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Interview: Chantelise, Fortune Summoners

Dissecting Japanese indie

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Recettear merchants Carpe Fulgur recently released their second translated Japanese indie title, Chantelise, to the English-speaking world. The all-action dungeon-runner has been a little more divisive than its shopkeeping-centric predecessor, but it’s definitely picked up fans. Seems like a good time to chat to Carpe Fulgur’s Andrew Dice about the reception to the game, the debate over its difficulty, the argument around whether old Japanese gaming traditions such as painful low-health noises and repetition should be revisited, what the Japanese indie scene is like compared to its mainstream, and what to expect from project number 3, Fortune Summoners…

RPS: So, Chantelise has been out a few weeks now. How’s it gone, compared to Recettear?

Saleswise, it’s been quite solid so far. Can’t quite quote numbers yet – always a bit of a pesky thing, and we’ve got a few more distribution deals opening up for the game soon which could render numbers now quickly obsolete – but we’re well past the “break even” point for the title and, by the end of the year, it should end up being very profitable for everyone involved. It probably won’t be quite as massively successful as Recettear, but at this point we suspect it might actually come closer than we initially thought it would.

Receptionwise, it’s been a little bit of a mixed bag. In general, the existing fans we picked up with Recettear seemed to like-to-love it just fine, although some of them weren’t quite expecting the game to kick them in the teeth quite as hard as it did. Seems like some reviewers are taking harsher exception to that, though – and are also complaining about the camera a fair amount, which I suppose I can see (and I’ll address in a bit). So long as our fans are happy with it, though, that’s really all that matters, isn’t it? Makes me feel even better that we effectively rescued the game from abandonment after its previous overseas publisher went under.

If there’s something we goofed up a bit in, though, it was waiting as long as we did to start the promotional cycle. That’s led to a few perception problems, I think.

RPS: What are you most proud of about it it?

In the actual game itself, I’d have to say I’m most proud of the event dialogue once again. There wasn’t a whole lot of wizardry in the guts of the game this time – nothing like Recettear’s crushing item list, Chantelise’s is much smaller – but the plot itself is surprisingly twisty, given the length of the game, and there’s an almost shocking amount of depth to the characters, especially once you get into the third and fourth dungeons. And, of course, Chante is a fairly constant source of comedy and I like to think we got her exactly right in English. Fan reaction to her seems to be spot-on to what we wanted.

In a wider “meta” sense, I’m proud of how quickly we managed to turn this project around from start to finish, for the most part. I explained in a fairly recent blog post about why it seemed like the game took forever from an outside perspective, but from an in-company perspective, we absolutely blazed through the game. The only reason we released when we did was really retail timing more than anything – the game was “ready” a full month prior to its release date. And we’ve identified the (very few) points of slowdown we had on this title, allowing us to speed up production on future titles even further. Fortune Summoners is coming along at a cracking pace as a result (even with me having managed to erase a week’s worth of work in a few moments of blind stupidity during a backup), and we might – might – have the game out ahead of our originally-planned schedule. I know better than to commit to that until a week before it happens, though.

RPS: I’ve noticed you express some anxiety about the game’s reception before release – while obviously you’re very proud of Chantelise, is it right to suspect that it’s not quite as big a deal for you as your first and next game?

Well, I’d say that Chantelise is still a pretty damned big deal for us, if only because it’s the second game we’ve ever put out. There’s sort of been a nagging question hanging in the air for the past ten-odd months about whether or not Carpe Fulgur would be a flash-in-the-pan thing; sure, we’d brought over one, single Japanese game and made it work on Steam, but could we actually make a living of it? Could we even get the rights to more than a single game, or the games of a single group? We’ve announced Fortune Summoners now, naturally, and that’ll be coming later this year, and we’ve also got a thing we’re publicly referring to only as Project Four going on in the background which we won’t be able to discuss beyond the fact that it exists for a long while yet. But could we actually put out another game at all? And would the English test and story and whatnot, at least, be up to the standard we set in Recettear?

So Chantelise is definitely an important release for us. Even if Recettear is still managing to keep a roof over our heads, for the most part, this was an important release to prove we really were a going concern. And it could help prove that, saleswise, Recettear wasn’t a one-shot deal, that there really is a market for this sort of game on the PC. It could help prove to more potential partners that there’s really a market out there, waiting to buy your games.

