Infinity, Beyond: A Small Japanese Studio Braces for the Future

Infinity, Beyond: A Small Japanese Studio Braces for the Future

How the developer behind 8-bit cult classic The Battle of Olympus has survived nearly 30 years of industry upheavals, and what's next for the company.

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First-person RPG classic Ultima Underworld, converted to PlayStation by Infinity.

This connection to imported PC classics didn't come about by chance; Horimoto has always had a fondness for Western games. (We conducted our interview entirely in English—a first for me in all my years interviewing Japanese developers.)

"I enjoyed going to Akihabara shops to find imported English magazines for games, buying them and reading them. I first saw Populous in one of these magazines. It was just some screenshots and a brief description, not very detailed, but at first sight I liked it. So, I recommend to my client, 'You should buy this IP and sell the game in Japan.'

"We went to England and met with Peter Molyneux, and the publisher bought the rights to publish the game in Japan. After that, they'd only ask me to come back for games from Europe or the United States. I worked for them for several years. Later, Electronic Arts established an office in Tokyo, and I knew the Japanese president, Mr. Honda, so he asked me to convert Ultima Underworld. I liked that game, so I enjoyed converting it. And Imagineer, the company that published Populous, they bought the rights for Doom, so I enjoyed it and bringing it to Japanese computers. I studied the source code and figured out how to convert it to different computers... writing, learning, all those different computers... those were very good days."

Unfortunately, the PlayStation port of Ultima Underworld would be Infinity's final Western conversion—not due to a lack of interest on Horimoto's part, but because those ventures were no longer necessary. Windows 95 broke down the barriers to the international computing market, and Microsoft's platform became a global standard. The homegrown PCs Infinity had worked with became obsolete almost overnight, and there was increasingly little call for Infinity to produce console ports of those games as consoles became a part of PC developers' overall business plan from the start.

"Many years ago, in the United States and Europe, PC games were very common. In Japan, the popular PCs were NEC’s PC-9801 and Sharp's X86000, which were different from other PCs. Our role was to port the software. But once Microsoft launched Windows 95, all the PCs in Japan changed into Windows PCs. So we moved to console games. PlayStation, Nintendo GameCube, Wii and PSP, and in Japan, mobile consoles...

"There was no business in ports, and a lot of companies shut down at that time. [After Windows 95] the only job left for porting computer games was translating languages, but that’s not my job." Horimoto laughs. "It’s boring.

"Since that time, we've always worked for clients, not independently. Well, we are independent, of course, but we always develop for clients, so we never create original games."

Microsoft may have used "Start Me Up" as its ad theme for Windows 95, but the operating system represented the end for Infinity's core business.

The world beyond

Which brings us to the company's next challenge. The impending death of console games in Japan poses as great a threat to Infinity's well-being as the Windows takeover 20 years ago. And once again, Horimoto is working to establish a new alternative: In this case, a second studio in Singapore. Thanks to that country's unique history and culture, Horimoto believes that building a presence in Singapore will give Infinity a foot in the door of the two largest—and, more importantly, two of the fastest-growing—mobile markets in the world: The Chinese-language audience, and the English-language audience.

"Nowadays, mobile games are kind of like services rather than games. I don’t like that; I just want to make games."

"I like Singapore very much," he says. "I've travelled there several times, and Singapore is the best place to develop English games. Many people come to Singapore, and the majority of the nation is Chinese, so it's a very big market.

"Nowadays, mobile games are kind of like services rather than games. I don’t like that; I just want to make games. But in Japan, it’s very difficult to concentrate on the games themselves. Many companies approach their mobile games as services, and they think that they can break into the U.S. and make big money. But my interest isn't there—I just want to make games that people like, and if they pay some money for those games, then I'm OK.

"To keep on, to continue working on our games... I don't think there's much future in Japan."

Beyond the financial opportunities presented by breaking into new territories, though, Horimoto hopes that branching out beyond Japan will give Infinity the opportunity to create its own original properties and game concepts—something that's been off the table for the company for more than 25 years.

Infinity's prospective move into Singapore could change that, though. Horimoto sees in the burgeoning Chinese mobile market the sort of opportunity and unpredictability that charactered the Famicom era. "Nowadays, mobile phones in China are in an interesting situation," he says. "Many small manufacturers release their own phones everyday, and that’s really fun. And so many people are gathering together and competing with them and making their own hardware. I want to make games for them."

Horimoto admits this poses a tremendous challenge. Infinity's Tokyo studio needs to continue production on existing and new projects while the Singapore venture gets off the ground, which has forced him to work at a very deliberate pace. And, of course, there's the personal connection.

"I was born here, so it’s a bit difficult to leave here and start somewhere else," he says. "I like Japan and Japanese people. But the console market has been shrinking every year, and it’s very difficult to find work in the console market. I find that mobile phones are our best opportunity.

"In Japan, the PC market is [almost nonexistent], and has been for almost 30 years now. So many people here don’t know that PC games are good. Of course, I know—I play many games on Steam! And the console market, like the PS4 and Xbox One, only big companies make games for them. It’s very difficult. I think my company’s particular scale… I have about 70 people, and some jobs are outsourced, so a project’s scale is around 20-30 people. That scale fits the Nintendo 3DS, small mobile phone games, mobile console games. But that market is shrinking"

Horimoto gives the example of Infinity's Run for Money games on 3DS. Based on a long-running Japanese reality TV game show, Horimoto says the first Run for Money (released in 2012) did quite well—but its most recent sequel didn't do nearly so well, hampered by the increasingly weak 3DS domestic market. Still, why take the drastic step of opening a new branch overseas to create new software rather than simply attempting to take existing games into new regions?

Run for Money Tousouchuu, an Infinity-developed game based on a Japanese game show.

Unfortunately, Horimoto says, that's practically impossible: "It’s a very good question, but because we work for our clients, copyright is a barrier for us. I want to publish [internationally], but first I have to consult my clients, and they don’t want to publish a domestic [licensed] game around the world. So many copyrights around these games—it's very difficult.

"Also," he adds, "character styles are completely different between the U.S. and Japan. Over the last 10 years, we've concentrated on games for younger players, and they are very simple with very cute characters. Nowadays, Japanese characters are accepted in the U.S. and Europe, but they aren’t the majority. I think they are a minority, and many, many people don’t like such big eyes and big mouths—they think characters who look like children and behave like adults are really weird, right?"

However, the creative gears are already turning. Freed of the constraints of licenses and publishers, Horimoto has several ideas for game projects once his company's new branch gets off the ground—ideas bound to have more international appeal than 3DS releases based on Japanese kids' brand.

"I have simpler ideas," he says, "and I also have some assets for them already. One is based on hide-and-seek, but your human characters play with animals. That’s for kids. And the other’s a zombie game. It’s very difficult to make those games in Japan because—I don’t know why—the Japanese hate that. I can’t understand why Japan don’t like zombies, but in the West, zombies are very common, and my idea is a bit different from the first-person shooting. It’s a strategy game... but I can’t tell you more yet," he says with a laugh. Excited as Horimoto may be for his company's future, he's not quite ready to divulge its secrets just yet.

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