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ITmedia Business Online (04 December 2019)

Unite Tokyo: Dragon Ball Video Game Development Interview Part 1

Jump‘s Legendary Editor-in-Chief Breaks “the Vicious Cycle That Creates Lousy Games” During Development of a Dragon Ball Game Adaptation

On the 26th of September, Unite Tokyo 2019 was held at Grand Nikkō Tokyo, organized by the Unite Tokyo 2019 management. Today, we’ll be bringing you one of its sessions, titled “Why don’t publishing houses and game development companies see eye-to-eye? The story of how a Dragon Ball game adaptation became a huge pain in the… I mean, a great learning opportunity.”

Unite Tokyo 2019 is the biggest conference event in the country, and it is directed at users of the game engine Unity, which can be used to make various kinds of software, from smartphone apps to console games. Fundamentally, it focuses on meetings and lectures directed at software and game developers, but there are also other lectures that can be enjoyed by the average layman. The session presented below is one of those.

The main star of this lecture is the legendary Weekly Shōnen Jump editor and chairman of Hakusensha, Mr. Kazuhiko Torishima, also known as “Dr. Mashirito”. Mr. Torishima, who was the editor in charge of the ultra-popular manga Dragon Ball1, is said to have once told the producer of a video game adaptation of that property, which was in development at Bandai (currently Bandai Namco Entertainment) at the time, such harsh criticism about the game that it caused the suspension of a project with a budget of several hundred million yen. Why was that? And where did the viewpoints of the game developer and the publishing house diverge? In this lecture, we plan to once again look back on these matters with the people involved.

In addition to the perpetrator of such harsh criticism, Mr. Torishima, coming to the stage today will be the victims of that harsh criticism, Bandai Namco Entertainment board of directors member, Mr. Daisuke Uchiyama, and Bandai Namco Holdings Strategic IP Headquarters advisor, Mr. Shin Unozawa. In addition to Dragon Ball Z, Dragon Ball Z 2, and Dragon Ball Z 32, Mr. Uchiyama is known for also having been the producer of huge hits such as the .hack and Narultimate Hero3 series. Mr. Unozawa is known as the producer of the TV animated series Mobile Police Patlabor and also for his tenure as CEO of Bandai Namco Games.

Moderating the discussion will be the manager of gaming website Den Faminico Gamer and CEO of Mare Corporation, Mr. Shin’ichi Taira.

We hereby inform that we have split the contents of this lecture into two parts, but there will also be a third part consisting of the interviews conducted with its speakers after the lecture itself. We would be honored if you could read all of them.

This is not the story of your normal game production. It’s a tale about the correct attitude to have when dealing with another company’s products and intellectual property. A tale about what to pay attention to when conducting business dealings. An incident that is highly likely to happen in our day-to-day work environments.

Kazuhiko Torishima is the chairman of the Hakusensha board of directors. He joined Shūeisha in 1976 and was assigned to the editorial department. As an editor, he nurtured a lot of manga artists such as Akira Toriyama and Masakazu Katsura. He was in charge of projects such as the Jump Broadcasting Station4 and Famicom Shinken5, and founded V-Jump in 1993. Famed as “The Demon Editor” who would mercilessly reject drafts, he would often be referenced as a model for characters appearing in Jump serializations, such as Dr. Slump‘s Dr. Mashirito and Tottemo! Luckyman’s Torishiman. (Photo by: Hiroki Yamamoto)

Shin Unozawa is an advisor at Bandai Namco Holdings’ Strategic IP Headquarters. He is also a former CEO of Bandai Namco Games (currently Bandai Namco Entertainment). He entered Bandai in 1981 and was involved with the planning and sales of toys such as Xabungle and Gunpla6 in the Hobby department. In 1983, he entered the Frontier division, and ever since then, he has been working as a producer for a number of movies and animated television series, such as the Mobile Police Patlabor franchise (television series and OVAs).

Daisuke Uchiyama is a member of the Bandai Namco Entertainment board of directors and Senior Executive Manager at the Computer Entertainment division. As a video game producer, in addition to games based on existing properties such as Dragon Ball and Naruto, he also took part in the planning of several other video games. He created the cross-media project .hack and served as the first producer in charge of the series. He is currently serving as manager of Consumer Projects and consolidates the entirety of its operations.

The deadline problem that gives rise to lousy games and the “myths of the forbidden”.

Mr. Taira: So, before we move onto our main topic, I think it would be good if we could talk about the larger history of Dragon Ball games.

This chronological table spans about five pages, but Dragon Ball started its serialization in Weekly Shōnen Jump in 1984, and the animated series began two years later, in 1986. And the Famicom games started being developed right around that time. And by looking at the table, it becomes quite clear how close the relationship was between Dragon Ball and game development, and how it was almost always Bandai or Bandai Namco handling these adaptations. They’ve been very closely connected. Well then, Torishima-san, please tell us the details of how Dragon Ball first came to be turned into a video game.

