Grasshopper's middle age

For two whole decades, he’s sat atop a studio pumping out a mix of the weird and wonderful; games picking up plaudits as much as they were dismissed by the buying public. Even in an industry as boom-and-bust as the world of gaming is, Goichi ‘Suda51’ Suda is still soldiering on with Grasshopper Manufacture. And he’s almost as bewildered as we are about that fact.

“Looking back, I feel the same way you do,” he laughs. “One unique thing that’s allowed us to survive so long is the fact that unlike other developers who usually stick with one publisher and work with them for a very long time, Grasshopper has had the opportunity to work with lots of different publishers.” Sega, Bandai Namco, Level-5 – even western outfits like EA and Deep Silver have all partnered with Suda’s studio for releases over the past 20 years. “That has really empowered us to be more flexible, to be able to adapt to different work styles,” the CEO continues, “and that’s enhanced our game development overall.”

The most recent publisher Grasshopper has worked with is Nintendo, partnering up for the physical release of Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes. Suda himself was one of an early batch of Japanese developers invited to see the Switch, and opted to make something exclusive for the format, attempting to take full advantage of the hardware’s idiosyncrasies.

You’d think all of this is typical behaviour for an indie studio, but Grasshopper was purchased by GungHo Online Entertainment in 2013, and has been directed by its Japanese parent ever since. Even so, Suda does see his team as independent in spirit. “And I intend to keep moving in that direction,” he says. “We used to be a team of around 50 people, but we’ve gone down to 20 now. We’re pretty much close to being fully independent. I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

That ethos comes from the top, with Suda impossible to separate from Grasshopper, and vice-versa. So when asked about how the man sees his career over the years, it’s easy to draw parallels between it and the company he started. “As far as my career is concerned, there are different eras – different styles I’ve adapted, and different styles I’ve stuck with,” he explains. “Currently I feel as though I’m in the fourth era with this iteration of Grasshopper.

“The first era – the first 10 years of my career, up to No More Heroes – I was pretty much in full director mode the entire time, pushing out games one after the other. Then, in the next five-year era, my company got a lot bigger thanks to the success of No More Heroes.” Around the same time the PS3 and Xbox 360 came about, along with the Unreal Engine on said consoles.

Lollipop Chainsaw: imaginative, silly, rough

“That led to Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Killer is Dead – what I consider the HD trilogy,” Suda says. “During that period I stepped back from a director position, I was more of a creative director and producer… For the third era, that’s when GungHo came in, and I started making games more closely with them for the next five years.

"I want to return to the original Grasshopper roots I started with in my first 10 years"

“Finally now in this fourth era I want to return to the original Grasshopper roots that I started with in my first 10 years. That’s what led to the changes in the studio you see now.”

Those changes see a smaller team, but the scope for projects has widened significantly. When courted by the likes of EA a decade ago, Suda and Grasshopper were stymied: if the paymasters weren’t happy, the game wouldn’t happen. See Kurayami, a planned game based on Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Conceptualised but ultimately cancelled, it ended up – in some form – in the finished Shadows of the Damned. Would Suda go back to this pet project now? “I feel like if it were a bit earlier it would be harder to sell [Kurayami], but now I feel the time might be good,” he laughs.

Shadows of the Damned originally started out as the Kurayami project. I feel very satisfied with what SotD ended up becoming, but at the same time there’s a frustration that I wasn’t able to realise the original vision I had. Just talking about it with
you now, I feel it’s rekindled the flame of Kurayami inside me.”

But the near future won’t see Kafkaesque games from Grasshopper, at least until after one other project is finished. Suda began his career working on the Fire Pro Wrestling series, and his love for pro wrestling has endured – so naturally one of the next titles he wants from Grasshopper involves a bemuscled pantomime artiste in spandex. “I really want to make a game where the main character is a pro wrestler,” Suda explains. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to make that in the next 10 years or so.

I’m working on a project for it right now, actually… I want to make an action-adventure pro wrestling game where a pro wrestler near retirement goes to save his grandchild.” Whatever’s next, there are no plans of slowing down just yet – in fact, there’s a bit of an omen in the air.

“I actually turn 51 this year [on 2 January], so starting in 2019 I will finally be Suda51. That will be the true starting point to my career!”

Travis Touchdown is almost a mascot of sorts

Vision over compromise

It would be rude not to ask a man with decades in the industry for his advice for the young and hungry devs of the world – and Suda is happy to oblige: “I feel there are a lot of chances floating out there these days – it’s so different from what I grew up with,” he says. “There’s Steam and other PC platforms, more and more ways to release games every day. So people shouldn’t be afraid.

“I feel successful indie games are ones where developers only focus on what they want to create – the noise and the passion. “They don’t try to bend or compromise their vision. That’s what ends up making them shine in the end.”

This story is from Wireframe magazine Issue #5. Interested in updates from the world of video games? Become a subscriber.

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