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Keiji Inafune sets the record straight on Japanese video games Exclusive
Keiji Inafune sets the record straight on Japanese video games
September 21, 2012 | By Kris Graft

September 21, 2012 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Keiji Inafune -- he's best known for his integral work on such beloved video game franchises as Mega Man, Onimusha, and Resident Evil.

He's also known for laying into the Japanese game industry every now and then.

But it's a misconception that the most vocal critic of the old guard of the Japanese video game industry somehow has a deep-rooted disdain for his domestic peers. If anything, Inafune isn't anti-Japanese games -- he seems anti-corporate, and pro-game creator.

So it might seem somewhat ironic that he's working with one of Japan's "old guard" corporate game publishers, Tecmo Koei, on the flashy action zombie-slashing game Ninja Gaiden Z (U.S.-based Spark Unlimited is also working on the game, making it a multi-party, global creative effort). Inafune assures me that as far as the game's overarching vision goes, he's the creative in charge. And I tend to believe him.

When you talk to Inafune the game creator, instead of Inafune the Japanese game industry critic, he offers compelling insight. Here are a few examples from when I chatted with him at the Tokyo Game Show.

On collaboration with Western studios:

"Western [developers] still really love and respect Japanese games. They want to work with Japanese creators. Every time I work with a Western developer, they're so willing to take in my ideas on game creation. Then on top of that, they do what they do best -- they know how to appeal to a Western audience. Every time I've worked with Western developers, I've had a really good collaboration."

On concepts (ideas and vision are Comcept's expertise):

"The most important part of making a [game] concept is having a vast, wide vision. Because when people try to come up with a concept for a game, they're preoccupied with common tropes in gaming, in genres. Then you get all of these thoughts that hinder the free thinking. You have to have the core, then the details come afterwards, after you have this strong concept. When I'm coming up with a concept, I try to have a wide vision, I try to take in whatever is around. I try not to be preoccupied by game concept stereotypes.

ninja gaiden z 2.jpg"When you're thinking of the initial concept, you can't think, 'is this good for the West' and 'is this good for the East.' That hinders the free thinking."

On mobile game development:

"There's a tendency to say that mobile gaming is separate from console gaming. I don't see it that way. I'm creating a couple titles for mobile, but I'll do something on mobile, on 3DS, on Vita, on console. I don't think of them separately. It's all about what you create, and what you want to create, as a creator. If I want to create something that'll fit for 3DS, I'll make it for smartphone. If it's suited for smartphone, I'll create for that."

On knowledge sharing:

"That's probably true, how Japanese developers kind of hide their knowledge, compared to the Western industry, where they knowledge-share proactively. 'Super-officially,' we do have CEDEC and different conventions that mimic your GDC. It's like we 'wanna-be' GDC [laughs]. [Those kind of conferences] exist in Japan, but in Japan, it's more about the company than the individual. 'Super-officially' it looks like a cooperation between big studios, but really the companies' profit comes first. In the U.S., it's more about the individual. In Japan, it's more about the company.

"It's really hard for creators to do real knowledge sharing. It's just difficult. And if there was any knowledge sharing at all, they'd do it behind the companies' backs.

"...I believe that [secrecy] did corrupt the Japanese game industry over the years. There hasn't been that individualism for the creators. It's been all about the company and the business. And when you're strong and stand as an individual, as a creator, in the Japanese game industry, [your company] rips you apart."

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Joe Zachery
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Wants to change gaming, and makes a Ninja/Zombie game. Ya your part of the problem!

Jason Lee
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You're, not your. Also, this is the man that brought us Megaman and the original Resident Evil and you're really going to diss him? Anyways, the real strength of a game comes from its gameplay and mechanics, which Inafune has demonstrated a mastery of presenting new ideas and a high degree of quality to that in spades. And one more point: one can have an idea or vision that's conventional or non-original, but still have it be vast and wide. Many original and or simply powerful ideas come from working within a space that's usually defined by tropes and stereotypes. Without knowing anything about Inafune is approaching Ninja Gaiden Z, how it will play, and what kind of creativity or new ideas he might bring into a seemingly straightforward idea, who are you to call him a "part of a problem"?

Or are you simply trying to troll bait us?

Eric McConnell
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I have to admit when I saw the trailer, "Back from dead, to fight the undead, and kill your killer" I lol

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Kevin Fishburne
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@Eric "I have to admit when I saw the trailer, "Back from dead, to fight the undead, and kill your killer" I lol"

No place to Hideo, either, because the truck have started to move and all your base are belong to us. Dammit.

Duvelle Jones
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You know for all Infune's talk about adapting to the player base, there is something to be said about losing the individual scope of a game in development. I get it, you have to appeal to the broader market... but the first reaction that I kind of see to that is "Make a American game", which fail to identify the cultural influences that a developer has on a game.

