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Interview: John Greiner introduces MonkeyPaw Games, a localization firm for digital releases


John Greiner was president of the US-based Hudson Entertainment for five years, and worked for Hudson Soft in Japan for fifteen years before that. Now, he's taken his expertise in the Japanese game industry and applied it to a new project, the digital distribution-focused publishing firm MonkeyPaw Games, a company that will specialize in remaking and localizing Japanese games from the past and present.

In an interview conducted during E3, Greiner explained the new company's plans, opined on 3D and his favorite "lost" Japanese games, and provided valuable insight on what it's like to do business in Japan.

Joystiq: Details were scarce when you made the announcement of MonkeyPaw Games earlier this month.

John Greiner: The reason we didn't want to release many titles -- what we're doing -- is because we are having another release shortly, but first we wanted to show who the company was and what we're trying to do. The foundation of the company is the bridge that we give between Japan and the West.

As you know, there are lots of Japanese games that never made it to the West, and should have made it to the West, but for whatever reason -- usually a lack of understanding on the Japanese side that there is a market for Japanese games in America and in the West. What we plan to do is form a community of like-minded gamers, people who want to see a lot of these great Japanese games come to the West.

What do you mean by building a community? Are you talking about finding out what people who are into Japanese games want localized, so you can help bring those titles over?

Exactly, exactly. So, I know, just by talking to what I call "Japanophiles" or people who love Japanese culture, that they have certain needs and wants and they've never been met. So, okay, if you tell me what games you want, I go after those games, and bring them over. But that's not the only way we'll do this. There are some things like PSOne Classics that are fairly easy to bring over.

There are other things that we think have a great mechanic, but need some kind of remake. And by "remake" I don't mean just putting some new graphics on. I mean there are some core elements in the game that are great, but they need to be taken to a different level -- today's intensity, today's graphics, today's level of excitement. We'll be doing a number of different titles that are in that category, as well.

So first you're acting as a publisher for existing Japanese games. Is that focused on digital?

All digital.

In addition to PSOne Classics on PSN, does your strategy also include platforms like Virtual Console?

Also includes Virtual Console, all three platforms, actually.

So, DSiWare, XBLA -- I don't know how many XBLA exclusives there are in Japan.

Not many -- three, actually. It's funny because the Japanese are now waking up to XBLA, so ... I'm in Japan for a lot of the time. There's a reason I'm there. It's not just because I like sushi. I want to be close to those Japanese companies so that we can also help them. They have so many great hidden gems that need to be brought over to XBLA, where I think a lot of companies just don't think they could make for XBLA, or don't know how to market for XBLA, or to do anything in the West. You probably know lots of Japanese companies whose games you love but you never see them in the States.

"By 'remake' I don't mean just putting some new graphics on."

Like Cave.

Cave is a good one, From is another one ... There's a lot of stuff where companies don't want to invest in a US office, or don't really have a partner, or don't really know how to penetrate on a marketing scale that's needed in the West.

So, you're digitally publishing classics and newer games. You also said you're working with companies to remake some titles. Is this something where you'll license it and you have a developer? Or are you working with the original developer?

It could go either way, but in most cases, in order to bring that element to the West, you almost need to do the development yourself, which is what we're doing.

So do you have an internal developer, or is there a company you work with?

We work with a couple different companies, yeah. Frozen Codebase is one company we're working with. A couple others that we're close to doing deals with -- haven't signed the contracts yet -- but we see who's good, we see who has the talent.

We like to think of it this way: keeping that mechanic, but having a much bigger canvas to work with, and creating a much bigger piece of art with some core mechanic. I can't tell you the games yet, but if you were to hear them, you'd get it. All I can say is this: It won't just be a graphic improvement.

It's a full remake of the game.

Not a full remake -- a full "rebirth" of the game. Let me give you an example of something we thought didn't work: R-Type, which is a beautiful game by Tozai for XBLA, but it didn't go far enough. You need to go over that "oh, here's R-Type in today's graphics."

More of a Bionic Commando Rearmed?

Rearmed, yeah. That's closer, but really even more than that. I think if you look at Castle Crashers, and where that came from, and how you put that in today's perspective, I think that's a better ...

Your former company Hudson published Alien Crush Returns, which was a completely original game. Is that the sort of thing you're looking at?

Pretty much. Here's a good example of where you need to go: Bomberman Live. Won game of the year, was great, a great remake. There are some things that were different, but Bomberman the mechanic is always the same. And of course you don't want to go 3D with Bomberman, because you'd get Act Zero. You want to do something that really makes it more fun. Maybe that's not the best example because Bomberman is always Bomberman.

