Atlus' Kazuma Kaneko is a prolific character designer, and now creative director of Atlus in Japan. He has quite a cult following, but hasn't yet received the superstar designer status of some of his contemporaries, given the very unusual nature of the games he designs, including the Shin Megami Tensei
series. Here, we talk to Kaneko about his design sense, doing outsourced work as a full-time employee, and his creative methodology.
Gamasutra: So you're actually an Atlus employee, right?
GS: So how is it that you're able to do work for other companies, such as Capcom (Devil May Cry 3) or Konami (Zone of the Enders 2)?
I'm not totally free, but according to the Atlus schedule, I can do contract work if time allows. Then that's entered into my own schedule. Like with Devil May Cry 3, that was planned from the beginning, so was part of my normal work schedule.
GS: Your designs seem to have become more cold and stoic over the years. Why has that happened?
Well before it reaches final CG stage, it's not just me that works on it. I do the original illustration, but sometimes there are other inkers, and texture mappers and things like that. This all comes together, hopefully forming the full character. And of course at the beginning, I have to draw in such a way that other people can work on it. I think it has to do with how it's created, really.
GS: What is your approach to character design?
I'm involved in the process from the very beginning, figuring out the scenario and all that. I already know in my head what kinds of characters they'll be, like this guy has a short temper, this guy gets picked on all the time, and from there, the properties of each character are set. Then I think about their backstory – what kind of life they lead that made them the way they are. Once that's established, if this guy is cool, he might dress in black, leather, with spikes, like you for example.
GS: And what do you want the player to feel when they interact with the character?
When you play a game, you come up to a character and he starts talking, you see his fashion, actions and movement. It's pretty much how it is in real life. If a guy comes up to you and says hi, you maybe shrug and say 'ok.' But there's always a purpose for why he's come up to you. Like you came here for a meeting, and I was here to greet you. Little things that happen through simple conversation, character interaction, et cetera, all build up your understanding of that character.
GS: So part of what you want is for players to gradually get to know the character as an entity?
Well, that depends on the character. It's a bit weird to say, but some kinds of characters are really easy to figure out. They're not that deep.
GS: Do you design for media other than games?
Sure, I do art for novels, and other things. And sometimes I feel like I'd like to work on some other things, like anime character designs.
GS: What makes designing games unique from designing for other media?
Well, when I'm designing for other media, the character and feel are already established by someone else. And that person has their own ideas of how characters and designs should be. I can certainly add my own vision and ideas, but overall I have to follow the will and message of the author. But in games, usually I get to design my own characters.
GS: Is it more lucrative to work on games than other media?
Well, since I work full time with Atlus, it's always the same. Those outside jobs actually come through Atlus to me.
GS: So does Atlus take a cut of your outside projects?
Yeah, there is that. But to me, I just see the same paycheck. I mean, it's kind of an advertisement for Atlus as well.
GS: Do you still use traditional art media, or just computers?
Well first I draw it with pencil, largely, then I scan it and it's scanned into the computer. They do the painting there…I mostly just focus on the line drawings. Atlus is working on the next game, and I'm mostly involved in scenario work, there.