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Inafune's Onward March to Independence

The former Capcom R&D head keeps Gamasutra abreast of his latest attitudes and approaches to running independent development from his Comcept studio -- as he works on Soul Sacrifice for the PlayStation Vita.

In 2010, Keiji Inafune quit his role as the head of Capcom's R&D department, and he formed three companies in 2011. The most notable one, so far, is Comcept -- a studio he heads, which comes up with the ideas for games and other media, and then farms out the development of this projects to external partners.

The first full-fledged Comcept console game to reach fruition will be Soul Sacrifice for the PlayStation Vita, which is under development by Tokyo Studio Marvelous AQL (The Last Story) and will be published by Sony.

In this interview, Inafune talks about the hidden talents of Japanese developers, why there are few large independent Japanese studios, why he wants to work with Western partners to develop games, and how the back-and-forth of working with external partners works. It's a calmer, more optimistic interview than we've seen from the man who has, of late, become more notorious as the doomcrier of the Japanese industry than recognized for his game development skills.

Your Vita game, Soul Sacrifice, is being developed by Marvelous AQL. Do you intend to build a studio that can build games like this internally, or do you want to work with external development partners, primarily?

Keiji Inafune: There are things that become easier than I am making it by myself, but I don't think that will result in the creation of anything new. That's why I think it's more interesting if I'm working alongside people who have a different way of thinking about the project than I do. I think that results in something new. I figured it'd be better to work with assorted studios around the world, so I think it'd be great if, in the future, I get to work with more studios besides those just in Japan.

Can you talk a bit about the back-and-forth process of working with external developers? You've you deliver a strong concept, but how much back-and-forth is there?

KI: It can be rather difficult to get the other party to fully understand the concept, and that does take up time and work on both sides. But once the message does come across to the other party, you then see a lot of time savings.

The issue then becomes how to watch over the project so that this concept doesn't begin to waver. You have to take advantage of the powers of the developer; it's not just a matter of asking them to make exactly what you tell them. It's important to leave some of it to them, but it does get difficult to keep a given concept in place without having it waver around.


Soul Sacrifice

In Japan, there's been a way of developing games in which external studios are simply instructed on what to do.

KI: I know that very well. (laughs)

But I don't think that could work with Western developers, which is part of the reason I asked.

KI: That's certainly true, and I also know that Japanese developers, when they do try to work that way [Western style], can produce good results. I think that I am about the only developer who's actively trying to work in the way I am.

And that's the reason why I'm trying to do it this way, taking Japanese games and working with a variety of studios, including Western ones, to make them successful. It's because, if it works, it'll lead to other people taking that same path to success.

Even when working with Japanese studios, I think it would be a waste if you didn't have that feedback. I played The Last Story, the last game that was made by Takuya Matsumoto, who's making this game. I interviewed him at E3, and I was impressed with his creativity and ideas. If they weren't coming through in this game, I think it'd be a waste.

KI: I think you're seeing the same way of thinking about it in Japan now. Marvelous hasn't really done a title like this themselves before, but we are giving a lot of feedback to each other throughout, and I think it's resulting in a pretty smooth process throughout.


How do you select the developers that you work with?

KI: Well, I wanted to work with a Japanese developer at first, since I figured it'd be tough to set everything up to work with overseas developers from the get-go. So, looking at Japanese outfits, there are really a limited number of developers that can deploy a hundred or two hundred people together to work on a project. Marvelous was one of them, and among the choices at hand, I found them one of the easiest to work with. They were eager to work with me, too, in assorted meanings of the term, so it was really a stroke of luck that it worked out.

There aren't that many big independent studios in Japan. Can you talk about why?

KI: Even what independent developers there are here essentially follow orders from their client publishers. There really aren't a lot of rights given to them. As a result, you don't really see companies on the orders of hundreds of employees that try to make a name for themselves via making good products.

With outfits in the US and Europe, it's more of a case of the developer really trying to make their own successes and reap the rewards -- that's why you see inspired people entering developers instead of publishers, and that's why it's easier for developers to build up people pretty quickly. Meanwhile, in Japan, the idea's often that you enter a developer because you couldn't join a publisher, so it's harder for them to attract people.

