From a designer struggling to get his concept approved to a man in demand to speak at conferences all across the world: it's been a crazy two years for LocoRoco director Tsutomu Kouno. Develop caught up with the man himself to talk originality, LocoRoco's gestation and 'that' racism allegation...
Which games did you work on before LocoRoco?
When I joined Sony I worked on [PlayStation RPG] Legend of Dragoon, and then on Ico as a level designer. Right before LocoRoco I was assistant producer on an EyeToy title.
How did you come up with the idea for LocoRoco?
I was travelling to work when the idea for the characters came to me. I often get ideas when I’m commuting, so I carry a PDA with me so I can write the ideas down.
I came up with the idea for the game in 2004, and after that I showed it to the upper management. It took about a year to present the idea, and I got the green light about six months after that.
To start off with, the upper management didn’t understand the idea. It was hard to communicate, so I tried to show them what it would be like moving – I created the demo and then they went for it.
What was it they didn’t understand?
They liked the concept of rotating the world to move the LocoRocos to the goal, but they didn’t understand what I meant when I said I wanted to apply AI to the LocoRoco and put other AI creatures in it – they couldn’t see how that would be interesting or fun.
The PSP is a very high-spec machine – did you meet any resistance to making a 2D game? LocoRoco is certainly a pretty game, but it has quite a ‘simple’ aesthetic…
Yeah, a few people said that it should be a 3D game but, actually, LocoRoco uses a lot of power – there’s a lot of physics going on – so the PSP was the best machine for the job.
One of the other things that sets LocoRoco apart from other titles is its distinctive music style. Did you have any hand in that?
I had a hand in everything! I said to the team: “This is how I want it.” Also, I wrote the lyrics to all of the songs. I wanted to use music that wasn’t really heard much in other games, so I used a lot of music genres not seen in other games, like bossa nova and reggae.
We characterised all of the LocoRoco, and their singing voices are related to that. For example, the pink LocoRoco is based on a French lady, so it sings a bit like that, and the yellow LocoRoco is child-like, so that LocoRoco sings in a child’s voice.
Speaking of the LocoRoco music, I’ve heard the LocoRoco theme tune used on TV news programmes in Japan–
Yeah! Recently it’s being used on lots of programmes – without our permission! [laughs]
On a slightly more serious note, one or two people who played LocoRoco felt the game was racist - how did it make you feel when you heard that?
I was so surprised, so confused. I hadn't considered anything like that, I just wondered why people thought that. People said that the black LocoRocos were like black people, right? My intentions were the opposite of what people thought – I actually think the black LocoRocos are the coolest of the lot.
The original design of the black LocoRocos had a lot of hair, but the LocoRoco artist's hair was styled like an afro so we tried that, and we thought it looked cool.
When you were creating LocoRoco, did you think 'I'm making a game for Japan' or did you think 'I want to make a game for everyone across the world'?
No, from the beginning, I wanted to make a game for a worldwide audience. Actually, I didn't worry too much about the Japanese market because I'm Japanese myself, so I figured Japan would be fine. I just tried to imagine how, say, American or European children would look at the title. I'd wonder how western people would react.
Do you think it's important that creators are always mindful of how different people will see the title?
I haven't really thought about it, but I always think about making games for the worldwide market. I want to try and make games that will be played all over the world.
What disappoints you most about the games you play?
I don't have many disappointments, but sometimes I look at cool character designs or cool package design and get excited, but when I play the games I get disappointed. Also, sometimes I feel that game rules aren't consistent, like in some areas they use special rules and it makes it hard to play those areas. I don’t like that!
Do you think it's important to make games that women want to play as well?
Yeah, I think it's important to do that in this industry. In Japan the DS is really popular with women and casual gamers. But also, the main target audience for LocoRoco was casual gamers and women, so yeah, I do think it's important.
You've said before that people who make games for PSP need to be more original - what made you want to say that?
At that time I felt that there were very few original games on the PSP - the comment was kind of on behalf of PSP users, because I think that PSP users also think that there's a lack of original titles.
I should point out that it's not just limited to the PSP - most of the console games these days are really simple, similar titles, and I want to see more original ideas out there. The DS is an exception, though.
Lastly, if this were a interview for a typical Japanese game magazine we would finish up with a question like 'do you have a message for gamers?' but, seeing as this is Develop, we want to know if you've got a message for fellow game developers...
This is difficult! I guess I want to say that I understand that there are a lot of barriers for game designers to create original concepts – you really have to fight to do it in this industry. I understand that. But still, let’s face that challenge! Don’t rely on old concepts or old designs.