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interview: UFO Interactive’s head of production, Andrew Wang

Those who seek out unique gameplay experiences will often turn to games that cater to a particular niche. Unfortunately, because such games are not for everyone, most companies have little incentive to take a chance on them. Worse yet, many of the titles that gamers with demanding taste would be interested in are developed in Japan or other regions, resulting in a large number of them never seeing the light of day in the US.

Luckily, there are several publishers that specialize in localizing under-the-radar games. One of the lesser known companies that has built a reputation for bringing over obscure titles is UFO Interactive. With oddities like Domino Rally and Pucca Power Up, shmups such as Raiden III/IV and Ultimate Shooting Collection, and other little-known gems like Dungeon Maker II and Way of the Samurai 3, the company's efforts have not gone unnoticed by those who seek out games that offer something different. With the company seemingly going out of its way to satisfy a small segment of the gaming public, does its survival actually come into play when it decides which titles to latch on to?

UFO Interactive's Andrew Wang would probably say yes. As the head of production at UFO, Andrew oversees many aspects of a game's creation, from development, to marketing, to distribution. In this interview, he discusses UFO's game selection process as well as how the publisher attempts to keep customers happy with its localizations.

Can you tell us about your game selection process?

Of course, everybody needs to eat, so a lot of times it comes down to what we think is a good value and how we can profit.

As a business, we would like to bring out good games, but in the end, we would like to stay in business, so we would like to see [if there is value in] the game - how easily marketable the particular title is, and how much of an audience there is for that type of game. So we take into consideration a lot of different factors and of course we want a fun game - a good title for people to enjoy.

I can't really put one single factor down as the main component of what we would choose. It's a pretty broad spectrum of things that we would look at to try to get that process going. If we are interested in it by first sight - we see that it's a cool idea - we'll try to keep an eye on it and take a look a little more. If they come back a few months later and we like the way it's going, then maybe we'll pick it up. If it's already a finished game, then we just look at how marketable it is and we go from there.

You say that, but a lot of your releases are niche titles...

Yeah... One particular case was Domino Rally, one of the games that I liked quite a bit when we were taking a look at Success, the game's publisher in Japan. We just liked the art style. We thought it was really cool. We thought the main character, Minon, was very catchy. There weren't any titles that had that quirky Japanese feel at the time in the Wii lineup. So, we took to that and we looked at it and we saw that it's innovative. It's got unique gameplay, it's got a cool character, it's got cool music. And we just thought it's good fun too, so why not?

How do you handle localizations?

There are times when we would need to pick and choose what parts of the game would be suitable and what parts of the game to take out, and make sure that it's good for the American market in how it plays. Because sometimes, even if it goes through approval in another area, it may not go through approval in the US. So we make sure those things get ironed out before something comes into the US market.

When we were setting this meeting up, you told me that you work with developers to figure out which aspects of their game you want to improve upon, revise, or take out altogether. Does this mean that you contact the developers while they are developing their games?

When developers come to us to try to pitch their game, there may be times where we would say we want to change something or there is something we want to improve upon, so... yes and no.

There are different types that come to us. One is - they're already finished; they have a game published in another region. The other ones are near-finished. We will usually take ones that are near-finished so we can give feedback and they can talk to us as well about what to improve, what features get taken out, or what features remain.

One example is Way of the Samurai. Their game was already finished, and we did our best to add more content and also improve upon the gameplay a little more. It sounds a little generic to "improve upon the graphics," I know, but it's one thing that we asked them to do - to polish the game's look more.

Did you have to ask them to make the changes, or does UFO have the resources to do them itself?

We asked them to do it. It was part of our agreement, so as the publisher we were able to control a little bit of that so we can sell the game a little better. If people know that a game was already released in Japan, they'll compare it to the US version. There's a time gap in-between and people will wonder what the localization time [was for] - what was improved. Then we can always market it a little better - say that we did more things to the game.

Say a game came out two or three years ago. Would its release date preclude you from going after it?

No. If we find value in the game - if it's a couple years old and we get the right timing in our view of the market, if we think it's the right timing and they're open to negotiating a deal with us for that game, then that's not an issue for us.

Has UFO ever considered bringing over D3's Simple Series?

We have taken a look at that series, but as of right now, no.

The Xbox 360 version of Way of the Samurai 3 was published by UFO and the PS3 version was done by Agetech. How did that happen?

It was a co-publishing deal we had. By working with Agetech, we could gather our forces and have more people working on the game. We have a good relationship with Agetech and we both had our strengths, so we worked closely together in publishing this title.

There's usually some backlash amongst some of the more hardcore gamers whenever something is changed. Does the threat of such backlash affect how you localize your games?

