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Nobody Beats the Miz: Q Entertainment's Tetsuya Mizuguchi on Name Recognition

In this in-depth interview, Q Entertainment's Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Ninety-Nine Nights) discusses the importance of developer name recognition, the state of creativity in big companies in Japan, and the karaoke box origins of Lumines.

Just off the plane from London, Gamasutra met with Q Entertainment founder and Sega alum Tetsuya Mizuguchi. We encountered an even more pensive side of his usual soft-spoken persona, perhaps down to his whirlwind press tour for Q’s new PSP titles Every Extend Extra and Lumines 2, in addition to his forthcoming Lumines Live for Xbox Live Arcade. In this interview, he expressed strong opinions about the importance of names, the state of creativity in big companies in Japan, revealed the karaoke box origins of Lumines, and Q Entertainment’s push towards new types of media.

Gamasutra: When did you get in from London?

Tetsuya Mizuguchi: Just yesterday…

GS: Oh, how’s the jetlag?

TM: I think…I think it’s pretty bad.

GS: I’ll be in London next month – how was it?

TM: Really nice. You should go to the Tate Modern Museum, they have a very large Kandinsky exhibit right now. It was great. You should really check it out.

GS: That’s a good idea, I didn’t even think about that. If you happen to go to Amsterdam next time, check out their De Stijl collection.


Tetusya Mizuguchi

TM: De Stijl?

GS: Yeah, it was a maverick group in Holland, and for some time everyone thought they were very amateurish, but they wound up influencing a lot of great artists over time. It’s the largest collection in the world there, and right now the museum is right on the channel temporarily.

TM: Ok…

GS: So…have you played the new Sega Rally?

TM: (laughs) No, not yet.


Mizuguchi produced the original Sega Rally Championship (Sega, 1995)

GS: Do you feel any connection to your old products when someone comes out with a new version?

TM: You mean like Sega Rally, or…?

GS: Yeah.

TM: Hmm…not so much.


GS: What inspired you to remake Gunpey? Was it your idea, or Bandai’s?

TM: No, we asked them. So Gunpey is a really primitive, nice game. It’s not gorgeous, in terms of visual and sound, but Gunpey has a really good principle. It’s like the bone of a human body. A very strong bone. And we had the idea that if we remade Gunpey with good music and visual effects, it would be pretty fun. So we asked Bandai – ok, let’s remake Gunpey with new graphics.

GS: Does Bandai own the IP for Gunpey, or does Gunpei Yokoi’s estate own it? Maybe his son?

TM: Well originally it was done by Koto, in Kyoto.

GS: Oh, his old company, yes.

TM: Right, Gunpei san’s. Gunpei died in '97 or '98 in a car accident. But he started Koto. And Koto owns all his intellectual property. I think so, anyway, though Bandai may own the publisher rights.

GS: Does Koto still exist as a company?


Q Entertainment's upcoming
GunPey Rebirth

TM: Yes! We met with the Koto people, and explained our concept, and they were really excited about it.

GS: Have you played all the versions of Gunpey?

TM: Almost, yes.

GS: I have all three! Yeah, Tarepanda Gunpey is really bad.

TM: (laughs) Tarepanda Gunpey

GS: Did you own a Wonderswan, when it was released?

TM: I used to, yeah.

GS: How would you feel if someone made a game called Mizuguchi?

TM: I don’t care if it’s after my death! But I don’t want to play a game named Mizuguchi while I’m still alive though.



Tarepanda GunPey for the Japanese-only
Wonderswan portable.

GS: It seems like kind of a strange concept to name a game after a person. It’s not a game based on some principle then, so what is it based on? Him as a creative person, or…? Have you thought about this, how to be true to the spirit of Gunpei himself in this game?

TM: Yeah, so Gunpei Yokoi left suddenly. He’s gone. So I think it’s kind of a dedication to Gunpei san, Gunpey itself. I think that’s a very nice concept. I also picked up Kandinsky’s concept in Rez. In the credits, I said “This is dedicated to the soul of Kandinsky.” So this concept, this nostalgia, has a big influence on us. Every sound, visual, and the synthesis with the music, that sensational concept. I don’t know about the future people, but hopefully they’ll pick something up from this.


