Interview Translation Part 1: I Want to Create Soul Food for the Fans. An Interview With Star Ocean 5 Creators Shuichi Kobayashi, Hiroshi Ogawa and Akiman

Star-Ocean-5

Earlier this week, the infamous matome blog Hachima Kikou posted an excerpt of an interview from 4Gamer about Star Ocean 5 in which the consideration of certain female characters’ designs was raised. It was revealed that their clothing has been changed both due to internal Japanese pressure and overseas feedback. Miki’s clothing change received a lot of attention, but personally I must admit I found it odd that Fiore’s clothing change received comparatively little.

The actual interview though, is much longer and covers much more than that, and as I received a request to translate it all, here is the first part. As the entire interview is gigantic, I’ll post part 2 later. For now, this first part covers mainly the beginning stages of development and character design.

I Want to Create Soul Food for the Fans. An Interview With Star Ocean 5 Creators Shuichi Kobayashi, Hiroshi Ogawa and Akiman

Star Ocean 5 – Integrity and Faithlessness (below, SO5) is about to release on March 31st (the PS4 version, the PS3 version is on April 28th).  The latest entry in the series that meshes science fiction and fantasy together in one setting features a system that seamlessly links movements on the field with battle and private actions (events that occur between characters).

We shall deliver the contents of a chance we got to speak to this game’s producer Shuichi Kobayashi, director Hiroshi Ogawa and character designer Akiman. Since this release comes after a seven year gap from the previous Xbox360 verson’s release, it appears as if there was various troubles and effort involved in starting up the plan for the game and its development work.

4Gamer: Thank you for speaking with us today. I think you’ve still got work left to do on the PS3 version, but I want to hear your feelings right now as you’re about to release the PS4 version.

Akiman: It’s been a while since I’ve been in charge of the graphics all the way to the in-game UI, so I’ve been happy to be able to be involved with the game in every respect. I’m not good at depicting heaps of people, so this job, where I have to draw seven people certainly was a study for me.

Hiroshi Ogawa (below, Ogawa):We still have work left to do, but the feeling of “immense relief” has been huge with this release. Part of that is because I’ve been involved with the series since 2003’s release, Star Ocean Till the End of Time, and when this title was announced, the reaction was more than I anticipated. I’m glad to be putting a period on the project, because I’ve always felt this nervousness and pressure involved with the job, thinking, “I have to create it with a genuine sense of meticulousness.”

Shuichi Kobayashi (below, Kobayashi): I want to look back on it as something of a difficult pregnancy, but after the PS3 version, we have to work on the overseas version, so I don’t feel like it’s “finished.” In the first place, there’s so much we still want to do with Star Ocean, so once the development work has a period put on it, I believe it becomes the “thinking” turn in the battle. Once SO5’s jersey has been retired after every player’s impressions and the sales come out, it’s time to think about how to continue the series.

4Gamer:Just then, used the word difficult pregnancy, but from the first announcement there was a delay of one month for the PS4 version and two months for the PS3 version.  What part of development needed that delay? In this one, the game enters events and battle seamlessly from the field and on top of that in battle a maximum of seven characters can participate, so I imagined that tuning that bit would take some time.

Kobayashi:We did do some balance tuning, but we received some time to add in some new elements in response to feedback we got from our demo at Tokyo Game Show 2015. To put it more concretely, during battle we added the ability to “step,” and while moving in the field the ability to “dash.”

4Gamer: So you were still adding new elements even during that period? Now development is at its climax.

Kobayashi: Well, yes. I had argued with Ogawa quite a bit, that adding the step move would not be for adding tactics to battle, but as an improvement to the feel of play, and that’s how we brought it in.  And because of that, it’s not like you could say the gameplay has greatly changed.

Ogawa:We added an element where you can start a new battle with the character you ended the previous battle with. When we initially announced it, it was something that we wanted to put in, but there were problems with that and a seamless system, so we weren’t able to realize it at the time of the demo. We got a lot of opinions from people who played it, so we thought to implement it in that time period.

Kobayashi:When the development had reached a climax and we had come to a point where we saw the remaining number of things to do, we were able to reach a decision and say, “If we had a month, we could add this.” At the beginning, we had too much to do and couldn’t see that far forward. I was the one who came out with it, but the actual work was tough and in the midst of it, honestly I regretted the delay. (laughs) It was one hellish month.

4Gamer: Just because you’ve delayed it, doesn’t mean you’ve got the time to relax, I’d say it on the other hand it means the things you have to do have increased.

