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Interview: Mikage On Imageepoch's Speedy Growth, Console Plans

Interview: Mikage On Imageepoch's Speedy Growth, Console Plans Exclusive

January 23, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

January 23, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Though founded in just 2005, Imageepoch's development staff has already expanded to accommodate over 120 employees, split into four teams all working separately on different projects.

The Tokyo-based company has three shipped titles under its belt, all for Nintendo DS -- Sands of Destruction (coming stateside in Fall) and two Luminous Arc releases.

Imageepoch demonstrated its flourishing talents in the latter games, noticeably improving the strategy RPG's combat and presentation with the recently released sequel.

The studio also has announced two highly anticipated titles -- Arc Rise Fantasia, one of very few JRPGs exclusive to Wii; and 7th Dragon, an RPG featuring an all-star development team comprised of Etrian Odyssey director Kazuya Niinou, Phantasy Star designer and director Rieko Kodama, and venerable composer Yuzo Koshiro.

Imageepoch's charismatic president Ryoei Mikage, who also heads one of the studio's four teams, talked with Gamasutra about his studio's rapid growth and console plans -- and hints at a possible "million [selling]-class" action RPG targeting Western audiences.

I want to clarify: Imageepoch was created during the production of Luminous Arc, and has nothing to do with Epoch (Barcode Battler, Doraemon games), the toy and game company, right? Because there's a big confusion in the Western media whether you're the same company.

Ryoei Mikage: Yeah, we're not in any way part of their company. Actually, I made this company with one yen. [laughter]

How did you hire people with one yen?

RM: You can buy five of us! When [Junichiro] Koizumi was prime minister in Japan, he had a plan of the one yen corporation. That was when I was in college, and I started up my company with one yen.

So it was effectively governmental help?

RM: Just a simple plan. Usually, you need 100,000 yen to start up a company, but prime minister Koizumi said, "We'll make it in the system that if you have one yen, you can make a company."

Did you have any idea of what you wanted to do or was it just made up as you went along? Like, you created a company and then you decided to think about what you just created and try to do something?

RM: I started up my company during my fourth year in college. By then, I was working part-time at Sega, and at that time, I was also working for Namco. But looking at the Japanese employment market, it's an environment that doesn't give young people a chance. You need to have certain experience, you need to have some kind of appeal. So, as one of my "appeals", or as an edge, I decided to start up a company.

I know that you made a reference to what Level-5 did, which was to create a new kind of environment for employees in Japan. Do you have a specific philosophy? Or is it just, "Let's do anything that Japanese companies don't do"?

RM: One of the slogans we always say is "Let's all be famous," not just one person. Another is "Let's all get skills," starting from when we don't have skills or when we're still young. And also "Let's all work together." That's one of the philosophies that we always kept, together.

How do you actually get to do that, when quite often in games you need sort of a "face" of the company in order to talk to press and things like that? How can you actually make everyone get this feeling that they are part of the face?

RM: One of the biggest things, that I try to do: In a lot of Japanese development companies, the president will do the speaking, and the president will announce a new title; in my company, I always introduce my producers and directors to the public and say, "These are the people who belong to this project."

And when they're working on their project I don't say anything -- I don't interfere with what they're thinking as creators.

In terms of the organization right now, I believe that you stole away [former Atlus director Kazuya] Niinou and [former Namco director Hiroyuki] Kanemaru.

First of all, it's very rare in the Japanese industry that someone managed to snatch some people. I was wondering how were they convinced and why you brought these people specifically, rather than others?

RM: When we were working at Namco, Kanemaru-san was working on the Tales series, and he was actually my boss. Niinou-san was unemployed at the time, and we had dinner together. We were talking about my vision, and he decided to go along with it. Then, I just noticed he was working for my company. [laughs]

So, it was after he left Atlus? He didn't leave Atlus for you?

RM: Yeah, it just happened that way. He was not with Atlus anymore, he was wandering around.

There are four teams internally at Imageepoch?

RM: Four teams, yes.

And you're one of the bosses?

RM: Yes.

Like [Nintendo CEO/president and once HAL head Satoru] Iwata.

Ryoei Mikage: Yes. [laughs]

I was wondering if the idea for taking specific people and bringing them into your company has anything to do with the production model of movies, since your father was a director?

RM: Realistically, it's not like I'm looking for talents that I want to bring over. I usually just talk to them about what my dreams are, and they come apply to my company. [laughter]

You must be a very good talker.

RM: Yeah, a lot of people say, "You're born with your mouth first." Which means, "You know how to talk a lot."

If I remember correctly, Niinou is not only one of the four directors or producers, he is also an overseeing producer -- I wanted to know the logic of that. For example, does he oversee all projects, even though one is maybe for Marvelous and another is for Sega? How exactly does it work?

RM: Niinou-san's title is producer, and my title is president, but in a management way, yes, he is in charge of looking after all the teams. Financially, he is overseeing everything. As for the game plans, there are some projects that he's not involved in.

I'm really interested in the way the company was set up because I think it is quite unique and it looks like it's performing, because everyone is actually talking about it.

Did you notice any mistakes in the original setup that you arranged or is everything working fine? Are there things that you realized with the first few projects that you announced that required changes in the organization? Because it's a very unique organization.

RM: For the ten year plan that I have in mind, we're on the right track. But is it the best way? I'm not really sure there is an actual best scenario ...

Within the structure that you have, is it easy to adjust for trouble that you may run into in terms of management style or stuff like that?

In Japan, development is done linearly quite often, but in the U.S., we have Scrum and different types of production methodologies. Have you found that with the team setup you have, it's easy to adjust for problems in the steps?

