E3 2012: Interview with John Greiner of MonkeyPaw Games and Victor Ireland of Gaijinworks
by Sean Madson on June 22, 2012

Not too long ago, Diehard GameFAN had reached out to Victor Ireland of Gaijinworks for an interview in regards to his Kickstarter attempt at getting the upcoming Class of Heroes II its own deluxe box set. Since that interview ran, the Kickstarter did not fund, though the game will still be seeing a digital release.

While at E3, Jonathon Widro and I wanted to catch up with Victor again, as well as John Greiner of MonkeyPaw games to discuss not only the lessons learned from that endeavor, but also their joined effort to rerelease Tomba! on PSN. This is what they had to say:


Diehard GameFAN: What are you guys looking to talking about at E3? I know you had the Kickstarter for Class of Heroes II; I know that was one of the things that you guys were involved with recently. And actually I bought the Burgertime game I know was MonkeyPaw Games as well.

John Greiner: (applause) Thank you! Way to go!

DHGF: So yeah, we’re interested in what you have up your sleeve and what you have to tell us.

JG: Okay, well we operate on a couple different fronts, but we’ll start with Class of Heroes II just because Kickstarter’s been on everybody’s palette. Not just this game, but everything else. You know, we were the first console platform game to do something on Kickstarter. And it was a boxed version. We didn’t fund, but we got a lot of really good press from Kickstarter. We consider it a really big win because we took an IP that nobody basically knew and the ones that did know it knew it from the first one, which wasn’t well translated and wasn’t well marketed. We knew we were operating from behind the eight ball from the get go. But because we know and believe in the game, we have the confidence to go forward with it and we know it’s going to take a lot of marketing and hands on play, but eventually people will see what a great game it is. By the way, I’m not just talking about [Class of Heroes] II, I’m also talking about III and IV and the other iterations that are out there for it. It’s a well loved game in Japan. It sells very well and scores very well. There’s a reason for that. They know their stuff. We know what they like as well and we targeted it because of these reasons and we think that Kickstarter helped generate publicity that the game will need. Also, to give people a soundboard to say “What is this?” And let them ask those kinds of questions to clear the air, so they know there’s going to be these big improvements and what we’re going to do for the localization and how we’re going to bring the game out. That in sum is what we were after. I mean, it would’ve been great if it would’ve done that [funded], but that’s not really our main goal. We’re a digital company, not physical. We were gonna do it because Victor has been doing these for years and he knows there’s a certain market out there that loves the boxed physical version, that loves the swag and everything else that goes along with it. So we’re trying to please those guys and at the same time market and I think we were at least able to accomplish part of that goal. We can’t come out with a retail version, but you know, so what?

Victor Ireland: And the nice thing too about the series, is that unlike most series, [with the] Japanese versions every iteration and every sequel all scored higher than the one before. [Class of Heroes] II scored higher than I, III higher than II, IV higher than III. And the last scored I think was all 8’s or 8, 8 7, 8 or something like that, which is a pretty good score from Famitsu. So not very many series can say that every one scored higher than the one before it. It’s definitely where we started, we knew it was all upside from there. We just gotta get it well known here, get people familiar with the characters and the world. And we know we have other ones in the series that are better than the ones they started with.

DHGF: So do you think that the Kickstarter not working was a symptom of lack of interest in the game, or maybe because the game was already being made and it was just the physical product?

JG: All of those things. We came out about a month after Double Fine did, but we had been planning this for a long time. It’s just because it’s a console version that it took a long time to get all the approvals. Imagine telling Sony that you’re doing a Kickstarter. They’re like “What?”

VI: They didn’t understand it. This is way before Double Fine did theirs, we were already trying to get our approvals. We were trying to explain to them what it was about. It was like “What?” They didn’t get it. Then towards the end when Double Fine did theirs they were like “Okay, we get it.” You know?

DHGF:
Yep.

