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We Need Heroes: Inafune Speaks

Independent developer Keiji Inafune talks about his new studio concepts, Comcept and Intercept, his feelings on social games, why Japan's publishers are struggling and how "there needs to be something that gets that feeling back."

[Independent developer Keiji Inafune talks about his new studio concepts, Comcept and Intercept, his feelings on social games, why Japan's publishers are struggling and how "there needs to be something that gets that feeling back."]

Keiji Inafune, best known for his roles in the creation of franchises ranging from Mega Man to Dead Rising, in recent years became an increasingly outspoken critic of the Japanese video game industry.

With his 23-year-long history at Capcom, a company he left last year to pursue independent interests, Inafune is a custodian of the Japanese video game industry. With every bit of public criticism Inafune leveled at the homeland -- whether he was talking about the "awful" Japanese games at Tokyo Game Show, or how the Japanese games industry is "changing its creators into salarymen" -- people listened.

This is after all, one of the most veteran, accomplished and well-known game makers not only in Japan, but worldwide. His opinion counts.

But his criticisms against the Japanese video game industry were colored with a tinge of irony, considering his employment with Osaka-based publishing giant Capcom. While Capcom has been one of the few Japanese publishers to find solid success in the West in recent years, it certainly was not -- and is not -- in a position to be one of those small, risk-taking entities that innovates from the fringe.

Inafune's divorce from Capcom was an indication that he was ready to shed any hypocrisy in his criticisms, and strike out on his own, changing himself back from a salaryman into a creator once again.

You've talked a lot about Japan's game industry and its difficulties. What do you think it will take to get back on track?

Keiji Inafune: It feels like things have just settled down -- or to put it another way, that people just aren't hungry enough any longer. There aren't as many companies, or managers of development studios, that really want to succeed or accomplish something, so there needs to be something that gets that feeling back.

Do you think there needs to be a bigger kind of economic crash within games before people realize the need for this rebuilding?

KI: There might be something to that idea, but talking about economic issues, that's something that is affecting the whole world at the moment, although Japan has had it worse due to the earthquake.

Essentially, though, that isn't as important as the fact we need a game, or something, to give us more courage to go in that direction, and the problem is that game can't be made.

Something that struck me when watching American movies or playing their games is that there's consistently a strong hero who's always the central point of the story. This has been the case for decades, and for games as well.

No matter how bad the economic situation is, there's always that hero, and he helps people and saves the world without really being employed by anyone to do so. That's right at the forefront. A hero who's separate from the economy.

And Hollywood, at the core, keeps putting out these hero stories, and the result of that is you have a nation who thinks to itself "I want to be like that." Compared to the U.S., though, I don't think Japanese games and other media really present that sort of hero to the audience. There were lots of those back when I was a kid, though. So it's a bit of a strange way of putting it, but I think the problem lies in the hearts of the creators. There are other issues, as well, but that's how I feel.


The lead character of Inafune's new game KAIO: King of Pirates for Nintendo 3DS. Is this the hero Japan needs?

Do you feel that management structures in Japanese game companies support the creative development of younger people?

KI: In terms of support, or to go back to the previous topic, in terms of whether they recognize creators as the "heroes" here, that isn't happening. For example, in the U.S., Medal of Honor was a huge hit as a series, and in response to that, Call of Duty started up in hopes of becoming even bigger. It succeeded, of course.

Now, in terms of this recognition, there are several ways management can represent it to creators -- in terms of how they treat the studio, how much money there is to work with -- but the end result is that, because they feel recognized, the creators want to do even better with the next game they make. It's a free sort of approach that, maybe, you could say reflects the whole "freedom" of the country -- everyone sees the respect they're paid, and everyone wants to do better.

In social games, you have outfits like Zynga that blew it out of the park from the very beginning -- they have that hunger, they want to be the heroes, and it's something the management recognizes and nurtures.

In Japan, meanwhile, even if you take the hero role, what it gets you is interviews like this one -- it's not like your salary goes up or anything. You don't get much reward for your effort. You get massive amounts of responsibility -- the responsibility to take this game and make it sell X copies -- but not much in terms of respect. That's why we can't give birth to heroes.

It's the classic style in Japan to respect the company as a whole and not the individuals that contribute to it. It's a hard environment for creators to be noticed in. Especially with the current state of the industry -- it's never been totally destroyed before. There are multiple revolutions through the years in all kinds of other industries, movies and so forth, but games is still a young industry, so that hasn't happened.


When I did contract work on a Japanese game and had to negotiate my contract with a whole room of designers, artists, and so on -- I knew I'd be doing interviews for this game myself, but I was trying to fight for my own salary, to get as much as I felt I was worth.

But in doing so, I could tell for sure -- they were all under the age of 30 -- I knew they were making less money than I was making on this contract, because of how the structure works. I was still getting less than I thought I should get, but I knew I was getting more than any of them, which was upsetting. I can see this structure is what's keeping them there.

KI: Certainly; that hasn't changed at all. Maybe a handful of people are getting paid well, but that's only a small subsection.

Even people who the overseas media think are really active and contributing to the industry -- as long as they're with the companies they work for, they're working for surprisingly low salaries. If they tried negotiating, the response would very likely be "Well, we don't need you that much."

