NIS America’s Phoenix Spaulding and David Alonzo on DanganRonpa

DanganRonpa LogoBack during Anime Expo in early July, Nippon Ichi Software of America announced that they would be localizing the Vita remake of the first DanganRonpa game. The game, which was originally published on the PSP in Japan, never made it to America before now. I got a chance to sit down with Phoenix Spaulding, the editor working on the project, and David Alonzo, NIS America’s marketing coordinator, to talk about the upcoming game.

To start off, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what it is you do here at NIS?

PS: Yeah, my name is Phoenix Spaulding and I’m one of the editors here. Basically, whenever we work on a game, every game has one translator and one editor that works on it. So all of our translators are basically native Japanese speakers; they do the rough translation and then they hand it off to one of the editors who does some of the fine tuning, you know, making sure all of the text looks nice and reads well, and is prepared for being recorded, if it’s a recorded script, or is ready for release. The main task is editing the script, and on top of that, we help do ESRB submissions or submissions to Sony, or whatever licensor we’re working with to help coordinate the project.

DA: I’m David Alonzo and I’m the marketing coordinator here at NIS.

Are there any other games you’ve worked on?

PS: Well, I’ve been here since 2006, so, yeah, I’ve had a chance. Some of the older titles I’ve worked on and really liked: I worked on the first Prinny action game on PSP, Soul Nomad on PS2, Sakura Wars on PS2 and Wii, more recently I worked on ‎Black★Rock Shooter and Atelier Meruru, and now I’m on DanganRonpa.

Can you tell us a little bit about DanganRonpa for readers who might not be as familiar with what the game is about?

PS: So, I’ll talk about the story first. Storywise, you’re playing this main character named Makoto Naegi, a high school student, who’s been selected to attend the “most elite high school in the country” that is reserved for the most “elite” students in the country. There’s an ultimate baseball star, an ultimate pop sensation – all these people that are best in their field, but they’re all high schoolers. So, you go to the school and it’s your first day, but when you walk in you suddenly feel dizzy and pass out. When you wake up, you find out you’ve been trapped in the school: all the windows are barred, all the doors are barred, and there’s no way out. You and this other group of students sort of find yourself trapped there. While you’re trying to figure out what happened, this crazy-weird robot-bear shows up and basically explains that, if you want to escape the school, the only way to do so is to murder one of your classmates and get away with it.

If you can commit the perfect crime, you alone will be released and everyone else will be killed. So, at the cost of killing them, you’ll gain your own freedom. The catch is that if you kill someone there will be a sort of class trial. If the other people are able to figure out that you did it, then you get punished and executed. After, it sort of goes back to normal, you’re still in the school, and another round begins. It’s basically a murder-mystery — as the main character you, unfortunately, don’t get to murder anyone, but you will be trying to figure out who did it, so you’ll be looking for clues, you’ll be talking to your classmates, and then, when you go into the class trial portion of the game, you’ll be putting together evidence and looking for contradictions in people’s statements. It has sort of a murder-mystery/adventure game feel to it.

Are there any other games that you could perhaps compare it to?

PS: In terms of style, I guess that closest thing that a lot of people would know would be the Phoenix Wright games, where there’s sort of two components: the research and investigative part, and the trial portion. It’s sort of an information game where you have to keep track of a lot of details and look for those little points in the game. It’s also developed by the same guys that did 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, so the gameplay systems aren’t necessarily similar, but the tone and style are very similar to that: very dark, where you can’t really trust anyone and your life is on the line, while you’re sort of under pressure to figure out what’s going on. So, in terms of the feel of it those games would be very similar.

That’s actually kind of interesting, because Spike and Chunsoft were technically two separate companies (Author’s note: they were still owned by the same parent company Games Arena Co.) at the time both DanganRonpa and 999 were developed, but now they’ve merged and both games now have sequels.

PS: Yeah, I’m not super-familiar with their history, but their long-term history is very – like, the kind of games they made are wildly…

Different, yeah.

