Interview: Shinji Mikami on Vanquish, evolving game dev locales and ... punching fools

During this year's E3, we had a chance to chat with Shinji Mikami, creative lead on Platinum Games' upcoming boost-em-up Vanquish, about his upcoming game, among other things. For instance, why does the man who created God Hand and Resident Evil believe that so many games are driven by a shooting mechanic? "Purely punching or kicking, for example, that requires a lot more skill and reaction time on the part of the gamer to get the timing right and to sit there and mash the controller forever. And older gamers, adults, don't want to do that. They get tired."

As old men ourselves (mid-20s is old, right?), we're not so sure we agree with Mr. Mikami, but that's okay -- this isn't an interview about us, silly! It's about Shinji Mikami. And his new game. Check out the whole interview just below the fold.%Gallery-95221%

Joystiq: Vanquish is, I believe, the last title in your four game arrangement with Sega?

[PR rep cuts in]: It is part of the four game deal with Sega, yes.

Do you have any plans to work with Sega in the future? And I'm wondering if you could speak to your experience publishing with Sega.

Shinji Mikami (through a translator): I'm very appreciative of the fact that Sega has allowed me to make games as I want to.

How have you approached working on Western games or more Westernized games? And do you feel that the reception in the West has been good? Has it been what you expected?

So, actually, I haven't personally heard of a lot of the reaction from the West yet.

Then how do you feel about the changing attitude towards publishing with more of the idea of the Western market in mind and why that push occurred?

So, at the most basic level as a Japanese person it does make me kind of sad. Right now the Japanese market and the Western market in terms of games are very different. And on a personal level I enjoy Western games a lot more. And, so, even if I make a game that is closer in taste to the Western market, the Japanese audience doesn't really appreciate it too much.

Do you feel like there's any way to maybe bridge that gap? There's a lot of talk, especially on the Eastern side, of not living up to what they had once been. And I'm just wondering if you think there's any way to connect the two and maybe make it work for both audiences.

If the idea for the game that I want to make is something that appeals to both Japan and the West, then that's great, that's perfect. But if you start out trying to make a game‚ we don't have an idea for the game yet, but we want to make something that appeals both to Japan and to the West --- I think that's the wrong way to go about it. And I think it's going to be something that neither market is going to really enjoy.

What developers on the eastern side are doing it right? Who are the developers who are working intelligently on the other side, and making games that appeal to the Western market, or, even better, games that appeal to both markets?

If I had to say, I'd say Capcom. Rather than any one individual within Capcom, or any individuals, I think that that's one of the characteristics of the Capcom development style as a whole.

As far as Vanquish goes, speaking more specifically to that title, I'm hoping you could explain the name and how it fits into the game, and if you can explain how the game is going to stand out to Western gamers, who are used to high-quality third-person and first-person action games.

"Vanquish," the word obviously has to do with conquest and destruction. In any war there's always a winning side and a losing side, there's winners and losers, but one of the themes in the story is, what makes a true victor in any conflict? And so that's where the name ties in.

Can you speak to the importance of story in games, in relations to the Eastern and Western philosophies? How important is the story in Vanquish, and how important it is to your team?

So, this time, actually, I am emphasizing gameplay over story. But, Mr. Kojima, obviously, emphasizes story a lot more.

Which do you feel is more important for a game? Is it more important that you focus on gameplay first, or is it important that you marry the two?

So, the ideal, obviously, is to meld the two. For both story and gameplay to be really compelling.

Vanquish is a third-person action title, a genre that is very popular, and it almost seems very un-Mikami like. It's not what people expect. And you've said before that God Hand was considered not to be a success, so do you feel that it is a bad thing if commercial pressure is put on the designer and to make him forge his vision according to what will be popular or what will be successful in the eyes of general gamers?

So, as a game creator obviously what I want to do is to make the kind of game that I want to make, but obviously at the same time unless it is a commercial success, I can't eat. I need to make a living somehow.

It's also got a very futuristic vibe as we have seen the initial trailer -- have there been any sci-fi films, especially recently, that particularly inspired the look and the scenario in Vanquish?

Maybe The Rock, Nicolas Cage.

A lot of shooters don't have a kinetic feel -- like you generally play a man but he is kind of like a tank, just kind of moves very slowly -- and Vanquish stands out because it has a character that is very nimble and quick. Is that a problem in this genre? Why are people generally slow and tank-like?

One reason is taking a more realistic approach, realistic point of view -- in an actual war if you get hit by a bullet you die, so you are not going to go charging at the enemy at 100 miles an hour. So if you are playing a survival game, and you go charging at the enemy, then you are going to be the first one dead. Another reason is that lot of shooting games aren't the more realistic simulation end of things. The player needs to keep a good idea of where they are in relation to each of the enemies. They have to keep an idea of what the map looks like, so a lot more than the controller, you have to play with the brain, you need to figure out what you need to do and then go do it.

