Xbox Live Developer Interview: CAVE, makers of Dodonpachi Maximum

Dodonpachi Maximum recently arrived on Xbox Live and is currently wowing hardcore gamers with its old-school design and difficulty. It’s also notable for being the first mobile Xbox Live title developed exclusively by a Japanese developer: CAVE Interactive CO, Ltd. Windows Phone needs more Japanese games; hopefully CAVE’s support encourages others to follow suit. WPCentral is proud to bring you a new installment of our Xbox Live Developer Interview series as we speak with Hiroyuki Kimura, Dodonpachi Maximum’s producer. Enjoy this rare look into the development of a shoot-em-up.

Please tell us about yourself and what you do at CAVE.

Top and bottom views of the RSF-4D from DoDonpachi Maximum

At CAVE I work as a producer/director. Recently I was a director for Akai Katana and producer for Dodonpachi Maximum.

What were some of your favorite games when you were younger?

I was actually more of an active kid who loved sports more than a videogame kind. Playing soccer, tag -  things along those lines.

Now that you're older and develop games, do you find the time to play many of them? If so, what are some recent titles you’ve enjoyed?

When I have time I rather go out than play videogames. I like going out for a drive, shopping, dining… Sorry this must not be the answer you were expecting. But going out lets you see many things -- in fact I got some of the ideas for Dodonpachi Maximum while going out.

Let’s talk about shoot-em-ups or shmups. Today the genre has many dedicated fans, but overall shoot-em-ups are much less popular than they used to be. Why do you think that is?

Rear view of the RSF-4D

I think people's idea of playing games has changed over the years. Now more people simply give up when they encounter something they can't overcome with ease. It wasn't like that back in the day.

Most people welcomed challenges in videogames and enjoyed working hard to beat that tough boss.

In that sense, shmups generally require some hard working before a first-timer finally manages to get to the end of a level so I guess that kind of scares newcomers away.

What can Japanese shoot-em-up makers do to attract new players in addition to dedicated players?

We have tried many methods and strategies over the years but this is a very difficult question to find an answer for.

You may think making the games easy may attract new players but it actually isn't that simple because then it wouldn't be any fun for hardcore players. We also believe games need to have a certain level of difficulty to keep people playing for a long time.

If we try to make it easier by cutting down on the number of bullets then it wouldn't be a manic shooter would it?

So we decided to take a different approach -- Let's just make some good games.

If you take a look at our latest release Dodonpachi Maximum you'll instantly notice it doesn't look any easy at all. But that's exactly what we wanted to create.

I mean of course we wouldn't release anything that's impossible to beat, it's just that it takes time and practice to get good at this game. But isn't that what games are supposed to be? The harder the challenges, the better it feels when you finally reach the end!

What I wanted to say is, it is important to gain new players but right now we are more focused on making great games.

Looking at the current generation of game consoles, CAVE chose to support the Xbox 360 over its competitors, the Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii. What factors led to this decision?

DeathSmiles (left) and DeathSmiles II

When we decided to make games for consoles we naturally wanted to make something on a platform that has more people. Also, from the development perspective since we originally made arcade games on PC it was easier to port the old games onto Xbox 360 which shares a similar development environment compared to other consoles. There are also more hardcore gamers on Xbox 360 and generally fans seemed to welcome the transfer so as a result it was a really good decision.

We did consider PS3 too but when we thought about releasing titles in less time it was our first priority to develop them on a platform easier to work on, and it sort of ended up taking us a long time and that's where we are right now.

DeathSmiles was Cave’s first Xbox 360 title to be released in the US. The sequel, DeathSmiles II, was released strictly to the Games on Demand service rather than retail. Do Games on Demand titles have a problem with visibility?

We think download sales are becoming more and more common these days and we want to release more games via download in the future but you are right in saying there's a problem with visibility.

At the root of this problem is that since we have never released games outside of Japan without the help of distributors we do not really know how to market our products. That's definitely something we need to work on in the future.

How would you compare the reception of DeathSmiles II with CAVE’s Xbox Live Arcade titles like Guwange and NIN2-JUMP in the US?

Honestly, it was pretty disastrous...

Even though there wasn't that much reading involved, admittedly it wasn't the greatest idea to leave all the text in Japanese.

Let’s talk about Dodonpachi, CAVE’s longest-running series. What has made the Dodonpachi titles the most popular of your games?

Dodonpachi Maximum prototype design and final game comparison

Donpachi was the very first game we put our hands on and at the time when manic shooters weren't as popular it was a groundbreaking move to make it possible to dodge the storm of bullets by making the hit area very small.

And now, manic shooters have become our signature genre of game and Dodonpachi series is very well-known among the fans of the genre.

When the player takes a hit in these games, his ship does not disappear from the screen like in most other shmups. How does this affect the gameplay?