Kobayashi:In the titles up till now, if you fixed a certain part, like battle or events, then it was all good, but this time because it’s all connected together seamlessly, if you add a change to one part, that influence comes out in other areas you don’t predict.

4Gamer:Ah, that sounds like it takes lots of time and hands.

Kobayashi:On consoles, there are people who aren’t connected to the internet, so I thought I wanted to squash as many bugs as humanly possible and checking everything was a pain.

Offering Akiman, “the designer with the will and the power,” the job twice

4Gamer:In the last interview we heard the story of how you’ve been involved with this title’s character design from the first days of development, but I would like to hear how you decided on hiring Akiman from all the other designers you could choose.

Kobayashi:All right, this time I thought I wanted to continue development jobs in a different style than what has been usual up to this point and and have the character designer and 3D model production unit play catch with each other, reflecting each other for the game and illustrated characters. And that’s why, I thought I’d like to work with designs that have “the will and the power,” and what immediately came to mind was Akiman.

Akiman:Actually, the first time I got an offer from Kobayashi, it didn’t fit into my schedule and I totally turned him down. After that, I received another offer, and I was a little surprised, because until now there weren’t really many cases like that.

Kobayashi:The first time I met him, I had talked one-sidedly of our schedule, and I felt as if I had only spoken of my situation, and so I thought to offer again, by asking what kind of thing might work?

Akiman:And the second time, it had just been around the time that I had lost a job I thought I would have to put all my energy into.

Kobayashi:And then we had a little more detailed conversation and it was at that point that we got his attention. Inside my head, I had already decided I would pester him at least three times.

4Gamer:It’s the “Three Acts of Gratitude.” (laughs) [Translator’s note: This refers to a famous scene in Sangokushi or Romance of the Three Kingdoms and is an expression wherein someone pays special reverence and politeness to someone to get them to do something.] So that’s how enamored you were of Akiman. Now I’d like to ask you Akiman, for the designs you did in this game, if you have a character you are most partial to, or there’s a character that took a particularly long time to develop, please tell me about it.

Akiman:I had a little trouble with Miki. I pretty much designed all the other characters from scratch, but with Miki there was a certain basis for her design. There were various levels of trial and error with that.

Ogawa:For Miki, we had already implemented a prototype for the basis of her character model in early development.

Akiman:It’s probably best to use the series other works for reference when designing characters, but when I looked at Star Ocean 4, the lines used to draw the characters were so intricate ……

4Gamer:The characters from 1-3 weren’t all that complex though.

Akiman:Yeah, that’s true.  In the end, my illustrations became quite complex with line work, but it took a long time to get it all to come together. When you’re illustrating and have a lot of lines, it can become a bottleneck. (laughs)

4Gamer:You took the illustrations from 4 in your hands and that just happened to connect to the character illustrations of this title.  Speaking of that, in the last interview, we heard about Kobayashi’s reservation about odd-numbered title’s having a main character with blue hair, so he asked you to do that, didn’t he?

Akiman:Yes. I gave Fidel blue hair like he had in the planning documents. For every character, I first start by choosing their color. Since 7 of them will be acting all together at once, that was in order to suggest which one is which by one glance. For instance, for the smallest character, Lilia, I made her a yellow so that would stand out.

4Gamer:Certainly, when I look at the official site, it’s easy to understand.

Akiman:Because if the player think “where is he?” for even a second, the game’s fun is lost. Today’s console’s games have such a great power to express things, we could have brought out a black-type character that we couldn’t have done before, but instead I didn’t and chose colors that would stand out.

4Gamer: Certainly, if there’s that many characters, black might be hard to see and not stand out. Is there anything else Mr. Kobayashi asked of you, Akiman?

Kobayashi: “How does this character act and what do they do?” I wanted him to make it so you could tell from their appearance.

4Gamer: Like someone looks like a magician and someone looks good at martial arts … that kind of thing?

Akiman: We truly made Fiore feel like a traditional magician, but when I presented the rough draft to them they were absolutely delighted about it, and I thought, “I’m really on the same wavelength of this development team.” (laughs)

4Gamer: Now that you mention it, Fiore’s design really makes an impact.

Kobayashi: It was OKed on the first try. (laughs)

4Gamer: Had you been holding on to a design like that for a while?

Akiman: No, I just got the idea on a whim. This series’ magic users are typically erotic* or so I’ve been told, and that’s where the idea was born. Lately in the game industry, if you put out a female character with lots of skin showing, you’ll have to eat up time to correct it, so I then decided to go with the principle of, “She’ll be erotic, but won’t be revealing too much skin in terms of total area.” … It actually turned out we got a CERO C!