GS: I think it’s good to preserve his memory, because he is really important to games, but I think still not a lot of people know who he is. He was always behind the scenes. I mean he made the D-pad, and he made the Game Boy, and those are really important steps, but I don’t think as many people know his name as would even know your name.

Did you see when they dedicated an award to him at GDC, I think it was three years ago?

TM: No, I don’t think so.

GS: It was really moving, because they dedicated a lifetime achievement award to him, and his son came up to accept the award, and everybody was misty, by the end. He was really important after all.

TM: Yes, I think so. He did a really great job. He made history.

GS: Were you ever able to meet him?

TM: Unfortunately no.

GS: I don’t think many people have. He seemed rather quiet.


Gunpei Yokoi (1941-1997)

TM: Yeah, I think so.

GS: Will you be designing the game yourself, or producing?

TM: Producing and game design, the music synthesis part. The director is a young guy from Q Entertainment called Reo Yonaga. He’s kind of a new face. And there are some artists from Q Entertainment. It’s really a fresh team. The next generation.

I’m just executive producing. That means…just watching (laughs).

GS: It seems like in terms of actual creation, you’ve had a more peripheral and observing role, for a while.

TM: Well, this is Q Entertainment, and we have many projects now, and many new talents coming in. And I think that’s good. I want to concentrate on my creations, myself. So last year I went to Phantagram, and we had a collaboration with them, Ninety Nine Nights. And now there’s Lumines 2, and maybe I’ll watch the next step for the next production after Lumines 2. But we should have many facets as Q Entertainment, not only one game, or a few games. So I really welcome the idea of having many young talents become the future of production.

GS: Do you miss the days of designing?

TM: No…it’s impossible to watch everything. But we have very strong overlying concepts though, like interactive music.


GS: How do you feel about the fact that whenever a game comes out in the U.S. from Q Entertainment, they call it “Mizuguchi’s new game.”

TM: Yeah, sometimes it’s pretty uncomfortable. Because the other talents are making these games, but everybody wants to write, “oh, this is Mizuguchi.” It’s not truth, always. Some games I watch, very deeply. But some games just have my credit as executive producer. We have to change this. I want to change this situation. Please!

GS: Well I think it’s our fault [as journalists], really. It’s a lack of proper journalism. It’s easy to know if it’s “Mizuguchi’s new game.” All you have to do is check and find out. I think there’s a desire to associate a specific name with something to make it more exciting, and that could be a marketing decision [Q Entertainment public relations and events manager Kyoko Yamashita laughs], or it could be a journalist like me trying to drum up more interest in a given topic. But I think it’s irresponsible.

Kyoko Yamashita: Yeah, they have a lot of new talent working on Gunpey for example. It’s actually lead by the team that worked on Every Extend Extra. Lumines team is completely different, although that’s probably closest to being Mizuguchi’s direct team.

GS: What do you think we could do to change this?

TM: (laughs) I don’t know!

KY: I think it’s both ways, personally. I think Q Entertainment can start promoting new talent that they’ve found within the company. I got a close look at it when I was with them for the first time last week, and saw that they’re all working on several different projects at the same time, they’re all on different teams.

GS: So companies like Sega for instance have lost all of their name talent. All of the names are gone. Do you think these kinds of companies will be actively training up people for name recognition in the future? Because a name, regardless of whether it’s always properly used, is sometimes important. Are you actively trying to do that as well?

TM: Yes. Games are expanding, not only the console, PC, and mobile areas, but this is the contents era. There are so many platforms and delivery methods. It’s all about convergence of multimedia and multiple markets. I think we need new talent for this type of future. Traditional games like we make today, are getting old soon. Pretty soon everyone can get games from digital downloads, and everything is changing. It’s really fun to discuss with the network-oriented people now. It’s totally different as entertainment. But the new entertainment is coming from that kind of area, that kind of chemistry.

GS: Did you talk to some of those kinds of people at Phantagram?

