Interview with Touhou Project Founder and Creator, ZUN - Part 1

Over the last four days, we have taken an in-depth look at the Touhou Project series to find out why it’s so appealing. As the conclusion of this week-long special, for three days starting from today, we are featuring a three-part interview with ZUN, the creator of Touhou Project, whom fans also respectfully refer to as “Kannushi.” ( Illustration by kyachi )

We held the interview in August 2013 in the middle of the blisteringly hot summer in a certain place of Tokyo. As it was also what ZUN wished, we had the interview in a bar while exchanging drinks, all in a relaxed atmosphere.

About Touhou Project

TOM: With Touhou Project having become such a large-scale series, don’t the people around you ask a lot of questions, like “What should I do to be able to make content that so many people enjoy?”

ZUN: I’d say the amount of questions I get from people in the same industry is probably not as high as you might think. I imagine it might be because they think that Touhou Project is special.

TOM: Special?

ZUN: Yes. I think that “special” is often used in the meaning “different from oneself,” since many people think, “Actually, if I work hard, I might be able to make a game accepted by just as many fans, but it’s probably impossible.” It feels that Touhou Project is often treated as heresy.

TOM: That’s not surprising, considering the present number of fans.

ZUN: Even if I have the chance to talk with my friends about all kinds of stuff, it feels as if Touhou Project is left out from the very beginning. Although if they were to ask me, I’m prepared to answer as fully as I can.

TOM: This might be a very basic question, but when you started making Touhou Project games, did you think it would become such a long-lasting series or did you want to make it so?

ZUN: I didn’t expect that, of course. My first motivation was, “Well, I’ll try making one!” Maybe the Internet already existed when I started making games, but I wasn’t aware of it, and I had no idea about how computers worked, so I learned everything from scratch. I was already in college when I finally had the chance to get in contact with a computer. Until that time, I didn’t even known about computers.

TOM: I think at the time you went to college, no one really did game programming from scratch anymore, so why did you decide to learn everything from the ground up?

ZUN: Because I liked games. When I entered college, I had this vague idea that I wanted to make games, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know about a lot about computers either, so that was my starting point. However, there wasn’t anyone among my friends who was well-versed in this subject, so I bought a PC-98 for the time being. I heard that C was good for making games, so I installed it and thought I’d give it a go. That was my very first step in game making.

TOM: Was it hard, doing it all alone from scratch?

ZUN: Well...if I think back, I’d say it wasn’t that hard. One week after buying my first computer and using C for the first time, I managed to create Puyo Puyo. And I realized that if you try to make a game based on an already thought-out idea, it’s not so difficult. I thought that if that’s how it was, I should be able to do what I want to, and I started on my very first game.

Illustration by emerane

TOM: What was the doujin game industry back then like?

ZUN: Up until actually trying to sell my game at Comiket, I myself didn’t know about its existence, either. When I told a friend at college that I had made a game, he said, “Then you should just present it at Comiket,” and that was the first time I knew that such an event existed. There was very little information about it, too, so I entered a circle for the time being, experienced it first-hand and thought, “Oh, so this is what Comiket is all about.” I could feel the multitude of people and the enthusiasm at the venue, I simply thought it was awesome.

At that time, the genre of doujin games wasn’t that widespread. There were numerous circles participating in the doujin category, but most of them were CG illustration collections. Back then, we used to use floppy disks as our medium (They’re a bit nostalgic now, though.), and everyone enjoyed the fact that you could fit a couple illustrations on a floppy. Floppies were expensive, and above all, drawing those illustrations was extremely hard. Since there were few people who could draw them, they were highly scarce as well. Doujin software had those kinds of limitations, so creating a game stood out very much. So, back then, Comiket mostly consisted of game makers exchanging games between themselves, and that was it, basically. My memories from that time still remain very clear; it was interesting.

TOM: Seeing how prosperous it is now, that’s kind of hard to believe.

