. No hard feelings or anything like that.
You have posters out in the lobby for every Grasshopper game, including one for Guild01. This was a multi-game collaboration that was released physically in Japan but not in the west, but Grasshopper’s contribution, Liberation Maiden, got a separate 3DS eShop release in the west.
Now that the 3DS eShop has been closed, and given the handheld is region locked, there’s no longer any legal way for players in the west to buy Liberation Maiden. Is game preservation something that’s important to you?
Luckily, there are publishers out there like Limited Run who are dedicated to preserving various games, particularly those that have only been available digitally.
I also understand though that this is the way times are now, that there’s been a big shift to digital in general, and there are a lot of games where it simply makes sense to only release them digitally.
But at the same time there are still a lot of people who prefer to have physical versions of games and want to be able to hold the game in their hand. So thanks to some of these publishers who are continuing to make physical versions of games, hopefully it won’t become such an issue in the future.
We like to put out physical versions for what we can – this is just the way times are these days and we’re just trying to go with it as smoothly as possibly.
By the way, regarding Guild01, if you happen to find the physical Japanese release used somewhere, around 10 years down the road you’ll probably be able to get a lot of money for it so make sure you snag it up right away if you happen to find it!
Most of Grasshopper’s games have adult themes – there are often sexualised jokes and characters, extreme violence and severe language. This is partly what the studio’s known for – you’ve been dubbed the Tarantino of games for many years now, after all – but as times change, and as things like this are more susceptible to being called out online, are you worried about having to potentially dial the extreme content down in the future?
Yeah, there certainly is a lot of that kind of stuff in the games we make, but honestly it’s not really something I think about when I’m sitting down and creating a game. We start out with the scenario and the characters, it’s not like I’m sitting there thinking ‘okay, let’s put these adult themes into it’ or ‘let’s make the character talk like this’.
I sit down and think out the scenario and let it go from there, and as the characters become more realised and fleshed out, the way they speak and the way they look also becomes more realised and fleshed out. I just sort of let them grow the way I feel they would naturally grow from that creative process.
While I don’t purposely set out to put lots of adult themes or risque themes into the games, at the same time I don’t really try to hold back on anything either. If I think this is how a character would talk or look naturally, then that’s what it’s going to be like.
So honestly, I don’t really see myself pumping the brakes a bit, or trying to hold back consciously from here on out, just because that’s not really the way we do things here.
But once the game starts coming into shape and the scenarios are laid out, the dialogue’s written out and the characters are drawn out, once we actually start putting it into the game there are times when we’ll speak with the staff and say ‘okay, actually, maybe this should be changed a bit, maybe this isn’t the best fit for this character or this scene’.
So obviously there are going to be things that get taken out and changed, and things that maybe we’ll feel later on that we should dial back a bit, but I guess you could say it’s purely a matter of creative choice, not a need to hold back in case people get angry or anything.
“Honestly, I don’t really see myself pumping the brakes a bit, or trying to hold back consciously from here on out, just because that’s not really the way we do things here.”
But at one point he said he thought people should actually start using the term J-Action for action games created in Japan. I’m curious to know what you think about ‘J-Action’ potentially becoming a thing.
PlatinumGames are one of the big Japanese studios, they’re one of the main representatives of Japan as far as video games go – they’ve gone so far as to say that themselves. [laughs]
If Kamiya-san says that we should start using the term J-Action then hey, why not. But honestly, I don’t really feel that we’re the sort of studio that would have much say in how to use these terms.
I also don’t really feel that we’re the sort of studio whose games would really be referred to as J-Action, because while we’re a Japanese studio, there are actually a lot of people out there who, when they play some of our games and don’t know anything about us, they assume it was made by a western studio somewhere.
So personally I don’t have much of a horse in this race, I don’t have an opinion on the term JRPG and whether it’s offensive, but as far as J-Action goes – if people want to use that term go ahead, but as far as our games go, personally I’d prefer the term G-Action instead. [laughs]
In the future we’re considering setting up a studio in Hawaii, in Honolulu. So for the games we make there, maybe we could call them H-Action. [laughs] That’s one thing to think about.