Famitsu.com interview with Kazumasa Habu on Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory

(Original title: “An Interview with Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory Producer Kazumasa Habu, with the Development History, How the Previous Game Was Received, and the Story Details”, which is way too unwieldy for me to use as the actual title.)

A translation of this Famitsu.com interview from May 11, 2017, with Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth/Hacker’s Memory producer Kazumasa “Habumon” Habu.

A story based on the previous game, with new characters!

Released in March 2015, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth is a game that builds off the base concepts of the Digimon Story series, a training RPG series that centers around “adventure”, “training”, and “battle”. Taking those aspects and merging them with the theme of “making a story for Digimon fans who have become adults,” the worldbuilding, game system, and image quality has been greatly enhanced, and the game has received high amounts of praise from Digimon fans.
This game, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory, is set in the same universe as and inherits the same system from Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth, and is a new work in the Cyber Sleuth series that tells a new story.

Here, on Famitsu.com, we have held an interview with Kazumasa Habu, the producer for Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory. He spoke with us about how things are going with the development process and the previous game, and things to look out for in this one. It’s a must-read for both fans of the Digimon series and fans of RPGs as a whole!

From Bandai Namco Entertainment, producer of Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory
Kazumasa Habu (written below as Habu)

By putting out a steady stream of content, we keep the fans excited

–This is said to be a new product in the “Cyber Sleuth series”. How did this game start development?

Habu: The first game in the Digimon Story series released in 2006, and we’ve been putting out games for more than ten years. When the series first started out, it was on the Nintendo DS, and it was produced primarily for a children’s audience of Digimon fans, but the most prominent aspect of the previous game, Cyber Sleuth, was a shift to “Digimon fans who have become adults”. Digimon is a franchise that started in 1998 and started celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and we feel that the fans who were children at the time have now become university students and working adults, and their tastes have changed. Under such circumstances, we had to change the atmosphere and worldbuilding style and the image of the character cast so that we could “revive” the franchise and reconnect people with what makes Digimon fun in the first place, and so the last game, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth, was created so that even the fans who had already moved on from Digimon would be interested. Thanks to everyone’s support, the game was well-received in both Japan and overseas, and we came to the realization that “there’s a future for continuing to make this sort of Digimon.” Sometime in April 2016, we on the development staff started talking among ourselves, saying, “Let’s make another Digimon Story,” and then set our next milestone to “putting it on the PlayStation 4 and making it popular worlwide.” However, we’d developed this game using the PlayStation Vita as a base, and so moving to the PlayStation 4 would require one of our longest development periods to date. In addition, this year is the 20th anniversary of the Digimon franchise, so if there isn’t anything to keep the fans excited, the fervency of the fans would die down quite quickly. Right now, while we’ve got the passionate heat of the Digimon franchise going, we would like to provide content that keeps the fans excited. As a result, before this heat cools down, we’ve decided to provide new products to our audience members who were attracted to the worldview and characters of the game, and we are also offering a new game in the “Cyber Sleuth series” for not just existing Digimon fans but also potential new players.
On top of that, if we were to suddenly shift the series onto the PlayStation 4, this would be a sudden change forced on the people who had played the last game on the PlayStation Vita. It would be a shame for those who enjoyed Cyber Sleuth but now can’t follow us to the PlayStation 4, so for now we’ve based this game on the PlayStation Vita while also porting it to the PlayStation 4, creating a console transition period.

–How did the fans react to the announcement?

Habu: We got a lot of positive responses, but there were also many people about who were confused over whether it was a sequel, or spinoff, or what? It’s hard to say exactly what this game is in those terms, but for example, if the last game is 1.0, and a new game with entirely new elements like a new story or new maps would be 2.0, this game would be around a 1.7 or 1.8. Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory still uses the same game system as the last one, and we didn’t build a new system from the ground up the same way we would an entirely new game. The maps are also shared with the last game, since it’s working off the same universe. The new story and quests will be approximately equivalent in content amount to that of the last game. Of course, we’ve been taking feedback from players of the previous game into account, and are making adjustments so that it’ll be an improvement over the last one. And on top of that, we’re including the entirety of the last game, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth, with Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory!

–We were surprised that you included the entire last game with it.

Habu: We want more people to play Hacker’s Memory, and since this game shares the same world as the last one, those who never played the last game may feel intimidated. We feel that our current goal is to “give more people a chance at trying out Digimon games,” and we didn’t want to make it harder for those who are just trying out Cyber Sleuth, so just this once, we’ve decided to include the entirety of the last game! (laughs) Also, the PlayStation 4 verison of Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth was only released overseas, and we never found a good time to release it in Japan, so we took this opportunity to get the PlayStation 4 version out domestically. Even if you skip the last game and try to play this one as quickly as possible, I don’t think it can be any longer than 25 hours, so please do play them together!

