Devil May Cry 5 interview: Capcom on satisfying fans, balancing difficulty and learning from Ninja Theory

By Alex Donaldson
27 September 2018 14:53 GMT

It’s not often a pre-release interview for a game begins with a debate. Usually, it’s just a member of the media peppering a game designer with questions on their latest project, but when I step into my chat with Devil May Cry 5‘s director and producer, a back-and-forth starts immediately. It’s all about the fan base, ultimately – and the brief incident at E3 where a news writer here on VG247 misidentified one of DMC5’s returning heroes, kicking off a wave of incredulity and anger at the mistake.

DMC5 producer Matt Walker stands at least partially in defense of the vitriolic reaction of the fan base. They simply really care, he explains. They’re passionate, and he argues that VG247’s response – to make light of the mistake after correcting it – risked coming over as teasing the fans. “You can’t crap on the fans, man!” he says. “That’s not good for anybody.”

The debate that followed is all a little too ‘inside baseball’ to print here, but it was an interesting couple of minutes where a games critic and a prominent game creator discuss the relationship between creators, the media, and consumers, touching on everything from the need for positive attitudes to the greater still need for balanced reporting and the difficulty of finding the correct approach for reviews.

I bring up that discussion because it’s demonstrative of one of the things that makes Devil May Cry 5 such an exciting project: this is a development team that’s constantly listening that seems acutely aware of its fan base and what’s going on. That’s becoming more common in Japan – just look at how feedback-driven Final Fantasy 15 was – but producer Matt Walker, director Hideaki Itsuno, executive producer Michiteru Okabe and their team seem to have found the right balance: they’re paying constant attention to fans while being steadfast in their own vision and decisions. In this interview we discuss DMC5’s fan base – plus the challenges of creating such a hotly-anticipated sequel. We pick up right after that initial debate…

VG247: Okay, so, here’s the question coming off the back of that… when you’re looking at this game, you’ve got hardcore fans and you’ve got complete newcomers. Especially so, since you’ve had a good few years since the last one, if you regard that as DmC or DMC4. So… for a review, whose opinion are you more interested in reading? A hardcore existing fan or somebody coming in fresh?

Hideaki Itsuno: That’s a really awesome question – this is going to be a really awesome discussion. In Japan, we do the cross-review, right? The really big publications have four people. The idea there, anyway, is like… here’s a person that knows the series, here’s a person that doesn’t really play these kinds of games, here’s someone that does… so you get a lot of different perspectives.

When we’re talking about metascores and stuff, from my perspective ideally that’d take a similar kind of structure – that you’d take a mix of the opinions of all these kinds of people, be they series veterans or first-time players.

“I think about the opinions of the core players first. If we know that the core fans like it, there’s a hope that other people should be able to enjoy it as well.”

Michiteru Okabe: I think about the opinions of the core players first. They’re the ones who are going to be really into it, they’re the ones who are going to be actively seeking out new information as it’s released, and they’ll be the first to play the game.

So for instance for the demo here – I go and look for the opinions of the core players first to see what they’re thinking, as they’re obviously going to be the ones with the most to say too. They’re going to have very structured opinions on that stuff. My hope is that we’re able to make something where… okay, if we know that the core fans like it, there’s a hope that other people should be able to enjoy it as well.

If you think about cars, say, people that make cars know cars. You wouldn’t want to buy a car from somebody who has never made a car before. …but then again, who knows, maybe that’d lead to something really interesting and new…?!

Matt Walker: For me, I think it’s important to get all kinds of opinions. Everyone comes to every interaction with a different frame of mind, with different experiences. No matter how similar our experiences may be, or how similar our knowledge base, there’s a good chance that when talking about exactly the same thing there’s a good chance that the way I understand something is different from the way you understand something. In that sense it’s great to get reviews from all kinds of different people.

Ideally, if you’re reading a review, it’s great to see them establish where they stand with the franchise and their history with it, too – because then when you’re reading it you can go ‘ok, I understand the frame of mind that this review is coming from’ – it helps you to understand the perspective a little better.

VG247: So, how’s the process been between making something for the fans but also making sure that you can make the concessions you need to for the sake of accessibility and the like? I’m especially curious about how that worked also with designing these different character move sets, since Dante seems to be a bit more complex than Nero.

