No, you're not suffering from déjà vu; this article originally appeared on the site in August this year, and we're republishing it as part of our 'Best of 2018' series which celebrates what we feel were our finest features of the past twelve months. Enjoy!
Kenichiro Tsukuda knows his giant robots. As well as producing the best of the Armored Core series at FromSoftware during the PlayStation 2 era, he's an influential voice with regard to mech games and the lore that surrounds them. It's the reason you'll find his name under the 'special thanks' section of the credits in games like Assault Gunners; a title that this year came to Switch with an HD polish.
The genre he champions, however, has in the past struggled to find a meaningful foothold with a mainstream gaming audience in the west. Mech games have been variously complex and clunky, serving up niche-interest gameplay mechanics. Equally, they been stifled as Japan-only releases, or required hulking controllers like the infamous dual-stick devices for Steel Battalion and Virtual On. Even when Metal Gear visionary Hideo Kojima turned his attention to the genre with the Zone of the Enders series, despite generally positive reviews, hype around the genre faded in the west as quickly as it was established.
Tsukuda is out to change that. With Switch exclusive Daemon X Machina he is devoted to rejuvenating interest in a gaming form that – while long-beloved – has never been anything like as mainstream as the likes of FPSes and action-adventure titles. Nintendo Life caught up with him at Gamescom to better understand what the game is - and whom it is for.
Nintendo Life: You could argue that the mech action genre is relatively constrained by design conventions. There's a lot of expectation about what these games have to deliver. How do you meet that, while also finding room for innovation, fresh ideas and even your own creative freedom?
Kenichiro Tsukuda: It's something I really work hard on. As a key point, I don't think of making a game as some kind of strange magic. Everything about Daemon X Machina – whether it's the weapons, or whether it's the environment in the game – has to have its own internal logic. All those things have to make sense in how they work together. When you get that internal logic right, and it works, and it's consistent, you're already on the right path to giving a satisfying experience for the player. You have to get that foundation right; the foundation of what a mech game is. Then you can add new elements and more elements on top of it. That's where we can innovate and try new ideas that make the game exciting for players.
So a feature of this game, is that when you're playing during the missions, when you defeat enemy mechs you can actually take their weapons and equip them. You can even take the arms – not just the weapons, but the body parts of the mech. You can incorporate them into your mech. So to follow on from my previous point about the internal logic of the game, That allows us to innovate in this way; to let the player take weapons and arms and parts. It was partly inspired by thinking about 3D printing. In a real-world 3D printer you take a material and put it in, and using an existing model, a 3D object comes out the end. The mechs in this game are kind of doing that. When the mechs create a new part from what they have found, they are using a resource: a material available to them in the atmosphere, and 3D printing new parts for themselves. So we've been able to innovate with ideas like that.
And what kind of player do you see this game as being for? Is it a game for a hardcore action game player, or a more casually interested player? Perhaps you don't even think about designing for a certain player, and just develop the game to your own creative vision?
To answer the first part of the question, about who Daemon X Machina is aimed at, we're definitely thinking about a broader audience, rather than just core mech game fans. The mech genre, obviously, has its fan base, and we think that's great. We hope Daemon X Machina will appeal to those hardcore fans as well, but we want to make it broader. Part of how we've tried to do that is by thinking about the importance of the player's humanoid avatar in the game. You can create your own avatar in the game: male or female. And that kind of represents the player in the game world. But more than that, in some missions you play as that character. You're not actually always inside the mech. There are action parts of the game where you're controlling the character. You can also upgrade the character himself or herself, and give the avatar extra skills and abilities, so there's a bit of depth to that aspect. What's more, the upgrades and abilities you give to your character actually transfer across to the mechs when you get in.
So emphasising the human and personal element a little – you hope – will appeal to fans beyond the hardcore mech action game fan?
Absolutely. There's this sense that it's not just your mech that gets bigger and more powerful as you go through the game. You yourself as a player do. That sense of growth and improvement, and expressing that in the game – I think we've managed to capture that quite well. The player's avatar is growing in power with the mech.
And to answer the second part of your question about how I approach designing a game for an audience in the first place, I would say that at the start of the process, I do think about who will be the core target audience for this game. I do consider that. So I start from there; thinking about who will be the core target audience. But obviously, I want my games to be loved by as many different people as possible. Once you've got the core target audience that you start off with, you do kind of expand outwards from that. You know, you add other elements that might appeal to other people as well. I think about it like food. Mech combat is the main ingredient. Other elements are the seasoning you add to the main dish, in a way. The flavours help the main dish appeal to more people.
