Exclusive interview with Michael Murray, Tekken 7 developer with Bandai Namco
When you truly want to know the ins and outs of a video game, especially a new one that isn’t out yet (at least not worldwide), there is no place higher to go than to the creators themselves. When it comes to Tekken, the creme of the crop are the Batman and Robin of Tekken, Katsuhiro Harada and Michael Murray. They are the developers and main figure-heads of Tekken.
Tekken 7 is due for release in early 2017 and fans across the globe are hungrier than ever before for all of the glory details surrounding their favorite fighting game. Knowing this, I reached out to Michael Murray about a potential interview. I know he is bombarded with interviews all of the time, most of which you can find all across the internet, so I promised him that I would make it worth his while by asking some unique questions. He obliged and the rest is history!
First and foremost, I thank you so much for consenting to this interview. It feels like Christmas! (laughs) I’m going to jump right in, getting to know more about you to begin with. How long have you been working for Bandai Namco, and how did you begin working there?
I started working at Namco, Ltd, later merged with Bandai to become Bandai Namco Games, and now Bandai Namco Entertainment, in 2001. I graduated from university with a degree in Political Science, and had studied abroad in Japan during my third year. I really fell in love with Japan at that time. I was planning to apply to the FBI, which I couldn’t do until I was 23, so I decided to teach English in Japan for a year until I reached that age. But with martial arts, lively arcades, at the time, and some of the cutest girls around, one year turned into three.
I completely understand. (laughs)
In the meantime, I was studying Japanese on my own with the goal of passing level one, the highest level, of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Once I passed that, I had no new goals to improve my Japanese further, so I decided to try going to a Japanese corporate interview to see how I would do. At that time, Tekken Tag Tournament was out in arcades, and I would play with my friends before we went clubbing every weekend. It was at that time that I found an ad that Namco was hiring people who could speak both English and Japanese, so I decided to go to the interview, mainly to test my Japanese and also to get a free roundtrip Shinkansen ticket from Nagoya to Tokyo. I didn’t really plan on leaving my life in Nagoya and so I wasn’t really trying to get the job, which probably meant I was extremely relaxed during the interview. After two more interviews, I got a call that I had actually passed and they were offering me a job! It was a big choice for me to drop everything and move to Tokyo, so I took a night to think about it, and accepted the next day since it was a chance to work as a salaried employee of a big Japanese company.
Wow! It’s interesting that you say that, because I find that many players also perform better in tournaments when they don’t think too much about doing well. It removes the stress. Sounds like you did the same thing, though you didn’t really want the job! (laughs) What kind of job was it?
I found out that the job was for something called Localization (which wasn’t really common at that time yet). They were creating a new section to do Localization of their titles for the West, but it was a new challenge for them, and no one there really knew how to go about it yet, so it was quite a learning experience, but I got to work very closely with the development teams of Ace Combat, Ridge Racer, Tekken, Klonoa, etc. And I was one of the first non-Japanese to join the company, so they were excited to quiz me about what aspect of their games I liked, and what I would change to meet western tastes if I could. It wasn’t game design or anything, but I got to see behind the scenes of game development, and also learn about Japanese corporate culture.
Okay. I thought you had always worked on Tekken.
When I was in Localization, I worked on many titles simultaneously, but Tekken was always one of them. My first was localization of the arcade version of Tekken 4. Even after becoming more deeply involved with the franchise, I have often helped with other titles like Rise of Incarnates.
You mentioned taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I’ve always been amazed by your Japanese. It is very fluent. I wish I knew it. When and how did you pick it up, and was it easy to learn?
I studied at Nanzan University in Nagoya for a year during my third year of university. Although I wasn’t a very good student, I loved video games and manga, and just exploring Japan. I tried to take what I learned in the classroom, and apply it as much to daily life. I bought a motorcycle from a Canadian guy in the neighborhood. This was strictly against the rules, and I got in trouble later. (laughs) And I would go out to different arcades, or places I’ve never been. However, there wasn’t Google Maps or navigation back then and I would get lost, and have to ask random people for directions in order to get back home, so my Japanese improved pretty quickly. Also, a lot of the foreign students would hang out with each other, but I wasn’t really into that. I would hang out with my girlfriend and her family, or at the arcades. Especially in the arcades, I would see all this new stuff, and we didn’t have all of the info on the internet that you have today, so the only way to find out that hidden color for Ken in Street Fighter 3, or how to use Gouki (Akuma), was to ask the Japanese guys doing it in the arcade. So I guess you could say that I studied a little bit every day to pick up new vocabulary, then actually use it with people out of the classroom. I would also look up any words I didn’t yet know when reading a manga, or playing a game. A lot of karaoke with my girlfriend and her friends helped me practice my pronunciation. I guess the biggest secret is that I was doing something I loved, every day was exciting, and I studied a little bit every day.