ZUN: Yes. After that, I continued to participate in Comiket, and I’ve seen the change of the doujin game genre. Although probably I’m the only one from that time who’s still doing doujin games. Most of the game makers are college students, so when they find a job, they fade off the scene. In my case, I was employed in a game company once, then I quit and returned to the doujin game world. When I was making commercial games, a gap was born between what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do, and the time came when I could no longer ignore it.

I started my own game even before quitting the company, so I led a life where I’d go home from work, do programming into the night, fall asleep, and go to work the next morning. I studied on my own when I moved my game developing platform to Windows, too. Back then, I only included the things I wanted to do, and left the other parts a bit unrefined, looking at them now, but it still took form as a game. By doing so, I returned to what I wanted to make, I took an idea that seemed interesting for sure and when I made it into a game, it was well accepted. What I do hasn’t changed much over time.

TOM: That’s amazing. By the way, back then when making games, did you do any marketing?

ZUN: I would attend Comiket even in the years when I didn’t release any games, because I was curious what the games that sold well were like. To be honest, my games might be inferior in one smaller aspect, illustrations or music, but I was confident that they wouldn’t lose in the basic concept aspect. Nevertheless, if you asked whether I would be able to come out with a game made like that in the company I used to work at, the answer would be no, of course (laughs).

I knew that no one from the company would agree with what I felt was OK to do. Since commercial games are treated as a business, you have to seriously think about profit, and in that aspect it is inevitable that there would be various limitations. However, the way I think about it, you don’t need money for making games.

The reason you’d need money is that you are making a very large-scale game. However, I think players don’t necessarily want games they need to pay for. If we look at games with the same concept, new games must be much cooler in comparison to the games of the past, and that’s why they costs money. I think that’s natural if the basic concept is the same. In which case, if only you changed the core part and it’s fun as a game, it would become a different game and I think you could escape the downward spiral that way.

Illustration by Pirou Ikeda

What I look for in games is the “sense of accomplishment.”

When I’m playing games, I think what’s important is the “sense of accomplishment.” The ending of the game doesn’t matter as long as there is a boundary signaling the end of it, that way I can conclude it in myself. That is what I expect from a game. I’m aware that there are those who are more comfortable with games that go on and on like MMORPGs, I’m not going to deny that. The whole problem is that we take them under the same category as “games.” I think that if it has a different objective, it would be more fitting to treat it is as something different.

In my image, a game is something you can clear, something that lets you taste that sense of accomplishment. I think that might be because I’ve been playing games for a long time. On the other hand, fo people who have recently started gaming, clearing a game might feel odd to them.

TOM: Yes, it does feel like back in the Nintendo and Super Nintendo days the enthusiasm to play a game to the end was stronger.

ZUN: RPGs are like that, too. They aren’t designed in a way that allows anyone to be able to clear them. In the old days, playing it through was necessary, but the games nowadays are different. Beating something that wasn’t meant to be cleared by just anyone was a fun experience. And shooting games make you sense that feeling even stronger.

TOM: I see, I understand clearly now. Those games constantly test whether your skills are advanced enough.

ZUN: Exactly. The more you play them, the more you advance. Of course, it can be different depending on the design, but my games at least are made in a way that you can complete them if you try hard. That’s a lot of fun!

TOM: For me personally, the game that gave me that kind of experience was Dark Souls 1.

ZUN: Yes, in that game, you also learn by trial and error. I think Dark Souls is also made like a classic game. However, the players are loosely connected in its play system. Although you play by yourself when actually playing it, you can feel the presence of other players around. I had the impression that it succeeded in incorporating the good part of social games. I think it was very thoroughly thought out, and games made with such effort will succeed after all.

(To be continued.)

^1^ A RPG for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 developed by From Software. It has a very high overall difficulty, and it requires the player to complete it stage by stage while experiencing death many times. For that reason, it has a strong fanbase.

Team Shanghai Alice Official HP (Japanese)
Touhou Project Tag on Tokyo Otaku Mode

Illustrations by
Pirou Ikeda

This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article.

Illustration by kyachi
Illustration by kyachi
Illustration by emerane
Illustration by emerane
Illustration by Pirou Ikeda
Illustration by Pirou Ikeda

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