2018/08/02

Sunsoft, Famicom, and the NES

Sunsoft Batman

@Thundersteel81 passes along this AMA by a former VP of Product Development at legendary third party NES game developer Sunsoft.
My name is David Siller and I was for four years VP of Product Development for Sun Denshi in the US also known as SUNSOFT. 
I will try to answer any questions as well as tell accounts of what Sunsoft was doing back in the Famicom/NES era. I will tell as accurate an account as I can, keeping in mind that I am still under "non-disclosure" and still in communication with them. I will must also say that of all the video game companies that I worked for, Sunsoft was the best. I enjoyed my time there and was sad to see a new President channel away their resources into a golf course that never happened! There may be some interviews on the Internet with other people that do not necessarily tell a true account of what was going on there at that time.
With the introductions out of the way, we dig into the real dirt.
The reason that Gimmick and Ufouria, among others were not released is a problem that is as old as the Game Industry. 
I believed in both of these games, especially Gimmick, but management often does NOT listen to those who know what the true market wants. Rather, management listen to their "sales" staff who in turn are influenced by the "reps" who talk directly to the store "buyers". The store buyers are often people who know very little (or nothing) about the product and they study the sales reports that tell them what is selling (last week) and they then arrogantly tell the reps what they want, which is often the "new" stuff. They seem to forget that an installed base of millions is better to support when new hardware comes out, but they still want the early hardware adopters dollars, believing that to be a safe bet. Later, or late in the Christmas selling season they suddenly want the "old" stuff because that what the shoppers are buying and they don't have enough stock! They forget that as of that point, there are zero consoles of the new one yet in the hands of consumers and leave for dead the millions that are supporting the older console yet. It is a vicious cycle that is repeated every time a new hardware comes to the market. The blind leading the blind. The end result is that newer projects on the old console are cancelled and they now want shovelware to sell to the unsuspecting consumers. Usually the new console software is not that effectively made.
The irony is that by that point, we developers have found new and more clever ways of extracting great software from the older console but those games will never be made...! In the case of NES/famicom, developers have invented newer chips to add to the original specifications and therefore produce better games (that will never be seen or played).
It's not a Sunsoft game, but Metal Storm is the perfect example of the impressive performance smart programmers could squeeze out of the NES at the end of its life cycle.

"Blaster Master" was a HIT in the US more so than in Japan because at that time US players wanted a newer or better action game experience. Japanese players were still into the "me too" syndrome or games that were similar to popular games but a little different. Also RPG's started to dominate in Japan as early action games were too tough for the mass appeal audience. Regarding "Blaster Master" it wasn't the marketing in the US that succeed, as that only helps make customers aware of what is out there. The proof was in playing a game with some depth and unique features that other games didn't have. 
In Japan, the earlier Sunsoft games were popular because the themes were more to the liking of that culture, farmers - fantasy heroes, etc... They were simpler to play and understand for children playing in a dark bedroom while kneeing in front of their small TV's. Most companies outside of Namco and Konami would always "short" the market to insure sell through. Japan companies do not like to have any left stock, not even one!
It is always that games are not treasured when they come out, only years later when they are better understood. Then, because there is only a short stock they become rare and more valuable. The Industry retail market in Japan was also a tough sell and they didn't automatically accept or distribute every new game product. That was due to so many games being released and they could not afford big stocks of all of them until they were somewhat proven. Even then, it was time to move on to the next one and although some games were popular and out of stock, it would take months before more were available. This was due to the large lead times of mask ROM's.
Sunsoft of America US management did not even support "Hebereke/Ufouria" or "Gimmick" although I believed that both could find an audience. The characters were deemed too strange or quirky compared to the Disney/Warner Bros. world of cartoons. I believed that they would fly because consumers really don't know what they want until you present it to them. That is the mother of invention!
Lastly, in later eras staff would depart for more money somewhere else and more rookie development teams would take over. That is why quality could not be maintained as the Industry evolved.
Quick aside: The Japanese proclivity for risk-aversion leading to endless slight variations on familiar themes is exactly the kind of artistic stagnation #AGundam4Us was founded to counteract.
Every company decides what to do and where to sell their "licensed" stuff and some would sell anywhere they could so they could recoup the development costs to cover the license fees. Not all were successful even when offered in Japan.
I can't say why Sunsoft bought the "Addams Family" license as that happened at least two years before my time there, but a Director at Sunsoft, Rita Zimmerer, was hell bent to license everything she could and spent the money to do it. That is why she was fired when they could no longer tolerate that agenda.
That story could have been ripped from today's headlines, but it's from the early 90s. The more things change...
Rita Zimmerer got fired because she was over zealous about spending or committing Sunsoft dollars for worthless licenses! 
She fancied herself as one of the most powerful women in the Industry and she was out-of-control, so the enviable happened. She thought that everything good that happened at Sunsoft was because of her. After Sunsoft she claimed that she was the "development" guru that created "Aero the Acrobat" and everything else. She got several jobs in development but soon lost them because she could not do what she said she had done. Caused me a lot of grief. In the beginning she was tolerable, but it all went to her head and she did a lot of things that pissed everyone at Sunsoft off. 
Some lessons have a steeper learning curve than others.



