Interview: PlatinumGames on next-gen and its next steps

Inaba and Kamiya reflect on The Wonderful 101 Remastered studio's move into self-publishing

At the very beginning of 2020 PlatinumGames predicted that the coming year would be one of the most important in its history – and it’s definitely delivered in news value.

In the past six months the Osaka, Japan-based studio has launched a Kickstarter, revealed its first wholly-owned new IP, committed to building a new in-house game engine, and announced a brand new Tokyo studio focused on “live ops” games.

When just a year ago it was sounding anxious about its lack of independence from the game publishers who own virtually its entire output, it marks a rapid transformation for one of Japan’s most beloved game developers.

To mark the digital release of The Wonderful 101 Remastered in North America and Europe this week, VGC spoke to studio head Atsushi Inaba and game director Hideki Kamiya via video call to discuss their experiences stepping into publishing, plus Platinum’s plans for the upcoming next-gen consoles.

First, we’d like to acknowledge the pandemic and wish you, your teams and their families well.

Inaba: Yes. From a company perspective, there is a lot we’re learning and a lot of new obstacles that we’ve needed to clear together. It’s hard to try and put an optimistic spin on things without sounding inappropriate I suppose, but I am glad to see that a lot of people are looking to games to get through this situation. Because that also serves as motivation to us to want to sit down and work our best so that we can provide something that can hopefully bring joy to people.

The Wonderful 101 Remastered has now released, digitally at least, in some regions. What’s it like to release a game during the pandemic, and how did you find the experience of running a Kickstarter overall?

Inaba: I know that traditionally for Kamiya and other people in the company, launch day is when you want to visit a game store to see if people are storming the shelves, because you’re curious about how people are reacting to your game and really want to see it first-hand. Obviously, with things being as they are right now, it’s not easy for us to go outside and do that. So we’ve had to take more of an approach of looking on social media to see player reactions. It’s been a new experience, but it’s been interesting.

The Wonderful 101 is available digitally from this week.

Regarding Kickstarter, this is our first time doing it so there has been a very strong learning curve and some long nights for some of the staff involved. Again, with the coronavirus situation, there have been some issues with stuff like the package version being late, so we’re feeling bad about that and apologise to the fans.

However, we do feel like we were able to get through the Kickstarter. It was a pretty big success and we were able to go to PAX and do promotion for it. Everything seems to have worked out pretty well for the campaign up to this point and we’re just happy to see that things have been successful.

Kamiya: Regarding PAX, I think the timing was sort of miraculous, I guess. We went there just as things were starting to heat up but hadn’t gotten to the point they had by April. We got to Japan and within just a few weeks we had entered a state of emergency.

Traditionally when we release games any of the promotion or event stuff has been handled by our publishers, so just small things like setting up a booth together, working out how many monitors we needed, where we should position everything… that was all very new for us.

We got through it, we were pretty happy with it, then we came back to Japan and now we’re in this situation where we’re facing the launch and all working remotely. It feels kind of weird, but overall we’ve made a lot of positive memories around this project.

This has also been your first ever self-published project. What did you learn from that experience and what will you do differently next time?

Inaba: My current feeling is that I’m a firefighter whose job is to jump into a burning building! I’m sure there are lots of lessons that we can use on our next project, but right at this moment I’m just happy to have gotten out of it alive. Once the fires have been put out, I’ll be able to think about the next project.

That being said, we have reached the release and I have seen our staff put a lot of effort into this project. Because of that, I’m starting to feel a lot of reassurance and appreciation for all of the effort that our staff have put into making this successful so far.

“This first step self-publishing… there have been so many late nights, so much to figure out and lots of questions to answer. We have a relatively small staff… I’m amazed that we’ve been able to pull it off with the people that we have, to be honest.”

Kamiya: We’ve had a long run in the games industry: we started at a big publisher in Capcom and then established PlatinumGames, but even during our time here we’ve always been under the umbrella of publishers. Because of that, there’s a lot that we just didn’t see on the publishing side: there was always something quietly being taken care of for us.

So now with this sort of brave step into the unknown, this first step self-publishing… there have been so many late nights, so much to figure out and lots of questions to answer. We have a relatively small staff running this operation at this point: we’re not a big publisher, obviously, and this is all still very new to us. I’m amazed that we’ve been able to pull it off with the people that we have, to be honest.

Inaba-san, when we spoke to you last year you said you were finding it difficult to get excited for next-gen consoles. Have your feelings changed now that we know a bit more about them?

Inaba: I felt like when I gave that response there was a little bit of a backlash online to me being perceived as a snob or something! What I was trying to say was… I played Final Fantasy VII Remake recently and obviously so much has changed since the original game, especially with the graphical improvements. I’m always happy to see these makers that are pushing themselves to make more visual enhancements and improvements in technology, and I’m happy that we’re able to do more with each console.

