NEWS - Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Team Ninja Head Speaks On Losing Itagaki

It’s been over two years since Tomonobu Itagaki -- game-dev bad boy and chief mind behind Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden -- suddenly left Team Ninja, the development studio he helped put on the map. Itagaki fell off the limelight for a bit before announcing the founding of Valhalla Game Studios this past March, an independent dev he’s running alongside fellow ex-Tecmo dev Satoshi Kanematsu. Team Ninja themselves, though, have never talked much in public about how the headline-grabbing defections in 2008 affected them as a studio...until now, that is.
"I’ve been with Team Ninja ever since I graduated from college, so everything I know about the game business I learned from Team Ninja," studio boss Yosuke Hayashi told Famitsu magazine in an interview published this week. "Seeing the people who taught me the ropes leave was something I never imagined happening, and to be honest, I felt like I had no idea where to go next. But later I realized that just because they had their reasons and beliefs that led them to leave, I didn’t have to follow them along. It was a chance for not just myself, but for all of us at Team Ninja to rethink our approach to game development. That’s what led us to have the team we have now, the people that stayed on as Team Ninja members."

The first few months after the defections were admittedly a little stressful for Hayashi and team. "We’re in the business of game development, so we just tried our best to concentrate ourselves on that process," he said. "Fans were nervous, as they had a right to be, but as long we can release games we’re satisfied with, we’ll be able to build our confidence and players will feed off of that. Koei have been a great support to us, as have a lot of other companies in the industry, directly or indirectly. I really appreciated that they went beyond the competitive forces that drive them to come out and cheer us on -- it made me feel like the industry treats all of us on the team as important."

Reading the interview, one gets the idea that relations between Hayashi and Itagaki still aren’t too rosy today. In it, for example, Hayashi never mentioned his old bosses by name -- instead using the Japanese term senpai, a respectful but more general way of referring to someone with more seniority than you at the workplace. He was also more than a bit touchy about the way others within Tecmo envisioned a post-Itagaki Team Ninja after the defections. "After my senpai left, I actually expressed to the company that I didn’t want people going around calling us the ’new’ Team Ninja," he said. "I’ve been with the team both before and after the moves, and while some people left, that doesn’t really change what Team Ninja is doing. Calling us the ’new’ Team Ninja would be turning our backs on that history, and I really didn’t want to do that. That’s why we changed nothing, not even the logo."

The personnel losses weren’t all bad news, either, the way Hayashi sees it. "The old Team Ninja had a certain braintrust, a group of a few people, and game development tended to always revolve around them," he commented. "That meant we couldn’t really expand our development lines much, but with Team Ninja today, each developer can think for themselves on what they can do to make better games. There aren’t many studios that can think organically like that. I really feel like we’re working together and combining our forces to create the best games we can, and in that way, I feel confident in saying that Team Ninja right now is absolutely the most powerful team in history."

It’s certainly true that Team Ninja’s crew is keeping themselves busy -- between Metroid: Other M, the 3DS Dead or Alive, and the still-murky Ninja Gaiden 3, they definitely aren’t hurting for work. In the interview, Hayashi admitted that Team Ninja is a changed outfit, but he also saw little reason to dwell on that point. "I’ve realized this as we work, but the games we’ve made after they left feel just a little different from Team Ninja games of the past," he said. "It’s the personalities of the people behind them coming to the surface. I’m sure there are fans who’d prefer the ’old’ style, and I think that’s just fine. As a fan myself, I’m looking forward to what my senpai do next, but as for us, we’re going to keep working as Team Ninja. That’s how I’ve felt about it over the past two years. We’re all game developers here, and we can act as cool as we want in interviews, but it doesn’t mean anything if the games aren’t good. We want to answer the questions with our games, in the end."


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