Today, we get the definite feeling that Shinji Mikami doesn’t want to be interviewed.
With a designer ball-cap pulled down over his face and his body slouched deep into his chair, Mikami is far from appearing the firebrand revolutionary that his work on Resident Evil 4 might hint he really is. But his apparent reticence is not entirely unwarranted. Undoubtedly jet-lagged and tired from a packed day of interviews, it’s probably a case of catching him at the wrong time and the wrong place.
When we mention P.N. 03, however, he noticeably perks up, keen to point out the differences between that title and his new game, Vanquish. We go on to discuss why Vanquish is the game Mikami hoped P.N.03 would be, the difficulty of balancing eastern and western tastes and the importance of iterative design.
Director of Platinum Games, Shinji Mikami
When Vanquish was initially announced a lot of people compared it to P.N. 03. Would you encourage that comparison?
Hmm. There are similarities, but only so much as there are a lot of things in Vanquish that I would have loved to do in P.N. 03 but couldn’t due to time or technical constraints. Unfortunately, I’m very aware that P.N. 03 didn’t sell as well as anyone hoped, and we’re doing a much more solid job on Vanquish. Really, I’d just like to assure those people not to worry about Vanquish being anything like P.N. 03.
Well, we think the comparison was supposed to be positive. What were you unable to put into P.N. 03 that you’ve been able to put into Vanquish?
I wanted to make sure the main character would shoot guns! In the early stages of P.N. 03 Vanessa had guns, but because of schedule constraints we weren’t able to create all of the animations for the guns, so we had to take them out. I really wanted her to shoot with guns…
Anyway, P.N. 03 was what I’d consider an older style of design. You run, you shoot. Vanquish takes that to the next level with the addition of boosting and cover. It allows you to take on your opponents in a much more fluid way. The one thing that Vanquish is missing is P.N. 03‘s sexiness, however. It would be just too odd if Sam Gideon shook his ass like Vanessa.
Was boosting part of the original concept for Vanquish?
It was the idea I had from the very beginning. In fact, most of the ideas I had after that have been cut from the game…
I had created a partner character, a dog, that’s no longer there. The idea was that it was a ‘combat support robot’ that, depending on the situation, could fly apart and attach to your suit to augment its powers or supplement the weapons. That was the original idea.
Did it not work, or did you find you didn’t have the time to evolve it?
In the case of the dog, we got to a certain point of development, and all different kinds of people were asking me, "Isn’t it odd to have a dog on a battlefield?" So he’s gone.
When designing a game, do you generally react to other people’s opinions?
When I begin designing a game, rather than approach it form the overall macro level, I start with the details. I go down to a very detailed level and I think about what kind of things I can put into the game that will please me. First I ask, "How does this make me feel?" then I ask, "How do I think this will make other people feel?" If it feels right, then I’m good. But if there’s anything in there that makes me feel nervous, I will take it to the other team members, get their input, and see what needs to be done.
Do you focus group your titles while developing them?
Yes. With Vanquish, for example, the original idea for the story was for China to invade the US, but when we started testing that with western audiences they didn’t understand it; they couldn’t get their heads round that idea. So it was changed to Russia versus the US… well, actually, initially the game is about Russia versus the US. I can’t really talk about the story but not everything is as it seems in the beginning.
The player score is a very big part of the HUD; is the scoring mechanic important to Vanquish‘s design?
No, it’s just in there so that the game can have online leaderboards, which are very popular.
It seems that Vanquish has been designed very reactively, to hit all the beats that will attract the (western) massmarket. Is that true?
No, not really. Reaching the massmarket wasn’t part of the decision. It’s just turned out that Vanquish is what I wanted to work on.
Are you concerned that Japanese game developers are increasingly homogenising their work to reach the massmarket?
Perhaps, but one of the reasons is that the scale of game development has become so much larger. Massive. I think of Japanese game developers as craftsmen, not an assembly-line, and these craftsmen do not have the space to be creative in the current climate where detailed, realistic graphics are the mainstream in the west. The more stylized, artistic approach to graphics and design seen in Japan can get some positive coverage in the western press, and by some game players, but it just doesn’t sell that well.
Consider Ico, or Okami. They didn’t sell as well as I think they should have. If Ico had sold, like, five million copies worldwide maybe Japanese publishers would have taken notice and it would be much easier for Japanese game developers to make the games that we want to.