TM: They have that experience, network RPG. Naturally Korean developers, and Korean people play network games. But we haven’t got any special details about projects or anything yet.


GS: So is Q Entertainment actively looking at online and mobile markets?

TM: Yes, we’re really focusing on networking, and Q Entertainment is looking very hard at online and mobile as part of our future. This kind of convergence is really something, I think.

GS: So in terms of putting new people forward, how did you pick up Every Extend? Originally that was a doujin game [hobbyist game development in Japan, which often approaches professional levels]. Do you think those doujin circles are a good way to enter the industry in Japan?

TM: This is kind of an indie band type aesthetic. The original Every Extend, the director, Reo Yonaga, he found it. He found it on the PC, as freeware. He wanted to contact the creator, and asked me – I said ok, you should go. He contacted the guy, and surprisingly to me, he is a student. A university student in Nagoya. He’s very young, so I thought “wow, this is really nice!” So we should talk about the possibilities of Every Extend Extra as a console game with the music and visual effects. He was really excited about it. He joined the Every Extend Extra team, as a game designer.

This kind of situation and opportunity is really nice. A young guy making a free game for PC, and then somebody finds it – I think it’s a really nice story.


Every Extend Extra

GS: Do you think this sort of thing will happen more often? In the U.S., people often use independent development as a method for entering the traditional game industry. But in Japan, the doujin game scene is huge, and yet it seems not so many of them are entering the industry. Kenta Cho is one of the biggest names there, and yet he still stays out of the mainstream, for example.

TM: Kenta Cho?

GS: He’s probably the most popular in America, with games like Tumiki Fighters, and Noiz. He’s one of those who creates everything, design, art and music. But it turns out he’s almost 40 years old, and works at a computer company on the technical side. But his games are really popular.

Anyway, do you follow the scene much, or is Every Extend your first?

TM: Yeah, I don’t watch it myself, but in Q Entertainment, young talent like Yonaga are always watching. And he sometimes asks me “what do you think?” So yeah. We may have a chance to get another like this.

GS: So you’ve got EEE (Every Extend Extra) and NNN (Ninety Nine Nights) – are you going to have any more three letter combinations?

TM: (laughs) No! No.

GS: I was thinking you could make Lumines 2 LLL.

TM: (laughs) no, no, no, no!

GS: So you’re not spelling something?

TM: No, it’s just a coincidence, I swear.


GS: You may not be able to answer this question, but who do you think will come out on top in the next generation, in terms of console?

TM: Yeah, I want to know that too.

GS: Any company you’re hoping for?

TM: In next gen? Not especially.

GS: So back to companies losing all their talent, when I talked to Masaya Matsuura recently [see ‘Parappa’s Papa’ in the August issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine], he said that game companies couldn’t hold on to their talent because a lack of “something.” What do you think that something is? What are they lacking?

TM: It’s really difficult to answer. I don’t know about everyone, but from just my case, I felt like I didn’t have freedom. I was in Sega. At the time, I don’t know now, but at the time, that was a big client for me, and I had a studio called UGA, United Game Artists. And I had seventy people. I had many visions, like to make casual games. Not big stuff, but small games. Not Lumines, but many other ideas. If I made a presentation to Sega executives about this kind of thing, and if they said no, that’s over. That’s it.

But beyond Sega, looking beyond where I was, there were many, many possibilities in the world. Not only game console, but also mobile, and other markets that exist. I wanted to make a new phenomenon, not only traditional games. So I felt this was the limit. But I don’t know what other people were thinking about.


Lumines

GS: Was it difficult to get funding for your new company? It seems like there are fewer revenue streams for starting new companies in Japan.

TM: I founded Q Entertainment with a few people, on our own. We started very small, with a small number of people. We had no office, and we had meetings at a karaoke box.

KY: I just found out that the Lumines concept was actually started at a karaoke box!

TM: Nobody sang!

KY: They had no money to rent office space, so that’s why.

TM: Yeah, because we can watch visuals, we can make sounds, that’s ok.

KY: They brought demos of Lumines on their laptops, each of them brought their ideas into the Karaoke box and then had music playing in the background, and tried to match the images on their screens to the music.