JG: We broke a lot of ground, first of all, which is important. And then you are looked at as “At least they know what they’re doing” which opens doors for future things and overall the reason it may have failed to fund is because, how big is the boxed market for these kinds of games? We learned that there’s a fair number of people that are passionate about it, but we don’t want to do retail; that’s not our goal. It’s just to satisfy those fans in that regard. We were always going to do digital. As you mentioned, a lot of people say “Why would I buy this if you’re going to go digital for $15 bucks?” There’s not a connection for people that don’t love [collector's editions]. So that’s why there’s some negative press. And also the number. People are like “How do you get $500,000?” $500,000 seems like a lot for like a PC game. But this is a disk game. You’ve got to pay Sony. You’ve gotta manufacture. You’ve gotta ship. You’ve gotta get all the swag. You’ve gotta ship all the swag one by one.

VI: And you’ve gotta pay Acquire. You’re paying Sony. And it worked out to about 7,500 physical units to fund. And I thought 7,500 units, well, that’s reasonable. I mean, deluxe packs we sold way more than that when we were doing stuff for Working Designs. I mean, Lunar you’re talking about 250,000. Even Growlanser [Generations] you’re talking about 20 or 30,000 for the deluxe edition. So, 7,500 no problem! And then it was like well, maybe not the PSP. [laughs] There was also a disconnect too because you had people that liked the game, wanted to play the game, but wanted to play on their Vita’s, so they didn’t want the PSP physical disk, but they wanted the swag. It was just complicated because of the fact that the PSP was dead or dying and the Vita was compatible, but you couldn’t use the disk in it. So it was a very complicated Kickstarter.

DHGF: Does the Kickstarter project falling through hinder your enthusiasm to do future deluxe editions? I mean, is this still something that you’re going to consider in the future or do you think that because this last one didn’t go through that you’re just going to stick to digital?

VI: I think it depends. I think on a current platform that’s active like Xbox 360, Xbox Next or whatever, PlayStation 3, or PlayStation 4. It might be a much different response because you won’t have that confusion over media, no media, deluxe, but I want it digitally, I want it physical. You won’t have all that confusion because you’ll have the box and everything.

DHGF: Right.

VI: So yeah, I mean on a more active platform without that physical/digital compatibility thing, that might work. But again, it will be a situation where we’ll do it and if it funds it funds, if it doesn’t it goes digital only. It will be there basically for the fans to get a physical deluxe box direct to them because we’re not going to do the retail thing.

JG: But we couldn’t do other things with Kickstarter because it depends on the license and things like that. Getting Japanese to understand Kickstarter is even more difficult than getting Sony to understand it. Luckily Acquire had no problem. It took some explaining, but once they understood they were like “Okay, yeah, that’s aggressive. Let’s see what happens. Oh we didn’t fund? Okay, no problem.” So we had the same ends of it. I hate to say it, but it saved us a hell of a lot of work. Can you imagine boxing individually all of that stuff? Setting them out one by one? This is not a store, this is done by hand.

VI: That’s what I told John too. I was like, you know, if we fund great, if we don’t fund, great too because we’re not getting rich on the Kickstarter. $500,000 sounds like a lot, but our cut of that was small once we got done. So we were like whatever, they don’t want it, that saves us a ton of work and we still get the game out digitally. Which is all we really wanted to do was to get the game out because the series is worth being seen and we wanted to do the rest of them in the series. That was the most important thing. I would’ve liked to do the deluxe set. Doesn’t mean we won’t do one in the future. The fact that it didn’t get done was definitely time savings for me. [laughs] Because I have to design all of that stuff and prototype it and that’s a long process too.

DHGF: So Class of Heroes II is PSP, are the future ones PSP or are they Vita or…?

VI: They are all PSP except for IV that is PSP and 3DS.

JG: But there’s also PS3.

VI: Of IV?

JG: Of III.

VI: Yeah, II has PSP and PS3, III has PSP and PS3, IV has PSP and 3DS.

DHGF: So are you guys aiming for the PSP releases for those?

VI: Those are compatible with the Vita and we got approval on the PSP ones with Sony. So, it’d be nice if we got the PS3 one but…

JG: That was part of the Kickstarter because in order to make a PS3 version we need to do all the voices, which is expensive. So part of the Kickstarter proposal was to do voice and do the extra mile…

VI: … to help us get to the PS3 one.

