Digimon Games Community “Let’s Ask the Creators All the Things We Want to Know!” interviews — WiZ toy planner Maekawa

The Digimon Games Community website posted a series of interviews with Digimon creators between August and December 2017, held by Digimon game producer Kazumasa Habu. The following is a translation of an interview with WiZ toy planner Maekawa and Digimon creator Kenji Watanabe, posted on September 5 and September 19, 2017.

(Character designer Kenji Watanabe | WiZ toy planner Maekawa | Former Digimon game producer Ryou Mito | V-Tamer 01 artist Tenya Yabuno)

For the sake of reading ease, redundant informational text between interview portions has been omitted.

Table of Contents

Part 1

In order to understand Digimon even better, we’re asking different creators about the process of creating its contents, their struggles to do so, and other things you don’t normally get to hear! In this second part, we’ve interviewed Maekawa from I-WiZ, who’s in charge of planning for Digimon toy development! Designer Kenji Watanabe (hereinafter, Watanabe) has also joined us, and we’ll be spending this half talking about how the Digimon project first came to be.

2nd interview: Toy planner Maekawa
A project planner at Wiz Co., Ltd., and Kenji Watanabe-san’s working partner of many years. Naturally, besides just planning and developing Digimon Digimon toys and figures, he’s also involved with creating character lore.

▲ A portrait of Maekawa, as drawn by Kenji-san!

Habu: I believe Maekawa-san started getting involved with Digimon around the same time as I did. It was before Digimon Savers (hereinafter, Savers), right?

Maekawa: Hmm, it was before Savers. My first involvement with development was on the Digimon Accel, version 4 (Ultimate Genome). I was taking over the project from my senior.

Watanabe: It was from a time when there wasn’t any Digimon TV anime airing.

Habu: Speaking in terms of the anime series, it was between Digimon Frontier and Savers, right?

Maekawa: It was 2005, so I believe it was somewhere between DIGITAL MONSTER X-evolution and Savers.

Habu: And since then, you’ve been involved with Digimon this entire time.

Maekawa: Yes. As of this year, it’ll have been 12 or 13 years.

Habu: (Whoa!) As far as long-time continuously involved staff goes, Maekawa-san seems to have been around the second longest behind Kenji-san.

Watanabe: Something like that.

Habu: So, Maekawa-san, please introduce yourself to our readers! What kinds of things do you do?

Maekawa: I’m in charge of both planning and development for Digimon toys, and I also come up with the information in Digimon character profiles whenever we make new media.

Habu: Whenever I’m working on a Digimon game and there’s something I’m not sure about regarding Digimon lore, I’ve been asking Maekawa-san for clarification. He’s always been so helpful! You said you’re also involved with toy planning, but that’s not something very easy for the layman to understand, is it?

Watanabe: To put it more simply, a planner comes up with the technical specifications for games and toys. Planning also involves thinking about profiles and personalities for the characters in it.

Habu: Were Kenji-san and Maekawa-san the main creators of the Digimon Accel?

Maekawa: There were a few other people involved with development, but it wasn’t that many people overall.

Watanabe: Naturally, we had other staff members on it, but the planning itself is basically onemanned. At WiZ, the person in charge of planning does everything from production of the physical object to the technical specs for what’s in it, all the way up until right before production starts.

Habu: But of course, the programming would be…

Maekawa: We leave the programming to the actual programmers (laughs).

Watanabe: The planner is in charge of all of the specs that need to be determined up until the actual programming is done.

Maekawa: Right. When it comes to the programming, the programmers look at the spec document and tailor it to their own specs.

Habu: We see a lot of spec documents all the time, but it might be hard for the fans to imagine what one is like. Is it okay to publish one of your spec documents, Maekawa-san?

Watanabe: It’s honestly more of a flowchart than a spec document, is that okay?

Maekawa: If you press the A button, this happens, if you press the B button, this happens, et cetera.

Watanabe: Would that still be okay?

Habu: Please, go ahead!

▲ This is one of Maekawa-san’s spec documents. “This is the spec document for the Digimon Twin’s general screen.” (Maekawa)

Habu: Thank you for showing us something so valuable! Getting back tot he subject, Maekawa-san, besides just the planning, you also come up with the lore, right?

Maekawa: We’ve been putting more and more lore into it since the Digimon Accel. Sometimes I just think about the basic details and leave the rest to someone else, and sometimes I come up with the entire thing by myself.

Habu: How do you come up with the lore?

