An Audience With: Tetsuya Mizuguchi

Tetsuya Mizuguchi

Q Entertainment co-founder and ex-Sega creative Tetsuya Mizuguchi.

Mere months after the release of the widely acclaimed Lumines: Electronic Symphony for Vita, Q Entertainment co-founder and ex-Sega creative Tetsuya Mizuguchi announced he was stepping down from game development, remaining as a mouthpiece for his studio, but also taking on a role as a lecturer at Tokyo’s Keio University. Then, in 2013, he left Q behind entirely, but so discreetly that it took an anonymous tip in March this year for the move to become public knowledge. Mizuguchi isn’t giving up on games, though. He delivered the keynote at BitSummit 2014, Japan’s annual indie gaming conference, and here reveals that he’s looking forward to the future and his return to development.

During your BitSummit keynote, you spoke about independent DNA. Most of your games have been released by major publishers, but do you feel they nonetheless had a spirit of independence?
Even when I was at Sega, I had a kind of independent spirit. I was in Sega – a big company, yes – but at the time there were almost no indie games and no indie studio environment. Not like now. It was not easy. There was no Unity, no Kickstarter. I produced Sega Rally for Sega at first – a racing game, which is a major genre, sure. But after a few racing games, like Touring Car Championship, Manx TT Superbike and Sega Rally 2, I began looking for the next step, [asking], ‘What is innovation in games?’ That was just the beginning. We had Saturn, PlayStation. 3D technology came along and new sound technology came about, so I started preparing for the next stage. I loved music, and I loved musical and visual expression, but it was impossible at the time to create that kind of thing, and only later were we able to make Rez. I’ve been independent all the time, I think.

Why did you decide to go into academia?
After Child Of Eden, I was trying to find the next phase, and I needed a change. I wanted to learn more; I needed new points of view. Now I have a class about transmedia, so I’m teaching, but the students are also teaching me. We give stimulation and inspiration to each other, the students and me. Transmedia is the future media environment. Everything’s going into the cloud. Everything from music, visual entertainment, gaming and interactive services – every entertainment service is becoming seamless. You play a game on PS4, and then stop and play the same game on a tablet, so what kinds of creations can you make in that kind of transmedia environment? And that’s not just games, that’s product design, services and any entertainment, including music… Maybe you apply for tickets for a live show, but you couldn’t get a ticket. Maybe instead you get to join the concert yourself? This is just the start of the concert, and you can enjoy it and get much more engagement with the artist and the music. Maybe you can join in with some creation? That’s kind of a future concept, and we’re always exchanging ideas and thinking about the future of music entertainment, game entertainment and movie entertainment. It’s very exciting.

Mizuguchi’s move into academia doesn’t mean he’a retired from game development – he will return soon.

What sort of thing do your students teach you?
One of the most interesting aspects for me is that in my class of 35, 80 per cent are non-Japanese, and I teach the class in English. The students are from Keio in Japan, the Pratt Institute in New York and London’s Royal College Of Art, and it’s a master’s course for graduates, where my course is just one element of their master’s. They’re people from all over the world, and they all have different interests and different ways of being creative. Regardless of what they want to create or what industry they want to go into, I ask them to think, ‘What is creation? What is innovation?’ And they all share these ideas. Thinking about what it is that human beings want to create can help bring out the best in those students. We do a lot of workshops. The students aren’t confident in how to find the what – the thing they want to do – and I help them find it. When they find the what, we need to find the how, the creative method, and the why – why do people want it? There is always a reason, absolutely, for everything. If I move, I have a reason. So we have to think about that. So I’m not so much a teacher as a mentor. And through this process, I am learning too.

Is there a reason why you’ve chosen to share your knowledge in the classroom, rather than through products made by your studio?
I need both. I need to share my experiences and ideas with the younger generation. This is one mission. But I also need to keep creating. So I’m doing both now. I’m preparing my own creation.

Are you working on a game?
I’m helping with a few games, but these aren’t like my past works. These are not like my created games. I’m helping with some social games in Japan; I can’t say anything about it just yet. But I’m just helping. So I want to start a new project [of my own] maybe this year or next year.

And this would be a Mizuguchi game?
Mmm. I can’t share details yet. At BitSummit, I shared my thoughts on synaesthesia, and this is a big thing for me. I started that kind of concept in games with Rez, and this is a long journey, across Rez and Lumines and Child Of Eden, and maybe Space Channel 5 too. That part of my DNA will never die, so this is kind of a life’s work for me. So I’m thinking about what is next, and what’s the future experience.

Child Of Eden was one of the few early Kinect games to validate the device’s existence.

Does that mean a return to Q Entertainment?
I left Q, and finally I found freedom, true independence. It was very healthy for me. From Sega, a huge company, to United Game Artists, which was owned 100 per cent by Sega, and then Q Entertainment, where we were co-founders and investors. I had a lot of responsibility. I had 80 staff. But all the time I needed to struggle with finances and management of people, and that was so tough. I couldn’t concentrate. So then I decided to leave Q. And now I’m alone, and finally I am in the ideal situation. So maybe I’ll start some project in the future [and] I will make a new kind of creative environment. I’m not that bothered about starting a new company. Instead, I’ll connect with people and put together a group who are essential to the project, and then for the next project I’ll start again. Everyone will be freelance. It will be similar to how you make a film or how you make music, with a group of independent people with specific knowhow working together. Nowadays, you can use time more efficiently thanks largely to the Internet, because we can talk on Skype, and we can send data and check it instantly. In that way, it feels like the future already. There’s no need to go to a company at 10am every day.