–The prior game, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth, took us about 60 hours.

Habu: If you take the time to thoroughly train your Digimon, it should take about that long. Incidentally, when we got the results back from the last game’s player feedback questionnaire, most players had actually played 99 hours or more. It was a shock to hear.

–That’s a lot more than you’d expect.

Habu: It really, really is. We tried to make the last game “a conventional RPG”, “not too complicated”, and rather “making Digimon training feel rewarding”. In fact, when we first released the game, many of the players got distracted from the story by Digimon raising, so I honestly would say I’m quite satisfied seeing this happen. There were around 240 Digimon in the last game, but the development team worried that it might be difficult for anyone to collect all of them. But we turned out to be pleasantly surprised when more people completed the lineup than we’d expected. For this game, we’re still going to have a full story, and also include aspects that make replaying it appealing, so I believe it’ll be something you can enjoy for quite a long time.

The previous game, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth.

Showing off the best parts of Digimon with a pleasant battle pace

–What kind of feedback did you get about the battle system?

Habu: When it first released overseas, we got a lot of comments from the media asking “why are they still doing turn-based RPGs in this day and age?”

–Did they really say that?1

Habu: A lot of people look down on turn-based systems, but I personally think turn-based is much like playing cards. Like with playing cards, the ability to think out how you play is a universal part of games, and it becomes a question of how you can manage the cards you have on hand within the set rules, and I don’t think the fun of such a fundamental system will ever get old. The same applies to turn-based games. Once my turn comes, what should I have my units do? I feel there is something unique about being able to manipulate the flow of battle in this way, and the comfort and fun of being able to strategize. Beyond that, Digimon Story is also a game about training Digimon, and we received a lot of feedback that we want to see more of the Digimon that players put so much work into raising. So we polished things up to show the Digimon struggling in battle. But if we focus on that aspect of production too much, the feel of the battle system gets worse, and we thank the developer, Media Vision, for focusing on how to make the rhythm of attacking and damaging your opponent feel satisfying while also keeping the charm points of the Digimon on your team. Media Vision has the right know-how when it comes to JRPGs and a good sense of how to execute it, and balanced battle production so that you could have a pleasant battle pace while also showing off the great parts about your Digimon. After all, our players are composed of a great many people who have love Digimon, and I think it was a particular achievement of the last game in that we managed to make Digimon look appealing, and we would like to continue on this thread.

–Whenever we saw Digimon moving in battle, we certainly thought “oh, right, this is how they move.”

Habu: You can walk alongside your Digimon, and you can watch them while you train at the DigiFarm. However, the training system is rather simplistic compared to that of that of the Digimon World series and other similar games, and so rather than focusing on only one Digimon, this game’s fun lies more in raising various Digimon and collecting many times. The Story series has a lot of collection-based aspects that are popular among young boys, and the DigiFarm has a lot of those aspects. In addition, each Digimon has a different size, and some Digimon aren’t at the right scale in regards to the map, because otherwise they’d be too big to fit on the road (laughs). But it was a thrilling experience to see the Digimon walking alongside the player in the real world, and I was particularly fixated on how it should feel like you’re “going on an adventure together,” so we didn’t have the Digimon follow you in a straight line but made it so that they’d move smoothly by avoiding obstacles but also follow you in a somewhat random path.

–Walking with Ultimate-level Digimon gives you an incredible “man, I am so strong” feeling (laughs).

Habu: It’s a good feeling, when they start off smaller than you, and then you manage to raise them into some really huge Digimon.

–You mentioned that there were negative opinions about the turn-based system overseas, but were there any other differences in the responses between the Japanese and overseas audiences?

Habu: I don’t think there are that many differences between fans in Japan and fans overseas. That said, for overseas, it was also the first time a Digimon game had been localized in a long time, so the fans there were very enthusiastic about it. Turn-based systems may seem a bit outdated to them, but I think we polished the game up quite well. And after all, the people who bought it were people who like Digimon, so I think they were inclined to like it as long as it matched their expectations for a Digimon game. Since the fans who bought it also understood the system quite well, I think it’ll be fine as long as they understand how it works.

What happens when an “average person”, instead of a hero, faces a crisis?

–What are the highlights of this game’s story?

