Atsushi Inaba is the renowned head of Capcom’s now-dissolved Clover Studio, which was responsible for the original titles Steel Battalion, Viewtiful Joe, Okami, and God Hand, among others. We were able to interview him at the Tokyo Game Show, though we later learned he had already left Capcom, perhaps to pursue work on his own.
We spoke with Inaba about his colorful history, as well as the particular flavor of games made in the southern regions (Kansai) of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Inaba also had some interesting words regarding Capcom’s future, even though we were not yet fully aware of his departure, having heard only rumors at that point. Regardless of his current status, I personally feel that we will hear from Atsushi Inaba and his partner-in-design Hideki Kamiya again in the near future.
Gamasutra: When did you join Capcom?
Atsushi Inaba: 1998, so eight years ago.
GS: And where were you before that?
AI: Before that I was at SNK.
GS: And what did you do there?
AI: I was on the Samurai Showdown team. I was doing programming work.
GS: Did you have another industry job prior to that?
AI: Yeah, before SNK I was at Irem.
GS: What did you work on there?
AI: Right after I entered Irem, the company downsized, so I worked on the last R-Type game, but it was a quick descent from there.
GS: So that was R-Type Leo, I guess. You were part of the group that left with Nazca and joined SNK? (Note: Nazca is the team that made In the Hunt and Gunforce when they were with Irem, and went on to do Metal Slug for SNK.)
AI: You’re pretty well informed. That’s all correct, I went from Irem to Nazca to SNK. This is really nostalgic talk for me, actually!
GS: Do you keep up with people from SNK? Or do you watch their progress at all?
AI: Well basically I didn’t enjoy working at SNK at all, so I have absolutely no interest in what they’re doing now! (laughs)
GS: When you joined Capcom, what kind of game did you want to make?
AI: Well when I was at SNK, I looked in Famitsu and saw that Capcom was hiring for Resident Evil, and thought man, I’d love to work on the next Resident Evil if I could get out of here. I really wanted to work on the series. But during the interview, they asked if I would want to be on any other teams, and if there was anything else I was interested in, and I said no. Just Resident Evil.
GS: Which was that?
AI: It was Resident Evil 3. And I actually did get on the Resident Evil 3 team, but when I joined there was a Resident Evil 1.5 project, which actually became Resident Evil 3. When the PS2 came out, the Resident Evil 3 team’s name was changed to the Resident Evil 4 team. That didn’t go so well, so we thought – “what can we do with this,” and Devil May Cry was the result. So I never wound up being involved in a released Resident Evil game.
GS: What do you think of Resident Evil 4?
AI: Well you can ask me what I think of it, but I’ve never played the final version. I would see how the development was going, and play it sometimes, and I thought it was really interesting. I was really busy with work, but I often went to the development area and played it. What Shinji Mikami did with it was pretty amazing, I thought.
GS: After all that, how did you wind up starting Clover?
AI: After I left the Resident Evil 4/Devil May Cry team, I became a producer at Capcom. The stuff I was doing was pretty original, and had lots of creativity to it, so I thought, maybe it should be differentiated from the company. So Shinji Mikami and I had an idea to set up a brand where it would be clear that these were to be the original games. So Capcom would make their games, and we would be within Capcom, but we would be making our games. So the idea to set up a company within the company, for original games, came in around 2002.
GS: Where did the name come from?
AI: People seem to like this question! Well we thought pretty hard about it, and it comes from Mikami’s name and mine. It takes the ‘mi’ from his name, meaning three, and the ‘ba’ from my name, meaning leaf. Put those together and it’s ‘three leaves,’ so even though the logo is a four-leaf clover, the idea actually comes from what plant would have three leaves.
GS: Especially since you came from SNK, it seems you’re very much a kansai (southern part of the main island of Japan) person, with Capcom and SNK both based in Osaka. Do you think the southern culture has a big impact on the type of game people in that region make?
AI: I think that recently the differences in those games have gotten smaller, but I do think they’re different. Comparing to the games made in Tokyo, I think those made in Osaka are have a stronger taste. They’re stronger in general, more power. There are fewer developers total in Osaka now, with just Irem, SNK and Capcom remaining, really, so that difference is definitely going away, but I feel like there’s a power in games that can only be achieved in Osaka.
GS: Can you explain the collaboration with Clover, Nudemaker and Grasshopper that happened early in Clover’s career? This was around the time of Steel Battalion and all of that.