Itsuno: Actually, the game’s not out yet, so… we don’t know if we’ve balanced it well. [Walker laughs] I guess we’ll find out. But – because we have these three different playable characters that have three different kinds of play the hope is that we’ve balanced the missions correctly so…

Okay, so, there’s a bunch of different missions in the game, and the way that they work is that there’s some missions where you’ll play with a specific character, some missions where you’ll choose between one of two, and some where you’ll choose one of three. Ideally, we’ve set up the mission structure in a way where people can have the character that they’re playing as – whether they’ve selected it or it’s been chosen for them for that mission – and we’ll have balanced it well with all the moves they can purchase at that point in time, how they’ve played, how many red orbs they’ve got…

What we’ve discussed over the last couple of days here has been about how we’ve designed these characters in a way where you’re not going to get overwhelmed with all of the options in front of you if you’ve never played the game before. So hopefully it’s easier to play, but there’s a lot of depth to it if you want to dive into that.

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Walker: Auto assist kind of helps with that, since if you’ve never played Devil May Cry before auto assist isn’t like an easy mode. That’s not the intent. The intent is simply that it’s more like a tutorial mode. You can turn it on whenever you want and you can mash the melee button, and by doing that I get a chance to see what the moves are that you can do – it gives you examples of how you can use each move, essentially.

By doing that the style meter is also going to go up pretty fast, as auto assist will be picking out the moves that’ll make it go up the fastest. That means the UI’s going to change because now you’re in S, the music’s going to change – and all of that, all of that, including auto assist – it all comes back to how we can make the player feel good about doing stylish play so that they want to try to do that without auto assist, with any luck. That’s really where that all comes from. People can play however they want – if they want to do it stylishly with or without auto assist, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s okay too. But hopefully they’ll want to try thanks to all the things that we’ve done to try to lead them in that direction.

Oh, and, the way the auto assist is made is that you can still do the moves if you want – you can do the command with the buttons and that’ll do the move. That means you can keep it on, but if you get good enough at it you might eventually decide ‘alright, I don’t want to let the computer decide’ – and then eventually you’ll maybe even want to turn it off completely and design your own combos.

The way we’ve designed the moves on the characters too – we’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that it’s easy to play but still looks really cool. We’ve put a lot of effort into things like the transitions on the animations and stuff like that, for instance – even if you’ve played Devil May Cry before, you might think you know the move but it looks cooler – it looks different – to what you’ve seen before.

“The third character, V, is… he’s got a completely different way to play. He’s a character where because nobody has played with him or in this style before”

VG247: Have you guys treated the different characters as a sort of discrete level of difficulty in itself? Like, it’s easy to play Dante, but it feels to me like he has more immediate depth and potential than Nero right off the bat, like he’s designed for more experienced players. And – two part question, sorry – does this story ‘belong’ to any one member of the cast? Is one the ‘main’ character?

Itsuno: That’s a pretty astute question and observation, in terms of the three characters… In terms of learning the characters and the way the characters play, yeah – Nero is going to be a little bit more… he doesn’t have as many options as Dante. Dante is supposed to be this character where you have all these different options available to you at any given point in time, and so for veterans – yeah, they’re really going to be able to make Dante sing with that.

With Nero, he’s got three options. He’s got the red queen (his sword), the blue rose (his gun) and he’s got a devil breaker at any given point in time. As such, the approach of ‘okay, how am I gonna play stylishly’ is a little different to with Dante. With Nero it’s about how you make the best use of those three options.

The third character, V, is… he’s got a completely different way to play. He’s a character where because nobody has played with him or in this style before, everybody is going to start from zero with him. Everybody’s going to have the same experience with him going in, at least initially. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the game is going to be any easier or any more difficult with any of the characters, mind.

Walker: The cool thing is that you’re going to have your pool of red orbs that you get through the game, and you’re going to be able to use those on any of the three characters as you go through the game. So you can use that to customize as you see fit. Do you want to power up one character completely before the other ones? Or maybe you’re not as good with one specific guy so you want to power him up more? We want to give people as many options as we can in that regard.

VG247: In the earliest stages of this project, how did you approach it? The series was in a really interesting place. What was the process and the mood like making those early decisions to make this game? It feels like you could’ve gone a lot of other directions, after all.

Itsuno: We came out with DmC: Devil May Cry. It’s an awesome game. We love that game. For us, it’s just as important as all the other games in the series. A few of the other core team members and I worked closely with Ninja Theory – it was this collaborative effort. I’d go out there every two months. There was this core team that worked really closely with Ninja Theory on that one, and then there were other people working on other stuff like Dragon’s Dogma and what have you.

