Why Ukiyo is a casual game about escaping a Japanese virtual reality

Brian Crecente
Seaknot Studios G.K. was founded by Toru in 2020. The studio is dedicated to developing indie games using the adventure game toolkit, PlayLogic.
FREAKY DESIGN Inc. is a design studio established in 2013. The studio mainly handles character design and background design for social games, as well as total branding design for food and beverage brands. Major games include Space Devries, Ribbly Island, and Pokécolo.
Trapped in a Japanese cyberpunk virtual world, Kai must navigate his favorite game–Ukiyo–to figure out how to return to reality.

The story-based adventure game, which shares the same name and releases later this year, is the first by Tokorozawa-based developer Seaknot Studios and the product of a collaboration with design company Freaky Design Inc.

We chatted with the founders of Seaknot and Freaky Design about how the two came together to create the visually striking title, the value of Unreal Engine to a new studio working to establish its voice, and how pop-culture destination Shibuya influenced the look and feel of Epic MegaGrant recipient Ukiyo.

This is the first in-house game being developed by Seaknot Studios. How did the studio come about and what does it hope to achieve?

Toru Hisai, founder of Seaknot Studios G.K.:
I started working on the development of the game while I was still working at Nintendo of Europe (NOE) in Germany. Back then, I worked as a technical support engineer for third-party game developers in Europe. I helped a lot of developers. That made me want to start developing games myself.

After I left NOE and came back to Japan, I founded Seaknot Studios to create my own game independently. I believe that there are still many hidden talents in Japan, so I hope to help many creators create games with their original stories and characters in the future.

How is it that Seaknot Studios and Freaky Design decided to work together on a game?

After I finished the basic system for adventure games based on UE4, I spoke with my friend who worked at Freaky Design about collaborating. At that time, I didn't expect the project to become so big. But now many of their artists are involved in this project.

What was the inspiration behind Ukiyo and what do you hope to achieve with the game?

When Freaky Design showed me the concept art of the game, I was so excited and confident that the game would be successful. I want to make this game very unique in the indie game industry.

Halki Takada, founder of FREAKY DESIGN Inc.: We hope to share the world of UKIYO with gamers not only in Japan, but also around the globe.

Why did you decide to use Unreal Engine to develop this game?

As a technical support engineer, I have worked with many types of game engines and middleware. Although Unreal Engine has been around for a while and already has a huge user base, it is still very actively developed and supports many platforms. Also, the availability of the source code was very important to me as a tech nerd!

I was surprised to read how different the game tastes are between the teams at Seaknot and Freaky Design, with one group being really into titles like Monster Hunter and the other being more into games like Undertale and Mother. How did you manage to find common ground between such different types of tastes in games?

Actually, the people from Freaky Design also like narrative-based adventure games like Life is Strange and The Last of Us. So I didn't think the genre of the game was a big problem.

Takada: Rather than explicitly looking for common ground, I believe that we connected as a result valuing each other's different sense of fun in games.
It sounds like the game was being designed initially in your spare time and with a very limited budget. How did Unreal Engine make that possible and did these limitations shape the early look and scope of the game?

The initial cost of using Unreal Engine was extremely low, and a lot of assets in the Marketplace were free or very cheap. This helped me in the very early stages of the game. Also, UE4 and UE5 are available for Linux, which is also free.

How did using Unreal Engine help you with such a drastic visual change and how did that change impact the design of the game?

The game itself runs in 3D, but to make it look like 2D, I placed transparent collision models next to the 2D background images. I made the collision model using BSP, which was flexible and easy. So I could follow the visual changes relatively easily.

How did your time spent in Shibuya impact the look and feel of the game’s take on ?

Shibuya is our second home town. We are usually in Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan, surrounded by the sea and mountains, but Shibuya is where we spent our intense school days. It was a long time ago, in the early 2000s. The old-look of Shibuya of that time is projected here. It's not as sophisticated as it is now, but it's a mix of the old Shibuya with the old Japanese taste and the cyber feel.

I believe 2018’s State of Mind had a big impact on the design approach you were hoping to achieve. Can you walk me through how impactful that game’s inspiration is on Ukiyo and why?

I really liked the game's futuristic theme and low-polygon 3D art style. But I was also very inspired by its size and game mechanics. State of Mind doesn't require intense action, so you can enjoy the story even if you're not good at action games. (And I'm not good at them at all.) The average playing time of the game was about 10 hours, which fits my casual gaming style. So I wanted to play more games like this, and I thought I could even make my own game.
A demo of the game won multiple awards from both BitSummit and from Shueisha Game Creators Camp. How did that impact your work on the game?

To be honest, I didn't expect the game to get that much attention since it wasn't even finished yet. So I was just surprised by the awards. And now game development has become my day job!

Takada: It gave me a lot of strength and confidence. The support from Shueisha afterwards was very reassuring. They are some of the best at what they do, and they helped fill in the missing pieces for us. It also gave us confidence in our artistic creativity and made us think, "Isn't this world view cool?"

Later you received an Epic MegaGrant. What impact did that have on the studio?

With the funding we received, we are working with some well-known game developers in Japan. I've already learned a lot from them. Working with them is always inspiring and fun.

I read that you’re hoping for this to be something played more casually, as a game that is relaxing to players. Why is that?

It's just because I'm not a hardcore gamer. I don't spend a lot of money on high-end gaming machines, and I'm not good at intensive game control. I think there are a lot of people like me, and it could be a hidden market segment. I also hope to make this game accessible to everyone.
What are your hopes for this game when it comes out?

I hope this game will inspire many creators and game developers and encourage them to create their own games!

Takada: I hope players will want to see more of the worlds we create and demand to play more of our games!

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the game’s development?

Development is still ongoing, but it has definitely become much more impressive than the first demo version, thanks to publisher, Shueisha Games.

Takada: Game design, art, scenario, and sound. Everything is intertwined at such a high level that it's difficult to find the right balance, but that's what I'm trying to achieve.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Where can readers find out more about Ukiyo, Seaknot Studios, and Freaky Design, Inc.?

Please stay tuned to our Ukiyo, Freaky Design Inc., and Seaknot Studios on social media.

Takada: The UKIYO website will be ready soon, so please follow us there, and social media, for more info! Thank you!

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