But the comparison than I’m making is that… if you think back to the generation between Super Nintendo and PlayStation, and how we went from pixel art to 3D polygons… nobody could have ever imagined that a few years prior. When that stuff started coming out people were just blown away: they weren’t ready for it, they weren’t anticipating it… it was just so new.

Whereas I feel that the announcements that we’ve had for recent consoles generations, while all good and interesting, and of course I’m happy for us as developers to have better technology to work on… it’s a ‘perceivable’ future. There’s not the extreme surprise or the unexpected quality that I felt from the leap to previous consoles. Now I see the announcements and I think, ‘oh, that’s cool’ and then the next minute I think, ‘hmmm… what should I watch on Netflix tonight?’

But that’s just my personal opinion. As an industry, it’s all very promising and I don’t want to be perceived as too negative. But to give another example of my point, the Nintendo Switch was very ground-breaking in how it was able to just to take a home console and make it portable. It’s something that you hadn’t seen a lot of people doing before: it took this wall, that perhaps a lot of people didn’t know even existed, and broke it down.

Project GG will be Platinum’s first wholly-owned new IP.

Switch opened up all these new possibilities. I think the Game Boy and the DS also did that: there were so many surprises in those. If you compare that to when you’re simply seeing graphical improvements or just ‘faster, bigger’… obviously it’s nice, but it doesn’t have that same inventive quality that really surprised me with past consoles.

We haven’t seen everything from next-gen at this point, I think, and it’s still very likely that there could be a quality like that in these consoles that’s going to kind of be a game-changer, that’s going to change how games could be played. And if that is the case, then maybe they’ll blow me away. So I don’t want to sound like, ‘hey, I know everything about the new consoles and they’re boring’. But with the information that I have now, I haven’t seen any extremely big surprises.

Have you seen the Unreal Engine 5 demo? What did you think?

Inaba: I’ve seen it, but Kamiya-san hasn’t. I thought it was great. I was impressed.

Kamiya: I assume it will be impressive [laughs].

Inaba: Something that’s common to Kamiya-san’s approach to game development is that no matter the technical improvements or the advancements that we see with hardware, he always finds some way for it to be not enough and to ask for more than the hardware can give!

Kamiya-san, from a game designer’s perspective, are you excited by the PS5’s high-bandwidth SSD and the possibilities that could have not just for load times, but the size and detail in game worlds?

Kamiya: I entered the industry right around when the original PlayStation and Sega Saturn were coming out. There was a big leap there, going from cartridges to CDs, but still the first game I worked on, Resident Evil, required loading times between doors, where you literally had to watch the door open for six seconds as the next room loaded.

“Seeing [Resident Evil Remake], I realised there are things that I always wanted to do but maybe technical limitations were holding me back. The remake made me realise that we’re tearing down these walls with new hardware.”

Even then I wanted to create this giant world, but in order to do that I had to consider this rule which was loading room doors. My dream was big back then, so the game world would still be the same size now, but maybe I wouldn’t have to find so many workarounds to accomplish my vision: I wouldn’t need those door loading screens, which makes my life a bit easier as a game designer.

To offer another perspective, the first game I actually directed was Resident Evil 2 on PlayStation. Just a year ago Capcom’s remake released and when I played through that there were so many surprises. The door loading issue is gone and the game is obviously so much prettier. Also, zombies can now climb in from other rooms, which is something I couldn’t do back then.

Seeing that, I realised there are things that I always wanted to do but maybe technical limitations were holding me back. The remake made me realise that we’re tearing down these walls with new hardware, so I think it will be easier for me to challenge more interesting game design in the future, which is something I look for.

During our career in the games industry, we’ve gone through PlayStation 1, 2, 3, 4 and now 5. We’ve seen a lot of different generations come and go at this point and with each one we always get a whole lot of talk about what you’ll be able to do. Of course, it’s exciting and of course, I welcome those new changes, but from experience, every time I’ve gotten my hands on new hardware I always find new walls to run in to. I’m looking forward to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, but they might not solve everything.

Microsoft’s Phil Spencer recently said he wasn’t satisfied with Xbox’s position in Japan and that he wants to improve it with Series X. What advice would you give him for how he can improve Xbox’s position in Japan?

Kamiya: I don’t know if I’m really fit to give advice on how somebody should run their platform since only some of my games have sold well. But if I were to share my innocent opinion as a gamer, I would say that ever since the Xbox has been introduced to the Japanese market it’s always felt like something foreign and far away. It doesn’t feel like it’s ever been cultivated for Japanese tastes.

It reminds me of the NES and Super NES days when I had to go to these really niche game stores to get foreign games you could only get through import. They weren’t localised to Japan or anything, they were just imports that you were kind of buying just to have this rare token as a gamer.

I think that Microsoft Japan could do more to market towards actual Japanese gamers’ tastes for their console. If you want a concrete example, when you unlock an Achievement it says ‘Achievement unlocked’ and in Japanese, this phrase is translated extremely literally. Compare that with Sony’s Trophies: that idea is very easy to grasp and even in Japanese the word ‘trophy’ is the same as in English. There’s no awkward translation and it’s easy to understand.

Platinum opened a Tokyo studio earlier this year.

Achievements have been part of Xbox since the 360 days and we’ve just come to expect it at this point, but it’s something that when I really think about it, doesn’t really have any meaning in Japanese. I feel like that could have been localised better. I think maybe someone should tell Phil Spencer that the Japanese translation for Achievement is a little literal [laughs].

Inaba: We love Phil Spencer by the way! We’re not trying to speak badly about him.

I agree with the foreign feeling nature of the hardware, but I also admire that Phil wants to try hard in Japan. I would love to give him some advice, but I also feel that the success route into Japan has not always been about having the best hardware. Sometimes it’s about familiarity. The biggest exception is the iPhone, but that was able to break in because it just took the world over – and it’s not easy to make something of that momentum every day. It’s a tough question that I don’t know the answer to.

Kamiya: The home menu translations feel a bit too literal too, by the way! [laughs]

On this same topic, Phil Spencer has also been very public in his desire to acquire a Japanese studio. Has Xbox been knocking on your door and would you be interested?

Inaba: I did read some rumours about Xbox wanting to purchase PlatinumGames, and I thought, ‘people on the internet write the craziest stuff’, because that conversation has not come to our doorstep at all. That said, we’re not Microsoft, so we don’t know what happens behind their doors, we don’t know if they had any thoughts about it possibly.

Kamiya: Maybe somebody reminded them that I’m still at the studio, and they were like, ‘right then, forget that! We’re not going to acquire them!’

Inaba: We’ve not had any talks like that, but I think even if it was a possibility, we’re now going into more independent self-publishing. It’s not that we’re disinterested in Microsoft, but if the relationship were to be us working under their direction, I feel like that would be the opposite of what we’re trying to do now and limit our possibilities. Any opportunities that would limit our freedom I think we would be against.

It’s been a very active year so far with your various announcements. Your Platinum 4 marketing campaign has one announcement left for the year. What can you tell us about that?

Inaba: I don’t think we can divulge any information on that at this point, but I do hope that it’s something that our fans can look forward to.

Last year you mentioned an original action IP the studio was working on, that you felt was unlike anything else. Is that Project GG, or something else?

Inaba: That was about Project GG, yes.

So just to clarify, it was reported that you had two original IPs in the works. Is that still the case?

Inaba: We can’t exactly recall what would have been happening when we gave specific answers in the past, but we can say that Project GG is a real thing that we’re working on. We’re still interested in self-publishing and so I’m sure there will be more to come in the future. We’ll probably have more news for people in just the next few months about something.

“I want you guys to take any concerns you have [about Bayonetta 3] and throw them out the window immediately, because we’re still hard at work on it and it hasn’t been cancelled by any means.”

Kamiya-san, Project GG is described as the final game in your “hero trilogy”. Does that mean there are other genres you’d like to explore after it’s finished?

Kamiya: We’re still a long way away from putting GG out at this point, so I feel like it’s a little early to be thinking about the next step at this point. But one thing I will say is that I don’t want to say this is my conclusion to all things ‘hero’. If anything, if I want to do another hero thing, I’ll just do another trilogy like Star Wars. There’s plenty of stuff that I’m interested in but I think I should focus on what’s in front of me first.

You’ve announced a new Platinum Tokyo studio and said it will be working on a ‘live ops’ title. Is that something Kamiya-san will be involved in?

Inaba: Unfortunately, I don’t think we can go into specifics on which staff are going to be working on which projects at the moment. What I can say is that we’re still interested in developing titles in the Bayonetta style, where we put it into a package and release it, but we’re also interested in those live ops experiences where there isn’t really an ending to the game. We’re interested in developing for both of those styles. One of the needs that led to the creation of this studio came from us trying to power up our development strength in that area.

You’ve mentioned before that you’d be interested in putting a Platinum spin on the battle royale genre

Inaba: When I have a drink with Kamiya-san, we often talk about which ideas it would be nice to make now that we’re in self-publishing and without limitations.

Kamiya: I’ve created a lot of games. I love my characters from Okami, Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe, but because they’re owned by the publisher and not by us, it would be difficult to put them in this sort of Smash Bros.-style battle royale game. If we can grow as our own publisher, it would be nice to be able to put all the characters we created together in a fun product. That’s definitely not coming out tomorrow, but just the dream that we have.

Finally, Kamiya-san, are you bored of being asked about where Bayonetta 3 is yet?

Kamiya: I’m on Twitter so I see a lot of comments every day. I’m happy that there’s still anticipation for the title, but one thing I would like to address is the trend I’m seeing which is people who are starting to ask if the game has been cancelled. I want you guys to take any concerns you have like that and throw them out the window immediately because we’re still hard at work on it and it hasn’t been cancelled by any means. Please look forward to it!