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 former Digimon game producer Ryou Mito, posted on November 16 and November 21, 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.
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!
We apologize for keeping our members waiting! For this third part, we’ll be directly speaking with the creator of Digimon Story and the third person to serve as Digimon console game producer, Ryou Mito, also known as “Mito Nitro”!
3rd interview: Former Digimon game producer Ryou Mito (hereinafter, Mito)
Responsible for the launch of the Digimon Story DS game project, as well as the producer for many Digimon games thereafter.
Habu: Mito-san, you were the producer in charge of Digimon games before me, but you’ve been involved with games with different other kinds of characters besides just Digimon, right? Please tell us what kind of games you’ve been in charge of thus far.
Mito: I’ve been in charge of producing console games since around 2002. Beyond just Digimon, I’ve also produced games for IPs like Dragon Ball, One Piece, Gundam, and Saint Seiya.
Habu: 2002 was when Digimon Frontier was being broadcast, right?
Mito: It was.
Habu: I’m sure the fans must have been pretty excited back then, right?
Mito: They really were.
Habu: There was Frontier and X-evolution, and after a bit of a pause, Savers. Was Digimon Story planned as part of the Digimon Savers project?
Mito: They came from separate origins. We’d been working on it before any discussion about Digimon Savers had come up. After X-evolution, there weren’t any new developments with the Digimon IP for a while, so we’d decided to make a new game. I wanted to make a game that I’d come up with from scratch, and we were proceeding with the project from that line of thought. But the Digimon Savers anime project started up from a different direction shortly after that, so since the timing matched up, we had some characters and Digimon from Digimon Savers show up as guest characters in Digimon Story.
Habu: The Agumon in Digimon Story had red leather belts, so I’d thought it was a game made with Digimon Savers in mind (Agumon’s design had some minor changes in Digimon Savers).
Mito: Agumon’s design was like that because we thought the fans would enjoy it more if it matched up with Digimon Savers.
Habu: Earlier, I’d spoken with you and heard that you had a hard time getting the Digimon Story project off the ground. What happened?
Mito: We already had the Digimon World series, and people within the company were concerned about putting out another RPG series, so it was hard to get them on board with the project.
Habu: Did the company at the time have an impression that Digimon console games should be synonymous with Digimon World?
Mito: They did. The Digimon World name was a very well-known one, and Digimon Story was a completely new RPG, so a lot of people kept asking “what’s the difference?” I gave a detailed explanation of what was unique and fun about Digimon Story, and finally got the go-ahead.
Habu: What was different about Digimon Story compared to the Digimon World series?
Mito: The Nintendo DS was on sale at the time, and there was a casual playerbase that was starting to emerge. So we tried to make the game have a brighter atmosphere from previous Digimon games and make the system easy to understand so that anyone could play it.
Habu: Digimon Story‘s top-down perspective reminded me a lot of Digimon World 3: Door to a New Adventure. Were you using that as a reference during planning?
Mito: We just thought the Nintendo DS games that used three-quarters perspective at the time looked nice, so we used it ourselves. As far as the game system goes, we were thinking about having new gameplay that had never been in any Digimon game before. To be more exact, mechanics like the DigiFarm or scanning Digimon data in battle to make them your allies.
Habu: I personally think the DigiFarm was a very creative concept.
Mito: Digimon Story is a game that has collecting tons of Digimon at its core. But while we had hundreds of Digimon in the game, you could only have a few in the party. To solve that problem, we came up with the DigiFarm so you could give Digimon you’d collected but weren’t using anymore another opportunity to do something again. And we had the location look like a ranch, so that you wouldn’t forget about the Digimon you were leaving in its care. The Nintendo DS had two screens, so I thought it’d be fun to see what the Digimon were doing while you were running around. Also, Digimon are both data and living creatures at the same time, so I thought it it’d be fun to make it really feel that way. At the DigiFarm, you can treat them as living creatures, but you can also scan data and make a Digimon out of it.
Habu: Digimon does have a lot of digital-related words in its items and systems.
Mito: But in the Digimon World series, those words actually made it hard to understand. For instance, some people said that if some item was called something like a “floppy disk”, they had no idea what it was. So we made the item names and terminology in Digimon Story easier to understand so that our target audience of elementary school kids could understand them.
Habu: Right, the Digimon World series had floppy disk items. It works when you consider the concept of outdated data accumulating around and getting mixed into Digimon data, but I imagine there must have been many elementary school students who’d never seen a floppy disk before.
Mito: So we figured it’d be fine to change with the times.