PS: They’ve done a bunch of really unique stuff. As far as I know, and I’d have to check the specific details, the core team that worked on DanganRonpa is the same core people that did 999, and there’s also a couple similar adventure titles that they did in Japan, but that haven’t been released here. I’m not exactly sure how the Spike half and the Chunsoft half match up, but yeah, it’s really cool and they’ve been doing a lot of really interesting stuff with it.

Yeah, I just found that a really interesting tidbit myself.

You mentioned a bit about how the staffing works for game localization for games like this, so for this particular game is it mostly just you, or you and one other person, or what?

PS: So, the process we do here at the company is, from beginning to end, we always have one sole translator and one sole editor. They are the team throughout the whole thing. So it really starts with the translator: we get the game and we get the script, the translator starts working on it and hopefully there’s enough time for them to play through the whole game, or at least enough of it to get a good sense of what’s going on. At that point, once they’ve translated a certain amount, they start handing material over to the editor and a lot of communication happens back-and-forth between the translator and editor in terms of making sure the tone is right, the characters are understood, and the gameplay elements are right.

For example: my desk and the translator’s desk for this project are literally right next to each other. It’s really easy to communicate; we keep the whole department close, because, depending on the project, the translator and editor will be different. It’s not always the same two people working together, but it’s the same two people the whole way through, from editing the script to the directing decisions in voice recordings for the characters, and this is to make sure the people that worked on the original story can see if the voices are matching up stylistically to the text. Once we get to QA and debug, it’s still those same two people to make sure the game looks the way it was supposed to when they started before.

Having those same two people as a team going from beginning to end with the project ensures that consistency and that feel that “we understand exactly what this was” throughout.

Branching off that, you mentioned voices: Can you tell us if the game is going to have dual-audio?

PS: Yeah, it’s going to have the full Japanese track. Some of our other games in the past, especially some of our bigger RPGs, we’ve had to, just based on the size of the game, cut out different voices here and there from the English side. This is going to have every voice done in Japanese, done in English; it’s going to have the full English track and is also going to have the full Japanese track as an option.

That’s really good to hear. I’m personally a really big proponent of dual-audio.

PS: Yeah, me too! Working at the company it’s kind of tough to balance, because I’ve worked with some really awesome English voice actors and I really like to be able to bring it to life in the language all of our fans understand. At the same time, most of our games get some really high-level, awesome Japanese voice actors and it’s really cool to get to hear that. Especially for someone – I’m not fluent in Japanese, but I speak enough of it that I enjoy listening to it to the degree that I get a certain amount of emotion and intent out of it.

Yeah, you can pick up on intonation and stuff like that pretty easily.

PS: I’m the kind of guy that watches movies in their original language, whether it’s Japanese, French, or whatever. So, I always at least like to have the option. It’s tough to do these days because costs are going up and game sizes are getting crazy. So it’s tough to offer that on every project, but we’re really lucky in that we’ve been able to do that for pretty much everything we’ve worked on. There might be a couple games that we cut stuff out on the Japanese side, but for the most part we’ve been able to offer that and it’s really cool.

Another question about this game, and I don’t know if you’d personally know about this, is how NIS secured the foreign publishing rights for this particular game.

PS: That probably is a little – unless you know anything about that?

DA: That’s like a producer question.

PS: Yeah, that’s a higher level sort of thing.

I kind of figured, but I thought I’d ask. *laughs*

PS: I know that we’ve had cases over the last couple years, like we weren’t able to work with Gust anymore since they were bought by Tecmo Koei and were doing their own thing. But I know that one of our main producers, he’s been in the industry for years and has a lot of contacts, and our other producers go to a lot of meet and greet events to kind of get a feel for what may or may not be possible. When I talked earlier about our process for localizing, we also do something called script parties where we sit everyone down and read through the script from beginning to end, so that everyone on the team sort of has a chance to contribute and make sure everything looks cool. Those two things we actually use as a selling point for our developers in Japan, when we’re looking for new partners, because there’s not a lot of companies here that get to do that. We just big enough that we have enough talent that it’s more than just two people, but we’re also small enough and dedicated enough that we can put dedicated people on it. I think that’s really appealing to Japanese developers – to see that level of devotion from a company like ours.