The slide shown that day, Chronological Table of the Relationship between Dragon Ball and Bandai [Namco] (Slide 1)
(all documentation below provided by Mare)
(View English Translation of Chart)

Mr. Torishima: Actually, back during the latter half of Dr. Slump (the program that used to air in Dragon Ball‘s time slot), our sponsor wasn’t Bandai, it was Epoch (located in Taitō City, Tokyo Prefecture);7 but when Dragon Ball started, Bandai got into the project. The manga was going super well and so was the anime, and since the Famicom was going through a boom at the time, Bandai produced our first game for the console, Dragon Ball: Shenron no Nazo. I think they shipped around 1.5 million copies.8 The project was headed by Shinji Hashimoto-san, who now works at Square Enix. And so, Hashimoto-san came and said that he also wanted to do a second game.

However, right before Hashimoto-san said that, the advertising agency told us that Bandai wanted to drop the sponsorship for the anime. So I refused Hashimoto-san immediately. I said that Bandai could not develop it. And when he asked why, I said “because they want to cancel the sponsorship.” When I told them that only sponsors have preferential rights with regards to merchandise, he went back with a pale face, and one week later, Bandai renewed its sponsorship and they later produced the second game, Dragon Ball: Daimaō Fukkatsu. So there was this story behind all of it. (laughs)

Mr. Uchiyama: Were you unaware of this, Unozawa-san?
Mr. Unozawa: I only started being in charge of games in 1999, so I wouldn’t know anything about the time prior to that, the so-called “dark ages”. (laughs) From the people who were in charge at the time, I think there is no one left at the company right now. Shinji Hashimoto-kun, whom you mentioned before, worked really hard all his life. He, who is currently Managing Director at Square Enix, was already pretty active at the time.9

There really is a need to be the sponsor. We often get asked “why does Bandai have the merchandising rights?” Well, that’s because we’re a sponsor for the TV programs. Because when the animated series are airing, we pay about 30 million or 50 million yen per month over a period of one or two years. And it’s not limited to times when the series are on the air, either. If it’s a popular enough show, we can maintain our sponsorship for 20 years. But on the other hand, that means we can get the toy and game adaptation licenses.

And there’s no contract involved, either. There’s no contract between Bandai Namco and Shueisha stipulating “you can make Dragon Ball games for XX years”. It’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t it? (laughs)

Mr. Torishima: Just like Unozawa-san said, things that we take for granted in publishing houses right now, like contracts and rights departments, didn’t exist at the time. Since there were a lot of things that I wouldn’t know how to do even if I asked my seniors or the company, I would just approve everything while asking a lot of things to the people around me. At the time, I was in my late twenties, but that’s the kind of person that was doing everything. Though I would still ask for permission from the editor-in-chief. Thinking back on it now, it was a very rough and primitive time.

The venue was sold out

The audience was attentively listening to the “big three”

The “Class-A war Criminal” that made Bandai take a loss of 26.8 billion yen

Mr. Taira: So when Dragon Ball was having its first game adaptations, things like how much would the royalties be were not pre-determined at all, right? And from the many conversations I’ve been hearing, the royalty rates decided by Torishima-san at the time have become the industry base to this day. Torishima-san was very young, still in his twenties, but he quickly established a lot of things there was no precedent for one after the other. Those were the circumstances at the time.

And so, Uchiyama-san, when was it that you first became involved with Dragon Ball games?

Mr. Uchiyama: I entered Bandai in 1994 and got assigned to the gaming department. And the first game I got assigned to was Dragon Ball Z: Super Butōden 3 for the Super Famicom, as an assistant. And that’s when I started becoming a pain in the neck for the Jump Editorial Department in Jinbōchō. And ever since, I’ve been producing Dragon Ball games for audiences all over the world, so I realize that it’s a franchise I have a deep connection to.

Dragon Ball Z: Super Butōden 3 (image from Amazon)

Mr. Taira: This might not be limited to just Dragon Ball, but what were the tendencies, or the general vibe of the Bandai of the time, back when they started making game adaptations of manga or anime properties? I’m going to be quite blunt here, but back then, there were plenty of Bandai games that weren’t exactly masterpieces. And so, I wanted to ask you, Unozawa-san, if you were ever faced with that situation?
Mr. Unozawa: I was put in charge of gaming operations starting in 1999, but from 1995 to 1999, Bandai partnered with Apple to produce these gaming machines called the Pippin Atmark10 and I was the one in charge. The project ended up costing Bandai 26.8 billion yen in losses. And I was the “A-Class War Criminal”. The company barely managed to avoid bankruptcy, but then, it stubbornly said “what if we gave video games one more shot?”

