Rieko Kodama GDC Pioneer Award Interview

Rieko Kodama
Magazine: Famitsu
Publish Date: 04/11/2019

The world’s biggest game developer conference, GDC (Game Developers Conference), was held in San Francisco recently. And at the GDC Awards, Rieko Kodama of Sega Games was chosen to receive the Pioneer Award, for accomplishments that drove the game industry forward. Famitsu.com held an interview with her to commemorate this occasion. Since joining Sega Enterprises in 1984, her career has consisted of being a graphic designer, director, and producer. She’s also shown her abilities across many game development projects. We spoke to her regarding her feelings about and the many notable happenings along the way of the journey that she began on with the creation of Sega’s home consoles, and continues on still today.

Reiko Kodama

Born in Kanagawa Prefecture, blood type A. She joined Sega Enterprises in 1984, and worked on Champion Boxing and Alex Kidd in Miracle World as a graphic designer. She also did the character designs for the original Phantasy Star, and continues to be heavily involved in the series moving forward. From there she moved on to director and producer roles, leading the way on hit RPG titles such as Magic Knight Rayearth, Skies of Arcadia, and the 7th Dragon series. She’s currently working on the Sega Ages series as both a producer and director.

The Reason She Chose Sega is That She Wanted to Create Things

Congratulations on receiving the GDC Pioneer Award. First of all, please tell us how you felt when you heard about it.

(Kodama) I first heard about it in an email from SOA (Sega of America), but I didn’t really realize it. Kagasei Shimomura (the Senior Producer of the Sega Ages series) told me “Congratulations are in order, take a look at your email!”, and then I realized it! (Laughs) The comments from GDC said “she has dedicated herself to creating games that transcend gender and generations to give us countless hours of joy”, and I’m very appreciative of that.

You’re the third Japanese winner of this award, along with Masaya Matsuura (PaRappa the Rapper) and Yu Suzuki (Virtua Fighter).

(Kodama) He’s not with Sega anymore, but I’m very happy to receive it after Yu, who was a senior employee.

I’ve wanted to ask you over the years, did you have any interest in video games before joining Sega?

(Kodama) Nothing all that serious. My family ran a cafe, so I became familiar with video games in high school from having them around. After closing the cafe, I’d play games like Space Invaders and Galaxian. My parents also both understood games.

So then what made you think of joining a game company?

(Kodama) I had studied marketing focused graphic design at a technical school, but I felt like I wanted to join a company where I could actually create things myself. Also I wasn’t really sure what a game company actually did.

Having joined in the 1980s, it makes sense that you wouldn’t have known that compared to now.

(Kodama) Right (Laughs) One reason was because an upperclassman of mine from school joined Sega. But the SG-1000 home console had just been released, and there just wasn’t much opportunity there for extensive marketing design work. For arcade games, there were things like the posters that went up in the arcades themselves. So when I joined, I kind of felt like “Let’s see what I can do”.

And was the work you were doing just like you thought it would be?

(Kodama) I studied typography and such in school, so it’s not like I had any knowledge of character design coming into this job. That’s why I was a bit lost at first. I’d been drawing since I was in elementary school, but I wasn’t all that into it. In the games industry, you have to take into account that the character design is going to need to be turned into animation. The senior employees in my department taught me how to do that without using additional storage space, and I learned a lot on the job. Techniques for making them look good on a CRT TV, and that kind of thing (Laughs)

What kind of design work did you do then?

(Kodama) For my generation of employees, it was digital from the start. There were specialized tools like digitizers, so I studied up on how to use those first. I had two monitors: I’d do work with a light pen on one, and the pixel art that would be shown in-game would be displayed on the other. Then I’d burn them to a ROM and deliver them to the programmers…it was that kind of work. The other senior designers showed me their materials from the analogue days, where they drew characters in colored pencil on specialized graph paper.

Yu Suzuki was the lead on your first project, Champion Boxing. Is there anything in particular that you remember from that?

(Kodama) There is. I was a new employee who had only been with the company for about half a year. Yu sat down next to me, and began lecturing about various things. But I was in a bad way because I wasn’t creating characters with any kind of personality. So I got some advice from Yu, the planner Yoji Ishii (also the planner on Fantasy Zone), and a senior designer Yoshiki Kawasaki (the graphic designer on Flicky). This resulted in a more comical design with small heads and bodies for the characters, even though this was a boxing game. Yoshiki Kawasaki did the design for the player character, but I remember doing the enemy characters and backgrounds.

I heard from a different article that there was an incident where Yu Suzuki said that you were worried that the gong wasn’t initially drawn as a circle.

(Kodama) I’m not too sure about that (Laughs bitterly) But what was really revelatory, was that Kawasaki would put the finishing touches in a cute way on his pixel art for things like birds and ducks, by rounding off the square dots. He really helped me out by showing me how to do that.

Was your final graphic design job for Phantasy Star IV, after you had worked on I and II?

