Q&A: Platinum's Inaba, Nude Maker's Kouno On Infinite Space

Nude Maker and Platinum talk to Gamasutra on hard "space opera" DS game Infinite Space/Line, government regulation of games, the online Steel Battalion imposter, and more.
Infinite Line is the new Nintendo DS game from Nude Maker (Steel Battalion) and Platinum Games (Bayonetta). Inspired by the novel Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, the game aims to bring hard sci-fi to a wider audience on the DS -- but some reports have hinted that the game is much lighter than that. The pending release of the game via publisher Sega as Infinite Space in the West, as well as Nude Maker president Hifumi Kouno’s comments below, may shine some light on the subject. If you haven’t heard much about Nude Maker before, it’s an odd, very creative, and rather small studio, having only around nine people. It was one of many studios to splinter from the dissolution of the huge Osaka-based Human Entertainment, and when it’s not working on games like the huge Steel Battalion, the company makes erotic games for the PC. Gamasutra had a talk with Kouno about this subject some time ago, and he spoke candidly about the hows and whys of his working in that genre. This is notable since, in our more recent talk, we discussed the recent regulations being imposed by the government on the Japanese pornographic game industry. While most of what the government decries is totally understandable – underaged females, or those who appear underaged, as well as involuntary sexual situations – other elements, such as banning of hypnosis, and regulation of sexual scenes to a certain percentage of the content, are slightly less obvious. (Japan has two self-regulatory software boards for content like this – but they have had little say in the government’s decisions. For more information on this subject, check out a notable post on weblog Canned Dogs.) In this interview, Kouno and Inaba share their thoughts on this regulation, as well as the new Tekki Online. Both worked on Steel Battalion, known as Tekki in Japan, with Capcom. Since that time, a Korean company made a third-person online mech shooter called Metal Rage. In Japan, the publisher (GameYarou) chose to call the game Tekki Online, but it has nothing to do with the original, and neither Nudemaker nor Capcom receive any compensation for it. The company chose to skirt this issue by changing the characters in Japanese, from the original (鉄騎), literally meaning “steel mounted warriors” to the new (鉄鬼), literally meaning “steel demon.” Both words are pronounced the same way, which is both clever and nefarious on the part of publisher GameYarou, which when translated means "let's game!" Using the company's own trick, another reading of the same phonetics could also mean "game bastard." This interview was Platinum Games creative force Atsuhi Inaba’s first encounter with the imposter, and he was none too pleased. [Update: GameHi, which runs Metal Rage/Tekki Online in Korea, has clarified that it resolved the naming conflict with Capcom in Japan prior to the game's release in the region.] In this brief interview, we discuss all of the above, as well as future plans for both companies. Now that Infinite Space is done, what is Nude Maker working on? Hifumi Kouno: Mmmm, well, not much. (laughs) We're looking for someplace to fund the next project. Kind of floating around, so to speak. So you're not working with Platinum again right now. HK: Well, we're working on the overseas versions right now, but we aren't working on another title at present, no. Atsushi Inaba: Don't take that to mean "we're never working with them again," though. (laughs) Nothing like that. So you have nothing to do with Tekki Online? HK: Well, I was the director on... oh, you mean the ripoff! (laughs) That was wholly developed by a Korean outfit, and when they put it out in Japan, the publisher put that name on it for some reason. AI: [looking at the Tekki Online material] Oh, man, this is terrible! HK: [english] Fuckin' bastards! (laughs) Sorry! I thought you would’ve known all about this. HK: If you ever run into the company that made this, tell them that I'd like to see them go out of business as soon as possible! (laughs) Tell 'em it'd be better for the whole game industry if that happened! Getting back to it, with Infinite Space, initially I thought it was going to be more serious sci-fi. Where did the decision to have anime-like characters and scenes come from? HK: Well, if we had made it fully hard-SF in style, then the only group the game would've received praise from is the hardcore audience. If we pursued that style too closely, then we'd only be appealing to a pretty small piece of the pie; it'd be harder for new users to get into the thing. The essence of Infinite Space is still serious SF, and I don't think that's ever changed at all; it's something you'll definitely feel as you make your way toward the end of the story. However, the introductory phase -- your first little while with the game -- is a bit softer and more anime-like. It's easier to get to grips with, and it makes the game accessible to a wider range of people. And once those people get more into the game, I think they'll realize that "hard" SF is pretty interesting stuff, too. Have you seen Battlestar Galactica? HK: The new one, right? I have the DVDs; it's pretty neat. That seems like one way to open it up, because that became very popular in spite of being pretty deep. That seems like a way to keep the audience youthful and open them up to hard sci-fi. HK: Mmm, yeah. That popularity isn't there in Japan, though, sadly. I have big hopes for the game either way. What do you think of the eroge rulings happening now in Japanese politics? HK: (laughs) What's that got to do with me? Well, I’m sure it has nothing to do with your games, but... HK: Well, to give the really serious answer, new regulations or whatever in video games is really no skin off my nose. I mean, I don't want games to be seen as an antisocial activity; to me it's a matter of how far I can go without hitting those regulations. Eroge are created for the enjoyment of adults, of course; they aren't meant to depict children, nor are they supposed to have a negative impact on children. If new regulations help to reduce the chance of that happening, then I don't really mind them. I absolutely agree that some elements of Japanese eroge are pretty degrading and backward - but it seems to me that any kind of direct regulation of the game industry by the government is a stepping stone to more regulation. So perhaps the violence of MadWorld may eventually not be acceptable, using the same justification. HK: Well, I would agree that most of the government's forays into regulating any type of popular media have been spearheaded by stupid people without much idea of how things actually work in the world. At the same time, though, there are games out right now that sort of don't know where to draw the line -- enough to make you think "Are these toddlers, or what?” I see nothing wrong with some of the more gory and violent games that come out here from America, but I do think there are also game creators that just wallow in that and make gameplay a second priority as a result. I do think that creators like these do need to take some responsibility for their actions, and I think recent government drives toward regulation is a sort of punishment against that, regardless of how wrongheaded it is. It's natural, of course, for anyone to desire more freedom of expression, to not have to worry about what the general community feels is appropriate or not. The government, meanwhile, is trying to counterbalance that, and the resulting debate is sort of what defines our society as a whole. It's an ongoing issue, certainly, and it results in the social balance we have today. The game industry, in a way, has yet to find that balancing point. Inaba, any opinions on this? AI: Well, I agree that the game industry is still in its infancy, in many different meanings of the term. I think that, both in terms of what forms of expression the industry uses within its products and how it interacts with the government and other regulating bodies, we don't have any real voices of experience to rely on. The movie industry is a different story -- people accept violence in movies as a way of providing the experience, but some still feel uncomfortable about violence in video games. Other industries have self-regulating bodies, but now we're seeing the government trying to regulate games outside of industry advisement. If they enforce rules outside of the industry, I think that could affect a lot of games. HK: Well, like Inaba said, there is a place in video games for sensible violence, when it's a part of the gameplay and the story. If all you have is a game where you can kill kids, kill tons of innocent people, and there's no meaning or reason to it, well, in some ways it can't be helped if people look at that negatively. Obviously we could go on forever about this, but as I’ve only time for one final question, Inaba, how do you feel about the current trajectory of Platinum? Are you satisfied with the way you're going so far? AI: Well, we still haven't released all the titles we've announced, and we've got a lot of other stuff in the works too. It's hard to say whether I'm satisfied yet, but we did build this company two years ago because we wanted to do new and really exciting stuff. The things we couldn't do ourselves, we've been able to collaborate with other outfits like Nude Maker, so in that aspect, I'm really happy with where we're going.

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