If you're a big fan of The Idolmaster series, I have some bad news for you. In a post on the official Idolmaster blog (translated via Gematsu), general director Akihiro Ishihara announced that he was leaving Bandai Namco Entertainment. His previous credits include directing The Idolmaster, The Idolmaster: Live For You!, The Idolmaster SP, The Idolmaster 2, and The Idolmaster: One For All.
"There is no one reason for my leave, but one of the major reasons I'm leaving is because I want to see my own ideal IP come to form," said Ishihara. "I think The Idolmaster is an example of a strong IP, because it will continue even without me. While in the process of speaking with many of the actors/actresses and staff who love The Idolmaster, I felt like it's already in good hands."
It's the first statement that's really important. Ishihara is leaving Bandai Namco to blaze his own trail as an independent developer. He's looking to create his own project without corporate oversight, something he owns. That doesn't necessarily have to be a game - Idolmaster is much larger than just the games - but it's likely that's the direction he's going in.
Japanese developers going independent isn't a new thing. Platinum Games was formed primarily of members from Capcom's Clover Studio. The folks behind Treasure were former developers employed by Konami. Tango Gameworks was founded in 2010 by Shinji Mikami, the creator of Capcom's Resident Evil. Tri-Ace is comprised of developers that used to work for Telenet Japan. Inti Creates is also ex-Capcom devs. Monolith Soft was created by Xenogears director Tetsuya Takahashi when he realized that Squaresoft was going to focus Final Fantasy games exclusively. Dimps was formed by ex-SNK and Capcom developers. If you haven't noticed, most of these indie developers are pretty awesome. (And Capcom has been slowly building Japan's larger independent developers by accident?)
The process isn't rare, but it's becoming increasingly common these days. Developers who have long worked under the control of major Japanese publishers are striking out on their own now. After a 23-year career Keiji Inafune left Capcom to form Comcept; he's still in the hole with Mighty No. 9, but at least he's doing what he wants. Koji Igarashi left Konami after 24 years because the publisher wouldn't let him develop more 2D Castlevania titles. He successfully kickstarted Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Hideo Kojima finally left Konami behind to form a brand-new Kojima Productions.
Going independent is a chance for these game developers to strike out and really get creative. Sure, a number of them tend to fall back into the same things that made them popular in the first place, but that's a choice, one they may not have had previously. With platforms like Steam and the new indie-friendly focus from Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft, these developers now have the ability to easily reach their fans; they don't have to rely on a larger publisher if they don't want to. New studios make the Japanese gaming community more creative and more productive.
Are they always successful? Not really. Tomonobu Itagaki's only release since leaving Team Ninja was Devil's Third, a game Nintendo has seemingly decided to forget about. Sonic Team head Yuji Naka went on to make Prope, a company that's made a number of games, but nothing of note. Still, they have the chance to make the games they feel are emotionally fulfilling. They have the ability to take chances if they so desire.
Do I want developers to continue propping up older characters and worlds like Final Fantasy, Mega Man, Metal Gear, and Castlevania? Sure, but I'm also willing to take either wholly new ideas or slightly skewed takes those old topics. I'd like a new Belmont, but I'm more than happy with Igarashi turning his attention towards Bloodstained's Miriam. Mikami isn't playing with Chris, Jill, Leon, Claire, and the rest of the Resident Evil family, but the The Evil Within gave him a chance to cut loose more than he would have on Capcom's flagship title. Platinum Games has had the chance to bring its awesome action gameplay to a ton of different properties, including Bayonetta, The Wonderful 101, Transformers, Metal Gear, and soon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The big publishers are great repositories of history, but I think these smaller indie developers are the way forward for the Japanese development community. And though I've never been a big Idolmaster fan, I'm sure Akihiro Ishihara will have something new for his fans soon. You'll get that and more Idolmaster. It's the best of both worlds, isn't it?