Which, really, explains the bit of anxiety. While I personally believe Chantelise is a very good game, especially for its pricepoint, I knew that we were following Recettear up with, essentially, its predecessor. It’d be slightly analogous to following up Darwinia with Uplink (with apologies to Introversion); on the heels of what turned out to be one of the biggest indie releases of 2010, we were offering an older game that, visually at least, wasn’t as polished. That’s what I was really worried about – it’s an indie game from 2006, made on an even thinner budget than Recettear (in fact, the money and some of the art assets of Chantelise’s initial success fueled Recettear’s original development) being asked to compete with the likes of E.Y.E, Limbo, Bastion, From Dust, and even Deus Ex or The Witcher, really, in terms of convincing gamers to fork over their dollars. It was a bit of a thing to ask of it. Mercifully, it seems it paid off – again, can’t throw around exact numbers just yet, but the game is decidedly not a failure for us.

RPS: I bounced off Chantelise somewhat because of the difficulty, which is probably a reflection on me as much as the game. However, I understand some reviewers have criticised it for this, with you publicly stating you don’t think they appreciate challenge. Care to elaborate? How confident are you that they’re wrong?

Criticism of the game seems to come from two major sources: the camera and the difficulty, with one perhaps influencing the other. The camera I at least suppose I understand, especially if you don’t have a gamepad at all. The camera system is fairly resolutely “digital” (that is, it’s either turning or not turning) in an age where we’re all rather used to an “analog” camera with a lot of fine control of speed and pitch. Speaking personally, though, I never really had a problem with it, especially after we added support for right-hand sticks during localization (which was one thing I knew we needed to add or the game would really get taken to town, and it’s something I knew wouldn’t be that hard for EGS to put into the game); it might take a bit of adjustment, but I found the camera pretty easy to use after a while. About the only weak area I might still identify camerawise would be juggling lock-ons with a lot of enemies present at once, which can get a little hairy; unfortunately, outside of EGS devoting ages to redesigning the locking system, which they don’t really have time for with Territoire in its final stages, I don’t really see a solution to it. If I have one other regret, though, it’s that we didn’t emphasize boldly enough how much better the game is with a controller in what consisted of our lead-up to release; playing with a controller really is a superior experience to keyboard-only, especially where the camera is concerned.

Some of the complaints about difficulty, though, caught me a bit by surprise. We knew that the bosses of the fourth and fifth dungeons – the fifth being the final – had been made a bit more difficult and arguably “epic”, but when people began complaining about the difficulty of the content in the demo I was a bit off-guard. Many of the encounters are challenging, yes, but there’s a certain logic to all of them, and it’s essentially possible to beat every boss in the game without taking a hit so long as you know what you’re doing. I think part of it might have to do with shifting design expectations, though; there aren’t a lot of games, at least in the Western market these days, that throw a challenge at your feet and then say “you find this difficult? Well, it’s beatable as-is, so deal with it and figure out how to win”. This actually used to be how quite a few games operated – Chantelise’s Zelda predecessors back on consoles, PC games somewhat of this sort like the Ultima games (there are some parallels, low-health beeps aside, I think), they’d present you with a challenge and make no bones about you overcoming it as presented.

For my part, I actually liked that, back in the day, and I suppose that’s where I find some the appeal of the game myself. I don’t necessarily think it’s “bad” design; it might chase off some people who don’t appreciate the challenge, yes, but that doesn’t make it bad. Especially when there are others – and we’ve gotten mail and whatnot from fans to this effect – who really appreciate being given a challenge.

RPS: I’m somewhere between both camps personally, but what does trouble me a little is an argument I’ve heard in some quarters that this is just how a certain type of Japanese game does things, thinking particularly of the grinding/repetition element and the almost painful near-death warning noise. Should the fact that some things are, essentially, tradition, be reason enough for them to stay that way?

Well, insofar as I’m concerned, the mind-searing Warning Sound is part of the ambiance. If you aren’t at 2% health, a chirpy tone raking your ears, driving you to constantly higher states of madness you didn’t even know you could reach as you desperately try to survive until you’re literally driven up to the ceiling and someone has to come along and get you down with a ladder, you’re just not in the zone, maaaaan.