Habu: The previous game, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth, was a story about a hero who lost their body, had to face the truth about their past and solve cases in reality and in cyberspace, and ultimately ended up saving the world. However, this game is not a story about a hero, but an “average person” who gets caught up in the world of Digimon. I think it’s very difficult for ordinary people like us to become world-saving heroes in the face of a crisis. If we’re to think about what we would do if we were caught up in a major disaster, we’d probably prioritize protecting people important to us, like family and friends, and the places we care about. Also, I think those who played the previous game are largely made up of people in their twenties, who are starting to gain awareness about their position in society. It’s when you start to see where you are in society and what communities you belong to. This story is made around the concept of what kind of story would happen if you applied that kind of sense of realism to “Digimon”. This story’s protagonist doesn’t have a particularly special fate. In the game’s cyber world, he ends up getting his account stolen, he puts on the clothes of a criminal, and the story begins when he “loses his place in society”. In order to search for the culprit, he makes a new place for himself within a team of hackers. As his “community” becomes gradually made up of hacker teams, he’s depicted in the situation of getting caught up in a global crisis, and having to protect the places he cares about. Digimon stories are often described in the sense that “evolution of one’s partners = human growth”, so I feel those elements can still be incorporated in this kind of story. This sounds like a bit heavier of a story, but in actuality we also have a variety of side stories that have the comedy and horror of urban legends. We’ve gotten Kouji Watanabe-san back to write more sidequest stories for us, so look forward to them!

–The previous game had sidequests where the cyber world got mixed in with the occult, which was quite the surprise.

Habu: What, inherently, makes up the existence of a Digimon? Cyber Sleuth‘s world follows the idea that Digimon have existed since ancient times, and that, while people had always perceived them as mysterious phenomena, digital technology has caused them to become apparent and visible, and now people can use what they currently understand to define it clearly, like “oh, so that’s what it was!”2 The Digimon are among those kinds of things, and are depicted among those strange phenomena in this game. However, those perceptions and definitions will change depending on the person, and what might be an enemy to one person might feel like home to another. This idea is the base of why, in this game, each character perceives Digimon differently. It’s a science fiction story in which the growth of each person changes their own perception and definition of Digimon, and the state of the world changes along with that.

–Incidentally, the hero joins a hacker team named “Hudie” in this game. It’s named after the butterfly, right?

Habu: “Hudie” is the Chinese word for “butterfly”. This is an important word in relation to this game, and it’s closely related to the so-called “Butterfly Dream” (a story by Zhuangzi).3 The cyber world has become an extension of the real world, and has now become immersed in everyday life, so it’s no longer clear what can be called true “reality”. There are communities forming in the cyber world, and even a “normal” person in the real world can become a special person in the cyber world…Digimon has a lot of hackers who are that sort of person. It’s difficult to say what’s “real” for them. The cyber world is effectively “real life” for them, and the Digimon World is “reality” for the Digimon, and what world should these hackers prioritize protecting? That’s the kind of challenge such hackers will have to face, which overlaps with that keyword of “the Butterfly Dream”.

–I see. It also seems like the character “Fei”, who appeared in the previous game, will also be in this one; will there be any other characters from the last game who are set to appear?

Habu: There will be characters from the previous game that will appear, and you can even delve into the part of their story that wasn’t there in the last game. Of course, you can still understand the story even if you haven’t played the last game, but those who played the last game will have something to smirk at, like, “oh, so that was what was going on behind the scenes?” Again, to make it clear, the story will make sense even if you haven’t played the previous one, but we encourage you to play both!

–What was the reason behind the three starter Digimon (Tentomon, Gotsumon, Betamon)?

Habu: We on the development team felt it’d be suitably unexpected (laughs). Diehard fans will know this already, but we’re actually featuring some unconventionally in-your-face Digimon that normally wouldn’t get to see the light of day in the franchise up until now. In the previous game, we didn’t put the most popular Digimon, Agumon and Gabumon, in the starter selection, primarily because we wanted to portray them properly as characters involved in the main story. For this game, we chose Tentomon, Gotsumon, and Betamon because the protagonist is not a conventional hero. It will probably be a rather stimulating experience for newcomers.

–Were there any other Digimon you were considering for the starter selection?

Habu: Impmon and Gomamon.

–Ah, that sounds about right (laughs). Are there going to be any new Digimon making an appearance in this game?

Habu: Sorry, I can’t tell you yet…but we’ve put in some things that will surprise fans quite a bit.

–We’re looking forward to it. Nakano Broadway and Shinjuku were shown in the previous game, but are there any new locations in this one?

Habu: This game has Ikebukuro, appearing for the first time. There’s a fictional Internet cafe in Ikebukuro, which functions as the home base for Hudie. In terms of this game, the fact that such a true-to-life version of reality that the player is familiar with is connected to the cyber world is something that should get a player excited. Hopefully, seeing the cyber world under the layers of the world you’re accustomed to should be interesting.

–It’ll be exciting to go back to real-life places! Are there any new elements to the game’s system?

Habu: I can’t say anything specific yet, but…we’ve implemented some systems based on the unique perspective of a hacker, so please look forward to further news on this.

Making adjustments to online match balance, to make it more exciting

–What other adjustments have you made for this game?