You and Harada are a dynamic duo, and obviously very close. People hardly ever see one without the other. How did you two first meet?
When I first joined Namco, the office was pretty relaxed, and everyone loved making games. When I went to Valve a few years back, it felt like a similar atmosphere. My boss knew I loved Tekken, and I was asking him all these questions. He didn’t know the answers and suggested I just “go ask Harada.” I was like, “I can really just go and do that?!” So I went to the next floor up where the Tekken team was, and introduced myself. Keep in mind, most of the team had never worked with a non-Japanese before. I was excitedly asking him all these questions about my favorite character at the time, Nina, in my not so fluent Japanese.
That’s too funny! (laughs)
The conversation came up that I was learning jujutsu, and I loved her multi-throws. He didn’t have a very good impression (I heard many years later). He found the most boring topic not even related to games and lectured me about it for over two hours. I came to him wanting to know all the behind the scenes stories of how Tekken was developed, and that was the first thing I heard from him. I was shocked that this guy I saw in Arcadia in interviews about my favorite game was such a loser! (laughs)
Oh wow! (laughs)
I found out many years later that there was an American guy in the arcade division of our US office that had leaked stuff about Tekken in the past, and Harada’s image of foreigners was tainted by this. It took me a few years to fully earn his trust. I learned that the team usually implemented hidden things like Heihachi’s blue Raijinken without telling anyone but that certain person, and if the info got leaked on forums, or seen in the arcades, they were sure who did it. Apparently, I was trusted with info like this, and it never got leaked, which helped my standing with the team.
Completely understood. Without trust you have nothing. Do you and Harada always agree on things when it comes to Tekken? And how do you generally come to a resolution?
We don’t always agree on everything. We even fight sometimes. But we respect each other, so we are usually able to work out our differences. A lot of times, I will tell him we should take a certain direction that he doesn’t agree with. But, if when we react with the fans at tournaments or on twitter, and he sees their requests or way of thinking is similar to what I suggested, he will often change his mind. So if the logic behind the idea is solid, and that it is something that seems to resonate well with the community, he usually will adopt it.
How happy were you when it was finally announced at E3 that Tekken 7 would release early 2017?
I was excited beyond belief. Our company doesn’t usually like to announce release dates until further along in the development, but I really pushed for announcing this at E3 since I could tell the frustration from the fans was boiling over, and they might be a little more understanding if they at least had a window.
You and Harada know more about Tekken than anyone else – it’s story, the characters it will have, the meaning and purpose behind each characters. Seeing as you already know everything about the game and what’s to come, and you’ve worked on Tekken for a number of years, where do you personally draw inspiration and joy for working on this project? What motivates you?
My role in the company, and also on Tekken, has changed over the years, so my motivation also changes a bit depending on the role at the time. One thing that doesn’t change is that I still love playing the game after all these years. I have grown extremely busy the past few years, but I still try to find time to sit down with the balancing team to go over the various changes in each iteration, and then also just to play them for fun. I also love the chance to see what we can do with each installment for new game mechanics, but also when there is new hardware like the PS4 and Xbox One. I still love games, and when I hear about these new features of the hardware, as a fan, I always want to see how they would turn out when applied to Tekken. This is probably quite important as, although I am still involved with development, I am increasingly involved with the business side of the company as I get older. And Tekken needs a champion on that side of it to push for why including these things in the game make sense, to people who often only see the money side of things.
Do you enjoy working more on canon projects or non-canon projects?
I like both, but working on story-driven installments is pretty enjoyable. Being able to help shape a character’s background setting, and also discussing for hours on end with Harada and other key people about interesting ideas for the story, or new characters, is still one of the things I still enjoy most.
In an interview at EVO with New Challenger Gaming, you and Harada stated 2017 would be the “year of Tekken.” What kinds of things can Tekken fans look forward to?
Not much I can comment on yet, but we are working more than ever on getting the whole company behind the franchise; not only for development of the game, but events, community activities, and also merchandising – not to make more money per se, but to try to provide a lot of exciting things surrounding Tekken for fans who have been wishing for this for a long time.
The Tekken Tour has been successful, but I feel like there is another level to go to. Will there be even bigger tournaments and events than there has been this year?
