Interview with Touhou Project Founder and Creator, ZUN - Part 2

This is a continuation of our recent interview with ZUN, creator of Touhou Project.( Illustration by pomodorosa )

About the Definition of Games

ZUN: When compared with older stereotypes, I get the feeling that recently the term “otaku” has more or less gained a positive image. Before, to say “I’m an Otaku” was almost masochistic and self-deprecating. Now otaku has become a status to be proud of. I remember first hearing the term “light otaku” and thinking, “Huh? Otaku isn’t a bad word anymore?”

TOM: It seems that while otaku cultural staples such as anime, manga, and video games are still thought of as “things for children to enjoy,” that perception is not as strong as it used to be.

ZUN: Simply put, the people who encountered otaku culture as children and experienced it growing up are now reluctant to give up these activities even as adults. As a result, the population of otaku continues to increase, and that has affected former perceptions. Similarly, kids today raised with smartphones, which are new to us, will likely develop their own set of values because of their relationship to this technology.

TOM: To put it bluntly, would you call it a fad?

ZUN: Fads or fashions have the sense of being limited to an extremely short span of time. What I’m referring to is a much longer span of time. I think “culture” would be an accurate way to describe it.

TOM: When you think of it that way, you realize that the hobbies and interests of older people today were likely ingrained in them during childhood.

ZUN: That’s probably right. When I picture myself 20 or 30 years from now, I’m still definitely playing video games. However, even by then, what we refer to now as “games” might be considered old fashioned.

TOM: By the way, do you play any games on your smartphone?

ZUN: Of course. I’d say that I play a wide range of stuff. It might sound rude to say it in this way, but smartphone games are more like “game-like applications” to me. They don’t fit my definition of a game.

TOM: What is your definition of a game?

ZUN: To me personally, in terms of computer games, a game must involve controlling something on the screen by yourself, and it must be entertaining. Anime and manga, while both are forms of entertainment, cannot be controlled. The element that distinguishes games from other things is the freedom of movement and control. I don’t mean to put down smartphone games. But the act of moving is largely absent or inadequate in smartphone games. Also, touch panel devices by design are not suited for this sort of control and character movement.

TOM: Even so, you mentioned just now that you play them quite often.

ZUN: Particularly since last year I’ve been playing a lot of titles including Puzzle & Dragons. From last year to this year, it’s clear that the quality of games has gotten much better. However, there’s something still fundamentally different about what I look for in a game, which I why I think computer games will always suit me best.

TOM: Have you had any requests to make a smartphone game based on Touhou Project?

ZUN: I certainly have (laughs). But I don’t have the time, so I’ve had to refuse. To be honest, it wouldn’t really be Touhou Project even if I did. There are so many applications being released at an incredible rate. The cost of game production is rising quickly, and there are many ad spots for games on TV. I’ve noticed this and thought, this looks familiar: It’s just like the Japanese gaming industry used to be. What’s different is the pace. The flow of money toward smartphone games has clearly been faster than the previous gaming boom. I think it’s really a waste. I think if companies were able to take their time developing content, they could come up with a different way of enjoying these games.

Illustration by Pirou Ikeda

TOM: If you were to make a smartphone game, what sort of approach would you take?

ZUN: I think I would make the sequel first.

TOM: The sequel?

ZUN: This has to do with what I said earlier about the “sense of achievement.” Smartphone games and social media games alike tend to be endless. That’s because they’re based on a business model that urges the user to play the game for a long time so that profit can be made from when the user pays for various content. Personally, I prefer games that have a set ending rather than ones that go on forever.

What’s important to me is a sense of achievement. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from completing a game. There’s also an advantage for game companies if they make a continuation or series of games. It allows them to analyze the good and bad points, both subjectively and objectively, and take that insight into account when developing the next game. They can even completely revamp the entire game system in the next game, if they like. With games that are continuous and never-ending, that is a difficult thing to do.

TOM: So what makes you want to continue playing smartphones games despite this opinion?

ZUN: I want to be clear: I don’t hate smartphone games. Rather, I would say I play them more than the average person. Additionally, I think that playing smartphone games has allowed me to reacknowledge what it is that I like about computer games.

TOM: When developing a game, do you take into account your own ideas about what makes computer games fun for you?

ZUN: Of course that is always on my mind. But if you overthink things it can hold you back, so when it comes time to make the game, I’ve already decided what I need to do. It’s a back and forth between thinking about how to make the game more interesting, making it, and then thinking some more. Also I think the fact that I make games allows me to make comparisons and draw inspiration and ideas from the games I play.

