Over the last few years, game developer Capcom has experienced something of a renaissance after largely struggling during the industry’s push into HD. 2017 saw the release of Resident Evil 7, which shifted the long-running series to a first-person perspective, imbuing it with a new sense of horror. One year later Monster Hunter World debuted with a seamless, open-world structure that turned a once niche Japanese action series into a global phenomenon.
While all of this was happening, Hideaki Itsuno was secretly working on the first new Devil May Cry game in a decade. As he watched his peers’ continued success, the director says that he was largely unaffected by the resurgence of other iconic Capcom franchises. But he admits that it created a certain kind of pressure. “I did feel like I really don’t want to have it stop at me,” he says with a laugh. “That’s the last thing I want.”
Itsuno has been closely associated with Devil May Cry for some time, even if he hasn’t been a part of it since the beginning. When development on Devil May Cry 2 began without series creator Hideki Kamiya, things didn’t go well. An unnamed director struggled to manage the project, to the point that, just a few months before launch, Itsuno — who previously had focused primarily on fighting games — was unexpectedly put on the project to right the ship.
In the end he was credited as director, despite working on the game for less than six months. This troubled development is a large part of the reason that DMC2 is widely regarded as a low point in the series. Since then Itsuno has stuck with the franchise, turning it back into an iconic name. “I kind of look at it as the difference between being blood-related to your child and raising your child,” he says of his relationship to Devil May Cry. “I might not be related by blood, but at the same time I feel like I was the one responsible for raising it.”
When it came time to start thinking about the next installment in the series, Itsuno decided something was missing from the world of video games. As games got bigger, and features like online play and vast open-worlds became the norm, there were fewer and fewer pure action games.
He felt this would be the perfect moment for a new Devil May Cry, a game that feels modern in many respects — with gorgeous visuals and elaborate cut-scenes — but that otherwise plays out like a fairly straightforward action game, with a focus on looking particularly stylish while you fight. “I wanted to prove that the genre could exist if you just focus on that,” he says.
Luckily, Itsuno was able to tap his successful co-workers to help with Devil May Cry 5. In fact, when work on Resident Evil 7 was completed, much of that team was put on DMC5. This was especially important because the two games share many of the same technologies, including the RE Engine and various 3D scanning tools. “We were able to absorb that knowledge directly, because those people were able to bring what they had created for RE7 to DMC5,” says Itsuno.
There wasn’t the same kind of direct relationship with the team behind Monster Hunter World. (The two games were developed in separate buildings at Capcom’s headquarters in Osaka.) Instead, Itsuno says that he played a lot of World and pulled ideas from it, particularly when it came to how the game welcomed brand-new players.
His goal with DMC5 was to keep the skill ceiling high — meaning that veteran players would still find plenty to dig into — but lower the barrier to entry for newcomers. That meant simple things like tweaking the continue system to ease frustration, and adjusting the ways that the game assists players during combat.
It’s a careful balancing act. A franchise like Devil May Cry has a very dedicated audience, and, especially given the long wait between games, Itsuno wanted to ensure that those players were catered to. At the same time, he also wanted to reach new people.
“I can’t say that at the time I knew I was doing it correctly,” he says. “The approach I took was very much, don’t touch the ceiling, the ceiling is where our fans are going to be, and if we touch that they’re going to be angry. So make sure that that ceiling is untouched. But let’s make sure that the entry is a lot more user friendly.” He adds that, for the most part, fans have been accepting of the changes. “It was really nice to hear a lot of our hardcore users say ‘Oh, we get it.’”
When DMC5 was still in development, Itsuno was interviewed for an episode of Archipel, a YouTube series documenting Japanese creatives across multiple fields. In the video, he talked about his age; at 47 years old, he was realizing that he likely only had a few more games left to create during his career. He said that he wanted to “hit a home run, hit it out of the park” before it was all over.
Since then DMC5 has launched, and it appears to be an unqualified success. The game is a critical hit, and at GDC last week Itsuno announced that it had already sold 2 million copies. So I asked him whether this game was finally the big hit he had been hoping for.
“I feel like I’m maybe on second base or third base,” he says. “It still doesn’t feel like a home run just yet.”