Renowned designer Hideki Kamiya and creative producer JP Kellams talk of Scalebound like mad geniuses creating new life.
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This story is part of our feature on independent Japanese studio Platinum Games. Check out the rest of our stories here.
It's safe to call Hideki Kamiya the whimsical mad genius of Platinum Games. When we first begin talking he breezily answers my questions, cool and collected. His glasses look like an accessory pulled straight out of a JRPG--tinted lenses, wildly colored frames. It's the perfect look for a creative schemer like Kamiya.
"I got into games the way that everybody gets a job in Japan: by applying for a whole bunch of jobs," Kamiya recounts of his younger years. "When I was a junior in college, I started doing the job hunt thing, which was just sending out my resume and my CV to all of these different companies. I really wanted to work in games so I applied to all the major studios: Sega, Nintendo, Konami, Bandai Namco, Capcom, Taito like all the big game companies. I also applied to some safe choices back [in Matsumoto] just in case. Luckily I was able to get a job at a game company. My 'safe choice' job would have been at an interior design company in my hometown."
Sitting beside Kamiya and translating is Jean-Pierre Kellams. Kellams, too, is dressing like a video game hero: a cycling shirt (Kellams loves cycling) and glasses without ear hooks that seem held on his face by magic. Kellams recounts his own entry into the Japanese video game industry: knowing he wanted to live and work in Japan, he joined JET, a program in which foreigners teach English in Japan. After serving a year in JET, and already living in Japan, Kellams networked until he found himself at Platinum Games beside Kamiya. They're a fitting team--both creatively and style-wise.
In interviews since Scalebound's unveiling, Kamiya has consistently referred to the title as his "dream game."
"If you think about the Famicom [the NES], a lot of those games were really simple and easy to pick up and play," Kamiya explains. "But when I got into high school I bought a PC, and PC was the first time that I really played a deep RPG. Those deep games have really complex customization mechanics and complex stories and backgrounds. It was something that was really appealing to me and over the course of time I wanted to make a fantasy game.
"Also, wanting to make a game like that... there’s not really many opportunities for that," he explains. "I really wanted to make a fantasy game that had dragons in it because when you think about all of those really old cool fantasy games, the ones that had huge monsters and dragons were the coolest ones. It was kind of coming together of all those inspirations that I had when I was younger."
Like Yasuhisa Taura with Nier: Automata, this is Kamiya and Kellams' first crack at a title with the core role-playing game structure. This also marks Kamiya's first game without more stylized art: The Wonderful 101 was cartoonish, and Bayonetta always had an anime-esque flair to it. But with Scalebound, Kamiya is aiming for realism with the graphics, with characters that appear distinctly human. Tackling both of these at once is a welcome for Kamiya, who speaks about engaging in new projects with a distinct eagerness. The biggest difference, and the biggest challenge, is in working with Microsoft.
"We're working with a foreign publisher for the first time," Kamiya explains. "If you think about the games that I made, first they were all at Capcom and then one with Sega and then with Nintendo, so I’ve always worked with Japanese publishers. They have the same game design culture about them. They’re very loose about how they make video games. They’re not super rigid or structured at any point, really, in the project with regards to schedule and quality along the way--not until you get to the end. Then basically everybody hopes that it all comes together. If it does, then everybody is happy, and if it doesn’t, everybody is not happy.
"Whereas with Microsoft, being from a totally different design and engineering culture than those Japanese publishers, it’s very much about a structured development style with lots of very structured gates with regards to quality and schedule. Everything is controlled and made in a way that’s very structured. Learning how to work within that structure, after I basically only made games in a very unstructured environment up until this point, has been one of the most challenging parts of the project."
After speaking with Kamiya, Atsushi Inaba told me that the pitch for Scalebound came before the deal with Microsoft, although the Redmond-based software giant had approached them in the past about working with Platinum Games on an exclusive project.
"Essentially, we came up for the idea for Scalebound and we pitched them the idea. But before that, they had always come to us and said, 'Hey, how can we work together?,'" Inaba says. "So over a long period of time, they asked, 'Do you have anything that might fit for us?' And when the idea for Scalebound came around and we polished it up and showed it to them, it fit for them. Our stick-to-it-ness in that respect is also what drove that project forward."
But when I asked Kamiya about how his team feels about working on Scalebound, tackling a new genre and a different art style, his answer wasn't what I expected. He explained that during a project, no one is as gung-ho as you'd expect.
