Keiichi Yano wants to make a music game with heart

Despite Kickstarter failure, he still believes in 'Project Rap Rabbit.'

Nick Summers, @nisummers
June 23, 2017
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    "Now let me welcome everybody to the wild, wild West.
    A state that's untouchable like Eliot Ness."


    It's rare for a video-game developer to rap during an interview. It's rarer still for him to recite a Tupac track with perfect pitch and cadence. But that's Keiichi Yano, the Tokyo-based game designer behind cult classics Gitaroo Man and Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, better known as Elite Beat Agents in the West. He loves music and will happily talk for hours about jazz, electronica or the intricacies of mumble rap.

    His latest game, Project Rap Rabbit, fell woefully short of its Kickstarter goal this week. I met Yano a few days prior, during the chaos of E3, when it already seemed inevitable the campaign would fail. We talked about the title, its development and how he might proceed without public funding. To my surprise, Yano was unfazed by the Kickstarter's fate and hinted that there might be another way to bring the game to market. "I can't comment on anything we're doing right now or anybody that we're talking to. But yeah, I hope we can get this out one way or another."

    So what is 'Project Rap Rabbit'?

    Yano's latest project is a wildly ambitious music game about Toto-Maru, a rabbit with the ability to change the world through rhythm and rhyme. Like Gitaroo Man, it's a title that treats music as both a gameplay and storytelling device. Whereas Rock Band is essentially a virtual jukebox, allowing you to perform your favorite songs, Project Rap Rabbit is an original interactive musical. The tracks are enjoyable to play through, requiring precision strategy and timing, but they also reinforce and accentuate the narrative, underlining key conversations and conflicts.

    The game is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan, where anthropomorphic animals roam the streets. When the planet is struck by a mysterious calamity, many citizens are forced to find new homes. While some embrace the movement of people and the diversity it brings, many resent it, creating a social divide not too dissimilar to our own reality. Toto-Maru's quest is simple: to bring the people back together, restoring peace and prosperity in the process.

    Keiichi Yano is best known for 'Ouendan', a rhythm game for the Nintendo DS. It was brought to the West as 'Elite Beat Agents' in 2006.

    A partner in rhyme

    Yano is working on the game with Masaya Matsuura, the creator of the colorful and eccentric PlayStation title PaRappa the Rapper. The pair met 18 years ago, before Yano embarked on his own rhythm game for the PlayStation 2. "I first approached him when I started developing Gitaroo Man because I had to meet the man who was the source of all this, right?" Yano recalls with a chuckle. They've kept in touch since and, on several occasions, considered collaborating. But it never panned out, due to a mixture of factors — financial, technological and cultural.

    So, for years, they would meet once or twice a week in Tokyo and discuss what they were working on. "Every time I see him, it always feels fresh to me," Yano explains. "Because he's a very progressive guy. He might be thinking one thing one year, and then he'll be completely someplace else in another. So it's always just fun to catch up with him and get updates on what he's thinking."

    The project started with PQube, a small indie game publisher based in Letchworth, a leafy town 40 miles north of London. The company asked Yano whether he would like to make a new game, and he, in turn, reached out to Matsuura. The Gitaroo Man developer knew he wanted to "augment" the project with "some other force" but hadn't considered Matsuura until an early brainstorming session with PQube. When the idea was brought up, he quickly messaged his old friend on Facebook. "'Hey, there's a chance [that we can do a new music game], what do you want to do?'" Matsuura was intrigued and the pair set up a meeting face-to-face.

    "It didn't feel like a reunion at all," Yano recalls, "it was more about, 'Let's explore new ideas and new ways of thinking about things.'" Almost immediately, the two developers found common ground. They were interested in similar ideas, both narratively and from a gameplay perspective, which quickly led to an agreement. Matsuura joined iNiS, the video game studio Yano co-founded in 1997 (it stands for "infinite Noise of the inner Soul") to help lead the project. With a 10-person team, the pair began formalizing what the story and mechanics would be.

