GungHo Online Entertainment gave Director of Game Development Fumiaki Shiraishi a simple objective: make a PvP game. So he brainstormed and ultimately came up with between 10 and 20 different ideas for a PvP title, which he then pitched to GungHo Online Entertainment America President and CEO Jun Iwasaki. Shiraishi was surprised when Iwasaki selected “the weirdest one” out of the whole set. Then they took that idea to Japan, to GungHo Japan President and CEO Kazuki Morishita. Sure enough, Morishita said, “That one’s weird, but let’s go with that.” Thus, the project that would become Volta-X was born.
Volta-X is not an easy title to classify, which might make it a headache from a PR perspective, but it certainly stands out in a sea of sequels and clones. It’s a real-time PvP giant robot combat game, except you control the team of three pilots inside the robot that make it operate. Pilots can travel freely inside to any body part, which is necessary in order to activate each body part’s ability. Outside of battle, the game is also a resource management simulation, as you build a base and direct your team to do research to unlock new and more powerful equipment for the robots. For all its depth though, the game has a simple motivation underlying it.
“Volta-X is trying to get that feeling (from childhood) of when you buy that robot toy: You customize it, you transform it, you pose it, you put it on a pedestal,” Shiraishi explained. “But I think what (this) game does is then it lets you actually use it. You play against other players; you make it go through a story. You can build a base around your robot. So it’s trying to take that robot fantasy one step further.”
Shiraishi and the game’s art director, Pramin Phatiphong, are passionate about exploring what it means to pilot and control a robot on a visceral level. “You have bogeys coming towards you as you try to leap to another room and activate that (room’s) weapon or whatnot,” said Phatiphong. “If you can see yourself in that … that’s fun.”
Shiraishi and Phatiphong first met while working at Nexon, developing The Grinns Tale together. Shiraishi has had a far-reaching career in the games industry, beginning at Square as a network and server programmer on Final Fantasy XI. (“My claim to fame is I made the first day one patch for consoles. I opened that Pandora’s box,” he said.) He later worked on Front Mission Online and was lead programmer of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King before spending a few years at Nexon. After that, Shiraishi worked on matchmaking for the online component of Metal Gear Solid V at Konami. In 2016, he finally settled in at GungHo.
Meanwhile, Phatiphong has had an eclectic career as an artist, motion graphics designer, and concept designer. He started in the movie industry and in commercials, including work for Levi’s, and Nexon would be his “true first gig” in video games at the professional level. He later worked with Paramount on things like movie tie-in games, amid his own many personal projects, before reuniting with Shiraishi at GungHo for Volta-X, where he regularly surprises Shiraishi with his designs.
The giant robots, called Voltas, take visual inspiration from the pre-Gundam world of Japanese anime and television, from 1960s and ‘70s works like Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, and Ultraman. “I just love the size of (those robots),” said Phatiphong, and he loves the idea of kids getting in a robot “to do some damage or change the world.” Phatiphong’s designs in Volta-X are clean and uncomplicated and instantly charming as a result.
Each robot in Volta-X is functionally different as a result of its distinct body structure. The number and type of body parts a robot has affects what kinds of weapons and support gear it can equip. For example, a Volta with multiple arms might want to equip damaging drills, while a Volta with hulking shoulders could load up on heavy artillery. In turn, each pilot has an affinity for melee, ranged, or support abilities and will power up any abilities they activate of that matching type.
Additionally, each Volta type has a unique special ability. A Volta that might seem a bit underpowered could have an awesome unique ability and vice versa. Some Voltas even have the ability to totally transform into a different shape, which in theory makes them very dangerous — except that they are also so complex that you could just as easily get yourself killed figuring out how to use them. The GungHo team recognizes how important balancing is in a PvP title like Volta-X, but at the same time, they’re not being slavish to it.
“I think a problem that programmers or game designers tend to fall into is we try to really make a nice metric and have everything really balanced,” said Shiraishi. “But I think when you do that… it kind of becomes bland. Like, they’re all different, but they’re so balanced and there’s such a system around it that it’s not that interesting.” So instead, when designing a Volta, they begin from a standpoint of defining what’s interesting about a robot and then ensuring that element is fully realized in gameplay. And chiefly, they ask themselves a critical question: “Would you want to buy that if it was in a toy store?”
