How Has Dynasty Warriors Lasted So Long?

I do feel that we have come to the point that we need to change the game drastically.” It’s not often you hear statements from developers that serve as both dramatic statement and unintentional punchline, but that’s what Dynasty Warriors producer Akihiro Suzuki has just provided. After all, we know the joke by now. Dynasty Warriors games are all the same! All you do is bash buttons until you win! Right?

It depends, as these sorts of questions often do, on who you ask. Dynasty Warriors fans have often defended the series as fun, strategic and interesting. There’s an element of button-bashing but the games are more about map management and learning to prioritise different tasks to succeed. On Chaos difficulty, there’s a higher level of play involved that is rarely discussed outside of hardcore fan communities: learning how many frames of invincibility there are on the best moves for a character, safe attack strings, attacks with quick start-up and so on.

Detractors point to the endless churn of Dynasty Warriors games through the mainline titles, the Xtreme Legends and Empires instalments and the spin-offs. The gameplay never changes in any significant way and the constant stream of releases has diluted the impact and appeal. The next release, Bladestorm Nightmares, had a dev cycle of “about a year” according to Suzuki, which highlights how quickly Omega Force can crank these games out. Even the 1 versus 1,000 aspect isn’t unique anymore, thanks to the likes of Dead Rising and Kingdom Under Fire.

But regardless, this is a series that has endured for over 15 years and has seen almost 50 games released under the ‘musou’ umbrella at developer Omega Force. How has the Dynasty Warriors series been going for so long? What has the secret been? Today, we’re not asking fans nor detractors.We’re asking the producer. And Suzuki feels that it’s the familiarity of the series that has been the key to its success.

“We are really grateful for the fans that have supported us throughout this long franchise, so big thanks to them,” starts Suzuki. “The reason we feel that this franchise has been going for so long and so well for us is that we haven’t changed the core essence, but what we have done is we have made sure that there is always something new for every instalment. It could have been a minor change but we made sure whether it was on the action side, on the character side, or on the story side, we just made sure we are tweaking in the right way so that the next instalment will see the franchise… that it will be something better than the previous instalment.”

There’s been a slow decline in sales since the days of Dynasty Warriors on PlayStation 2, when the series saw releases break the million sales mark, and that’s something that has led the studio to tinker with the formula to try and bring those fans back into the fold.

“Obviously looking at the fans, some fans do leave every now and then, that’s just a fact,” Suzuki continues. “But we try to create something new to bring those fans back as well. So again, the core essence and core foundation hasn’t changed that much and maybe that’s one of the reasons the franchise has done so well. We have the right balance of the core foundation of the game while we’re making sure certain areas are enhanced every now and then.”

Then comes the admission we weren’t quite expecting to hear.

“The Dynasty Warriors franchise hasn’t changed the core foundation of the game itself, but being a producer, I do feel that we have come to the point that we need to change the game drastically to give it a new boost, in terms of energy. Obviously the core concept of 1 versus 1000, that won’t change. The exhilarating feel of 1 versus 1000 action, that won’t change either. But yes, we do feel that we have reached the stage… for the coming Dynasty Warriors franchise titles, we are looking into making major or drastic changes in terms of the gameplay to bring new life into the franchise.”

Besides the trademark ‘musou’ gameplay, something else has defined Dynasty Warriors since its birth: the huge disparity between what the media think of the series and what the fans think. Although some games have fared better than others, and although sales have remained healthy despite a general decline, Dynasty Warriors has never reached any sort of critical acclaim. The most recent outing in the series, Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires, scrambled its way to a 70 score on Metacritic and that’s the highest score the series has received in years. More often it lurks around the 60 range, dragged down by complaints about how all Dynasty Warriors games are the same and tired jokes about bashing the buttons until your thumbs gives up.

But Suzuki is keenly aware that there’s some truth behind the jibes and while media scrutiny appears to be softening (see Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires), fan feedback seems to be harsher.

“Obviously we understand where the media is coming from in terms of criticism of our games,” Suzuki explains. “However, there are two aspects to this, we feel one is the cultural side and one is the action side. Maybe the repetitive gameplay is a negative point but looking at it from the cultural point of view, for an average Japanese games player, it’s quite normal for them to say, for example, shooting games… FPS games look the same and feel the same, every time we see a numbered title come out. Having said that, we do feel that looking at the controls and action of the Dynasty Warriors games in detail, it does lack depth. We have a lot of characters you can play with and a lot of character variation, but there are so many characters and so many visuals to recreate, the team feels…”

There’s a slight pause. “They haven’t neglected it but in terms of the pure volume required, they haven’t been able to fine tune all the individual actions of those characters. So the lack of depth, in terms of the actions that the players can do in those games is definitely one of the points that the team knows requires a crucial fix. So as we said, we are looking into drastically changing the gameplay of the franchise. So that’s one area we’re looking into and hopefully we’ll be able to achieve the right balance in terms of providing the right gameplay, not just for this next-gen cycle but for the overall experience as well.”

