Postcard from GDC 2005: Lessons from Viewtiful Joe: Making a Creatively and Financially Successful New Game
March 11, 2005
Atsushi Inaba, CEO of Capcom's Clover Studio and creator of Steel Battalion and Viewtiful Joe knows a bit about taking risks. Steel Battalion was bundled with a huge, very expensive controller, and Viewtiful Joe was essentially a 2D beat-em-up, neither of these being an obvious choice for development in this day and age. Why did he take such risks? Because, Inaba says, players get tired of the same old thing. It's always going to be easiest to stick to what works - rehashes, established genres or themes (such as sports), but this is self-destructive, he says.
Originality is all well and good, but of course no company should rush headlong into a design without first thinking it through. Inaba feels as though many seemingly creative and original games are a bit too haphazardly created. You must find the seed of inspiration in a project, and nurture it, growing it into a large tree, or finished product.
Nobody really wants to take responsibility for this step of nurturing the seed, as if the project fails, then someone has to take the blame. That's why Inaba says that a good producer that has nurtured a seed into a tree, must not be afraid of lopping off branches that have gone in the wrong direction, while simultaneously continuing to water this seed. Indeed, a good producer will stop development entirely if he or she cannot truly envision how the product could turn into an excellent game. Being 80 percent sure is not enough.
Inaba also warns against taking on too many challenges at the same time. With Steel Battalion, he took on new hardware (Xbox had just been released, at the time), a new controller, new genre, and online play. Ultimately online play had to be scrapped, as it was entirely too ambitious from the start. Steel Battalion, a game made five years ago, wound up breaking even. In this regard he lucked out, but he mentioned that he would probably not attempt such a project again, with the knowledge he has now.
There are several reasons why original designs can fail, and Inaba outlined a few during his talk: underperformance of the original concept, insufficient planning in the early development stages, hardware limitations, unmanageable workload, and exhaustion of creators' motivation (i.e. don't make a game with brute force). Of course, there are also some compelling reasons to make creative or unusual projects. Inaba discussed three of these: Staff-focused, Product-focused, and Brand-focused projects.
Staff-focused projects are all about educating and raising the skill level of the staff. This is an investment in creative workers, with limited producer involvement, since experience is the best trainer. The game outcome is not as important as the metaphorical leveling up of the staff members, in this scenario. Inaba says that a group of staff that made three games in three years will be much better off than a group that made one game in three years.
Viewtiful Joe was just such a project, designed to increase the skill of the game's director, Hideki Kamiya (though Kamiya was already very accomplished, with such titles as Resident Evil 2 and Devil May Cry already under his belt). Kamiya promised to deliver a game within 12 months, but the game ultimately wound up taking 21 months instead. Inaba was discouraged by this, but regained hope when he saw the VFX system in that game, which allows time to be sped up or slowed down. This was the seed that needed to be nurtured into a full product.
With Viewtiful Joe, they won. The staff got trained, the budget was small, and the game was relatively commercially successful.
Steel Battalion was a product-focused project. It was all about creating a quality peripheral and appropriate software to go with it. Staff growth was secondary to this. The team was challenged to learn the new hardware and produce an unconventional controller. The success of this would make the next gamble possible. The game and controller were both highly acclaimed, but very little profit was made. But that's not why it was done, Inaba says, they did it to show what can be done in the game industry that can be done in no other.
Clover Studios' next project is Okami, a brand-focused project. The game is going to be Clover Studios' first, and so it must reflect the company's new image. It has an original visual style, and should, Inaba hopes, establish Clover as a company for the future.
Inaba summed up by reminding the audience that the market will shrink when users get tired of the norm. The videogame industry cannot thrive on sex and violence alone, there must be something new every once in a while, or else there will be another big game bust. As for how to recognize a good title from a bad one, Inaba says that many people will say that developers should look at other media. He disagrees; submitting that literature perhaps has more to teach us.