Interview with Touhou Project Founder and Creator, ZUN - Part 3

As a conclusion to our week-long Touhou Project article series, we bring you the final part of our interview with ZUN, the father of the series.( Illustration by emerane )

Are Computer Games a Gamble?

ZUN: I don’t believe that games should be a gamble. You only touch it at the beginning, and then the results come out randomly on the screen. To me personally, that isn’t a game. For example, let’s take social card games. There is that anxious feeling the person playing gets from not knowing whether their strong card will win or lose, but it’s like, is the player really necessary?

I think games are primarily something where the fun comes from your own actions. During the time of the first Nintendo, there were a lot of games with incredible levels of difficulty. But what people enjoyed about them was building up to that difficulty and getting the satisfaction of playing better than you did before, as well as the feeling of accomplishment of finally beating something. That kind of effort is at the core of what makes games fun.

TOM: The feeling of being able to do something you weren’t able to do before is very simple, but also very important.

ZUN: That’s right. For that, you need the player to level up, not the character.

TOM: Action games and fighting games predominately tend to lean toward that idea. However, on the other hand, people who are good at fighting games are incredibly good, so I wonder if there aren’t instances where someone starting out feels like it’s impossible for them to win.

ZUN: The Internet age also plays a big part. Until not too long ago, it was a big deal to become the best at your local arcade, but now you’re aware of the level of world class players. This makes it tough for the gaming industry, because in that environment, if you can’t offer something new to enjoy, you won’t be able to broaden your base. In that regard, the newly released JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle 1 has been selling very well.

TOM: Earlier at another event, I got the sense that there was a lot of care given to the development of that game because the developer, particularly the president of the company, had a great appreciation for the JoJo series. I think that care and attention can be seen by the players.

ZUN: I think that that is what a fan work truly is. Even though they had the official license to make the game, since it was made by someone other than the original author, you can say it’s fan-fiction. When you’re thinking about how to take an existing work and make it into a fun game, if you don’t have any appreciation for the original, it’s only natural that fans are going to go, “What’s this?”

Even if you have an idea that could sell well, if there isn’t any love for the original as a base, it’s not going to turn into a good game no matter what you do. I understand the idea of coming up with these games from a business perspective, where you say, “There are this many fans of the original, so a game adaptation has a good chance of selling,” but it’s difficult to do that kind of business in today’s online world. I understand that in commercial game development, there are sometimes absurd “Put this in the game!” kind of requests coming top-down, but that kind of inside information doesn’t matter to fans. The original author doesn’t ever come up with the idea or the content for the game adaptation either, so ultimately, the game adaptation depends solely on the sense of the people making it. I think that whether or not the game is fun comes down to the extent to which the people inside have thought about the type of game they would want to play and their ability to make that idea into reality.

TOM: I think there will always be games that sell and games that don’t, but as a gamer, I do think it would be nice if more developers returned to that very basic and very important part of game development.

ZUN: At the moment, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle hasn’t actually been released yet (at the time of this interview in late August), so the fact that it’s been selling is not because the game is fun. In the case of the JoJo game, they have been able to get players to want to play the game even if it doesn’t end up being the game they imagined. Everyone wants to play it and then talk about it. Things like, “I would have done this part this way,” or, “The guys who made this didn’t get it at all.”

Illustration by UGUME

Distributing Touhou Project on Steam

TOM: To change the subject, have you thought at all about distributing the Touhou Project games on Steam?

ZUN: I have thought about it. Not having to actually ship packaging would decrease the cost quite a bit, but I would still have to do a lot to make it available on Steam. A fundamental problem is that I actually no longer have the original data from the early games, and it would be a challenge to create new versions. Also, most of all, if I started using Steam, I would finally have to shift my focus to international audiences. I’ve had a lot of inquiries from other countries lately.

TOM: Through illustrations and merchandise, there have certainly been more opportunities for people from other countries to be exposed to it.

ZUN: At a presentation at CEDEC 2, Touhou Project came in at 19 in the rankings of games currently popular with gamers in America. It hasn’t done that well in official sales, though. Since it’s a shooting game, having it in Japanese doesn’t create that much of a hurdle for the player. But the scenes in the game have a very Japanese style to them. When I say “Japanese style,” I don’t mean the kind of associations people in other places have of Japan, but rather, I mean that it’s a game made by someone in Japan for people in Japan. I think that a game like that will definitely come across as something exotic to people in other countries.