Silliness aside, obviously blindly and rigidly adhering to “tradition” simply because it’s tradition is rarely a good idea, but by the same token, should a game not do something the “old fashioned way” simply because it’s old? The above is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but for a lot of those old games, things like the health warning noise did contribute something to the experience – if it raises your blood pressure some, puts you on edge, annoys you to some degree, well, isn’t that part of the experience? Maybe it doesn’t jive with everyone, but that doesn’t make it an invalid choice.

Even with the “grinding”, I think this applies in a certain sense – you only need to clear an area once to run right through it, but even then, is making that a requirement “bad”? As much as it might sound like I’m on damage control, there’s a bunch of first-person manshoots that basically require the same thing. Yet, in the context of Chantelise, it’s “different” and undesirable somehow?

There might be a fair few things the game can be critiqued over, and lord knows the Near Death Noise has sort of been at the top of the list of fan complaints, even from people who like the game otherwise, but I do take a little umbrage at the line of thinking that goes “this design concept is [x] years old and I don’t like it for [y] reason, therefore it is bad because it is old”. If anything, there are times it almost seems to me like some developers are forgetting what their pasts taught them – try asking Duke Nukem players how they feel about all those “modern” design elements in DNF.

RPS: On the other side of the coin, in your scouting for new Japanese indie titles to translate, do you have a sense of what the indie culture is there, compared to that in the West? What does it think of mainstream games; is it as resistant to change as some of big Japanese developers have been accused of being, is there a rebel spirit?

Oh, especially these days in the wake of the successes of things like Recettear and Touhou and whatnot, absolutely there’s a fair amount of that “indie spirit”. A few kinds of games are more popular than others – “visual novel”-style adventure games and shoot-em-ups remain perennially popular, partially because so many of these places are one-man or near-one-man shops who operate more as hobbyists than anything and work on game budgets that make even indie shops like Supergiant (Bastion) or Playdead (Limbo) look like Hollywood extravagance in comparison – but especially in the past few years there’s been something of an explosion of experimentation and a lot of young developers trying to find their feet. Going into Comiket 80, the big indie-sale expo thing that runs twice annually in Tokyo, and which Robin and I are attending this year to scout for new titles, I already have a short list of new developers I want to speak to because a bit of research indicates that they might be working on very interesting new titles that do stuff that hasn’t really been done before.

It’s in part due to the ossification of the Big Industry in Japan that this is happening, I think – a lot of the oldest companies like Capcom, Konami, Namco, a lot of them seem to have trouble pushing out really original new content. And then you have companies like Square-Enix’s Japan division which seems to struggle to get content out the door at all, but that’s almost a different topic. So you get the young up-and-comers, who maybe don’t want to be weighed down by a 9-to-5 salaryman existence just yet, trying out new things and making the sort of games they want to make, just like it works in North America and Europe. You just don’t HEAR about it quite as often due in part to the language barrier and due in part to the fact that so much of the distribution still happens physically, at things like Comiket or the specialty shops in Tokyo’s Akihabara ward. But the spirit is the same – there’s no question of that.

RPS: Fortune Summoners is next from you – can you tell us a bit more of what can we expect, in terms of how it compares to Recettear and Chantelise?

I certainly can! Fortune Summoners is the first non-EGS title Carpe Fulgur has worked on. It was first released in 2008 by Lizsoft, which is more or less a one-man team consisting of a man who goes by the nom de guerre MEL, along with a bit of help for this game from an artist named Mika Takeda, who handled a lot of the character design and some static imagery, and a little contract help with the music, sound effects and voicework. All of the spritework, gameplay, level design and whatnot, though, are all the work of a single man. Which makes the whole damn thing even more impressive, given the richness of the graphics (even though the game’s native resolution is 640×480) and the fact that the game is easily 25 hours long at least – quite a bit longer if you look for every secret.

