GDC 2007: The Keiichi Yano Interview

by Steven Rodriguez - March 12, 2007, 6:59 pm PDT

He brought us Gitaroo Man, Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents. He's thinking about Ouendan 2. See what else is on Yano's mind as he talks with us in this massive audio interview.

We love Keiichi Yano. You probably love him, too. He's the guy responsible for designing Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan and Elite Beat Agents for the Nintendo DS, as well as the cult favorite, Gitaroo Man for the PS2 and PSP. How can you not like a guy that makes awesome music games like that?

We managed to track down Mr. Yano at the Game Developers Conference, and talked to him about anything we could think of: Ouendan, EBA, Ouendan 2, Gitaroo Man, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Guitar Hero, Parappa the Rapper, Gears of War, online music games and a lot more.

We ask the tough questions, and Yano is more than happy to answer them. What did he say? Download the MP3 and listen for yourself, or read the transcript found below!

Download the NWR Keiichi Yano GDC Interview (Right click, Save as)


Nintendo World Report: We were surprised you talked about Ouendan 2 at all…

Keiichi Yano: I was surprised they let me!

NWR: No guys in black suits were waiting outside after you were done talking about it?

KY: Well, there's information out in Famitsu this week. I don't know if you've checked the scans…

NWR: Oh yeah, I saw those. Like the rival group.

KY: Right, right. That's out right now.

NWR: But we were just curious that, you know, the first Ouendan didn't do that well in Japan, or so we heard.

KY: Actually, I have to correct that sometimes. I mean, we didn't do awesomely, but it wasn't as shitty as people like to think it is, actually. We did do like…actually I don’t know what the exact number is, but it's not the numbers that people are saying.

NWR: Yeah, so it just didn't probably do as well as people would think a Nintendo game would do.

KY: Well, that's what Nintendo told us. (laughs) But yeah, I guess I should be grateful because we do have a very good fan base now.

NWR: Oh yeah!

KY: The people that do get it…yeah, I'm thankful that they like what they see. That's a good thing.

NWR: Another thing we were really curious about is when Elite Beat Agents came out over here Nintendo labeled it as a Touch Generations game, which implies it's for everybody.

KY: Well, that wasn't my decision. (laughs) I thought it was kind of cool from my perspective.

NWR: Yeah, I figured that. We talked to Nate Bihldorff over at NOA (Nintendo of America) and he thought, "Yeah, someday everybody could get into that game," but I kinda beg to differ. Music games are, in and of themselves, kind of niche. So when you make a game like Ouendan or Gitaroo Man—which is awesome by the way—

KY: Thank you.

NWR: Who are you making [games] for, specifically? Just fans of music games, fans of music?

KY: (thinks) I think when Matsuura-san made the first PaRappa, I don't think he was really intending it to be [for] any type of audience, per se.

NWR: He was just making it?

KY: Well, he did it because he thought it was cool and he knew that once people started to play it… everybody has a kind of a musical sense. People like to listen to music, other than maybe a few people that live under a rock or something. Other than that, people like to listen to music and it's a very emotional experience. So to tie that into something that could be interactive which would even more put you in tune with the music…that's just pure genius! And I think even hit games like DDR and Guitar Hero have exploited that very well, and that's all we're trying to do, I think. "This is just so cool how can you not like it?" was our attitude.

NWR: Yeah! (laughs) I'm the same way. It's like, "How can you not like a music game?"

KY: Definitely, just like with any other game genre, there's going to be positives and negatives to the genre, but there's just so many good things out there that have music game elements in them.

NWR: So just the general appeal of music games would be the fact that you can make music even though you may not be a musician.

KY: Exactly. It's all about making the guy think he's rockin'. (laughs)

NWR: Guitar Hero probably did the best job of that.

KY: It did. It really did.

NWR: You either get it or you don't. Guitar Hero was great in that more people are starting to get it.

KY: Yeah, a lot more.

NWR: Maybe Nintendo's going to try to push EBA out to people and hope that more people get into that, because it's so much fun to play that game. And speaking of that, obviously, Ouendan…you had to be thinking about, "Maybe I want to bring this game over to the U.S." How did that get started? Obviously you couldn't keep the Ouendan in the game. Or maybe you considered that and tried to do it and take that angle?

