Naruto 2 with Stephane Cardin
Naruto: The Broken Bond is Ubisoft Montreal's second game based on the cult Japanese success story. With a November debut fast-approaching, and the game maker promising a sequel far beyond most licensed titles, we sat down with producer Stephane Cardin to find out more.
How long has this new-look Naruto been in the works?
So, we worked on this game for more than one year, but what you need to know is that the people who worked on Rise of a Ninja are the same core team. So, we knew from the beginning that we would be working on this for at least two games, so theoretically we've been on this game for 13 months, but, at some point in the design process the team stopped working on the first game and moved onto planning Naruto 2. They started adding new features, so, the development time has been at very least one year.
It must have been interesting knowing you were going to make two games from the start. How did you decide the cut-off point at which you would move onto the next game?
For sure! You know if you watch the shows there are two very distinct story points. There is the first point when Naruto is younger, and is striving to be a ninja, and then there is the second part which is about the rivalry between Naruto and his best friend. So, we knew that if we wanted to do two games, the best thing to do was to cut it in the middle. So, the first game really focusses on Naruto, while the second point will focus a lot more on the secondary characters - a strong part of the franchise.
Is it difficult for a Western developer to take on a well-established Japanese IP such as this?
Yes, it was a real challenge. Especially on Rise of a Ninja. Because we had to recruit a core team able to deliver that mandate. So the first thing we did in our recruitment process... the number one question was "are you familiar with Naruto, do you like anime?" That was the number one requirement. Secondly, we work with a Japanese consultant who sits on the team, who sits with me, on the floor, with the designer, making sure every decision respects Japanese culture and the franchise. Thirdly, we have, on a daily basis, discussions with the owners of the IP in Japan. They approve everything. Any idea, any texture. It all has to be approved by them. At least once a week we have a big meeting and discuss all the issues, and we make sure the decisions we make respect the franchise. So, its been a bit painful... but we've built a strong relationship since Rise of a Ninja, and the IP holders were very keen to work with us on a second title.
So, do you think Ubisoft Montreal perhaps helped the IP owners add something new to the franchise?
Well, yes, you know we're not releasing the game in Japan. We wanted to be faithful to the franchise; respect the fans; we try to understand everything. But, on the other hand, we try to bring Xbox 360 players - who know the IP, but don't necessarily watch every anime or read every manga - we want to add a very strong game that will bring in other types of players. And with The Broken Bond, we now have a 15 hour action-adventure. With a very different mix, actually, that you don't have on the market right now. A kind of fighting game that's really well integrated with an action-adventure game. Its very interesting, and I think it'll please a lot more people, not just fans of Naruto.
The new art style looks very nice. What were you hoping to achieve in this area?
The vision for the art direction was first - for sure - we want to be true to the franchise. And the style of the comics is all about characters. So our art direction and cel-shading, was, as close as possible, to the anime. We think we're very close... in fact at some point, when we talking with the IP holders, they thought the game was actually 2D - which was not true - they asked for the 3D models! For us it was funny... we were really proud of that. With that cel-shading we decided to take advantage of the 360 and really push the environments a lot further than you see in the anime. The anime is not so detailed but with a next-gen console we really felt we had the power to push things a lot further. So, that's why you can see a lot of life in the environment, a lot more detail. The water, etc. So, yes, that was the vision behind the art direction.
What can you tell me about the co-op side of the game?
First of all, in the franchise, there are two core values that are important: friendship and teamwork. We felt like in the first game there was not enough push into the main gameplay. So, here, we tried to bring these core aspects right around Naruto. This game isn't just about him, either, so we decided to give more space to the secondary characters. The player now controls a team of three ninjas. You can have up to seven playable characters in the journey. For the Versus part, and online, we now also have 25 characters too. Each character will have different powers, that the player will need to master these to succeed in challenges.
The combat in general has changed a lot. What can you tell us about this?