(Kodama) I actually did some of the pixel art for Magic Knight Rayearth on the Saturn too. My title on that game was Director, but I remember doing a bit of the event animation in order to help meet the deadline (Laughs)

I was thinking that things had moved forward in the Saturn era, in terms of separation of roles in development. But to think that there were situations where the director had to step up to the plate too (Laughs)

(Kodama) Yeah, they had moved forward quite a bit in terms of separation of roles. In the Mega Drive era, there weren’t many times when a graphic designer was involved in only one project. Planners and programmers would be right up until the final debug, but designers would only be until the art was finished, then they’d move on to the next project. Most of the time I was involved with about six titles or so per year.

Then as director, I assume it turned more into a pace of one title per year.

(Kodama) Right, I’d be on a title for 1 to 2 years. I worked mostly on RPGs, which would take an especially long time. When working on Phantasy Star IV, Kotaro Hayashida, our section chief, was the director by name, and I was the team lead. However by the time development was done, I think he’d transferred over to the planning department.

Learning To Look at the Game as a Whole From Working On Phantasy Star IV

What was it that made you want to start directing?

(Kodama) It was the experience of working on Phantasy Star IV. There was no planner on that development team, so we began from the plan draft setup by the two designers (myself and Toru Yoshida), Kazuyoshi Tsugawa, and Akinori Nishiyama. Mr. Yoshida was in charge of the scenario, but Mr. Nishiyama wrote the script, and the enemy settings parameters were handled by Mr. Tsugawa. So the four of us created the foundation of the game. But the people doing the programming and sound were working in the same room as us, which made for a bit of an irregular team composition. I didn’t think about it this way during development, but I had strong feelings of wanting to have the job of looking at the game as a whole, and I think that’s why I switched roles. Though I don’t really remember it all very well at this point (Laughs)

Did your approach to game creation change after you moved over to directing?

(Kodama) I don’t think it changed. I still thought about how we can make a game fun, and how we can market it so that it will sell. The first project I worked on as director (Magic Knight Rayearth) was based on CLAMP’s girls manga by the same name, so I think that’s part of why I was put in charge of it. I’d read a lot of CLAMP’s work, and I took it as a good sign that it was my first project as director.

The original manga and anime adaptation of Rayearth are both looked at very favorably by anime fans.

(Kodama) CLAMP actually invited me to one of their events, and I explained the game myself. I was away from it’s development for just a little while for that event, and to that point I was working at the desk next to Yosuke Okunari (the supervisor of the Sega Ages series). And when I got back, Ohba Noriyoshi (my boss at the time) told me that there was a title he needed my help on. That title ended up being Deep Fear, and I acted in something of a producer role on that.

And did your approach to game development still remain unchanged after that?

(Kodama) With Phantasy Star IV and Magic Knight Rayearth I already had one foot in the “How do we sell this?” pond. So I don’t think being told “You’re a producer from today on!” really made that much of a difference. But since I was working with an outside development company and famous creators on Deep Fear, it was very exciting to use different advertising methods, such as movie theater ads. I got to learn about the broader world in that sense, and that was all tied into the next step.

Do you have a personality that enjoys heading toward a new world and new types of excitement?

(Kodama) I still think it was a fairly small world, compared to other producers though (laughs). But I think I may have a personality that’s interested in seeing what others around me can bring to the table, in a professional capacity.

The Excitement of Cultural Exchange as a Producer

You also served as a producer on Skies of Arcadia, back in the Dreamcast days.

(Kodama) I was a producer, but I also remember placing a lot of importance on figuring out the thinking behind how we were going to make the game fun, and how we were going to convey it to people.

Be that as it may, you had a little bit more power in that role than as a director.

(Kodama) That’s right. The role of a producer involves approving the decisions made by the director and planner, and seeing the game through to the very end. I think that my experience in previous roles aided me there.

How did you feel about your time as a producer?

(Kodama) The size of the games grew, and so did the size of the production staff. You can probably imagine, but in the Mega Drive era we had a certain number of people, the Saturn era ten times that, and then in the Dreamcast era several times that. At least that’s the impression I had. We added a special division specifically for handling orchestra recording and voice actor casting. We had a large number of both internal and external staff members, which made us conscious of creating an environment that would make everyone’s jobs easier to do.

What sorts of ideas did you bring to the development of Skies of Arcadia?

(Kodama) As hardware manufacturers we had to make good use of our hardware, but it was very difficult to do that to its fullest. Apart from the game’s story, we had to make every aspect of it, including things like the VMU mini-game. Thinking about it now, I feel like that was probably taking it too far. Maybe we shouldn’t have tried to cram it all in, and saved some for next time (Laughs bitterly) But our pride wouldn’t let us do that, and we made something that made people say “They really pulled out all the stops, and made something that was really fun”. If not for that, I don’t think we would have thought to make both the regular battles and ship battles (Laughs) But I think that we were really able to express our world view by doing that.

It seems like you really a lot of thought put into Skies of Arcadia.