Dodonpachi Maximum was developed exclusively for smartphones, so we wanted to make it easy to play on the go. You wouldn't want to spend a lot of time waiting on something you are just doing on the go, would you? That's how we came up with the idea of making the ships stay in their place when taking damage in order for you to really get into the game in a short time.

CAVE has ported several of its games to iPhone and you just released Dodonpachi Maximum for Windows Phone. Does this mean your company is leaving the console market to focus on mobile phone games?

That is a big possibility. I don't know for sure because it all relates with how the market changes but Japanese people nowadays have less time to themselves so they don't really have time to really sit back and relax at home to play videogames. Compared to consoles, games on mobile devices can be played during commuting or waiting for something - generally short durations of time so we consider that market very appealing considering the current state of Japan and its people. There's no point in developing games if people don't have time to play them.

The backgrounds and enemies in Dodonpachi Maximum look much different than other Dodonpachi games. What inspired the new look?

The first, third, and fifth boss designs from Dodonpachi Maximum

The concept behind Dodonpachi Maximum is playing in an attraction at an amusement park so we didn't want to have any scary or threatening figures in it. We wanted to create the atmosphere of a cheerful and fun place for people to want to visit and play with friends. And that's how the cute and non-threatening designs of the enemies came about. There are literally thousands of bullets flying across the screen, but at least you are up against somewhat charming enemies!

For some players, simply completing Dodonpachi Maximum will be harder than past Dodonpachi games because Maximum only gives players three lives to beat a level and no continues. Most bullet hell games let players continue during a stage when their lives run out. Is there a reason for the strict life limit in this game?

The idea of having three lives per level was in support of making it possible to play the game in a short time, so that you can play a stage when you are waiting for the next train to come, etc. The scores are recorded after each stage too.

We believe the whole point of playing a game is facing challenges. There's fun in all players playing under the same condition towards the same goals. And that's why we made it that way.

Also, you'd get bored if there's no challenge in it, wouldn't you? The game mechanics are as simple as it gets so we made the whole game a little bit difficult, but just difficult enough for you to work on a several times and be able to beat.

In Dodonpachi Maximum, players can unlock harder versions of stages by performing well on the regular versions of each stage. But even the regular versions are extremely challenging compared to most games. Wouldn’t more players be able to enjoy the game if there was a true Easy or Beginner mode?

Actually this game is really for the beginners to start on. The game mechanics doesn't get any easier than dodging and firing at enemies with a single finger!

Imagine this game having no challenges, a simple and easy game with just as simple and easy controls. That wouldn't be fun at all.

I don't think making it easy for everyone is really how games should be. It's fine if some experts beat it easily but there should be at least three to four go's before a first-timer finally gets to the end.

Can you give us any hints about how to unlock the game’s extra ships or secret Achievements?

One of DoDonpachi Maximum's unlockable ships

All I can say is: don't give up, and get to the end of the game! All achievements and ships are unlocked by the time you get there. (We have since independently discovered the secret Achievements - ed.)

CAVE is one of the few Japanese developers to openly support Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform. Did Microsoft approach you about making a Windows Phone game, or did you pitch the idea to them?

We approached them first. We already had a couple of titles for iOS and Android but there was none on Windows Phone at the time. Plus I personally wanted to make a smartphone-exclusive game.

As a result, Microsoft was very supportive of the idea and everything went very smoothly.

Was it challenging to learn Windows Phone development? What kind of support did you receive from Microsoft as you worked on the game?

The final DoDonpachi Maximum unlockable ship

It was our first time developing for Windows Phone so it wasn't easy getting to know the mechanics but that was really it. The rest of it went very smoothly with Microsoft being very supportive whenever we needed something, be it answers to technical questions or a test device which is rather difficult to obtain in Japan.

Do you have plans to release any more Windows Phone games in the future?

We only just released Dodonpachi Maximum so at the moment there are no plans of future releases. If it sells well and we get many requests from the users for a sequel or a new title then we would consider making something in the future.

Finally, how do average people feel about Windows Phone in Japan? What can Microsoft do to help the platform flourish in your country?

I think many people consider smartphones to be more like mobile computers. I heard Windows 8 will have Metro UI with smooth touch screen controls so if smartphones get equipped with things like that it should be no time before it spreads among people.

Thank you Mr. Hiroyuki Kimura for your answers and for bringing Dodonpachi Maximum to Windows Phone. Thanks also to Kantaro Fumoto of CAVE for coordinating and translating this interview!

Dodonpachi Maximum costs $4.99 and there is a free trial. Get it here on the Marketplace. CAVE fans, look forward to Akai Katana, coming to Xbox 360 in the US and Europe this year from Rising Star Games.

Paul Acevedo

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!