It’s not just Western audiences who are making their opinions known either, as Japanese fans also share the same worries with regards to the Dynasty Warriors gameplay.

“Looking at the feedback from Japan and Asian customer surveys, the fans are voicing concerns over the lack of depth in terms of the action side of the gameplay,” Suzuki tells us. “That’s one area we often hear. Having said that, looking at this from the cultural side again, we feel the Japanese and Asian audiences are much more familiar with what the games are about in terms of the plot and the storyline of the Dynasty Warriors series, Romance Of The Three Kingdoms for example. So every time we bring out a new character for the franchise, people understand, to a certain extent, what the character is about and what that character is associated with. So there’sa cultural background in terms of the differences between the West and East and what they know about history in general. So again, it’s a difficult thing in terms of the cultural differences and the education of the Western and Eastern audiences. In terms of the feedback, the action side is similar but the cultural backgrounds are different.”

Having had fans for so long brings in a new problem altogether fan expectations. When Omega Force makes Dynasty Warriors, it’s criticised for making the same game over and over again. When they try and make something new, as they have done with Bladestorm Nightmare “it’s more a troop action-strategy game, so it’s totally different gameplay in terms of what you’re required to do,” explains Suzuki fans complain because it’s not what they expected. It’s a tricky catch-22.

“There were a lot of players who bought Bladestorm who used to play the Dynasty Warriors to start with and there was a lot of feedback from fans that they felt that it was really different to the Dynasty Warriors games,” recalls Suzuki. “Actually there were some complaints that it wasn’t a Dynasty Warriors game. But it wasn’t supposed to be a Dynasty Warriors game! So maybe it was the way it was brought to the market that didn’t quite work out in terms of the message we were trying to get across. Soa lot of Dynasty Warriors fans bought Bladestorm but at the same time, the message didn’t get across that it was supposed to be something different. We feel that in terms of the franchise and the gameplay that is associated with the franchise, we feel that it’s now established, so I think people know Bladestorm is different in terms of what the gameplay provides and the experience. We feel that unlike the previous Bladestorm game, we are sending out the correct message to the correct audience.”

How Bladestorm Nightmares is received by fans is yet to be seen and it’ll be an interesting case study for Omega Force, given it is following on eight years after its predecessor rolled out on Xbox 360 and PS3 as a mild and mostly inoffensive curio. But regardless, we’re now at the point where the series needs to change drastically. We’ve been here before, of course Dynasty Warriors actually started life as a 1-vs-1 fighting before fresh PS2 hardware specs and a declining Japanese fighting games market convinced the team to switch to its now trademark open battlefield gameplay for Dynasty Warriors 2. Can we expect something that dramatic again?

Suzuki laughs to himself and pauses for thought, as though he’s hesitant to commit himself to promising something too big.

“The team is looking into different options and variations but as we mentioned previously, the concept of the game, of1 vs 1000, that shouldn’t change. We also don’t plan to change the historical plot of the game itself. So those will be kept the same. But we are weighing up the different options that we could take in terms of the gameplay itself. We don’t have anything to share at this point obviously, but we’ll bring out such information in the future.”


Whatever happened to Kessen?
Around the same time Dynasty Warriors 2 created a… well, a gaming dynasty, Koei launched another Asian war series alongside it: Kessen. We know which series thrived but it was Kessen that was favoured at the time, as Suzuki tells us: “When PS2 came about, there were two major projects running at the time. Dynasty Warriors 2 and Kessen.

Kessen was supervised by the CEO whereas Dynasty Warriors had its own separate line. As Kessen was the one under the CEO’s order, there was heavier promotion and staffing. At one stage, the CEO said “is Dynasty Warriors even that good?” Or words to that eff ect. So the team was really up for the challenge of beating Kessen. Kessen was a launch title but Dynasty Warriors was delayed slightly a  er the hardware launch, and due to the lack of promotion initial sales weren’t good. It was a slow starter, but the game had a great reputation once it came out. Kessen struggled whereas Dynasty Warriors 2 went really well and had a longer run. Sales figures reached about 400,000 at the time and it surpassed Kessen easily. So it was a good time!”

Why the squealing guitar rock?
It’s become one of the hallmarks of Dynasty Warriors . You’ll charge forward, see the first enemies on the horizon and then rock music crashes in straight from the Eighties, playing hair-raising guitar solos as you charge into battle. How is the music recorded? Is there one man at Omega Force who plays endless guitar riffs and you just record him every now and then? Suzuki bellows with laughter when he hears the question: “Very interesting question! Obviously we do record it properly. It’s been recorded based on a concept we have for the game and we get the artists and composers to come up with the tunes every time. It’s suited more for the Japanese audience in that sense and maybe that’s why Western audiences feel it isn’t the right music to use. If it sounds that bad for the Western audience, do let us know! Some people like it, some don’t. We get a lot of feedback from Western audiences and they don’t really like the music. That’s an area the team will look into for future games. Perhaps the end result isn’t as suitable for the Western audience as it is for the Japanese audience.”

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