Child Of Eden was a Kinect launch-window title that sought to take advantage of then-new hardware. Have  PS4, Xbox One and the potential of VR opened up spaces you’re interested in exploring?
New technology is always welcome, even if it’s in the mobile environment. Many mobile games are not like console games, but that technology is very interesting. I want to think about the future from the point of view of what the future human wants. Now I’m researching human wants and instincts; in fact, I’ve spent two years researching wants and instincts through history. All games, all media and all services are a kind of mirror of human wants and instincts. We want to externalise our wants and instincts… Gaming is a unique medium and I’ve found a kind of formula in the process of making games. We design based on human wants and instincts all the time. I use the term ‘wants and instincts’ in a positive way, but they can often conflict. We want to be alone, but we want to be with somebody, that kind of thing. A fun game taps into that mix.

But does new technology impact on how you appeal to those ancient wants and instincts?
New technology and new products are being switched on all the time, but we have many desires and dreams and wants and instincts, and most of those are subconscious. Take the Like button, which is related to our need for esteem. If Facebook didn’t have the Like button, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular. Everybody wants to give esteem or to feel esteem. New ways to express that esteem are always being switched on. Our mission is to design like that. If people want to be happy or laugh or have fun with their family, please play Space Channel 5! Each game answers hidden human wants, and everybody wants to accomplish something. This is the structure, the invisible architecture. Games are all about invisible architecture all the time. It’s very complex, but there is a formula and I want to find that formula so I can get better and better and better.

Rez is Mizuguchi’s most iconic game, released in 2001 for Dreamcast and PS2, and given the HD treatment in 2008 for Xbox Live Arcade.

What inspires you outside of the classroom?
Many post-Internet services, such as Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding system, but it is really good design that caters to an obvious human want. ‘I want help.’ ‘I want to help.’ This kind of circulation is like a fun game. It’s an invisible chemistry that makes you feel satisfied, and Kickstarter does that very well. Up until now, that kind of system existed between humans, but now those switches have been turned on by computers, by digital communications and games. That post-Internet world is the future. All those human wants and needs that have always existed can be fulfilled. With making games, it’s not enough to think about genres – you have to think about the essential human elements or you cannot innovate. The IT world has found that a lot of new ideas are born by moving in that direction. Somewhere in there, I’m sure, is a hint to the future of game entertainment. Minecraft is all about getting involved and it hits another fundamental need: ‘I want to create.’ At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-actualisation, and [Minecraft has] nailed that. In the past, you made a game for others to play, but now the player can participate too. That’s the trend, so I’m interested in what systems we can implement next.

You’ve already worked in this space, haven’t you? After Child Of Eden, you worked on the Vocaloid app, and that’s something anyone can participate in to make and share music. The wildly popular Hatsune Miku Vocaloid music creator has similarities with your music project Genki Rockets, which blended together several voices.
In a way, Genki Rockets and Hatsune Miku are polar opposites. In Genki Rockets, I was involved in making the music itself, and that was a fun experience, but Hatsune Miku is about making your own music. It’s fun to create music as an artist, but we need to think about how to motivate people and make them feel satisfied. I’m friends with people who make Hatsune Miku music and we discuss this a lot. I have a good connection with the Yamaha people and also the Hatsune Miku people. Both sides are important. The future holds multiple things, but you have to involve yourself. Everybody [in Japan] is watching Hatsune Miku, but she’s kind of a metaphor. She is media itself. The core creators want to create music. ‘I can create the lyrics, but I can’t create the music itself. You can create music? OK, let’s connect.’ Only when people come together can she sing. Surrounding that core of creators are many fans who think, ‘Hatsune Miku is cute; this music is really good.’ And this is also part of the circulation. When the Yamaha people came to me and said, ‘Vocaloid is very difficult to use and we want to expand the experience to casual, young people,’ I could sympathise. I thought I could create a new UI and user experience that is easy and free-to-play and anybody can make music easily. And, yes, it’s not as powerful as the full Vocaloid editor, but it’s very fast. Trying things like this teaches you all sorts of lessons. A lot of game creators are hostile towards free-to-play models, but I’m not. I want to create to satisfy people’s wants. Of course, I also want to be creative personally, so I want to match those things together and see what I can make. I want to undertake lots of different challenges.

Vocaloid is still very much a Japanese phenomenon, and many have criticised Japan’s creative industries for an inward-facing approach. Among your Japanese students, do you see any who you think could take their home nation’s style of creativity to the world?
Yes, a few. Not many. Not so much in games, but in creating new services. It’s a media design class, after all. It used to feel like there were a lot of people working in games who had ideas that could change the world. But these days there are so many other services, like FourSquare or Spotify, and so there are fewer people who are dedicated to working only in games. From now on, I think creative people’s skills will become more hybridised, and gamification is just beginning. Games will become as common as water and air in people’s lives. When you think about it that way, games keep expanding. But even as they expand, I want there to be a core [of game development]. For all the talk about what will be the future of car technology or Big Data or the cloud, in terms of true creation as a designer, artist and creator, games are freedom. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.