*The setting is that Fiore shows off her pride in her high level shaman magic by exposing her skin and the runes she has on it.

4Gamer:Whoa, wait a minute, the reason for the rating couldn’t have been just Fiore’s clothes, right? (laughs)

Ogawa: Nope, most of the reason was Fiore’s clothes. (laughs)

Kobayashi: And then, from overseas, we had this feedback about Miki, “it’s not good for teens to be wearing sexual underwear,” and so we increased the amount of cloth covering her.

Ogawa: That was really a shame. I felt bad about it. (laughs)

Kobayashi: When we designed the 3D models from the base of Akiman’s design, and added texture to it, the voluptuous quality of it increased and I was bit surprised.  “I wonder if this is okay for  inspection?” I thought. (laughs)

Ogawa:That’s because when we put them up in their 3D model form, their proportions were a little squashed and the feeling of body fat being emphasized became really strong.

Akiman:When something based on geometry gets stuck onto something that was organic, that will happen. (laughs)

4Gamer:Akiman, you’ve been involved with games since the time they were pixel graphics, but as the power to express things in these consoles has grown, I bet the methods of production and character design have changed.

AkimanIt has changed. Back then, you’d draw illustrations to help players’ imagination. “On the screen right now is a collection of dots and that’s supposed to be a girl,” that type of thing.

These days the amount of information in games is so huge, if you don’t include as much information into your illustrations as time allows for, then they’ll be overshadowed by the environment around them on the screen.

Kobayashi:Just a while ago we were talking about how the 3D model team and and the character designers played catch with each other, but to put it more concretely, first Akiman would draw a character, based on the 3D model of the character that would be created, it would be returned to Akiman, Akiman would draw illustrations of them standing or for PR use based on the 3D models … it was that type of back and forth.

4Gamer:From the stance of an amateur, they’re probably thinking why take the time to do things twice, why take such an approach?

Akiman:I wanted to make the difference between the in-game characters and their illustrations as small as possible. As well, because there were others who added details to characters beside myself, I thought it best to unite all of the feeling we were trying to bring about.

KobayashiI asked him to get near to the balance we’d have with the 3D models when drawing the illustrations. When you do it that way, when the player sees the Fidel shape they recognize it as Fidel, whether that’s an illustration or 3D model. That way we can perhaps keep it like past series entries where you don’t feel the difference.

4Gamer:So when you first designed the characters and when the final design came through, what parts changed?

Akiman:If we’re talking Fidel, it was his hair. At first, it flared out more and the behind was like Cyborg 009’s Joe Shimamura with wild shaved spiky hair, something like that. When it became a 3D model, while they did accept that image, the prickly parts were smoothed out into a more natural feeling and from then on, the illustrations followed that kind of hair style.

4Gamer:So both the 3D modellers and the illustrators gave each other influences and it became like it’s current form.

Akiman:That’s right. SO5’s 3D models have a unique charm to them. It’s not photo real, or comical. The illustrations I draw are have tall proportions, but when they become 3D models, they are squeezed and shrunk and it feels like the amount of visual information per unit increases. Since the screen is longer on the sides, I suppose it’s also best that they shrink. Seeing the character I’ve drawn be reborn, I think I’d like this new power too. (laughs)

4Gamer:Of course. To return the discussion a bit, Akiman said there was a base for the prototype of Miki’s character model from the days of early development. Why wasn’t that Fidel?

Ogawa:It had been a while since the last game when we decided to start work on the sequel, so the first hurdle was deciding how we should approach making the visuals. Should we make them photo real, or like cartoons … we’re talking about the direction of how to represent them materially. When you think of that from that point, the most appropriate decision is to start thinking of this problem with a girl, because when it comes to getting the size of their eyes, the balance of their parts and the amount of defined features in their faces, the hardest characters are them.

Akiman:When we say it’s photo real or toon, that’s to make it easy to understand, but actually, for each work, the most appropriate art style ends up changing slightly.

I personally think cartoonish manga is the type of drawing that has evolved to involve the least amount of effort when you want to tell a story. Is it best to represent things in a manga art style where you draw each frame by frame, or would it be best represent them with computeristic expressions … you always have to think about stuff like this.

For SO5, I thought it would be interesting not just to aim for a simple cartoonish thing, but search for the most appropriate art style, and I like this way of doing it.