RM: First of all, yes, I think it is easier to adapt to different styles... or anything to make it a better system, but one of the ways that I tend to think about it is, the U.S. is good in that sense because it's easy for people in the U.S. to go to another country and make friends and communicate with other cultures.

Japanese aren't like that. They are really enclosed, and they can only really make friends within the Japanese community. Using sports as an example, like basketball and baseball, if all the teammates are working together with one vision, it makes the team so much stronger. That's one of the things that I'm trying to implement into my company right now.

How did Marvelous and Imageepoch wind up working together?

Hideyuki Mizutani (Marvelous director): Two years ago, we started working together for Luminous Arc. It was a strategy RPG for the Nintendo DS. From there, we talked about doing something with consoles, where we could do something that has a deep story and rich characters. And since the Wii is a new platform, it seemed like a good fit for us to work together.

It seems as though the company grew very very fast from small company to doing multiple projects at the same time. Was it difficult to staff up that quickly?

RM: I started off at Namco with the Tales series, particularly Tales of Symphonia. A lot of the people who worked on that are at Imageepoch now. ...

There aren't that many development companies that are full of young people nowadays. That's one of the things that I had in mind, to have a development company that has a lot of young people in the start-up. So, I didn't have a lot of trouble recruiting people into our company.

So, did you have to train all of these new people? Are they coming from college?

RM: Most of them are experienced, like myself -- I used to start to work on development when I was 16 years old. There are 10-15 staff members that are like straight out of college, and they don't know much, but other than that, they're all experienced.

So, young but inexperienced. Why grow so quickly, in terms of making so many games now? It seemed that you started small with DS, and now you have multiple projects simultaneously and working on console titles. Not that it's a bad thing, but what's the philosophy for it?

RM: My father directed some movies in Hollywood -- because of that, at a young age, like 12 or 13, I always had an image of starting a company, and I always thought that around 120 people per studio is a perfect size.

It's a good enough number for a big project because you need a lot of staff members. At the same time, when there's a small project, it's small enough that I can maneuver around and know what's going on.

So, with 120 people, it's the best to get the good 120. Within these two to three years, I've been handpicking the best players. I preselected good people, and they're on the verge of getting to that, and that's what I'm going after right now.

In a sense, we're still growing from there. We started of with the easiest, with the Nintendo DS, then we went to PSP, and now we're going to Wii. But as we get more good staff and a better studio, we'll of course move forward to 360 and PS3.

What is the ideal company size then for developing on 360 and PS3?

RM: At max, I'm thinking 200 employees. In my mind, I'm never going to go above that.

That's quite a large staff for a new company. It seems like it would be really important to set a vision for the studio in order to keep everyone on the same page. How have you fostered that?

RM: [By] talking about the company vision, what I'm thinking -- and I'm an outspoken person -- the easiest part is that most of the people that I'm recruiting are friends that I've had before. And I know about 400 to 500 developers.

So, from there, just picking 120 isn't that bad. Plus, we [all] have a long, long relationship as friends, so we have a really easy time communicating.

When starting a new company, it seems like a good opportunity to start fresh in terms of development style.

A lot of companies in Japan are still using a really old style -- they don't have a real level designer, everything is just done in spreadsheets, and if there are two projects, the teams aren't allowed to talk to each other -- it's still happening right now.

It's a really good opportunity to start over. Have you done that with new development styles or are you continuing with the traditional style?

RM: Of course, it's still a new company, and we have a lot of employees, which you mentioned, so it is a bit top-down right now. I usually come up with the management, the marketing table, the game genre, and the platform it will come out on. From there, I pitch it to the creative team and have them come up with the creative stuff.

But at the same time, since I graduated from art school and majored in movies, I have a lot of creativity that's coming from there. I'm also studying at law school right now to get my MBA, so I am trying to expand and come up with more new visions in that sense.

I think that in development companies, there aren't that many business/marketing people who are running them. It's more like a creator that rose to the top and then went from there. In my opinion, I want to be a creator and put it together with the business aspect.

With this concept in mind, when I explain that to other people, many understand what I'm trying to say and want to part of it. It goes back to that I said -- I don't have that much of a hard time recruiting people -- it's where that's coming from.

You're making a "core" game on the Wii, which most people are not doing. How do you feel about the environment for traditional games on the Wii?

RM: We always look at the market and look at what's not there, what's missing. And we try to go towards the goal from there. For example, we're looking at Nintendo's Animal Crossing and whatnot. Looking at that, it's like, "Yeah, there aren't [many of] those kinds of games." So, we always have those talks.

It seems as if a game like Arc Rise Fantasia has a larger existing audience for that kind of game for Xbox 360 or PS3 because there are more actual traditional gamers instead of grandparents and moms playing.

What are you looking at in terms of those consoles, because I know you said you were interested in moving to those next.

RM: One of the things is, honestly speaking, I wanted to work on a Nintendo platform. Actually this idea was brought to us by Nintendo, and then we started to go from there. Then we were thinking, "Who has a great relationship with Nintendo?" and from there we decided to go with Marvelous.

And, as you said, Wii is more of a casual gamer platform compared to the Xbox 360 and PS3, but for example, Tales of Symphonia did fairly well domestically in Japan with 300,000 [units sold]. And abroad, we had 500,000. We're not looking for a million-selling title.

At the same time, if [a core title like that] goes to XBox 360 or PS3, there's always a company that's been making those kinds of games, like tri-Ace. We didn't see that it was necessary to compete going into that market.

This environment right now is very different from previous hardware generations; it's really split. What in your opinion and in your company's style would be a million-seller?

RM: There is an action RPG that we're thinking is going to be in the million class. The target audience is Europe first and then U.S.. I'm thinking it doesn't really have to sell in Japan.

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