Do you hope to change this culture, and thus change the options for developers in Japan? You've talked a lot about the problems of the Japanese game industry.

KI: Certainly. That was part of the motivation behind me leaving Capcom. I learned everything about the publisher's viewpoint of the business from Capcom; now I'm learning everything about the developer's side of it.

I think there needs to be more energy among developers before the Japanese game industry will improve, and if we want to complete globally, they need to take a more global approach to development. So I'm trying to make a company where the developers feel more of a reward for making great products. I'd like to succeed at that, and I hope that inspires other outfits to see if they can duplicate that success.

Do you feel there are a lot of talented people in Japan who don't have the opportunity to reach their potential because of the current structure, and the way jobs are?

KI: I think there are a lot. There are a lot of very talented creators in Japan, but often they aren't in a position to use that talent, or the developer they're working for hasn't noticed that talent. So I think there needs to be a system that allows them to be more creative in their work; that would help them a lot. I think we're seeing that in my work with Marvelous; I'm digging up a lot of talent working for them.

Can you create a path for these people? By working with Marvelous, can you shine a light on a people, to change that company, by working with them?

KI: I absolutely think I can. I feel like I've been making games for the past 25 years partly for that reason. The Japanese game industry used to pull the entire business forward, something a lot of people aren't even aware of anymore, and I think the experience I've gained through those years can help pull people who aren't familiar with those times out of the woodwork.


You have a desire to work with Western studios -- why is that? Because of their expertise, or because they can create games that can't be made in Japan?

KI: I think it's because Western studios have such a different way of thinking about projects that it becomes a huge learning experience for me. To give one example, something that I can very easily and succinctly explain to a Japanese game maker winds up being something I have to go into all of this extraneous detail to get across to Western developers. And in the midst of all this explanation, I start to realize that I don't have any particularly compelling reason why I'm doing it the way I'm trying to explain it.

It's made me realize that if I want to come up with something that will satisfy Western gamers, I'll have to do something that satisfies Western developers first. That, in turn, will make Westerners want to learn more behind the Japanese process, and it winds up becoming a learning experience for both sides. I think that's very important, and also the most interesting part of working with them.

I know you can't talk 100 percent about Capcom stuff, but was it your idea to acquire the studio in Vancouver that made Dead Rising?

KI: (laughs) Well, Capcom will get angry so I can't talk about that, but I guess I can say that I had some influence, at least. (laughs)

What I can say, though, that purchasing an outfit, in of itself, doesn't mean much. What does is the stuff that happens after the purchase -- whether the two entities can really work together afterwards. If that doesn't work, there's no point in buying; if it does, then there very much was a point to it.

We've seen examples of Japanese developers working with Western studios, and it hasn't been super great. You talked about how communication is often not that simple. Do you feel that you can surmount that, given your experience so far. Do you think it's cultural, or just a matter of understanding the way Western developers work?

KI: Well, for example, the way I do it -- and how it was on Dead Rising -- I try to establish communication every week, or at least that much. The number of contacts itself isn't all that important, though. What is is that we're communicating while having a full understanding of what's going on culture-wise between the two sides. Otherwise it won't work. We had to understand what works best with Japan development and what works best over in Canada.

I think you often see the case in Japanese companies of people seeing communication as important, but not really doing anything of value in the midst of that communication. Oftentimes, that kind of talk isn't really about communication or culture; it's about figuring out how to get the other side to do what you want. Like, "We gave them all this money and left them to it, so why isn't it working?"

It may be a matter of relying too much on the abilities of the other side, but either way, it often works less than optimally from the Japanese side. I wonder if the fact that we're largely a homogenous island nation makes it hard for us to really get what's going on when there are all of these other cultures we're dealing with.

Has it been more or less challenging to sign projects with other publishers than you imagined, now that you're an independent?

KI: I wouldn't call it difficult to make ties with publishers and arrive at common ground with them, but I think with Japan, it's just become harder in general to push projects forward. That goes for whether you're working with an outside dev, or you're internal in Capcom trying to get something going. So I don't think it's harder for me, but I do think it's harder for everyone now. Compared to my time at Capcom, being able to talk with a great variety of publishers opens up a lot of new opportunities. In that way, it's gotten easier.

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