DHGF: You have to do the voices because of Sony approvals? Even on a download? Because I know they did Warriors Orochi 3 where they released the physical Xbox one but it was digital only on Sony because Sony won’t let the physical product go out the door not in English. So is that true in digital now too if you produced a digital only version that didn’t have English voices, you could release it on PSN or no?

JG: I think it’s a fine line that could be negotiated. But my account exec told me you’ve gotta do the voice. And here’s another line “Well how about if we take the voice out?” Okay. Maybe, I’m not saying they said that, but there’s ways to work around things.

VI: In service of getting a game out, getting seen, getting a fanbase built, because the first one didn’t do the series any favors. It didn’t build a fanbase. I mean, people bought it, but it didn’t do great and we want to expand from there and build a fanbase for the series. Because it’s a cool series and it’s really, really fun, especially if you like dungeon crawls. It’s one of the best ones made of that kind of game. [The world likes dungeon crawlers lately.]

DHGF:
Does it require an always on connection?

VI: [laughs] No, but on the PSP in ad hoc mode, you can trade stuff with friends. The loot you get you can trade with other people. I pointed that out earlier. I forgot to mention that, but it’s a cool feature that you can connect wirelessly and trade stuff with your friends and I’m sure you can exploit it like crazy and end up with a ton of powerful stuff, but it’s cool they give you the option to do it. It has 200 maps, 200 dungeon maps, 100 enemies, 10 races, unlike the first game. Did you guys play the first game at all.

DHGF: No.

VI: See? This is why we started this [laughs]. The first game you could become any class you wanted. Pick a race, you could be any class you want, you could develop any class you want. The second game, the classes are segregated by race. There’s some overlap, but what race you are limits your class choices. So what race you choose in the beginning is more important in the second game than it was in the first. Because in the first game you could specialize at any point with any class. The second game it makes more sense what race you are because you’re not going to have a fairy samurai. It makes more sense that the race dictates what class you become. So the second game does that. It’s just a cool dungeon crawl game. A lot of the annoying stuff from the first game is gone. Random dungeon entrances is gone. The first game would drop you in and you didn’t know where you dropped into the dungeon. So you’d start and you’d be like “Okay, where am I?” You’ve gotta figure out where you are and where’s the exit. The second one, you’re in and out in the same place every time.

DHGF: That probably sounded really good on paper. “We’ll randomize where you are in the dungeon.”

VI: Actually it goes back to the old school Wizardry stuff way back in the 80’s. That’s the way they did it when people had more tolerance I guess and wanted to be abused like that. Now it’s just like, that’s annoying; I don’t want to do that. So after they heard that feedback in Japan, the second one was fixed. It’s a cool game you can take in segments. You can play it 20-30 minutes at a time, PSP especially, and you can save it and move on. It has maps you can purchase, so once you’ve mapped out it will remember your maps. When you come back in it won’t be blacked out anymore. Once you’ve explored it, it’s open to you.

DHGF: When are you releasing the digital version?

VI: Fall

DHGF: How is that going to work promotion-wise, because PSP is going to be pretty dead in North America.

VI: PSP with Vita emphasis.

DHGF: So is that going to be the way you promote it? Talk about both where you can play this on PSP, but also promoting it to Vita fans? Even though it’s PSP, it’s an all new dungeon crawler?

VI: Exactly. For the Vita. It works with the Vita.

JG: The announcement is going to help that, because now you know. If you have that compatibility than I think will be pretty obvious.

VI: It will definitely be [listed as] PSP/Vita. Because it’s both. You can play it on both of them. Because if you’re marketing just to PSP people, that’s a dead end street. [laughs] You’ve got to market it to both. Most PSP people, once PS1 compatibility is live on the Vita, the PSP will go in the drawer and that will be the end of that.

DHGF: Yeah, there’s only one game left that I can’t get, and that’s Mega Man: Powered Up. For some reason they have it on the Japanese PSN, but not on the American PSN. And that’s the only UMD game that I want to convert.