KY: What's interesting is when we started the project we did have the notion of, "It would be kind of cool if we could take this kind of Japanese culture and take it all around the world." But then once we were done with the game it was like, "Ummm, people are really not going to like this stuff…" I mean, there are going to be some people that like Japan's culture, but they'll import it anyway! (laughter) So from there we started talking with Nintendo about how we can bring this mechanic over to something else that kind of keeps the spirit of the game concept but at the same time be a lot more accessible. So it was really an afterthought, I think.

NWR: I guess related to that, does EBA represent the Japanese view of America, or is it meant to be more exaggerated?

KY: Well, I would have to say that it's kind of both. I wanted a North American audience and European audience to understand it, but we wanted to go everywhere except Japan, so that doesn't necessarily mean that all Europeans understand American values, and vice versa. So we wanted to be stereotypical on purpose. So even when Japanese people imported EBA, they understand it. "Oh yeah, it's kind of American." (laughs) And at the same time, here I am, I'm speaking English to you guys, so you kind of understand that I've been here for a while and I understand American culture dynamics. It was really kind of both, I think, and I try to convey to my team as much as possible that probably westerners will kind of understand this is stereotypical and not [what we really think]. And there were a couple of things we wanted to do just to do it. So it was a mish-mash of a lot of different ideas and types of thinking.

NWR: One of the things I got from EBA immediately was the Blues Brothers [homage]. I'm sure you looked at that when making the game.

KY: Yeah, actually that was in my presentation. I cite three big influences. The first one was Ghostbusters, because it's just cool to have a task force of guys; it's just so funny. The second one was Men in Black…just a slick bunch of guys defeating aliens. And yeah, obviously the biggest influence was the Blues Brothers—a mission from God, what can be cooler than that?

(laughter)

NWR: That's just a great movie.

KY: It is. I was raised in that generation, so I was heavily influenced by all that.

NWR: I want to talk a little about Gitaroo Man, because I remember playing it on the PS2. A couple people showed it to me and I was hooked instantly.

KY: Can I ask you what aspect of Gitaroo Man got you hooked?

NWR: I think it was the music and it was the gameplay mechanic, too. Using the analog stick on the PS2…that was pretty clever, although I didn't like the stick because it was hard to gauge where you were going. On the PSP version it looks like you kind of loosened it up. Plus, that game is perfect for the PSP because the nub is just… I remember doing "Born to Be Bone" on master on PS2. I've never put so much effort into a game; I didn't care if it kicked my ass. The music was so great; I just kept going and going and going. I also noticed that you went through different branches of songs every time too. "Maybe I'll get this one if I do better"…but then I lose all my life and I have to play it again. I kind of rushed through the PSP game but didn't care because it was so great.

KY: The PSP is so great in the sense that the stick and the screen are just right next to each other, so it is very tactile.

NWR: It fit well, I think.

KY: So I was just curious. So back to your question…what was it again?

NWR: Why is Gitaroo Man so awesome?

(laughter)

KY: I was asking you.

NWR: Another question I've been meaning to ask you is: what you think of Tetsuya Mizuguchi's work over at Q Entertainment?

KY: Are you talking about his recent stuff or back when he was at Sega?

NWR: Both. What do you think of him applying music games to a non-music gameplay style?

KY: First of all, I know he has a very different approach to it than I do, but our offices are just down the street from each other. We go out drinking and stuff, so we're pretty good friends. This is very obvious, but I get a lot of inspiration from what he does as well, so my hope is that since there are not too many companies doing this, that we can be tight and really just work with each other to extend the genre.

NWR: I would have to imagine you guys would have to feed each other since it's all centered on the music and music people love their music. I think it's really great that you and Mizuguchi and all the guys are making these really awesome games. Like Lumines: on the surface I actually find it to be rather dull, but when you throw in the music and you throw in the flashy colors and stuff—

KY: Yeah, for some reason there's some kind of trance-ey aspect to it.

NWR: I played one game for two-and-a-half hours, and I didn't realize it until I stood up and was hurting and cramping.

KY: Yeah, yeah. Same here, same here.

NWR: So something everybody in the gaming community is wondering is: who’s going to be coming out with the Wii game first—is it going to be Q or is it going to be iNiS?

KY: We'll see! (laughs) Well, you probably want to ask, "Who is going to announce their game first?"

NWR: That's true. But we're thinking…Gitaroo Man on the Wii…that would just be so perfect with the remote controller. Are you thinking about that?

