The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Interview

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This is an excerpt from the book "The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers Volume 1" by John Szczepaniak, featuring in-depth interviews with people from the Japanese game industry.

The full 11800-word interview can be found in the book (Paperback & Kindle). The book was also available as part of StoryBundle's "Summer Video Games" DRM-free e-book bundle from June 24 to July 17, 2015 4:00 UTC.

Interview excerpt[edit]

Interview with ZUN - extract from The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers
By John Szczepaniak

Interview with ZUN, aka Junya Ota
25 October 2013, Tokyo

When I was first asked to interview ZUN, the challenge intrigued me. The doujin scene was something I definitely wanted to cover, given that it's even less well documented in English than mainstream Japanese games, and certainly ZUN is as iconic a doujin figure as any. However, he's also very difficult to get hold of. Fortuitously, I met him at Sony's Indie Stream event, when I was chatting with Yoshiro Kimura. We were discussing our planned interview when ZUN walks up, along with a collection of fans and well wishers - he and Mr Kimura had long been friends. After this Mr Kimura acted as my liaison, arranging our interview. I was to meet ZUN at the Shinjuku blood bank, where we would then retire to a coffee shop for refreshment and talk.

—John Szczepaniak, author of The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers


<we order beverages, coffee for myself and beer for ZUN>

JS: Maybe I should ask the last question first. Have you ever tried British real ale?
ZUN: <smiles> Yes, yes, I have!

JS: What do you think of it?
ZUN: I like real ale style beers. I think it's best suited for when it's cold in the winter. So I think it's maybe a winter ale. But in the summer, when it's hot, you've got to drink Japanese beer.

JS: What was the first game you played?
ZUN: Well, we used to have these game cafes in Japan, and there was Space Invaders, or classic games like that. I can't remember exactly which one was the first I played. But the ones where they had a table, and the game would be in the middle of the table.

JS: When did you want to create your own?
ZUN: It wasn't a matter of looking at a game and thinking, "I want to make something like that." I really played games my whole childhood, it was my main interest. When I came to university in Tokyo that's when I lived on my own, and that's when I had the opportunity and the time to start making games. In terms of when did I want to start making games, I think that desire has always been in me.

JS: What did you study at university?
ZUN: My major was mathematics.

JS: Which coding language did you start with?
ZUN: The first thing I learnt was C.

JS: Before Highly Responsive to Prayers, did you make any other games?
ZUN: I made a handful of games before the first Touhou, but I never released them. Some of them I showed to my friends, but they weren't official releases. The first game I ever made was a copy of Puyo Puyo. <laughs>

JS: Awesome. Do you still have this game?
ZUN: <laughs> I don't know if I still have the data! The computer I made that one on is gone, so I don't know.

JS: I'm sure a lot of people would be interested in seeing these pre-Touhou titles.
ZUN: I'm sure they would be. I don't know where the other games are. I'm sure if I hunted for them I might be able to find them, but...

JS: You started with a PC-98, but in 1996 it was on the way out, being replaced by Windows computers in Japan. Why start on PC-98?
ZUN: I honestly didn't really consider Windows computers when I made the first Touhou games. Windows didn't have things like DirectX back then. I just didn't see it as a platform for game development. The games that I knew had all been done on different systems. Some people owned a computer, like a PC-98 or an X68000, exclusively for games. Making them on the PC-98 seemed very logical and very natural to me.

JS: Between each game in the Touhou series, do you re-use parts of the source code and engine?
ZUN: There's a break for the code, and it's when I switched to Windows development from the PC-98. So that was between Mystic Square in 1998 and The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil in 2002. Those two have no similar code, and it was completely from scratch again. But since then the mechanics, the very core engine, is the same. So I change it, and I improve it, but there is some code which I wrote in 2002 that still exists in recent Touhou entries as well.

