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Developers Speak Out: SkyGunner

At E3 2002, I had the opporuntiy to meet Bill Alexander from Atlus. He was kind enough to sit down with us and discuss several topics--including the upcoming SkyGunner.

CV-Games: How long have you been with Atlus?

Bill Alexander: I started with the company in late September (2001), as they were finishing up work on Wizardry, Tsugunai, and Hoshigami. In the relatively brief amount of time I've spent there, I have really come to appreciate how much work goes into localizing a game for release in the US.

CV-Games: How long have you been in the game industry?

Bill Alexander: This was my first job in the gaming industry. Believe it or not, my job prior to this was teaching 4th and 5th grade in Ohio. Of course, I have been a gamer for many years, and a fan of RPGs in particular, so Atlus has been a nice fit for me. Life throws you some funny curves, but I am very happy to have stumbled upon this opportunity.

CV-Games: What did the kids you used to teach think when you headed off into the gaming industry?

Bill Alexander: My students were aware that I was an avid video game fan. In fact, I encouraged many of them to write video game reviews to add to our school newspaper, which I was the coordinator for. Originally I had intended on entering the game industry as an educational software consultant, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to be involved with the development of console games. While my students were surprised to learn that I was leaving teaching, they thought the end result was "awesome!"

CV-Games: What would you say to someone who is trying to get into the industry?

Bill Alexander: There are a lot of different types of jobs in the industry. I think typically people assume all jobs in gaming are in development. But, since there are also plenty of positions in marketing, sales, quality assurance, and many other areas, it's possible to enter the industry through many different paths. However, as I learned, geography may be one of the biggest obstacles to overcome. There aren't too many game companies in Ohio!

CV-Games: What was your first full project you worked on?

Bill Alexander: Tactics Ogre: Knight of Lodis for the Gameboy Advance was the first title I worked on with Atlus. There were more experienced hands involved with the project, and work on the game was more of a team effort. Our project lead, Yu Namba, had worked on previous titles in the Ogre Battle series and was a wealth of knowledge regarding that universe.

CV-Games: So SkyGunner is your second full project?

Bill Alexander: Yes, SkyGunner is my second full project. Atlus does not typically release a large number of titles simultaneously, the aforementioned titles (Wizardry, Tsugunai, and Hoshigami) being somewhat of an exception. We generally shop around for quality games that catch the attention of our staff members and which we are excited to bring to the US market. SkyGunner clearly was the type of game we were happy to put our name on.

CV-Games: Specifically, what is your title on the SkyGunner project?

Bill Alexander: I worked on SkyGunner as both an Editor and the Quality Assurance Assistant Manager. Essentially, I edited and reworded the English text produced by one of our translators. Then I helped to organize the team of testers who played through the game an inumerable amount of times trying to find any errors resulting from our localization or that the developer may have overlooked. Again, it was a great learning experience for me. This time I worked closely with Gail Salamanca, our project lead on that title. Gail has also been with Atlus for a number of years and knows all the ins and outs of localizing a title.

CV-Games: For a gamer who is not familiar with SkyGunner, can you explain to them what this title is all about and the unique features it has?

Bill Alexander: Everyone has played your typical flight simulator type games. Too often, your average gamer will feel overwhelmed by the overly complex controls or turned off by the slow pace of the game. SkyGunner, on the other hand, is more of an action game than a flight simulator. The game is definitely fast paced with gorgeous graphics. The bosses you fight are huge and imaginative, and no matter which pilot you play as, you'll have a thrilling time as you progress through the story. In fact, the setting and characters seem like something straight out of a Miyazaki movie, although Studio Ghibli has no connections to the project.

CV-Games: In the final version, gamers will be able to select from either the Japanese voiceovers or the new English one. Do you think this will be a growing trend as storage media increases for games? Will game developers take advantage of the DVD format to add this and other fresh features to upcoming games?

Bill Alexander: Clearly the DVD format offers much more options than mediums of the past. In the case of SkyGunner, we felt the Japanese voice acting and characters were so well done, that we felt it would be a shame to not let the American audience be exposed to them. However, we also wanted the game to appeal to a broad range of tastes, so for the casual gamer we added the English voices. We are, might I add, extremely pleased with how the English dub turned out. To answer your question, though, I personally feel that the DVD format will allow developers to offer players games with more of an immersive feel to them, as the limits are pushed in both graphics and sound.

CV-Games: There are a lot of shooters on the market. Working Designs and Spaz seem to hold the majority of the first-class titles out there. What will Sky Gunner do to rival these titles?