Habu: Makes sense. Also, I feel that the game’s pacing improved now that it’s on the Nintendo DS.
Mito: I think we were able to make the game pacing go much better since we could use cartridge ROM. The Digimon World series took a long time to load, and it made it a slog to play…
Habu: So from the very beginning, Digimon Story‘s most important priorities were to make it feel good to play and be easy to understand. Back then, it had been about 5 or 6 years since Digimon had come into being, but what was your primary target audience age range?
Mito: We considered it to be a game that could be played by elementary school students. With so many Digimon in it, we figured that having a part dedicated to collecting Digimon was an absolute must, so we focused on Digimon collection and raising during development.
Habu: So it’s inherited Digimon’s concepts of adventure, training, and battle.
Mito: Right. Digimon games have “adventure”, “training”, and “battle” as part of their basic fundamentals, so we made sure to maintain that as much as possible.
Habu: Even now, when we plan out Digimon games, adventure, training, and battle are still our fundamental ideas. It’s easy to analyze and explain game mechanics that way. You said earlier that they were very strict on vetting the game, so what kind of things did they ask you to change?
Mito: They were mainly to do with the game system. I had to explain the mechanics many times and tweak the project plan accordingly. The DigiFarm is also something that had a lot of tweaks. It’s something that originally didn’t exist in Digimon lore, but we put it in because we thought it would be fun to have. Beyond that, we had the game system involve not only evolving Digimon but also de-evolving them.
Habu: Did you end up putting in more mechanics than you initially intended?
Mito: We did. We’d come up with interesting ideas during our planning meetings and put more and more of them in the game during development. As a result, Digimon Story turned out to be a game with a ton of subsystems.
Habu: I think the bright pop-atmosphere world of Digimon on the Nintendo DS’s colorful screen made it become a game with a different kind of sensibility.
Mito: We were deliberately aiming for that. Things like the three-quarters view and the battle screen were all part of me originally wanting to make it have a pop atmosphere, and I was very picky about making sure that was the case. Beyond that, another key point was to increase the number of Digimon so that the players could keep playing for a long time.
Habu: There are around 240 Digimon in Digimon Story. For a game that’s the first in its series, it’s a pretty huge number to have right off the bat. Was that difficult to implement?
Mito: Naturally, it was difficult, but the number of Digimon has a direct impact on player satisfaction, and there are all sorts of Digimon species, so we put as many as we could from the very beginning.
Habu: We used that number of 240 Digimon as a goal for the number of Digimon we wanted to have when making Cyber Sleuth. Digimon Story is a series where you “play to collect Digimon”, so I wanted to adhere to this number to the death…although it wasn’t easy…
Habu: Beyond just the pixel art Digimon, the maps were also very impressively cute.
Mito: Digimon is a series that’s popular with children and women, so we made the maps cute to appeal to children and women while also maintaining an atmosphere that would still appeal to men as well.
Habu: I personally think Digimon Story was a turning point for Digimon games. At the time, the Digimon World series had its own set of fans, but sales were gradually declining as the series progressed. That’s because it ended up not being the product that Digimon World players wanted to see, and that’s something we really need to reconsider, but in the midst of those circumstances, Digimon Story brought in new fans and helped us make a comeback, which I feel is a major factor in how we’re able to still continue developing Digimon games. You said that elementary school students were the main target audience, but what generation were most of the actual players from?
Mito: Elementary school students, just as we’d been aiming for. At the time, there weren’t that many RPGs for the Nintendo DS, so I think we got a lot of kids to play it because we got it out early.
Habu: I see. Right now, if you compare the ages for current Digimon World and Digimon Story players, Digimon Story’s peak is about five years younger. If I remember right, the original Digimon Story shipped around 210,000 units in Japan, didn’t it?
Mito: Something like 210,000 to 220,000. (*As per BNE research, cumulative sales were 218,000.)
Habu: We still haven’t been able to surpass that number. The games I was in charge of were at around 180,000 units in Japan, so the only thing increasing is our development costs…(laughs sadly)
Mito: Please keep trying to break that record (laughs).
Habu: Now, let’s move onto our next topic! The second Digimon Story game, Sunburst/Moonlight, was released shortly after the first. Was that originally the plan from the start?
Mito: It wasn’t something we’d originally planned for. But the first Digimon Story sold around 40,000 copies on the first day, and it wasn’t long before it went over 200,000 copies sold, so the decision to make a sequel came right after that. The first game was released in June, and the sequel was released in March of the following year, so development was around half a year. And it was in two versions, at that. Even looking back at it now, it was a terrifying schedule (laughs).
