Back at E3 I asked Shinji Mikami why he turned his attentions to designing Vanquish – a blistering action shooter so strikingly different from his previous work.
“I’m bored with making anything else,” he said, “so I made this”.
It sounds like the dream scenario for any developer: Envision anything you want, and a whole team will make it happen, and a publisher as big as Sega will back you.
It’s one of the reasons why there was an immediate sense of accomplishment when Sega signed a four-project deal with Platinum Games back in 2008. The deal was that Platinum would make four new IPs, with an enviable degree freedom, and Sega would help with funding, promotion and could keep the IP.
But it shows the inherent tension in granting developers complete freedom with their projects. Platinum Games has wowed critics but none of its three previous projects have flown off the shelves as much as, perhaps, they should have.
That’s always going to be the risk of building new IP, and something you might think Platinum Games would take into consideration in the future.
But for now, the studio is sticking to its guns. Atsushi Inaba, the executive director at the Osaka-based outfit, tells Develop: “The way I see it is that risk is always a part of game making. So moving forwards we’ll most likely continue to make new IP.”
He adds: "The whole point of Platinum Games is to create our own IP, that’s what we do."
It’s a bold statement from the head of a studio famous for its design luminaries, its leadership, its unquestionable talent, but nevertheless a lack of blockbusters. Perhaps Vanquish, released today, will justify Inaba’s stance.
We sit down with the famed developer to discuss new IP, the Sega deal, Japan and his place within it.
Sega signed you for four projects back in 2008. Vanquish marks the end of that deal. What next?
Yes you’re correct, we have made the four titles in our contract. The partnership has been great, and we are in talks with Sega now, but there’s nothing concrete we can say about it at the moment.
When we created Platinum Games, we of course talked to a lot of publishers, and Sega offered us the most freedom to develop games. I think the partnership has been great, and I’m really grateful for their support.
For the future of our partnership, of course, it’s not something that we alone can decide. Sega has its stance, and we have ours, but if Sega asks us to make something we might take the offer.
Who owns the four IPs you made?
There’s a general consensus among independent studios that owning your IP is crucial – where does Platinum Games stand on the issue?
It’s very understandable that studios find IP so important. In regards to the relationship between ourselves and Sega, they were generous enough to give us maximum freedom with our work – and in return they had the IPs. That was a fair deal. As a general rule, looking forward, we’d want to build new IPs.
Is that a stipulation on the table in your talks with Sega?
No it’s more a grand vision. We would like to eventually be a company that owns its IPs.
Do you like the fame you get? Do you like being interviewed?
It’s really honourable that so many people have eyes on what I do and say, and that I might have influence over other people. If a younger generation of people want to make games because of my games, it would be really great.
Sometimes it’s hard to do interviews like this, because there are certain things that I would like to say but cannot.
How did you end up in the game development business?
When I was about twelve I got my first PC, and my first experience of playing games, I just thought they were wicked. Since then, I was always obsessed with this idea of creating games. So I became a programmer. I haven’t really thought about any other career.
I still have that same desire I had as a young boy, but I’ve never felt truly satisfied making games. I feel like one of those fish that would die if it stopped swimming.
I can’t really pick anything, right now in my career, that I am most proud of. If I tell myself I’m doing great I’ll probably die.
You were the first Japanese developer I know of that spoke of the care eastern developers need to take in order to appeal to a western audience. That was what you said in 2008 – what lessons have you learnt since?
Well we’re not making a conscious effort to bring Japanese games to the west. What we are trying to do, quite simply, is to create something we think is cool. Some people might think Vanquish is cool, and fun. It may have Japanese elements, or western ones, but that’s not the purpose.
Since you first spoke on the issue a whole debate has ignited. What do you make of a celebrated Japanese developer like Keiji Inafune claiming that Japan dev sector is dying?
I don’t think it’s very meaningful to put developers into segments by the country they live in. For me, it’s quite simple, there are only two kinds of developers in the world: good ones, and bad ones. All we do is our best to be in the first group. I don’t think much about what is Japanese and what isn’t. It’s irrelevant.
Vanquish has a very arresting visual style, one that must have brought with it many challenges in development. Is that fair to say?
Yes one big challenge we had was to keep the quality standard up on our chosen lead platform. We’re not particularly experienced on PlayStation 3, but it’s always important to not make compromise – not to limit yourself and settle for what you have.
We had the initial prototypes of Vanquish on PC, just to set a sort of standard bar. When we ported that to PS3, we only had it running at about three frames per second. That was really hard to improve on, but we didn’t give up, we worked very hard to keep up with the level of expectation the game has.
Was choosing PS3 as Vanquish’s lead platform a lesson learnt from the criticised PS3 port of Bayonetta?
We only created the Xbox 360 version of Bayonetta, as you know, and I am aware of the negative comments the PS3 edition received.
But as a studio, I felt we needed to develop substantial know-how of PS3 development, in order to survive in the market. That was the main reason why we chose PS3 as the lead platform.
When Sega signed you, it said Platinum Games would be the studio that provided its new IP. Considering so many studios put up with work-for-hire jobs, for so long, do you feel to be in a privileged position?
It’s always a privilege to be able to create what we want. On the other hand, of course, creating new IP can be risky. The way I see it is that risk is always a part of game making, so moving forwards we’ll most likely continue to make new IP.
You still want to take risks – do you not sometimes just want to make sequels?
It’s not like we are against the idea of making sequels, there are many benefits to it such as making new games with the same tech. So as a studio we would like to do both [new IP and sequels], but the whole point of Platinum Games is to create our own IP, that’s what we do.