JS: What are some of your favourite older games?
ZUN: <laughs> There's a huge amount of games that I really like from the old days, so this may get out of hand! It's very hard to choose. But I have an answer that I always give in this situation. Of course, it's Super Mario Bros. That's what I tell people, but really choosing my favourite game from that era is essentially impossible. I really can't do it.

ZUN's sketch of his room as of 2013

JS: You're a one-man creator, you create all the games in your house?
ZUN: Yes, I do it in my house.

JS: Can I have a layout sketch?
ZUN: Ah, OK! That's fine, sure. <laughs> Just my office?

JS: Sure, or the whole house, whatever you like.
ZUN: It really all happens in one room. There is a computer, some bookcases, a chair, and a fridge.

JS: What's in the fridge?
ZUN: Beer! <laughs> It's my beer fridge.

JS: Any particular brand?
ZUN: At the moment, I'm really into premium malts. It changes from time to time, but right now it's premium malts. There's a lot of bookshelves, and it's mostly things to do with programming, games, stuff like that. There's two computers and two screens. I have one computer for development, and one computer for debugging. I have a musical keyboard here for making game music... and that's it. It's just a 6 tatami mat room. That's Kantouma mats, which are different from the size of the mats in Kyoto. Anyway... 6 tatami mats.

JS: There's a lot of characters in the Touhou series. One estimate I heard is there are over 150 characters. Is that true? The majority also appear to be cute girls.
ZUN: I don't know how many characters there in the series. <laughs> I've never counted. I'm fairly confident that the fans' counting of them on the internet is probably accurate. So, sure, 150 perhaps. In terms of why there are more girls in the series than men, that's definitely a conscious design decision that I made. I believe that the play style of danmaku games has a feminine aspect to it. It's not a toe-to-toe contest of strength; you don't simply run up and pummel the enemy.

With danmaku, I'm trying to make games that are beautiful. The way the bullets move, the way the game is played, it's a visual spectacle, and I think it has beauty in it. When you think of beauty as a general thing, you tend to think of women rather than men, so it's more a case of... I think danmaku and the games I create are more about aesthetics than they are about action. Although they feature bullets, they're not about guns. Something that I think maybe people assume, is that I put a lot of girls in because it's what my fans want, but that's not the case. That has nothing to do with it. I think that putting in characters absolutely has an effect on the gameplay and on the game's design. They're not arbitrary at all, they're part of the design of the game.

JS: I wanted to ask about Comiket. Can you describe your memories of it?
ZUN: The reason I chose Comiket is because, as a one-man development team, it was the only way that I knew of which would give me the opportunity to sell my games. I wasn't comparing it to anything. Also now, through [online] services you can upload games to be downloaded at any gigabyte size. But back when I was making the original Touhou stuff, people could not get hold of games that were so big. So it had to be physical distribution. It had to be hand to hand. When I thought about what kind of environment I can do that in, Comiket was the only one that I knew about. Even now, Comiket is the only place I can really think of where I can distribute physical copies, with actual game packaging. I get enjoyment from handing the product over to the customer, and seeing them face to face. It's part of what I enjoy with this whole process. So I think even if I do go digital, I will always do boxed distribution as well.

JS: Can you remember the first time you sold something at Comiket? Do you have photos?
ZUN: <laughs> The first time was 1997, and I do remember it, since it was obviously the first one for me, and it was a big deal. I would say one thing that definitely struck me... I took about 30 copies of the first Touhou game, and 50 copies of the second, so about 80 copies together, to sell. And I really thought to myself, there's no way I'm going to sell these, no one is going to be interested. But I sold them all, and I sold them rather quickly.