AI: Nudemaker and Grasshopper were two companies that resulted from the death of Human. They started doing their own things. Steel Battalion was something we were working on with the Nudemaker team while they were still at Human, before they were even Nudemaker. They were kind of freelance ‘heroic’ game designers, and as we were making the game, they decided to form their own company. We decided we liked them and wanted to work with them, so that was the partnership there.
In Grasshopper’s case, we really respected Goichi Suda (Suda51), he’s a genius designer. So even though we weren’t sure how things would work if we ever collaborated on a project, we look forward to everything he makes.
GS: Is that how the Killer 7 collaboration with Capcom came about?
AI: So Killer 7 was a design document that was brought to Shinji Mikami by Goichi Suda and Grasshopper. We didn’t send them staff or anything like that, Suda simply wanted Mikami to produce his game. In the case of Nudemaker, it was a collaboration and mixing of both of our staff.
GS: Is Nudemaker also based in the south, or no?
AI: They’re in Tokyo.
GS: Was it difficult to work with a team outside your general sphere of communication?
AI: They all came to Osaka to work on it with us. With Killer 7 though, where the development was done in Tokyo, and the production side was in Osaka, being separated was rather difficult.
GS: I know you really fought to get Steel Battalion through, and sort of protected the Gyakuten Saiban (Phoenix Wright) team when they were starting. How do the business people react to these sorts of original and risky ideas?
AI: The business side would usually tell me to stop, and they wanted me to shut down the team, or they’d say ‘why are you using this staff, use that staff!’ There were very few people who said ‘oh, go ahead, you can do it!’ in the case of games like Steel Battalion. Of course it was a big risk for the company, and nobody really understood what it was. But I myself believed it was interesting, and no matter what they said I just wouldn’t give it up. When it became apparent that I wouldn’t change my ways, they eased up a little. After that it started to get more fun, and I was able to finish what I wanted to do. But there were very few people to help me.
GS: With these sorts of things, how do you convince them it’s good for the company? Either from a creativity or business standpoint, especially in the case of a game like Steel Battalion where the game was expensive and few units were made.
AI: Well it’s most important for the game to be interesting. In the case of Gyakuten Saiban, which you mentioned before, I thought it was a really good concept, and I wanted lots of people to be able to play it, because I knew it would be popular and well-received. With Steel Battalion though, yeah, it was a huge risk. But I made a presentation and basically said, if we don’t do this now, we’ll never be able to put something like this out. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we wanted to be able to create something that had never been seen before. So it was kind of like rallying the troops around the idea, and getting people into the idea of doing this project that couldn’t be done by anyone else. But naturally the bookkeeping people were still saying ‘Stop!’
GS: It seemed like for a while Capcom was kind of stagnant, and there were a lot of rehashes, remakes, and just sort of normal, ok games. Suddenly though, in the last two or three years or so, Capcom became extremely strong again, like with Gyakuten Saiban, Resident Evil 4, Dead Rising and Lost Planet. Do you think there’s a particular reason why the company has been so reinvigorated?
AI: I don’t really know myself! That’s hard to say…after all, the games that came out in the last two years were made in the last five years – so I’m not sure if you’ll feel that way about games coming out in the next two years that are being made now by the Capcom of today. It’s a hard question to answer. The way we move staff around, how we structure our teams, how we manage all of that, has been really revised over the last few years at Capcom, so you may be seeing the results of that effort now in the games. It’s definitely made development easier for us.
I’m glad you feel that way about the games that are coming out now, though. I really had no idea people thought that! Capcom does seem to be looking toward the future with these sorts of restructures, but who knows how it’ll pan out.
GS: Yeah, it really does seem to me like a light bulb just switched on, and Capcom said ‘oh yeah, let’s make really good games again!’
AI: (laughs) Yeah, I think that switch may go up and down a bit!
GS: Just put some tape over it.
AI: I hope that works.
GS: Regarding Okami, I heard that the development basically started over from scratch at one point – are you happy with that? And are you happy with the public’s reactions and sales?
AI: Rather than starting over with development, it was more like it just took a long time to come together. The visual style and everything came together pretty quickly, but it took a while for everything to gel. There were a number of different paths open to us – we could wait, we could stop production, or just make a regular action RPG. I think deciding to wait, and give it the time it needed was the correct decision.
As far as the final product, I think it was successful, not only as a game, but as a product. It was interesting, and it was something new. All the work we put into it is pretty evident, and I think the director, Hideki Kamiya, feels the same way.