Weekly Famitsu magazine issue #1700 (released on July 21, 2021) includes an extensive feature on the 35th anniversary of Atlus. This feature includes an interview with Senior Managing Director and General Manager of the Consumer Software Division Naoto Hiraoka, a complete translation of which can be read below.
Looking back on Atlus’ 35-year history, were there any turning points?
Hiraoka: I would say that the turning points were our several capital tie-ups. If Kadokawa Shoten’s (now KADOKAWA) group had continued in the future, we might have been in the same group as Weekly Famitsu. After that, we moved on to TAKARA (now TAKARA TOMY) and INDEX, and now we are part of the Sega Group.
All of these companies have their respective owners, and I think that each of them has a great deal of influence on us. For example, the business structure itself has changed a lot.
In the past, you were involved in a variety of fields, such as running karaoke and game centers, and creating a boom with the Print Club.
Hiraoka: “Let’s start a karaoke box” and if it’s a hit, “let’s start Purikura,” and if Purikura is a big hit, “let’s start a game center,” and “let’s build a facility called ‘Game Panic’ or ‘Mu Tairiku’ and so on…. Anyways, I think the company was full of frontier spirit. I hear that Atlus got serious about the home video game market because “Megami Tensei” sold unexpectedly well. All of this was before I joined the company, but after that, businesses other than home video games were either discontinued or given away along with the change of company ownership.
How long has your career been at Atlus?
Hiraoka: I joined Atlus in 2002, and have been with the company for about 20 years out of its 35, which puts me in the top 10% of the company. In any case, I believe that Atlus is what it is today because of the efforts of the founders and those who have already left the company, and I am carrying the baton.
When you joined the company in 2002, what was the atmosphere like?
Hiraoka: At the time, Atlus was divided into three major business segments: home video games, arcade games, and game centers. I joined the home video game team, and after the success of the “Shin Megami Tensei” series, we were in the middle of creating a new title: Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (hereinafter referred to as SMT III). However, in reality, the success of the previous game had put a lot of pressure on us, and we were unable to proceed with the production.
I remember being surprised when I joined the company and was told that we had been working on the game for seven years (*Famitsu Note: As a result, it would take nine years after the release of the previous title Shin Megami Tensei if…). The arcade business was also goin through a trial and error process to figure out what to do next after the Purikura boom settled down. On the other hand, the game center business was doing well, and there was an atmosphere of “let’s expand the number of stores.” We were in a position to get struck by the company, telling us “What are you guys doing?” (laughs)
After forming a capital and business alliance with Kadokawa Shoten in 2000, the company joined Takara in 2003 and the Index Group in 2006. At that time, SMT III and Persona 3 were hits.
Hiraoka: The start of the relationship was based on their interest in Atlus as a game maker. Of course, that was not the only reason for our relationship, as we also worked with Kadokawa Shoten to produce a comprehensive media mix using the “Megaten” series at both companies, and Takara had the idea of expanding their game business based on Takara IP.
And then you joined the Sega Group and 2013, and that brings us to the present. What kind of synergies do you feel have emerged since?
Putting it in easy-to-understand terms, I think the sharing of development know-how and middleware has been significant. It’s hard to talk about specifics because we’re still working on it, but for example, we’ve had the opportunity to use Sega’s motion capture studio as a shared platform. Another thing is that we are now able to use distribution networks in regions where we have been weak in the past. Specifically, in Europe and Asia, we can use distribution networks in regions where we previously had limited access.
The development headquarters have changed along with each capital tie-up. What are your memorable impressions of each?
Hiraoka: When I joined the company, we were in Kagurazaka, and then we moved to Higashi-Shinjuku, Iidabashi, Sangenjaya and now Osaki. I can’t help but think of the locations with memories associated with the works that were mainly developed there. For Kagurazaka, it was SMT III, for Higashi-Shinjuku it was Persona 3, for Iidabashi it was Catherine, and Persona 5 and “Morgana” for Sangenjaya.
Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the motifs of the game’s settings usually reflect the development headquarters of the time. In our new game, Shin Megami Tensei V, Shinagawa, is depicted, which is near Osaki.
And the place where the company is located gets destroyed.
Hiraoka: I guess you could say that (laughs). I guess the only place we didn’t use was Higashi-Shinjuku.
It seems that many fans are looking forward to future development from Atlus, but how many development lines are you currently working on?
Hiraoka: Within the company alone, there are five or six development lines in progress, although the scale may vary depending on the stage of development. Additionally, we are working with Vanillaware and other companies below us on joint projects, and if we include technology research and development, we probably have about 10 projects.
Atlus alone has around 300 – 350 people involved in the development of these projects. When I first joined the company, we had one in-house development line, and three or four outsourced lines. Twenty years have passed since then, and the number of people working for the company as a whole hasn’t changed that much, but now there are no game centers or arcades, and this number is for home video game development only, so I would say that the company has expanded considerably.
There are a lot more active development lines than I thought. Is that what you mean…?
Hiraoka: Whenever I talk about this kind of thing, I often get reprimands like, “What about that work you announced a few years ago?” It’s been a long time since the announcement of Project Re Fantasy, but of course, we are making progress little by little, and I hope to be able to deliver it at the right time.
Are there any other specific titles you can tell us about?
Hiraoka: We haven’t decided on a time frame yet, but we would like to give you some kind of follow-up news as soon as possible on the Etrian Odyssey series, of which we announced a new project a few years ago. Additionally, we are also working on other large unannounced projects that will surprise everyone. I am personally frustrated since I can’t wait to tell you about them (laughs). But please give us some time until the official announcement.
I’m looking forward to it. I was wondering, do you also make your own development tools and engines?
Hiraoka: In addition to the in-house engine used in the Persona series, we also use Unreal, Unity, and other engines that we choose based on the characteristics of the title. Using a highly versatile game engine has many advantages, such as making it easier to integrate staff from other lines and external companies. There is a limit to how much development we can do on our own.
By using a game engine with high usability, won’t it be easier to expand onto multiple platforms?
Hiraoka: We want as many users as possible to play our games, so depending on the title, we will try to expand the hardware options as much as possible. In particular, the number of people who play on Steam (PC) is increasing, and Persona 4 Golden (hereinafter referred to as P4G) has sold over 1 million copies on Steam alone. The knowledge of SOE (Sega of Europe) was very helpful in porting this game to Steam, and I believe that this also led to the extremely high user ratings on Steam. This was also a great synergy.
With the success of P4G, do you think there will be any Steam ports of other older titles in the future?
Hiraoka: We fully understand that there are users who want to play games from the previous generations of hardware but are unable to do so on current hardware. We will consider these issues.
Changing the subject a little bit, I want to ask you to name five titles that you have been involved with that are particularly important to you.
Hiraoka: I’ve talked about this on various occasions, but I’d have to say that my number one choice would have to be SMT III. This is partly because it was released at a time when Atlus was in a slump, but more than anything, I feel strongly about it because it was the work that laid the foundation for the company we know today. When I look at the staff roll, I realize that this is an all-star title with all the members who support the core of Atlus today, including myself.
I think the next title would be Persona 3. We struggled with the frustration of not being able to achieve the results we wanted, and I think we can say that this work determined the direction Atlus would take in the future in many aspects, including the mechanics, world view, and music.
Also, Trauma Center: Second Opinion, produced with little expectation of overseas markets, brought us amazing sales and recognition overseas. I realized the potential of the overseas market. At the time, it was difficult to solidify the game’s operability.
Dragon’s Crown was released during the transitional period when Atlus joined the Sega Group, and it was a huge hit, selling more than one million copies worldwide. It was a very memorable title that gave us great hope when we were not in a position to concentrate on development.