VI: John, get on that. [laughs]

JG: But they have a bunch of Mega Man stuff up.

VI: But not Powered Up.

DHGF: They have Powered Up on the Japanese store, which means they have a digital file laying around pretty much, right?

VI: It might be a license issue though.

JG: Well, they still have to emulate so it might be a license issue or it may be a lazy issue.

DHGF: Well, they’re having some weird Mega Man issues at Capcom. I think they’re trying to bury that franchise [laughs]

JG: So our game Tomba!… that’s Fujiwara-san who is the original Mega Man. I don’t know if that has anything to do with him, but it might. Usually problems like that come from licensing.

DHGF: But it’s Capcom, they own Mega Man.

VI: It could be emulation too, because they changed something in the US version and it won’t pass emulation check. Because the ISO is totally different. Like, for example, Goemon we were going to do with Working Designs, but it never came out. We have the game, but we can’t do it on the PS2 right now at least. You can’t ship digital a game that wasn’t on physical disk because they go by what was on the disk. If the US version was different for that Mega Man somehow and they converted to emulation and it fails, you can’t modify the code, you have to modify the emulator to work with that game. It might be an issue where the Japanese version ran through emulation and it worked fine and the US version changed something and it broke something. I don’t know, just speculating.

DHGF: So, talk about Tomba! a little bit, because I think that’s a great example of a game that can find new life. Right now, if I want to find Tomba! it’s $80 or $90 or whatever on eBay and it’s just not affordable to try out a random platformer.

VI: And a lot of people did not play the first one. It did not sell great, but the people who bought it loved it. But they didn’t sell a ton of copies of it.

DHGF: So what is your thinking in that, is it another thing you’re trying to localize and make work for America or international release or… ?

JG: Basically it’s a step by step deal because it’s a complicated license. Sony owned part of it. Fujiwara-san owned part of it. And it’s difficult to get everybody to agree on all the things at a reasonable cost. All of our games are pretty inexpensive so there’s not much money to go around even though a game as big as Tomba!, well it’s not huge but…

VI: Well, in Japan it was pretty good, but in the US [it was not very big].

JG: It’s one of those games where you had to bring a lot of people together, which was pretty difficult. And I think from what our conversations had been is we’ll put it out, do promotion, and then step it up to the next level. So that would mean, maybe do European sales, maybe do [Tomba] 2, and do some other things. Step by step. We want to see what the reaction is. Fujiwara-san wants to see what the reaction is. Why wouldn’t you do [Tomba] 2 or why wouldn’t you do Europe? I think it will happen. It’s just the way business works in Japan.

DHGF: Do you have the rights locked up for the second one if the first one does well for you? Or is there still more negotiation involved?

JG: It’s not a negotiation thing, it’s just what we want to do. There’s also emulation difficulties. Not all games emulate and it happens a lot. They try to emulate, something’s different. Sorry, we can’t fix it, because it’s in emulation. Sometimes they can do some firmware fixes that can solve those bugs.

VI: Like a workaround, yeah.

JG: A workaround. But yeah, a lot of times you just get, “Nope, can’t do it.”

VI: Because you can’t touch the code. The game code can’t be touched from what it shipped as.

DHGF: Ever? Even if it’s the original company?

VI: Nope, that’s the rule.

JG:
Because you’re taking from a physical disk.

VI: The thing is, if you change the code, their policy is it has to go through Q&A again and there’s no Q&A line for PS1 games anymore. They can’t test it. So the rule is, what shipped on the disk is what has to go out. If it’s an emulation issue, sometimes they can fix it in emulation. But if they can’t fix the emulator to play it, it can’t come out.

DHGF: I’ve heard they’re going to do some PSP games where they’re going to reconfigure them a little bit to use the dual sticks on the Vita. How does that work?

VI: I’m not involved with that so I’m assuming they’re going to break that rule.

DHGF: Or are they going to have them process through PSP Q&A?