I really wanted to make a DmC: Devil May Cry 2, after the first one. I was really pumped up to do it, and then that didn’t happen. So… when it came time to make a new game, we said, alright, let’s make Devil May Cry 5. We had these people that didn’t work on DmC and people that did. Because we had these two sides mixing, it was like alright, we’re going to make Devil May Cry 5, it’s not going to be a sequel to DmC, but we definitely want to do what we can to take what we learned from that game too. But we also had these people who hadn’t worked on it because they’d been on other stuff. They came over and were really excited to see if they could make something that even exceeds DmC. Rivals, in a way!

One thing, if you think about it… it probably wouldn’t make sense to have these guys make a DmC 2. That’s something that Ninja Theory should collaborate with Capcom on, y’know? It would be different – it would lose something if we tried to do that only in Osaka. So it really made sense that we’d go to a sequel to DMC4. It’s something that the people in Osaka have more of a frame of reference for.

“We’ve still got some surprises up our sleeves. Let me tell you, when [fans] finish the game, those people are going to go nuts.”

VG247: What impresses me is that it feels like you’ve sort of found the best of both worlds. Was that a conscious thought – trying to take as much as you can from DmC as well?

Itsuno: That’s exactly what we’re hoping for. We’re hoping that… look, there was so much amazing stuff about that game. All of us here played it, even those who didn’t work on it – and it’s like, alright, we need to learn from all this amazing stuff done in that game.

VG247: I was chatting to the Biohazard 2 team about this same thing, and… well, this series is at an age now where you have staff working on it who are also fans. Does that chance the equation for development – building for a series that’s older and more revered – so much so that there’s surely younger team members who are hardcore fans of the previous games?

Itsuno: It’s very much… We have all these core people playing the game and making the game, and from the beginning one of our concepts that we absolutely needed to hit was this has to be a game that the core needs to love. The core needs to love this game. We made sure that we’d never lose that, but at the same time we had a ton of people playtest the game – people that’d never played the series playtest so that we could ideally lower that hurdle while still keeping the line up here for the core, so they’d definitely enjoy the game. We thought a lot about what we could do to still make it something that can be enjoyable for people that are new to the series as well.

The other thing is, we actually do have people on the team who’ve been making Devil May Cry since the first one, too. They’re getting older, too, so they also have less resistance than they used to for things that are going to be a pain… so they give suggestions on how we can lower those hurdles. [laughs]

VG247: I really have to ask you guys about the UI and sound and the way it changes as you play better – it really is the thing that ties the whole game together and makes it work. Can you tell me about building that?

Itsuno: Dude, having been at Capcom for years now… that’s the Capcom sound team! Those guys are hot, man. There’s so many cool people on that team… They’re also the most attractive people there… The sound manager on the game is amazing at action games. He’s super good. Part of it is just me saying ‘okay, I want this sort of thing for the sound’. Then he’ll go and he’ll do his magic and work hard and he will basically exceed those expectations on all fronts. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about music, or about sound or whatever.

Walker: Those guys, man, I’ve gotta tell you, I think that… we’ve got the best damn sound team in Japan. Those guys are awesome.

VG247: You just mentioned meeting expectations. How do you feel about the reception so far? Fan bases are both wonderful and difficult, they’re never entirely happy, and I think it’s fair to say you guys had a bumpy ride with yours back with DmC. How do you feel things have gone down this time?

Itsuno: It’s been fantastic. You figure – it’s been ten years since DMC4, y’know? It’s been a good couple of years since DmC… I think five years? So we announce the game and then right off the bat we just got this wonderful, positive response. This is for the fans. With that in mind… we’ve still got some surprises up our sleeves. Let me tell you, when those people finish the game, those people are going to go nuts. [laughs] They’re going to be so excited for what they’ve experienced and what’s going on.

Walker: I just feel so lucky, personally, that we’ve had such a wonderful response from people. People have been so nice to us, so positive. It’s hard for me to find something negative from the fans online. They’ll come to me with requests, or worries, but it’s never like ‘hey, we hate you’. [Itsuno laughs]

But, really, we appreciate that. People are allowed to have whatever opinions they want. If somebody dislikes the game, that’s totally fine. That’s okay. That’s the world. We wouldn’t begrudge anybody from disliking what we do. But even with that being said, we’re so lucky to have so much positivity.

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