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Nioh director Fumihiko Yasuda on difficulty, player feedback and what's changing

"We're not servants, we're game creators!"

Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo's samurai action game Nioh has had quite the development history. Announced at E3 in 2005 and finally coming to PS4 early in February, the historical fantasy title has changed hands several times with multiple developers re-jigging it into all sort of different beasts.

In its final iteration Team Ninja (of Ninja Gaiden fame) is at the helm and based on its public beta a few weeks back, it's shaping up to be one of the best action games in years.

To gain further insight into how Nioh's adapted over the years, what it's morphing into, and how Team Ninja incorporates fan-feedback while still retaining its creative vision, we spoke to Nioh's creative director Fumihiko Yasuda at Tokyo Game Show. That conversation, conducted via translator, went a little something like this:

Eurogamer: Has Nioh actually been in development for the whole 12 years since it was announced?

Yasuda: The objective truth is that yes, the project has been on and off. But on a bigger level, Kou Shibusawa [CEO of Keoi Tecmo], the creator of Nioh as a gaming IP, has a lot of passion for this title. He had a lot of high standards and high expectations for this game. For 12 years it was a process for him to contemplate the title and how to perfect the game. You could say it's been an ongoing process.

Eurogamer: How has it evolved in all that time?

Yasuda: Team Ninja has only been on this for 3-4 years, so this is what I've heard (but can't attest the whole truth of it). Initially it was meant to be a JRPG, then at some point it was handed to Omega Force and it resembled something more like a Warriors-style game. And after Team Ninja took the baton, then it became a hardcore action game.

Eurogamer: Were the previous versions cancelled because they didn't live up to Kou Shibusawa's vision for it?

Yasuda: The short answer is yes. The earlier versions didn't live up to his vision. And ever since Team Ninja took over he has been rather hands-off, but he has been vigilant. So basically he would not question every decision that we'd make, but on the other hand he would constantly play the game himself, so we could feel his watchful eyes. But he does respect what Team Ninja does, so he hasn't been heavily involved in its development recently.

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Nioh's protagonist William is based on the Kent-born explorer William Adams, who became the world's first western samurai.

Eurogamer: Was Dark Souls what changed the game's direction? It doesn't look like a typical Team Ninja game. Or a Musou (Warriors) game for that matter either.

Yasuda: Yes, it did have a big impact on the direction this project eventually took. We have very, very high opinions of the Souls series and it's captivated a very wide audience, even here in Japan. Also, fundamentally that the game is very difficult, very challenging, yet very well-done and refined as a great action game. That part is in common with the past Team Ninja titles. So we did take some inspirations from Dark Souls.

Eurogamer: What are the main changes you're planning to change between the beta and the final game?

Yasuda: The change from beta version to final will not be as drastic as we've seen from alpha to beta. That part is for certain. There won't be major changes, like the fact that we got rid of durability for equipment. Nothing too major like that. One big negative feedback we've seen is about the camera. When you're surrounded by multiple enemies, the camera has its limits as of right now. We as a team definitely agree with that and we might reduce the fact that you encounter too many enemies in the same area. We may just get rid of the lesser enemies during a boss fight. Eventually we'll have a clean list that we'll announce to the public.

That's not to say that we want to make this game easy in any way, shape or form. We want to make sure that this game stays fair. It's going to be difficult, but it's going to feel fair to everybody. The challenging part will always be there.

Eurogamer: The biggest differences I noticed between the alpha and beta were weapon degradation being removed and the fact that enemies no longer chase you nearly as far. Most people, myself included, like those changes. But I know some people who don't. Will the game have a Hard Mode or something that will enable those features for the very hardcore player?

Yasuda: I totally understand what you're saying, but as of right now we don't have such plans just to have a mode dedicated to reviving some features. But we do appreciate the fact that a lot of players still find the demo easy, because it's only two stages. We're trying to accommodate those users through other means. For example, we'll have some really, really tough missions and side-quests. The final product is going to be quite extensive.

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Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

Eurogamer: Do you ever get player feedback where the majority of players want something, but you decide it's a bad idea and don't take their advice?

Yasuda: Of course there are instances like that where we decide not to listen to our fans. We're not servants, we're game creators! Regardless, whatever we decide, we will sincerely heed those words from our fans first. But then again, it all eventually comes down to that the game should not lose its spirit, it's essence. For example, the stamina exhaustion was often criticised to be too quick. That there's not enough stamina to play comfortably. But that's just how the game should be, in our minds. So we'll just have to say 'sorry for that.'

Eurogamer: The alpha player feedback results saw Americans and Europeans appreciate the harsh difficulty the most. Japanese players liked it too, but too a much lesser extent. Were you surprised by this?

Yasuda: I did expect Japan to be more resistant to the high difficulty, but I didn't expect to see that big a contrast. That was very surprising! Truthfully, I don't want to differentiate the game for different players in different regions. This is a game that I want to make, that Team Ninja wants to make!

In the past there have been games that would only incorporate Easy Mode for the Japanese version. In my mind, the game shouldn't change into a different thing just because it's in different regions. I do respect if it's a religious matter, or if it's different expressions of sexuality. I think the expressions could be different, how we express the game could vary. But in terms of difficulty, a different difficulty would lead to different feelings. A different level of satisfaction.

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This... is my BOOMSTICK!!

To me, yes, Japan had a lower ratio of likes compared to the west perhaps, but that's just a simple difference in the number. We just have less people that appreciate it that much, but we still have that many people. We will continuously try to eliminate whatever elements that are unfair and unreasonable. But that's why I don't want different difficulty levels for this title.

Eurogamer: I've read that when From Software designs their bosses they make sure the best member of their testing team can conquer a boss unscathed. That's how they decide it's fair. How does Team Ninja test the difficulty for Nioh?

Yasuda: I've read a similar thing. I think that's a perfectly sound and justified way of setting the standard. We have a few different approaches in our game testing as well. One that I can definitely tell you is that we'll basically fight a boss unarmoured. And if the tester can beat the boss, then it's fair. And with some of the toughest stages, if somebody can beat it, then it's beatable. Because it's meant to be tough.

Eurogamer: A lot of the Yokai and characters in the game are based on historical figures or folklore. Will there be an encyclopedia feature that gives backstory to these characters that Japanese players may be familiar with, but westerners might think are completely made up for this game?

Yasuda: You can count on it. There will be a detailed encyclopedia on both characters and Yokai. We're also trying to incorporate that into the actual gameplay. Because if you really think about it, William Adams came to Japan knowing nothing. So everything is foreign and mystical to him. And therefore we're trying to incorporate that into the game where you gradually gather that information through your actions. So if you fight a character then you'll attain their information. We're trying to have that more involved in the gameplay itself instead of just hand you an encyclopedia.

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