I’ve noticed something funny on my two trips to Japan: It’s hard to find accessorries for my big-screened gadgets. I tend to lumber around with a pluz-sized iPhone and an XL Nintendo 3DS in tow, but any cases, skins, decals or screen protectors on sale in Tokyo retailers like the 10-story mega-store Don Quijote are for the smaller versions of these devices only. As a culture Japan values efficient use of space, with dense but smart design infiltrating every corner of life, from Don Quijote’s packed, labyrinthine shelves to the sink in my hotel bathroom that doubles as the showerhead.
That efficiency extends to the country’s vast gaming culture. It’s surprisingly rare to see a 3DS, a Sony PS Vita, or Nintendo’s new Switch—easily the biggest portable system in recent memory—in use on the crowded Tokyo metro. Traditional Japanese video games have been hugely influential on global gaming culture, thanks largely to companies like Nintendo, Sega, Sony and Square Enix, but tiny phone games have taken over Japan.
Among the most popular is GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragons. The game has relatively limited influence in the Western world, but here in Japan it’s the focus of the GungHo Festival, an annual expo attended by thousands of avid enthusiasts who all have one thing in common: They love pushing balls around their tiny screens.
On first glance P&D seems similar to more familiar games like Candy Crush and Bejeweled. Its colorful grid of orbs, which takes up the screen’s lower half, invites finger wagging and dragging, and there’s tactile glee in the successive pops when same-colored circles touch briefly before dissolving. They make room for more orbs, which fall into place from the top of the grid. Rinse, repeat.
Where Puzzle & Dragons differentiates itself is the action on the top half of the screen. There your party of monsters does battle, their attacks dictated by the combos you pull off below. Playing well means manipulating the entire board with serpentine swipes, stacking the field in your favor to unleash epic offensive combos. Defeat bosses, earn new monsters, upgrade your party, spend real money on in-app purchases. These are the ingredients of mobile-gaming obsession.
P&D put developer GungHo Online Entertainment on the map in Japan. The company that would become GungHo was founded in 1998 and didn’t turn to gaming until 2002, when it began hosting the Japanese server of a Korean game called Ragnarok Online. They published smaller games over the next decade, but after Ragnarok they didn’t have another hit until Puzzle & Dragons in 2012. By the year after the game’s release, GungHo was reporting $1.6 billion in revenue, with P&D responsible for 91 percent of it. It was the first mobile game in history to hit $1 billion earned.
GungHo has expanded since then. Puzzle & Dragons was created by a team of six developers, led by the company’s founder and CEO, Kazuki Morishita. Now GungHo employs hundreds, with offices in Tokyo and L.A. and multiple subsidiaries, including the well-known game developer Grasshopper Manufacture. Grasshopper is known for edgy games like Killer 7, No More Heroes, Lollipop Chainsaw and, most recently, Let it Die, all created by the mysterious and cult-worshipped designer Goichi “Suda51” Suda.
Suda’s influence on the global gaming scene is significant. His games may have niche followings compared with your average blockbuster, but he’s a household name for hardcore gamers. Suda can be categorized with other Japanese game designers like Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima, Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, and The Last Guardian creator Fumito Ueda: enigmas to the Western audiences who obsess over their games.
For GungHo, Suda represents something important. Grasshopper’s acquisition by GungHo in 2013 and Let it Die’s modest success lend the latter a degree of credibility in the global hardcore gaming world, where mobile games like Puzzle & Dragons—ones that are free to download and rely heavily on getting players to spend more money as they go—are viewed with more suspicion here than in Japan.
Let it Die, Grasshopper and GungHo’s first jointly developed game, itself is rare for being free to play despite launching on a full-fledged console like the PS4. It’s an experiment in how receptive Grasshopper fans around the world might be to the newer, often insidious business model. Now it’s been downloaded more than 3 million times since it launched late last year on PlayStation 4, and it’s earned a reputation for allowing cautious and skilled players to enjoy it without having to cough up much cash. GungHo views it as a success.
Not that it would matter were it otherwise. As one American GungHo employee explained to me on this trip, thanks to Puzzle & Dragons the company currently has more money than they know what to do with. I was surprised to learn that GungHo Fest exists in the first place, much less that they wanted to fly me out to Tokyo. There I’d spend a day at the festival, take a tour of the office and interview prominent GungHo executives and designers, and learn what kind of night out you can have in Tokyo when the money pouring in from your mobile game makes you richer than God.
One of the most prominent facets of Japanese culture is the country’s devotion to perfection. The word kaizen describes the universal ideal of continuous improvement, of always working hard to better yourself, to reach closer to that unobtainable perfection. In Japan, whatever you’re doing, your goal is to be the best at it. That of course holds true for Japanese game developers, who tend to obsess over every tiny detail until they feel their work is as close to perfection as possible.
Fumito Ueda’s work on just three games over the past 16 years (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian) has earned him a reputation as one of the most distinctive game designers alive. He told me in an interview last year that “you’re never going to be fully satisfied with what is in that box—what’s completed and put out there.” He had been working on The Last Guardian, which shortly thereafter launched to modest critical acclaim, for around a decade.