    Express yourself

    For years, Yano and Matsuura have dreamed of a music game that allows the player to be more expressive. In the past, when they discussed potential collaborations, it was often about music manipulation, tracks that would change tempo depending on your performance or branch into different styles at the press of a button. Some of these concepts have since been explored, but at the time, they were wholly original. Both designers craved an experience in which the player could feel they were creating something truly original and personal in real-time.

    "How can music be more interactive and play a more defining role rather than be just, I dunno, the base layer that everything goes on top of?" Yano said. "Because that's what modern music games do today, right? It's all essentially supported by the music itself. And the music itself doesn't change, because they're usually songs that you and I both know. So you're just building gameplay mechanics on top of that." Instead, Yano wanted the music to be driven by the gameplay.

    "[Matsuura] and I were both musicians and instrumentalists, so we really understand and love the interactiveness, if that's a word, of musical instruments," Yano said. "Because that's the coolest thing, right? It's cool to press something and then suddenly the sound is just ... awesome. You're immersed in that, and there's a feeling against that. So that's what we're always trying to do."

    "We really understand and love the interactiveness, if that's a word, of musical instruments."

    That's easier said than done. Mainstream video games need to be approachable and easy to understand. That restricts the number of options you can give the player at any one time. Push too far toward realism, for instance, and you'll end up with a piece of professional audio software. Go too far the other way and you'll make a thoroughly enjoyable but creatively limiting title like Guitar Hero. "On some level, you need to virtualize the experience so that it's still entertainment," Yano adds. "But at the same time, let the player feel like they're making important choices."

    Rap battles

    To that end, Yano and Matsuura developed a rap-battle simulator. Project Rap Rabbit is split into two phases: call and response, which mimics how lyricists spar in real life. As your opponent tries to embarrass you, the game will highlight "focus words" that make up the bulk of their argument. A mood wheel will then show up in the corner of the screen, giving you time to choose a counter-rapping style. Coerce, joke, boast or laugh — it's up to you. During the response phase, you'll be asked to press buttons rhythmically with the beat and hit specific triggers when the focus words appear in your own lyrics.

    Enemies will be susceptible to different rapping styles. As the difficulty ramps up, these weaknesses will change midbattle. You'll need to read the situation and, at certain junction points, change your strategy in order to deal extra damage. Toto-Maru will also have a skill tree, similar to conventional role-playing games, so you can define his strengths and shortcomings as a rapper. It all adds to the game's depth, which far outstrips Gitaroo Man and PaRappa the Rapper. Expert players, for instance, will learn to combo by quickly alternating between rap styles, or using the turntable-inspired sample technique that requires double, triple and quadruple-tapping specific focus words.

    If all goes to plan, Project Rap Rabbit will have multiplayer too. Yano wants the game to be technical and competitive — the musical equivalent of Street Fighter or Tekken. So, unlike Rock Band, which offers a simple score chase, Project Rap Rabbit will put two players head-to-head. "So it's all about, 'If you do this, I'm going to counter with this, and then if you're going to counter with this, I'm going to counter with something else.'" That's why the call and response phases are so crucial. Like a high-speed game of chess, top players will need to plan multiple moves ahead.

    A story to tell

    Early in the project, Yano and Matsuura talked about Japan and its "hidden" history. Certain periods, Yano explains, were largely undocumented and raise questions about Japanese culture and the influence of outside forces. You can find paintings and patterns, he says, that feel out of place for their particular time period or reference styles that first blossomed in other countries.

    In particular, the pair were interested in the story of Yasuke, a black samurai from Africa. While his origins are shrouded in mystery, most believe he was brought over as a slave in 1579. He quickly became a local sensation, however, which earned him an audience with the hegemon and warlord Oda Nobunaga. Yasuke impressed and was eventually hired as Nobunaga's retainer and weapon bearer. His life as a samurai was cut short when Nobunaga was attacked and forced to commit seppuku by his general, Akechi Mitsuhide, in 1582, following a coup.

    "Again, it's the discovery of this hidden history that not a lot of people know," Yano says.