VI: You’re right, they do still have PSP Q&A so that’s probably what that is…

DHGF: How are they actually doing the PS2 emulation? I’ve been running into a wall with how that works. They took the hardware emulation out of the PS3 and suddenly six months ago, PS2 games started showing up. Does the emulator come bundled with the game each time?

VI: Fairy dust and kitten hearts. [laughs] It’s a black process. No one understands it.

JG: That’s why they do it. That’s why they don’t tell anybody or show anybody. Just the process of getting the emulations. Tomba! took a really long time. This game has been on our plate for over a year. And most of the time, some has been negotiations, but most has been in emulation…

DHGF: So they work on emulation? You just pretty much hand them the disk and Sony says here’s our emulator. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, it goes back to them and they can fix the emulator on your behalf and do they charge that back to you?

VI: It goes in and then it’s gone for awhile and then it comes back with yay or nay. That’s why I said fairy dust and kitten hearts.

DHGF: So if they say nay, there’s nothing you can do?

VI: No, sometimes they can do it. But there’s a hard nay and a soft nay. [laughs]

JG: I think for the most part if it comes back broken, it’s not going to be fixed. It can be, for sure, they can do a firmware fix that solves the problem.

VI: The game would have to be big for them to take that [chance].

JG: We just keep our fingers crossed and hope our games come out. Usually they do. We operate at about a 70-80% success rate.

VI: And I think Tomba! is going to do well. That was my bet with John. Alundra has done really well… and I think Tomba! will be that Arc the Lad or Alundra class because I think it’s got that cult sort of vibe to it, that a lot of people have heard about it and are curious about it. And once they get it, the word of mouth is going to be great because the game is top to bottom fantastic and really fun. Music’s great, video’s cool, characters great. It’s just a great game.

JG: Did you guys play it?

DHGF: No, I never did, it was something I was curious about checking out but it wasn’t feasible to…

JG: Pay $90 for…?

DHGF: Exactly… [laughs]

JG: Well that’s what we try to do is help people play games they’d never have a chance to play otherwise…

DHGF: Even the Working Designs titles that you guys are coming back with, you designed those to be expensive collector’s items, so if you want to go back to them…

VI: No, I didn’t design them to be expensive, they were cheap. When we brought them out, they were inexpensive.

DHGF: Now they’re expensive! [laughs]

VI: Well, yeah, people say “oh, it’s because they were limited run.” They weren’t that limited a run. We sold over a quarter million of Lunar 1. I mean, that’s a pretty decent amount. But, almost none of them got traded in. Almost everyone who got them, kept them. So the secondary market for [that was small]. I mean, that was the point of the Working Designs collector’s editions. I didn’t like the fact that people made a deluxe one and a regular one because the regular one would be regular price and the deluxe one would be $100 or $120. I said screw that, if we do everybody the same it would only be $10 more. So most of ours sold for $69 when they’d normally be $59. And that’s what they got them at. I wish I would’ve made 10,000 more and kept them for myself. [laughs]

DHGF: Could’ve lived off of that… Although I really don’t think there was a collector’s market back then, so to speak, like there is now.

JG: There wasn’t eBay, there wasn’t internet.

DHGF: Exactly.

VI: Well, I also liked making variant everything because I was crazy like that. Variant disks; each game had like 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 different disk labels, all this crazy stuff made it even more insane. Like, Lunar had like eight different disk labels. So with 250,000 copies, you cut it down, there’s about 30,000 of each. It’s not broken down like that, there was a popular one that there was 80,000 of, but on average, there’s about 30,000 of each label. So if you’re a crazy collector and want them all, then you’re gonna have to try to find 8 different copies. And then hope you got the right label because with most of them, you can’t tell from the outside what label is in the box. With the last one, we put a dot on the back so we knew that was the last one. So if you found one with a blue dot on the corner, you know it’s the last edition. That was for me, so I could keep track if it was the last edition or what, because once you opened it, the value was gone.

DHGF: So are you discouraged at all with the Kickstarter that maybe that kind of physical collecting stuff won’t be around forever anymore?