I’m sure that had something to do with it, and they actually came to us and asked us about this title several months ago. Everyone that knew about it was really interested and excited; we saw how well 999 did and how well people responded to that, Virtue’s Last Reward, and that kind of stuff, and we were like “yeah, we would love to work on this!” So on our side, we had the opportunity and were really excited to try it out.

The primary reason for this question was because Aksys Games got 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, so most people would have expected Spike Chunsoft to turn to them first if they were looking to have DanganRonpa localized. But, obviously that didn’t happen, so we were figuring there must be a reason.

PS: I’m sure there probably is and I’m sure *laughs* we’ll probably never know!

Haha, yeah!

That actually leads a bit into another question: Do you think DanganRonpa‘s kind of semi-cult-hit status has had an impact on whether or not you guys wanted to localize it?

PS: Yeah, it’s interesting! We knew there was a following in Japan and when we had a chance to make a bid for the game, I don’t think we knew just how big that fandom was. We knew it was there, but it was mostly because we’ve never really done a game like this before. It looks really nice; we had gotten a chance to see the Vita remake and it looked so nice. So, we’d been doing a lot with the Vita and wanted to do something that was a little bit outside of our normal wheelhouse. The tone is really different from anything we’ve done and the gameplay is different, but we saw with 999 and VLR that there’s an audience, not just in Japan, but an establishing audience here as well.

It kind of was the right project at the right time for us. It looked really cool and we thought, “Well, it won’t sell 2 million copies or anything, but we think there’s going to be enough people that are into that now.”

Right. Do you happen to know if you guys were trying to get the anime as well, before Funimation grabbed it?

PS: Those were sort of separate. Even in Japan they’re separate entities and I think we looked at it. We do have the anime division, but that anime is kind of bigger. We don’t do a lot of dubbing for our anime – we haven’t done any, actually, haha.

*Laughs* Yeah that’s true. I actually own the release done for Zakuro, myself.

PS: Oh, great! Yeah, the anime we get – I love all the stuff we get here – is generally kind of smaller and the type of stuff that might slip through the cracks. I think Spike Chunsoft wanted something a little bigger and a little more mainstream. But we’ve been talking with Funimation and if they need anything from us, there’s an open line of communication there.

That’s really good to hear that you guys stay in communication with them.

PS: Yeah, it’s nice and I think since we have one developer in Japan that is really dedicated to the series, they probably want to make sure everything is as smooth as possible.

Anyhow, back to the game, I believe the Vita release in Japan is both of the current DanganRonpa titles.

PS: It is, yeah.

Is there a particular reason that you guys are only localizing the first one?

PS: So, the short version of that… we’ve had a lot of fans that have been asking…

DA: So, we pretty much want to see how it does out here first and then maybe…

Right, that’s what I had been speculating.

DA: Even though there are a lot of fans out here for it, we just want to make sure first.

Is the game very text-heavy as well?

PS: Hugely text-heavy and, because we have talked to Japan about the second game, we were getting line counts and the second game is about 50% bigger than the first game. The first game is already one of the biggest projects we’ve done in a while. Doing the first game by itself is enough of a risk, so it would have been basically doing two full games for the price of one. The first game, which some people haven’t realized yet, has another whole chapter in the Vita version. It’s a new school mode that, once you beat the game for the first time, is sort of a “what if” mode depicting what would happen if the events of the game didn’t start and you’re all just hanging out at the school together. There’s new dialogue and relationship tracks, and you get to learn more about these characters.

DA: And this is all playable?

PS: Yeah, I don’t want to give away too much, but there are whole new game modes where you’re doing entirely new activities from the very beginning. New visuals, new play mode, new everything and that was not in the PSP version. So even by itself, the value of that is going to be worth it. The Vita version will also support touchscreen controls, so a lot of the interaction with the game…

I imagine that will be very helpful with the investigative portions.

PS: Especially the class trials because there’s a lot of text-based stuff. There’s a lot of scrolling and you have to find the right words or phrases, and a lot of it you were using the PSP analogue stick for.

Ah, the analogue “nub.”

PS: Yeah, so for this, you can still do everything with the regular controls, but there’s also touchscreen support. They’ve updated the visuals and the visuals look really, really nice on the Vita.

