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Haunt house: a visit with NanaOn-Sha


Just before TGS this year, I paid a visit to NanaOn-Sha's small studio in Tokyo's Aoyama neighborhood. The majority of the tiny studio is the meeting and testing room seen in our gallery below, where I spoke to founder Masaya Matsuura and director of development Dewi Tanner, and played a demo of the studio's upcoming XBLA game, Haunt.

Despite the relatively cozy surroundings, there's room for an impressive array of Parappa and Um Jammer Lammy merchandise. Was the Lammy pillow really something that was marketed? And just outside the door, there's (barely) room for all the awards NanaOn-Sha's games have received.

Improbably, there's also room for a bathtub in the small studio, something that Matsuura told me has been useful in the impossibly hot and humid summer Tokyo's experienced. "Especially this summer," he noted, "Japan has difficulty using electric power" as a result of conservation efforts following the March earthquake. They offered to let me use the bathtub, but there will unfortunately be no Joystiq review, as I declined. Past the break, Matsuura and Tanner speak about their studio, partnerships with Western companies, Haunt, and not baths.

Gallery: NanaOn-Sha studio | 17 Photos

NanaOn-Sha is a team of just eight people. The studio can get by with that small number thanks to partnerships with other companies. "Currently, our business style is a huge change from ten years ago," Matsuura said. For Haunt, it's working with British developer Zoe Mode.

"In our country's video game business, still it is very rare to work with western companies to make games," Matsuura said. "If we can't extend these kind of possibilities, I'm worried about each territory's game business going in a different direction." He related this tendency to the music industry. "In 1999, Warner Music released less than 1% of western titles in Japan. To get the western records at the time, you had to import it at Tower Records or somewhere."

"They're not doing it correctly, is the problem," Tanner added. "Our relationship with Zoe Mode is very tight. We make creative decisions together, and with the publisher, Microsoft, as well." This stands in contrast with other projects where communication breaks down between, say, Japan and Europe -- or, as Matsuura noted, "just hiring a Chinese company for a cheaper cost."

Haunt was first announced at TGS last year, as part of a suite of Japanese Kinect games, including Diabolical Pitch, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, and Project Draco. When Haunt was introduced at that show ... it basically didn't exist, having just been dreamed up in response to a call for pitches from Microsoft. "There was no game at that point, so we had to make the video from scratch, just for TGS," Tanner said. "That was fun times."

Following the hasty debut, NanaOn-Sha had to learn how to make a Kinect game, which meant attending Microsoft seminars. "I don't know the current situation," Matsuura said, "but at the time we started this project, we didn't have any type of 3D navigation game on Kinect. So it was a big challenge to do walking in 3D space." In the interest of selling the game in Japan, the team has also designed Haunt to be playable within a smaller-than-usual space.

That is very important ... spinach for the Popeye in my brain.- Masaya Matsuura

Matsuura continues to work in both music games and music -- before becoming a game designer, he was a well-known musician. Most recently, he designed WINtA, an iOS music game, for the OneBigCharity organization, which Matsuura calls "a lovely project." He and his team are still making music for that game, and even experimenting with new gameplay innovations. "This spring, we got the chance to make a WINtA prototype that synchronizes 12 iPhones using wi-fi connection," Matsuura said." We brought them into an elementary school in Kyushu, and we tried a test with kids. We went with a famous classic song: some girl played the violin part, some boy played the French horn part, like that." There are no plans at the moment to release this distributed version of WINtA.

Matsuura continues to seek opportunities to combine his love of music and games. Even though Haunt isn't a music game, "we are putting the same kind of effort into the game by having unique sound parts and music-related interactions." He said this approach, trying new things that combine the two disciplines, provide him with challenges. "That is very important ... spinach for the Popeye in my brain."

"I'm just making something new by putting my power into various things," he said. "If I make music, suddenly I come up with an idea to put this track into a game environment. It's my brain's demand. I can't deny it if any ideas come out."

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