VI:
Maybe, but that might transition into a digital thing where you’d get a code in a physical box and you don’t get the actual physical game. I personally am a fan of physical everything, but I like the convenience of digital, when I’m in an airport I can download and play a game. For my collection, I want physical stuff. And I think the issue with the Kickstarter thing was confusion over physical versus digital disk. I think with a home console like Xbox or PlayStation or something, we wouldn’t have that confusion. I think it would go over a lot better. I’m not ready to try that yet.

DHGF: So besides Class of Heroes and Tomba!, anything else you guys are working on or talking about?

VI: There are things we are working on, but [nothing we can talk about yet]. Burgertime?

DHGF: How did that do? I thought that was a really fun game and I thought that was a good reimagining. I liked the graphics in that. Did people not like it or something, because I didn’t hear much about it, but I remember seeing it.

JG: We [upset some people] because it wasn’t the Burgertime that they…

DHGF: Grew up with?

JG: Grew up with. But that was the point.

DHGF: But it wasn’t far off from that.

JG: It wasn’t far off from that. Our idea was keep the mechanic, but bring it in the 21st century and bring it so it’s fun for people today. If you were to play old Burgertime, you’d have fun for a couple minutes but then you’d be like “Okay, well what’s that?” We didn’t want to do that… You’ve got to do more. You’ve got to reimagine it. You’ve got to evolutionize the game. And that was the point and we thought we explained that well, but some people just did not want you to mess with the game that they grew up with.

DHGF: It was very close, what was different?

JG: The fact that you could jump. But if you couldn’t jump, it would be pretty boring after awhile, right? Then you couldn’t do the platforms as we imagined them.

VI: Then you’re back to just ladders. You can’t do any of the jumping or springing.

JG: And we had these conversations when we’re designing thinking what can we do, what can’t we do, and we never thought “don’t jump.”

VI: You should’ve been in an option for no jumping. Could’ve been taken out.

JG: Well, you’d definitely lose.

VI: Well, if they didn’t want it, could’ve taken it out. [laughs]

JG: … This is a reimagining. Imagine if we had the original creator, who we couldn’t find, but imagine him if he had an open canvas and was going to imitate the game play or game mechanic but do it in today’s world, he would’ve thought [to do different things like this]. You have to if you want the brand to continue to grow… We increased the brand value because the game’s on a different level. Now you’ve got something that’s built up. Now a lot of people know about Burgertime that didn’t before. Not everybody was around years ago. So we reintroduced the game a lot and I was just a little bit surprised by the fights people chose to pick. If I was gonna fight about something, it wouldn’t have been that. We had fights about how hard the game should be. In my mind, our gamer is the core gamer. We’re not making this for mass market. This is not a Nintendo Wii game, well we put it on WiiWare, but it wasn’t made for them. It was made for Xbox and PlayStation players who were hardcores. Who want a challenging game. We tried not to frustrate at any point. There were things that you can’t do, but if you’re building towards an audience, you make sure you please them first. And if other players want to play it, great. I think a lot of the problems came from people who didn’t really know gaming well enough to play it and weren’t really ready for a battle like that. It’s only a $10 game, it wasn’t anything really earth shattering, but people were [upset] and… I guess we should’ve made it easier. And we did things to make it easier. During beta testing we heard that comment and developers were like, this is for hardcores. Screw those guys! [laughs]

VI: Well, and there was enough of a reception that you’re putting it on other platforms. It’s not stopping there…

JG: When I was at Hudson we did Burgertime for mobile and that was our best selling game. Imagine Hudson, all the games that we had, and Burgertime was our bestseller? So they told me “Wow, that was a very powerful title.” We put out two versions and sold 5 million of each of those. That was serious business at that time for those devices. And it showed there was a real following for it.


I’d like to thank Victor Ireland of Gaijinworks and John Greiner of MonkeyPaw Games for taking time out of their busy schedules to meet with us during E3, as well as Ray Almeda for arranging everything. Look for Tomba! on PSN and Class of Heroes II, also on PSN, sometime this fall.



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