A Conversation with Keiji Inafune

We're a little late on this, but we're still posting it nonetheless!

Recently, the Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter page posted an interview with Keiji Inafune and 2 Player Productions covering topics related to the campaign and the game in general. This interview took place a month before the Kickstarter went live, so it will be interesting to see what his thoughts were before seeing the fan reactions.

For those of you who do not have time to watch the video, we have transcribed the interview below. However, we do encourage you to watch the original video. It's much more interesting when you see the expression on Inafune's face, and the tone of his voice. It really gives you a different experience that text alone can't supply.

2 Player Productions: What do you think about the idea of launching the project on Kickstarter?

Keiji Inafune: Well, games can be created in many ways, and I think that working with a big publisher can be a great thing. But when making a game, the most important thing is that you listen to what the fans are telling you. So if we could do something to connect directly with this group of fans, I wanted to try it, and Kickstarter provided a chance to do that. Gathering all of these fans, their feelings, and their money together to make a game lets us directly should all of these feelings. That's how I see it as working. Doing so means we won't ever be forced to betray our fans, and that unrelated company issues won't get in the way of things. The only things that matter are what the fans want and what the developers want; nothing else. For a creator, it's the most fun way to make a game. Kickstarter makes that kind of thing possible it's a great way to ensure a game always keeps the fans prioritized.  

When we talked earlier about Kickstarter, you said you felt a little bad for publishers. Designers may be restricted in certain ways due to company issues and so on, but that doesn't exist with Kickstarter. Do you think Kickstarter will make publishers rethink their approach to fans and game creation? 

I think it's clear that seeing more successful Kickstarter efforts connects directly to publishers changing their ways. But just going through Kickstarter alone won't change them. It's about creators directly responding to fan feedback and getting products released. If we get that to happen, publishers lose a lot of their meaning. We really wouldn't need publishers so much. If we can use Kickstarter to get the same kind of budget as what a publisher would be able to give us, then we could make any game we want to, for the fans. If that happens, then publisher or company politics won't matter. Publishers would be forced to rally face up to fans - they'd have to make games the fans are hoping for. If we can bring it to that point, I think it could change the industry.

Do you have a personal goal in mind for this project? 

I have assorted goals in mind, but in the end, I want to make everyone happy. I don't just want to make the players happy, I want the creators to be happy, too. I've gathered together some of the people I've worked with in the past, and I want to keep them smiling as they do their work. I don't want this to be a painful process... I want us all to be creating happily, and for that emotion to cross over to the players and make them think "This is cool! This is amazing!" I hope we can reach that point, because there's no worrying about our sales this quarter, or our profits this quarter, or what the shareholders are thinking. If the gamers are happy and we're happy, we've succeeded. We'll worry about how much money we can make after that. If we can do this - where we don't have to worry about profits before happiness, I'll have realized one of my goals here.

Something else you hear often - many large-scale projects these days take years and hundreds of people, making some team members feel like they're just engaging in grunt work instead of a creative process. Meanwhile, you have a small team working as a sort of family on this game. Is that more fun as a creator? 

I think being able to project your own feelings onto a game makes it better. That gets more difficult if you have 100 or 200 people on a project. A small team presents its own challenges, but it makes it easier to put your own emotions into the game. It can be tough if you start getting into arguments, but I've worked on game projects ranging from five people to upwards of three hundred people. Every scale has it's own advantages, of course, but from my experience, I've never had major regrets from a project with a smaller team. It was fun. Even if it was tough, it still left me with good memories. Even when we were fighting, it was fun. We're still together today, and I hope we can work in that way here. I'm sure we'll fight and have our differences of opinion,  but I'm looking forward to a fun game-creation process.

What else are you looking forward to with this production? 

I suppose one thing is seeing how much funding the backers will support us with. It's a very easy-to-understand yardstick, even if it may end up not being pretty in the end. It'll be like points in a video game, itself... the number of points I earn shows how good I am, that sort of thing. It's pretty rare for you to play real well, but not score a lot of points. If we're able to get a lot of support from fans, that'll be easy to see via the amount of funding we receive. That money is the force that will power us during game development; it's not money I'll be playing around with. The way it directly mirrors the support that you have is one of the interesting things about Kickstarter, I think. It's a new experience to me. I've never had my performance rated so directly in terms of the money we raise. Sometimes I've just had to make projects, regardless of my personal effort or interest. Like, I wasn't totally committed, but I'd be assigned the project and a multi-million dollar budget. There were times I would feel like, "Not me! Let that guy handle it!" But this time it's nothing like that. If people are excited for me and this team, it could lead to a big project. If there isn't much anticipation, it'll be a smaller project. That's the fate I'm accepting in this effort, and it's masochistic in a way, but I'm looking forward to it.

