Not all that glitters is gold.
Platinum Games' office decor looks as crisp and shiny as the studio's name. Situated on the middle floors in one of Osaka's tallest buildings and most well-known landmarks, the offices are modestly decorated, yet alive with memory. The waiting room floor is carpeted with an unusual pattern; every few steps, a game title and its release year are stamped onto the floor, beginning with "Madworld" in 2009 and ending with "The Legend of Korra, 2014." As developers walk into the studio's space each day, they must first walk through its legacy.
Set into the blinding white walls near the reception doors is a trophy case filled with Game of the Year awards, plaques, and figurines of Platinum characters. Bayonetta's eyes follow you as you pass. Opposite the trophy case, set into the pristine wall in shimmering silver letters, is a short phrase: "Platinum maintains its luster forever."
Now 200 people strong and 10 years past its break from Capcom, Platinum Games' name is synonymous with action games. But according to its developers, they've only just begun showing the world their capability.
Platinum is well know for action games like Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2, as well as Madworld and Anarchy Reigns. But they're set to have a killer 2016, with titles like Nier: Automata, Star Fox Zero, and the highly-anticipated Scalebound. We spoke to some of the key game makers behind these anticipated games.
- Scalebound: Hideki Kamiya and Jean-Pierre Kellams talk about Scalebound and when it's OK to freak out during development.
- Transformers: Devastation: director Kenji Saito talks about working with other companies' IP for games.
- Star Fox Zero: Yusuke Hashimoto talks about collaborating with Nintendo on Star Fox and working with the Wii U.
- Nier: Automata: according to designer Takahisa Taura, the game was an accident.
As a child, Atsushi Inaba knew he wanted to make video games. He spent much time in arcades as a child (he snuck in because of age limitations on the establishments) and was inspired by Sega's early arcade games, such as Glycine and , to create similar experiences himself.
He answers quickly and thoughtfully, without missing a beat after my questions. But back in 2006, when he and other Clover Studio members left Capcom to found their new endeavor, he never thought he'd see himself heading a company that has become synonymous with action games. The only goal on his mind was to make the kind of games he wanted to make.
"Action games were a genre that we wanted to focus on because they were our strong suit, but I think it's less about being synonymous with action games and more about a lot of other studios that were previously synonymous with action games not really making action games anymore," he says. "So, I'm not sure if I would say that we were suddenly successful as opposed to a lot of the places that were making action games. We're still not as successful as they used to be.
"Action games are really easy to understand, so you can just pick them up and decide whether they're fun or not," Inaba continues. "It's kind of an instantaneous response. Personally, I really dislike games where you have to spend a whole bunch of time in a tutorial or read a whole bunch of manuals. Not only is it cumbersome as an experience, but it's also really hard to translate that kind of experience to other cultures."
According to Inaba, Platinum is a "loud" studio. With 10 years of development under its belt and around 200 employees packed into the Osaka high-rise in which they work, it's evident. That boisterousness is what characterizes the studio: the people are passionate, energized.
"It's loud as in how loud people actually are but also loud in that everybody's kind of a pain in the butt. But that's not necessarily a bad thing," Inaba says with a smile. "They're engaged and everybody has a say and is loud about it."
When it comes to the studio's expansion, Inaba says he remains cautious in his hiring practices. He expresses concerns about getting so big that employees' voices get lost or shouted down. It's clear he cherishes the openness of his team and the way Platinum gives its designers room to breathe, so he is hesitant to grow the studio into something larger and more powerful that could be a detriment to the group's personality.
"One of the things that concerns me is as we get bigger as a studio, it's not as loud as it used to be, there's not as much noise," he says. "I'm not really interested in working for a studio that isn't kind of a noisy, loud, clanking machine of people bumping into each other and trying to do their best, so if it's just kind of a machine that's there to make money and there to make games efficiently, it's not something that interests me.
"There is kind of a contingent now who would prefer the noise level go down and thinks that we need to be of a kind of put-together company, but I think they've folded.I don't understand why that is a necessary thing for a game company, for a creative company. So as there's more people, the number of pain in the butt things that you have to deal with increases, but also everyone's opinion gets more diffused."
Inaba's day-to-day involves checking on the quality of games as they are in development and making sure they are up to Platinum's "shared standards." According to the director, he checks in on at least three games each day, making sure things are going right, what the next milestones are, and looking into the far future towards release. His schedule is back-to-back meetings, from when he arrives until he leaves, checking in with his team and ensuring everyone is putting their best foot forward.
Inaba is also responsible for the final say in pitches. All studio employees are encouraged to pitch new projects, with Inaba providing the framework in the form of the studio's immediate and long-term goals.
