Dynasty Warriors is the success story that's defied expectation.
The series has been going for sixteen years now, and with eight core titles and multiple spin-offs, it's one of the last remaining stalwarts of the middle tier of gaming, a tier that's gradually eroded over the last few years. It's arguable whether this middle ground will exist come the next generation; Triple-A franchises, critically-lauded digital titles and F2P games may be the only pillars that can financially survive the future that's being shaped in front of our eyes.
Yet Dynasty Warriors may prove the counter-argument to that belief. While the team stated it was still looking into next-gen markets when we talked for this article, weeks later publisher Tecmo Koei announced an expanded version of Dynasty Warriors 8 would be making the next-gen journey to PS4 next year.
Good time then to look at the series' creation through the eyes of those that know it best: Tecmo Koei Vice-President Hisashi Koinuma, producer Akihiro Suzuki and director Atsushi Myauchi, and community manager Chin Soon Sun.
CREATING THE DYNASTY
Dynasty Warriors is heavily invested in mythos, built upon 14th Century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which merges fact and fiction in a retelling of the Three Kingdoms era in a sprawling epic, taking in three different states and hundreds of characters during a turning point of Chinese history, as three separate states fought for dominance.
The games pull liberally from the source material, representing the struggles in the form of lone warriors fighting their way through hordes of enemies in on battlefields, working their way towards enemy commanders. The now-huge cast play out their individual stories with other characters and allegiances interweaving with their own.
It's been an enduring series, yet it remains niche. Its pull may mystify the casual observer. Yet there is a draw; the franchise has sold over thirty million copies globally as of this year. It's as popular in Europe as its country of origin - Dynasty Warriors 7 sold 120,000 copies this side of the world on release. The company pinpoint its main audience to be between 18 -24 years old, with a split of 77% male and 23% female. Compare that age bracket to how long the series has been going (since 1997), and you'll note the franchise must still be drawing in new players, rather than trending away as its original fan base age.
Yet older fans there are, which includes the current creators of the series. Hisashi Koinuma joined Koei in 1994, and at 41 years old has dedicated nearly two decades of his career to the series, working as director and producer on numerous Dynasty Warriors titles.
He's now Vice-President of the Tecmo Koei. He was a founding member of DW development team Omega Force, and came into the business because, as he puts it simply: "I wanted to make games" - with Romance of the Three Kingdoms being instrumental in that decision.
"At the time, Koei didn't have any action titles," the 41-year-old remembers. "I felt that I had a chance to take on a key position in developing action games." Even in 2013 he's still working alongside some of the Omega Force crew ("But I want my own office!" he laughs). His workload's tripled since the days of being lead programmer on the Kessen series, as he oversees business management of the company on a weekly level, as well checking those titles he's producer for in both development and promotional roles.
His entry into the business is echoed by current series director Atsushi Miyauchi. The 39-year-old has been with the series since Dynasty Warriors 2, joining the company in 1997, and almost from day one was nudging his employers to shift him to a role that'd allow him to work on the creation of action games.
That persistence paid off. He cites his reassignment to Omega Force as result of "continuously making requests" to the company.
Miyauchi-san notes however that he's only the second longest serving member of the team. That accolade goes to 43 year-old producer Akihiro Suzuki, who was one of the founding members of Omega Force, and appears in the credits of the original Dynasty Warriors as lead programmer.
One of the latest additions to the company is Chin Soon Sun. Now Tecmo Koei's community manager, the 29-year-old fell in love with the series with 2001's Dynasty Warriors 3, to the extent that he created a fan site around the series while studying in college.
A year after he started, he moved to the UK from Malaysia to continue his degree. Shortly after Tecmo Koei contacted him. He started out helping out with their competitions and advertising, then moved into working as a freelance web developer within the company. In 2008 he joined full time, and now liaises with the Japanese PR team each week, and meets Omega Force once a year at Tokyo Game Show "to make sure our main vision is the same."
The original Dynasty Warriors is an oddity when compared to the rest of franchise. The debut title, released in 1997 on PSOne, was a one-on-one-fighter in the vein of Soul Calibur and Bushido Blade (though its character roster still pulled from the Three Kingdoms era), and a far cry from the sprawling action epic the series was to become.