TOM: This is very interesting for me, as I’ve only experienced games from a player’s standpoint.

ZUN: From a developer’s perspective, what the player experiences is really only a piece of the game. There are a number of things that can only really be discussed with other developers, and I think that it’s difficult to understand the important aspects behind a game’s popularity unless you are a game maker yourself. That’s why it’s always exciting for me to go out drinking with other game developers. We may strongly agree or strongly disagree about things, but we never run out of things to talk about.

TOM: I can really sense how fun making games must be for you!

ZUN: It is fun! However, when it comes to making a living with games, it’s a different story. The best part is enjoying the process of making the game.

TOM: And if you can happen to money while having fun?

ZUN: That’s what we hope for!

Illustration by Ninamo

Doujin Games and Commercial Games

TOM: As you continue your work on Touhou Project as a doujin (indie) game, is there anything you pay particular attention to due to its nature as a doujin project?

ZUN: I wouldn’t say that there’s one particular thing I focus on, rather, the entire approach one must take to developing a doujin game versus a commercial game is completely different. A commercial game must succeed as a business and be profitable. Right before I came here, I was playing Dragon’s Crown 1…I love that game. That is a game developed for people who enjoyed the old side-scrolling action-arcade games of the past, right?

TOM: Personally, I was surprised to hear that it has sold 300,000 copies. (As of the end of August, the time of this interview.)

ZUN: What’s good about Dragon’s Crown is how fun it is to control your character. You press a button, some sort of action happens on screen, you vanquish your enemies, and then the scene changes again. It’s incredibly simple, but that’s what makes it so much fun! When I thought about why I’m enjoying this game so much, I realized that it could be because I haven’t recently played many games in which the player is so in control and connected to the actions of the character. I once again realize that this is the type of game that I love.

TOM: What are your expectations for the next generation platforms like the PS4 and Xbox One?

ZUN: I think the future of games will not be determined by hardware. Platforms won’t be what leads games for much longer. Game software, if it’s interesting, will cross the boundaries of hardware and be enjoyed by many people. Because we use our phones so much these days, the number of smartphone-game users is increasing rapidly. But like I mentioned earlier, they are still difficult to use as a game controller. If this problem can be resolved, then I think that they could head in a very exciting direction.

TOM: Indeed! Recently, I was thinking about why I got so into Kantai Collection 2, and then I realized it was because my computer was the device that I used most often.

ZUN: I was also surprised too when I realized that. When Kantai Collection became such a big hit, I realized just how many people are sitting in front of their computers and working all day. I think that a lot of illustrators and manga artists also play, so it seems that frequent computer use is common between everyone.

On the other hand, I don’t really hear of many people who play Kantai Collection within the doujin game industry. If you think about the immense popularity of Dragon’s Crown, it seems that there’s a different sense of worth when it comes to games. And I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a good thing. It could create a kind of gap between the players and the developers.

TOM: Do you think gameplay time getting shorter and shorter has to do with the fact that we are changing our playing style to fit our lifestyle?

ZUN: I think there are good things about games in which you can get through a stage in just a few minutes, but if all games became like that, we would be left with essentially all mini games. I want to continue making games for the players that buy their console, sit in front of the screen, consciously set time aside to play, and are excited every time they flip the switch on. In that respect, I think it’s proof that there are still those who buy the new hardware and take it apart, so it could be good news as well.

(To be concluded.)

^1^ A side-scrolling action game released by Atlus for the PlayStation 3 and Playstation Vita. Players choose between fighter and sorceress characters and capture many dungeons. It is known for its beautiful, picturesque art style.

^2^ A browser game developed by Kadokawa Games. Players control anthropomorphised female versions of Japanese Navy vessels during WW2 and defeat enemies. It was released in April 2013 and now boasts over 1.2 million users.

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

Illustrations by
pomodorosa
Pirou Ikeda
Ninamo

This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article.

Illustration by pomodorosa. This is a jacket illustration drawn exclusively for the Touhou arrangement CD Senbou First Note by Yugen Elechord.
Illustration by pomodorosa. This is a jacket illustration drawn exclusively for the Touhou arrangement CD *Senbou First Note* by Yugen Elechord.
Illustration by Pirou Ikeda
Illustration by Pirou Ikeda
Illustration by Ninamo
Illustration by Ninamo

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