Habu: And the reason for such a strict schedule was…?
Mito: Digimon Savers was airing between April 2006 and March 2007. We figured that we’d be able to satisfy more players if we released a new game while they were enjoying the anime, so we scrambled to finish development as quickly as possible.
Habu: At the time, TV commercials were still the primary form of advertising, and it was important to make sure fans watching the anime would also see the commercials to learn about the product, so you had to release the product during the broadcast period…Sunburst/Moonlight is still popular among fans, isn’t it? I imagine people liked things like how there were different versions of the protagonist in each game, or how your starting area was different.
Mito: If we were going to go all the way and release two versions, we wanted each version to have a distinctly different atmosphere, so we came up with a “sun” version with Digimon that had a bright feeling, and a “moon” version that had a darker one. We then created Coronamon and Lunamon, who would be the symbols of each version, and advanced development with them at the center.
Habu: How did you come up with the design concepts for Coronamon and Lunamon?
Mito: From “bright” and “dark”, we came up with “sun” and “moon” as our base image. From the sun, fire. And for an animal that represented the sun, we thought a lion would fit. As for the moon, it’d naturally be a rabbit, right? And that’s how we came up with Coronamon and Lunamon’s designs.
Habu: Coronamon ends up evolving into Apollomon, and Lunamon into Dianamon, both of whom are members of the Olympus XII.
Mito: When we decided on having them be related to the sun and moon, there also happened to be spots available for them in the Olympos XII, so we decided to add them as Apollomon and Dianamon.
Habu: There were still a lot of spots open for the Royal Knights and Olympus XII at the time, right?
Mito: There were something like only two or three Olympos XII members at the time.
Habu: This was during the time of Digimon Savers, so Mercurymon was there…There was only Marsmon at first, right?
Mito: Right. I don’t think we’d even decided on having a concept called the Olympos XII at the time. The Royal Knights had spots open, but Apollomon and Dianamon didn’t seem like the type to be knights, so we felt the Olympos XII would be a better fit for them.
Habu: The Olympos XII didn’t become a thing until much later. They still haven’t done anything with them in the anime yet…
Mito: They haven’t.
Habu: That’s probably why people don’t really know about them (laughs sadly). Personally, I’d like to give them some proper spotlight in future games. Also, when it comes to Sunburst/Moonlight, the human characters are also popular, especially Sayo, the Moonlight protagonist. Was that the case at the time, too?
Mito: We had no idea about any of that at all. We didn’t originally expect the human characters to become popular, but I remember being surprised when I heard about Sayo’s popularity afterwards.
Habu: Sunburst/Moonlight‘s respective protagonists appear as different characters in their opposing game, so they stand out a lot as characters. There’s also a lot of minor characters, and the final boss isn’t even a Digimon to begin with. Was there a reason for that?
Mito: We decided not to have the final boss be a Digimon because it made sense with the story.
Habu: I’ve also had non-Digimon boss characters in my own games, but that kind of thing makes it hard for them to show up in future works…We had reasons we couldn’t make them be Digimon for a while…but it’s really a dilemma because it’ll be hard to ever get them to come up again. The third Digimon Story game is Lost Evolution, but before then you also worked on Digimon Savers: Another Mission (2006) and Digimon Championship (2008).
Mito: I did. So that means I made around four Digimon games between 2005 and 2006. Digimon Story in June 2006, Digimon Savers: Another Mission in November 2006, Sunburst and Moonlight in March 2007…And then Digimon Savers ended, and Digimon Championship was released a little after that. Digimon Savers: Another Mission ended up being particularly difficult to work on.
Habu: We have some Digimon whose 3D models are still based on the ones from Digimon Savers: Another Mission. I remember that the Digimon IP was in such a tight spot that we weren’t getting any development budget, but thanks to those resources, we were able to somehow get a Digimon game together. But the data for some of those characters has been completely lost, and it really is a terrible shame…After that was Digimon Championship, which had an unusual game system, right?
Mito: Digimon Championship was a very different kind of game from the Digimon Story series. It’s an extension of the portable Digimon Pendulum LCD game, and we developed it with the idea that you could play it with the Nintendo DS’s stylus pen.
Habu: You’ve worked on a handful of Digimon games, but I imagine the Digimon Story series is still the most memorable for you, right?
Mito: It is. I worked on four games for it, and after Sunburst/Moonlight, I was thinking about maybe developing a series based on the concepts of Mars and Jupiter. Ultimately, that ended up becoming Lost Evolution (laughs).