Maekawa: If there’s a character illustration by the time I’m coming up with the lore, I go into it starting from its appearance. For example, is it more of a lone wolf, or does it like socializing with others? Also, if there’s another character who feels similar, I might add something like them being friends.

Habu: So then, what if there aren’t any character illustrations?

Maekawa: During those times, I decide on the concept myself, then ask Watanabe-san for advice on whether we should make this kind of character. This happened with Hackmon from the Royal Knights. We had two spaces for Royal Knights left, and while we were figuring out what kind of Digimon we wanted there, I figured I wanted to have some aspects of a master-student relationship in Digimon. I thought it’d be nice to have one of the Royal Knights be a master who raises his student as a new member.

Habu: Digimon doesn’t have any way of having a parent-child relationship thanks to how it works in the lore, so was that an attempt to have that dynamic in a different way?

Watanabe: They’re based on the Knights of the Round Table, but that has around 50 knights, not 13. From there, we figured that maybe at some point, we could have the current Royal Knights pass the baton to newer ones.

Habu: When I first asked about the lore, I remember hearing something about that!

Watanabe: We figured that Hackmon could serve as a link that ties into a newer incoming generation of Royal Knights, and thus make it easier for the fans to accept the change. We came up with Hackmon under that line of thinking.

Habu: Now that you mention it, there hasn’t been anything about that next generation of Royal Knights lately.

Watanabe: We haven’t had any opportunities to make it happen. It’s one of those things where we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Incidentally, the name of the master, Gankuumon, comes from “stubborn old man”, “ganko oyaji“.

Maekawa: The “gankuu” is Okinawan dialect. You use it for a particularly stubborn person.

Watanabe: Yeah, that! We actually started off with a different name, but we wanted to give him a name that made him sound like a stubborn old man. During the rough draft stage, I think his name was something like “Andrewmon”.

Maekawa: I think it was something like that.

Watanabe: But he didn’t have anything in common with Andrew1 (laughs).

Habu: (laughs) Next, please tell us about the process of LCD toy development!

Maekawa: For LCD toys, the company comes up with a project they feel they want to do at this time, or Bandai lets us know that they’re thinking of doing something, and it goes from there.

Watanabe: From there, the first thing we think about is what new gimmick it’ll have, or rather, what’ll be at the core of its content.

Maekawa: In effect, we’re trying to outdo whatever gimmick we came up with last time so our new gimmick can be surprising.

Watanabe: Well, there’s been times when we’ve overdone it (laughs awkwardly).

Habu: There was one toy that could also be used as an MP3 player. What led to the decision to make that?

Watanabe: That was the Digimon Xros Loader, right? We did that because at the time, survey showed that the iPod was the item that elementary school students wanted most.

Maekawa: So we thought, why not make it usable as both a toy and an MP3 player? (laughs)

Habu: I see (laughs). Once things get off the ground, how long does it take to finish developing an LCD toy?

Maekawa: Once everything is decided, it’ll be finished in around a year or a year and a half. But if we’re particularly having trouble figuring things out, there’s been times where it’s taken up to three years or so.

Watanabe: Back in the old days, we could easily finish an LCD toy in about half a year after deciding on a plan, but nowadays we can’t do it as quickly anymore.

Habu: Incidentally, you said earlier that making an LCD toy starts with coming up with gimmicks or core mechanics first. Does that result in any changes to Digimon lore?

Watanabe: A lot of people probably would just keep doing the same thing that was a hit the last time. But with Digimon, we’re taking on a new challenge every time. What the fans want changes with the times, so as with series like Super Sentai and Kamen Rider2, so we have to research recent trends and think about what’ll sell well this time. During this process, we do sometimes come up with new Digimion lore.

Habu: So that’s how Digimon Xros Wars (hereinafter, Xros Wars) ended up going with “combining” instead of “evolving”. But when you make a game, it’s hard to bring in Digimon that don’t follow the usual evolution level framework.

Watanabe: Is it?

Habu: It’s technically possible to just force them into the normal evolutionary level system just to get them in. But since “evolution” and “DigiXros” are fundamentally different concepts, I personally think that if we’re going to implement them, we should do so by actually putting in “DigiXros” as a separate thing from evolution.
But if we try doing that, we’re just going to end up making an entirely separate system just for Xros Wars, and it makes me wonder if we need to go that far, at least right now.
Because that budget could be going to getting even more Digimon in there and giving attention to Digimon that haven’t been able to do anything yet…I wanted to hold off like that with other systems like Spirit Evolution too, but fans were requesting those Digimon so much that we had to force them into the current system.
It’d be nice if we could achieve some way to distinguish that kind of fusion from Jogress within the play system…

Watanabe: I don’t think it’s that big of a problem to think of fusion as just another extension of Jogress, right? Omegamon’s also a “fusion”, after all.