JS: Has it changed over the years?
ZUN: I think the fundamental, underlying idea and the design of Comiket has not really changed much. I would say the scale has gotten bigger, in terms of fans attending and also vendors. In addition, the number of foreign people who visit is going up. I think it's become more open. But I think that the concept of Comiket has remained more or less the same since I started going in 1997. Back when Comiket was a more underground phenomenon, doujin material was more likely to be considered questionable in terms of copyright and legality. People would make doujin stuff, and while it wasn't exactly illegal, it existed in a sort of grey area of copyright. So Comiket used to have a more secretive, underground kind of feel. But now Comiket is much more open, and people don't worry about that as much. Now that doujin games are an established genre, there's a lot of original content, so that's not a problem. In fact, I think that doujin game creators can afford to be a little more bold. Hmm... How should I put this? Obviously illegal content should not be distributed, but I don't think there are enough "secondary games" in the doujin game world. It's a delicate issue.

A word from expert Matt Fitsko

When Comiket began in the 1970s, the attendees were overwhelmingly women buying and selling secondary manga works as well as original creations (including quite a bit of yaoi, or Boy's Love). Perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising, given that women have always played a leading role in fanfiction communities in the West too. When it comes to risqué content, women invented "slash fiction" pretty much single-handedly. Contrary to popular conceptions, even today the majority of doujin creators selling work at Comiket are women, around 60% as of Comiket #84 (summer 2013). Historically speaking, female doujin creators at Comiket have generally outnumbered their male counterparts by more than 2:1. The demographics likely skew towards men for doujin games and software in particular, but it's important to note that a huge chunk of overall doujin output, even the really hardcore stuff, is actually created and consumed by women.

Comiket is much more open now, and doujin circles are much less afraid of falling afoul of copyright law, so there's more secondary work than ever. Some people on the commercial side of things are openly embracing the doujin community. For example, there's the manga artist and former doujin Ken Akamatsu, who designed a special "doujin-allowed" watermark for commercial artists to print on their works, similar to the Creative Commons license. For manga with this mark, doujin circles are free to create any secondary works they want, for free or for sale, without fear of reprisal from the copyright owner.

ZUN remarks that there aren't many secondary doujin games, which is certainly true compared to the plentiful secondary doujinshi (magazines and comics). Perhaps it's because companies like Nintendo are so trigger-happy with C&D letters when it comes to fan-made games. The two Chrono Trigger fan games that were shuttered are famous examples in the West, but this has happened within Japan, too. EG: There was a Power Stone-esque Haruhi Suzumiya doujin game. It wasn't pornographic, but for some reason Kadokawa shut it down. Touhou has by far the single largest collection of secondary doujin games. Touhou is unique in that whereas most secondary doujin works are based off a mainstream commercial property, such as a popular anime, with Touhou the original work is itself doujin. Touhou has flourished because of ZUN's lenient attitude towards derivative material based on his work. As he indicates, he would like to see more secondary doujin games based on commercial works.

JS: After joining Taito, did they know that you continued to make doujin games? Did they approve of it? Is that why you developed under a pseudonym?
ZUN: When I first started I did hide it. Taito [had] a rule that you were not really supposed to do it. But I think the people who did it, just did it anyway. But that's not the reason I left Taito at all. It was unrelated, just to make that clear. <laughs> Taito didn't forbid me to work on Touhou. In fact, they asked me if I would be willing to release Touhou as a regular arcade game, under Taito's brand. I flat-out refused. "NO!" <laughs> But even after that, they didn't explicitly say that I couldn't produce doujin games. We weren't really supposed to work on personal projects, but most people at the company looked the other way.

JS: Were there any new mechanics in a Touhou game which you experimented with, but were scrapped? Could you describe these mechanics?
ZUN: Yes, absolutely. There have been some things that I wanted to put in. One was something which I named the "net gallery" - and the idea was to have a system where, when you were playing, you were connected to the internet and then other players could watch you play. It would also have a very basic messaging system, so that if you got hit the viewers could send a message saying "unlucky" or something. I was thinking about that back in, maybe 2005 or so? There are games that have that functionality now, but I think I was considering it a few years ago. It did not happen in the end, but it was something I thought could be interesting.