I hope so. Anyone who has ever run a tournament will know how much is involved in the planning for such an event, let alone a series of tournaments. And our company is pretty new to this, so it is kind of a learning process, so hopefully we can use it as a springboard to bigger things. That said, we need the support of the community for what we are doing now, in order to do bigger things in the future.
Speaking of the Tekken Tour, when is the King of the Iron Fist Tournament: North America?
You mean the Finals? That is something our US office is finalizing, and we hope to announce some cool stuff soon!
Fighting games have officially entered the eSports era, especially after the success of EVO. How much of a talking point and influence, if any, has eSports been in the development of Tekken 7?
Quite a lot. Harada and I are the only ones from the team to be able to go to EVO and these other tournaments, but we always take back ideas about how to improve the game to make it more exciting at these type of events. Critical Arts, the dynamic camera work, and slo motion when trading blows, are some of the game mechanics specifically resulting from this. Tekken is extremely fun for those playing, but spectators who don’t have much knowledge about the game are often left out of the excitement. We wanted to get people interested in watching the game, so maybe they might be convinced to try it out. And I think we are starting to see results from some of these features.
The European Tekken community has expressed feeling neglected in many aspects. Is there anything in store for them? Anything you can share or allude to?
I know. I really feel bad when I see some of the YouTube videos or tweets from fans in Europe who feel left out. Harada and I try to give direction to our oversees marketing and community managers, but at the end of the day, they are the ones that decided what kind of activities they do to market the game. And the US being one country (with one person in charge for marketing, and one community) it is perhaps easier for them to make the decision to do these kind of activities. I guess all I can suggest is to try to establish a good relationship as a community, with the community manager for your particular region, so that they are pushing for these events from the ground up. That said, Harada and I are continuing to push for more events in Europe, so hopefully we can have more news coming soon.
Will there be any game modes or features that allow for easily conducting tournaments, or even online tournaments?
We learned from the Microsoft store page that Tekken 7 will allow up to 8 players in online multiplayer. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 had up to 6. Why 8 in Tekken 7, as some have expressed this would make for long waiting times. And does this somehow tie into the eSports side of things?
Okay. (laughs) In what ways will Bandai Namco support Tekken 7 once it’s comes out, and for how long? Does your level of involvement depend on us the community, or is it a marriage of the two?
I think it depends on both side. Finally, more people in our company on the Japan side are hearing about eSports, and it’s importance for games in the Western market, so our, Harada’s and mine, is getting easier. However, if there is low attendance and not much support from the community for the events we currently are doing, management will cease to see the value in doing these events.
You can say that again! That’s very, very important. Kid Kazuya was revealed during gamescom. Will we be able to play as him during that portion of the story? We know that Heihachi ultimately throws him off of the cliff.
Okay, let’s assume he was playable. Harada said if there was enough interest he’d consider it. But some have concerns about his hitbox being too small. How would you all potentially approach developing him? Would he been in non-ranked modes only, or is this a loaded question?
Fan feedback most always helps decide features, but like you said, there is the hitbox issue. This problem occurred with Gon, but also with Yoda in Soul Calibur 4. So rather than spending a lot of time trying to find a way to make it work, for a character who was originally only planned to be available for part of the Story Mode, it might be a better idea to focus on something more exciting.
Very true. The topic of DLC has come out a lot recently. What kind will Tekken 7 have, and would any of it increase the roster size?
DLC is something we can’t comment on right now, but we should have more info about this in the future.
Why is this the end of the Mishima saga?
It’s not necessarily the complete end. The franchise has been portraying the battle between the Mishimas for over 20 years, and we felt that it was time for some sort of conclusion to this particular story arc.
Is Jun dead or missing? And will she make a return? I mean, how can you have a story related to the Mishima saga and she not be in the mix?
She isn’t dead, just missing. Whether she returns or not, isn’t something I can say right now. Like Eddy, Julia, Lei, or other iconic characters that aren’t currently in the game, it’s always difficult to find the right balance between bringing back returning characters, while at the same time keeping the series fresh with completely new ones.
Did you happen to see YellowMotion’s Tekken 7 roster prediction video? If so, was he hot, warm or cold?
Not totally cold, but not warm either. (smiles)
Master Raven has entered into the battle. Many were glad to see an African-American female character. How is ethnicity or nationality considered when developing new characters?
We don’t really focus on ethnicity. We try to come up with a roster of characters that represents a variety of martial arts and play styles, while also providing something for both novice and advance players. When adding a new character, sometimes we do take into account country or region of origin. Like with Shaheen, we try to feature somewhere that had been overlooked until then, but that had a budding or thriving Tekken community, both tournament players, but also casual ones who might just like the story and characters.