Back then, the Bandai gaming department was located in Nakano-Sakaue and had about 16 managers.

Mr. Uchiyama: There weren’t even 20 people.

Chronological Table of the Relationship between Dragon Ball and Bandai [Namco] (Slide 2)
(View English Translation of Chart)

Chronological Table of the Relationship between Dragon Ball and Bandai [Namco] (Slide 3)
(View English Translation of Chart)

Chronological Table of the Relationship between Dragon Ball and Bandai [Namco] (Slide 4)
(View English Translation of Chart)

Chronological Table of the Relationship between Dragon Ball and Bandai [Namco] (Slide 5)
(View English Translation of Chart)

“Mashirito”, the man who created the industry standards in his twenties

Mr. Unozawa: It really was all done in a small space. Therefore, sometimes even I would get involved in the actual game making. And there would be a ton of issues, and every time I asked the staff, “why are you making such a lousy game?”, they’d blurt out a bunch of excuses.

Mr. Unozawa, who went all the way up from a “Class-A war criminal” who lost 26.8 billion yen to a “hero”.

First, when the proposal is written and the launch date decided, those are final. But normally, somewhere along the way, development starts falling behind, right? However, the deadline is absolute, so they start cutting corners. And obviously, the more corners you cut, the less everyone is able to give it their 100%, and so, their effort starts to fall to around 70%, which is very frequent. That’s basically the reason why there are lousy games.

Before, I used to be an anime producer at Bandai Visual, so I knew a thing or two about actually making something. So the first thing I can do, as the manager, the one responsible for delivering things on time, is to bear that burden and tell the team to do things properly and to give it their all.

And then there are a lot of mysterious legends, like the “myths of the forbidden”. For instance, back then, people were saying that “you can’t post videos of Gundam games online”. But I know the president of the studio that produces Gundam very well, so when I went and asked who originally said that, he replied “I never said that”.

There are a lot of “myths of the forbidden” like that regarding Jump. Because Jump is pretty scary. I mean, of course it would be, when you have this person (Mr.Torishima) at the helm. (laughs)

“Mashirito”, the person in charge of Jump at the time.

1999 was precisely when the One Piece animated series started airing. The one who wrote the proposal for the One Piece game was Yoshiya Tanaka, who had joined Bandai as a mid-career hire, but he did not have an ounce of fear. He was new at the company, so he didn’t know any better. And for the game One Piece: Grand Battle!, for the original PlayStation, he wanted to make the characters super deformed, with their heads twice as big as their bodies. But his seniors at Bandai told him “No way. If you just change things without approval, Shueisha will kill you.” (laughs)

But I thought the super deformed characters looked cute and we never actually met anyone from the Shueisha editorial department. Meaning, we got the rights from Toei Animation. It was an adaptation of the animated series. Because we weren’t able to arrange a meeting with any of the editors or the boss-man over here (Mr. Torishima).

One Piece: Grand Battle! (picture from Amazon)

But I was an acquaintance of Torishima-san from long ago, so I called him to our Nakano-Sakaue office. Then, our producers pitched a bunch of projects for Jump properties and Torishima-san would decide on the spot. And the One Piece project with the super deformed characters was settled with a simple “I think it’s fine” from him.

That is to say, if you substitute “myths of the forbidden” with “know-how” and then add “you don’t even know that?”, you would get an accurate description of Bandai’s gaming department at the time.

Would we have had more good games if we never had these “myths of the forbidden”…? Well, we also need to take into account everyone’s opinions, and sometimes, I would just look at something and say “this is awful”. But by removing these limitations, we got a rapid increase in sales with the same members. And over a span of around six years, I managed to recoup that 26.8 billion yen loss with our video game projects. (applause from the audience)

Mr. Uchiyama: I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that everyone’s already this excited. We haven’t even gotten to the main topic. (laughs)

The editors grasp and consolidate the information

Mr. Torishima: The dealings between publishers and licensors were originally really good, because communication was held between a very limited number of people, like the person who was first in charge of the original work11 and the manager of the game, so you could have a lot of conversations in a very direct manner.

However, as the years went on and there began to be more and more people on the game development side, there were a lot more decisions that needed to be made, and slowly, those decisions became rules that must be abided by. And after a while, people started to forget why those rules were even made in the first place and they became hurdles that were extremely difficult to overcome. That’s why it becomes quite a problem if the people change but the rules stay the same.

Mr. Taira: Torishima-san, I asked you this question before the session started, but you said that, back then, when Jump had dealings with game publishers, they could do it with just one single editor, but that now, with the formation of the Rights Department, things have changed, and a lot more people became involved. I would like to ask you, Torishima-san, what do you think are the pros and cons of this new approach?
Mr. Torishima: In Jump, serializations by new artists are what’s most important, but the editors responsible for getting those new series off the ground are also single-handedly responsible for handling all meetings and other exchanges with the author. For the author, making the actual manga is what’s most important, so the editor does not want to burden them with a lot of new information once they’re already in the middle of the drawing process.