Habu: Lost Evolution was the first Digimon game I was involved with, so I really remember a lot aobut that. This one involved yet another different play system, right?
Mito: We’d already done the split versions concept, and we had three games already, so we decided we wanted to change things up more significantly with Lost Evolution. As the title indicates, the Digimon had lost their ability to evolve, so we added a system that involved repairing the evolution tree.
The gameplay had been improving overall as the series progressed, but repairing felt like a lot of work to do and put tight restrictions on Digimon evolution, so the players were dissatisfied by how they couldn’t easily get their Digimon to evolve into what they wanted, and that’s a point I particularly regret about it.
Habu: Lost Evolution was the last Digimon game you worked on before you moved onto other things. Are there any unique standout characteristics or difficulties that come with working on Digimon in particular?
Mito: The high number of Digimon is both one of its greatest charm points, and also one of its greatest difficulties.
Habu: Was the number of Digimon the most important thing to players at the time?
Mito: The players want a high number of Digimon more than anything else. But if you ask, “okay, how many do you want?”, naturally, the answer will be “everything”. And I’m truly sorry to all of our fans, but due to budget and schedule constraints, we can’t just easily implement every single Digimon. But when we pick which Digimon to include, if someone’s favorite Digimon in there, they’ll naturally speak up about their dissatisfaction. It’s very difficult to figure out that balance when choosing which to include.
Habu: Increasing the number of Digimon is one of our biggest challenges. In our most recent game, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory, we have around 320 Digimon, but I’d like to increase that number even further. To change the subject a little, was there anything particularly difficult or particularly rewarding when you were working on Digimon?
Mito: In terms of difficulties, the high number of Digimon really was the most difficult thing during development. As for what was most rewarding, it was getting to see how much enthusiasm Digimon fans had. As long as we made a good game, they’d give the game good reviews, so that made me happy.
Habu: Naturally, there were some very harsh opinions, but it’s encouraging to have a lot of fans showing their support. (Otherwise, it’d be too hard to bear…)
Mito: The fans are the ones who are really pushing themselves to the limit.
Habu: They are. Also, since we’re here, I’d like to take the opportunity to ask if there’s anything you particularly keep in mind when you make games.
Mito: One thing I always try to keep in mind when developing games is that I need to have a detached perspective. I make them thinking about what I would think if I were the player. When it comes to Digimon games, I’m careful not to assume that it’s someone who already knows how to play. I pay attention to how it looks and feels to someone who only has a passing understanding of the game, and how easy it is for them to understand the system.
Habu: So you approach things from the player’s perspective. Also, when I launched the project for Cyber Sleuth (2015), you were there to check over it, but I’d like to ask once again how you felt about it.
Mito: Before Cyber Sleuth, there was Digimon World Re:Digitize (2012), which also had Suzuhito Yasuda-san as the character designer and adjusted the character’s proportions to more realistic ones, so I could tell that there was potential from Digimon going in a new direction from where I’d taken it. Since Cyber Sleuth was aimed at adults, it was stylish-looking and cool, but I think I remember saying “but do you really need to be putting the Digimon Story name on there?”
Habu: Right. Since most of our current Digimon game players were around 20 years old, we made Digimon World Re:Digitize be a little more aimed towards the adult audience, but for Cyber Sleuth, we changed up not only the appearance but also the entire way we went about the worldbuilding. But we wanted to follow Digimon Story’s “easy to understand” concept of making it something anyone could play, so when we started planning, we worked with development company Media Vision to keep the basic Digimon Story system intact so that it would be comfortable to get into. I figured fans would be able to remember what that kind of game system was like when they heard the title, so I asked you, “please let us use this title.”
Mito: Right. Even though you’d been following the same system, the atmosphere had changed to be less “pop” and more “stylish”, so I didn’t see why the Digimon Story name should be on there.
Habu: Right now, you’re currently more focused on management, so it probably won’t be happening anytime soon, but if you could make another Digimon game now, what kind of game would you like to make?
Mito: There’s been more and more adult Digimon fans these days, so Digimon Story has now become more of a cool and stylish kind of game like Cyber Sleuth, but Digimon Story was originally developed under the concept of being a more pop-like and cute game. So I’d like to use our current high-end technology to make a more pop-like, cute kind of Digimon Story.
Habu: That sounds great! I’d love to see it too.
Mito: I don’t know if we’d actually be able to make that kind of thing happen, but we’ll be continuing to hear fan opinions out as much as possible and give them games they’ll enjoy. The games have changed a lot since the last time I was involved, but please continue to support them!