4Gamer:And with an aim to search for those points that can’t be expressed in words, Akiman and the design team’s back and forth boiled those character design’s down.

Akiman:That’s it. Perhaps after SO5 is released, we’ll have words to express what the art style is like.

KobayashiThere’s an easy part to toon shading, but I noticed that the type of drawings that make players excited have things that are different from that. Especially, when the it’s a setting for adventure, you want the background to be dense with detail. We argued quite a bit how to depict this. Of course I oversaw each character, but until the “final form of the pictures” came out with all the background and lighting, I couldn’t confirm that the choices I made were right and there was a time spent being quite anxious.

When I showed Akiman the test version of an event scene between Miki and Fidel, he said, “This Miki is cute,” and I remember being incredibly relieved.

Akiman:When Fidel started moving around in-game and the remaining 6 characters came running out of the woodwork, I thought it felt so fun … like the type of fun you have when on the way home from school you all go to a department store and buy stuff to eat.

That’s it for now. Tune in later for Part 2.

Ubisoft Confirms CERO Behind Far Cry Primal Censorship, Lists Other Censored Games On Its Official Page

farcryprimal

If you’ll remember a couple weeks back, it was found that Far Cry Primal would be censored in Japan. Back on March 16th, Gamespark, a Japanese games site which focuses on information for both overseas and domestic games, posted an article regarding official word from Ubisoft regarding censorship of gore and sexual content in the Japanese release. The article is short and translated below:

Domestic PS4/Xbox One Version of Far Cry Primal Has Censored Gore and Sexual Content, Will Have “No Influence” On Gameplay

Ubisoft Japan has announced new information concerning the censorship of the Japanese domestic version of Far Cry Primal for the PS4/Xbox One. According to the official homepage because CERO declared the following 5 points ineligible for judgment, there will be differences from the overseas version:

  • Changes to expressions of the open depiction of internal organs
  • Changes to severed corpses
  • Changes to depictions of nudity
  • Changes to sexual expressions
  • Changes to scenes involving a knife stabbing a head

According to Ubisoft Japan, “This will have no influence on gameplay or story.” This game is scheduled for release domestically on PC/PS4/Xbox One on April 7th.  Please note that no information regarding censorship of the PC version was given.

If you remember the interview I translated the other day with CERO higher-up Kazuya Watanabe, he said that CERO mostly deals with console games, so it’s possible the PC version went by unscathed.

Also in that interview Watanabe said, ” … there is something that goes beyond Z, and we call those ‘forbidden expressions.’ Games that contain these expressions don’t follow our ratings, in other words, we don’t give them ratings. We decide this with the agreement of industry groups, so it’s not related to government laws. Therefore, you could say it’s a kind of censorship, but it’s only this part where we’re censoring expression.”

As for what constitutes “forbidden expressions,” Watanabe later clarified when questioned: ” … that’s decided by consulting with ‘healthy ethical standards for society.’ And because of that, ‘forbidden expressions’ are included under expressions that are allowed under the law.”

If you go to the Ubisoft official page linked above, Ubisoft Japan flat out states, “In the Japanese version, where CERO has declared the following items ineligible for judgment, we have made modifications to the way they are expressed.” And indeed, the PC version does not have this notification.

Elsewhere on Ubisoft’s site, there is information about the censorship of other titles. For Far Cry 3, under the section of their FAQ entitled “regarding the censorship in the Japanese version,” this is written:

<About points changed from the overseas version>

For the Japanese version, where expressions fell under what is defined under CERO’s ethical standards as “forbidden expressions” there have been changes in-game from the overseas version:

  • Sexual scenes, severed wounds have been altered

*Other areas are the same as the overseas version.

Interestingly enough, this information can be found on both pages for all three versions of the game, including the PC version.

Next, in the official site FAQ for Far Cry 4, under the question, “Is the Japanese version the same as the overseas version?” this can be read:

Censored Content:

  • Parts of the dialogue related to forbidden expressions were changed
  • Changes to sexual expressions
  • Changes to severed corpses

Again, the same message is posted for each version, including the PC version.

Is it just Far Cry? Nope. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate also has a notification for its changed content on its official FAQ page, underneath the question, “Are the expressions in the Japanese version the same as the overseas version?” The answer to the question? “In the Japanese version of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, in order to clear CERO’s standards, a few depictions have had changes made to them.” Interestingly enough, the PC version does not have any reference to this at all in its official FAQ.

