TGS: Mighty No. 9, the "First McDonald's in Japan" of Games

TGS: Mighty No. 9, the "First McDonald's in Japan" of Games

We catch up with Comcept's Keiji Inafune to discuss his project's reception back home, fearlessness of failure, and more of those hamburger metaphors he loves so much.

When last we spoke with Comcept's CEO Keiji Inafune, it was... oh, about three weeks ago at PAX Prime. He had just launched a Kickstarter for a new project, Mighty No. 9, a decidedly Mega Man-like venture developed by his former collaborators on the Mega Man series, Inti Creates.

A matter of hours after our previous meeting, his fundraiser hit its lofty initial goal and kept right on climbing. While crowd-funded games have become a matter of course in the West, they're still quite a novelty in Japan; Mighty No. 9 is one of the very first high-profile Japanese video game ventures to use the site. The game project is on track to become one of the five most profitable video game Kickstarters ever, and it's been a constant source of discussion on the English-language Internet. So, in the shadow of Tokyo Game Show 2013, it seemed natural to take the temperature of responses to the game here in its homeland.

Fan art of all stripes inundated the Mighty No. 9 team almost as quickly as money did.

Disclosure: While I am not directly involved in the creation of Mighty No. 9, I hosted the PAX panel at which it was announced and am backing the Kickstarter at the $100 level.

USgamer: Congratulations on the Kickstarter. Since the last time I talked to you, you’ve passed your goal and then some. People seem pretty enthusiastic about the project.

Keiji Inafune: Yeah. I’ve been able to feel the heat from the users and our partners like Inti Creates and 8-4. Everyone that’s involved, we’re all sharing that same excitement. I’m really happy that we’ve been able to do the Kickstarter.

Before, in my previous work, when I was creating something… I was the creator and there were the users. There was always a wall between the creator and the users – the publisher, the company. But through this Kickstarter, I was able to feel what the fans wanted, what the fans were talking about. I was able to hear that directly. The good feelings about everything comes to me directly. That’s what I’ve really enjoyed about the Kickstarter.

"Users are going to want a lot of Mega Man-like stuff, and the creators are going to want to put a lot of Mega Man-ish essence in the game. But if we do that too much, the final product won’t turn out to be very much fun."

I was thinking back to the early days when I first created Mega Man. During those days, I wasn’t thinking about the company or anything. I was just thinking about, what do I want to create? I was purely dedicated to the creation. But as the years went on, I was more involved in management. I had to worry more about company stuff, stockholders and everything like that. Now, through the Kickstarter and Mighty No. 9, I was able to feel that same kind of enthusiasm that I felt when I was first creating Mega Man. I feel like I’ll be able to create a classic game in Mighty No. 9 with that same kind of mind state, that kind of soul.

USG: You're the boss at Comcept, though. Can your resurgent enthusiasm coexist with your other duties and responsibilities, or does one get in the way of the other?

KI: Of course, there are times that I have to put my love into the project in a different way, a different capacity. Right now, I have to pull my attention away from Soul Sacrifice and toward Mighty No. 9. But what I always do is, I put my feeling and my full enthusiasm into what’s in front of me. I do that on every project that I have. Because of that, there’s not going to be a weird imbalance or anything. I’m 100 percent into what I’m working on. This is something I’ve been doing for years.

Daily updates on the game offer an unusual degree of transparency into the development process -- the Mega Man Legends 3 "development room" concept brought back to life, this time without the limitations of a publisher.

In my Capcom days, that’s what I got used to doing. So I’m not having that much of a problem balancing things out. Also, I selected the producers on this title, and they’re the ones who are going to have pour the biggest love into the title, as well as have the biggest responsibility toward the title. I’m a concepter and I’m involved in every title, but the producer is the one giving the most love. Because of that, there’s no problem in balancing things out.

Nick Yu: "Love," as in "sleep time." [laughter]

USG: I’ve gotten a good sense, I think, of your role in the game through the backer updates on the project. But I was wondering if you could elaborate more on precisely what part you’re playing. And how does it compare to your work on things like Onimusha or Dead Rising?

KI: On Mighty No. 9, I already have a very clear concept and image of the game in my mind. From here on, what I need to do is decide how I deliver this image to the team, and also hear what their image is and talk about that and decide where the landing point is going to be.

With this project, what we’re trying to do is make a classic game, a game with the Mega Man feel to it. Users are going to want a lot of Mega Man-like stuff, and the creators are going to want to put a lot of Mega Man-ish essence in the game. But if we do that too much, the final product wouldn’t turn out to be very much fun. I know that’s not going to lead us to success. Because of that, the game itself has to have a real solid system and concept behind it. So my mission to continuously deliver this message to the staff members, so everybody won’t be pulled in different directions by what they want to do. We’ll keep on the right track.