"Obviously there's a pitch process that happens with publishers and there's lots of things that have to go on after I say yes to something, but when I say no to something, that's the end of the idea," he says. "Putting the reviews aside, there's a ton of pressure to accomplish [something] because if you really think about it, [sometimes] they're not our IPs, we're just borrowing them and it's our job to take care of them," he adds. "Hopefully we can give something extra when we give them back to whoever let us borrow them. So, that pressure of making sure that we keep everybody who's invested in that IP, from the fans to the IP holder, happy with what we're doing is very, very strong."
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Inaba pauses for a moment--his first long pause since we began talking--before following up with this:
"I think there's this idea going around that we might be an easy studio to work with, but that doesn't mean that we're just making whatever for whoever, whenever. I won't personally sign on to a project unless I think it's something that's interesting or something that's going to pay dividends to the future company by allowing us to exercise what our best traits are and bringing those out in the games. So, if we're not interested in something in that respect, then we're not going to do it."
It's a bit of a difficult sentiment to chew on, since Platinum is currently working on its new IP, three different console exclusives for three separate consoles, and then a handful of unannounced projects. Next year, Platinum is planning to ship Star Fox Zero on Wii U, Scalebound for Xbox One, and Nier: Automata on PlayStation 4.
"I won't personally sign on to a project unless I think it's something that's interesting..."
Balancing such a wide spread of exclusives, across different hardware, genres, and expectations, requires balance. Inaba reiterates that Platinum is disciplined when it comes to its workload, and even though it seems that in the past year the studio has been grabbing deals left and right, this isn't the case. Behind the scenes, according to Inaba, he and his team are incredibly picky about what they take on.
"We don't have a specific stance towards console exclusives, but what we do have are games that we really want to make, and it's very difficult now to find partners who are ready to make big bets on larger games like that," he explains. "One of the ways that you can get a partner who will buy into that vision is to go into places, especially console makers who have hardware that they want to sell and want to make content that sticks out. A lot of times they will champion a product like that, so we've used that route to accomplish our goal of making these games that we want to make. Nier is a special case where the publisher decided on the console exclusivity, and that was part of their business decision and that's totally okay, but in the cases where we've created a console exclusive, that's often been a case of us wanting to get a game made and not stopping until we've done that."
So, is he concerned that perhaps Platinum is doing too much?
"People say that to us, but here's the thing: There's a lot of things that we want to do. We're given a lot of opportunities to do very interesting things and we structured the company around this idea that we want to say yes to those opportunities. That's why we're doing it."
Towards the Future
The 2009 release of Bayonetta opened doors for Platinum Games.
"It was a title that pushed the company forward in setting a lot of the framework for who we are as a studio," executive director Atsushi Inaba says,. "One of the reasons people say Platinum Games is synonymous with action games is because of Bayonetta, but it also set the stage for the staff being able to execute on something no matter how tough things got and no matter how much energy needed to be put into it."
Inaba recounts how the team felt at Bayonetta's launch: despondent, frustrated, and utterly drained.
"At the end of development on Bayonetta, nobody was happy."
"At the end of development on Bayonetta, nobody was happy," he says. "Everybody was really frustrated and angry and we pushed really hard to finish that game and asked too much, and then asked even more of the team and of each other. At the end nobody was like, 'Oh yay. We go it finished.' Everybody was like, 'We're never doing that again,' and at each other's throats. It was a very negative vibe that I still remember to this day."
That negative emotion has stuck with Inaba all these years. He speaks of the memory as though it was yesterday, and he looks a bit lost as he tells the story. The concern for his team is evident in his voice; Bayonetta's development nearly broke Platinum Games.
"But it also kind of illustrated the fact that games are something that you build; you don't really get paid off until people play them and give you that feedback, and when everybody said that they loved Bayonetta, that instantly charged the team," he continues. "That's how games are. Teams kind of burn themselves out and then they get all that feedback and they get recharged and then people say that they're ready to do it again. And Bayonetta was a really, really strong example of that."
When Inaba asked the studio if they wanted to make another Bayonetta, he says they were "gung ho" about the project, despite the pain of the previous one.
"I think our passion for the project kind of resonated with people," Inaba adds. He says that because Platinum Games compromised on nothing for the project--they aimed for the moon and didn't settle for less in terms of quality and content. Their vision for Bayonetta is the gun-wielding witch you now know; she is exactly how they planned her to be, and Inaba feels that sentiment was picked up by players.
"The amount of passion that you put into a project is the amount of passion that you get back, and if you don't do that, people figure it out really quick," he says. "A game getting content cut because they ran out of time or they ran out of money, people figure that out really quick. Also if the staff wasn't really motivated or passionate about the project. Sometimes those games get sold and shipped, but when they do come out people figure out, 'Hey something was wrong here,' and it's reflected in the content that gets released to the user."
"A game getting content cut because they ran out of time or they ran out of money, people figure that out really quick."