At GungHo Fest, this philosophy manifested in strange ways. In the current age of online gaming, most video games are never truly complete, with patches, updates and expansions still arriving sometimes years after a game’s initial release. That holds doubly true for constantly evolving, always-online “service” games like Puzzle & Dragons and Let it Die. Unlike narrative-driven games that have a beginning, middle and end, these experiences are designed to incentivize players to constantly and consistently revisit them. They’re not unique to Japan; Bungie’s Destiny is a good example in the west. But the way the developers talk about Let it Die is unlike anything I’ve experienced here.
There was the panel during the festival that saw a gaggle of costumed superfans—including comedians, writers, a member of an idol group and a voice actress—take the stage with GungHo CEO Morishita and Let it Die director Hideyuki Shin to discuss the game’s current state, some six months after its release. GungHo America personnel crouched with me in the large photographers’ dugout between the stage and the presses of fans, who minutes earlier had been bobbing their heads to a performance by an up-and-coming idol group called J☆Dee'Z, yes, with a star in between the “J” and the “D.” They were just one of several idol and pop-metal groups with songs on Let it Die’s soundtrack who performed throughout the day.
Urged on by a host I was told is a comedian, the panelists presented fan art and debated what annoys them most about Let it Die. Is it how the game’s imperfect control scheme causes you to sometimes drop-kick an escalator instead of boarding it, or how every song on the soundtrack is titled “Let it Die” because the game’s sound director, famed game music composer Akira Yamaoka, thought it would be funny? They could have acquired yet another subsidiary with the swear-jar proceeds from how many times they lovingly called Let it Die “shitty”—as interpreted by my beleaguered translators, at least. Morishita and Shin laughed along with the audience, suppressing grins, and closed the panel with the announcement of a new partnership with the Sony-published game Gravity Rush.
I couldn’t help contrasting this casual tone and easy self-deprecation with another game event I’d attended recently: the previous week’s Destiny 2 reveal bonanza. The designers and executives from developer Bungie and publisher Activision who took the stage in that hollowed-out Los Angeles airplane hangar cracked some jokes, but they spent more time congratulating themselves and everyone in the room on partaking of the Best and Most Important Video Game Ever Made. That kind of self-aggrandizing is so common in what I know to be the video game industry that I barely thought twice about it—until some of the most successful game developers in Japan sat onstage and chuckled as a panel of experts called Let it Die “shitty” over and over again.
I and the two other western reporters who’d been present asked Morishita, Shin and Let it Die producer Shuji Ishikawa about that refreshing humility at the company’s centrally located skyscraper headquarters the following day.
“It shows how much we love this game,” Morishita and Shin said together. “It’s a different expression of love, I guess you could say,” our translator added. “The people on the stage were really people who are into the game. They really do love this game, even for everything. Despite all the flaws, they still love this game. Despite calling it ‘shit,’ they still love this game.”
“This is something that we take pride in doing: really paying attention to details to make sure we have an ultimately great product,” Morishita said. They’re aware that obsessing over every detail—always chasing perfection—isn’t the most efficient way to work. But it’s their way.
GungHo’s main office lies partway up a towering skyscraper in spitting distance of the sprawling Tokyo Station, a hub of travel, commerce and fantastic eating. The office spans multiple floors, including a corner cafe with a jaw-dropping view of the city (not to mention a phone booth-sized indoor vaping space) and a single large room in which all the members of developer Grasshopper Manufacture work sitting side-by-side at long tables. That includes Yamaoka, Grasshopper’s sound director and famed composer, and Shin, Let it Die’s director, who showed us his desk with arms spread wide. Suda51’s personal collection of Batman figurines and other memorabilia, including the rare Japan-only Nintendo 64 Disk Drive system released in 1999, occupy the shelves in one corner of the room.
Compared with the gaudy spaces inhabited by the American developers I’ve visited—Bungie has a large rock-climbing wall in their Bellevue, Washington office—GungHo and Grasshopper’s offices are downright austere, the rooms clinically clean, a modest selection of awards shelved against one wall in the lobby. Their main meeting room, used to impress business associates and foreign journalists, is slightly warmer, with brick walls, a surfboard in one corner, art on the walls, and three chandeliers dangling over a dark wood table.
Being game developers in Japan, where video games lack most of whatever cultural stigma on them remains in the western world, has plenty of perks. These executives and designers dress like rock stars—in particular Shin, the director, with his distinctive white blazer, Clubmaster glasses, perfectly sculpted beard, slicked-back hair and enormous gold watch. I was told later, as we drank and laughed and sang karaoke in one of Tokyo’s famous hostess clubs, that Morishita had designed the outfit for Shin to make him seem cooler. “It worked,” I told them.
Someone whispered that this was one of the most expensive hostess clubs in the city. My heart began to race.