It’s like the first McDonald’s that came to Japan. Just having one of us in Japan won’t make a lot of difference, but this could lead to the second and the third until there’s a bunch of us in Japan and everybody knows about it.

It’s the same as how it was with Onimusha and Dead Rising. I have my vision, and I deliver that vision to the team. Then I give them the freedom to come up with their own ideas about it. After that, I’ll bring them on to the right path. The more freedom that the team members are able to have, the more success that leads to, in my experience.

There were titles where the team members could try to ignore what I’m saying, because I was always really busy – “He’s too busy, so we can show this to him later.” Projects that moved on like that tended to go off the rails. If it went too far off, I wasn’t able to pull it back in the right direction. Because of that, I feel like it’s really important for me to be able to light the way for the team.

USG: The Mighty No. 9 project is interesting, because it’s a game being made in Japan, but it was announced in America to an American audience. And I haven’t seen a lot of Japanese projects on Kickstarter. What has the response been like here?

KI: Through this project, a lot of people who didn’t know about Kickstarter got to know Kickstarter, or the system behind it. There are also a lot of people who knew what Kickstarter is, but never thought that you could have a Kickstarter project from Japan. There are other indies people who wanted to do it, but didn’t know how to do it, or weren’t sure if they were going to succeed. They weren’t able to step out and do a Kickstarter. But since they saw someone close to them – someone in the same country – doing this and succeeding and being able to reach beyond their goal, that’s probably giving a lot of people encouragement.

This semi-official team-up with WayForward's Shantae: 1/2 Genie Hero resulted from fan art by an Inti Creates developer -- another facet of the team's international outlook

It’s like the first McDonald’s that came to Japan. [This project] is like that first McDonald’s. Just having one of us in Japan won’t make a lot of difference, but this could lead to the second and the third until there’s a bunch of us in Japan and everybody knows about it. I hope that this first step will lead to that. It’s not going to happen right away, but I hope that in two or three years, Kickstarter will be a regular thing that people here use to create their games.

NY: Of course, Project Phoenix was the first...

USG: Given the leading step you’re taking here, do you feel any extra pressure? Like there are a lot of eyes on you?

KI: A lot of people have asked me the same thing. People have asked me, “Isn’t there extra pressure getting the users’ money ahead of time, before you create the game?” But it’s basically the same thing. It’s just a matter of when you receive the money. During my Capcom days, I was creating games with the money we’d already received from users. So I feel the same responsibility to them. It’s just a matter of when the money comes – now or later.

I felt that same pressure and responsibility toward the users before, and on top of that, I’d feel pressure and responsibility toward Capcom, because I was using Capcom’s money to make my games. But now I’m not using Capcom’s money. It’s purely the users’ money. So the pressure is actually only half of what it used to be. I feel more free. There’s something that’s more pure going on here than what I was experiencing back in the older days.

USG: Actually, what I meant by pressure was not so much about the nature of Kickstarter, but the fact that you are one of the first high-profile Japanese projects, and an independent project as well, to take this route. Is there any pressure of expectation from other developers looking toward how this goes for you?

KI: I’ve always been at the forefront of creating new things and doing new things. Maybe not on the level of someone like Shigeru Miyamoto, but I’ve always tried to do new and innovative things. Once, when people were saying it was the end of Capcom, I was there to prove them wrong. I was leading everyone to show that it wasn’t the end of Capcom. I’m used to being looked at in that kind of position, so I’m not feeling too much pressure there. Personality-wise, I’m able to stay relaxed, even though I’m in that position.

While we were planning the Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter, Mr. Aizu, the president of Inti Creates, was always very worried. “What are you going to do if we don’t reach the goal?” I was always telling him, “Think about it. There’s no way that this is not going to reach the goal. I’m here. I'm going to do this. We’re all here. There’s no way we’re not going to reach our goal.” You have to have that kind of confidence to be able to accomplish something like this. That’s my personality, my mind state. So I’m feeling pretty relaxed in this situation.

"People are always afraid of embarrassment, but that doesn’t scare me. I’m not scared of losing. I just have a really strong eagerness to win."

Another thing is that… when people try to challenge something, the thing you always feel is fear. “What if I do a Kickstarter campaign? I’m Keiji Inafune. A lot of people know me through my past creations. But what if I do a Kickstarter and I’m only able to gather like $200,000? What if I don’t hit the minimum goal? That’s going to be embarrassing.” People are always afraid of embarrassment, but that doesn’t scare me. I’m not scared of losing. I just have a really strong eagerness to win.

