Famed video game designer Tomonobu Itagaki and his select group of creative warriors at Valhalla Game Studios are making a new game, Devil's Third, a hyper-violent shooter for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Valhalla Game Studios is allying with publisher THQ to bring its newest action game to consoles, an original effort that Itagaki says is designed to be more fun and accessible, place a major emphasis on shooting—along with "deep melee and fighting systems"— and boast a robust multiplayer component.
The former members of Team Ninja, responsible for the fighting game series Dead or Alive and high-speed action game Ninja Gaiden, are crafting what Itagaki describes as a "breakthrough for the shooting genre." Valhalla's goal in crafting Devil's Third, Itagaki says, is to develop a shooter with a more "direct feeling of killing" your opponents.
"In looking at real combat, close combat has a more visceral bloody feel to it. I want to get more of that close combat feel in [Devil's Third]," Itagaki told Kotaku in a recent interview, the table full of Valhalla's top staff. Itagaki himself was without his trademark shades, wearing a new silver ring in the shape of the Valhalla Game Studios logo.
"It's not taking a hack and slash game and tacking on some ranged weapon combat. We feel we have a lot to learn as we make this, but we also feel confident in our experience and the fundamental elements of head-to-head competition in [our previous] games."
THQ's Executive Vice President, Danny Bilson, glowingly describes the game's multiplayer experience as "phenomenal." It was Valhalla's original multiplayer build—and Tomonobu Itagaki's personal point of view—that urged THQ to sign the developer.
"We green-lit the same day," Bilson recalled. "Within 10 minutes of meeting Itagaki-san, I wanted to work with him. There was no hesitation at all. It was all about, how do we make a deal and how soon do we make a deal?"
THQ's publishing agreement with Valhalla will see the two companies work closely together on the development of the game and its fiction.
While Bilson and Itagaki were tight-lipped about the story behind Devil's Third, they provided some clues about its war-torn settings, which span the globe. Bilson said the biggest clue about Devil's Third's background is the Kessler syndrome theory.
The Kessler syndrome basically says that the density of objects in low-Earth orbit could reach a point where collisions between those objects could cause a disastrous cascade of debris. Those collisions could compound, causing more orbital collisions, a scenario that could render space travel and the use of satellites unfeasible.
Some of the game's concept art features what appears to be space debris falling upon the earth and widespread destruction in Asian, European and American locations.
As for the name Devil's Third, Bilson and Itagaki said it has multiple meanings related to the fiction and the characters, the first of which is rooted in classical music, in the dissonance of tritones, or "Diabolus in Musica." Bilson referenced the works of Richard Wagner, including his opera Götterdämmerung about the downfall of the Norse gods, as well as the music of Black Sabbath, in explaining the concepts behind the game.
"As we expose some of the fiction, it all becomes clear," Bilson says. "[The title Devil's Third] absolutely came out of the game, there's a character in the game that has a relationship to the music, there's three factions…" Then he cut himself off.
"I don't want to really talk about it," he said, seemingly having given away too much already.
Itagaki explained his thoughts on the musical foundation of Devil's Third.
"Dissonance can make people feel negative feelings," he said. "But you can try to be nice, make everything really accessible and pleasant, or you can go down a road that rattles people a bit. I think the latter is where I can make a more interesting impact on people. More than the musical interpretation of Devil's Third, I'm more interested in the literary associations."
Bilson says there has been "a tremendous interest" in Devil's Third's fiction as THQ extends its transmedia plans. The publisher has television and movie projects in the works based on its Red Faction and de Blob properties.
In addition to having a mysterious story and characters, Devil's Third is exceedingly violent. In the debut trailer, you'll see enemies sliced in two, others with their limbs torn apart by shotgun blasts. In the uncensored version of the trailer we previewed at THQ's headquarters, bloody decapitations sprayed gore on the screen and a brutal melee attack liquefied another soldier's face into the side of a tank.
Itagaki's last game as head of Team Ninja, the Xbox 360 game Ninja Gaiden II, was similarly bloody. Based on the more violent version of the trailer, it's clear that Valhalla's vikings aren't toning things down for a wider audience.
Bilson joked that the publisher is "trying to get it down to an M-rating."
Devil's Third represents a shift for the ex-Team Ninja developers in another sense. They're developing the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game simultaneously. At Itagaki's previous team, it was primarily focused on the Xbox platform. At Valhalla, development is multi-platform.
"At Tecmo, we sold 8 million games on Xbox platforms," he said. "Because of the financial requirements of that company, every year we had to kick out something that sells a million units. When I was younger, that was OK, but some of the games we shipped we really didn't spend enough time polishing and tightening up. Under those conditions, it's very hard to make a great game that people will enjoy, because it's important to have the polish and testing. In that kind of environment, we couldn't do that."
"We think that the way we make games, we don't fit well working in an environment inside a publicly traded Japanese games company," Itagaki said. "We don't fit into that environment."
Now, Itagaki says, his trusted team of programmers, animators and artists has enough manpower to focus on multiplatform development. Valhalla Game Studios will be getting a little help from THQ, as well, tapping into the developer/publisher's strengths for Devil's Third.
"We at Valhalla Games are martial arts, fighting and melee combat professionals," Itagaki boasted. "We're partnering with THQ who has substantial experience in shooters.
"Recently, I've changed my thoughts about the general approach to development. The parts of the game that we really have to make, that only [Valhalla] can make, we'll do that. For the parts that other people can do better, we'll get help. Yes, we'll be working with THQ studios, but the multiplayer demo we showed earlier, that was all developed internally. The way programmers think, if they can do it themselves, they'll do it. You have to do everything triple-A or just not bother."
Bilson pointed out that the tank seen in Devil's Third's first trailer, the one that unlucky soldier has his face crushed against, is an asset from another THQ game, Homefront.
While the arrangement between THQ and Valhalla Game Studios may strike some as odd, given the publisher's North American focus, Bilson and Itagaki appear to be of similar mindsets.
Bilson addressed early surprise at Valhalla's relationship with THQ, a publisher that doesn't have a history with Japanese action games.
"Fair enough. If we don't identify weakness we can't strengthen it," Bilson said of gamers balking at THQ as the game's publisher. "We are focused on the highest quality. We don't throw stuff against the wall. I feel we're absolutely stronger than when we were when we had 17 studios compared to the 10 we have now.
"You're going to see a lot of innovative stuff from us over the next year," Bilson added, saying that THQ would be investing in a big way in its blockbuster titles, providing Valhalla with the money, time and resources they need to make Devil's Third the best it can be.
Itagaki also addressed concerns in a message to fans.
"A lot of fans probably wanted me to continue making fighting games. So, sorry about that to anyone who's disappointed," he said. "For people who are fans of Ninja Gaiden, this is going to be a different type of game. Quite different. Even though the genre is new, it's the same core group making it. Think of the main elements—animation, maneuverability, speed, violence, beautiful women—all the core game elements, it's all the same group of guys."
Tomonobu Itagaki is somewhat infamous for candid, sometimes inflammatory remarks about his competitors. Now that he and the Valhalla Game Studios team are moving into the shooting genre, who does he see as his biggest competitor, his next "target"?
"I haven't decided on that yet," Itagaki said. "If I find a game I play through twice, that'll probably be the target." He told me that he just started playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, so we'll see how that goes.