Yoot Saito isn’t mincing words about why he’s getting back into games: sweet, sweet stacks of cash.
“We need to make money,” says the creator of Sim Tower and Seaman. “That’s the motivation. Computer games make money.”
Saito’s quest for money led him to the annual BitSummit festival held in Kyoto, Japan last month. Now in its fourth year, the games expo highlights the small but growing Japanese independent game scene. Nintendo signed on as a sponsor for the first time this year, underscoring the show’s growing influence in a country where corporate-made games still dominate.
And in that landscape, Yutaka “Yoot” Saito, 53, is a rarity among Japanese game auteurs: he was never tied down to a single publisher or genre. His 1994 breakthrough hit, a management simulation on Macintosh called The Tower in Japan, caught the attention of SimCity maker Maxis. It rebranded the game as SimTower and released it globally.
“I didn’t like games with magic and dragons and wizard things,” Saito says outside the festival, “I wanted to create SimEarth.”
Saito followed that up with Seaman, a cult classic for the Sega Dreamcast in which players used a microphone to hatch and eventually hold conversations with an unsettling fish-person creature.
However, it’s been a little while since a Saito creation has been released: his last title, Aero Porter, a puzzle game in which you sorted luggage at an airport, came to the Nintendo 3DS in 2012. After that, he says, he soured on game making. “Once you start the project of a computer game, you need to be very punctual for the date you need to achieve,” he said, “I hated that kind of thing. We needed a break.” Since his company had a few more years’ worth of budget, he decided to spend the time doing R&D.
He pulls out an iPhone from his messenger bag to show me one of the projects he created in the interim. It’s called EarthBook. It’s a digital globe that serves up historical views of the world’s ever-shifting territories and alliances based on a “time bar” which the player uses to cycle through history.
“When I was a kid in the schoolroom,” Saito says, “I learned Japanese history separate from world history, so those two things are not related in my brain. When I was living in the United States I was asked, ‘What was happening in Japan when the Civil War happened here?’ I had no idea.” EarthBook lets you find out. It also lets you calculate the distance between any two points on the globe, by using curved paths to demonstrate how flat maps distort our view of the earth.
“This is what we’ve been working on,” Saito says. “For nobody.” He laughs. EarthBook was released in 2015 but never topped the charts. “We lost all the money,” Saito says.
So Seaman‘s creator is back to games. He’s not sure what kind of game he wants to make, but thinks that a “spiritual sequel” might make the most sense–that is, a game that follows on a previous Saito success, even if he doesn’t have the rights to the franchise. “The difficulty with creating a brand-new genre is that the people are not very ready,” Saito said. It would cost more money to educate people about a brand new game than it would to create a new game in a more familiar genre.
That’s not to say that Saito isn’t looking to innovate–he just thinks it’s best to do so when somebody else is assuming the risk. In particular, he praised Nintendo’s willingness to experiment. The Kyoto gamemaker has taken a flyer on a crazy Saito idea before, a samurai-strategy-simulator-pinball mashup called Odama. “They don’t care about money in order to get a very exciting title,” he said, “They take every risk to make titles interesting.”
“When working with a publisher,” he says by way of advice for younger aspiring game designers, “never hesitate to take risks. That’s the point. The risk takers are always…” He pauses, choosing his next word carefully. “Sexy. I love them.”