When asked whether the company would every return to that style as a potential off-shoot, Suzuki says he's personally considered another attempt in the same style, alongside the possibility of another Tactics entry in the series (the subset series that favoured strategy-style gameplay).
He may not be the only person on staff with the idea. "I've heard from some team members about wanting to make another one-on-one fighter around the release of the next gen consoles," he teases. However Koinuma-san states outright that such a version "is not something we're currently considering", suggesting such a reemergence is just water cooler talk right now.
Sixteen years, numerous sequels. It's common today to hear and see high profile creators down tools from one franchise and studio and shift away to avoid burnout and keep themselves creative. We ask how Omega Force deals with the issue, how they counter developers getting sick of continually working on the same series. So it's not surprising to find out there's a high rate of staff turnover.
"The current team was formed during [2011's] Dynasty Warriors 7," explains Miyauchi. "So in comparison the overall team is pretty young. We will continue to create new DW titles with newer staff."
"There are definitely team members that feel this way," says Suzuki in response to the burnout concern. "So we have interviews with the staff on a regular basis and rotate jobs as needed. Also, on the flip side, in order to prevent the title from getting into a rut, we shuffle team members."
Miyauchi makes sure he takes time to talk to team members "not just at the end of a project, but during a project, to talk with team members about their current role and their career goals, and based on these talks we rotate tasks."
It's as much to garner new ideas for the series as to avoid burnout. "In order to prevent the title from falling into the same old routine, we do switch out team members on a regular basis. In addition, we add several new staff members (new hires) every year, so this also prevents the team from becoming monotonous," explains Suzuki of the mindset.
The story - pulling from the Three Kingdoms - is a rich one. Deciding which elements to spin out into video games is an elongated process. "We try not to leave out the most well-known episodes or battles (Hulao Pass, Red Cliff)." Explains Suzuki. "In this case, we make changes to the staging and scenario developments so users don't get bored.
"In addition to that, we select episodes that have not yet appeared in the series, or haven't been included in recent releases, and also select episodes related to the new characters added to the game."
"Since the Three Kingdoms story itself spans a long period and includes so many different characters, I'm not worried about running out of ideas," he concludes.
"In terms of running out of ideas," continues Miyauchi, "we avoid this by tasking ourselves with making the story feel fresh with each game by making changes such as which characters we focus on."
But there's still fire burning at the heart of the franchise's elder statesmen. "For me personally," Suzuki concludes, "right now I am not completely satisfied with the DW series, and there are still a lot of things that I want to implement, so I'm absolutely not bored or feel burnt out yet."
BUILDING THE EMPIRE
Exactly how these creators, who have been with the series so long, keep themselves refreshed on the series may be a mystery. Suzuki-san perhaps best hints towards a general team philosophy, and the core of Omega Force's origins.
"[The studio] was originally created as a team that takes on new challenges," he suggests. "To this day we operate with this policy. I'm proud to work with such an active team."
Miyauchi follows this up by saying it's a balance of "cheerfulness and tension" that keeps the working environment buzzing throughout the projects, as the team try and better the previous game. ("I can definitely see that it's livelier in the late afternoon instead of the morning", he jokes.)
There's obvious stress in attempting to better the previous iteration, though Suzuki claims he feels most of it during the start of each project. "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that 80% of the project's success or failure is determined at this point since we're acquiring the budget, forming the team and deciding the game concept." Miyauchi agrees: "The start of a project is an important period that involves determining the direction of the game... I'd like to enjoy this feeling of pressure [during the project's start and end], but it's still something I can't get accustomed to."
There is some time for relaxing. Koinuma takes out all the project members for dinner ("though it's pretty hard to find a restaurant that can seat all of us," he laughs). The vice-president says he hears about some members going on vacation together - one of whom is Suzuki, though the producer admits that even the chance of taking such a break happens less frequently these days, with retail launches leading directly into DLC, which ultimately feeds right into starting the next project. Miyauchi spends his down time eating and playing football, a "favourite hobby" of his.
The team are aware of its global fan base and worldwide expectation come each entry. Suzuki-san admits that Dynasty Warriors 8 had enhanced action elements to cater for overseas players, while Koinuma openly states he checks community and fan feedback, which is used as reference for decisions on future titles.
