Interview with Konami’s Ryan Graff

We recently interviewed former Konami employee, Ryan Graff. Mr Graff has worked on the localization team for Suikoden V, as well as paving the way for the revival of the Vandal Hearts series. Mr Graff worked on Vandal Hearts: Flame Of Judgement as the games original concept writer.

Check out the extensive interview below where we talk about Konami, Vandal Hearts and, of course, Suikoden!

1. How long had you been working for Konami?

RG: I worked at Konami from July of 2004 to January of 2010. Since then, I’ve worked on localization projects for Atlus and Digital Hearts, done some QA for Square-Enix, and freelanced for some independent projects here and there, including a couple of my own.

2. How have you enjoyed your time there? Can you give us a brief summary?

RG: I first joined Konami as a tester. At the time, Suikoden IV’s localization was just about done. I’d hoped to get in on that, but the team was full, and I didn’t have enough professional experience to qualify at the time. (Konami was my first professional game industry job; prior to that, I’d mostly worked on homebrew games.) Over the next year, I became a lead tester, and on the side, I helped out with whatever proofreading I could. That was enough to get me considered, and eventually accepted, as one of the five localizers for Suikoden V.

Once the localized text was implemented into the game, I also led the test team for the in-game text check. We worked to make sure that all the text was implemented correctly — that it accurately fit the context of each scene, that each character’s voice was consistent from one scene to the next, and so on. There were a handful of lines that slipped by us in the end, but only a handful, and — without going into too much detail — I’m very happy with what the team accomplished. In fact, Suikoden V remains one of my two favorite projects to this day.

As for my overall experience there, well, I can certainly say I’m grateful to have worked with all kinds of amazing people; I even met a couple of Konami legends face to face. And I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to so many games.

3. You worked as original concept writer for Vandal Hearts: Flames Of Judgement. What did your role entail exactly? How did you find your experience working on the project?

RG: Vandal was my other favorite project. Basically, I’d been waiting around as long as anyone for a new Vandal Hearts game, and when I found myself in a position to do something about it, I came up with the initial concept, pitched it, got extremely lucky in that pitch meeting, somehow convinced the higher-ups to let me write the initial story and design doc, and then worked with the developers on revisions of both throughout the project. I also helped cast the voice actors, helped supervise the voiceover recordings, and voiced a couple of minor roles myself. (If you want to know what I sound like, that’s me voicing Gren, the big knight, under the name Ryan Alexander.) Other than that, I led the QA team and assisted with the game’s marketing and PR.

That’s not to say that the game sprang fully formed from my head or anything; far from it. In this industry, we like to give the guy up front all the credit (or blame, depending), but the truth is that hundreds of people put thousands and thousands of man-hours into Vandal, each with their own ideas and contributions. Composers, artists, animators, programmers, testers, and all the many other people you almost never see unless you work with them yourself. It’s hard to understand just how much work they do every day until you’ve had a taste of it, and for me, Vandal was the project that gave me that taste.

Would I have done anything differently on Vandal? Well, there were things I’d have liked to have seen that didn’t make it into the final game, but that’s every game project. I think more importantly, I personally learned a lesson, and it started when the first screenshots went out. Reactions to the artwork were…well, if you followed the game, you know what they were, and I (again, speaking only for myself here) initially made the mistake of becoming defensive. I tried to stick up for the way things were instead of considering that the detractors might have a point.

The reason I think that’s a mistake now is because, if you work in any kind of creative field, once you send your work out there to be seen, people either like it or they don’t; you don’t get to hover over their shoulders and try to explain why they *should* like it. You *hope* that they do; spend enough time working on a game (or book, or movie, or anything), and it can become like your child. You send it out into the world, hoping that everyone else will love it as much as you do, and if people don’t love it, that can hurt. But the best thing you can do in that situation, if you get a chance to do it, is to step back, look at your work (or your child) as objectively as possible, see where people might have a point (or might not; people do jump to wrong conclusions sometimes, especially when they don’t have a lot to go on, so there’s that too), and do what you can to improve things on your end.

Anyway, that about sums up my role on Vandal.

4.What was the most rewarding thing for you?

RG:That’s a two-way tie. Walking into the Vandal developers’ studio, after writing up descriptions for the game’s settings and characters, and seeing the concept art so many different artists had drawn for what I’d written; that was the best day of my career.

But outside of my regular job, there’s another story. On Martin Luther King Day of 2008, there was a big push for national volunteerism. One of the local programs was a career day for foster kids, where various people from the area would come in and talk about their jobs. I asked my bosses if I could do that, they gave me the go-ahead, and so I went up in front of a classroom full of 8-to-16-year-olds, wearing one of my Konami shirts, and talked about the different kinds of jobs in the game industry. At the end of that day, they had the kids each write what they wanted to be on these little felt leaves, and hung the leaves from a nearby tree. A couple of weeks later, I got one of those leaves in the mail, and on it, a kid had written, “When I grow up, I want to be a video game designer.”

5. Vandal Hearts is a game very similar to Suikoden in that it needed a revival. Do you think Suikoden can/will achieve a revival similar to what you did with Vandal Hearts?

RG:That’s a tricky question to answer. Before I start to answer that, let me just be clear on one thing: I have no actual inside information on anything Suikoden-related in the last three years (the last one I had any involvement with was Tierkreis, and I was only on that briefly at the end), so please don’t interpret anything I say here as secret code or anything.