The single-player campaign will be the test of whether you are grasping Volta-X’s many mechanics. In addition to providing a story that fleshes out the game’s many colorful characters and world, the single-player will serve as both a tutorial and a difficulty check. “We throw in a few really hard battles in there … to nudge you to learn certain things,” said Shiraishi. He can finish the campaign in 7-8 hours, but non-developers have taken more like 9-13 hours.
When you’re ready though, you can engage in human one-on-one PvP with two Switch consoles or online and experience true real-time insanity. There’s nothing quite like trading blows and finding that your Volta’s arm has literally burst into flames — and that’s not just a cool visual effect.
“The fire will get stronger and stronger, so the damage that it does to the room accelerates,” explained Shiraishi. “And beyond a certain point, it’ll also start spreading to other rooms.” So in other words — put out those fires quick! But if you lose, that’s okay. You can watch a replay of any match, including from the perspective of your opponent, to learn from your mistakes and continue improving.
Although Volta-X is such a unique title, Shiraishi still cited FTL: Faster Than Light as an influence on it. In fact, his original design for the game involved spaceships instead of robots; he made the change once he realized he was accidentally headed down a worn path. Another tweak he decided upon early on was to make all the crew members fun animals, which keeps the game and its base management from feeling “cold.”
And you will indeed spend a lot of time at your base in Volta-X, building out your rooms and performing research. Ingredients are collected from story and PvP battles, which can be used to power up Volta gear at your machine shop.
“But to use the machine shop effectively, you need to have your crew members work inside the machine shops,” said Shiraishi as he proceeded down a rabbit hole. “But then (crew members are) not effective if they’re not happy. And to keep them happy, you have to keep them fed and rested, and they need to socialize — they need to have fun. And so then you need to start building other things, but then if you want to build other things, you need other resource rooms to power those rooms. So it kind of snowballs from there.”
Even the way you choose to lay out your base can affect productivity. And that productivity can be further enhanced when crew members develop friendships. Volta-X has a lot to absorb, but at the same time, depth of this sort is rare and welcome.
“We tried to make it not so hard that it hurts your brain, but I really like simulation strategy games,” said Shiraishi. “So I try to make every little thing matter.”
Volta-X is in the home stretch of its development, and while its team size was at 6-7 a year ago, a second GungHo team has come onboard in the past three months, doubling the total team to 13-14. GungHo in general seems optimistic about the game’s progress, and it speaks to the unique level of creativity that the company encourages.
GungHo Japan CEO Morishita and America CEO Iwasaki “both look for games that look like nothing else,” said Shiraishi. “The cardinal sin at GungHo is if you’re making a game, and if you pitch anything that’s like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of like this (existing game) but different,’ you’re setting yourself up for a terrible meeting.” The executives are frequently the ones who push for “more energy or more craziness,” asking things like if it’s possible to add snake or whale crew members. But they trust the development team to make the right calls.
“It’s interesting for the most part that they’ve let me and Pramin and our dev team kind of make all the decisions for ourselves,” said Shiraishi.
“We’re like this whole trailer set up in the outfield somewhere in Patagonia,” joked Phatiphong.
Volta-X will release this summer on Nintendo Switch, and the GungHo team has plans to provide ongoing support after release — and they’ll do it on the fans’ terms. “I’ll be checking all the forums and all the boards and everything and listening to what people say about it,” said Shiraishi, “and I’ll try to do my best to try to do work on whatever feedback or requests they have.” That said, the general intent is to add new weapons, new robots, and possibly more single-player content.
Shiraishi and Phatiphong hope the players will embrace Volta-X warmly, as they would love to continue the IP. “We really tried to push beyond what we have done before,” reflected Phatiphong. Ultimately, Shiraishi is humble, and he respects that the player experience is everything: “Once you release the game up the road, it’s theirs, not ours.”