Okay, I want to ask a few questions about what we can expect with Tekken 7 as far as features and things of that nature. How will you all deal with rage quitters, illegal mods and things of that nature once Tekken 7 comes to console and PC? And will Tekken 7 also be available for Mac?
This is something we are still carefully considering, and can’t comment on just yet. Regarding Mac, unfortunately no. Only Steam for PC at this time.
Will there be a way to see the name of the person you’re potentially playing online before accepting the match? This would be very helpful for several reasons.
I will take this into consideration.
Any new game mechanics that have yet to be revealed? Or is the gameplay we’ve seen pretty much what the game will be? Any surprises?
The base gameplay is pretty much done for the most part, besides game balances. However, there may be some game mechanic twists in Story Mode. (smiles)
I’ve heard a lot about the PlayStation VR support in Tekken 7, but no details. When can we learn more about that?
PSVR is something we are still exploring, as far as game mechanics go, so nothing to comment on at this time.
The PS4 Pro was just announced. Will Tekken 7 take advantage of the new features it offers?
Our company as a whole still hasn’t decided their direction on this yet, so Tekken is still to be determined.
Will the PC and console versions of Tekken 7 differ in any way?
Maybe, but only in the way of options for the PC version that PC users might expect, not in content.
People have been asking us this repeatedly, so I must ask. What specs should a computer have for Tekken 7?
Specs aren’t locked down yet, so we will make this public closer to launch.
What made you all decide to nerf Akuma? Did you personally feel he was over-powered, or is this from user feedback?
I would like everyone to keep in mind that this is normal practice. Do you remember how many complaints Lars got when he was first released? We always try to make the new characters somewhat strong, so that people will give them a chance. And it is always better to make them strong, and then adjust once the game is released in the arcade, and we have had time to fully evaluate the character from data received. Akuma is no different. And it is even more important in his case so that people who might not even play Tekken, Street Fighter 5, for example, would be willing to give him a try.
What has been the biggest challenge so far in developing Tekken 7?
Managing community expectations. (laughs) Tekken has always been in the arcade first, so fans have always had the frustration of waiting for the game to come to consoles, but I think the level of frustration this time is higher than usual.
Interesting. Why do you think it’s higher this time around?
Probably due to the fact that many popular fighting games are unable to develop an arcade version and go straight to console, so Tekken fans feel slighted. And I think the game is shaping up pretty well. Many people have had a taste of it at events, and they are eager for more, so this perhaps is increasing their frustration.
It’s has definitely helped teach me patience. (laughs)
From a development standpoint, it is the first time the team is using Unreal Engine 4 to develop the game, so some of the middleware or development technics we used before, aren’t an option any more. It took a little bit of time for them to find their way around the engine, but once they did, I think it has gotten easier. I think it is easy to tell the leap in graphical quality from when Tekken 7 was first shown, to the latest version of T7FR.
Thought I haven’t seen it in person, I have noticed the graphic changes even online. They are significant for sure. Great job to you and the rest of the team! In the last Tekken Talk with MarkMan, you hinted that there may be some interesting news at EVO, and Bob and Master Raven ended up being announced. Tokyo Game Show is this week, and right in your backyard of Japan. What can we expect?
Honestly, we don’t have much new to show at Tokyo Game Show. Tekken sells the most in the west, and Tokyo Game Show is more overlooked by the western audience than bigger shows like E3 or Gamescom. That said, it’s the first time we are showing the PlayStation 4 build of the game, and people can play it at our booth. There is also a pretty cool trailer on the way. (winks)
Hmm. I’m no sure how to interpret that wink! (laughs) In that same interview, you said that one of the IGN editors told you that he wanted to learn more about Tekken, and when he tried to he encountered a lot of negativity. That’s one reason why we started TekkenGamer – to help build and shape the community. What kinds of things would help make the Tekken community better?
Yes, that is true. I don’t expect everyone to brownnose me or Harada, but just try to keep in mind all decisions aren’t made to screw over the community. Bandai Namco is a business, and some decisions just can’t please everyone in every country at any particular time. Try to stay positive about the game you like, and people will be drawn to the community. Telling them the game is shit, or that they’re scrubs and Tekken is for elitist players isn’t going to accomplish all of these things that the community wants for the game. Look at Markman and Tasty Steve for examples of what I think a person with a positive mentality who grows the community is.
Lastly, anything else you want to let our visitors know?
Not much to say yet, but we have some pretty cool community related news coming soon!
Good deal. Thanks Michael!
Thanks for the opportunity!