TM: Anyway, so that was a very slow, small start. I learned a lot from the Sega era. I was the head of UGA, and I didn’t want to manage people, or manage a company. Creativity and management skills were kind of like accelerator and brake pedals. This wasn’t healthy. So I wanted to focus on creativity, so my partner Shuji, is really good. He’s got really good management skill, and business. So I think it’s really good now. I think that within game developers, some people try to manage their company also. That’s really not good.

GS: It seems difficult to do both.

TM: Difficult, very difficult.


GS: When you bring a game out in America, how do you consider what to do in this market? Do you have to cater to American tastes, or try to show Americans something different?

TM: I want to make something universal. I want to break the barrier between countries and markets. I’m looking for things that are very simple, and hit a common chord always. Both in the game design area and marketing area. It’s very difficult. The game design area is a very tough process, but it’s really simple also. Take a human being, and consider what kind of fun a human being wants. Just watching basic human instincts and wants, and getting deeper and deeper. That’s better.

Like with Rez, the music playing, and the rhythm, and the user memory, that kind of basic instinct is the same. So I tried to find what is the same DNA or common chord in people.

GS: It seems like the more complicated a game you make the more difficult it is to appeal to everyone. With a simple game you can appeal to a base instinct, but with a more complicated game with maybe a deep story, everyone has their own cultural experience and folklore they grew up with. So how do you approach something like that?

TM: So, many checkpoints. If I try to make something, like a game for the U.S. people, I think that’s too much. It would fail, because I think if a United States studio tries to make a game in Japanese style, I think it’s kind of fake. So we’re always trying to make something global. Naturally I don’t forget about our DNA, but never push this kind of concept or style on anyone. We’re always trying to think about something between markets, or between countries. Not here (touches chest), but here (touches table between us). Not on the U.S., not on the Japanese market, but a universal concept.

So like Ninety Nine Nights, we picked up on the fantasy aspect, and massive action. So the fantasy element, everybody has that kind of story or background. Each race, each country. But also the concept of vice versa. You can play the justice of both sides (see Gamasutra’s E3 interview about Ninety Nine Nights for more on this). Everyone can understand that, and everyone can imagine that. Every country has an experience of war, and fighting. So carefully we always pick up those kinds of elements.


Lumines II

GS: One reason I ask is that this Lumines 2 release just went out this morning, and already on message boards people are upset about some of the music choices. Like people have mentioned not wanting to see the girl from the Black Eyed Peas dancing while they play.

KY: They’re upset? Like because of the Black Eyed Peas?

GS: More because it’s such mainstream American music. What do you think about a reaction like that?

TM: I think that’s ok. I’ve got confidence that everyone who plays it, not just if they watch, but if they actually play Lumines 2, they’ll think oh – what is the concept here?


GS: Is the intention to appeal to a wider market?

TM: I think so. And I picked the music and music videos. We feel ‘oh this is very creative’ or that this music video has something that resonates with Lumines 2. So we’ve got great confidence about that.

GS: Is it to appeal to more than just the traditional game freak?

TM: That’s not a problem, casual players or traditional players.

GS: Do you not see a big gap between them?

TM: No. Because we’ve got 100 music tracks, so these are just the famous artists. We’ll put much more efforts into it. We’re producing other music and music videos by ourselves, so Japanese music and videos are also coming. We’re trying to make something universal. We’ve got music and artists from many genres, not just particular ones like electro, or house, or rock, or dance. It’s kind of a music fest.


The Q Entertainment co-developed Ninety-Nine Nights, shown here just because we think it's pretty.

GS: As a last question, what do you think of the Wii?

TM: It’s very unique! Very special.

GS: Have you thought about it at all?

TM: Yeah…but we haven’t decided yet about future production on Wii.

GS: Are you nervous about making games for Wii? It’s an untried market, and if you make a game for that, it’s difficult to port to any other.

TM: Yeah, so I want to make games that many people want to play, and I want many people to play them. And maybe Wii is very specialized. So if I lose the chance to show my game to a number of people, I have to think about that. But I can’t tell the future.

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