Interview: Cave

Interview: Cave
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

June 15th 2010 at 8:30AM

In a rare interview arcade developer Cave reveals why it turned its attention to the iPhoneâ?¦

Cult Japanese developer Cave is a far from typical studio. As one of the world’s few remaining games makers focused intently on creating titles for arcade hardware, the ferocious difficulty of its releases is almost as infamous as the high prices its back catalogue demands from collectors.

Most well-known for its seminal work Dodonpachi and its focus on the shmup genre, Cave has concerned itself largely with releases for its native market, despite being highly regarded by developers and critics across the globe.

Yet with the recent international release of arcade-to-iPhone port Espgaluda II, now the company is looking to new horizons, as it turns its attention to Apple’s portable, new genres, and the worldwide audience. Interested to learn more, Develop caught up with Cave’s game development department’s developer Tsuneki Ikeda, and the mobile contents department’s iPhone project producer Yukihiro Masaki and project director Mamoru Furukawa.

Cave are famed for incredibly challenging arcade games. For that reason the iPhone seems an unlikely platform for your recent port of arcade shooter Espgaluda II. Is that fair?
We can see how you might think that the iPhone is an unlikely platform. When we first started porting to the system, we spent a lot of time just seeing what we could do and how accurately we could reproduce the arcade game.

But it was within that process that we realised that we could achieve the level of reproduction and quality that we were after, and that’s one motivating factor for bringing Espgaluda II to iPhone.

Another reason is that the iPhone/iPod Touch game market is extremely active, and we wanted a worldwide audience to get to know and play Cave shooters.

Both of these reasons led us to deciding that the iPhone/iPod touch was a platform on which we people around the world could easily enjoy our games.

Shooters are surprisingly prolific on the iPhone. Why do you think the platform is so popular with those creating shmups?
Shooters are indeed prolific, but we don’t think there are a lot of authentic shooters out just yet. We can’t say why it’s so popular among people making shooters; however shooters themselves serve as sort of an introduction to programming, and this may be one reason.

Do you have ambitions to bring more ported or original Cave games to the iPhone?
Yes, we have decided to bring more ports and new Cave games to the iPhone, and in fact we are already working on our second and third titles at the moment. I can’t tell you the titles of these games just yet, but please watch our official site or follow us on Twitter for future announcements.

What were the development challenges of porting from arcade hardware to the iPhone? Are the two similar in any way?
The arcade version of Espgaluda II had already been finely tuned, so there was the question of exactly how far to ‘port’ it. We’re happy to say that we were able to port the game without cutting any of the source code or game data, and we think our arcade fans were very satisfied with the results.

Espgaluda II is one of your first games to see release on home platforms outside of Japan. How does considering an international audience affect how you design a game when first creating it?
If by design you mean graphic design, Deathsmiles II and Espgaluda II were both designed with Japanese domestic users in mind, so we went with a design that pressed human characters instead of ‘ships’ to the forefront.

However, if we look at shooting games supported overseas especially North America and Europe, we think that stylish looks like those of Geometry Wars and Rez should be taken into consideration.

With regards to game design itself, although 2D scrolling shooters are still the mainstream in Japan, overseas we see top-down arena shooters with multi-directional shots, or full 3D FPS and TPS games as the mainstream, and we think it may be important to tailor our games in that direction.

For the iPhone version of Espgaluda II, we did not really think there was a need to take into consideration the differences among countries for a shooter where the basics are shooting and dodging. However we did put a lot of time into designing a control interface optimised for the iPhone.

What kind of development technology do you use at Cave? Is it proprietary technology or something provided by an external company?
Since this was our first iPhone title, we started by porting the game with the libraries used in the arcade release. In the future we are interested in improving our ability to port from the arcade to other platforms.