Maekawa: Jogress evolution and fusion are just different versions of the same concept.

Habu: I’d like to hear out Kenji-san and Maekawa-san’s opinions and put some proper thought into it. Please tell us what you think is particularly important when making Digimon toys.

Maekawa: As was said earlier, it’s important to take on challenges every time, but what we emphasize depends on whether it’s a product for adults or for children. For children’s products, we can’t just aim for popular trends, we also have to try out things that haven’t been done before. For adults, we’re more focused on stimulating memories than having novelty. What do you do to make them feel nostalgia while also getting to experience something new? I think it’s very important to strike that balance.

Part 2

Habu: I wanted to ask Maekawa-san about the lore. Digimon has a lot of areas where the lore is deliberately left without details. For instance, the rather mysterious nature of what roles the “Crack Team”, “Metal Empire Corps”, or “Vortex Warriors” play.

Maekawa: This goes for both teams and individual characters, but if we put in too much about their goals, there won’t be much room left to imagine. So we try not to think too hard about the smaller details.

Watanabe: We discuss the lore with each other, but we always end up saying that we shouldn’t confirm too much. Since they’re going to be making games and anime out of our LCD toys, they might want to do something different with the story. We don’t want someone working on a story to try and dig deeper and end up having the existing lore getting in the way. Of course, we could try and take their story into account and make our own lore fit to it with closer detail, but we’re not the ones making the games or anime, so it doesn’t feel practical.

Maekawa: If a character’s lore is so strict that they end up rejecting it in favor of a different one instead, that character has lost another chance to do something in the spotlight.

Watanabe: So we decide to stop. We do actually go into it more deeply between the two of us, but we try not to let it go beyond talking about it verbally.

Habu: Also, by leaving gaps in the lore, you end up also leaving room for the fans to fill things in with their imagination, right? And on that note, aren’t there people from the Digimon generation starting to actually get involved with working on the series itself?

Maekawa: There are. I rely on Digimon fans within the staff to help out with what I don’t know. You could say they’re an information archive. A lot of the information about Digimon from before when I joined has gone missing, and there’s a limit to how much knowledge only one person can have, too. So in order to make up for that, for example, we’ll have a story writer who’s intimately familiar with the lore come and add a little more depth, which brings in more value to the character.

Habu: You’ve been saying there’s been more opportunities for Digimon fans to actually get involved with production.

Watanabe: Our WiZ debugging staff has an infamous “Digimon lover” among them. If there’s something we can’t figure out, we ask them and have them explain what it is. We consider fans to always be welcome. Just, please go easy on us (laughs).

Maekawa: Fans are very good to rely on, but of course we can’t just do anything and everything they say. I’m the one making the final decisions, so I try not to dig too deeply into it.

Watanabe: This probably goes for other games and series too, but people who are big fans tend to also be very knowledgeable. We want to take their opinions into account, but if we cater too much to the hardcore audience, the entry gate will get too high and it’ll be hard for newer fans to get in. But if we don’t listen to our hardcore fans, the contents will become shallow and it won’t be very satisfying for them.

Habu: It’s definitely hard to manage that balance of how much you should take hardcore fans’ opinions into account. Maekawa-san, where do you draw the line when making these decisions?

Maekawa: I think it’s always important to have a proper discussion about it every time. I try to put in something as a starting point, and if it seems difficult to explain, I decide to make it more hidden lore. If you look at the older lore for Agumon, it’s extremely easy to understand what kind of personality it has and what kind of lifestyle it lives.

Watanabe: Digimon lore has just been getting more and more tryhard (laughs awkwardly).

Maekawa: When I think about lore, I try to make it as easy to read as possible so it can be like Agumon’s original profile. Besides that, I’m also trying to get fans excited by bringing in more lore from a long time ago. Recently, it seems like people really liked the introduction of Zubamon being able to become a weapon.

Habu: It’s been a while since we’ve had a weapon Digimon like this. Spadamon, another weapon Digimon, was actually the first Digimon I was asked to help produce, so I think I’d like to expand the lore around it a little more. Incidentally, out of all of the Digimon-related work you’ve done so far, can you tell us about anything that left a particularly strong impression on you or one that made you particularly happy?