For the last one, I would like to mention P4G. We had originally planned to release it as a PlayStation Portable game, but SCE (at the time, now SE) told us that they would be releasing a new portable game console called the PlayStation Vita, we developed the game for the Vita instead. As a result, the game became the best selling RPG on the Vita and received extremely high praise. We learned the lesson that hardware selection and timing are important, and it became an unforgettable title.
You mentioned Dragon’s Crown. How did your relationship with Vanillaware, the creator of Dragon’s Crown, start?
Hiraoka: We had originally worked together on Princess Crown, so it was natural that Kamitani-san proposed Odin Sphere as a new project. One of the executives who was there at the time said, “It looks good, let’s give it a try,” and we decided to produce it. At the end of the development of Odin Sphere, we had a lot of trouble with the level design, and Atlus and Vanillaware worked together to make it what it is today. I think it was a very fruitful title.
George Kamitani-san, the representative of Vanillaware, was also a member of Atlus, wasn’t he?
Hiraoka: We didn’t work together at the same time, but Kamitani-san was my senior and I was his junior. Because of this, I think we have built a good relationship. We are both companies that specialize in creativity, so our discussions are often heated.
Do you still have discussions about it?
Hiraoka: Atlus doesn’t have anything to say about the graphics, but we do have discussions about the gameplay, including the direction, landing points, leveling, and so on. This is because we believe that Vanillaware is an important partner who aspires to create something unique, just like Atlus. We respect each other and continue to work hard to improve each other’s skills. Odin Sphere, which we created despite the many challenges we faed before its release, has been highly acclaimed both in Japan and overseas. We have received many prestigious awards, and we hope to continue this relationship in the future.
If vaccination against the coronavirus infection progresses, I think we will see the resumption of local events, but are there any prospects from you?
Hiraoka: As we just announced, we’ll be starting the Persona series’ 25th anniversary project in the fall. We’d like to develop various aspects of the project. For the past two years, we’ve had very few opportunities to interact directly with our users, so we’d like to actively hold events to the largest possible extent. This is not only for Japan, but also for overseas.
What are your thoughts on the media mix strategy that is essential for a strong IP?
Hiraoka: At Atlus, we are always conscious of “multi-use,” “media mix,” and “multi-hardware” as part of our strategy. At the moment, we’re mostly focusing on Persona, but we’ll be expanding “Megaten” with the release of the new title, and we’ll continue to focus on Atlus x Vanillaware titles, and other Atlus IP. We’ve also created a matrix table, and we’re thinking about our strategy while saying things like, “There are a lot of places that aren’t circled.” Of course, we will take into consideration not only Japan, but also globally in the future.
I heard that you also renewed your “mission” as a company this spring.
Hiraoka: That’s right. We have changed our mission from “Continuity and Innovation” to “Unique and Universal” to express our desire to deliver unique, highly original works to people around the world. Atlus is celebrating its 35th anniversary, and if we were to put it into human terms, we would say that we are not even halfway through our lives yet. Therefore, we will continue to create new titles based on this mission. Of course, this does not negate our previous mission of “continuity and innovation,” or the spirit of continuing to release titles that meet the expectations of our users.
What do you want to see in the next 10 to 20 years for Atlus with those goals in mind?
Hiraoka: In the past few years, new types of platforms such as cloud game services have begun to expand in the game industry. In terms of profit models, non-purchase only models are also prevailing. I think the first issue for Atlus will be how to respond to this situation. In that sense, I think we will see a new turning point in the near future. I feel that there are more and more games for smartphones that require a high level of gameplay and artistry, and I feel that the time has come for Atlus to show its true potential. If we are going to work on such a game, we would like to challenge ourselves to create a game for smartphones that will naturally be welcomed with surprise by people around the world.
I’m really looking forward to the future.
Hiraoka: I’m sorry to keep you waiting, but we’re working on a wide variety of titles, including those that have been announced and of course those that have yet to be announced, so that we can deliver them to you as soon as possible. In addition to the recently announced Persona 25th anniversary project, we also have a few other surprises in store for you. Please look forward to the future of Atlus!