One compliment creators have for Kickstarter is how their own talents help them raise capital and keep their own IP. People are concerned about how, no matter how hard they work on a game, the IP rights always stay with the people funding it, and that's unfair. That can't be helped to some extent, but what do you think about the issue - the possibility of, if you can make a great game this time, being able to keep the rights to it? 

I think that's a big issue in the game industry. As a creator, you feel a sense of ownership over the games you devote your creative efforts to. Gamers are the same way; They might say, for example, "Inafune made this." But there are no actual rights associated with that. That's how it is when you work for a game company. I've been involved with a large number of big-name series in the past, but I don't have any kind of rights to any of them. Even now, people say to me, "You should go back and work on those games!" But I have to say, "Sorry, I don't have the rights." It really bothers me that I can't respond to fans' expectations... but with my own IP, I'm free to answer that demand. If they say, "We don't want this," I don't have to keep making it, and if they ask for a sequel, I'm free to create it. I'm free to expand the series out like that. In that way, creators retaining their IPs for the sake of their fans leads to new opportunities. I'd like to see that play out. Kickstarter allows for that to happen, and in my case, that makes both my dreams and the fans' dreams possible. So if things end up going well with this Kickstarter, I think that could lead to a lot more new IPs debuting. That'll be good for me, my team, and the fans as well, and it's the fans we want to do it for in the first place.

Compared to overseas, you see very few creators in Japan breaking out to create their own IP. Overseas you see governments giving tax breaks, funding from first parties, and other things to help them, but there aren't many chances like that for Japanese creators. What would you like smaller developers or outfits who own their own IP to learn from this Kickstarter?

Well, I've been saying this for a while, but I want them to look toward the rest of the world. Saying "I can't do it in Japan!" or "They won't let me!" or "I can't venture capital" or "It's hard for us"... there's no point in only complaining like that. I think you need to become someone who can look toward the rest of the world; make games that can receive support not just from Japan, but elsewhere as well. If you do that, maybe you'll have people from many nations watching, willing to give you a chance. With this project... well, Kickstarter is an America-based system, so if we don't bring out something that can appeal to people in the US, there's no way we could ever succeed. So you have to ask whether you have the confidence to try something like that. I want to see smaller developers look toward the world more and try to make games that can perform on the world stage. If they do, I think that can open up new opportunities. Taking up the challenge with Kickstarter like we are, something Japanese people haven't really tried before, maybe it can help open up more possibilities. Maybe other Japanese will be able to follow in our footsteps after this. Myself, I'm a big fan of Hideo Nomo, who became a sensation in the major leagues as a Japanese player, largely because he was the first one to do it. I think Japanese players currently in the majors owe him a debt of gratitude. What matters isn't how many games he won, but that he opened the gates. He accepted a challenge no one had done before, and that's huge. So with this project, I'm hoping that we can become the Hideo Nomo of Kickstarter.

In the project, you have to balance the nostalgia inherent in 2D side-scrolling action games with the need to provide new experiences to players. Is that style of development - balancing two sides like that - difficult? 

That's a big challenge, I think. You can't be too bound by the conventions of old games. Games from 20 years ago have values which are 20 years old by now. There are a lot of good things about retro games, but if we're too bound by them, I think we're doomed to fail. Still, if we fail to understand what makes retro games good and make it into a purely modern style game, that won't be any fun either. So I think the big challenge is how to mix the "old" and "new" fun and present that mix to the player as a new gameplay experience. I have confidence that we'll be able to tackle that challenge, and I think we can create a new kind of side-scrolling action game. Taking what I couldn't create over 20 years ago and fitting that into a gamplay system from that same time period... that's really fun. With the design, too; I'm helping out with character design. There are some people still beholden to the designs from 20 years ago. It's like "Nope. No, not like that." We're discussing how to create an "old" design that still has modern design sense. It's really fun.

You've assembled a sort of "dream team" of older developers for this project. How does it feel to be able to make a game again with your fellow industry veterans? 