They are Japanese, like it or not, and that culture will show in any work that they do at some point. I think the thing that Infune has been pointing out for years now is, it's a matter of where and how much.
Sometime, to simply be thick in that is for the best. And some times, it's isn't. It is simply a matter of identifying what is necessary for a game and it's vision (if any), which is far from easy to understand.

Eric Kwan
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I agree. I feel like Capcom's games' quality started to decline when it tried to chase after "Western flavor" during Inafune's reign.

I think it's better to favor your strengths and do certain things really well than to do a bunch of things with mediocrity.

Duvelle Jones
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@Eric Kwan
Well that is the thing, lately I have been getting the feeling that this broad dash to appease the international market may have taken with it that unique factor in most japanese developed games in the past.
Part of this comes for the absolute flood of games during the Playstation era's where companies more or less tossed anything against a wall and demand was so high that it would stick. That wasn't going to last forever, and come the PS3 it's was clear that developers hit a wall. In doing so, companies do what most companies do in a crisis like that... they stick to what keeps trucking in money in a bit to keep the lights on. It also means keeping up the appearance of that flood and that is when most begin to see the strings keep the whole game aloft...

The other is the not so much the market, but something that if you look at the career of Inafune... it's something that he knows intimately. The salery-man business culture that permeates Japan doesn't support passionate development. Which is a bigger problem to tackle.
Good games are hard work, even in the indie scene is takes years for one to go to from proto-type to product (usually). Inbetween that is a whole lot of passion in their work. Something that clashes with business culture on a whole... since that means simply not talking a lot about a game in development, since it means that there are many checks and balances in place to keep a development from extending in scope (and costing more money and resources). But that is something that really has to happen some times and when you have any company that is adverse to risk... it's like getting blood from stone.
Now add in a shift to something that a developer doesn't really have an understanding of, like oh... "What makes a American game?" and you have quite a few people stumbling over to understand what that is, what changes have to be made, etc. It has yet to really end well from my POV.

Not to say that there isn't things that Japanese developers couldn't learn from American developers, because there is plenty to learn. But to ape that development for the sole sake of it lacks a passionate care that players see (or don't see) in games they play.
And that is the crux I think.

@Zack Durden:
That is mostly out of trail and error. But in that painful process (given that you survive it) you begin to understand what works and what doesn't in the development cycle. The thing that I have noticed is that... at some point it's still a Japanese game. And that is something that I value...

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a rather poor example since.... well, it's not really developed by the Japanese. Mercury Steam (from Spain), more or less, have be running that show and frankly... it goes too much in a direction that I didn't want as a player and a fan of the franchise. Maybe it is me, but I think that they tired to make the game too action based, in the vain of God of War. And frankly, it lacks the things that make Castlevania stand out, the platforms elements lacked, the puzzles where not that great nor challenging, etc.
And I think that it's rather telling that Mercury Steam is moving on after Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2/ Castlevania: Lords of Shadow-Mirror of Fate and not continuing with their series. They tried, the game itself is solid enough but it was just keeping up with the jones' and not standing out on it's own.

wes bogdan
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From what i know nintendo doesn't set out to make a metroid ,mario or zelda they just pitch idea's and over time the game takes shape it could start leaning towards one game or another and end up as a totally different game.

That's stark contrast to western games where even if different teams cycle on call of duty,halo or god of war the intent is to to make the given game...and while i enjoy western games i seek out original games like the platinum wii u superhero pikmin game-the new 101 but western game developers are focused on series which already exist and imo that's unfortunate.

Japan's game market might've weakened but great stuff like tearaway,locoroko,pattapon or katimari wouldn't have seen the light of day without it. I still love a good jrpg because of games like crono trigger,final fantasy 4 and the dragon quest series. It saddens me to think these once system defineing series back on ps one and ps2 even are religated to the handheld's and will never again be as widespread as even the ps2 days.

I believe western developers could learn alot from the way japan tosses idea's around without attaching for the next "" game. From what i've heard internal teams say at square enix compete not sharing even within the same company and that's detrimential because with two seperate teams working on seperate games one might've solved an engine issue months agao and the other team would NEVER know so the walls of compitition must crumble.

Insomniac and naughty dog would share tech back on ratchet /jack ps2 era and that's where japan must get to where companys aren't affraid / in compitition with each other to the point of becoming an island onto themselves.

West and east could lean alot from each other and perhaps cure sequilitise at the same time.

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I think you hit the nail on the head with your assessment of what Nintendo may do in game development R&D. I think that is why even when they come out with a next in line it never really feels exactly the same as the last one made. I also think that how they keep their ideas fresh. There was no F-Zero or Starfox Wii, and the reason why seemed to be summed up to "the ideas are just not fresh for those kind of games." It might not have meant that there wasn't some sort of low level gaming development happening with those games, just that the ideas to make something quite different was not happening to move the franchise forward.

Uzoma Okeke
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"And when you're strong and stand as an individual, as a creator, in the Japanese game industry, [your company] rips you apart."

Kind of makes me want to hear the opinions of big names in the industry from Japan on this.