Maekawa: I’m happiest when people say “that toy was really fun, wasn’t it?” years after it was released. As for the toys I was involved with, I really liked the Digimon Twin. If I do say so myself, I personally think we made the Digimon grow up into the cutest ones ever, and we got to add some more flavor to the battles, so I’m very proud of making it something so well. The Digimon Twin was supposed to have a follow-up successor, but unfortunately it was shelved…

Habu: It’s really hard to see things get rejected…Was there any rejected project you would have really liked to have seen?

Maekawa: This has to do with the Digimon Twin’s second version, but we were hoping to introduce two-on-two battles with it. We were considering a method to have pixel art characters to be transferred to a single device so they could team up and battle. The second Digimon Twin is already a long-gone story now, but in the Digital Monster Ver. 20th, we added a way for you to raise two at the same time, so I got to pull off what I couldn’t back then (laughs).

See here for details on the Digital Monster Ver. 20th

Watanabe: We finally got to make Maekawa-san’s persistence into reality (laughs).

Habu: What a blessing as a developer! By the way, do you check what fans are saying on social media?

Maekawa: Not very often, but I do try to check a little whenever a new product goes on sale. If my stomach starts hurting, I get told to stop while I can (laughs awkwardly).

Watanabe: But it makes us very happy to see positive opinions.

Maekawa: It does. Even now, you can see fans showing off their Digimon training on YouTube or so, so it hits me that they really are playing with it.

Habu: It gets you closer to the fans, doesn’t it?

Maekawa: I don’t get to hear things directly from fans for myself very often, but this year we’ve launched an official Digimon Twitter account, and I think that’s brought us closer to the fans.

Watanabe: It’s great to have an official Twitter now. There are a lot of things we can’t say, but we never had any official place to directly put out information up until now. I give all the credit to Maekawa-san for coming up with the idea to make one.

Maekawa: We’re not in an era where we can easily publish guidebooks anymore, and I figured if we just released nothing but Digimon toys for its 20th anniversary and told people to play without anything else, it’d be too difficult for them, so we should have a palce to put out information about it. We could give out advice on how to play, or communicate some of the lore we had in mind.

Habu: In other words, you wanted there to be a place for fans to learn more about Digimon.

Maekawa: Right, we wanted there to be more opportunities for people to get to know about it.

Habu: We’ve been putting up illustrations, and it’s been getting everyone very excited.

Watanabe: They’re illustrations from a long time ago, after all. Some of those original drawings on paper hadn’t ever been converted to data before.

Maekawa: There’s illustrations from the past, and illustrations that we made but didn’t have the opportunity to show off before…We’d like to post these kinds of things on Twitter.

Watanabe: We want to take something like a drawing by Kinoshita-sensei (Tomotake Kinoshita, illustrator, responsible for early Digimon illustrations) and go “here you go!” (laughs).

Habu: I’m sure tons of people will love it (laughs). Incidentally, when you’re coming up with new toys or lore, is there anything you use as reference?

Maekawa: We keep a stockpile of ideas by playing games that get popular. I also get inspired by playing Digimon games. When I was playing Digimon World -next 0rder-, I started thinking, hey, they took the idea of raising two at the same time first (laughs awkwardly).

Habu: If possible, it’d be better to keep the projects in sync. For instance, it’d have been better to come up with a collaboration between a game and LCD toy that both let you raise two at the same time.

Maekawa: WiZ became a wholly owned subsidiary of Bandai in 2016, and now we’re aiming to make our work together even tighter. It’d really be nice to have a collab between the game and LCD toy branches at some point.

Habu: Good! Let’s actively work towards that goal. Collabs aside, please tell us if there’s anything else you’d like to try doing in the future.

Maekawa: Just earlier, Habu-san said that he had difficulty handling the Digimon from Xros Wars, right? Going forward, I’d like to make something that could have them appear alongside other Digimon like Hybrids or Armor types.

Habu: Really!? I’d really love that if so!

Maekawa: We’re also considering other sorts of projects for the 20th anniversary. We’ll be announcing them one after another, so I hope you can continue to enjoy them and look forward to them.

Translator's notes
  1. The name “Andrew” in this case is most likely invoking Andrew from the 1999 film Bicentennial Man (originally based off a 1976 short story by Isaac Asimov), released in Japan under the title Andrew NDR114. []
  2. Super Sentai and Kamen Rider = Referring to tokusatsu series produced by Toei, which Bandai also produces the toys for (the former was adapted in the West as Power Rangers). Like with Digimon, each consist of yearly series that have a completely different theme and setting each time, and both IPs have changed considerably over decades as a result. []

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