Nethereal - Brian Niemeier

10 comments:

  1. It is a shame that Sunsoft fell apart in the 16 bit generation. They were king on the NES.

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  2. At its peak in the 8-bit days, Sunsoft was as reliable as Konami or Capcom were.

    That story about the licensed stuff reminds me a bit of something I read in the book Console Wars, which isn't really a very good book but it did make it sadly apparent that crappy licensed games were more highly valued than anything because know-nothing retailers preferred to sell them over unknown titles. Which is why crap merchants like Acclaim and LJN were allowed to torment players for so long.

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    1. A fair assessment of the industry. Having read Console Wars myself, and interviewed the author, I'm interested to know what you thought its failings were.

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    2. If I remember right, I just thought the book was too focused on the marketing. I got weary of one chapter about a big seasonal campaign ending only for the next chapter to begin with "And so it was time for the next big marketing campaign..." Not that marketing isn't important, and there were some interesting things going on then, but I was hoping for a more rounded view of the era, I guess?

      It also occurred to me while reading it that it assumes the reader is familiar with the subject matter - if you don't know anything about console gaming of that era, you can't learn much about it from the book because it's way too vague about the hardware and software. Maybe a silly criticism but I just think it's good form to go into more detail for people who don't know this stuff as well.

      I did like that it makes Sega's team look pretty awesome. It seems to have really redeemed Tom Kalinsky's reputation since a lot of people blamed him for the 32X/Saturn mess when it seems it was really all on the Japanese management.

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    3. I can see where you're coming from. Thank you.

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  3. Amazing how the Japanese corporate risk aversion culture had knock on effects to the American one.
    I'm unsurprised. According to what i've heard and read Japan sits on a trillion dollars worth of intellectual property but the Japanese companies have zero interest to translate and market.

    I'm struck at how American game developers behave a dorm room amateurs rather than money oriented pros
    Too bad because both side need cross inspiration and all would benefit.

    xavier

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  4. "Rita Zimmer got fired because she was overzealous about overspending Sunsoft dollars on worthless licenses"

    ....The EXACT same thing is happening to IDW comics right now, it's what also happened to Dreamwave publishing. (Dreamwave was a great company). IDW also picked up a lot of Dreamwave writers..... Huh.

    Are licensed products killing fiction publishers?

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    1. That's a timely question I'd love to see answered.

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    2. There was a time where the licensed comics (TMNT, Sonic, MLP, etc.) were the only comics that offered readers straightforward adventure stories without the nihilism or propaganda. In the last three years or so they've gone hard at licensed comics to destroy those too.

      The license holders used to have standards and not allow these freaks to subvert their properties. But since the license holders were also taken over, they now allow anything.

      Games were different. Licensed games were almost uniformly great until corporations like Disney and WB decided to cheap out and farm their games out to hacks. Then licensed games got the reputation they deserved.

      Now because of mobile gaming, licensed games are pretty much dead. It might be up to indie devs to contact indie filmmakers, comic artists, and writers, to build something better.

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