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PlatinumGames: Shaking Up Japanese Games

Rising from the ashes of Okami creator Clover Studio, principals from PlatinumGames talk to Gamasutra about its Sega deal, the state of the Japanese game biz, and its plans to "create games that have a worldwide appeal".

Since the announcement of its formation from the ashes of Okami creator Clover Studio and Capcom itself in 2006, Osaka-based independent game studio PlatinumGames has created significant buzz in the west - thanks to its impeccable pedigree of creators from some of Capcom's leading game franchises.

Here, Gamasutra presents a series of three interviews that give a rounded view of where PlatinumGames - newly signed with Sega for a four-game deal - is now, and where it might soon go. First, Tatsuya Minami and Atsushi Inaba speak about the formation of the company and its ethos - to create games that can compete on the world stage, with real creativity as their basis.

Both creators were involved for some of the most beloved and creative games in Capcom's stable - from hits like Resident Evil 4 (Minami) and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (Inaba) to innovative critical darlings like Okami (Inaba) and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (Minami).

In addition, Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe creator Hideki Kamiya discusses his upcoming PlatinumGames title Bayonetta, and Shigenori Nishikawa comments on his new PlatinumGames project - the black-and-white, hyper-violent and darkly comedic Mad World, for the Nintendo Wii.

What made you really decide, "Okay, now is the time that we need to start our own company?"

Tatsuya Minami: Inaba left Clover Studio, and I and my group left Capcom. However, we'd always had a similar vision for the kind of games we wanted to create and the kind of work that we wanted to do. So PlatinumGames was formed in October. We'd done our own thing separately for a little while, and we finally got together and realized that we wanted to accomplish the same thing, so we joined together.

I see. So how large is the entire studio right now?

TM: Right now, with official employees, we have just over 80. However, including temp staff and contractors and whatnot, the total team size is a little over 120. So Infinite Line is actually being handled by Nude Maker, Kouno-san's company. Outside of Nude Maker, there are over 120 employees at PlatinumGames.

When I spoke to you last, I said to you that I thought that Capcom was finally releasing really, really good games, and that it was like someone had switched on the creativity switch and finally the good stuff was really coming. And you said, "I don't know if you can say that in five years." Do you feel like this is happening? Has the degeneration of the studio started, and is that why you wanted to leave?

Atsushi Inaba: Games of course take a very long time to create. So when a game finally comes out, it's actually a reflection of the company of the last couple of years, not a reflection of what the company is now, at the present.

Of course.

AI: Of course, this isn't a question of good or bad. It's just personal taste. But the Capcom that I grew up with and that I spent time at is very different from the Capcom that I left. They're doing their own thing, but it was no longer what I wanted to do.

I think it's a very good move to create your own studio, so that you can really realize the vision that you want to make. It's been happening over the last three or four years that finally Japanese creators are actually leaving and starting their own thing. Before, there was so much of the company mentality, where it's like you stay at this company for the rest of your life. It's good to see that people actually are realizing, "You know, if I need to do what I want to do, I have to leave."

AI: First, for creators who have a strong vision, I feel it's a good thing. What it really boils down to is that it's very difficult for people with strong vision to accomplish those visions within the large corporate structure.


Sega/PlatinumGames' MadWorld

Very true.

AI: It's my personal opinion that having that sort of corporate culture isn't good for the future of the game industry - not being able to create games with a vision within these large corporations.

This isn't a problem that's native to Japan, though it's definitely happening in Japan: publishers are merging left and right, and all you're left with is just giant companies. In order to meet the payroll, they have to put out games that are guaranteed successes and make those big numbers. What that does is that it stifles creativity to a point. You can still make creative games, but the courage to create really unique, fun games is dying out.

They're afraid of risk.

AI: Sega had the courage to allow this sort of unique venture. We really want Sega not to lose that creative and unique spirit that Sega is known for.


Here's the difficult thing - how do you foster that creativity within your company? Certainly Kamiya will get to make his game, but what about the level designer, or the planner who's three tiers down who has his own idea? How will PlatinumGames be able to foster his creativity?

TM: First, we want to respect everyone's vision. However, given the size of development teams nowadays, they require large teams. What it boils down to is how well the teams can be managed, and how well that vision can be managed.

It's up to a producer like Inaba-san to guide the team in the best way possible and to figure out what is the best direction for the team and the company.

Do you have the structure within to allow someone who has an idea for a different game but who is not in the top tier to be like, "I really want to do this!" Do you foster that kind of creativity?

AI: Yes, we have a very complex process in place where... they have to present it to the producer. The producer then rearranges the presentation and shows it to the head of the company, and then the heads of the company have to decide on what to do. (laughter) But no, that's all lies.

But in all seriousness, we are totally open for idea people. They can come to me freely with new ideas. We're open to discuss anything.