In my early conversation with Kenji Saito, the director behind Transformers: Devastation, he mentions something called "Platinum taste." When I ask what he meant by that, he replies that it is the studio's signature flair, a finished product that is "an action game with good response."
"It's not an error to say that Platinum is good at making action games," Saito says. "That's something we believe, that i believe, too. We can make a good action game. But I don't want to hold it to just that. With each project there's something that we learn, there's something that we take from it, and can build from there into other genres and stuff."
Nier: Automata designer Takahisa Taura agrees that what makes a Platinum game a Platinum game is its controls, and the way characters feel when you control them. It's that perfect note of fluidity as they whip across the screen. But in his own work on Nier, he is not concerned with adding a "Platinum taste" so much as he is making a good Nier sequel.
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"To be honest, I've never really been aware of a particular element that we need to put into our games to make it a real Platinum Games title," Taura says. "I'm not constantly thinking, oh it needs this to make it a real Platinum title. There are other people here that have ideas like that, but I myself am making the kind of games I like and I'm not really trying to fulfill certain standards that I think Platinum needs to meet."
You'd think all these projects and acclaim would go to Platinum's head, spurring the studio to grow bigger in an effort accommodate these projects. But staying small has its benefits in that there are less chefs in the kitchen, and typically smaller studios have a bit more breathing room to bend the rules. Something new isn't always going to be "fresh" as well, but Platinum's directors are nothing if not bold. They'll shoot for it anyway with the goal of skirting around what's already be done to death.
"...There are people here who are at the point where they're thinking, 'Oh, this'll be a safe company to work at for 10 years.' I actually don't want them working here at all."
"We try to do things that wouldn't be possible with these gigantic companies," Star Fox Zero director Yusuke Hashimoto says. "Even when we have an original title, we just keep challenging ourselves to kind of have something new. But I'd also like to see some of our IPs grow more of a footing, instead of more or less one-shots, to see more of them become a series and foster them. I don't want the main priority of the company, exactly, to be, 'Let's just see how far we can drag out a series' or something like that. I want the priority always to be to make something new that hasn't been done before. If that works within the respect of a new Bayonetta game, or a new Metal Gear Rising game, or something like that, that's awesome. We should try that."
Since the E3 announcements, the pressure to deliver is definitely there, both for Platinum's reputation and that of the individual directors.
"Of course I'm proud that Platinum has been able to create a name for ourselves like that, but it also, at the same time, puts a lot of pressure on my shoulders," Taura explains. "I'm going to have to live up to some high standards, but I'm going to do my best and make sure this game lives up to the expectations that people have of Platinum Games. I also want to expand into other genres as well--it's nice that we're known for making cool action games, but we'd like to expand that retinue as well and see if we can do some more cool stuff."
And according to executive director Atsushi Inaba, even though there are 10 years and a handful of critically acclaimed titles behind them, he feels the uphill fight for Platinum's reputation has just begun.
"I don't think we're done or at the position that we want to be globally," Inaba says when asked where he sees Platinum among the list of larger independent developers. "From a global perspective, we want to be a studio where people can say that we continually making high quality games, being able to keep that status-quo of repeating that success. But we still have a lot of work to do to make our content more globally appealing and to appeal to a much broader market than what we do right now. So we're not at the final form of what a successful Platinum Games studio would be."
Inaba reiterates sentiments passed to me from Platinum's lead designers: there is no point at which they will ever feel they've reached the top. There is no ceiling, no limits in their sights, because they are always striving to do better, one-up themselves, and deliver projects with their signature flair and quality. Inaba calls this moment in time "the end of the beginning," where Platinum no longer needs to prove itself as a competent developer, but now has to deliver its heavy-hitters. The start-up days are over, and the executive director says the studio is now looking for its "next stash" of energy.
"The studio's becoming a little bit more quiet and not as noisy as it's been," he says. "Like a rocket, our games lifted us up, but now where do we go from here? Change is going to be incredibly necessary for this studio and deciding what that's going to be and how that's going to look and how that's going to happen is basically what we're dealing with right now.
"Five years from now, probably, the way that games are sold isn't going to drastically change," he continues. "10 years from now, I think it will. The platforms games are consumed on and the way that they're delivered to consumers and the way that the consumers consume them is going to be drastically different. So if you think about that, Platinum needs employees and needs to be a company where change is constant. Because we're so big now, The people who are not looking for constant change are not necessarily welcome in what I think the company should be."
Under Inaba's watch, with a fleet of quirky, talented developers at his side, Platinum Games is approaching its turning point: it is preparing to succeed at something only a handful other Japanese studios have attained, and seeks to remain relevant by changing along with the times. A decade after the studio's birth, the team is teetering on the edge of something--but what that something is, it has yet to be determined.