Next we have Assassin’s Creed Unity. Under the official FAQ heading of, “Are the Japanese and overseas versions of Assassin’s Creed Unity the same?” we can see this explanation, “Missions, characters and items are the same. Except, in order to clear CERO standards, in certain videos the depiction of severed human limbs have been blackened so that they can’t be seen.” Again, the same notice appears for every version, including the PC version.

In contrast, for Assassin’s Creed Rogue, under the relevant question about whether there are changes in expressions from the overseas versions, it is stated that there are no changes. Similarly, Ubisoft Japan notes there are no changes in The Division either.

The same is true for the Ubisoft-localized Lords of the Fallen and while the question for Rainbow Six: Siege is slightly different (“Do the Japanese version and the overseas version have the same content?”) the answer from Ubisoft is yes, they are the same.

Many of Ubisoft’s older games don’t have notifications on whether or not there were changes. Perhaps they’ve started becoming more diligent about noting it due to push back from Japanese gamers? What push back you say? Well, just look at the top-rated comments in the Gamespark article:

“That’s enough! Stop censoring expressions in Z games!”

“That’s quite tepid survival you’ve got there.”

This one changed the Gamespark headline slightly to make a joke:

“Domestic PS4/Xbox One Version of Far Cry Primal Has Censored Gore and Sexual Content, Will ‘Have Influence’ On Sales”

Translation: 4Gamer Interviews CERO Higher-up About Censorship in Japanese Games

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The following is a full translation of this interview conducted by 4Gamer on February 10th of 2014 with the lead of Japan’s gaming regulatory board, CERO. (It’s a part of their editorial team known only as “MU.”) It touches on how censorship comes about in the Japanese gaming industry, how the board was created, and how “forbidden expressions” are maintained in accordance with “societal standards.”

Why are the expressions and content different between Japanese versions and overseas versions? We now dare to ask CERO about the current state of the “ratings system”

It’s been a while since it became normal for titles targeting toward overseas gamers to be sold and played even in Japan regularly. Often some of the reasons given for that include a lessening of resistance to “Western games” and the spread of online delivery services, but this has also increased the chances we have to see “differences in expression and content.” This is a point that often worries players who would like to play the original (overseas) version with the same content and expressions left intact.

How exactly do these types of changes come about?

You might remember that many reporters believe that CERO’s (Comptuer Entertainment Rating Organization) rating system is one factor that contributes to this.  However, I think the facts of the situation, how this same system is actually carried out, or how it affects the game industry, aren’t well known.

That’s why 4Gamer visited the senior managing director of CERO, Kazuya Watanabe, to hear about the current state of the ratings system and how the “differences” between Japanese versions and overseas versions come about.

4Gamer: Thanks for speaking with us. We’re used to seeing “CERO ratings” on games and official sites, but today I think I’d like to ask you about the deliberation process and what basis you decide things.

Watanabe: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

4Gamer: Let’s get straight to it. Does this rating system apply to every game sold within Japan?”

Watanabe: Our purview is mostly the console games sold within the country. We handle PC, cellphone, and smartphone games, but only a select part.

By the way, the amount we cover for console games is pretty much 100%. We were able to reach this number because many of the industry groups cooperated with us.

4Gamer: When you say industry groups, are you talking about game companies?

Watanabe: What I mean here by industry groups is CESA (Computer Entertainment Software Association). As well, it would be correct to say it’s also from the gaming companies including the ones who make the platforms, as well as the distribution groups.

4Gamer: Well then, will you tell us the story of how CERO began?

Watanabe: We got started in June of 2002, and our rating deliberations started from October of the same year. I think you may already know this, but previously there had been a ratings system. At that time, CESA was around and they performed their own kind of self-regulatory “ethics code.”

However, there was this problem that the ethics committee only consisted of around 10 people and the deliberations their ethics code were based on were very abstract to the point where the basis would blur from person to person.

So CESA used the ESRB(Entertainment Software Rating Board)inspections standard as a basis and aimed for the establishment of a rating systems for Japanese versions, and that was CERO’s starting point.

4Gamer:And when CERO started up, at that time did the entirety of the gaming industry see it as a need?

Watanabe: It would have been ideal had that been the case, but it was quite different from that (bitter laugh).

That was still a time when the criticism toward games in the general public was strong and there was this typical bad image they could be interpreted under. Because people were saying, “games can have a bad influence on young people,” as if it were in anyway true, so the industry had to make their stance clear against such a societal prejudice. Thus it took the form of game industry groups calling game makers together and having them agree to our standards.