"It’s difficult because it’s not like when you’re making a game everybody is like, 'Oh yeah this is awesome and super excited about it,'" he says. "It’s too difficult and too long a process for people to react that way. Nobody has ever really reacted that way when we’ve been making one of these things, anyway."
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Kamiya and Kellams recounted a story from Okami's development, back in 2005. Kamiya posted the design document for the title on the company's internal intranet, where everyone at Clover Studio could read everything about the game. Kamiya said there was, "literally no feedback." Nothing good, nothing bad. No comment from his peers. Just silence. Feedback remained nonexistent months into the project, even as it started to come together and parts were finished.
"Then finally we got to the point where you could play through the entire game, and it was still very rough and [executive producer Atsushi] Inaba-san walked over to me and he said, 'Hey, you know the story for this game is really good, man,'" Kamiya says. His tone is playful as he laughs as he continues. "I was like, 'Did you just come over here to bullshit me because you know that the game is really bad right now?' I thought, he’s just trying to make me feel better. When you calm down and think about it, obviously, he actually meant it, and that’s why he came over."
At first, one might assume no one dared criticize the project out of fear of getting on Kamiya's bad side. But the more he talks about his disappointment in the lack of feedback, the more it sounds like perhaps his team preferred to let him lead completely and deal with the stress of larger decisions.
"...For better or worse this game is just filled with challenges for us."
"That’s the level of no reaction to things that I get. It’s not super surprising," he says. "I was telling him that from my perspective, like on a producer side, for better or worse this game is just filled with challenges for us. You’re asking the question at the point of the game where everybody is working hard, so it’s really hard for us to step back and say, 'Oh yeah I’m really super happy.' We’re way too deep into it to have any kind of introspection on it."
Based on this tepid feedback loop, Kellams notes that the biggest challenge for the team right now is knowing when it's time to panic.
"It’s really difficult," he says. "Going back to [Kamiya-san's] story about feedback issue. There was a point on Bayonetta where he asked the team whether they thought Bayonetta was going to be fun, and only three people on the entire team raised their hand and said they thought Bayonetta was going to be a fun game. You’re making something that’s never existed. You’re creating an entire world. There are no sounds inside your box. Every sound that plays in a game, every blade of grass that you’re stepping on, every movement of everything has to be made. You need somebody who’s got that idea in their head and you need to trust that that idea is strong enough to survive all the different things that get shot at it."
Kamiya adds that this kind of panic-timer is even more heightened when working on a new, original property. There are no prequels, no longstanding series to build upon like with Resident Evil or Devil May Cry. It's all new, and figuring out what those new moving parts are and how to make them work takes up the biggest chunk of manpower. Scalebound's dragon, specifically, poses the biggest hurdle.
"The amount of decision making that you have to make and the amount of decisions that you don’t know yet because other decisions haven’t been made yet is pretty monumental."
"The dragon is a totally new idea," he says. "You’re fighting with an AI, how should the dragon be engaged in battle? How should we grow the dragon alongside you? Where is the focus for these things or that thing? None of that has a blueprint for us. It’s not that we can hit copy on the machine and get another one of these. We have to make the machine. In making that machine everything is a challenge because all of those parts have to fit together. The amount of decision making that you have to make and the amount of decisions that you don’t know yet because other decisions haven’t been made yet is pretty monumental.
"From the experience in making original games, everything and anything is a challenge at this point," he adds. "We’re not at the point where we’ve got a full beast that’s all put together that we can look at and be like, 'Yeah, this is what we got.' We got tons of parts that are starting to come together and become playable in a way that makes sense for us so that everything that we’re working on is challenging."
I ask Kamiya what he thinks makes a good action game. As one of the best known and most successful action game designers, what advice can he share with developer hopefuls? Kamiya says it's a difficult question to answer, because to compartmentalize and explain away what makes a good action game goes against his desire to keep his games intuitive and player driven.
"Hideo Kojima or [Masahiro] Sakurai or other guys that I personally know--those are guys who plan out their games in detail and have a very logical structured approach to how they want to make them," he explains. "If the player does this, the enemy should do this, then the player should be doing this after that. They have it all figured out before they go after it.
"For myself, I just want very intuitive things, like, I want the player to control to feel really good and if I attack someone, I want to be able to dodge at the last second. I think about all these different things that I want to do and then when we start building all those things out, then I start thinking about the things that I want to have done to me. Then we start building the enemies out after that, and then all of that stuff comes together in a very intuitive way."