This story is part of our feature on independent Japanese studio Platinum Games. Check out the rest of our stories here.
Kenji Saito could be an action hero. Lightning bolt patterns are buzzed into his hair, he sits with perfect posture, arms folded. You could almost call him intimidating, if it weren't for the warm glint in his eyes and the unchecked enthusiasm in his voice when he speaks about games. He speaks through an almost bashful smile, and although he sits forward with his elbows on the table, he holds his chin high in a thoughtful manner. He's just wrapped up work as the director on Transformers: Devastation, but he doesn't have the tired stare of a developer at the end of a game cycle. He looks and sounds energized.
"I got a request from [executive producer Atsushi] Inaba-san, a big proposal for Transformers," he says, recalling how he became lead on the project. "I thought it sounded cool. I wrote up a pitch and we gave it to Activision and they were like, 'Yeah, we like it!' Pretty simple, I guess! It was kind of the same with Rising. Inaba-san will request things pretty suddenly and you'll be like, 'What? Okay. All right!'"
Saito began his life as a game developer at Capcom in 2002, cutting his teeth as a programmer on Viewtiful Joe and then its sequels, Viewtiful Joe 2 and Red Hot Rumble. When Clover Studio--a studio funded by Capcom to create original IP under the publisher's label--spun off to be independent, Saito followed founders Atsushi Inaba, Hideki Kamiya, and Shinji Mikami to their new endeavor. Since the team's establishment as Platinum Games in 2006, Saito has worked on a handful of titles, including stepping into the director's chair for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. He wrote the treatment for Transformers: Devastation predominantly solo.
he explains, commenting on how some past Transformers games were poorly received. "I looked at past installments in the series, and I looked at the movies. I tried to take some inspiration from there. I wanted to give it a 'Platinum taste' as well, so I drew from our titles too."
As Saito puts it, "Platinum taste" is the studio's secret sauce, that little bit of kick that takes an action game from good to awesome. Saito wasn't the first person to mention a Platinum Games flavor during my time conducting interviews at the studio. It's all about creating a fully responsive experience, he says, something that feels good to control and allows players to truly connect to the characters they're playing as.
"From the start, I had my doubts [about Transformers] because when I looked at past games I thought, this is a series that has an established look and feel at this point," Saito says. "I was trying to do a different style that I hadn't seen before. I didn't know if that will work exactly, but I still had what I wanted to do, so I had to try... It was like taking Transformers and taking my own desire for the game and trying to see how they could fit together.
"I like the result, obviously," he adds, still grinning. "But I was, am, very particular, about the art style itself. I drew a lot of inspiration from the classic Transformers series. I was particular in deciding the look and the feel of the game, and I hope it shows."
"I wanted to make an action game that wasn't like the Transformers games that we've seen so far."
Saito describes his workstation and those around him: littered with figurines, most of them Transformers toys at this point in time. Playing with kids' toys, he says, is something that brought the team together. Mutual love of an IP goes a long way towards bonding a group of people tasked with making something.
"We had a good lead-in with Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, because it felt the same way; everybody on that team loved classic series like Metal Gear," he says. "It was easier for me to direct because everyone's so much better connected from the mutual interest."
Both of Saito's most recent directing endeavors focus on IP from other companies: Konami's Metal Gear and Transformers, a Hasbro property for which Activision currently holds the license. Obviously working within another company's property comes with restrictions, and Saito's no stranger to being told "no" when it comes to taking liberties. But according to the director, pushing limits and fighting to get away with everything they can is in Platinum's DNA.
"One thing that we feel defines Platinum Games is we want to push the envelope, do things in a dynamic way that they haven't been done before," Saito says. "We like to stretch new ideas. But when you're working with a previously established IP, it's like, no, the characters in that world would not do that, and no, you can't do that either. It's like, okay, I want to do this but how can I make it possible within the confines of this world construct?
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"As long as there's a reason for it to work within the confines of that construct then you're told it's okay, but finding that reason is kind of tough sometimes. There have been multiple instances where you'll have some idea for a boss or even just a normal enemy, something like that. Everyone on the team will think, 'This is really cool!' And then you bring it outside [to the owner] and they'll say, 'No. Don't do that. You've got to cut that.'"
That balance between doing what Platinum feels is right for the IP and staying in line with the rights holder's wishes is an exercise in office politics--and there's always the chance that things won't work out.
Platinum's The Legend of Korra, released in late 2014, received mostly mixed or negative criticism. And while Korra was in development, Platinum Games was ramping up development and putting the finishing touches on deals for several other collaboration projects, including Star Fox Zero and Nier: Automata, as well as original IP Scalebound. This is another balancing act Platinum faces in its development: juggling collaborations while forging ahead with new IP that takes the company into new territory. In speaking with the studio, it's clear Scalebound (and Nier: Automata as well) will be the first role-playing game for many of its staff, including Hideki Kamiya, the creative mind behind Scalebound and the Bayonetta games.
Atsushi Inaba, Platinum's co-founder and executive producer, believes that this balance is necessary for the studio to thrive and is more a benefit than a challenge to overcome. But this kind of overstretching does have its drawbacks, and there have been times in the studio's past when that gumption has proved fruitless. The most forefront example being the lackluster Legend of Korra.
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"Once we were able to try production in that manner with original IPs and outside IPs at the same time, it's interesting to see the interplay between them," he says. "For instance, with Transformers, not only is the team working on Transformers also passionate about Transformers, but in the team around the team there's lots of people who really like Transformers in general. For them to be able to see that game and be like, 'Oh wow. That's cool!' it makes coming to work fun and people are excited about what they see at work. And it also feeds back into the original IP teams because then those teams have to figure out a way to make something that's even cooler than what's being worked on by those other teams, but also make it original. It's an interesting interplay that I really enjoy.
"The other thing is when you're making original IPs, the team is used to that and that's one of their strong suits, so they have a lot of original ideas that they really want to put in the games. Working with other people's IP can be a source of friction, but also a lot of fun. There are lots of walls you're really not supposed to jump over and do something different when you're working with another IP, but our staff are basically trained to want to jump over those walls at all times. Getting yelled at but also getting praised for bringing new ideas is something that we've experienced a lot when working with outside IPs."
For directors like Saito, getting to not only touch but contribute to the Transformers universe in some small way is the greatest reward. Saito talks about his work like a kid explaining his favorite TV show, and that enthusiasm is evident in his work. The entire atmosphere about the building is electric with this vigor.