As we’ve talked about before, the game once again has its most direct antecedents on consoles; it is shaped from the same rough mold as Zelda II, the Wonder Boy games on the Sega Master System and Genesis/Megadrive, and the third Ys game. (Interestingly, though, in Japan the Ys games are PC games!) It’s a platforming action side-scroller with what eventually builds into a three-man (well, girl) team, each with differing abilities and different things they can bring to the table in puzzle-solving, like Arche’s ridiculous girlstrength that allows her to push heavy things around or Sana’s ability to breathe underwater without any other aid. They also fight differently – Arche controls more like a character out of a versus brawler than anything, with a move list well over a dozen moves deep, while Sana and Stella get a wide variety of spells with various effects. With all that, though, it’s still an RPG at heart, with questing, quite a bit of verbosity, nice big towns to wander around in, and a whole heap of dungeons to explore through, each of which changes up the gameplay a little every time.

Insofar as the plot goes: our “hero”, Arche Plumfield, is just a typical girl whose father just moved to the town of Tonkiness to open up an item shop. The local school, however, is a school which teaches the use of magic via “Elemental Stones”, which are nifty little things invented a few centuries prior that can let anyone, even kids, be powerful magic users with a lot of practice and know-how. Arche’s family can’t really afford to get her a stone, however, leaving her kind of out of luck… until she hears a rumor about an old, old elemental stone hidden in a mountain cave not too far from town and the school. Dun-dunnnn…

Setting-wise, Fortune Summoners is medieval fantasy – stridently so, in fact. Getting back to that “rebel indie spirit” thing we were mentioning earlier, many people may have noticed a trend in Japanese games, especially RPGs, to mix in a lot of high technology in with their settings over the past decade or so. MEL, by his own admission, doesn’t hold much truck with that at all, and he’s a very big fan of Tolkien, so he set out to make a setting that did away with just about all of the technology creep he’d seen in contemporary games. The school clock is about the most advanced piece of “technology” in the game – everything else is old-school, proud medieval fantasy. I mean, this is a setting in which the kids have to literally dodge slimes on their way to school, to both their and their parents’ mild dismay. It is fairly refreshing, on some level, especially if you’ve been a JRPG fan for a while. Although western gaming’s seen a bit of a resurgence of this sort of thing already, courtesy of The Witcher and Dragon Age; Fortune Summoners isn’t nearly as grim as either of those games, however.

It does have a few more “modern” accommodations than Chantelise does – there’s multiple difficulty levels, ranging from “easy” to “nightmare”, which should make the truly hardcore quite happy, it checkpoints after every room instead of each dungeon if you get killed… It’s still fairly deliciously old-school, however, which does make me wonder a little about how well it’ll click with some users. All I know is that I fell in love with it almost from the first moment I began playing it, and I absolutely cannot wait to bring it to English-speaking users.

RPS: Any particular lessons learned for it already from Chantelise and even still from Recettear?

Well, the big lesson we learned from Chantelise is that we need to begin promoting the game earlier, make it clear just what kind of game it is so people don’t get confused. That’s the thing I think we messed up the most with on Chantelise – we should’ve released the demo back during that month-long gap, gotten people used to the idea that it wasn’t “Recettear 2” and was its own kind of beast and establish what people should expect. We’re definitely going to be promoting Fortune Summoners a little more heavily (not to mention Territoire, EGS’ amazing-looking 4x-strategy-slash-tactical-RPG hybrid if or when we get that) and making sure that people understand what they’re getting well before we go on sale.

We’re also taking something we’d done with Recettear and Chantelise a step further still – with our first two projects, we’d had direct control over most text elements, but not hardcoded ones, which made bugfixing and whatnot a bit slow in places. With Fortune Summoners, while we still don’t have access to all the source code, we now have direct code access to every text element in the entire game. This has made editing and correcting the text even easier than it was in our previous projects and has given us another huge speed boost in turnaround time – at this point we’re angling to get the game in testing by October and out by, hopefully, the first week of November. I can’t commit to that date yet, though, because a lot can still happen between now and November 1st. We’ll be sure and announce when we have a firmer date! And, from our experience with Fortune Summoners, the way we do it definitely seems to be the way to go – forget translation via spreadsheets which is how most houses do it, direct code access makes both translation and implementation absurdly fast.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Chantelise: A Tale Of Two Sisters is out now.

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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