KY: Mmmm…There are a lot of things I'm thinking about. But whatever they or we come up with, I hope it’ll do well and people will be receptive to it; that’s what we're always thinking about. We want to try to spread the love. We're just trying to always learn from our mistakes and just try to do better the next time and hopefully we’ll be able to attract more people. Wii is a good platform to do that on.

NWR: Yeah, it is. On that note, would you be able to describe the first game you pitched to Nintendo that they thought sucked?

KY: (laughs) Actually, I can't, because it's an ongoing project for me, actually. But, it's just like I mentioned in my presentation—there's an action element tied with this interactive music. It's a very difficult thing to get right.

NWR: Speaking of the music, in Ouendan did you hand-pick the music for the game or did you have to shop around for what music might fit with the game, or did you start with a song and suddenly knew you needed this song for the game?

KY: All of the above. When we first started thinking about the game there were a couple of songs that immediately came to mind that I knew would work in terms of the world as well as the mechanic. And one of the songs—I played our flash demo [during the presentation] that we used when we pitched the idea to Nintendo—we actually used that song.

NWR: That's one of my favorite songs.

KY: So, I knew that was one of the songs that would immediately work, and there were a couple other songs that would work. For example, "Guts Da Ze!!", I knew that would work. So it was that, and at the same time we can't license all the songs that we want, just because of whatever reason. So obviously, if you can't use a song, we’ll try to balance that out with something that’s kind of similar, because there are a lot of songs you’d want to use. Just trying to take from our palette and just trying to balance the whole thing out.

NWR: So how much did that change for the U.S. version, because I'd imagine there's a lot more licensing involved on that side?

KY: Surprisingly enough, almost none. I would say the process itself almost didn't change at all. I think there were things that we probably could have done better in terms of that, but speaking strictly from a process standpoint it was almost exactly the same. We had songs we knew would work, and I had songs I knew I wanted to use from the get-go. And then some songs we wanted but we just couldn't use for whatever reason and it would have been cool to have them, but hopefully maybe the next time around…

NWR: Elite Beat Agents 2?

KY: Yeah, maybe we'll be able to use those songs.

NWR: So I don't know if you can really talk about that, but obviously you're hard at work at Ouendan 2. Can you say at all about which songs you have in mind for that? Do you have an idea of the songs you want…not to say the songs you already have?

KY: (laughs) Well actually, Famitsu already posted this, so I can talk about the two songs they posted. The first one is "Zenryoku Shounen". That's by Sukima Switch. I don't know if you know the song.

NWR: We'll know it when we import the game.

KY: If you’re J-Pop savy at all… It's a very popular song in Japan. And it's the perfect song for the stage, which is: one of the guys from Ouendan 1 is making a comeback. It's the same guy that was the student in the first level. Now he's trying to get a job. (laughs) And the other song is a song called "Vista"; it’s by another group that you guys probably have never even heard before (Going Under Ground). But that's the other song. Those are the two songs that we can talk about. I can't tell you how many songs we have in it or what other songs we have, but I think we picked a pretty good clump of songs

NWR: Obviously the Japanese crowd would appreciate it, but will importers appreciate it?

KY: I hope so.

NWR: How similar is the line-up to the first Ouendan? If they liked the first Ouendan's music, they'll probably like the second one's music, right?

KY: To that I would ask you guys: what was it about the first soundtrack that was so appealing? Was it because we used a lot of songs that were familiar in terms of like, they were anime opening songs, or what was it?

NWR: Well, I think it was just the general wackiness of the game. There was just a lot of good music in there, like "Ready Steady Go" a lot of people recognized.

KY: Sure, from Full Metal Alchemist.

NWR: And I guess there were a few that were in Jam with the Band / [Daigasso!] Band Bros."Shanghai Honey".

KY: Right, right.

NWR: Other than that, yeah, most of it was new to me.

KY: Were they catchy?

NWR: Definitely.

KY: Well, one of the things about a music game, that a lot of people have told me through Elite Beat, is that, for example, [Sk8ter Boi by] Avril Lavigne, which a lot of people hate that song, but they play it and then you don't hate it as much.

NWR: Yeah, everybody is complaining on the message boards saying, "Crappy American rock—I don't want to listen to this crap, give me more stuff from Ouendan!" But you make the music with the gameplay, you make it with the story. Those are always a riot to go through. And I really like the fact that you went back and went through the beat patterns—you really gave those another go. They're a lot better than they were in Ouendan…although one of my colleagues does not like the spinners at all.