So at first, even on Kamiya-san's game, the level designers might have a different vision for the game than him. But of course, if their output isn't high and they're not building the highest quality stuff, then of course their idea is going to be taken less seriously.

Naturally. I agreed with what you said earlier this evening. To reiterate it - when I grew up, all the best games came from Japan. That was it. They all came from Japan, and that was the end. In the last five or ten years, that has stopped being true. Gradually over time, it's gotten less and less true that the best games come from Japan. How can you really twist that?

AI: Of course, the vision is that we want to create games that have a worldwide appeal, but that still retain that spirit of Japanese game development that has the same sort of flavor that Japanese games have. But we still have to stand toe-to-toe and shoulder-to-shoulder with the big studios of the west and the big-name titles.

Personally, I feel that a lot of Japanese developers were too soft. They got too used to working on franchises, and they figure, "As long as I work on this franchise, we can make money, and everything will be fine."But it stifles creativity. To combat that, the vision for this company is to create new and unique titles, and to not rely on past success.

Before, western developers had very grand dreams when they were developing games. However, the console specs couldn't support these grand visions of designs that western developers have.

However, as consoles have caught up or in some cases surpassed a lot of PCs, it's possible for western developers to create games that have a great balance of really advanced technology and really advanced game design.

We don't feel that we're at the top of the industry, but we know that we have to catch up to where western developers are. Our hope is that one day, we could surpass the quality of the top western developers and take their place at the top.


Hideki Kamiya: "I feel that the company's position is much closer to the player"

Hideki Kamiya is best known as being the designer behind the one action-RPG to challenge Zelda's throne in the past several years - Okami. He also is very notable for creating the Devil May Cry series, which remains a major success for Capcom even through Kamiya's departure from the publisher.

Here, he discusses the creative impetus behind his latest game, PlatinumGames' Bayonetta, which seeks to challenge Devil May Cry for the action-gaming throne.

Saying that action games are stagnant and that they're going to take it to the next level is a very big claim. Can you justify it for me?

Hideki Kamiya: Devil May Cry came out seven years ago, and in those seven years, there really hasn't been a lot of change, just a lot of copycats. Even in the last seven years, with all the games that have come out, the genre itself really hasn't changed all that much.

I'm hoping to use my own personal experience in looking at all the different games I've done, and all the things I've done well or haven't done well, and really base off of that and do something totally different. My personal experiences over the last seven years - just basing it off of that. So absolutely, I can create something different.

Why do you feel that this is something that needs to be done?

HK: Seven years ago, when I created Devil May Cry, at the time, I did everything I could to create something really new and unique. It was obviously very successful.

Seven years later, when I look at the kinds of games that are there now, I think that action games shouldn't be like this. There should be something more to it. That's what I want to do.

I want to do, again, at this level of development and my level of experience...I want to put everything in there that I possibly can. One of the producers at PlatinumGames, Hashimoto-san, also said... he was one of the effect designers for Devil May Cry, and he said lately, "I want to see something. I want to see if you can do it again." That was something that struck a chord with me.

Also, I looked at other people saying, "I want to see a new Kamiya-san game. I want to see a new action game." It really strikes a chord with me, and I want to create something that will appeal to the users and heed that call.

Do you have any resentment for the current crop of action games? Do you feel that they've squandered the advances that you've made?

HK: With the Devil May Cry series, I laid the foundation. Obviously, a lot of what was created during and afterwards were the things that were intended to appeal to the fans. Within that, there were limitations on what could be done afterwards.

With a game like Bayonetta, it's totally new, there's nothing that it's based off of, and so I could do something new and unique. But even within that context, I want to do something that will totally floor the fans and appeal to them and give them the kind of action that they want to play.


Sega/PlatinumGames' Bayonetta

It seems to me that a lot of sequels of action games or other action games that come out are very focused on, "We have this new feature, that's why it's better than the last one!" But what really makes a better action game is more like the feeling - the exhilaration. How do you bring that forward in your game design?

HK: In order to implement that sort of sensory experience... one of the most important things I think that a lot of other games aren't doing that I'm really trying to get across is that the game responds the way you expect it to.

For example, if you try to dodge left, she dodges left. If you input, it dodges left. It's not a big series of complex pulling-off of moves. If it's responding the way you intended it to - it's all very fluid. It's got fluidity. I'm really trying to implement that. But a big part of that, too, is to have a fundamental balanced style of gameplay as well.

You mean more intuitive controls that make sense to the player, right?

HK: Yes, that's the intention.


This may be a difficult question, but so many games now are violent action games for men, starring a sexy girl. Do you think that we could maybe get beyond that someday?

HK: I think it's very difficult to verbalize what it's going to take to make this kind of a game. There's a sense of an individual sense and a group sense, but it's very hard to verbalize that.

