Haruyoshi Sawatari, most famous in the West for his work on a couple of chapters of Final Fantasy 15 DLC – now with Delightworks – takes his time when answering questions, and speaks quite softly while doing so. It’s almost jarring when you consider his bleached-blond hair. You don’t see that very often, and quiet thoughtfulness isn’t a typical association.
At this moment, in a meeting room away from the hustle and bustle of BitSummit, he is trying to think of recent games that have inspired him, but his mind seems to keep skipping back twenty years or more. Eventually he reigns himself in at 2004, a time that, ironically, was soon followed by some stagnation in the Japanese development scene that was only broken (perhaps appropriately) quite recently.
“At that time,” he says, “the game industry had been going in this direction where there were set formulas that you implemented, and then you just improved the graphics with each release. The same storylines, gameplay and so on, just with higher quality graphics.”
Then, in 2004, the wrecking-ball took shape. “Katamari Damacy came and just broke through that mould. It created something new, and I felt really strongly about, well, about a game developer that was willing to go through with everything and deliver something new and unique.”
As our time together slowly ticked by, the obviousness of this answer would only grow. Now no longer bound by that particular PR cycle, Sawatari was openly averse to the idea of discussion of Episodes Gladiolus or Prompto (“Mr. Tabata had a vision and, pretty much, with all of the DLC and everything, I just ticked off the boxes and I made it according to his vision. I can’t really say anything more than that.”) and much more interested in discussing his own development dreams, his work with Delightworks and the true potential of Japanese development talent once it gets divorced from the primary sausage factories.
“While I can’t talk about other projects that I’m currently working on, each of these projects is going to be something new and different,” he says when pressed about how he might break a mould or two himself. “Delightworks, well, as a company, we don’t really have this one specific formula that we stick to. We’re very open to challenges and looking to expand and try new things out. One of the key goals I had this time, especially working with Area 35 [on Tiny Metal], has been having a small team of four members and trying to create a game of such a high-quality standard as Tiny Metal turned out to be.
“With indie games, you know, they want to try something new. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I’ve always been interested in indie games and I’m interested in supporting these developers who are trying to do something different.”
There’s little doubt that companies such as Delightworks are helping to make an impact with Japan’s indie scene, not least of all because Fate/Grand Order has pulled in billions. That scene has been growing organically for many years, but it also has some uniquely Japanese obstacles to overcome. This year’s BitSummit shows how far things have come, however. Everything is more clearly signposted, sponsorships have increased, and everyone seems to have a clearer idea of what they’re doing and how to approach at least the first few steps regarding making things happen. But growth is still needed.
“You know, if you look at each individual Japanese game developer, they’re all very highly-skilled, but they also all tend to flock towards big organisations such as Square-Enix or Capcom. Everything works when they’re in a big company,” Sawatari tells me ahead of the catch. “But when they leave, there’s not really much of a structure for Japanese indie game developers to create their games, much less to project them overseas on their own. So, the path to marketing their games in other countries isn’t so easy and they face a whole bunch of new barriers and obstacles.”
This, more than any one specific title (although he did display an obvious, continued affection for Level 35’s Tiny Metal), seems to be what is presently driving the man. He has respect for his colleagues, for his countrymen and other creative professionals, and he wants to give them a shot at the kind of spotlight that certain Western indie titles (Celeste, Golf Story, Dead Cells, Hollow Knight, Beat Saber) have been soaking up.
“What Delightworks wants to do is, well, we want to tap into all of this potential that these indie game developers in Japan have, and show the real depth of Japanese indie game developers. I want to be a big part of that; to help sell their work, to help get their games overseas. We want to support ambitious developers.”
It’s the kind of goal I can get behind. Despite Cave Story’s origins as both a Japanese classic and one of the first of the modern indie wave, awareness of Japanese games that aren’t associated with a major publisher is scant. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Sawatari himself comes from the AAA scene; it’s where his experience working as a producer was sewn. Perhaps just as unsurprisingly, he’s hoping to change things from how they worked in the past.
“More often than not, developers and publishers are separate. Not just physically; both camps have their own distinct mentality: ‘you guys make the games, we sell the games,’” he says. “My approach is to put all of that together, almost like a three-legged race, for want of a better example, with everyone working on this title together, making this game together. Because of this approach, I’m able to actively advise and give recommendations more efficiently.”
He obviously seems to enjoy and gain satisfaction from this more intimate approach, from getting to know each developer and their own unique personality. I take a shot in the dark and ask him about his dream game, what he might do if given untapped access to all that money that Fate/Grand Order has been raking in, and which team he might make it with.
“I don’t really have a specific team in mind to work on the game,” he responds, his tone unsure if it wants to be thoughtful or entertained. “Rather, I have different individuals that I would like to have on board.”
As for the project itself, “I would like to make a splatter-action horror game. I do have an idea in my mind, but I don’t want to talk about it, because, you know, once it’s out there it could easily become someone else’s idea. I’ve been in the industry for twenty years and have seen a lot of different things, but I’d like to do something like that.”
That was something we didn’t see coming, which is perhaps the point. Sawatari is trying to give smaller Japanese teams a means by which to get organised, to create something unique, to actually express themselves in ways they couldn’t were they on a larger (and perhaps safer, certainly more familiar) road. And, hey, he himself seems fairly happy, even if a splatter-action game doesn’t seem to be on the cards for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve been working to challenge myself, to try new things. At Delightworks, it’s now easier, especially with all these indies – I get to work with many similar-minded game developers. It’s more freedom to do things, overall.”
Tim Henderson is a veteran Australian games journalist who now lives in Osaka. Read his feature about the revival of the Japanese games industry here and his recent chat with Koji Igarashi. Feel free to say hello on Twitter here.