Habu: The previous game got a lot of feedback along the lines of “the balance for competitive play is bad.” There weren’t that many complaints about balance issues for the main game, but since there were many players who over-trained their Digimon before returning to the story, many of them probably felt that the bosses were too weak. However, if we made adjustments to that, it would become difficult for newer players to complete it, so we figured we should leave that largely untouched. In regards to competitive play, the metagame ended up severely biased towards Digimon with penetrating skills and Digimon with high speed. As a result, people weren’t able to put together teams with their favorite Digimon, resulting in us having to make some adjustments. In regards to what we’re actually doing to fix it, we’re trying to make modifications by adding anti- skills and other counters, rather than simply reducing the power of penetrating skills or reducing speed. We’re also adding 73 new Digimon, so hopefully player-vs.-player battles will become more exciting.

–So you can’t just play online matches the same way you would in the previous game.

Habu: Right. There are other online elements that are easier to play for beginners, and they can create rooms to play against friends and set levels so that they can even the playing field with other players. We will continue to look into how to improve player-vs.-player matches.

–This is going back to the main game, but since the previous game and the new game are both included, can you freely pick which to start with?

Habu: They’re both on the same title screen, but you can pick which one to start with. The save data will take into account both games, so you can stick with Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory the entire time, and maybe poke a little into the original game for a bit. In addition, if you already have save data for the Vita version of Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth, you can carry the save data over to this game’s version of Cyber Sleuth. In addition, we’re planning to implement a system that transfers the save data from the Vita version to the PS4 version using the cross-save function. Unfortunately, you can’t bring your Digimon from Cyber Sleuth to Hacker’s Memory, but we do plan to add some kind of transfer bonus.

–Is there any difference between the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita versions?

Habu: The only significant difference is the resolution. However, you may be able to find something new by playing on a bigger screen, so if you played the previous game on the PlayStation Vita, we’d definitely like it if you tried it out on the PlayStation 4.

We want to achieve a dream of “every Digimon making an appearance”

–Returning to the original topic, while development is proceeding on this game, there’s also a new game for another Digimon series in progress. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Habu: We want to continue making the Digimon series in a firm and solid manner. Whenever we announce a new game, fans are most concerned about how many Digimon will be in it. But the number of Digimon is the hardest part…(laughs). Currently, the franchise has around 1000 Digimon, but not all of them have been able to make an appearance in anything yet, and I would like to increase the number of Digimon that appear in each series. Since Digimon can have completely different shapes and you can’t reuse models, we are currently managing our resources and trying to increase the number of 3D models of each Digimon we have on hand. It’s a difficult task, but we’re working on it ever so gradually so that we can continue the Digimon series and achieve the all-time fan dream of “every Digimon making an appearance”.

–A lot of fans are out there to complete the encyclopedia, so there’s a lot of value in that dream.

Habu: Exactly! I’m thrilled that so many people are finishing the encyclopedia, but it also puts pressure on us that “we need more Digimon to appear.”

–Happiness, but with fear (laughs). Naturally, we imagine you’re very particular about the characters as well, such as the main character, but what in particular did you focus on?

Habu: I actually brought the rough drafts with me today, so please do take a look. As I mentioned earlier, the protagonist of this game is not a hero, so we had him designed with a basis in that concept. The main character is an average boy, while the heroine is the genius. There are other members of Hudie as well, so please look forward to more information.

–Please leave a closing message for the fans.

Habu: We listen carefully to everything the fans say, and we’re working to produce something good with the developers, Media Vision. We would like to work together with everyone so that we can continue to make Digimon games, so we hope that everyone who’s supported us thus far, those who have never had any experience with Digimon, or those who used to love Digimon in the past but have since fallen out of it, will enjoy it. Of course, we will do our best to meet your expectations, and we look forward to your continued support.

Translator's notes
  1. As the interview implies, turn-based RPGs aren’t seen as “outdated” in Japan in the same way many in the West do. Part of it is due to the very busy schedule of a lot of gaming adults, necessitating a larger market for portable, easy-to-pick-up games (which also contributes to the higher market for handheld consoles like the Vita, since they’re easy to bring on train rides). []
  2. Perennial Digimon franchise fans will recognize what Producer Habu says about Digimon being supernatural phenomena recognized by digital technology as being similar to Director Kakudou’s original concept for Digimon in Digimon Adventure and its related sequels and media. The two of them have conversed quite often and appeared together publicly in Japanese-hosted livestreams in the past, and Producer Habu has been quite open about where he gets his inspiration from. []
  3. The “Butterfly Dream” refers to a parable by Zhuangzi musing about dreaming about a butterfly and waking up, and how it’s impossible to determine whether he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man, or a man dreaming of being a butterfly. []

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