Still, our hosts remained reserved through to the end of the long day of interviews, when we were ushered into a pair of private black cars and ferried to a private room at Tsukiji Jisaku, a secluded, traditional Edo-mae style restaurant. That means kicking off your shoes, sitting on Tatami mats and leaning back as kimono-clad women serve you some of the most delicately prepared, unbelievably delicious food in existence.
I’d been warned about a couple of things ahead of time. The first was that Morishita adheres strictly to the Japanese custom that dictates no one refill their own glass. He follows this so strictly that any time my sake glass hit the table, he was ready to top me off. I repaid that courtesy, and the conversation got easier. Through our gracious translators we talked about my tattoos, which are still largely taboo in Japan; about the vegetarian food I eat whenever I’m not being treated to free sashimi in the heart of Tokyo; and about David Bowie and their Japanese equivalent, a singer named Kiyoshiro Imawano, who died in 2009.
The second thing I’d been warned of: that Morishita would insist on taking me to a hostess club. According to the internet, these distinctly Japanese clubs are indulged in mainly by salary men and executives with foreign visitors to impress. After ample amounts of research I determined the experience would probably be mostly harmless, and I raised no objection as we exited the restaurant and re-entered those private black cars.
Sitting next to Yamaoka, the composer who gamers around the world hold in high esteem for his work on the seminal Silent Hill series, in the backseat of a private car on our way to what I had guessed would be a pretty nice hostess club was somewhat surreal, but my feet really left the ground when he mentioned, through our dogged translator, that he actually had no idea where Morishita was taking us. As the cars pulled up outside a decadent facade and we were ushered into a cramped elevator by men in tuxedos, someone whispered to me that this was one of the most expensive hostess clubs in the city. My heart began to race.
It turns out what you read online is true: A hostess club is just like any other bar, except for the beautiful, cocktail dress-adorned Japanese women whom you’re paying to hang out with you. I made conversation with women on my right and left in a room that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a medium-nice L.A. karaoke bar, besides the hostesses and the never-ending flood of Suntory whiskey. The men in the room joked and bragged, and the hostesses laughed and applauded at every opportunity. I was informed the next morning (fine, afternoon) that they put whiskey in the water, too, so even when you think you’re hydrating you’re really just getting drunker. That explained why, when handed the mic, I couldn’t muster the composure to do even the chorus of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools.”
As we left in the early hours of the following morning, one hostess who’d sat by my side the whole night asked me if I remembered her name. Of course I didn’t. She handed me a box of fancy French cookies anyway. It was a gift, she explained. Courteous to the end, I thought, and I got back in that ominous black car for the final time.
The one question to which I never got a satisfying response was, I thought, pretty simple: What is Suda up to?
Grasshopper’s resident video game auteur had last appeared in public during Nintendo’s January event to reveal the Switch console. He took the stage to announce the return of Travis Touchdown, the hero of the cult hit No More Heroes, in an unnamed and unspecified future Switch game. The presentation was incredibly awkward, thanks to a live translator who was completely flummoxed by Suda’s dramatic mannerisms and his refusal to stick to the script.
“The title hasn’t been decided yet, but just about a year ago, I’ve been going to some events—some gaming events in Japan,” the translator stammered. “I’ve been discussing with—exchanging ideas with the indie game community, and we’ve been discussing about ideas for the new Nintendo Switch console.”
My journey to GungHo and Grasshopper HQ would provide me an unprecedented opportunity to find out what the hell he was trying to say, or so I’d hoped. That was despite being told repeatedly that Suda wouldn’t be available for interviews.
It turns out the elusive designer isn’t present in much of the day-to-day around the studio. He was involved with the initial creation of Let it Die’s world and characters, but he has little to do with the game’s ongoing upkeep. And he was focused for a time on last year’s quiet re-release of the 1999 Grasshopper game The Silver Case.
In the west, when a big publisher buys a small studio, they often suck the creative life out of the developers until they either conform and earn a profit or die quietly in a boardroom 18 months later. That’s not how these things go down in Japan, I was told. I rephrased my question, prodding slightly to find out what kind of dynamic might exist between Morishita and Suda, whom I had imagined as demanding overlord and rebellious subject, given that the former’s company acquired the latter’s studio just a few years ago.
“It’s almost like, a band has a frontman, but there’s so much more going on with the other parts…” I said. My subjects, on the other side of that dark wood table, groaned audibly as the translator did his work.
“Because we’re two different kinds of designers, we don’t really butt heads anywhere in that sense, and that’s actually quite good, because I’m focusing on the game systems and he focuses on how it looks,” Morishita explained. “We’re not really in each other’s hair too much.”
I was resolved to be content with that decidedly unsexy answer, but Suda continued to occupy my thoughts as we entered the elevator to head to dinner. One floor down, the doors opened. You’ll never guess who walked through them.
Suda looked around at the occupants, his eyes growing slightly wider as he took in the three western reporters standing behind him. He made what I’d later be told was the definition of small talk with the PR lady accompanying us and, on the ground floor, walked swiftly off into the burgeoning twilight.
That didn’t come close to answering my questions, but the moment, like the man’s work, was strangely poetic.