The fighting... first of all, tag-battles. In the first game we only had one-on-one's but in this title we can have three in a team. So, you now have to pick the right character at the right time to be successful. You need to master a lot more fighters. We also add a very interesting aerial fight option. There wasn't much fighting in the air before, but now you can block, bash and more... so that brings a lot more interesting strategy to play for players. As we are taking tag battles online, we believe this will give players a lot more options too. People are really excited. Also, the number of characters of course! Players have new powers they can trigger in arenas, and use in their strategies.
The game covers comic episodes 81 to 135. Is it the end of Naruto after that?
No. No no no.
Any more games to come..?
Right now... we are really focussing on releasing The Broken Bond. We had two games in our mind because after 135 there is a new generation of Naruto, that we call Shippūden. So, how we can create that... isn't decided.
Would you like to be involved in this next stage?
For sure. I really enjoyed my time with Naruto. I'm not closing any doors. So, for now we're not talking about the next one, we've been working on Naruto for two years and we're really, right now, releasing the game we've been working on for two years. All our concentration and effort is here. This game will exceed player's expectations.
Do you wish you could release this game in Japan?
Right now... that's something that for sure we'd be really interested in doing. Right now, we're looking to do it. We have Japanese voices... and they will be in the final version of the game. I went over to Japan a few weeks ago, and it was an amazing experience... linking the voices to the characters. Its something we're looking for, but right now we're focussing on North American and European releases.
Which is this game closer to... the anime or the manga?
Its really the anime, but we have read all the manga too. If you look at our new special effects you'll see we're taking a lot of stuff from the manga as well. So, there was a lot of inspiration from there... the anime remains our biggest reference however.
How did you look to create a cohesive and compelling atmosphere?
What we did, which is especially true when you play the game, is that we work hard on the confrontation between Naruto and his best friend. So Saski is his own character, with his own story... when we focus on him the atmosphere is totally different. So, first of all, we take the strongest references from the source material to try and deliver the authentic feel at key moments. So, we have a very strong storyboard, with strong timing, and music, and we try to ensure the player will feel the emotions that we want. We want the same emotions as the anime. We work with that as a reference, then we match it on a storyboard in key moments.
How do you tell the story? Are there missions?
Its really a case of you exploring. The game is an open world, you can roam freely, and you have character evolution, and you can try to get collectables - to evolve - or you can train in the dojo. When you're ready, however, you can ask the old O-Kagi for a mission, and so for the main objectives, the old O-kagi will guide you through your story experience.
So there are diversions, but the main story is linear?
That's exactly right. The player can decide to go to the dojo - do some mini-games - there is a sandbox element. There is also a second city, the Festival City, and there is much more to do here as well. We have all the elements of an action-adventure game. The main story is 15 hours... a lot more than the 6 hours in the original. The game is much bigger. There's more ambition here. I would say we have a very strong focus on the action-adventure part. The fight part integrates better. There is no 2D anime. Now it is all 3D. This time we really create everything in 3D. There is no 'cut'. The immersion is a lot better.
The puzzles seem to fit well with the gameplay and the story. What can you tell us about this?
We really decided to focus on this, and we got a lot of feedback from people on the original game, so we decided to have more variety in the game. So, we added the puzzle aspect, and it ensures there is an area where players are thinking about strategy, and the player has to master their own character, and later when new characters arrive he will have to master these. So, at some point, he will also need to combine the powers of his team. This makes it interesting... the element of teamwork. This makes the puzzles more interesting.
Do you have any DLC plans?
Right now... we don't reveal any details on this! We'll see. Its something we'll look at. But right now we're focussing on the release of the game. The singleplayer part is so ambitious... we put all our effort into this. We're working on the balancing and polishing.
Did you take on board much community feedback?
A lot! The five main new features in the game address issues from the fans. The first game was too short... so we understand the player wants more action-adventure. It isn't just fighting. We are good, at Ubisoft, at doing this. The team comes from King Kong and Prince of Persia, so we decided to do this. A 15 hour action-adventure. They also complained the game was only about Naruto... so we now have seven playable characters. We made fighting more complicated, aerial combat, co-op play. There are more fighters... all the main issues have been addressed. We work closely with the community and we hope to exceed their expectations this time around!
When's the game out?
The 18th of November in Europe and North America.
Thank you, Stephane.