The VP isn't complacent with the current fan base though, and acknowledges the company needs to make strides in widening the game's appeal, pinpointing the partnering of the series with other IPs as a good basis to push the brand beyond its core fan base.
So far those partnerships have included Japanese mecha franchise Gundam ("we thought 'wouldn't it be fun to release a Gundam game that centred on the sabre'") and martial arts manga and anime Fist of the North Star ("defeating many enemies with overwhelming strength was a good fit for the series"), tie-ins built to attract new users to the series. As for any future partnerships, Koinuma says the team are open to considering new ideas "if anyone was to suggest them".
But he also acknowledges that the series is still considered niche by the wider market, and while the team have to be careful that they cater for the series fan, they'd like to "work at becoming a more major, rather than just a niche, title".
Keeping fans happy while bringing in change to attract newcomers is a fine line to walk, as many other developers know. As they've seen, the community can be a very passionate, and vocal, part of the franchise as well. Chin Soon Sun still gets up close and personal with the fans that he was once part of, and admits that his role demands someone who has "to stand in the front line in any situation [and] has to be strong and benevolent".
"At the end of the day," he continues, "they are the fans who are passionate about our franchise, so it's important to develop a mutual understanding and educate each other at the same time." Their words do carry weight. As much as Koinuma-san checks fan feedback, Sun makes sure to pass on any concerns or feedback to the team.
CONTINUING THE FIGHT
The series continues to thrive and survive though. We ask each of its creators why they think its so enduring.
Hisashi Koinuma cites hard work and knowing what fans want. "It is related to the numerous efforts we continue to make with each title... I think one of the key elements to its longevity is understanding what the fans like."
For Akihiro Suzuki, it's about keeping two things in mind during every development cycle: "the first is not changing the concept of 'the exhilarating feeling of one vs. many, and the other is 'always adding new elements into the game'.
"By combining these seemingly contradictory aspects," he continues, "I think we are able to maintain the core excitement of the game, while also adding new excitement and surprises, which keeps us connected with the series fans and gain new users as well."
Atsushi Miyauchi has a simpler answer: "we aim to make the latest DW game the best."
We then ask the three for their favourite personal moments during their time on the team. The answers prove similar, with all of them reflecting back to the very beginnings of their career, when their life intersected with the series for the first time.
Suzuki's memory takes him back to the achievement of finishing the first game "with no previous knowledge or experience to draw upon", and the reviews that came after - "I heard the good reviews that said, in disbelief, 'we can't believe this game was made by Koei. They must've outsourced it'. I remember that it was the best thing I'd heard, and it made me really happy."
Miyauchi remembers the frustration of migrating a one-on-one fighter to a dynamic battlefield rammed with characters. "We had difficulties with establishing [Dynasty Warriors 2], which irritated the entire team, but at the end of the project, while debugging and testing the final stage (Battle of Wuzhang Plains), we saw the entire battlefield move all at once.... and this point we thought, 'This is entertaining!' and the entire team became excited. It's a moment I still remember today."
Koinuma also talks about his earlier programming work, but has a very different fond memory of the time.
"Almost every night during crunch time, I would finish work at around 2 or 3am and then go out drinking with friends until 5am.... I was young then, and it was a lot of fun!" he laughs in recollection.
"It currently has an important position," the vice-president replies when we ask him to clarify whether Dynasty Warriors is at the core of Temco Koei's portfolio. While he's eager for the company to expand into new titles, he sees the company's strength being in creating historical games, and is actively looking at marketing trends to decide the future of the series. (A short while after this interview, Tecmo Koei confirmed Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends would launch alongside the PS4 in Japan come next year.)
Koinuma doesn't see the firm placing extra emphasis on the series - yet it's telling he goes straight on to state that they need to bring the appeal of the company's other franchises up to the same level as Dynasty Warriors.
Suzuki echoes those sentiments, stating that rising costs aren't the issue when we suggest the series could go digital or handheld in order to survive the next generation. Instead, the studio will base their decision on what to do next on "what kind of user base" the consoles will appeal to.
But with Dynasty Warriors 8 confirmed for PS4 after our talk, it suggests they are happy with the direction both the franchise - and the consoles it'll appear on - are taking.