When we caught up with Inis co-founder Keiichi Yano in his company's offices close to the center of Tokyo before the start of this year's Tokyo Game Show, he was in relatively relaxed mode, since he and his staff had just completed production on Elite Beat Agents for DS, to be published by Nintendo in North America this November.
But Yano was kind enough to give a little background on his company, which was formed in 1996, before commenting in detail on how a small 25-30 person developer such as Inis can survive and thrive in the Japanese development scene. The company's background, incidentally, is as the creator of PS2/PSP rhythm action title Gitaroo Man, as well as cult DS music game Ouendan, which is being Westernized as Elite Beat Agents.
Yano started by noting that his company has made a large amount of titles and localization projects that aren't familiar to Western audiences, but are necessary to keep the firm running on a day to day basis. These have included the Japanese localization for Western Xbox title Sudeki, the interface for the voice chat software for the Xbox in Japan, an Asian-specific PSP interactive music title named Rain: Wonder Trip, and even an arcade prototype for a Gundam Pilot Academy from Banpresto.
But even so, when asked about the state of independent development in Japan, he suggested: "The numbers of developers that are about our size are starting to decrease". Yano made the point that Japanese developers are "either smaller or way bigger" - often 60 to 100 employees, to better work on larger development projects.
However, Inis operates as somewhat of a core team for efficiency reasons, since it uses help with art asset creation on its major projects - Yano explains: "We do a lot of outsourcing... a lot of the artwork is [created] by outside companies." This means that the core team at Inis is gainfully employed at all times, and the company can use contractors for when demand is high - a smart approach which is increasingly being used in game companies worldwide.
In fact, Inis has "about the same number of people on each team" (graphics, programming, and design) as of interview time - though Yano noted that the graphics team was marginally the largest. He also commented that: "We always keep programming in-house, because it's the thing that makes a game a game."
But overall, Yano subscribes to the idea that, in a perfect world, the major elements behind a game's creation should always be working closely together in the same physical location: "In order to achieve [high quality game creation], there needs to be a tightness to the team that you can't get with outsourcing." Of course, this is somewhat of a paradox compared to his previous answers, and he also admits: "You can definitely outsource certain aspects - it works in the project we're doing right now."
How about hiring to add to the team at Inis? Yano commented baldly: "Hiring is really a pain in the butt in Japan", noting that for a company like Inis, "it's very hard to get [the right] caliber of person", despite the specialized game schools operating in Japan. However, Inis is starting to attract seasoned developers to bolster its existing staff - the Inis co-founder explains: "We have the lead programmer of Final Fantasy XI on our team right now", an impressive addition to the company.
When quizzed about how Inis gets games signed with publishers like Koei and Nintendo in Japan, and whether the pitch process is different to the West, Yano simply comments: "We just create PowerPoints and white papers", in a similar manner to developers worldwide. He does admit, though: "One of the big differences is that we don't have too many places that we can take our games" - the choice of major publishers is smaller in Japan, in his view.
As for how Ouendan got made for Nintendo, a major coup for the developer, Yano revealed: "We had pitched them another title before, that's how we got to know each other." But they had a major piece of synchronicity, he explains: "The producer was in a Ouendan [club of people who help others accomplish life goals] - he was the leader of a Ouendan" - a perfect fit for the game concept.
How about the Japanese hardware market? Yano grins: "The future is starting to look good again", particularly noting: "Nintendo made a really good comeback... you can't buy their hardware, that hasn't happened since the Famicom." He continues: "I think it's great that the market has just widened."
Yano is also diplomatic and mildly optimistic on the future of the Xbox 360 in Japan, commenting: "If a couple of Sakaguchi RPGs come out, you never know what's going to happen.. it's always good to have 3 competitors." As for the PlayStation 3, he notes: "The price point seems expensive at first... I think time will tell. [Sony] probably will end up getting [significant] market share."
So, what's in Inis' future? The company has shown elements from an Xbox 360 technical demo on its website, and Yano confirmed that they are moving ahead, and we will "eventually" see some kind of Xbox 360 game from his company - no publisher information or game details yet, though. As for other possible projects, Yano commented enthusiastically: "I want to do a Wii game, like everybody else" - but it doesn't appear that any such title is in active development.
Yano's hopes for the next few months and years: "We definitely would like to expand - I would like to work with a U.S. or European publisher, primarily because I can speak the language." But the company still expects its core business to lie with Japanese publishers and the kind of independent, high quality fare which is starting to make Inis' name, both in Japan and the West.