Keiji Inafune sounded an ominous note at the beginning of his presentation during the Game Developers Conference last week, saying to the audience that "there might be some harsh comments, so please be prepared." Turns out the trigger warning from one of Japan's most respected game designers was warranted as he criticized the mindset that's crippling present-day Japanese game development.
During his hour-long session at GDC, Inafune said that he feels like people look at Japanese games as a thing of the past. Titles from his homeland are like the Beatles, Steve McQueen or a 1968 Corvette, he offered, just great memories of former glories. "It's like we're in the Edo period, dressed up in topknots. There's a limit to how far you can go on just those memories. The Beatles will never put out a new song with all four members; Steve McQueen's not going to release a new movie."
"So we just stick to our memories and up-rez a game to ship an HD version," Inafune continued. "Japan has brand power but not people who will pour in effort. They've coasted and not made anything new. It'll be too late when the brands hold no equity. I walk around and am fortunate to have fans say Mega Man! But those fans don't just want Mega Man. They want something more."
Thoughts like this aren't new from the longtime game-maker. Before Inafune left Capcom two years ago, he'd railed against the games coming out of Japan. He's started two new companies—Comcept and Intercept—since then, and has been thinking about how his future games can become globally successful. I interviewed Inafune after his GDC talk and he spoke about how he's trying to move things forward, as well as agreeing with Fez creator Phil Fish's controversial comments about Japanese games.
In development for the 3DS, Comcept's upcoming King of Pirates is based on the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
"Everybody knows the story, especially in China and Japan," Inafune says. And now we're putting it into a new genre. It's so popular is because it delves into human emotion. It's about love, betrayal and friendship. That's going to migrate into a lot of cultures. It's not just about how you look. We all have those emotions."
Even as he's making new games, Inafune doesn't want to escape the connection between himself and his most famous creation. At a talk where Inafune discussed the desire to create new things and leaving the successes of the past behind, the first question he got asked was about Mega Man. Does he want to escape the Blue Bomber's shadow? Not at all. "People have a lot of passion for Mega Man, and it is my baby. So, it's always rewarding to be associated with that character." Inafune compares this dynamic to his own love of movies. If he were ever to meet Ridley Scott, he says, he'd ask him about Alien and the director's other past work. He's a fan, too, and understands how fans react when they meet creators.
Inafune made use of a character that looked like classic character Astro Boy when talking about past Japanese cultural creations that became global phenomenon. That made me think about the symbolism of the two robot heroes. If Astro Boy represents post-war Japan's reconstruction as a world power, where the nation's building themselves back up, then could Mega Man be seen as another kind of representation where Japan takes elements from other cultures and uses that to make themselves stronger? Inafune laughed when I asked him this question, responding "If it was intentional, it would have been really cool, wouldn't it?" "You could say, ‘I'm a genius,'" he chuckles. Inafune admits that that kind of meaning wasn't his intent when he created the Capcom mascot. But the designer said that the early Mega Man games assured him that what he did was very relatable to many audiences and gave him confidence of what he did accomplish. The systems in which Japan's game-making talent operate now only offer a false sense of security, he believes, and that's a danger that denial can't conquer.