Bill Alexander: I have yet to play a game that reminds me of SkyGunner. It really is a world of its own. When people ask me what other games it is like, the best I can do is compare it to StarFox, but even there the similarities are limited. Not only is the story both humorous and endearing, but the game also has a huge amount of replay and a variety of features to challenge any level of gamer. The unique targeting system always keep the action close at hand, while the vibrant colors really jump out and grab you.

CV-Games: A lot of people think that the shooter genre is a genre about to die. What can be done to keep it fresh and alive?

Bill Alexander: As was done with SkyGunner, developers can make a game with a lot of variety and one that becomes progressively more difficult, a title that keeps gamers coming back for more. And, now that shooters have gone 3D, environments can be much more expansive.

CV-Games: Graphically, Skygunner is absolutely astonishing. How far have you pushed the graphical limitations of the PS2?

Bill Alexander: That is a question better suited for the Japanese developers of the game, SCEI. However, from my own impressions of the game, I am sure that SkyGunner takes good advantage of the PS2's power, although it seems with most game systems that at this stage in a console's life cycle, a little bit more can always be squeezed out of a system.

CV-Games: The import version of Sky Gunner has been known for being plagued by slowdown problems. What's being done to fix this problem?

Bill Alexander: We felt very strongly about the merits of this game, and we tried very hard to do whatever was in our power to make it the blockbuster it deserves to be. To address the issue of slowdown, we added an option in the game to change the processing style. While typically the game runs in a variable processing mode, where the frame rate varies depending on the intensity of the action, the new mode, uniform processing mode, offers a more steady framerate which eliminates the majority of slowdown.

CV-Games: Why did Atlus choose to bring Skygunner to the US?

Bill Alexander: This is a game that everyone in our office immediately fell in love with. Even after living and breathing nothing but SkyGunner for months, most of us are still playing the game, whether to unlock some hidden feature or just to cruise the skies.

CV-Games: Who is your favorite playable character in Skygunner?

Bill Alexander: Personally, I like to play as Femme, since her plane is the most maneuverable. But, there are plenty of times where I was wishing I had the firepower of Ciel's Avenir. Honestly, I like all the characters. In the English version, Copain is my favorite because he has a lot of spunk. We took the most liberty with his character as we strived to make the game appealing to everyone and add our own brand of humor without deviating too far from the original dialogue.

CV-Games: Has the localization process for Skygunner been very difficult?

Bill Alexander: Rather than saying it has been difficult, I would say that it has been different. Atlus has been known for releasing many deep and challenging RPGs. SkyGunner on the otherhand, is a much shorter, action-oriented game that must be played through many times. Unlike an RPG, where the speed of the text displayed can be controlled by the gamer, in SkyGunner, much of the dialogue goes whizzing by as fast as the fighters! One of the major differences in testing this game was with our use of video tape. This helped us to catch a lot of the things that you might miss if you were simply playing the game normally. There were also some debug options, which are features that a developer puts into a game, that we used to make the testing easier. However, having a bilingual game, our worked doubled! We hope our fans appreciate that feature. :)

The testing of our games is also different than for development companies in the US, because all of our comments need to be reported back to the developer in Japan, so all of the information we collect must be translated from English to Japanese. Aside from all that, getting the voices just right takes a lot of work. Selecting the right voice actors and tweaking the dialogue is a challenge in itself. Then we put together a script and take it to a recording studio where the lines are read often multiple times and sometimes by even more than one actor (for the same part!). Members of our staff are there to try and direct the voice acting so that it has the right feel to match the mood of the game. Once the voice files have been processed by the studio, we sort through them and decide which takes to use. These are then sent to Japan to be inserted into the game. For SkyGunner, we had several actors reading for the parts of the Poulets as well as some of the minor characters who did not have a lot of lines. And, believe it or not, the voice of Ciel is actually done by a woman! Since it is very difficult to find a male actor who can do that young of a voice, we decided that using a woman was the best option. Also, if you couldn't tell, we had the voices of the Poulets digitally edited to give them a unique and humorous quality.

CV-Games: How long has Atlus USA been working to bring this title over to the US?

Bill Alexander: We began work on the title In February of 2002 and Wrapped up the final touches in May. This is a much shorter time frame than games developed from the ground up. Also, unlike games developed stateside, all of marketing must be done within this short time period. It is especially difficult for a localization company to get information to the print magazines who need materials way in advance. This means that once a project has begun, we are running on all gears until it has been completed.

CV-Games: Is there another title that you are working on right now?

Bill Alexander: We are in the middle of the localization process for Dual Hearts right now. It's an action-RPG developed by Sony of Japan, and it will be out this fall.

CV-Games: Thanks for your time Bill. We can't wait to see the final version of SkyGunner and we will keep our eyes out for Dual Hearts!

By Kaleb Rutherford - 06/17/02

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