What does Suda 51 actually do, anyway?
Under the skin of the eccentric director of Killer7 and No More Heroes.
Think of Grasshopper Manufacture and there's one person that comes to mind: Suda Goichi (aka Suda 51). The eccentric director of Killer7 and No More Heroes has received lots of accolades over his bizarre body of work. Whether it was the surreal nightmare of Killer7, the frenzied punk catharsis of No More Heroes, or the slapstick scatological humour of Shadows of the Damned, Grasshopper's bold, askew take on action, story and presentation is unmistakably from the house that Suda built.
Yet despite being the face of Grasshopper Manufacture, the studio he spawned, Suda perhaps isn't the maestro people think. In fact, the last game he directed was No More Heroes way back in 2008.
This hasn't stopped Suda from taking the limelight for Grasshopper's last several titles. The Suda 51 brand has a lot of critical cache, so it's little wonder to see it heavily flaunted in marketing materials for one Grasshopper title after another. Look closer, however, and you'll see that the actual directors of No More Heroes 2, Lollipop Chainsaw and Killer is Dead were all different people. In fact, Shadows of the Damned's director, Massimo Guarini, wasn't even credited for the game's Japanese release as he left the company between its western and eastern launch.
That's all changing now that Puzzle and Dragons developer Gungho Online Entertainment acquired the company in 2013. Gungho president and CEO Kazuki Morishita, is less interested in marketing value than he is truth, and his first order of business is to make sure people are properly credited for their work.
As such, the studio's next major release, the free-to-play action survival game Let it Die, isn't being promoted as a Suda 51 joint. Instead, Morishita is adamant that director Hideyuki Shin gets put in the spotlight this time around. When GungHo flew me to its Tokyo office to check out its impending free-to-play title, Suda wasn't even part of the event.
"Grasshopper is not just made by one person, it is a lot of people at the development studio," says Morishita, after introducing himself to me by sneaking up from behind in a promotional Let it Die grim reaper mask. "So I thought that the director of the game should be put more in front so he could talk more about the production of the game as he's definitely more hands-on in that sense. I felt that was more important."
"It's probably also about ownership," another translator interjects. "Who's doing what. He wanted to make that clear."
Shin is an interesting choice to replace Suda as Grasshopper's current talking head. Where Suda is loud, brash and playful, Shin is humble, reserved and introspective. I never saw the two in the same room, but one can imagine the buddy cop hijinks between these two contradictory souls.
This shift from a flagship auteur is all well and good for a studio of roughly 100 staffers, but it's a pretty drastic shift in focus after Ubisoft, EA and Warner Bros. spent the better part of a decade deifying Suda. The last time a publisher wanted to distance itself from its most well known director was the ugly Hideo Kojima/Konami fallout where things got ugly fast. To dig into this new messaging further and gain a better sense of the environment and GungHo and Grasshopper, I independently tracked Suda down and asked him about this.
As it turns out, Suda is onboard with this shift in focus. He maintains that there's no bad blood between him and his new handlers. Instead, he's very open about the fact that Let it Die isn't really his game. "I am not part of the PR team for Let it Die. It's Gungho's decision," he tells me via translator. "It isn't that I didn't want to show up. It's their plan."
Suda seems at peace with this decision as these days he's focused more on Grasshopper's other announced title, The Silver Case, a remake of the studio's 1999 PSone debut. Suda further hints that he's working on something else that has yet to be revealed.
When asked why he hasn't directed a game in nearly a decade he gets a little cagey about the details, but teases the general point: that he had to focus on the high level business bits of keeping Grasshopper afloat. "There's a ton of different reasons behind it," he says of his distance from the director's chair while nursing a beer over dinner. "For example, the company got a lot bigger. EA was more difficult to deal with. EA was very annoying."
Is he interested in directing again, I ask, even if it means smaller projects that don't have the same financial expectations riding on them.
"Of course!" he replies, without skipping a beat.
Upon telling him that Killer7 and No More Heroes, two games he directed, were my favourite Grasshopper titles, he tells me to "wait a little longer", giving a sly nod.
As far as being the face of the company goes, Suda claims he never asked for this fame, though he was happy to accept it. Now that he's already made a name for himself, he's comfortable sitting on the sidelines and pursuing passion projects.
"These days it's not about being the face of Grasshopper Manufacture, it's about getting in with the indie side of things," he tells me. "I want to be featured in those capacities. Because at the end of the day, returning to that same capacity of the old thirtysomething self at 51, I can be in that same type of role, but in the indie scene. And going from that angle, being independent, is the thing I've been wanting to do for quite some time."
So that explains the diluting of Suda's name in Let it Die's promotional campaign, but a greater questions remains: What did Suda actually do on Grasshopper's last several titles? The ones he didn't direct.
It turns out Suda was more of the idea man. He'd dictate what he wanted, then let others manufacture it. But this wasn't exactly the Suda 51 show people thought. Speaking to him and several ex-Grasshopper staffers, it becomes clear that he's a more hands-off overseer than most would imagine based on the peculiarity of the studio's output.
"I'm not giving people orders, per se. It's a really horizontal or flat structure," Suda tells me. "Sure, I write the scripts. Sure, I'm doing that. But my real role is to create the feel of the entire universe. That it feels right. That it clicks. That it all comes together. The way it works is that people can make a request or make a demand and they can choose to go with him or they can choose to not. So it's flexible."
