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How an indie studio plans to revolutionize the gaming industry with its hip-hop opera – Afro Samurai 2 Interview

‘Distinctly average’ is probably the best way to describe the original Afro Samurai game, which launched on PlayStation 3 in 2009 to modest reviews. Though the impressive manga art, immersive hip-hop soundtrack and accurate representation of the key characters in the popular anime series tie-in won many plaudits and fans, the awkward camera shifting, button-mashing, repetitious combat and tough difficulty spike made it a game that was practically impossible to complete for anyone but the most seasoned of fighters.

The good news is that Afro Samurai 2: Revenge of Kuma is set to be much more accessible. Though it will stay true to the manga from the TV series, the idea this time around is to broaden its appeal so that players can enjoy the game and get the most of its cast of colourful characters. Not content with just making a direct sequel though, the hack-’n-slash action-adventure also plans to enter into unprecedented territory with a title that stirs up emotions with its fusion of unique characters, hip-hop beats and balletic combat.

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Exclusive Afro Samurai 2 interview with Redacted Studios
Free from the shackles of Namco Bandai Games America, the Afro Samurai franchise is now in the hands of Redacted Studios and David Robinson who worked as Senior Producer on Afro Samurai while at Namco. In an exclusive interview with PlayStation Universe (due to be aired in full on our upcoming PlayStation Unchained podcast), Robinson spoke of his love affair with the franchise, the direction that he plans to take Afro Samurai 2 and his determination to create the game that he originally visualised.

We’re going to be this delicious salad that you get from an Italian restaurant in Italy, and the explosions in your mouth will be just like ‘wow’.” – David Robinson on Afro Samurai 2.

Talking about the original Afro Samurai game, Robinson remarked: “We set some pretty cool standards and critical paradigms – one was for dynamic cutting of a character in real-time, dynamic cross-hatching and comic-book look. Those things had never been done in an engine before, people got close but nowhere near what we were doing.”

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The original Afro Samurai game introduces dynamic dismemberment

However, he admits that despite having a $10 million budget for the original game, the restrictions in place at Namco stunted some of the ideas he had for the franchise, which he now plans to put right in Afro Samurai 2, including his vision to create episodic content.

“The reason why we wanted to do episodic is so that I can make the creative decisions how I want to make them,” he says. “With the game being $10 million dollars there were so many restrictions, and so you get rules and no-one wants to take risks. Here, the game isn’t a $5 million game, we’re not going to look like Assassin’s Creed, we have our own style. We’re not going to have the production values of a Batman that had three or four hundred people working on for four years. We’re going to be this delicious salad that you get from an Italian restaurant in Italy, and the explosions in your mouth will be just like ‘wow’. I’ve got to tell my friends when I get home.”

Planning a new direction for Afro Samurai 2
On founding Redacted Studios, Robinson was fortunate to be able to continue his love affair with the Afro Samurai franchise, and start planning for its future. On leaving Namco, Robinson brought with him the rights for the series as well as the technology.

“When I left Namco about 4 years ago, I took all that with me and they gave me a pretty good deal to license and own all of that technology,” he says. “I went back to Gonzo Animations and I said ‘now that we’re independent and the team really understands and knows this franchise let us take it into this new space that I had a dream of creating’, and it’s basically creating a TV show, a seasonal interactive series.”

In a departure from the original game, Afro Samurai 2 will consist of multiple episodes, starting off with three but with plans to continue if things go well.

afro samurai 2 and kuma

Afro Samurai 2 follows the path of Kuma, one of Afro’s closest friends

“The game is living and breathing chapter-over-chapter, hopefully for the next three of four years,” he enthuses.

What’s also extremely encouraging to hear is that he wants fans to be involved in its future content, talking about what he calls “reshoots” where players may be able to suggest a new scene and then they’d make it available free of charge as DLC for those who bought the game. It’s an ambitious plan for a studio that has a relatively small budget of approximately $1 million for its first two chapters. We asked Robinson how he’s going to achieve the vision he has with resources that pale into comparison to the $10 million budget of the original.

“The way we’re doing that is to hand-craft and make the game really smart so that it’s really densely packed,” he comments. “It’s not a 20 hour game. We want it to feel like the player is doing so many different things, and most importantly interacting with these characters in so many different ways that you feel like you’re on this journey with the character, so it doesn’t make sense that the game ends. It’s just like a TV show where there are new characters introduced. Sometimes the lead characters die and fall away, and that’s where we’ve really changed the paradigm with Afro.”