Do you feel like there's a loss of the Japanese spirit in terms of games that are identified uniquely as Japanese versus games like, maybe Vanquish that appear to be harder to locate, harder to say 'Oh, that's definitely a Japanese game. That's an American game.' So, is it a good thing to have game development become more homogenous like that?

Regardless of whether a Japanese team makes a game that looks Western or whether a Western team makes a game look full-on Japanese ... so long as it's a fun and enjoyable game, it's all good.

And considering the popularity of the shooter genre in particular, do you feel like there's a strange tendency for games to be inherently about shooting?

So, where you're purely punching or kicking, for example, that requires a lot more skill and reaction time on the part of the gamer to get the timing right and to sit there and mash the controller forever. And older gamers, adults, don't want to do that. They get tired. And what they want to do is find a slightly more cerebral game where you find the enemy, you aim, you shoot. And if it's a pure -- not exactly button mashing, but something where you have to flail on the controller a lot or get the exact right timing for a punch, you get a very limited audience that can really enjoy the game. Whereas for shooting it widens the audience a lot more as far as people who can enjoy it. And another large reason is that there are very few things that are more exciting or stimulating than a person shooting someone else with a gun.

I hope that isn't coming from experience. [laughs]

I haven't shot anyone! [laughs] I guess that if I actually had to shoot someone else with a gun, it probably wouldn't be very fun at all.

Platinum is a studio that's built on big names in game development. I'm just wondering if you see a trend going towards that, the importance of a big name, of a creator, of auteurship, in that sense.

So, obviously you're going to have the more famous game creators and the people leading the development teams. But at the same time, I think it's like baseball or soccer, where you need a strong team more than anything else. So, it's the power of the team. Obviously, some players are going to be more famous than others, but the power of the team to work together to make a solid game is going to be the most important thing.

A lot of previous games, like Okami and Resident Evil, they all have really iconic moments. In Resident Evil, it's the dogs jumping through the window. In Okami, it's the trail of flowers following behind you. If you look at Vanquish, what do you think is going to be the image that sticks with gamers the most?

I'm not sure, to be honest. I think that for every player it's going to be different. Because there are a number of elements: there's the sliding boost, there's the slow motion, there's the various moves that you can put together, that each player can put together in their own different way, to defeat the enemy. I think that is the satisfaction that is going to stick with people.

And how did the actual design of the game come about at the early stages. Did you pick a bunch of actions that were fun and then build the game around that, or did the universe and the levels come first?

The very first step, I wanted to make a game ... I was inspired by Casshern, so I wanted to make a game like that. If I went ahead and made the exact game I wanted, it probably would have been like Casshern, where you punch and kick the entire way through. But obviously if it were a game with only punching and kicking, I already did that with God Hand. So, I'm done with that, something else now. So this time he wanted to make a game where you defeat robots with guns. So now, you're going at it with guns, but he wanted to make sure the feeling of speed is still there, that was really important to him, so that's why he introduced the element of the sliding boost.

But going back to Casshern -- that character has lost a lot of his humanity. And when I look at Vanquish -- you've got robots and lots of synthetic creatures and even you, the human, you're completely encased in armor. Do you feel like that maybe it would be difficult to identify with ... to see the humanity in that kind of situation?

Actually, that is one of the largest concerns that I had early on in production where I was afraid that the players wouldn't be able to identify with the character. That's actually why the facemask comes off. So you can see the main character's face from time to time. That's why we did that, because we were afraid that people wouldn't be able to identify with him. But after they did that --- now that they've gotten to a certain point in development we're thinking that actually we really didn't need to worry about that ...

... If you look at the helmet design carefully, the visor area is down here. It's not where the eyes are. And, so, obviously we had initially designed it so that you'd be able to see -- you get all the visual inputs shown on the screen. But there are a lot of people telling him, 'Hey, this is weird. What's going on with this?' [laughs]

Is that a focal point in the animation -- the humanity? Because I remember that PN3 used a lot of striking animation to make something synthetic and cold seem alive. So, I'm wondering if that animation was a focal point for the game itself.

For PN3, one of the reasons for that animation was that we just ran out of time. Initially we had thought, 'OK, we're going to have a bunch of different animations for when he's holding one gun or two guns or a shotgun' ... that sort of thing. And, so, you need to make a lot more animations to support all of that. And we just didn't have enough time.

But for Vanquish, we've got plenty of time to make exactly what we want. So, that's not a concern anymore, thankfully. And then for Vanquish one of the things we wanted to do was‚ if you notice, everyone's running around fairly realistically. You know, you're crouched on the battlefield trying to go from cover to cover. And when we were making the game, someone noticed that, well, if you‚'ve got a protective suit on -- this really futuristic advanced suit -- you don't really need to do that. And, so, for a time we were going with really more Japanese superhero type animations like running, like that sort of thing, until we noticed that, well, it would look really silly on a battlefield. So, they changed it back.

Thanks for your time!