JS: Do you consider yourself doujin or indie? Is there a difference?
ZUN: I'm getting asked that a lot recently. I would say that indies, the indie boom if you will, came from the West. A few years ago, I started hearing stories about how popular indie games were becoming in the West. And I thought to myself that the content of indie and doujin games is quite similar. Doujin encompasses a lot of non-commercial activity, whereas I believe that indies need to succeed.

A word from expert Matt Fitsko

The line between indie and doujin is blurring in Japan, but there's still a recognizable distinction between indie games ('インディーズ'), which are treated as a relatively new phenomenon mostly occurring in the West, and the traditional doujin scene, which has been continuously churning behind the scenes since the 1970s. Indies are seen as an exciting new commercial phenomenon, a reaction to overstuffed AAA game development, and a harkening back to small and medium-sized development studios that have been disappearing for the last decade. This manner of thinking leads Inafune to say that the original Mega Man games were essentially "indie" games, for example. They were created in a small-scale, creativity-first development environment that rarely exists today. On the other hand, doujin suggests a truly amateur style of creative activity (in the literal sense of amateur; "for the love of the art"), one that is closer to the label "fandom" in English. Doujin material is sold among fans, but in tiny quantities, and rarely in the expectation of actual profit (according to a 2010 report, only around 10% of doujin creators make over 20'000 yen (~$2'000) in profit by selling goods at Comiket, while about 70% actually lose money). Success and recognition is not really a factor, and the doujin games that have broken out to mainstream success (Higurashi, Corpse Party, Yatagarasu) are the rarest exceptions.

JS: I love the English titles to your games. Do you choose them by yourself?
ZUN: That's right, I do. But generally speaking it's not the same as the kanji, for the title. I look at the story and then I try to find words which link to the story.

JS: Do you own a PS3 or Xbox 360?
ZUN: Yes, I have a Wii, a WiiU, a 360 and a PS3.

JS: Are you going to buy the new ones?
ZUN: I probably will. But I don't even know if the Xbox One is going to come Japan. It does not seem so popular. But I'll probably buy a PS4.

JS: It might be the reverse situation with the Xbox One. Where Japanese fans have to import a machine, similar to how Europeans imported the PC Engine and so on, back in the day.
ZUN: The PC Engine didn't come out abroad?

JS: It came out in America, as the TG-16, and there was a tiny amount sold in PAL territories.
ZUN: And the PC-FX?

JS: It wasn't sold outside Japan at all.
ZUN: It didn't sell inside of Japan!

<everyone laughs intensely>

JS: How do you feel about foreign fans creating patches to translate your games into English?
ZUN: I don't have a problem with it at all. Obviously, since I can't speak English, I can't make the games in English. It's great, it lets more people play the games. I'm very grateful.

JS: Something I ask every interviewee about is pseudonyms, or nicknames. Tell me about ZUN.
ZUN: In terms of why I don't use my real name, it's a cultural thing. In doujin culture, I think most developers do the same. That's why I chose to use a pseudonym. In terms of why I chose ZUN, well my real name is Junya, and ZUN sounds like the Jun part.

JS: According to the Touhou Wiki pages, your name is related to Taito's Zuntata? Is that true?
ZUN: No, there's no connection. The Wiki page is wrong.

JS: We've spoken about your games. A lot of people love the music. Tell me about that.
ZUN: Originally I belonged to the concert band, or orchestra club, while in school. The ultimate reason why I created Touhou is because I wanted to make game music at first. I was more interested in making music for games rather than the games themselves. So I made all this music, and I thought great, I'll find someone's game and put it in. But I didn't know anybody who was actually making games. So the next thing I thought was, right, I better make a game for this music to be used in.

JS: I've never heard this before! Is there any final message you'd like to give?
ZUN: What I'd like to say is, Touhou is currently not being released overseas. It's a shame, because I know there are a lot of fans out there, I know that it's a name that has a following. It is something I'm thinking about, it is something I want to do. If it does happen, please, I hope you enjoy the titles that come out in the West as well.