Customisation seems important to what Daemon X Machina is. There's the customisable avatar you've talked of, and the walls in the mech hanger that you fill with weapons you've collected. Is that part of something more significant, beyond letting players toy with how things look?
We wanted to put some kind of what you could call 'RPG-like elements' into the game, where you collect lots of different weapons and equipment as you go through, and you have to kind of consider – for each mission – the enemies you'll be facing, and what will be the best strategy to defeat those enemies.
So the best load out of weapons and equipment is important. You have a source of energy called Femto energy, and some enemies actually come and – rather than try and go for your XP – they try and suck out your Femto energy. There are items in the game that can prevent that. So there's lots of elements to think about in customising both your avatar character and your mech.
We should talk about the Switch. Mech action games have often done very well on more conventional consoles. How did the Switch's unique hardware offering influence the game's design?
One thing we really wanted for Daemon X Machina was really strong multiplayer, and with Nintendo Switch there's the fact that it's a home console, so online multiplayer is possible. But there's also the fact that you can take it with you. You can meet up with friends and you can quite easily get local multiplayer going. As a console that supports both online and local multiplayer, though, the Switch was really strong in that respect.
And perhaps the mech action genre has been a bit limited as a portable genre?
Perhaps. On the negative side, I feel that people get together less in-person to play games nowadays. There's a tendency – particularly with online multiplayer – to kind of just sit on your own, basically. Again, the Nintendo Switch is the perfect console to bring friends together to play games together, which is definitely something we want with Daemon X Machina.
We should talk about the narrative too. Why are these mechs fighting?
The backdrop of the story is that the moon has fallen from the sky. That's the big catastrophe that has put humanity in danger. But due to that catastrophe, from the moon, this new Femto energy has been discovered. Due to the influence of this Femto energy, the machines and the artificial intelligence that human beings were using have somehow, for reasons unknown, developed their own kind of consciousness, and turned against humanity. So there's a 'man versus machine' thing going on. Humans and the AI, as they are called in the game, are kind of fighting over this Femto energy. Within that backdrop, there are people called 'Outers'. The reason they are called Outers is because they are not regular human beings.
They have kind of absorbed some of this Femto energy, and become slightly superhuman. Due to their difference, they have been cast out of society. But at the same time, they are the ones that are fighting back against the AI. That's the conflict that the player will find themselves in. So in a way, the enemy in the game and those on your own side are all outcasts. The AI and the Outers are both outcast from human society. The drama of the story comes from that.
It would be interesting to hear about level design. How do you make sure the environments keep the gameplay varied and interesting, rather than just being a selection of buildings to trample on or fly over?
In terms of the overall flow of the game, the most important thing I feel is that you as the player get the sense of increasing in power. I tried to build that progression in throughout the missions. Within that, you obviously have to set the level of challenge correctly. There will be times when the player is getting defeated, or is about to be defeated; but in a way that is rewarding, where you will get better and overcome the challenge.
In terms of the actual level design, everyone working on it, from the art design team to the guys actually creating the maps, actually playtests it going through the design process. They put in their own ideas about what is working and what isn't working. One element we actually start with is the range of the weapons. All the other distances in the level design need be based on that; weapon range is the foundation of what is possible with a level. So you have the range of the weapons, and you kind of place objects and obstacles and terrain based on those ranges. Then you place enemies and see how those elements interact with each other. That's the process to make sure the level design gives the player interesting and varied gameplay.
You've spent a lot of time working with mech games. Is there anything you understand now, as a result of making Daemon X Machina, that you'd want to tell your self as a young producer working on your first Armored Core game?
One thing I've learned is that with the mech genre, the player really needs to be able to put him or herself in there; they really need to feel immersed in the game and in the mech. They need to feel like they themselves are in that world, and experiencing it directly. I think I've learned that that is an element that you need for people to really fall in love with the game. That's something we've worked hard on with Daemon X Machina.
I also think back to my past games and think 'why did I aim for that photorealistic visual?', without really thinking about it, or without really considering other options. I look back and wonder why I did it that way. That has influenced the art style of Daemon X Machina a lot.
Thanks to Kenichiro Tsukuda for his time. Daemon X Machina blasts on to the Nintendo Switch in 2019.