This was corroborated by several current and former staff, who claim that Suda's core interests were in story and character design. Mechanics, systems, level design, etc - those sorts of things he left to others more capable in these specific disciplines than himself.
Instead, Suda was a machine that generated ideas. Crazy ideas. Funny ideas. Sometimes even bad ideas. But he gave people a place to work from.
He also gave them money. Whatever Suda's flaws as a director or designer, he's a man who knows how to paint an enticing picture. Suda has been able to sell Grasshopper's games to various publishers - and there have been numerous publishers of Grasshopper's games, perhaps because none of them have sold particularly well.
There's something endearing about Suda's manner that make you want to root for him. He constantly wears the same facial expression: one of a child opening a Christmas present, offering the sense that he exists in a state of perpetual awe. This optimistic spirit and boundless energy are captivating qualities, and ones Suda knows how to work in his favour.
"The pitch process is between me and the company, but in the end ultimately it's a human relationship," Suda says of his sales style. "I'm not trying to convince the company. I'm trying to convince the person."
Indeed, Suda wooed Morishita after the two coincidentally met at a bar.
"Three years ago it was a cold, cold winter," Morishita begins. "There was snow. it was really, really cold. I wanted to warm myself up, so I went to a place nearby to drink some sake. Hot sake. And that's where I met Suda 51. And so we're there, just drinking together and talking about stuff. That's where it started.
"At the time I didn't really think of making them a subsidiary. I thought Grasshopper, as an independent studio, should continue as an independent studio, to continue creating content. Over time, as talks went on, Suda-san asked if it would be possible to become a subsidiary. And it was like 'Well, I'll really have to think about it seriously' and talks then continued from there. At the very beginning I had no interest in taking them under our wing. I didn't approach them or have any intent to approach Suda to be my subsidiary. That was never part of the plan. Compared to what Grasshopper made until then, I was more familiar with my genres, which were quite different. Grasshopper is more for young adults. I was aiming for more of a younger audience."
The pairing may seem strange, given that Morishita specalised in family-friendly mobile fare, while Suda and co. have made a name for itself with its penchant for sex and violence, but the two eccentric figures saw complementary potential. One made games geared towards children, the other adults. One focused on mobile titles, while the other was into the console market. One had a lot of cache in Japan, while the other was more popular in the west.
"Together there wasn't a lot of overlap. We went in completely different directions, especially in the genres we were creating," Morishita says. "Because they were so different, if they were to work together, as Grasshopper and GungHo then perhaps something really new, a possibility that wasn't known, could be created from these two very different companies."
Clearly the two have complimentary skills, but the main reason Morishita thinks the pairing will work is because GungHo isn't just a publisher, but a developer itself. The Puzzle and Dragons creator understands the plight of developing for a dispassionate publisher and vows not to squander Grasshopper's creativity on hitting tight deadlines.
"The biggest reason we decided to work together was he really wants to take time to make something great. Not be rushed," Morishita says. "Because a lot of times publishers have a time schedule and it's really tight. We really want to take time to make something great.... We want to make sure that when we put a game out we are pleased with the product. We want to make sure that it feels complete and that it's something that we're proud of."
Morishita also claims to give the studio more creative freedom. This wasn't so much the case with Shin's only directorial credit, Killer is Dead. That game's heavily criticised Gigolo Mode was something he had limited control over. When asked about it, he says he knew it would get backlash - he just didn't predict how much.
"But you were director. Couldn't you have vetoed it?" I ask.
The answer requires a knowledge of Japanese culture. Saying "no" to a boss' request is seen as bad form. The folks at the game's Japanese publisher brainstormed this problematic feature and Shin, being a first-time director, didn't want to make waves - especially when the team was in crunch mode just trying to finish the game on schedule.
"As a developer it wasn't exactly an order 'you must put this in'. It was more that when a publisher brings an idea to you saying 'well if you do something like this wouldn't it be interesting or fun?' And based off of that you can't tell them 'no' and say we're not going to do it," Shin says. "So we did what we best could in our power to take what was given and try to make do with it. Unfortunately this is what happened."
"Back then it was trying to meet the publisher's needs and responses. Back then it was difficult to try and do that, but right now that's completely different. With GungHo being a publisher right now that's completely different."
"The biggest thing is it's experience and you learn from your mistakes," Morishita says. "So we can see after having that mode in Killer is Dead Shin-san sure learned a lot and he's grown."
Grasshopper and GungHo may each be run by rather eccentric leads, but the companies are more than just that. Grasshopper gets portrayed as a ship micromanaged by an exacting captain, when the reality is a more democratic place, albeit one under the watch of one of the industry's most eclectic visionaries.
To put it in Morishita's words about the first time he visited the studio, "According to rumour most people at Grasshopper had been known to be druggies. Smoking weed and creating games was what I thought from what I'd heard from other sources. That's what people told me, anyway. So I thought, 'okay, if everyone says that then there must be some truth to that, right?' Then when I actually went in and met a lot of the development staff at Grasshopper I realised that actually that's not true and they're all very serious, hard-working staff. I started to understand that everyone was trying their best to very seriously make games. And because of that I thought 'Let's give it a try. Let's see what we can create together.'"