Well, it's not just older developers. There are guys I worked with back in the day, and there are younger people who were our target audience once. So we all have similar memories, although from different viewpoints. That aspect of the team is pretty fun. It's not just all of us old timers working on this. The older people contribute, and the younger people contribute. That kind of mix helps keep us old timers engaged, while we can teach the younger set what made past games so good, too. It's a great chemistry, and it's making this project so much fun. In some ways, it is a bit like a class reunion. People are like "If only we did this back then," or "You're getting lazy lately," "No I'm not!" and so on. "I can still do this!" or "You better try harder, you're losing it!" We're all having a blast. 

Speaking of the team, what are you expecting from them here? 

I don't want them to feel overly pressured as they do their work. I've always felt that if you're having fun during development, that's always going to lead to the best results. So I want them to have fun - not to be screwing around, but to have fun as we work through the tough parts. Some of us have a lot of experience with that, and some of us have none. I want the whole team to see that having fun will help us make this really great game in the end, and the gamers will get to see it and enjoy it, too. We'll be entertaining gamers as we're working on the game. We'll see each other having fun here, which we couldn't do in the past. Once, we could only see gamers enjoying our work after the game launched. They couldn't provide us with anything after that - that's just how it worked. But here, if our audience is into something, we can do more of this or that; if they aren't we can work to fix or change it to something more fun. So I'm looking forward to all of us enjoying our work. 

What is an average day in your life like? 

I'm confident in my ability to handle a lot of work. I'm always thinking about lots of game ideas, not just a single one. Every week, it's like "Oh, I got a new idea for a game!" So I go to the staff and say "I thought up this design; let's write it up." And my staff keep up with me, so we have this pile of design plans. In order to have more material to be creative with, I do a lot of playing, a lot of learning and reading and studying of creative materials. I also think playing with your children or family can lead to a lot of creative insight, too. You can get a lot of ideas from a child. I'm Japanese, though, and compared to Westerners I probably don't give enough time to my family. I've been able to work with people from the US and Europe a great deal, and I think that's a really great aspect of their lives. I try to treat my family as importantly as people in the West do, since ultimately my family's happiness needs to be my own happiness, too. I try to keep myself from saying "This is Japan, so it's just fine like this." So I keep busy, but it's fun work for me. I've never though of it as an ordeal.

Do you have any advice for younger people who hope to make games someday? 

I don't think you need to see making games as this complex thing. Retro games are usually nothing that complicated. I hope that kids enjoy a lot of the simpler retro and social games of today. It's easier to get into games that way, right? If there were nothing in this world but big budget games that took 100 or 200 people to create, they wouldn't know how they were made, or how they could join in. I worried before that kids wouldn't be able to see a future in it - that they'd give up their chance at this career. Now we have tons of retro games and small-scale titles out there. Kids can think "I can do this too. I should consider it." That leads to trying out programming. It's just like how we all got into it long ago, happening right now. And if people can use Kickstarter to gather money to do what they want, that'll help kids' dreams grow even larger. So I don't want kids to be shy or think it's too hard; just make what you think is fun and get it out there. A creator needs to go out and say "I got this idea - what do you think?" If you have a lot of pride and someone says "This is no good - it sucks!" or "This has been done before..." that can be a disappointment. But lots of people think about this stuff and don't present their ideas. As a creator, you can't let yourself do that. You need the bravery to show off your ideas, even if you get slammed for it. I think kids need more of that kind of courage.

I think that Mighty No. 9 might have a lot to teach them about game development in that way, since it's a project running on Kickstarter that doesn't need a massive team for it to work. 

I do feel, as a game creator, that the future lies in Kickstarter. The kids who'll be game creators in the future are there, too. It's like video games have always been stratified in assorted ways, but now this crowdfunding system provides a way to break all of that down. So it's an interesting experiment. It feels like a game in itself. I feel like my life is a game, in a way, and along those lines, I enjoy life like I do video games. Japanese people always look for stability. They don't like abandoning their position in life. I think that's because they think where they are now is the best there is. But I want to keep challenging myself to try new things. I've worked on many projects with 20- or 30-million dollar budgets, but collecting one million dollars on Kickstarter isn't something I see as less than that. I see this as another big challenge. I'm working with gamers, and while it's a smaller game, I can go back to the past and try that style of development again. I see it as a big challenge. I feel like we can make something really cool here. To a game creator, being able to make fun things is vital. Kickstarter provides a future path for the game industry, and a future path for myself, too, I think. So to me, I think Kickstarter is a really good system.  

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That was definitely an interesting interview, which you can find in full here. We look forward to hearing more from Keiji Inafune, as well as the rest of the Mighty No. 9 team in the near future.