I think, for example, for Viewtiful Joe or for Okami or these sorts of games, we've created something that appeal to people without having to explain what the world was like. People just pick it up and fall into it and grow to love it. I think I can do something similar with Bayonetta, that you won't have to sit down and explain, "Here's what the world is like. Here is the premise."

It's difficult, because there is an established stereotype about this kind of framework that is existing and set up. In fact, you may have to surmount that in order to get the kind of critical acclaim that you are hoping for.

HK: I want to preface my response with the idea in Japan that if you use a female lead character, you can't sell your game.

Cannot?

HK: Yes. There's sort of a curse, it's said in the gaming industry, that curses female characters. But I don't believe in that, so it's not a concern of mine. What I really want to do, though, is... especially having created games like Viewtiful Joe, where the coolness and the style is something I personally thought was satisfying and others pick up on it and also thought it was satisfying... that I want to do something similar with Bayonetta, but also if you establish a character's presence, then I'll be able to follow the same pattern.


Capcom/Clover Studio's Viewtiful Joe

Do you feel that PlatinumGames is a different kind of company? What is your feeling, working at this company now? Is it different from before? Do you feel like you have more control over what you do?

HK: I think yes, I probably have more than I did. To illustrate that point, the kinds of games that I'm able to make right now in this circumstance are the games that I feel really appeal to users, and not something that fits in the company profile. In that sense, at the very least, I feel a lot of creativity. But also, I feel that in the position I'm in now, I'm a lot closer to the users, and I can really heed their call and deliver on what they really want in a game.

Do you feel that you are in the position to create the game that you ultimately really want to create? Will you be able to realize your vision here, perhaps with this game?

HK: Yes, I do believe that I really will create the games that I really want to create. But the most important thing is, as I was saying before, that I feel that the company's position is much closer to the end-user and the player, and that we can very easily see the kinds of games that they want to play and say, "Oh, that's the kinds of games we should be making." I think we can really respond to that, in the kinds of games that I want to make, and also the kinds of games that I can make.

My main concern is not in a marketing sense, "Yes, if we make this kind of game, this is the kind of game that's going to sell, so this is the kind of game we're going to make."

We can actually look into the heart of the matter and see that these are the kinds of games that people actually play and these are the kinds of games that people are really calling out for. Those are the games we're going to make, and not just base it on executive decisions.


Shigenori Nishikawa: "I want to make a really memorable game"

Though not as well-known in the U.S. as his compatriots, Shigenori Nishikawa is, like them, a veteran of Capcom who worked on its successful action game franchises - Resident Evil 4 and Dino Crisis 3 are among his credits.

His game may have made the biggest splash at the time of the PlatinumGames/Sega announcement: the black-and-white, hyper-violent and darkly comedic Mad World, for the Nintendo Wii.

I know this game is pretty much created with the Western market is mind, as far as I understand. Do you feel as though Japanese audiences are not as receptive to violent games, or in fact "video game-like" games these days? Like very game-like games?

Shigenori Nishikawa: Japan has lots of markets. When you view Japan as the target market, that sets limitations for you.

But of course, lots of people do choose that as their main market. For example, GTA: San Andreas sold 500,000 copies in Japan. So lots of Japanese people are also looking forward to the next GTA, just as gamers are abroad.

But that's the kind of limit. There are no other games other than GTA that have done that, in that style. Well, maybe not. Maybe you disagree.

SN: I disagree. I think there's lots of people who are importing games -- foreign games -- coming out on the 360 and PS3.

Interesting. A lot of people have told me the opposite case. With this game, what is the emotion that you want people to really feel when they play it?

SN: I want to make a really memorable game. Lots of times, people are playing many different games and forgetting a lot of them. I want to make a game that's going to be remembered five and ten years down the road as something people will go back and say, "Wow, remember Mad World? That was a really great game."

What kind of techniques can you use to make that happen?

SN: In a black and white world, the lighting is incredibly important. We're working really hard on the 3D expression of lighting in the black and white world. For example, if a light is shining here, this side can be white, and this side can be black.

If the light was moving, we'd have to make the light move dynamically between the black and white areas and make it seem like a 3D object in the black and white 2D space - like written on a page.

Have you drawn any inspiration from film noir or anything like that when making a black and white type of scenario?

SN: Not as much as film noir, no. Definitely our inspiration is American comic books.

Like Frank Miller and stuff?

SN: Frank Miller, yeah. That's one person.

Are you doing anything with black and white representing two different things, like good and evil, or opposite sides of character, or perhaps different emotion?

SN: No, there's no philosophical meaning, or anything else that we're adding to the black and white. It's just a black and white world.

In terms of the blood, what kind of effect do you want it to have? It seems halfway between shocking and comical. Where is the line for you?

SN: We want to go for the more comical effect, but to go for the laugh, you've got to have a shock to the system, so that shock to your system can make you surprised or angry or laugh. So we want to have something that really triggers some kind of emotional response.

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