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The Soulcalibur series has become an institution since it debuted -- as one of the important games for Sega's ill-fated Dreamcast, it became essential for hardcore gamers, and its sequel, which debuted on Gamecube, Xbox, and PlayStation 2 with Link, Spawn, and Tekken's Heihachi, respectively, as guest characters.
Well, maybe it's not quite the institution it used to be. The series is still going strong, and despite obvious commercial success with the fourth installment, which debuted in 2008, it wasn't the best in the franchise -- something proved by the fact that Namco Bandai is clearly positioning Soulcalibur V as a revitalization of the series. It's set to debut on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 next year.
In this interview, producer Hisaharu Tago talks to Gamasutra about the development of 3D, weapons-based fighting games, how the company perceives the series and its setting, and why it decided to work with an external developer, the Fukuoka-headquartered CyberConnect 2 (Solatorobo, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm) for the story mode for the upcoming game -- and how the team is "basically changing everything" about the new game, in Tago's words.
There aren't many weapon-based fighting games at all. What do you think's important in a weapon-based fighter as opposed to a fists-and-feet game?
Hisaharu Tago: Well, at the base level, your hands and feet are two of the most basic weapons that any human being possesses. Generally, though, the moves you can pull with them are well-known: punches, kicks, grabs and so on.
Weapons unlock more variety -- slashing, piercing, throwing, and more -- and also allow for longer-range moves, all of which adds a larger element of possible strategy to the gameplay and makes for a more exciting visual package than plain martial arts.
How do you balance between characters with long weapons, and others with shorter ones that need a method of confronting their opponent more quickly?
HT: This would be something that the director would be more familiar with, but generally, in a hand-to-hand fighting game, you have characters with long and short reaches, and it's part of the strategy behind each fighter to learn how to use your unique skills to fend off each opponent.
When weapons enter the picture, this becomes all the more obvious. If a character like Ivy has a spear or some other long weapon, then she'll have a longer reach, but the weapon will be heavier and take longer to attack with.
Meanwhile, someone with a smaller weapon can close in and attack multiple times before the opponent can mount a defense. The best way of thinking about it is that you aren't balancing out these things as a whole, but instead balancing out the individual traits of each character. You want each aspect to have a role, and it's important to keep that in mind.
You also make a mental leap because you're using blades that aren't actually cutting people. Do you ever worry about that kind of stuff?
HT: I do think that's something Soulcalibur needs to tackle in the future. The thing with that is, if a character actually took an appropriate amount of damage for the weapon he was hit with, he wouldn't be able to respond in any sort of quick manner. He'd wind up taking more hits and the fight would just get worse for him. That'd be realistic, but in a fighting game that'd mean whoever strikes first wins.
Right now Soulcalibur has the same general taste as a punch-and-kick fighter, but if the series evolves in the future, we'd like to have the game more centered around the weapons used in it. Doing that right now, though, would just confuse our audience.
The other weapon-based fighter that people often remember is Bushido Blade, where they did try to do that. Would there ever be, like, a Soulcalibur Gaiden that goes that way?
Fighting games tend to put characters in these ridiculous outfits that one couldn't actually fight in. Does that matter to you much, or does presentation take priority over realism here?
HT: (laughs) Certainly, between the two choices, good characterization. I think Soulcalibur is the kind of game where players get a kick out of trying out all the moves each character has and watching them unfold onscreen, even if it's just them bashing the kick button and seeing how the combos play out.
What is it that attracts a player to this or that character? Well, it's his or her style, physical motions, maybe their face or their beauty; all sorts of things. People don't judge characters strictly by how powerful they are in battle; they talk about how much cooler or scarier-looking this or that fighter is as well. Along those lines, we do play that aspect of it up.
My [Brandon's] ex-girlfriend really likes Soulcalibur and Street Fighter, and she always chooses the character she likes visually, even if they're weaker or really hard to use. She'll figure out how to use that character because they look cool.
HT: Another aspect of that in Soulcalibur is the character customization options. You can use those options to create more realistic characters, although people are more likely to make them more "adult" instead (laughs).