So the editor in charge consolidates everything coming from the outside, makes a decision based on what he’s heard and doesn’t just pass on every single little detail to the author. They work on a principle of good faith. Since there are many people involved, if the author listened to the information from each and every one of them, there are bound to be misunderstandings. That’s why it’s important for the editor in charge to handle all that information by himself. It is also why it’s necessary for him to have a firm grip on the author’s way of thinking and to know what they consider to be important.

I’m not sure if it’s still the case, but for example, in One Piece, the more supervisors replaced one another, the more problematic it became, extremely so.12 Because inevitably, no matter what kind of communication came from the Editorial Department, discrepancies were bound to appear. It’s very bad when that happens. And if you were to ask why, the people on-site would probably tell you they were just “distributing the burden,” but I think that it just slows down decision-making. And people whose work is slow start coming up with excuses and cutting corners. At least that’s what I think.

If you think about “purely adult things,” your decision-making becomes dull

Mr. Uchiyama: Right now, the reality is that the amount of practical matters that the Editorial Department has to deal with has increased immensely. For us as well, who were granted the privilege to bring video games with Jump characters to the entire world, depending on the property, 95% of sales can come from the overseas market, like the United States, Europe, Asia, and South America. And when that happens, the reality is that the amount and types of information that you must take into account, for example, regarding those countries’ cultures increases considerably. And the more information you need to process, the faster you need to do it.

And regarding the making of the games themselves, the circumstances have changed greatly since the times when we only had to think about the Famicom. So when you are required to make those difficult decisions, I think you really need to divide the work and decide each person’s role.

Mr. Torishima: Such a nice person. (laughs) This is kind of a counterargument, but, and this is something I think about a lot, if you look at things from the point of view of a child, who are our end user, you can immediately decide whether something is good or bad as soon as you hear it. If you take a long time hesitating it’s because you’re thinking about purely adult things like the code of honor you have with the creators whom you’re working with. And I think that dulls your decision-making and makes your judgment become lukewarm.

The following translator notes are included for the benefit of the reader as supplemental information.

1 “Mashirito” (マシリト) is an anagram of “Torishima” (鳥嶋); Kazuhiko Torishima was Akira Toriyama’s original editor at Shueisha, and served as the inspirational basis for Dr. Mashirito as well as Demon King Piccolo. Torishima stepped down as editor around the time of the Raditz battle, with his role being taken over by Yū Kondo, who in turn, stepped down just prior to the Cell Games. Fuyuto Takeda then assumed the role of editor until the end of the series’ publication.
2 Known under the “Budokai” series name internationally.
3 Known under the “Naruto: Ultimate Ninja” series name internationally.
4 A reader submission corner included in Weekly Shōnen Jump from October 1982 to December 1995.
5 A series of articles about video games published at irregular intervals in Weekly Shōnen Jump from 1985 to 1988.
6 Short for “Gundam Plastic Models”.
7 Epoch did actually get one “console” game out for the Dragon Ball franchise before Bandai took over: Dragon Ball: Doragon Dai-Hikyō (“Dragon Ball: The Great Unexplored Dragon Region”) for the Super Cassette Vision. Epoch continued developing handheld electronic games around this same time, with Bandai eventually taking over those projects, as well.
8 Actually 1.2 million copies, according to data in 2016’s 30th Anniversary Super History Book (page 216)
9 (NOTE: Portions of this footnote are actually in the original text, with other portions being translation notes or updates/corrections.) At the time of the Famicom boom, Shinji Hashimoto worked as a Bandai employee, promoting its games in magazines and on television under the pseudonym “Meijin Hashimoto” (meijin, besides a proper name, can also mean “master” or “expert). He later joined Square and worked as producer for the Final Fantasy and Front Mission series. He previously served as the Senior Managing Director of Square Enix; since May 2021, he has been working as Corporate Advisor for Square Enix.
10 (NOTE: This is a translation of a footnote in the original Japanese text.) The Pippin Atmark was a multimedia machine developed in a partnership between Bandai and Apple. It was compatible with Macintosh and could play some of its games.
11 Heavily implied to be its first editor.
12 Eiichirō Oda, the author of One Piece, has had a total of eleven different editors during the 25 years the series has been in serialization, with Oda currently having, for the first time, two editors simultaneously. For comparison, between the start of his career in 1978 and the end of the Dragon Ball serialization in 1995, Akira Toriyama only had three editors: Kazuhiko Torishima, Yū Kondo, and Fuyuto Takeda.
English Translation: Zénpai