Hideki Kamiya's career in the Japanese game industry now spans over two decades and more than a half-dozen standout games, but he's never (to my knowledge) worked on something quite like his latest project: Scalebound.
The upcoming Xbox One exclusive from PlatinumGames is, at first glance, a third-person action game much akin to Kamiya's Devil May Cry and Bayonetta games. It's also designed with four-player cooperative play in mind, something Kamiya and Platinum experimented with in their 2013 Wii U game The Wonderful 101.
But what sets Scalebound apart from prior Platinum projects is how it seeks to convey the nuances of a partnership through gameplay mechanics. In speaking to Kamiya at Gamescom earlier this month about his role as director on Scalebound, I found our conversation kept inexorably returning to his passion for trying to foster feelings of empathy and awe through canny game design.
Though we wound up ranging far afield, I've taken the liberty of sharing an edited version of our chat here because it sheds some light on both what drives Kamiya, as a designer, and how Scalebound's design has been influenced by the twists and turns of his path through the game industry.
Scalebound seems like an interesting project for Platinum. How did you wind up working on it?
Really, the true beginnings of where this came together was when I left Capcom and joined PlatinumGames. I had several ideas I brought with me, for games I wanted to make at Platinum. Scalebound was one of those ideas. It wasn't quite what you see Scalebound as today [for example, the game originally revolved around dinosaurs instead of dragons] but basically...I wanted to illustrate something that had these epic-scale battles between gigantic monsters. I wanted to create a sense of awe, and create impactful, dynamic moments in front of the player.
But even though that idea was there from the beginning, I...well, long story short, Bayonetta was made first. I worked on that, and once it was done I said 'let's bring this idea [for Scalebound] out of the closet and let's start working on it.' At that point it had already gone through another round, another iteration of design, such that it was no longer so much about large-scale enemies and more about engaging players in those scenes. But then next I wound up working on Wonderful 101.
After that, we had another chance to start working on Scalebound -- and there was actually a prototype made, post-Bayonetta. So that was already done, but due to other circumstances I had to work on Wonderful 101, make that game, then bring this idea back out of the closet again.
So this game stretches all the way back to when I joined PlatinumGames, and it was something I always really wanted to work on.
So why is it so important to you, from a developer's perspective? Why are you so passionate about designing a game like Scalebound?
I don't know if this answers your question in the way you're hoping, but...the subject of dragons is something I've loved for many years.
I think we've been exposed to plenty of games that feature dragons in one way or another -- either as enemies, or characters the player controls or rides. But to me, because of my love for dragons, so much of my goal is to "be" with the dragon. To have the dragon be with the player as their companion, and as their partner.
That brings out the true beauty, I think, of what it's really like to be with a dragon. Not just to watch it do whatever it does, but to actually interact, and engage in this relationship with the dragon.
So in order to realize that goal...I think making a game like this is one way I can really make that happen. To the best of my knowledge, I can't really think of a game that illustrates that emotional involvement, that relationship, that bond that a player can have with a dragon.
How do you convey a relationship like that through game mechanics? How do you, as a designer, aim to fulfill that relationship for the player?
I think the most important thing, is that we create this dragon who is a living thing. It needs to have energy. It needs to be treated properly, as a living character, and not a robot or a mech or something that's pre-programmed. Otherwise, players won't feel that sense of "life" that they feel from a living creature.
So it really comes down to the basics, of being able to communicate that first, and convince players to treat the dragon as a friend. That's really key to Scalebound. It's a contrast to action games where, you know, it's all about players making perfect combos or split-second decisions that make or break their game. It's really all about the skill, how good players are and how great they can be.
But with this game, I want players to treat Thuban [the dragon companion] as a friend and a true, living character. So not everything has to be perfect; the imperfection, to me, is really where the beauty is found. So even though the bond strengthens as the game progresses and the story moves forward, it doesn't mean players always have to have the perfect combo or the perfect strategy or the perfect moves to progress.
Maybe, sometimes, Thuban will make some mistakes, or maybe players will give him the wrong directions, but that's okay. Maybe there's a moment where they can sort of repair that temporary damage in the relationship. I want players to really treat this character like a friend in real life.
This sounds a bit different than your previous work. Has something changed? What did you learn from working on prior games, and how do you apply it to Scalebound?
What I learned... it really stretches back to the beginning of my career in game development. I was part of the original Resident Evil team, and if it weren't for the experience, time and learnings from that period, I wouldn't have been able to make Resident Evil 2. And if it weren't for that experience, I probably wouldn't have made Devil May Cry the way I did. Same with Viewtiful Joe, same with Bayonetta.
I always bring learnings from previous projects to my work; there's really no specific thing I can call out. It's really... layers upon layers. With Scalebound, even though I say I have had this idea for a few years now, if I'd made it back then it may not have been the game you see today, the game we're making now. It's truly an iteration, a culmination of my experiences, and I'm putting all of that into this project.
Well, what's been the most difficult aspect of developing Scalebound? What challenges have you faced, from a design and mechanics standpoint?
We're still overcoming those challenges today, as we speak.
I guess what I can say, that aside, is that... looking back on my career, which is where this conversation has taken me... Shinji Mikami taught me so many lessons. He really pounded into me my approach to game development, and to game design. He also gave me the opportunity to direct Resident Evil 2, and it took a while (over a year) to get it even to a point where we could say, "Oh, this isn't good enough," and we scrapped it.
But he didn't give up on me. He gave me a chance: another opportunity. So I learned a lot of lessons there. Moving forward, when the PlayStation 2 was coming, he gave me another chance, and as a direct result I was able to make Devil May Cry. After that, the next challenge -- the opportunity -- that he gave me was to work in a much smaller, tighter team environment where I had to learn to wear multiple hats. That was Viewtiful Joe, and I learned many more lessons from that.
So I don't really feel like I created my own path in games. He gave me all these opportunities to work in different kinds of environments, and from those experiences I've learned so many lessons. He's really my mentor, in that sense, and if it weren't for him taking chances on me and believing in me, I wouldn't be here today. So I have a lot of appreciation and gratitude towards him.