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The secrets of Disgaea's decade-long success Exclusive
The secrets of  Disgaea 's decade-long success
March 11, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

March 11, 2013 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

Though he originally planned to be an archeologist, Sohei Niikawa played Final Fantasy V, and that was it -- he wanted to make video games. He set aside his dreams of exploring ancient ruins, and set about building them instead.

Niikawa founded Nippon Ichi Software, which branched out into the U.S. on the strength of a single title, Disgaea -- a surprise cult hit on its Western release, via Atlus, in 2003. Since then, Niikawa has managed to turn the niche it mind -- turn-based strategy RPGs -- into a perpetual success.

This year, Disgaea -- which remains the company's biggest franchise -- turns 10. According to Niikawa, who also serves as the series' producer and writer, as well as being the president of the company, Disgaea now sells as well in the West as it does in Japan. How has his company managed to turn the anime-inflected, stat-driven franchise into an enduring cult hit?

It's the Gameplay, of Course

"Well, it's hard to give an exact reason for why gamers have supported Disgaea for such a long period of time," Niikawa says, when asked. "However, I think part of it comes down to the high-quality gameplay, which encourages and rewards deep, low-level play."

Disgaea's gameplay is both complex and flexible -- that's the key to its success in a nutshell, really. It's not an average turn-based tactical franchise; it's one that allows players to play how they want to, with a slew of tactical options, opportunities to go off the beaten track, and reconfigure their party or their strategy on the fly.

Attracting New Fans

There's a flipside to being so deep and involved -- as its fan base ages, they don't have the time to devote to Disgaea anymore. Attracting new fans is another part of its success.

"The impression I get is that the number of fans who have played through all the games starting with the first one is declining; however, they're being replaced by new people constantly getting into the series. As a result, it seems like there's always been the same ratio of new players versus series veterans for each game," Niikawa says.

"The feeling I have is that maybe about 20 percent of the people that purchase Disgaea each time are new players. That same percentage drops out of the series with each game, and the new people make up for that."

So What Reels Them in?

"The way we think about it is that it's really important that in each game, we provide as much of the sort of content that only we can produce as possible," says Niikawa.

In other words, only Disgaea is Disgaea. Even if it looks superficially similar to other games -- say, Final Fantasy Tactics and a host of other grid-based titles -- it's still unmistakably itself.

This is the cornerstone of the company's strategy for survival, says Niikawa. "If we were just doing what other companies are, there's no reason for us to be around; it wouldn't be necessary at all for us to exist. Instead, we pushed ourselves to provide games that only NIS could produce, and that led to the creation of games like Disgaea."

"We try our hardest to put in all this really ridiculous stuff, the kinds of things other companies would never think of doing, and I think that's one of the biggest trademarks of our company."

When Niikawa says "ridiculous," he is, of course, talking about its farcical story. One of the main features of the franchise is the "Prinny," a human soul trapped, in the afterlife, in the form of an explosive peg-legged penguin -- a perpetual fall-guy for any and all of the series' deranged heroes and villains. But he's also talking about its gameplay -- you can stack characters on the battlefield like boxes, or do tens of millions of points of damage with a single attack.

But... It's Only 80 Percent Ridiculous

In fact, this "ridiculous" character has a very sensible basis: When creating new games in the franchise, says Niikawa, "I think about things like what we can do to please our customers or make them laugh."

When I ask him if the story reflects his sense of humor, he responds, "Well, I'd say about half of it does," and laughs. So it's not just about pleasing himself: it's about pleasing players.

But things can't become unbalanced, he says, or it won't work. "Basically, I think it's fine to have the story be ridiculous, but I also have a respect for the basic things any story needs to have -- parts that emotionally move the player and makes the game stick around in their hearts. Having it be 100 percent ridiculous would get boring, so it's important that you keep a sort of balance like that. It's about 80 percent ridiculous, though."

And when it comes to keeping the series appealing -- and ridiculous -- "the characters help a lot, too, I think," he says.

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Jeremy Reaban
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I think it's the gameplay. When they tried to veer away from it, the games didn't sell nearly as well (and I know I personally didn't play them nearly as much).

Tont Voles
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I adore Disgaea and am currently wading through 3 on the Vita (which is a perfect platform for it). I long for more games to take on its approach to depth and flexibility, or for Nippon Ichi to make a smartphone/tablet take on the formula.

Joseph Anthony B. A. Tanimowo-Reyes
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They actually have made an Android game, but they refused to localize for obvious reasons.

Matthew Mouras
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I'm an idiot. What is the obvious reason?

Keith Thomson
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You had to buy every character you used. You could only make Prinnies for free. That sort of microtransaction milking is a little less popular over here than in Asia.

It also had no storyline at all, and was essentially just the Item World portion of the game. Randomized maps and puzzles.

Glenn Sturgeon
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I have only played the first Disgaea but it came across as a console game with the depth of a pc title.
The mastery of developing the SRPG genre was obvious.

Matthew Mouras
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Absolutely loved the first game. I found myself nodding when he talked about the aging player base. During college, I sunk far more hours into the first game than I care to admit here. Haven't spent that much time with any of the subsequent titles, but I still look forward to each release.

When the original came out, it was a revelation. SRPGs were my favorite types of games in the late 90's. I played a lot of Front Mission 3, Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, etc... Before I got my hands on Disgaea, a friend was telling me about the game over the phone. With each feature he described, I thought, "That's genius! Why hasn't another SRPG developer done that??" It's actually the game that finally convinced me to buy a PS2.

Keith Thomson
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Other than the first one, I've spent increasing amounts of time with each new entry in the series. 131 hours for the first, 30 hours on the second (Only beat the storyline, didn't do anything else.) 60 hours on the 3rd, and over 200 hours on the 4th. They seem to be getting easier to break with time, and thus more addictive. I've wrapped my characters around through lvl 9999 on Disgaea 4 several times, reincarnating back to 1 and starting all over again. Other than D1, the stories have been getting better as well. (D1 was better than D2.)

wes bogdan
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Of course it's the gameplay,not just because i analize/created my own control scheme either, but we can't leave out the humor and outside of something like borderlands OR sr the 3rd even uncharted most games series are places with 0 humor though while cod,halo,gears or kz are nice games with real humor,depth of play and character's people care about is it any wonder disgaea rules ..i leave it in japanese with subs which makes it even stranger and some things just don't translate wel in english dub.

I also have valkyria chronicles and generally prefer games with personality to simply look at my new shiny graphics.

William Pitts
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The story hooked me for the first one, and now I look forward to the almost looney tunes antics of the characters. If we had a few more games that didn't take themselves so seriously it would make for more fun. Been playing games for a while, and those that stick in my mind are the ones that didn't always do the traditional. Of course there are a few staples I'll always play.

Christian Nutt
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Kind of an interesting contrast -- the fact that the story/presentation is fundamentally unserious while the gameplay is deep (and we can say depth = seriousness from a design perspective.)

Arthur De Martino
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The power of the SRPG is a great one indeed.