But I can say that reviving Suikoden, in any capacity, is a major challenge, as you’re no doubt well aware. To be more specific, I would say the challenge is twofold. One, it’s been a long time since the last Suikoden game, and development teams tend to scatter over time, unless there are back-to-back-to-back projects holding them together. Even if the top Konami brass did greenlight a new Suikoden (and again, I have no way to say if they’ll ever do that or not), would the old team members come back? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe some would and others wouldn’t. Chances are a good number of them have moved on to other companies by now. Would fans be willing to accept a Suikoden game made by other people? I don’t know.

The other part of the challenge is business related. No one likes to hear this, but the game industry is made up of businesses, and businesses will only do what they think will make a profit.

When you pitch an RPG — and this I can say firsthand — you don’t pitch the story. You’re pitching to businessmen, and they *might* care about the story, but not enough to stake a yes or no on it. What you pitch is how popular the genre has been, how well the company’s past games in that genre have done, how well the company’s competitors are doing with that genre now, and, most importantly, how your concept’s unique selling points will help the company beat those competitors.

When it comes to a game like Suikoden, it’s hard to impress a higher-up on those terms. Suikoden has a fantastically detailed world, and an epic ongoing story, and recurring characters the fans know and love — and it certainly has earned the company prestige over the years, which is important. But in the broader sense, the series has become more and more niche over the years, which makes it less attractive as a business investment. Because the numbered games in the series *are* built around recurring characters and settings, to at least some degree, only fans of the series get the full dramatic effect of each one. That’s great for the fans, but it’s hard to attract new players that way (which isn’t meant as a criticism, just an observation). Partly for that reason, and partly for others, it’s fair to say the Suikoden fandom dwindled somewhat on the road from I to V.

(Regarding the “other reasons”: For one, the Suikoden games have often faced stiff competition, as when II went up against Final Fantasy VIII. There was also the somewhat mixed reaction to III, and the decidedly mixed reaction to IV. V fared better with fans, and I’d say it’s a damn good game, but it also happened to debut in the same two-week period as Oblivion and Kingdom Hearts II.)

Tierkreis, as producer Masayuki Saruta explained at the time of its release, was intended as a re-introduction — not to the numbered series, but to the general concept of Suikoden. Or, in Saruta-san’s words (from a 1up interview): “We want as many people as possible to enjoy Suikoden: Tierkreis, which is why we chose to create a new game universe, as it won’t be burdened by backstory that new players wouldn’t have an understanding of.”

In my own personal opinion, part of the reason we haven’t had another Suikoden after Tierkreis yet (not counting the Japan-only Genso Suikoden Tsumugareshi Hyakunen no Toki, which was a very different game) is because of its title. To be attractive to a potential player, a game’s title should let everyone know, right at the first glance, what the game is about. The Suikoden series has had trouble with that in the past, because even among RPG fans, many players have trouble pronouncing the title, let alone understanding what it means (the meaning, of course, being “Water Margin,” referring to a story most people in the West don’t know). Tierkreis compounded that difficulty by adding another foreign word from another foreign language, all of which together literally translates to “Fantasy Water Margin Animal Circle.” (I know; “Animal Circle” = “Zodiac.” Still.)

All that said — and none of it’s meant to discourage the fans — reviving Suikoden may not be impossible.

6. What do think needs to be done to revive the Suikoden series?

RG: The best bet is to continue to broaden the fanbase, and let the Konami offices on both sides of the Pacific know that Suikoden fandom is alive, enthusiastic, and ready for more (more to the point, ready *to pay money* for more). Sending emails to that effect helps, of course, but what’s more effective is buying up firsthand Suikoden games and merchandise. Suikoden I is available on digital download over PSN; if enough people bought that, convinced their friends to buy it, and told Konami, “Look, we’ve all bought Suikoden I here; what other Suikoden stuff can we buy from you?” then eventually, they just might listen. There are no guarantees, of course, but there are never guarantees in this industry; only best chances.

7. What do you think the future entails for Konami?

RG: I hope Konami can reclaim the prestige that it’s been known for in the past. Without saying too much, we all remember Konami’s heyday. They still put out great games, no question, but maybe not quite as many these past few years. I would love to see a return to their glory days, and I think fan movements like this one can help them get there with enough positive reinforcement.

8. What do you think the future entails for Suikoden?

RG: Simply put, I hope that enough people can generate enough demand to convince the decision makers to let the series continue. I’d love to revisit the Suikoden world, meet back up with the characters, learn about where they’ve been, and find out where they’re going next. And it could still happen.

9. Do you have any advie for the people of the SRM?

RG: I do, and it’s not just about bringing Suikoden back. It’s about adding your passion and creativity to the industry as a whole.

Right now, the industry is going through many major changes. No one knows what it’ll look like five years, or three years, or even two years from now. With the establishment in a state of uncertainty, there’s no better time for fans to make themselves known — not just by making their wants and feelings known, but by bringing those feelings to *life.*

The best way to honor the games you grew up with is to help make new games that pay tribute to the old ones. I was lucky enough to get a chance at that from the inside, but you don’t need that. If you can hone your most useful skills, pool your talents with dedicated, reliable friends, and — most importantly — channel your passion into working incredibly hard (because no amount of imagination, no matter how powerful, can substitute for putting your nose to the grindstone), maybe you can have your name on the next Minecraft, or Plants Vs. Zombies, or Cave Story. Maybe you can inspire the next generation of game developers to learn from you, and to do all they can to live up to you. Maybe you’ll enjoy their games someday, just as they enjoy yours.

For the sake of Suikoden, of Konami, and of all the great stories yet to be told, I wish SRM and all those like it the very best of luck.

-Ryan Graff


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