Before CERO started, we enacted a survey asking game companies, “Is a rating system needed?” and perhaps it was because the very idea of a ratings system was not well known, but it’s the truth of the situation that there were a lot of negative opinions.

4Gamer:In the current rating system, how are the inspections actually carried out?

Watanabe: Since we recruit inspectors from our official site, we invite the general population.  The qualifications to apply is that you must be “over 20 years old” and that you “can’t have any deep affiliations with related game companies.”

Our applicants are chosen from looking at their details and from interviews, and right now we have about 45 people registered. As for the makeup of it, there’s pretty much 50/50 men and women. Ages range from 20 to 60, and we’re trying not to have a prejudice for any one age range. There are students, housewives, etc. lots of different types of professions.

4Gamer:By the way, on what basis do you select your inspectors?

Watanabe: We don’t inquire about your skill or experience with games, but because there are those who get queasy with extreme depictions or sick with 3D games, we look at their ability to handle those things.

4Gamer:Do you pay them a gratuity?

Watanabe: We do, but it’s really rather small. It’s best described as something like what you get from working a part time job.

4Gamer:How many people work on the inspection of one game?

Watanabe: The principle is to assign three people to one title. We have them come to the CERO offices, and then have them check a video in a special booth.

Well we call it a booth, but all there is is a monitor and a playback device, so it’s even more bare bones than an internet cafe room (laughs). Of course the booths are divided by partitions, so inspectors can’t talk with each other.

4Gamer:So the inspectors aren’t actually playing games, are they?

Watanabe: No, they aren’t. They do their inspections on the basis of a digest video the game makers submit. Having said that, the inspectors aren’t making decisions based on their own individual feelings. With CERO ratings we have set up a finely categorized system of inspections standards, what the inspectors actually do is cross reference the inspection standards with the content of the game’s digest video. That’s what the inspector’s job is.

4Gamer: And you’re saying it makes no difference how the inspector “felt”?

Watanabe: That’s right. It’s an objective inspection system, so there really isn’t much of a personal difference.

For instance, if we were to take one kiss scene, it’s split into several different levels, like “a cute kiss you’d see in a kid’s cartoon,” “a tongue twisting kiss,” or “a wet, noisy kiss.” They look at the actual images, and just check off which level it falls under, so I believe we can say personal opinions mostly don’t enter into it.

4Gamer: Even so, what do you do when the three different inspectors’ results don’t match?

Watanabe: When it’s some sort of expression where it’s hard to decide, the inspectors results can differ. In those cases we either go with a majority vote or ask for another check.

4Gamer: So that’s how it works. If you’re going to have this kind of system, it would seem that referencing the inspection standards would become very important, wouldn’t it?

Watanabe: The inspection standards are split into four categories: “sexual expressions,” “violent expressions,” “expressions of anti-social acts,” and “language/ideology-related expressions.” These are further divided into a more detailed list of around 30 items and with those we set a rating according to a scale of 6 levels.

Thus it follows that the references for the inspection standards become a matrix of 180 cells aligned along rows.

4Gamer: Can you show us that reference?

Watanabe: I’m sorry, but as of right now, we don’t allow them for general public viewing. Though, since it has been over ten years since the current ratings system has started, even if we don’t show all of them, I want to think about displaying the inspection standards for public view in some sort of form.

By the way, when the rating systems started, we didn’t necessarily fill in all of the cells of the matrix. We made over 20 revisions for the expressions measured in the inspection standards, adding new ones, making certain expressions more easy to understand, following the changes made in games themselves. In this way, we’ve built up to the current way we are now.

4Gamer: You mentioned “ratings aligned along 6 levels of expression” before,  but CERO ratings have 5 categories: A (all ages), B (12 and over), C (15 and over), D (17 and over) and Z (only above 18).

Watanabe: Yes. To add to these 5, there is something that goes beyond Z, and we call those “forbidden expressions.” Games that contain these expressions don’t follow our ratings, in other words, we don’t give them ratings. We decide this with the agreement of industry groups, so it’s not related to government laws. Therefore, you could say it’s a kind of censorship, but it’s only this part where we’re censoring expression. 

4Gamer: And on what kind of basis are you deciding this on?

Watanabe: To explain it simply, that’s decided by consulting with “healthy ethical standards for society.” And because of that, “forbidden expressions” are included under expressions that are allowed under the law.

4Gamer: Only “people over 18” can purchase Z-rated titles. Therefore, because people 17 and under can’t play them, there’s a certain viewpoint that says we ought to widen the acceptable range of forbidden expressions.