Japanese people are very bad at giving credit to the individual -- you have value because you are a part of the organization, not because of your personal talents. This is just the thing that's really necessary in all kinds of entertainment industries.

If the Japan game industry tries to change, then there's not going to be much change unless it becomes more able to recognize the talents of its creators.

Are you going to lead by example? How are you going to do it differently?

KI: It's something I want to change. The games I worked on -- if I were still at Capcom, it'd come out in interviews and so forth that I was the producer, but I wouldn't have any legal rights to my own work. My concept involves going along a different path as we work with publishers.

Not all publishers are going to agree with that, but creating an original idea and making an original game based off of that should allow you to retain the rights to that concept. Instead of worrying about how much money we're going to receive, worry about the rights you have -- the recognition you receive. If the concept can then be expanded and used in different fields, the money will come later. That's what I'm starting with, at least.

As long as the credit isn't there, the assertions of the creators aren't going to be heard. That's where the effort is going. Here's an interesting story: GREE and DeNA are the two largest players in the social market in Japan right now. If you brought up this topic with both of those companies, it would just be stating the obvious to them.

In fact, they don't care who has the original concept rights -- they care about the rights to provide the service. That's what they pay out money to developers in exchange for. If you brought up that idea to game makers in the traditional console fields, the response would be "No, no, we can't do that". Trying to retain these sorts of copyrights is an uphill battle with a lot of companies, but with GREE and DeNA it's how they've always done it. It's a different world.

So you also have Intercept, the development company. Have you started that up? If so, will you be able to foster the creativity of the people with you, so it's not just an Inafune-led thing?

KI: It depends on who comes up with the idea. The way Comcept and Intercept work is that so far, I am the one leading the way with the concepts. It's a chance to assert things and be able to say that only Inafune is behind them. But if someone else comes up with a great idea and we want to go through with it, that's certainly not a problem to give that person credit. Comcept's copyright gets attached to that, and I don't mind if that person gets a copyright as well. That's how I approach it.

Right now, though, if I go up to a publisher and say "Okay, here is a Comcept title," they'll say "Did you come up with this, Mr. Inafune?" If I say that I wasn't involved, then we're probably not going to get the work. I would have to lie if I wanted to retain people's interest, but I don't want to do that, so right now we're only working on games that I'm involved with. But if Comcept works out well and I'm able to say in the future "We've got creators here as talented as I am," then we can get rolling.


I think only Island of Dr. Momo has been announced so far, right?

KI: That and J.J. Rockets.

[Ed. note: this interview was conducted during Tokyo Game Show, shortly before the announcement of Inafune's 3DS game KAIO. Island of Dr. Momo is a social game for GREE, and J.J. Rockets is a game for DeNA.]

In terms of your interest in the game space, are you looking mostly at social games right now, or do think there's room to make games on console or PC or another distribution system?

KI: Saying that we're looking just at social wouldn't be correct, though that goes faster than other platforms. We want to pursue everything we'd like to do. There's a lot we'd like to direct to social, as there is to console and PC. If some new game platform comes out, we'd love to try our hand at that as well.

Social games can often be quite different from others in terms of how much a role the monetary metrics play in the core game design. What are the most important points of social game development, in your mind?

KI: The "social" aspect of social games is very important, of course, connecting people to each other. I think that's something that consoles have a disadvantage in dealing with. Even if a game works online, you're inherently working within a limited set of rules.

I think that eventually, we'll see a new kind of game which is neither console nor social, one that overcomes the obstacles that both current game styles have to deal with. I don't know what that's going to be yet, though, so that's why I'm trying to learn more about this market. I know you can't just do the same quick-fire-cash method everyone else does, or else everything's going to be a me-too game.

Do you use social metrics to determine what people are and aren't enjoying?

KI: If you rely on those, then basically what you've got is a set of numbers that don't necessarily tell you anything. Just because you know what someone's favorite food is doesn't mean you really know the person.

So I don't rely on metrics slavishly; I give them quick looks, absorbing them and reflecting them against my own thoughts to analyze what they mean. Game creators have to be really good at that internal sort of analysis; otherwise you're just looking toward marketing data for your game ideas, and a computer can do that. No matter how advanced a supercomputer you have in the future, it still can't be creative or imaginative.

What do you think is the future of large-scale original IP -- new, big games? They're very risky to make now in terms of personnel and money.

KI: Well, unless you take risks, you can't do anything. There's always risk inherent in trying to create any kind of original property, both on the creative and publishing side. How to avoid this risk? You could try cutting costs, but that's not the only solution, either.

The problem with Japan's game industry is they try to recover the costs of producing a game strictly via game sales, strictly within Japan. They literally can't avoid these risks, so they rely on cost-cutting to make up the difference.

Going to other markets, like Asia and America and Europe, helps reduce the risk, but then the creator has to make a product that can appeal worldwide. Also, how can you expand this franchise beyond games? Make figures, some sort of big Disney-style attraction, a movie? The creator has to come up with all of this, and so it's more of a risk for him now. He has to think about far more than just the video game now. So, when you're making an original property now, you have to think about how to spread both the game and the risks involved as much as possible. If you don't, it won't work.

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