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A more intuitive and accessible combat system
Robinson tells us that one of the ways that Afro Samurai 2 differs from its predecessor is via a major change to the combat system which now features a one-button attack.

“What I wanted to do was take Afro and create a new combat style that was more inclusive,” he says. “In the previous game most of the designers were the guys in the studio who helped to design the likes of Tekken and Soul Caliber. It was a very high bar for entry and we had to respect the fact that most of our fans are hardcore, but the hardcore fans are now more mature, they understand they we can’t live on just hardcore fans – there’s just not enough of them.”

afro samurai 2 combat

Robinson goes on to explain that although the combat system is simplified it incorporates different styles that require a strategic play.

“I had this crazy idea for a new combat system that uses one-button with one or two modifiers where you needed them,” he explains. “Kuma can absorb all the combat styles of anybody he fights. With this game you get to pick a different combat style and each one of those styles is based on the personality of the bigger characters in the series. You’re literally changing the personality of a character, the personality of his movement, how he interacts with other characters, and how he gains hit points – all through switching the combat styles button. In the first chapter we have three [combat styles] because we want to put you on a path where Kuma was before he died.”

Robinson says that Afro Samurai 2 is a game for people who understand how to play games and still requires a lot of strategy through the mixing of combat styles. Players will “hit a brick wall if they think they can button-mash through this game,” he says. “There’s a strategy between holding that style and employing that style when you need to, and understanding which enemy requires which style, which is really cool.”

The creation of an operatic hip-hop
As the series progresses, there’s plans for new stories, new worlds and new content, including fresh combat styles for each episode. One of the features that really stands, which was also very prevalent in the original game, is the music. Once again, Afro Samurai 2 plans to fuse combat with its soundtrack to create what Robinson coins as “operatic hip-hop.”

“You’re in the middle of this hip-hop opera while you’re playing,” he says. At this point he introduces Roberto Mccoy (aka Visualeyes), whose music features in the first chapter of Afro Samurai 2.

From a musician’s perspective it’s unbelievable where this can go. It’s literally revolutionising videogames and music at the same time, but not just any sort of music – hip-hop.” – Visualeyes talks about Afro Samurai 2’s vision.

“It is definitely an opera,” says the Oakland-based rapper. “Dave came to me at the beginning and said you have to hit this Afro feeling, and I didn’t know what he was talking about. We went through files and files of music and I was in the process of creating this project called ‘Ready Set Blow’ and I gave it to Dave. Fortunately I hit it right on the head for the emotional factors and the overall rawness.”

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Visual Eyez provides the music for the first chapter of Afro Samurai 2

He then makes a bold statement about the evolution of the Afro Samurai series.

“From a musician’s perspective it’s unbelievable where this can go. It’s literally revolutionising videogames and music at the same time, but not just any sort of music – hip-hop,” he says with real conviction.

Watch the official Afro Samurai 2 soundtrack music video, by Visual Eyez.

It’s not until you spend time talking with Robinson and Roberto though that you appreciate that this isn’t just a throwaway comment or marketing spiel, but it’s something they truly believe in and are passionate about making happen. We asked Robinson to tell us more about his plans for the music.

“Out the three chapters we have the first and the last chapters thought through – Roberto (aka Visualeyes) is doing the first chapter. He’s done an amazing job,” he says, going on to say that the rapper incorporates so much emotion into his music that he often stops playing the game to listen to it. “The third chapter is about RZA’s new character Bobby Digital, and in that we have two or three sub-characters whose personas will grow as that chapter grows. But that second chapter is wide open, and the fourth and the fifth.”

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RZA brings his unique talent to chapter 3 of Afro Samurai 2

This vision to create a game that revolutionises video games and music becomes more apparent throughout the interview with the announcement that Redacted are seeking out indie hip-hop talent for future chapters.

“So we are actively recruiting across Europe and Asia, for soulful contributors,” he explains. “Rap is this amazing language that is being spoken more than ever across the world so why not create a platform where we can create an operatic voice across interactive. And that’s what we hope to be – this brand new sort of establishment of operatic voice that uses hip-hop as that language.”

