Mega Man Creator on Japan's Culture of Fear

He who has overcome his fears will truly be free.

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Keiji Inafune (Mega Man, Mighty No. 9) is well known for his critical stance on the Japanese gaming industry, and his struggles fighting the hierarchy within Capcom caused him to step out on his own in 2010 after decades of employment. At the Tokyo Game Show that year, a month before his landmark departure, Inafune boldly told the New York Times that everyone at the convention is "making awful games," and that "Japan is at least five years behind."

Keiji Inafune
Keiji Inafune

Nearly five years have passed since that interview, so when speaking to Inafune during E3 last week, I had to know: have things gotten any better? The following discussion touches on many topics, including the recent successes of Koji Igarashi's and Yu Suzuki's Kickstarter campaigns, but Inafune's comments there sparked a deeper discussion about the fear culture that's holding back Japan's mainstream developers and publishers. To him, it's not just xenophobia, but also a deeply rooted fear of standing out and taking risks that has prevented Japan from thriving in the global development community at large.

Now that Mighty No. 9 is almost finished, what has the crowdfunding process taught you about the relationship between a creator and their fans?

Inafune: The one thing I learned throughout this campaign is that, during the normal development cycle, you always have the fear that 'what if this game doesn't do well? What if people don't like this game I'm making?' But, you don't have this fear with a Kickstarter project because you already have, in our case, 70,000 people backing you. These people will love my game for sure, so I kind of feel safe and protected in a way. This is a fresh feeling for me, and recently we just saw Metroid Prime [referring to the announcement of Recore, Inafune's collaborative effort with ex-Metroid Prime developers], the whole thing blowing up in the community. In the normal game making cycle, you always have that kind of fear. In the back of your head, that will sometimes really affect you, but that didn't happen in this case.

Before Might No. 9, you had some very serious concerns about the state of game development in Japan. Things seem to be on an upswing, but, how do you feel about the future of Japanese game development compared to the past, when you thought it was in trouble?

Inafune: I think the biggest change since three years ago, not just by myself, but Igarashi-san and Suzuki-san have had huge successes on Kickstarter, and that alone is proving that the North American market wants Japanese games made by these creators. We've totally proved that. This is something that the Japanese publishers should have seen long ago, and I think things are changing now because of these Kickstarters, and the publishers should understand that the market wants us to make Japanese games. So, from here, hopefully publishers will make some movements of their own. Hopefully it's not just the three of us, but more Japanese creators can make their own Kickstarter [campaigns] and make their own dreams come true.

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Kickstarter solves one problem, but what other problems have to be solved for Japanese game development to improve at large?

Japanese creators and Japanese companies need to start looking outside of the box. They can't just stay inside Japan and make their own game and bring it to E3 and hope it will be a hit. That's not going to happen. You have to work with foreigner companies, in North America, Europe, and other places around the world so there's a new taste coming into your game.

The language barrier is always there, that's not going to change. But, if you always stay away from the world market, just because of that, you're not going to evolve. So, the next thing is that people should get out more and see outside of Japan more. You can't just stay inside, hoping that your game will be a success around the world. That's not going to happen.

Does that behavioral tendency come from a place of overconfidence or fear?

...you need to know new things and you need to make new things. Staying inside of Japan and not coming out because you're shy isn't going to help at all.

I think it's definitely fear, to my understanding. Japanese people are shy and they are scared of things that they don't know. Because of that they just stay inside and never come out. That's not the case for all Asia. Chinese people are not that shy compared to Japanese people. You can't hope you will achieve something good but not try because you're shy, that's a bad cycle for anything. Especially for game creators, you need to know new things and you need to make new things. Staying inside of Japan and not coming out because you're shy isn't going to help at all.

What will be the tipping point that causes that shift for the Japanese development community?

I think more success on Kickstarter from Japanese creators should ignite this movement a little but more. Even now, with Igarashi-san, Suzuki-san, and myself having success on Kickstarter, that's just three of us. I think other creators are still scared of the North American market. If we stick with this movement a little bit more, maybe other creators will feel comfortable coming out and trying out the North American market, because there's definitely potential. So, I really hope this can continue.

Typical Japanese, they don't like to be in the frontier of anything. They actually hate doing something new and starting something by themselves. But, they will follow if somebody starts it. If one person raises their hand, others will follow. I do a lot of panels inside Japan as well, in universities and colleges, but whenever I ask the crowd if they have any questions, then they will stay silent for at least five minutes or so, and then someone will raise their hand, ask one question, and then others will start following. So, myself, Igarashi-san and Suzuki-san, we're on the frontier of this movement. If more people can raise their courage and come out, I think that will lead more people to challenge the North American market.

It's very unlikely that anything could happen outside of Kickstarter. You might not understand this, but a lot of Japanese game creators are salaryman, they're just there to do their work. They're not actually creating the game they want to make because that's the order they're given by their superiors. I have been fighting against my superiors my whole [career] because I want to make something that I really want to make, and not too many people really do that in Japan, because worst case, they can get fired. Without the company's support, you won't even have the money to make the game to begin with. So, everyone just becomes 'yes men' in the company, so that's a really bad cycle, and I don't think it's a cycle that can change just because of a couple Kickstarters. At this point, I can't really say something other than kickstart will change things.

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