TOM: I see.

ZUN: The grammar of the game hasn’t been rearranged for a foreign audience. I think that’s a good thing. Manga is accepted in the same way. American comics and Japanese manga are completely different, aren’t they? For example, I don’t think a Japanese manga artist has been successful by trying to incorporate American comic styles into their own style to sell in America. But I feel that with games, you can see that they’re developed to be sold in other countries right away. Ultimately, that could be because commercial games have to sell.

Doujin games have some freedom in that area. Because of that, there is diversity in game content. You do what you want to do. Of course, selling is great, but not everyone is necessarily making games for that reason. Doing something you want to do takes priority over making a profit. Which is why doujin games are fun. Of course, it’s not that money is unnecessary. It’s artistic to say you don’t need money, but the doujin style is to say that if you like it, please pay. Doujin games are the counterpoint to commercial games, so its stance is that you can make interesting games even without money.

TOM: This kind of relates to the idea of it being art, but have you thought about having some type of Touhou Project exhibition?

ZUN: Oh, that would be interesting.

TOM: You could line up every Touhou Project game released so far.

ZUN: Hmm, that would be more like a hands-on museum than an art museum. We could do a museum right now, but it wouldn’t be a new experience. For an exhibit, it wouldn’t make sense to do anything that wouldn’t get fans excited to see what it’s about.

TOM: I see. It sounds as though you have thought at least a little about how you would want to do it.

ZUN: That’s because I do think of those things (laughs). It’s that whether or not I want to do it, if I do do it, it should be like this. I think if I do it, I’ll do it this way, and, if the plan goes forward, then I think of how I’ll answer when I get interviewed, which I know well.

TOM: You’re very motivated, aren’t you? (laughs)

Illustration by kyachi

He Likes Beer!

TOM: We’ve had quite a bit to drink. I had heard you like beer, but I had no idea how much (laughs). Do you drink on a regular basis?

ZUN: I drink every day. If I’m busy, I’ll usually drink at home. The worst thing about drinking every day is that I have to buy my beer in boxes.

TOM: Do you order it through Amazon?

ZUN: I feel like if I went that far, it would mean I drink too much. A lot of beer seems to get delivered to the office as well, and that’s a pain to get home.

TOM: So you don’t drink at the office then, right?

ZUN: I don’t. There aren’t any snacks to go with it, after all.

TOM: So that’s the reason? (laughs)

ZUN: It’s very important! (laughs)

TOM: Do you ever make your own snacks?

ZUN: I make them a lot. I like cooking. When I’m busy, I usually cook at home, and what I usually make are finger foods to eat while I’m drinking. I’m learning how to make more and more things quickly. I can switch gears when I’m cooking, and then when I go back to work, I’m able to catch a lot of bugs. (laughs)

TOM: Do you make snacks even while you’re working?

ZUN: I definitely drink! Beer is my fuel. Of the doujin software developers I know, most of them like to drink. “I can’t work without drinking!” (laughs)

TOM: What type of beer do you usually drink?

ZUN: Either Kirin or Asahi. I almost always drink Japanese brands. I think there are different stages of liking beer. Once you start to like beer, then next you start to drink different foreign beers. You also start to go to bars. You go to different stages, but in the end, you go back to the beer you’re comfortable with, and for me, that’s Japanese beer. I don’t think that liking beer means you have to keep drinking a lot of different beers.

TOM: Do you not go out to drink?

ZUN: I don’t really ever just stroll into places and drink. I drink for awhile when I start, and drinking out doesn’t fit with that in a lot of ways.

TOM: At the Nico Nico Conference, it seemed like you might even start to make your own beer.

ZUN: Oh, I do have to try that!

TOM: Could you possibly be running a brewing company in 5 or 10 years?

ZUN: I’m serious. I might actually try it. (laughs)

^1^ A PlayStation 3 fighting game based on the manga JoJo's Bizarre Adventure released by Namco Bandai Games. The game commemorates the 25th anniversary of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure and is filled with an attention to detail to please fans of the original, including character motions based on frames from the manga.

^2^ Refers to the largest professional conference aimed at game developers in Japan. An acronym of Computer Entertainment Developers Conference.

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This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article.

Illustration by emerane
Illustration by emerane
Illustration by UGUME
Illustration by UGUME
Illustration by kyachi
Illustration by kyachi

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