Well, we try to keep the games as true to their original form as possible. Did you mean something like game content or localization in particular?

Everything actually. They are picky about everything.

I could see why. I'm a pretty hardcore gamer too, and if there was something that I thought was a fantastic joke in the original and in the translation it was kind of just flat - there was no emphasis in it - then I would be upset too. I understand that feeling, so we try to do what we can and localize the best we can. We always go through and take a look at everything that gets translated or all the content that gets added or removed and we make a judgment call based on our experience. If we think that something will impact the game in a negative way, we'll consider it twice and see how it goes from there.

How much freedom do the original developers give UFO for making changes?

If there was anything we had to change for story or anything that we had to change in the text itself, it's usually something that we consider would be unsuitable for the North American market or something that the first party has requested that we change, so we usually don't try to change the content of the game itself unless we absolutely need to.

When do you deem something unsuitable?

Well, if we're trying sell to a kid's market - if they mention something like alcohol or drug use, if something is implied too vividly - we'll try to change that to make it sound better or avoid that wording altogether. So in that regard, we'll do our best to keep the overall context of that portion of the game the same.

I don't see too many complaints about UFO's translations being off. Actually, I've never heard any complaints about that.

Yeah. Now that you mention it... We try to do the original text or original context justice as much as we can. I'm sure there have been things that were lost, but it's something that we try to make sure is on par with the Japanese quality in the text itself.

Do you have a special relationship with Starfish?

We've done many titles with them in the past - Smart Girls, Smart Boys, Smart Kids titles. Smart Girls had gotten a couple Internet parenting awards, so I really appreciate the work that they've done and I like the way that the market for the DS allows us to bring kids titles [over] and have people look at them. Starfish helped us develop a lot of the games for the DS and also some for the Wii to cater to the three-to-eight-year-old audience.

There are some Starfish titles that many were hoping that you would bring over - Elminage Original, Elminage 3, and Tokyo Twilight Busters to name a few. Have you heard of those games?

I have heard of those. We don't get that much fan mail with requests for games, but when we do, we will usually take a look at the game mentioned and see if it fits our agenda and our budget as well, but those particular games... I was not made aware of if and when they were presented to UFO.

A lot of people, when they see that a game is made by Starfish, tend to think "ok, maybe UFO will pick that up." Your name often comes up whenever that company's titles are mentioned.

I can see how that would be a correlation people would make because Starfish - we've done a lot with them. So, we will keep working with them and hopefully if those titles, if they are presented to us again or maybe if I take a look at them, who knows? There's always a chance that we'll want to pick it up, but depending on our company's direction at the time or our agenda, our budget, things could go one way or another.

UFO made a name for itself amongst shmup fans by releasing games like Raiden IV and Ultimate Shooting Collection. Can we expect more shooters from you in the future?

Maybe. [laughs] I don't know how to answer that question without revealing anything. I love Raiden myself very much, and it was a pleasure because UFO in the past has also published Raiden III on the PS2, so personally, I would love to see that series continue under our name. But, there is nothing shmup-related that I can announce at this time.

Cave has released DeathSmiles II as an untranslated downloadable. If that experiment proves to be a hit, do you see UFO trying something like that?

Personally, I would like to try something like that. I could see UFO trying something similar if it makes sense to do so.

What happened to Arcade Shooter: Illvelo?

I understand that there were some people that were anticipating that game and I'm very sorry to say that in the end the game just didn't work out for us. It was in the final stages but there were complications and it [ended up being] better for us as a company to let the game go.

Raiden IV retailed for a lot more than what most US gamers were willing to put down for a top-down shooter. What are your thoughts on that?

I believe in the quality of the product that Moss, the developer, has put out. The amount of gameplay that you can get from Raiden and any other shoot-em-up is really up to the player - they get as much out of the game as they want to put in. I believe that the cost is justified.

Shoot-em-up fans will naturally buy it for that price. They will buy it day-one. But I don't know if the market for that particular genre is the same in America as it is in other places.

I really hope top-down shooters can get popular again, because it's really the definition of "sit-down-and-play." Raiden was part of that era where people could just pop down a coin, play - if they were good enough they could get to the end, if they were not, they could put another coin to continue or they wouldn't.

Fans - I really thank them for all their support on Raiden IV. Of course, to the general audience, it might seem a little high, but, again, you get as much out of it as you want to put in. So, I stand behind the product.

Is there any special meaning behind your company's name? Is it related to those claw machines?

Actually, no. I know what you're talking about - the UFO catcher. No, it's not related to that. I think it just sounds cool...

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