KY: (laughs) A lot of people do not like the spinners, but I love the spinners! I will go out in public and say this aloud.

NWR: Especially the ones—I noticed you copied over some of the same patterns from Ouendan to Elite Beat Agents—the squiggly back-and-forth—and towards the end the four or five spinners in a row!

KY: Let me explain the trick to scoring high on the spinners. It's very easy, actually. It's just a lot of people don't realize it: what you do is, you start big, and then you close in on the circle. Then what happens is you grab, you hook it, and then you start accelerating and you can go really, really fast. On some of them I can get bonuses of up to 20,000 points, actually, because I can spin *gestures fast spinning*.

NWR: I always just started really close to the center.

KY: Yeah, that will screw you up every time. What you do is you start from the outside and work from your way in until you feel comfortable. And then you can gradually speed up, and then, trust me, you'll get it every time… and then it's like, "Oh my God, why is it so easy?" (laughs)

NWR: I'll pass that on.

KY: Just a tip.

NWR: We've talked about some of your movie inspirations and we talked about Mr. Mizuguchi. Are there any other game designers that sort of inspire you?

KY: Well, I think this is the same with all game designers. All the games…I play a lot of PC games, and I play a lot of RTS and FPS games. The game designers in that space, a lot of people inspire me and motivate me as well. For example, I was playing Gears of War forever!

NWR: Yeah. (laughs)

KY: That, from a game design standpoint, was just so well done. We can take a lot of these ideas—because a lot of people think music games don’t have a game design—but in essence they are very carefully designed and we spend a lot of time thinking about a lot of the same types of issues, actually. It's just people don't understand that. So from that perspective there's just a lot of games that inspire me and a lot of people that have inspired me. So, it's hard to give out just one guy, but from our music game standpoint I have to fully respect Matsuura-san because, after all, without him we might not even be here. And even with Alex [Rigopulos] and his Harmonix team for just making Guitar Hero so popular, because those are a couple big steps into making this a really solid genre. That's my whole focus right now, to really try to build more games that will really put the music game genre into the same level as maybe the first person shooter genre or the RTS genre.

NWR: I would love to see that.

KY: So if we get more people playing it, I think that will lead to more people, just because music games are a happy medium, and it's just a feel-good kind of genre. We have our stress reliever genres and we can have our happy genres. That's what I'm trying to do, and hopefully we'll do that.

NWR: Is there anything you wish you had done for Elite Beat Agents that you just couldn't get to due to time or anything like that?

KY: There're tons. There're tons and I could go on forever with this. Yeah, I don't even know where to start. One of the things is the number of songs versus the sound quality of the songs. That's just something that I wish we could always better, but there are so many hardware constraints. The whole thing about a music game is that when the music sounds good, it just feels so much better when you're doing well. There's a certain level of fidelity in the sonic quality…that's not something we can really do much better, but I wish we could do better. I look back at it, and there's tons of things…interface things here and there, game balance things here and there. I mean, we could do everything better, and to that point in Ouendan 2 we've addressed a lot of those things and we've added a lot of things. First of all, we added a lot of things to make it more accessible to the player that doesn't understand the game. And then we added a lot more hardcore features as well. We're just trying to broaden the spectrum and try to listen to everybody's feedback and do all that better. There's just too many things, I can't focus on one thing. I think everybody has that—you release the game and then in hindsight, “Oh my God, you could’ve done that, and you could’ve done that…" I just hope to do a better job, and keep giving us the feedback!

NWR: Keep making Ouendan and EBA games, please. And make a new Gitaroo Man!

(laughter)

NWR: I'm hoping that with online connectivity that with Wii or something that maybe you will be able to add songs after [purchase].

KY: Well you're going to start seeing that from everybody, I think. Music games are an easy target for user-created content…Yeah, you're going to see a lot more of that soon from everybody, and that will be fun. (thinks) There are just so many cool things that I wish I could talk about, but, you know... We're having a good time, and it's a good time for us, and I just hope we’ll be able to talk about these things soon… Yeah, it’s really funny because… I completely didn’t know if Ouendan would even [result in anything], but so many people come up to me now [for autographs]. I’m very surprised; it’s very surprising.


Nintendo World Report would like to thank Mr. Yano for taking the time to talk with us. Now get back to work on making Ouendan 2 awesome!

Interview conducted by Steven Rodriguez and Aaron Kaluszka. Transcript by Michael Cole.

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