Watanabe: Yes. I know there are opinions like that. Except, you said that “17 and under can’t play them,” but what CERO is doing is not censorship. We don’t have the authority to do that.

What we’re doing is the “presentation of information.” Before a player buys something, we offer information so they’ll know something of the level of content in the game; it doesn’t have any power of enforcement. However, it’s certainly true that there are cases where local governments or industry groups have decided upon acts that amount to censorship based on CERO ratings.

4Gamer: Of late, there are overseas games that have parts which fall under your forbidden expressions and when they are put on sale in Japan, there are quite a few cases where expressions and content are changed. It would appear that people who want to play a game as close as possible to its original shape feel unsatisfied, but is this some sort of rule that they can’t avoid in order to sell games in Japan?

Watanabe: When you say “rule,” it sounds nasty. The are “methods” CERO and industry groups have decided on, and because these aren’t compulsory, they’re in fact different from rules and censorship. Like I said before, we consider forbidden expressions to be things that are far removed from the ethical standards of polite society. There are those who peddle a different argument, but a few years ago we enacted a survey about Z expressions and forbidden expressions. In the end, it reached about 400 pages, but extremely interesting results came out of it.

We targeted around 1000 people for this survey, and asked them to answer questions around all sorts of expressions, like sexual and violent ones included in the Z ratings and forbidden expressions; we had them answer us, “Above what age would this be valid, as well should it be forbidden?” And when we did, the majority of people answered that the things that are currently considered forbidden expressions “should be forbidden.” Of course, there were opinions that weren’t like that, but we think our results show that we haven’t strayed far from the common consensus.

4Gamer: In short, you came to the conclusion that the current ratings standards are justified, didn’t you?

Watanabe: I’m sure you know this, but the regulations for overseas games are what we could call “relaxed” compared to Japan. That’s why, just like I explained, in the survey we had them answer for us about the level of violent expressions. The result was, unrelated to how much it was regulated in Japan, that “gruesomely violent expressions ought to be further forbidden” was a majority opinion.

We don’t use these survey results to actually change the ratings standards, but if these opinions become the standard, then perhaps we should look into the restriction of violent expressions.

On the other hand, when it comes to sexual expressions, we saw a lot of opinions that “we ought to make the restrictions more lenient.” A great deal of women are included in this. For instance, we got some feedback from women that said “women’s nipples” are considered a forbidden expression, but “that’s strange, since you can see them in movies and on television.”

4Gamer:Certainly, it’s easy to compare to television and movies.

Watanabe: Yes. Except, this type of comparison was but one example, we mostly compared the common sense of each and every one of our participants when we have them give us their opinions. And because common sense changes based on the flow of time and the upheavals of wider society, we must always create an inspection standard that fits it.

4Gamer: In short, what you’re saying is that inspection standards change based on the times. And until now, a few years back expressions that were considered D or Z level are now considered forbidden expressions, and so could there be cases where that works in the opposite direction?

Watanabe: We have not raised or lowered the levels for similar expressions since the start of inspection under the CERO system. In addition, I don’t think it’s necessary.

However, it’s not like we’re thinking that we want to stubbornly protect the inspection standards for the Z level and forbidden expressions; previously we did have a proposal where we said, “Why not loosen the restrictions on sexual expressions?” Except, at that time we weren’t able to reach a consensus among industry groups.

That said, we don’t know what will happen 2 or 3 years from now. “Society” is something that doesn’t move quickly. It only changes gradually, you see.

4Gamer: For example, even though there’s one game that contains severed zombie limbs, a different game doesn’t show severed limbs, but they have the same rating. Are you saying this is not because of CERO’s inspections, but that the game makers just decided for it to be that way?

Watanabe: That might be it, but someone in my position can’t speak to that question clearly. It’s just the types of expressions in games are many and varied, and it’s true that inspections are becoming more difficult.

Just like I said before, the inspectors don’t play the game from start to finish. Since the most extreme expressions are provided to us from the makers in a 15-20 minute digest video, they can’t take into account the elements that aren’t included in the video.

4Gamer:And you haven’t perhaps considered changing to an inspection method where you actually play the games?

Watanabe: Unfortunately, when you think about the number and volume of games we have to inspect, that’s not realistic and too difficult to implement when you consider the time it would take. Right now, we inspect about 100 games a month, but no matter what the number of games is, we’ve set it to where we convey the results in under a week.

When you get right down to it, it’s an inspection process that depends on the logical supposition that “there are no lies” in the provided materials and videos.