I imagine the OLED screen helps with that.

PS: Yeah, it looks really nice. So I think doing both would have been a little too much risk, and the one by itself is its own experience. People are going to get a good value out of it.

DA: And, if a lot of people like the first one, we could work on the second one.

That would be awesome!

PS: Yeah! I mean, we can’t say for sure either way, but if the first one goes well there’s definitely an opportunity to keep going and I know Spike Chunsoft really wants it to do well over here.

I think most of the fans probably want it to do pretty well, too.

PS: I hope so! I hope everyone goes out and buys 2 or 3 copies, haha.

Haha! I’ve… done that for other games, so…

PS: There’s actually a couple references – I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Monokuma…

Ah, yeah I know what it is.

PS: … there’s actually a kind of easter-egg thing that talks about supporting the game and how many copies you should buy. So, they’re very aware of what they’re trying to do.

Along those same lines, if the title does really well, would you guys be interested in the newly-announced title, or the iOS/Android games?

PS: We haven’t really talked about any of that. I think the main thing right now is to get the first one out and get a sense of – obviously the people that like the game have a very strong feeling about it, but that also has to translate into some kind of financial success. If that shows up, then I think we have the opportunity to check out other stuff. It’s still just a “focus on the first one,” “don’t go crazy” with that, as we’re just about to start debug on the game and that whole process to get the script ready was… “intense.”

*laughs* Particular choice of words?

PS: Haha, yeah. So we just want to see how it does so that’s on the backburner for now. I hope it does well and I hope they make a billion more, because the first one is super fun to work on and just messed-up in all the right ways. So, I would love to work more on that.

Actually, speaking on that: did the content of the game have any effect on difficulties of getting it published in America?

PS: Not really, no. I think the cartoony nature —  it’s all 2D, it’s all vivid manga/anime style. I mean, we’ve done some pretty dark games in the past. I mentioned that one of our games, Soul Nomad, that had a kind of – if you’re familiar with the Disgaea series, it had that same kind of artwork, 2D sprites, but that game dealt with – it literally had suicide, it had child abuse, it had sexual abuse, it had slavery, it was a really, really dark game. But the way it was presented, it wasn’t graphic and it was all story-based, as the story was really important to it.

So yeah, there was never any issue with the content. Internally we never talked about cutting anything out or censoring, and there were never any issues getting it greenlit by Sony.

So you’d say the translation is going to be pretty much true-to-source?

PS: Thinking about the translation now, I don’t think we did anything to soften anything and nothing’s cutout. Our translation is our standard sort of localize what needs to be, such as cultural stuff or jokes that don’t really work here, but the hard edges of the murders or the way people talk to each other is pretty much just the way we think it was intended to sound.

That’s good to hear. I’m not a big fan of things being softened for American audiences.

PS: We didn’t want to, because the visuals alone are enough to – it’s pretty bloody and pretty graphic in terms of what’s going on, so it wouldn’t make sense to try to soften the language used to talk about that stuff. It’s all very character based, so we tried to get a handle on the personalities of each character. I think this is the first game that we’ve used F-bombs. We were really careful about when and where, because it’s really easy to overdo those kinds of things, but there were a couple times where it seemed like “what the heck is this crap” didn’t quite seem to get to the heart of what was going on. So we made a conscious effort; we didn’t want to go overboard with it and go too far, but we didn’t want to pull any punches either.

Is there anything else you’d like to speak about?

PS: I think we’ve pretty much covered it. A lot of people tend to describe [the game] as sort of a visual novel, or that kind of thing, but I think people will be surprised that there’s a lot of hardcore gameplay elements that people don’t realize: there’s a lot of timing-based stuff, once you get to the class trial you’re not just sitting there. It’s very active, you have to be paying attention. There’s a lot more than just sitting there reading a lot of text. There’s a LOT of text, but there’s a lot of gameplay and really cool stuff too. I think anybody who liked the stuff we mentioned — anybody who liked Phoenix Wright, 999, VLR – would really like this game too. I’m really proud of it. I hope it does as well with American fans as it’s done in Japan.