I want to win, but I’m not afraid of losing. I created Mega Man, but I also created Dead Rising. These are two totally different kinds of games, and I was able to do this because I’m not scared to go out in another direction and fail. Many creators are tied to their one kind of creation, because they’re afraid to go outside that box. I don’t have that fear. That’s probably another reason why I can stay relaxed in this situation.

USG: You’ve had some pretty sharp words for the state of the Japanese game development industry. I’m curious -- today, out on the show floor at this TGS, have your feelings changed at all? What were your thoughts on what you’ve seen?

KI: I’ve been so packed up in meetings and interviews that I haven’t been able to get out on the show floor for a moment, so I can’t really say anything first-hand. But seeing the pictures people have been posting on Facebook and things like that, I’ve been hearing a lot of people saying the aisles are too big. [laughs]

Hopefully Mighty No. 9's "first McDonald's in Japan" spirit will result in healthier things than the real Japanese McDonald's, which offers heart-destroying meals like the seasonal "moon-viewing burger" (a burger with a fried egg on top). [Image source]

Hearing that, maybe there’s not enough energy out there yet. You can’t be energetic if you don’t want to be energetic, if you don’t try to be energetic. First, everyone has to feel that they want to liven up the game industry again, if they want to make that possible.

I might just be a small force, but I hope that I can be a force to show people how to wake up the game industry. I want to be the person who lights that fire. I feel like, if everyone can just wait a little longer, Japan will pick up the pace again.

USG: Some people have taken your comments in recent years to mean you think Japan has lost its talent, lost its fire, and everyone here should be more like American or European developers. But Mighty No. 9 has made a big splash by getting a Japanese team together and really looking back to classic Japanese video game roots. I find that an interesting…maybe not contrast, but I think it runs counter to some people’s expectations based on what you've said in the past.

KI: With this project, there were a lot of people out there overseas from Japan who wanted another Mega Man. Through this project, what I want to do is to reach out to those people, to be able to provide them what they want. But to do that, if I don’t have the original people – if I don’t have Inti Creates to work on the game, or Ms. Matsumae to compose the music – it’s not going to turn out to be the real thing. So that’s why I’m gathering that original team to create this game.

It’s not so much that I’m saying this is all going to be made in Japan, made by Japanese people. I came to this decision because they’re necessary. They have to be the people creating this particular game. But there are people like Ben Judd, 8-4 Ltd., and of course you, who are very international. There are all these very international people who’ve been a part of this project. That was necessary as well. So I feel like the Mighty No. 9 project is actually a big international collaboration.

"It’s not so much that I’m saying this is all going to be made in Japan, made by Japanese people. I came to this decision because they’re necessary. The Mighty No. 9 project is actually a big international collaboration."

The producer of the project, Nick, is Canadian, Chinese, and Japanese – another very international person. To bring this project to the right place, I’ve been creating this international team.

So I feel like my message hasn’t changed from what I was saying a few years ago. It’s all a matter of connections. It’s not as simple as, “We’ll use an American team to make this happen” or “We’ll use a Japanese team to make this happen.” It’s a matter of thinking about what’s necessary to reach your goal and making those decisions.

As you make those decisions, you can’t be tied to ideas like, “This has to be completed in Japan.” You have to have a wider view and try to decide what’s necessary for the project with an open mind.

While Legends 3 didn't garner enough support to impress Capcom during the project's lifetime, fans' belated show of support largely seems to have funneled into Mighty No. 9.

USG: FInally, there was one question I wanted to ask at the PAX panel, but didn’t have the time. It’s about Mega Man, and not Mighty No. 9, if that’s okay.

The Mega Man Legends 3 project met an untimely end, and story-wise, Mega Man is still stranded up there on the moon. Now that the game’s not going to happen, can you shed any light on what plans you had to get him back down to the Earth?

KI: Bringing Mega Man back from the moon was not an easy mission. [laughs] I was talking about the wall between the creator and the users earlier. That wall was actually even higher than the moon. Because of that, the only way we would have been able to bring Mega Man back is to have the users’ opinions be higher than the wall. So that’s why I took the way that I took with Mega Man Legends 3.

We made this website and you could vote if you wanted Mega Man back. If there were enough votes, we were going to consider creating a new title. However, we weren’t able to get enough people together. So that when I decided to leave Capcom, Capcom decided they weren’t going to do the project anymore. Back then, we were able to gather 10,000 people, but that wasn’t enough for them to decide they were going to do it. That’s why it wasn’t possible to bring Mega Man back from the moon.

But with Mighty No. 9, there are already 40,000 people who’ve decided to take a risk on their own to support the project. Of course, back in the day, there wasn’t anything like Kickstarter, so we weren’t able to do anything like that. But if we had been able to do something in a different way, to be able gather everyone’s support in a better way, it might have been able to happen. That’s where it stands right now.

USG: [laughs] That answer was a little more philosophical than I expected.

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