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PS4 and the rise of the indies
The subject of the interview then shifted to the indie scene and its explosion on PS4. Having been part of the gaming industry for many years, and having shifted from working with major studios to founding an indie studio, we asked Robinson what he thought was the main contributing factor to the explosion of indie titles in recent years. He cites two reasons:

“What has changed is in order to create game 10 years ago you needed to have $3-4 million to have the engine to start your art,” he explains. “Unity [game engine] has been the single most effective demarcation and directing, guiding, gravitational, super black hole that’s steering the light in that direction because it has democratised the means to be creative and do things that no-one else could, that would have cost you too much money to do in the past. When it comes to these latest platforms, without Unity those platforms wouldn’t be as strong as they are today.”

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The Unity Game Engine has changed the outlook for indie studios

The other factor is “the economic fall of the major studio,” he says. “So, studios were like gigantic clusters of stars that exploded because the finances didn’t work, so you have all these amazing elements thrown out into space, and the only gravitational force that allows them to be creative and turn into other stars is this middleware technology that could get them the whole way – and that’s what Unity is. Unity is this dark matter that’s allowed all these amazing, creative elements to be able to say I can do that and not have to mortgage their lives to do it.”

When it comes to these latest platforms, without Unity those platforms wouldn’t be as strong as they are today.” – Redacted Studios on the rise of indie games on PS4 and significance of the Unity game engine.

Negative influence of the press
Nevertheless, Robinson believes that the press hasn’t always been supportive of indie titles as he blames ‘negative influencers’ and ‘trolls’ for almost breaking the industry.

“There was an advocacy in the press that has simply over the last four years turned into a huge mistaken identity of negative influencers, people who just troll to be the first guy to talk smack about an indie studio, and that’s what broke my heart and almost broke the industry,” he says.

“I think when it came to the downturn of the major studios, the single most cutting blow was how the press seemed to have dumped all the professionalism out of the window, and went and turned into Maury Povich. It was just really a terrible time the past four or five years to watch these small teams who did really amazing things with three of four dollars – so what, it didn’t look like a three of four million dollar game? – but it’s not supposed to. We don’t have discerning voices in the press, people who take journalism quite seriously to say ‘hey look we are advocates of our industry because absent of that there is no industry.’ Now it’s changing.”

The press seemed to have dumped all the professionalism out of the window, and went and turned into Maury Povich.” – David Robinson, Redacted Studios on state of gaming press.

A major player in the shift of indie fortunes is certainly Sony Computer Entertainment and the PS4, which has supported indie developers in recent years and provided a more open platform for them to showcase their talents.

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“Microsoft has made some decisions that have really made it hard for developers,” says Robinson, referring to the Xbox One. “And most of these major studios kind of lose their way in that and they forget that every studio should be treated like an old lady in a wheelchair needing wraps. Of course, I could drag myself up the stairs. When it comes to not having any money and budgets being really tight you need a platform that thinks “ how can I build ramps where there used to be stairs?”

“This time around PlayStation has done that. They have a superior system that’s had the benefit of coming out later. It’s like a game, they just happened to call their play later, understood what was going on, but Sony hasn’t always been that way. It was flipped when the first Xbox came out. Microsoft were the guys who understood the hacker mentality of ‘just get it done’ and how can I get this exposed really easily when it comes to the code.”

“This time around PlayStation has done that. They have a superior system that’s had the benefit of coming out later.”David Robinson, Redacted Studios on PS4 being better than Xbox One for indie support.

As the interview ends, we get back onto the subject of Afro Samurai 2 which Robinson believes is really going to surprise gamers with how emotionally they’ll become involved with its characters and evolving narrative.

Emotions set to run high in Afro Samurai 2
“People who play this game are going to be totally surprised in how it starts and how it winds up,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s no longer a button-mashing action game. It’s really an action adventure game where you’re really responsible for understanding the character’s emotional state. We spent a lot of time in the first chapter trying to get people to understand where Kuma is coming from, where the story is going, where the story has been, but also not trying to cram it all in so I’m not just making a remake of the first game.”

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Be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster ride

There’s certainly some bold plans for the Afro Samurai franchise, but if Redacted’s passion, motivation and drive is anything to go by, their dreams could well become a reality. Stay tuned for the full interview for Afro Samurai 2 which will be available shortly as part of a special edition PlayStation Unchained podcast.

Chapter One of Afro Samurai 2 is due for release on PC, Xbox One and PS4 this Fall.