If it does do well, do you think that other companies or yourselves will try to localize more and more titles like that?

PS: I think so. There’s so many of these games in Japan, especially if you go into the straight-up visual novels.

Haha, yeah there’s a ton of those.

PS: Yeah, there’s a reason a lot of them don’t come over. It’s just a lot of them don’t find an audience. It has to have a really good design and really good characters. It’s not going to be like “Oh, visual novels are in now. Let’s grab all the ones we can.” It’s still going to come down to these key companies making really good games like this and if they keep making them, then you’ll see that. I think Aksys has found that they do really well, and even the PSP games like the otome dating-sim stuff seem to find a certain audience here.

It also comes down to platform. With the new consoles coming out, they’re all more supportive of smaller, sort-of indie, outside-the-norm projects, and I think you’re going to see more support for little things like that from the big licensors. And of course with Steam, PC becomes an option. I think there are certainly more avenues for it, but whether the interest is going to be there for an extended period of time is hard to say, but at least I think there’s more options than there were even 3 years ago.

I think digital distribution helps with things like that as well.

PS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I know with DanganRonpa we’re planning a physical release. A lot of our fans are still all about the collector’s edition and physical releases.

I know I at least am. *Laughs*

PS: Yeah, and that’s a huge, huge part of our business, but at the same time having the digital options, there are a lot of people that are moving that way. We like to offer as much physical stuff as we can, but there are people that are like “just give it to me digital, make it cheaper, and get it to me faster.”

(At this point we went on a tangent about the priceline of digital game and the rise of digital distribution and indie games. I’ve discovered that everyone loves buying cheap digital games, go figure!)

I think that’s about it?

DA: We’re planning to release it sometime early 2014.

PS: Oh yeah, I guess a release date might help! Hopefully it’ll push more Vitas, because we have more Vita games coming along. The game’s really cool and I think people are going to really dig it.

I know I’m personally very excited about it.

PS: Good, you should be! It’s really hardcore in terms of the story and the terrible, terrible things that happen to everybody. So, if you like terrible things happening to high schoolers…

Haha, that’s a terrible way to put it!

DA: Haha!

PS: Haha, okay let me try again! If you like doing terrible things to high schoolers… Is that better?

DA: Yeah. *laughs*

*laughs* That’s actually worse!

PS: Damn.

DA: It’s perfect.


PS: Yeah, it’s really over-the-top and it’s awesome.

DA: The character designs are actually really good, too. That one chick…

PS: Which one chick? There’s a lot of one chicks!

DA: The really buff one.

PS: Oh, Sakura, the ultimate martial-artist. Have you seen any of the art or anything?

I’ve only seen – Because I’ve been keeping myself away from spoilers…

PS: Yeah, you should. You really should.

…I have a ton of friends that are crazy about the game, and I’m like “No, don’t tell me anything!”

PS: Yeah, anything—I’ve been trying to think how to do trailers and stuff, because everything is a spoiler. Even if you show something later, just the fact one character is missing is like “well okay, that person’s not there anymore, so clearly…”

All we can show is, like, the first 10 minutes of the game and cut it together in different ways. It’s really tough, but the story’s wild. It does a really good job of dark, but still really entertaining. It’s less of a Saw and more of a Nightmare on Elm Street. The people behind it are so crazy and enjoying themselves as they murder you, that’s it’s hard not to get a little excited. “Yeah, this is kinda fun!”

DA: Getting one-liners while someone’s getting slice apart.

PS: Yeah, it’s brutal, but it’s fun.

Although it is not an official release date, Amazon is currently listing the game to be released on February 11th, 2014. The game is developed by Spike Chunsoft, the makers of 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, and officially has a release date of early 2014.


2 responses to “NIS America’s Phoenix Spaulding and David Alonzo on DanganRonpa”

  1. Margaret Chan Avatar
    Margaret Chan

    I just wanted to say that I found this little gem by lurking in the NISA forums. Thank you!

  2. […] remake that compiled both games into one, calling it Danganronpa 1・2 Reload. As discussed in my interview with Editor Phoenix Spaulding, NIS America is only localizing just the first game of this […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *