“We have a lot of ideas, we’re working on a lot of cool things.”
By Caleb Lawson
This month’s IGN First is a bit different than usual. Rather than highlighting a single game — we’ll get back to that next month — we’re highlighting the Japanese game industry as a whole. We visited some of the biggest studios in Japan to focus on their games and creative processes. Check back all month for interviews, gameplay reveals, and more!
On a beautiful, sunny spring morning, PlatinumGames studio lead Atsushi Inaba wanders the BitSummit show floor in Kyoto, Japan. Originally a small event for Japanese indie game developers, BitSummit has in its fifth year become a much larger show, with developers from around the globe demoing their games to the curious public. Despite the crowds, developers of Inaba’s experience and tenure mill about freely. They walk the floor, checking out games alongside thousands of gamers from all walks of life.
This is Inaba’s third year as a speaker at BitSummit and he’s excited to be back. “As a game creator myself,” he explains, “I love seeing these indie companies who are really able to put their heart and soul into creating something that they love, and in a way I’m somewhat envious of that freedom and that ability.”
Atsushi Inaba speaks with developers about their games at BitSummit
I’m looking for someone who has an idea of what’s fun, regardless of what generation they’re a part of
Although BitSummit is a great excuse to play an abundance of new video games, Inaba admits that he uses the time mostly to discover new ideas as well as scout for talent. He continues, “As the times change, and we’ve seen the different heads of games come and go, what’s popular now wasn’t popular five to 10 years ago. I’m not saying that I want someone who knows what’s in right now. I’m looking for someone who has an idea of what’s fun, regardless of what generation they’re a part of. Someone who has fresh ideas, and I think that sort of sense of having originality separate from the current trends is what will definitely bring about the ideas for new games.”
Fresh ideas and a focus on discovering and developing talent are clear priorities for PlatinumGames at the moment. Known for their mastery of mechanically complex, best-in-class action games, the studio is in a period of transition.
After a series of critical disappointments, and the cancellation of Bayonetta director Hideki Kamiya’s Xbox exclusive action RPG Scalebound, Platinum’s public perception diminished. But then Nier: Automata released. An unexpected hit, the studio’s genre mash-up matched Platinum’s signature combat with a referential, gaming literate iteration on Square’s cult classic RPG, Nier.
Despite any perceived setbacks, the team at Platinum moves forward, seemingly unphased, finding new ways to apply their unique design philosophy and commitment to fun.
A decade after the studio opened, the well-documented sign in their Osaka lobby still hangs: “Platinum maintains its luster forever.”
The Developers of PlatinumGames
The Developers of PlatinumGames
The day before meeting with Inaba at Bitsummit, I sit down with Hideki Kamiya and several other Platinum developers back in Osaka.
It’s my first time talking to Kamiya in depth since he first told me about Scalebound, over three years ago. In that last meeting, he showed me his personal arcade collection, and we discussed his career and development philosophies with the excited underpinnings of this new passion project he was making with Microsoft.
It’s impossible to not ask about the death of a game that was incredibly personal to Kamiya, but also a bold new direction for Platinum.
“For the fans, an apology is really all that I can offer. I’m terribly sorry.” Kamiya says with conviction. “The staff here at Platinum, the creative team at Microsoft, there were a lot of people who worked on this game and tried to make it special. I feel a lot of weight for not being able to have had something come from their efforts.”
Although disappointed, Kamiya acknowledges that the process was important regardless of the the outcome. “Along the way we learned a lot and gained new experience,” he continues, “so the time we spent was not wasted. This time the outcome was unfortunate, but it’s always been the way that as soon as one project is finished then it’s onwards to the next, and that’s just how it will be this time too.“ The value of this experience seems paramount as a motivation for moving on.
Along the way we learned a lot and gained new experience so the time we spent was not wasted
Shinji Mikami instilled an important philosophy in Kamiya while mentoring him at Capcom — not to get hung up on trying to eliminate every bad aspect of a game, but instead to focus on making the good parts even better. It seems that there is no way for Kamiya to do anything but keep trying to make the best game he can, a guiding principal that he now passes on to his teams as well. Similarly, he feels that hands-on experience in the trenches making games is the best way for any developer to grow. “Practical application,” he says seriously, “is the best way to learn.”
As the studio’s most experienced director and lead game designer, Kamiya has recently taken a much larger role in the company as a vice president, working on the mentorship and development of staff while helping Inaba define the plan for Platinum’s future.
Part of this strategy is a new approach to team structure, allowing the relatively small studio to best utilize their development talents on several games simultaneously. Kamiya explains, “When I was at Capcom at Production Studio 4, then at Clover Studio, and then in the early days of PlatinumGames, you would create a team for a project and then that team would work on that project from start to finish. But we’re starting to see more of a fluid pattern recently because we have different skill sets among the team. We have certain staff who are really good at one common element that’s needed for each project, such as getting the action controls to feel right. They’ll set that up and then they’ll move onto the next project. And so we can move people around and it helps us cover our projects with fewer people.”
“What I look for in my team members is someone who can suggest ideas on their own. This is part of Platinum’s fabric as well as my own, but the idea is that every member of the team is a game designer. So an artist should not only draw artwork and a programmer should not only program code, but every member should look at the game we are making and contribute their ideas for how to make it better.”
One such staff member is Takahisa Taura, who came up with the initial pitch for Nier: Automata. Taura has worked with Platinum since their first game, MadWorld, and as a game designer, he is one of the pioneers of Platinum’s signature combat mechanics. This commitment to exploring the limits of the “Platinum feel” was a driving creative force behind the Nier project.
My ideal when thinking of what makes a good action game is the simple act of touching it, controlling the character and playing it
From Taura’s perspective, “my ideal when thinking of what makes a good action game is the simple act of touching it, controlling the character and playing it.” Not only did he have to design gameplay systems that would challenge experienced action game fans, but he also had to find a way to retain the audience who loved the original Nier for its characters, story, and music. “I wanted to make sure that the combat and the gameplay in Nier: Automata was something that, rather than seeing it and thinking, ‘oh no, that’s too complex, too much of an action game for me, I can’t play that,’ I wanted to make something that fans of the original, no matter why they were fans, would enjoy playing.”
Although Nier: Automata’s success could largely be attributed to Taura and his team, he underlines the importance of mentorship from directors like Kamiya. “Up until now, I specialized in action games as a designer, everything I emphasized was the actual action of the game itself. But as a director, if you focus only on that, other parts of the game may suffer, like it may not be for the best for the game as a whole. So I think directors have to have a very deep knowledge and awareness of the entire project, and they have to be able to span all aspects of the game. And I think just learning the necessity of that has been huge.”
Isao Negishi, also a game designer, worked alongside Taura on Nier: Automata. On that project, he was primarily a level designer, focusing on the RPG’s myriad side quests. Negishi got his start working under Kamiya on The Wonderful 101 and has been instrumental in several of Platinum’s games since then. Because he fills a specific design need, he can float between multiple projects he is needed on.
Eiji Funahashi also began his career at Platinum on The Wonderful 101, working as a character modeler. Like Negishi and Taura, he has had a major role in most of the studio’s output since then. However, like Kamiya has done for game designers, Funahashi occasionally manages artists and recruits new character modelers to the team. He describes how the flexible team structure works from his perspective, “everyone has their strengths and weaknesses on the team. So, say, for Star Fox Zero, I’d look at it and say, ‘Okay, I think that maybe in the project right now we’ve got a lot of good modelers, but we’re lacking a bit of a leader, so I think that I might want to step in and kind of take the reins a little more.’ Sometimes I’ll look at a project and say, ‘you know, I’m good at this, but he’s good at this too. So, I don’t really need to be involved in this project. I can leave that to him.’”
Directors have to have a very deep knowledge and awareness of the entire project
Although Platinum currently doesn’t have any games announced for release outside of Japan, the team is hard at work on a full slate of new projects. Despite the amount of work they’ve already committed to, everyone I spoke with is full of inspiration and ideas for new games.
Negishi explains thoughtfully, “I think the biggest, most important thing that I’ve learned from working with other directors and I’ve seen them do is … as you design, as you direct, keeping in mind the user’s experience, the user’s feelings, and how to sort of play with and appeal to that.” Kamiya said nearly the same thing when we talked three years ago.
Because of a shared interest in gaming, the team rallies around and supports new ideas that build on Platinum’s foundation.
Kamiya smiles, noting the impact of sharing ideas and mutual support amongst the team, “Recently, I actually gave a presentation within the company for a game I’d like to make. Attendance was on a voluntary basis, not mandatory. I just said, ‘I’m going to talk about a few ideas I have, so if you’re interested, just show up.’ And the biggest meeting room that we have in the company was packed out. Out of the people who did come, there were a lot of people who had worked on Scalebound with me, and I was really happy that they came, because we have had some trying moments together. It felt good to know that they would put their faith in me again, and I want to make sure I honor their trust and that something good can come out of it.”
“I was getting lots of feedback. If you’re in a small room, where you have a group of 5 or 10 people, it’s easy for people to exchange opinions. But if you get 50 people or more in a room together and you then say, ‘OK, question time, does anybody have anything to say?’ usually you hear crickets, because no one wants to speak up. But not this time. Everybody just kept firing off question after question and we went over time. So I was excited about that.”
What does Kamiya want to achieve with his next game? “More than anything,” he confirms, ”I want to make something that really waves the Kamiya banner proudly. A game where you will know instantly that it came from me.”
But as a team leader, Kamiya also understands the importance of collaboration. No matter how brilliant and singular a director’s vision is, it is worthless without incorporating the ideas and buy-in of the talented team tasked with executing it.
Back at BitSummit, Inaba expresses hope that the future of Platinum looks bright. He is proud of the strong team that they are focussed on developing. He also believes that by continuing to open themselves up to new ideas and techniques, they will both enhance their ability to make the spectacularly fine-tuned character action games they are known for as well as branch out in new directions.
We enjoyed working on Scalebound and we want to sort of continue to explore that type of new genre
“We enjoyed working on Scalebound and we want to sort of continue to explore that type of new genre. At the same time, you know, were we to continue Bayonetta, we have a certain fan base that really wants to play that kind of game, and if we were to develop that we’d want to give them the experience that they’re looking for.”
“It’s been 10 years since we founded PlatinumGames, and we think we’ve achieved an excellent level with this company. We have a lot of ideas, we’re working on a lot of cool things. We really want you to look forward to our upcoming games, and to root for us as we continue to develop them because we think that we’re gonna make some stuff that you guys will really enjoy.”
Inaba concludes the conversation and we shake hands. The flickering light from hundreds of demo station TVs beckon him back to the BitSummit show flow. He has games to play and gamers to talk to.
Caleb Lawson is IGN’s director of editorial programming. He’s still patiently waiting for an Anarchy Reigns action figure line. You can follow him on Twitter at @caleblawson.