Aside from a small number of exceptions, Cave has dedicated itself to one genre. Is creative motivation difficult in that context?
The Japanese shooting market has a long history, and although it may look like there is a lot of demand for major changes to the genre, we feel that the amount of users actually calling for such changes are few. For this reason, there is not a huge range within the game rules that we can change, and there have certainly been people who have had trouble making the same sort of games and moved onto other projects.

But for me, I find the enjoyment there; within that narrow space how far can we change the game’s impressions and feel? There are certainly tough parts in the process but I’ve never had a problem maintaining my creative motivation.

Is Cave happy to be profiled as a niche developer, or is that something you are looking to change?
We do not think of Cave as a niche developer. We strive every day to read into the future, and hold a high potential that isn’t preoccupied with one technology or another.

As a result of having a strong focus, we might have a reputation of being niche by people. We are going to continue challenging ourselves on new platforms so that people around the world can feel ‘that’s Cave!’ and we can capture their hearts.  Please watch for our future developments.

Cave’s fans are renowned for their abilities as gamers. From a design perspective, how do you create games that cater for such talented players? How do you keep perspective on what the player is capable of?
Since we target different player bases with each title, it’s hard to speak broadly regarding this question. However while tuning all of our titles, in general we have plotted out difficult and easier areas at critical points of the game ahead of time, and we watch to see if, when a player plays through these points, whether their play style lines up with our expectations.

With regards to titles which have their main appeal in high difficulty, we have certainly designed the game to appeal to these talented players, but fine-tuning the game is always the hardest part.

Often our fine-tuning process plays out like this; while we adjust the range in which players can create patterns as well as the amount of random chance and the extent to which the player can intervene in terms of ‘guiding’ bullets around the screen. In the end we apply a wide variety of predictions of how the player will dodge bullets and then consider what the best way would be to combine those projections.

When creating and porting a 2D shooter, what elements of the development process really push the professional abilities of your teams?
We really think it comes down to the programmer. The reason being that everything about the game comes down to the programmer’s ability (taste), including how much fun it is, how well it processes, and how the graphics and sound we have created are implemented into the game.

The inclusion of ‘slow-down’ in your games, where the game’s speed drops in an apparent reaction to hardware capability, is now something almost unique to shmups. Is that something you simulate, and if so, why do you include it?
Cave’s games certainly have their difficult side, wherein there are situations where there are a lot of bullets on-screen. In these situations, we will see slow-down occur where the game speed drops and it is easier to find a route through the bullet patterns.

However it’s not just these situations, nor conveying the sense of dilemma when you have been pushed into the corner while the game speed has dropped, and although this is a simulated feeling, the player experiences a certain sense of ‘awakening’ and this situation can transform into something satisfying. Difficult portions are not difficult for difficulty’s sake. The meaning of slow-down in bullet heaven shooters is accentuating the difficulty of the game, and containing this potential for difficult situations to become enjoyable.

Most of Cave titles experience slowdown from the hardware aspect, but there are some of our games which emulate this via software. With the iPhone version of the game, we have not ‘replicated’ the slow-down of the arcade version. If slow-down is occurring, it is literally slowing down on the hardware.

The reason that we did not replicate slow-down with Espgaluda II is (schedule reasons were big, but…) the controls (interface) were originally designed for another type of hardware, so instead of a ‘complete port’ we aimed for something that would draw out a fun control method to complement the iPhone interface.

As Cave’s games reach a wider audience, how do you plan to offer gameplay that welcomes new shooter players as well as challenging your most capable fans?
We develop with the aim of creating games to give a wide variety of users the opportunity for many different types of ‘achievement’.

To this end, we create easier game modes to give beginners a sense of accomplishment and fun when they clear the game, but also brutal game modes aimed at dedicated shooting fans, in which bullet patterns descend on the player in raging billows and only a few mistakes are allowed. For us, it’s this variety of game modes that provides a broad palette for our players to enjoy.

Was there anything else you wished to say?
We are working to get Cave games to an international audience, so please, check out our games and stay tuned.