(Kodama) Of course I put thought into every title that I work on. But I was already in the producer role by the time Skies of Arcadia came along. So I was thinking about how to realize the type of game that everyone want to make. If I had to choose, I’d say that Magic Knight Rayearth was the title that went exactly how I wanted it to. The hardships during 7th Dragon are the ones that are freshest in my mind (Laughs)

You worked as a team with an outside creator on the 7th Dragon series.

(Kodama) When Skies of Arcadia wrapped up I felt that maybe it was about time to give the RPGs a break, just in terms of my physical and mental exhaustion. And everyone else seemed to feel the same way. But then Takayuki Kawagoe (he was the head of my department at the time, now he’s the president of Sammy Networks) suggested that I produce a new RPG he saw a presentation for that was going to be directed by Kazuya Ninou. When I tried to turn it down, I sort of got yelled at. I was told “What are you talking about, you’ve still got more in you!” (Laughs)

(Laughs) Did anything particularly interesting happen during the development of 7th Dragon?

(Kodama) It was my first time working with outside staff in creating an RPG, and at first we thought about things differently. Mr. Ninou had previously worked on Trauma Center: Under the Knife and Etrian Odyssey for Atlus, and and the developer Imageepoch itself was made up of people from different companies, so it had a completely different culture. As a result we used different terminology and had different techniques, which made for some trouble at times, but working on the game itself ended up being a lot of fun. There was a perception within Sega that we were creating a different type of game, so it felt like something of a cultural exchange.

What kind of interactions did you have with Mr. Ninou?

(Kodama) Mr. Ninou was not only the director on the project, but he had excellent abilities as a producer as well. He contributed a lot of ideas such as broadening our scope and marketing the game in a certain way, so on the production side we focused on figuring out how we could achieve those things. As a result I think that 7th Dragon ended up being a product that really shows his colors. Mr. Ninou really challenged us with ideas about the type of RPG he would want to play if he was a regular gamer, and so Sega prepared the staff for character designs and scenarios. He exposed us at Sega to different methods and ways of thinking, which was great motivation for me.

Treating Every Project Like it’s the Last

Currently you’re serving as both a producer and director on the Sega Ages series. How does it feel to be revisiting games that you worked on at the start of your career?

(Kodama) I never thought that I’d be remaking titles that I worked on originally. When I was asked to compile my old character illustrations for Phantasy Star Complete Collection, I refused saying that “I don’t want people to see those old drawings!”. So I guess I can still be a little defiant (Laughs)

You don’t look back to the past very much?

(Kodama) I always struggle with whether or not it’s a good thing to create a remake that collides with the memories of things people felt when playing the original. I put 100% of the effort into them as I did working on the originals though, and have no regrets in feeling that these is the version I wish I’d played. This might upset some people, but I work on each as though it were the last thing I did with my life.

The last thing you did with your life!?

(Kodama) If I didn’t actually do it that way, I wouldn’t be able to make something as full of heart as these. And I really have worked on all of them as though they were my last project.

Then have you thought about retiring from game development…?

(Kodama) Whenever a project ends I think about it (Laughs) Because the amount that I’m around people during a development cycle of 1~2 years really increases, but then when the project is over I just want to be alone again. But when a new project starts up after a little while with a small number of people on it, I find new motivation. I feel like that cycle just repeats.

Where do you think that desire to keep going back to making games comes from?

(Kodama) I think I’m the type of person that finds making things with other people to be fun. I’ve never spoiled on it because I’m a woman, and I’ve never gotten tired of it (Laughs)

So you’ve never felt like you were at a disadvantage as a woman developer?

(Kodama) Right. I’m not sure if it’s because of Sega’s corporate culture or what, but I’ve never felt that I was at a disadvantage just because I’m a woman. I’ve been working on various things related to game development for over 30 years now, and since joining Sega I haven’t been treated any differently from men.

Then for our last question, I’d like to ask you to sum up your own personal outlook on the future.

(Kodama) Well, at the moment it’s hard to think of anything beyond the Sega Ages series…

It’s like a troublesome son (Laughs)

(Kodama) (Laughs) We’re releasing a title more or less every month, so I may be able to come up with something come summer. But now that I think about it, 7 or 8 years ago I was always talking about wanting to make an RPG aimed at women.

Oh!

(Kodama) I wanted to make an RPG or adventure game targeted at women. That was before mobile games got really popular, so it would have been a fairly niche product. But these days you can enjoy games on a smart phone that you already have, and some of them even have anime adaptations. The era of a lot of women having fun with games also has already arrived. But even so, I’d like to make something women would like that involves media outside of games, if I ever have a chance. Since I’ve worked mostly on nothing but titles targeting men up until now (Laughs)

What would you like to try doing that isn’t related to work?

(Kodama) I’d like to try doing something I wanted to do when I was a young, but couldn’t. I’ve always enjoyed history, so I’d still like to get more into that. I was thinking about doing that when I retired from game development.

Thank you very much. We look forward to whatever you do next!

(The original Famitsu interview can be found here)