We just added things that we thought were unique for the Western market. My point about that is that we made that game in America, and I think the Japanese were surprised. They didn't realize it would be such a big hit. They didn't understand why it was such a big hit. What made that different from their Japanese games?

Japanese companies don't put an emphasis on online play, right? It's still sort of the Wii thought of "it's so much more fun to have people in the same room together."

Right. That's a good point, because we're also bringing US games to Japan. That's a great market, except for the real spark of digital download has yet to catch. It will, because who wants to go to the store every time they want a game, and who wants to pay 60 bucks, and all that kind of stuff? So it'll happen, but it hasn't yet caught fire.

You're planning to localize American games in Japan. Have you talked to any Western devs yet? Do you have anything lined up?

We do, yes. The first four games are coming pretty soon. They require translation. Some of the Japanese games that I'm bringing to America will be what we call "sonomama," which means "as-is." Japanese text. We're not going to present any RPGs in that form, but ... and we are bringing some RPGs that we'll translate, but for the most part, we want to give US gamers the exact same thing that Japanese gamers have.

And you're not announcing any games yet?

We wanted to, but we're working with Sony and you'll hear something very soon. Next couple of weeks, you'll hear what's coming out.

Can you tell us what you're working on for the Japanese market?

I can't tell you that either, sorry. We had a release for the company, because we wanted to get the company name out, but unfortunately these things are just a week or two later. This is E3, and so much news gets put out, and we don't want to get lost in that shuffle as well, so a week or two later, the rush of news has died, and then we can start to release information that I think will be more effective.

Pick any game in the history of Japanese development -- if you could grab it and release it on PSN, XBLA right now, what would it be?

I would have to go to Konami, because they have so many great games, and I'd have to start with Policenauts and Snatcher.

[Policenauts, image via HG101]
So Snatcher has been translated, it's been released on Sega CD here ...

Right, but my point with that is games that came before other things. Because a company like Konami will go and put out anything that has to do with Metal Gear Solid, but tend not to look at what came before Metal Gear. And I think that is a big market, because people who have played every Metal Gear game will want to see where it came from.

There's new hardware -- the 3DS. Are you already jumping on that?

Yep. Were you impressed by the 3DS hardware?

The hardware, yes. I take it you weren't so thrilled about it?

No, no. I liked all the events, I thought they were all pretty aggressive in what they were trying to do. Obviously, Microsoft and Sony are focused on what Nintendo was focused on four years ago. But it's okay, because they've taken it to another level. And so I'm happy to see any kind of innovation bring more users on. And I think Sony said it outright, "We want to make this machine more than just a hardcore machine, we want to bring in these other users." And that's smart, and you have to do that.

Nintendo is always unique, fresh-feeling, and they offered 3D, and I think -- my question to you is really the Sony 3D versus the Nintendo 3D. I know it's really different, but which one is fun? And 3D without being fun is nothing, so you really need to make things fun.

"I do remember the Virtual Boy. We invested heavily in that. And we got burned heavily on that."

Sony mentioned it in their conference, they said, "Look, you have to design the game around the 3D. You can't just add 3D and expect it to be something." And I think that's what's really going to be the breaking point for both. You really need to have it: "immersive" is not the word, because the video clip of Killzone was pretty immersive, but did it add any fun to that? I didn't play it, so I don't know, but it made me dizzy. I don't know if it really taps into that fun factor. That's what I'm waiting to see.

I think Nintendo will be closer, because Nintendo's always focused on fun, and they've already, I think, what did they say, 15 years they've been developing this, or something like that. And I do remember the Virtual Boy. We invested heavily in that. And we got burned heavily on that. That was not fun, and so it failed. It was the same kind of thing. Red, so what? There wasn't anything that really sparked your interest. My point is, I'm going to wait and see, but we are going to develop for them, and we'll find out soon enough, but at the same time I'm always interested in new technology.

Have you worked with Nintendo on digital stuff for 3DS yet?

I was just there right before I came here and we talked about it, and they want our titles. They said, "Yeah, definitely, this would make a great launch title -- so hurry up and go." Of course, they're going to be very aggressive and gain third-party support. Okay, that's good, so we'll move forward. Still sketchy on how big the market will be and all this kind of stuff, but I think it's worth it. Especially for our licensed brands, because it will be effective for marketing for sure. People will be like, "Oh yeah, I want that game in 3D."

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