    Project Rap Rabbit is a fantastical, offbeat attempt at filling in these gaps. Toto-Maru started as a human; a rapping samurai with an eye-catching kimono. But as Yano and Matsuura developed the story, which centers around diversity and inclusion, they realized the game needed a friendlier, more-approachable hero. By chance, the team's lead artist had started drawing a rabbit. It immediately caught Yano's attention. "I said, 'That's interesting! That kind of works!'" The artist developed the idea overnight, and it eventually became the key art for the website, Kickstarter and teaser trailer. "In one fell swoop, we had the world and the protagonist and — I would not say the father or teacher figure, but the authority figure — all wrapped up in this one piece of art," Yano says.

    The animals weren't enough, though. The team wanted to imbue its version of feudal Japan with some modern, fresh ideas. It turned to anime like Spirited Away, the hit fantasy film by Studio Ghibli, and Samurai Champloo, which combined Edo-era Japan with kinetic hip-hop music and culture. Yano started drawing drones in the sky and liked how they looked against the game's existing artwork. It reminded him of the classic Ukiyo-e art style, which contemporary artists have started adopting to portray current and futuristic scenes.

    Rap was then a natural genre to explore. "A lot of people think it's because we're creating some PaRappa spiritual sequel. That was, actually, really more secondary. It was more about the fact that we had a message we wanted to convey, and rap just seemed like a really good vehicle to do that."

    There are many types of rap music, all of which will be represented in the game. In general, however, it won't sound as "homey" as PaRappa the Rapper, in order to reflect the 20 years that have passed since Matsuura's game came out. "Rap has evolved; it's a really big part of our mainstream culture now," Yano says. "It's in all forms of pop music, and it's obviously an expressive instrument in and of itself. Not to mention there's a whole culture surrounding rap battles and street rap. So with us doing a rap game, and all that history behind us, it's going to be a different sound to PaRappa."

    Keiichi Yano is optimistic 'Project Rap Rabbit' will come out "one way or another."

    Kickstarter troubles

    All of these ambitions have been overshadowed by the team's Kickstarter. The way Yano describes it, crowdfunding was the only option. PQube was involved in the project but didn't have the resources to fund all of its development. They needed cash and the public's support to continue. But the campaign was criticized for its lack of gameplay footage and some strange stretch goals, one of which required $4.96 million to make a version for the Switch. The stretch goals were later reworked, but by that time, the damage had been done. People were excited about the project, but it didn't have the momentum to reach its goal.

    "It's clear that there were things we could have done better," Yano says. "And that was a good learning experience."

    He admits that "with 20-20 hindsight," the team probably showed its game a little too early. "But I actually don't regret making that decision, because it allowed us to engage with a community at a time when we weren't 100 percent sure there would be a community."

    It had been so long since Gitaroo Man and Project Rap Rabbit, after all. They knew there was an audience for music games, but their particular style, which blends story and gameplay, felt like a gamble. "Engaging with your community very early is always a scary thing because you're still working on stuff. But I actually had a lot of fun with it. Man, things like, all of the fan art that came through. It was just good to hear a lot of feedback early on around what people expected from us, and obviously there was some amount of things that we channeled through that exchange, and that we reflected overall [in the game] as well."

    Still, the campaign finished with $205,000, nowhere near its $1.08 million Kickstarter goal. That was not the original objective.

    "Crowdfunding in the modern day, it's a very tough place. It requires certain things to happen even before you start the campaign. And you know, we would have probably been better off doing some things that we just weren't able to, for one reason or another." Yano seems upbeat, however. He talks about the game with a passion and conviction that suggests its release is an absolute certainty. The collaboration with Matsuura, the ideas underpinning the music and story. I have a feeling there's something he's not telling me.

    "We thank everybody that supported us, regardless of the final outcome on Kickstarter. We're very thankful to everybody who supported it. I loved the fan art and everything, and yeah, we're going to try to get this out one way or another. So please stay tuned for updates. We'll have more as we have more!"

    Make of that what you will.

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