4Gamer:Well this is changing the subject a bit, but there are cases where game shops don’t put up games with Z ratings on store shelves, or they put them in places where they’re separated from the rest and don’t stand out. I would think that would produce a lot of game makers who want to get a D rating instead of a Z.

Watanabe: Oh, I don’t think there’s a lot, but there have been cases where the first inspection results came up with a Z, but the expression level was changed upon another review. If we receive some sort of request for discussion from game makers, we can explain what makes for a Z rating. And the same can be said for forbidden expressions.

4Gamer:I’ve heard of cases of overseas games that contain forbidden expressions and because of various circumstances couldn’t change those expressions, and thus weren’t able to be sold in Japan. People who want to play these games can only buy the overseas version and that’s just the way it is, what do you think of that?

Watanabe: I have heard of stories where there are contract problems and they have to give up putting these games out for sale, but these cases amount to only a few. There’s nothing that can be done under the ratings system, I believe.

4Gamer: Again, there are cases where, even when games go on sale in Japan, the players don’t know that content and expressions are different from the overseas versions until they play them. And you don’t think CERO is contributing to this situation?

Watanabe: When it comes to things like that, I do recognize that it’s a problem that players feel unsatisfied, but it’s a decision based on each game maker’s sales strategy and thus it is not for us at CERO to speak up about it. We strictly respect each other’s standing ground.

4Gamer: All right. Then, tell me what the merit of a CERO rating system is.

Watanabe: Our greatest merit is to give a basis of selection to those who don’t know that much about games when they buy them. When it comes to games, there’s a lot of cases where parents are buying games for their children or grandchildren, and in these cases, it helps them. It’s an information proposition for end users, you could say.

The ESRB rating system’s purpose is also to provide a basis for buying or not buying based on your own responsibility. Along those lines, can it not be said that Japan is late at adopting a system of personal responsibility? This is not just limited to games, with television or movies, if there are extreme expressions “the municipal government is lazy,” “it’s because they don’t censor something,” there’s a tendency to blame the government or somebody else. I think we ought to consider a bit more about where the lines of our personal responsibility come in.

4Gamer: In short, you’re saying the CERO ratings are a material that can be used to make your own decisions about purchases?

Watanabe: That’s exactly it.

4Gamer:So what do you think the future holds for rating systems?

Watanabe: I think it will continue to be an important role for someone to provide information to players. However, if you’re asking if the current rating system will be applied in the future, that’s a difficult question.

The current ratings system is built with consoles in mind at its center, but if we’re going to also treat cell phone, smartphone and digital PC games, then the numbers become extraordinary. As well, like I said we report findings in a week, but we’d need them to come out more quickly perhaps.

Whatever happens, we may move to a “self-rating method” like parts of America and Europe do. This is an inspection system wherein a part of inspection standards are widely shared for all to see, and the those who sell the games consult with the standards and we let them decide their own ratings.

4Gamer: If you do that, there’s a chance the uniformity of ratings would be lost, isn’t there?

Watanabe: For instance, in parts of America, it’s something like you answer several dozen questions and you can find which rating is appropriate for you. For small scale things like smartphone apps, we might have to move to this system whether we like it or not.

In addition, you could intentionally settle on different ratings, but if after you’ve put it out into the world and it’s revealed there’s a problem with the rating, it would be corrected in an open fashion. At the same time, you would lose the trust of the society around you and as a result I believe it would function correctly.

I looked upon this interview thinking to find some sort of road to play overseas games in as close as possible to their original state, along with learning the facts of how CERO ratings work. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get a clear answer for that, but I think I’ve perhaps understood that a ratings system does not necessarily exist for the purpose of regulating expression. However, as long as the inspection standards reflect the ethical standards of wider society or opinions, it might be hard to change it based on just the game industry or its players.

Nevertheless, much like Watanabe said, this doesn’t mean that it’s been decided that in the future it will be the same system that will never change. CERO has said that in response to society’s demands, they will continue to broadly solicit opinions for discussion around the validity of inspection standards that match the age we’re living in.

It’s something of an aside, but Watanabe’s pointed statement, “Japan is late at adopting a system of personal responsibility,” left an impression with me. It made think all of a sudden that, although there may be many opinions about what constitutes the limits of personal responsibility, if each and every person who bought a product thought for themselves and decided themselves what kind of influence they have, and this was recognized by all of society, then all of what is seen as “censorship” would become completely unnecessary, would it not?

I wonder how long you have to live before you become like Mr. Watanabe?